Sarah D. Wald
Agriculture is a significant yet understudied theme in Asian American literature. Representations of farming in Asian American literature often respond to and engage with agriculture’s important role in Asian American history. As farmers and as farm laborers, Asian Americans have been pivotal to US agriculture, and this agricultural experience was foundational to the formation of Asian American communities in the period prior to World War II. Additionally, literary representations of agriculture in Asian American literature navigate racialized traditions of American pastoral and Jeffersonian agrarianism. They have often done so in ways that highlight the systems of racial and economic exploitation at work in US society and position US agribusiness in relationship to US colonialism and neo-colonialism. Consequently, Asian American literature’s representations of farming can expose the assumptions around race, property, and citizenship at work in the agrarianism of the 21st-century US alternative food movement. The writings of Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and David Mas Masumoto provide case studies of these trends.
“Self-help literature” was created in America, and its origin can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. In 18th-century American society, where Puritan ethics held sway, Franklin was a rare sort of person, one who did not believe that personal ambition was a sin. Through his writings, in the form of Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757) and The Way to Wealth (1757), Franklin demonstrated the know-how needed for worldly success, and he used himself as an example of the effectiveness of this knowledge. According to Franklin’s philosophy of success, anyone can achieve social success, regardless of their social position, if they only have the will to educate themselves. This was the beginning of the American dream of success, and themes appearing here for the first time became the basic themes of many self-help books that appeared later.
Franklin’s writings were composed in America during the latter half of the 18th century, a period when independence from England increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Similarly, the first self-help book to appear in Japan was published at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, after the end of the Edo period. At this time, the traditional feudal class system was abandoned, and it became possible to succeed in life using one’s own resourcefulness and efforts. This book Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning, 1872–1876) was written by the well-known author and educator Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835–1901). This book holds that to create a modern state it is necessary for its people to first free themselves of apathy and laziness and become independent through practical study. The work was published in seventeen volumes, and 3.4 million copies were sold under this title. Its foundation was the declaration that “All men are created equal.” It is clear that the inspiration for this writing was the American Declaration of Independence. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Franklin’s ideas had the greatest impact on Fukuzawa, and through his self-help book, the Japanese people came into indirect contact with Franklin’s philosophy of success. Additionally, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1790) was widely read throughout the Meiji period. Thus, it is apparent that Franklin’s ideas about self-help had a great impact on Japan around the end of the 19th century.
However, British author Samuel Smiles’s book Self-Help (1859) had an even greater influence on Japan as it underwent modernization. This book, which was also popular in America, sold more than a million copies in the forty-year period after it was translated into Japanese in 1871 by the philosopher of the European Enlightenment Masanao Nakamura (1832–1891). Moreover, this book was used as an ethics textbook in elementary schools from 1872 until 1880, so it played a particularly large role in planting the spirit of self-improvement in the Japanese youth of the time.
The influence of Confucianism was a large part of the context in which these English and American self-help books were accepted in Japan during and after the Meiji period. Confucianism came to Japan from China at the beginning of the 6th century, and by the Edo period, in the 17th century, the religious aspects of Confucianism had faded. It had become a system of education in ethics that emphasized the five virtues of “compassion to others,” “not being caught up in greed,” “being courteous,” “striving to learn,” and “being sincere.” Learning these virtues became a condition for success in life, particularly for the warrior class. We notice that these five virtues are very similar to Franklin’s thirteen virtues; hence, it is easy to understand that familiarity with Confucianism made it easier for the Japanese to accept American and English self-help books. In other words, western European ideas about self-help were not completely novel values to the Japanese; these ideas were compatible with the Confucian ethical values that the Japanese held. Therefore, they were widely accepted very quickly.
Later, after the beginning of the 20th century, Japan would greedily adopt self-help ideas from America. For example, the mind-cure techniques of Christian Science were introduced to Japan during the 1910s. “Reiki,” which is a Japan-specific practice related to mind cure, was developed soon after. Yoga was also introduced to Japan around the same time through the writings of William Walker Atkinson (aka Yogi Ramacharaka). The Japanese religionist Masaharu Taniguchi (1893–1985) created his own religious group, known as Seicho no Ie (The House of Growth), in the 1930s. This group resonated with the religious movement known as New Thought, which gained popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century, and Seicho no Ie is currently the world’s largest New Thought group, with more than seventy thousand believers in Japan.
