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.
Asian American Detective Fiction
Hispanic Caribbean Sexiles
From the countryside to the city, from the city to foreign lands, people who challenge heteronormative notions of gender and sexual practices have left their place of origin in search for freedom of expression for ages. Despite this, it was only in the late 1980s to early 1990s that migration studies scholars started to look at the role of sexuality within migratory patterns, probably due to historical facts such as the civil rights movements, new trends within feminism (i.e., Third World feminism), the birth of fields that spur on intersectional approaches (such as cultural and LGBTQ studies), and most importantly, the AIDS pandemic and the way it “traveled” around the world, particularly affecting sexual and racial minorities. Whereas exile is often understood as a legal or political category, sexile may come detached from official institutions and yet still imply an individual’s undesired uprooting from his or her nation state. Building on the scholarship of David William Foster, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, José Quiroga, and others, Puerto Rican academic and author Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes was the first to put into circulation the implications of sexual practices and identities for migratory patterns within Latin American literary studies. But it was Puerto Rican sociologist Manolo Guzmán who coined the neologism “sexile” to refer to emigration caused by one’s sexual orientation. While the practice is, in a sense, a timeless and global phenomenon, it is more common for residents of the Caribbean due to the region’s colonial history. The effects of extended colonialism and its constant cultural contact with previous colonizing empires, as well as neocolonialist socio-economic structures in place at present and common to the geographical zone as a whole, make its development differ from that of other Latin American countries, which obtained independence in the early 19th century. Thus, many of its inhabitants look to move to places such as the United States or Spain, which have commonly influenced their sexual imaginaries, seeking a friendlier environment than that of a region contestably referred to as one of the most homophobic places on earth.
Like Frantz Fanon, Anne McClintock, R. W. Connell, María Lugones, Elizabeth Martínez, and other scholars of postcoloniality/decoloniality, I agree that the concrete historical conditions of colonization as constituting and constitutive of heteropatriarchy set the parameters of masculinity for men of color and subsequent specific expressions of cultural nationalism and masculinity for Chicano men. These contexts, in fact, are best described by María Lugones as part of the modern/colonial gender system. Still, any investigation of gender/masculinity must simultaneously attend to other interlocking and intersecting systems of oppression and identity formation like racism and class, which remain dynamically constituted by other facets of identity like sexuality. “Homeboy Masculinity,” in these contexts, then, indicates a situational and historically specific type of masculinity that remains influenced by the complexity of the modern/colonial gender system. This particular type of masculinity, as such, emerges in various practices and expressions of masculinity in Chicana/o barrios across the United States but especially in the American Southwest and is particularly exemplified by barrios in East Los Angeles, the west side of San Antonio, and El Paso, among others. Homeboy masculinity also emerges in primary and secondary cultural texts whose locus of expression and whose epistemological formation is the Chicana/o barrio. In this respect, the barrio, as the site of the production of this type of masculinity and epistemological formation, must consequently be understood as a byproduct of the dialectical processes of “barrioization” and the barriological. Indeed, Raúl Homero Villa argues that barriology is a critical and witty challenge to knowledge produced in the predominantly white institutions of academe and in dominant ideological apparatuses like the mainstream media that is made by offering a subaltern knowledge produced from within the barrio and by barrio residents. Villa, in Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture, succinctly distinguishes between the “socially deforming” processes of barrioization and the “culturally affirming” processes of barriology in describing this dialectical model for understanding the social and material construction of the barrio; this model, as a result, is integral to understanding homeboy masculinity In addition, homeboys, as culturally and historically specific subjects, also form part of a legacy of Mexican and Chicana/o figures that have worked to set the parameters for Mexicano/Chicano masculinity and femininity. Therefore, while La Malinche, La Virgen, and La Llorona function to structure Chicana femininity, they also operate as an implicit boundary zone for the construction of Mexicano/Chicano masculinity, as Gloria E. Anzaldúa notes in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Octavio Paz and Tomas Almaguer, like Anzaldúa, note the sociohistorical and linguistic relationships between these figures and their gender/sexual correlations in various cultural expressions and practices in the community. Paz and Almaguer, in discussing one specific role of la chingada as La Malinche in the Mexican/Chicano imaginations, describe the power politics involved in being los hijos de la chingada and how this framework produces a homophobia that stems from the onset of conquest. They also note how the framework of “being the fucked one” produces a type of Mexican “masculine homosexuality” that is tolerated among Mexicans alongside of such homophobia. These scholars, as a result, point to the multifaceted ways in which these archetypal historical, religious, and cultural figures structure both Chicana femininity and Chicano masculinity. Moreover, the figures of the Aztec warrior, Hernan Cortes as a model of the conquistador, the revolutionary figures of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, el pelado as a manifestation of working class “noble” masculinity, and el pachuco (later, the homeboy) collectively form an explicit historical and ideological apparatus that structures Mexican/Chicano masculinity. In many ways, these culturally and historically significant figures, as embodiments of Mexican and Chicano masculinity, can also be understood as part of complex negotiations in the maintenance of a hegemonic masculinity and as potential challenges to such a masculinity from an insurgent or subaltern form of Mexicano/Chicano masculinity. This phenomenon of competing and, at times, mutually reinforcing forms of masculinity as a result remains rooted in the onset of conquest but is also dynamically intersectional. In the contemporary context, race and ethnicity, nonetheless, remain the primary modalities upon which this phenomenon rests; it is best exemplified by adapting Gayatri Spivak’s calculus as: white men saving all women from the threat of black and brown men. Hegemonic masculinity, as defined by Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee in “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,” is part of a set of powerful circumstances in which the meanings and practices of masculinity also become a normative force through, for example, the mass media; it also emerges through a “naturalized” division of labor that works to reify classed and gendered identities and spaces in society. Furthermore, this type of hegemonic masculinity is more powerfully underscored, they argue, when supported and embodied by the state. Homeboy masculinity, by contrast, is not ideologically or politically pure in practice or performance precisely because it is informed by the complex histories of Spanish and American imperialisms and the modern/colonial gender system that emerges from these large-scale structures. In the present context, homeboy masculinity is also de/formed by the late-modern processes of urbanization—themselves inflected with the legacies of those imperialisms and more contemporary racial and spatial formations. It is, consequently, a central social element of the dialectical relationships between barrioization and the barriological. Homeboy masculinity, nonetheless, remains an insurgent form of masculinity whose spirit challenges these white hegemonic forms of masculinity and, by extension, a compulsory heteronormative sexuality.
