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Performance Theory and Asian American Literature and Culture  

Ju Yon Kim

The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission. Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.