The 1950s through the 1980s saw the popularity of American self-help books fall in Japan, partly because of World War II. At the beginning of the 1990s, the bubble economy in Japan burst; the “life-long employment system” and the “seniority wage system” that had supported Japan up to that point started to collapse. Thus, hiring fell, and an American-style competitive society was introduced in Japan in the form of models such as the “ability-based wage system.” In a similar fashion, there was a demand for knowledge of how to survive in this new competitive society. This led to a sudden resurgence in the popularity of American self-help books. For this reason, it is currently difficult to find books by major American self-help authors, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prentice Mulford, Orison Swett Marden, Wallace D. Wattles, Charles F. Haanel, Ralph Waldo Trine, Dorothea Brande, Joseph Murphy, Norman Vincent Peale, Neville Goddard, Earl Nightingale, Spencer Johnson, Robert Kiyosaki, and Tony Robbins that have not been translated into Japanese. In particular, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) has been very popular in recent years, and there are even primary schools that use this book as class material. Moreover, because comic culture is highly developed in Japan, there are many American self-help books that have been made into comic books. Of course, Stephen Covey’s book has been made into a comic book, but there are several other authors whose books have a comic-book version in addition to the translation. Such works include Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), and works by the psychologist Alfred Adler and the management consultant Peter Ferdinand Drucker. These works are widely known as self-help books. Self-help literature has taken hold as a literary genre that has maintained a firmly rooted popularity in Japan, much like it has in America. It is frequently read by middle-class, white-collar, middle-aged men.
However, there has been a backlash against the incredibly numerous self-help books that have been put on the market: since 2010, in Japan, stronger criticisms of self-help books have begun to be made. According to these criticisms, the harmfulness of these books comes from the fact that all of the failures in a person’s life are attributed to the personal responsibility of the individual. For example, these critics say, these books state that people who belong to lower social classes are stuck in such positions because they have not been positive enough.
However, at present, these critical voices are being drowned out by the huge waves of numerous new self-help books being published in rapid succession. There is no reason to doubt that self-help books will continue to thrive in America and Japan, as long as the tradition of the “American dream of success” is alive in America and the virtues of the “desire for self-improvement” and “hard work” are part of the Japanese national character.
In the Meiji era, the modernization of Japan was achieved through the process of the westernization of political, military, and educational systems. Accordingly, the Japanese willingly acquired and learned Western thought by translating literary resources for Japanese readers: the works of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were frequently translated and introduced at this time. Concurrently, Japanese girls belonging to the urban middle class began to form their own institutionalized culture called shojo, through which they could communicate their interests in literature or art, and/or share aspects of their ordinary school lives. Shojo culture was supported by newly founded magazines targeting schoolgirls with names like Shojo Sekai, Shojo-kai, Shojo-no-tomo, and Jogaku Zasshi. In Japanese shojo, articles on American women and translated literary pieces written by American and European authors, including Frances Hodgson Burnett, were popular. The work of female American writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Jean Webster was also translated as juvenile literature for Japanese children. Thus, American culture and literature significantly influenced the Japanese shojo culture. Nobuko Yoshiya, a well-known Japanese author of so-called girls’ novels, stated that she followed Western female writers such as Alcott, Burnett, and George Eliot. The Japanese translations of American literature decreased considerably during World War II. After the war, this literary corpus was rediscovered and was widely translated for Japanese audiences under the supervision of the General Headquarters (GHQ) or the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). In addition to novels for girls, comics for young female readers (shojo manga) also aroused readers’ interest and became immensely popular. Some manga writers depicted Western settings in their narratives and innumerable “American girls” whose exotic and fashionable aura fascinated Japanese girls. These made-in-Japan “American girls” primarily represented the concept of liberty, autonomy, and abundance: qualities desired by Japanese schoolgirls. At the end of the 20th century, however, the representation of America in the genre of shojo manga gradually became more realistic and less enraptured.
Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi).
The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.
Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts.
Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage.
There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.
Asian American detective fiction is an eclectic body of literature that encompasses works from a variety of 20th- and 21st-century Asian American authors. Prior to the emergence of these writers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in the mystery genre were primarily the domain of white authors like Earl Derr Biggers and John P. Marquand. During the pre-World War II era, “Oriental detectives” like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in literature and film before gradually fading into obscurity. Meanwhile, the few U.S. writers of Asian descent working in the detective genre often refrained from portraying Asian American characters in their works, focusing instead on stories involving white protagonists. However, a sea change occurred when a wave of Asian American authors arrived on the crime fiction scene: Henry Chang, Leonard Chang, Dale Furutani, Naomi Hirahara, and Ed Lin are representative examples. Differentiating themselves from their Asian American predecessors, these writers focused their mysteries not only on detectives of Asian descent but on the specific ethnic communities in which they were born. Using the detective genre’s focus on “Whodunit” as a literary imperative, these works explore contemporary anxieties about Asian American identity in relation to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and national belonging. As a result, many Asian American writers of detective fiction have chosen to reframe Asian American identity through the use of the detective genre, a vehicle through which the racist stereotypes of the past are addressed, combatted, and symbolically defeated. Whether a genre, subgenre, or school of literature, Asian American detective fiction is a rich and ever-evolving form of literary expression that continues to both expand upon and complicate earlier discourses on race, gender, and sexuality within the realms of U.S. crime fiction and contemporary Asian American literature.
Anita Mannur and Casey Kuhajda
Asian American ecocriticism focuses on providing theoretical frameworks for understanding race and ethnicity in environmental contexts. Attention to Asian American literary criticism can fill crucial critical lacunae in the study of the environment in American studies. Since the early 2000s, ecocritical and environmental studies have conceptualized place, the physical and built environment, not only as an object of study but also as a site from which to launch a critique of how ecocritical studies has centered issues such as climate change and environmental degradation by understanding the intersectional contexts of environmental studies. Asian American ecocriticism in this sense can be understood as a rejoinder to the extant body of work in ecocritical studies in that it demands a vigorous engagement with race, class, and ethnicity in understanding what we think of as the environment.
Lucy M. S. P. Burns and Mana Hayakawa
Acknowledging “absence” as a powerful and accurate political charge against the continuing exclusion of Asian Americans in American theater, dance, and the larger mainstream US performance landscape, Asian American feminist performance has inspired a critical mass of articles and monographs. A broad range of works by feminist performance scholars address productions that center on Asian American women, gender, and sexuality, and also explore and contest Asian American subject formation. Although they provide different ways of thinking about feminist approaches to Asian American performance, all emphasize how racialized bodies are produced within specific historical and political conditions and are invested in resisting cultural limitations and in interrogating power. Whether drawing on theater, dance, music, drag, or performances of everyday life, this scholarship can provide a glimpse of the critical concerns of overlapping academic fields. Whether mapping theoretical frameworks, archival politics, uses of dance as method, epistemologies of the body, fandom, affect, or alternative or unconventional performance spaces, Asian American feminist performance studies scholars move away from rigid definitions of identity, form, geographic location, or audience. At the intersection of Asian American, performance, and feminist studies, the multiple strategies of feminist praxis—such as archiving and analyzing historical documents, foregrounding bodily performance alongside text-based materials, and reconceptualizing theoretical and artistic paradigms—signal the capaciousness of the categories “Asian American,” “feminist,” and “performance.”
Monica Chiu and Jeanette Roan
Asian American graphic narratives typically produce meaning through arrangements of images, words, and sequences, though some forgo words completely and others offer an imagined “before” and “after” within the confines of a single panel. Created by or featuring Asian Americans or Asians in a US or Canadian context, they have appeared in a broad spectrum of formats, including the familiar mainstream genre comics, such as superhero serials from DC or Marvel Comics; comic strips; self-published minicomics; and critically acclaimed, award-winning graphic novels. Some of these works have explicitly explored Asian American issues, such as anti-Asian racism, representations of history, questions of identity, and transnationalism; others may feature Asian or Asian American characters or settings without necessarily addressing established or familiar Asian American issues. Indeed, many works made by Asian American creators have little or no obvious or explicit Asian American content at all, and some non-Asian American creators have produced works with Asian American representations, including racist stereotypes and caricatures.
The earliest representations of Asians in comics form in the United States were racist representations in the popular press, generally in single-panel caricatures that participated in anti-immigration discourses. However, some Asian immigrants in the early to mid-20th century also used graphic narratives to show and critique the treatment of Asians in the United States. In the realm of mainstream genre comics, Asian Americans have participated in the industry in a variety of different ways. As employees for hire, they created many well-known series and characters, generally not drawing, writing, or editing content that is recognizably Asian American. Since the 2010s, though, Asian American creators have reimagined Asian or Asian American versions of legacy characters like Superman and the Hulk and created new heroes like Ms. Marvel. In the wake of an explosion of general and scholarly interest in graphic novels in the 1990s, many independent Asian American cartoonists have become significant presences in the contemporary graphic narrative world.
Summer Kim Lee
What is Asian American popular music? How do we identify it, define it, and listen to it? What work is being done by naming a genre as such, and need it even be named? Asian Americanist scholars and music critics have grappled with these questions, articulating the political desires for Asian American representation, recognition, and inclusion, while at the same time remaining wary of how such desires reiterate liberal multiculturalist discourses of assimilation and inclusion. A growing body of interdisciplinary work in American studies, performance studies, critical race and ethnic studies, queer studies, and sound and popular music studies has addressed the historical emergence, visibility, and representation of Asian Americans in popular music. This work has become less concerned with finding out what “Asian American popular music” is and more interested in how Asian Americanist critique can be rooted in minoritarian listening practices so that one might consider the myriad ways Asian Americans—as professional and amateur performers, musicians, virtuosic singers, karaoke goers, YouTube users, listeners, critics, and fans—actively shape and negotiate the soundscapes of US popular music with its visual, sonic, and other sensorial markers of Asian racialization.
Robert T. Hayashi
As a group, Asian Americans in particular have been portrayed by American society as incapable or uninterested in American sporting practices and traditions. When individuals have realized public acclaim for athletic prowess, their achievements have been characterized in media and elsewhere as an exception to the Asian American experience, even when their success also represents its common collective narratives. NBA (National Basketball Association) basketball player Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise in 2012 was often defined through the trope of the model minority. Conversely, Pacific Islanders, in particular males, have been represented as possessing innate athletic prowess but with limited intellect. These tropes of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity in American society have long obscured their relation to sports and recreation, and there has been little scholarship in either sports studies or Asian American studies on the unique sporting cultures of these groups and their relations to American sporting practices and institutions. Asian American and Pacific Islander relations to American sport are best understood as a unique history defined by their relation to American colonialism, racism, global capitalism, and the transnational nature of modern sport.
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Patricia P. Chu
The plot of return from America to Asia to search for origins is central to Asian diasporic literature of the past 120 years. By returning to Asia and writing about their ancestors, Asian North Americans (those born or raised in the United States or Canada) expand their cultural understanding and produce narratives that serve as “countermemory,” contributing to a communal memory that is “oppositional . . . the memory of the subordinated and the marginalized, memory from below versus memory from above,” in the words of Viet Thanh Nguyen. For immigrants and their offspring, Asian diasporic narratives of return typically reflect experiences of “racial melancholia,” described as unresolved mourning for the losses associated with migration, in the context of social discrimination, exclusion, or marginalization due to race. For Asians, racial melancholia is exacerbated by its incompatibility with ideals of America as equal, inclusive, and race-blind. Writers sometimes use narratives of return to comprehend and resolve their parents’ melancholia by remembering their stories and articulating their grievances; this process of countermemory typically requires a lengthy cultural apprenticeship. In addition to family histories, narratives of return encompass essays, memoirs, novels, poems, plays, and films. They may also be written by or about protagonists born and raised in Asia who return, perhaps to reform or improve their homeland, after living abroad.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, intellectuals and politicians have focused on three main groups as foundational to national and cultural identities: indigenous, African, and European. Mestizaje or racial mixing as a political project has worked to silence the presence and contributions of people of African and Asian descent, while favoring intermixing among European and indigenous. Researchers in the fields of history, anthropology, and sociology have long debated the role of Asians in the transition from slavery to wage labor and produced studies on the transnational and diasporic dimensions of Asian migration and settlement in the region. However, literature and cultural production captures aspects of the Asian presence in the Caribbean Latina/o world that remain absent or underplayed in most empirical studies. Prominent Latina/o writers and artists from the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic) incorporate Asian characters and themes into their work on history, migration, and diaspora. They explore the Asian dimensions of Caribbean Latina/o racial, ethnic, gendered, and class identities and pose a challenge to foundational discourses of national and cultural identities based on mestizaje and syncretism that serve to subsume and erase the Asian presence. Secondary migrations of Asians from Latin America and the Caribbean to North America has produced a small but significant demographic of Asian Latina/os, some of whom reflect on their experiences through essays, memoirs, fiction, poetry, and art. The cultural production of Asian Latinas/os resists hegemonic concepts of race, nation, citizenship, and identity.
Krystyn R. Moon
Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit.
While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time.
Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.
Biopolitics, unlike other conceptual rubrics such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, or the subaltern, does not contain a singular theoretical origin. While Michel Foucault is often cited as the progenitor of contemporary biopolitical thought, a number of other theorists and philosophers have also been credited with significantly shaping its critical lineage, from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Achille Mbembe. By extension, the relation between biopolitics and Asian America is an open-ended one, insofar as no one set of theoretical terms or axioms grounds this relation. Moreover, insofar as biopolitics in its widest sense encompasses the intersection of politics and life, including the inverse of life, its domain is potentially infinite. The conjunctions between biopolitics and Asian America, then, can be defined tactically through the following questions: what are some prominent motifs and concerns within Asian American history, culture, and scholarship that may be illuminatingly narrated within a biopolitical framework? Conversely, how have Asian American writers and scholars themselves analyzed these nexuses, and in what directions have they developed their inquiries? Finally, what does an Asian Americanist criticism bring to the study of biopolitics?
These questions can be usefully pursued via three thematics that have formed core concerns for Asian American studies: orientalist exoticism and exhibitions of the Asian body, associations of the Asian body with pollution and disease, and structures of US governmental power over Asian bodies and populations. Asian Americanist criticism has often centered on analyses of the body as a site for the production of racial difference, whether or not they explicitly adopt a biopolitical theoretical lexicon. What Asian Americanist engagements with biopolitics bring to biopolitical thought is a spotlighting of intersectional politics—the insight that the politics of life never simply operates in relation to abstract bodies but always occurs within power economies of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other forms of social difference and stratification. Conversely, biopolitical theories allow Asian Americanist criticism to develop in multiple new directions, from medical humanities and disability studies to science and technology studies, from animal studies to post-human feminisms, from diaspora studies to surveillance studies. Ultimately, an ethical impetus and an orientation toward justice continue to animate Asian Americanist critical practices, which hold out the promise of a positive biopolitics within prevailing paradigms of negative biopower.
The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.
Christine Kim and Christopher Lee
Despite the supposed end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, its legacies remain unresolved in Asia and continue to shape Asian Canadian writing. The presence of what are now called Asian Canadians became increasingly visible in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, the federal government passed a new Immigration Act that abolished national quotas which had effectively excluded most immigrants from areas outside Euro-America and introduced new opportunities for students and skilled immigrants. In the late 1970s, 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia entered Canada, the first time that Canada had admitted a significant number of non-European refugees. This period also marked the height of postwar Canadian nationalism: in 1967, Canada celebrated its Centennial and tried to project an image of liberal inclusion; this would be further consolidated in 1971 with the adoption of state-sanctioned multiculturalism. However, this specific Canadian national identity failed to address racial discrimination, including those forms directed towards Asian immigrants from the mid-19th century until past the World War II. While Canada’s Cold War politics are informed by these unresolved historical traumas, the multiple intersections between Asian Canadian experience and the Cold War remain largely illegible when read through the frame of the Canadian nation.
Alongside the tradition of Asian Canadian cultural activism, Asian Canadian writers, such as Joy Kogawa, Roy Miki, Paul Yee, SKY Lee, M. G. Vassanji, and others, produced texts that sought to address the erasure of Asian historical presence while exploring and depicting the psychic as well as social costs of racial exclusion and discrimination during the 1970s and 1980s. SKY Lee’s novel Disappearing Moon Café (1991) explores how issues such as Asian–Indigenous relations, gender hierarchies, class relations, racialization, queerness, and the politics of memory are shaped under the subtext of the Cold War. Laotian Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa’s second book of poetry, Found (2007), engages with the history of her parents’ migration from Laos to Canada via a refugee camp in Thailand, and in doing so, Thammavongsa challenges the Cold War representations of Southeast Asian countries. Kim Thuy’s Ru (2009) examines migration in relation to the narrator’s journey from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp and then to a small town in Quebec. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) raises questions about post-Cold War justice by drawing attention to Canada’s involvement in the conflicts in Cambodia and implicitly posing the question of Canada’s unacknowledged responsibilities. Thammavongsa, Thuy, and Thien’s texts can be read as post-Cold War literature as the Cold War created the conditions for these literary projects to emerge. Beyond a source of thematic or historical content, the Cold War remains embedded, if ambivalently, in the very construction of Asian Canadian literature.
Contemporary Asian American art includes artworks created by artists of Asian heritage in the Americas as well as contemporary works that engage with Asian American or Asian diasporic communities, history, aesthetics, politics, theory, and popular culture. This includes Modern and Postmodern works created in the post-World War II era to the present. Asian American art is closely tied to the birth of the Asian American movement of the 1960s and 70s as well as a wide range of art movements of the same time period from minimalism, to community murals, to the birth of video art, to international conceptual movements such as Fluxus. “Asian American art” is associated with identity based works and began to be institutionalized during the multicultural era of the 1980–1990s. From the early 2000s onwards, Asian American art has shifted to more transnational framework but remains centered on issues of representation, recovery, reclaiming, recuperation, and decolonization of marginalized bodies, histories, and memories. Common themes in Asian American art include narratives of immigration, migration, war, trauma, labor, race and ethnicity, assimilation, dislocation, countering stereotypes, and interrogating histories of colonization and U.S. imperialism.