Literary Perspectives on Asian Americans in the South
The continued growth of the Asian American population in the US South has redefined the region in terms of its economy, culture, and identity. While the literature associated with the region predominantly focuses on whites and African Americans, several narratives explore the experiences of Asian Americans. These texts span a variety of genres, including memoirs, young adult fiction, and historical analyses. From Chinese immigrant laborers who migrated to the Mississippi Delta during Reconstruction to second-generation Korean Americans growing up in the suburbs of northern Virginia, Asian Americans in the South engender more nuanced interpretations of concepts like race, region, and place-based identities. Writers of Asian descent like Monique Truong and Cynthia Kadohata as well as non-Asian writers like Cynthia Shearer and Robert Olen Butler illustrate the ways in which Asian immigration complicates long-standing notions of Southern culture and identity. Some of their works address the ambiguities of segregation-era racial politics as those defined as neither white nor African American struggle to navigate their place along the color line. These texts feature local-born southerners who perceive Asians as outsiders and in turn, establish both overt and subtler forms of exclusion and surveillance to maintain control. However, the growing visibility of Asians in the region also hints at the possibility of new multiracial and multiethnic coalitions and new communal identities centered on the shared struggle against economic, political, and social inequalities. Several narratives set in the post-Jim Crow South underscore the global networks that connect the South to the rest of the world. Writers have used and continue to employ the Asian American figure as a means to destabilize the white–black racial binary that has long characterized the Southern literary tradition and position the South in a broader, more global context. The emergence of Asian Americans in addition to Latinos and indigenous populations on the Southern literary landscape highlights the diverse cultures and histories that mark the South not as a monolith but rather as a region experiencing constant transformation.
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.
Plants and Literature
In countless ways, plants have been in literature from the start. They literally provide surfaces and tools of inscription, as well as figuratively inspire a diverse body of writing that ranges from documenting changing social and ecological conditions to probing the limits of the human imagination. The dependence of human along with all other life on vegetal bodies assures their omnipresence in literatures across all periods and cultures, positioning them as ready reference points for metaphors, similes, and other creative devices. As comestibles, landscape features, home décor, and of course paper, plants appear in the pages of virtually every literary text. But depictions of botanical life in action often prove portentous, particularly when they remind readers that plants move in mysterious ways. At the frontiers of ancient and medieval European settlements, the plant communities of forests served as vital sources of material and imaginative sustenance. Consequently, early modern literature registers widespread deforestation of these alluring and dangerous borderlands as threats to economic and social along with ecological flourishing, a pattern repeated through the literatures of settler colonialism. Although appearing in the earliest of literatures, appreciation for the ways in which plants inscribe stories of their own lives remains a minor theme, although with accelerating climate change an increasingly urgent one. Myths and legends of hybrid plant-men, trees of life, and man-eating plants are among the many sources informing key challenges to representing plants in modern and contemporary literature, most obviously in popular genre fictions like mystery, horror, and science fiction (sf). Further enlightening these developments are studies that reveal how botanical writing emerges as a site of struggle from the early modern period, deeply entrenched in attempts to systematize and regulate species in tandem with other differences. The scientific triumph of the Linnaean “sexual system” bears a mixed legacy in feminist plant writing, complicated further by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) writers’ creative engagements with the unevenly felt consequences of professionalized plant science. Empowered by critical plant studies, an interdisciplinary formation that rises to the ethical challenges of emergent scientific affirmations of vegetal sentience, literature and literary criticism are reexamining these histories and modeling alternatives. In the early 21st century with less than a fraction of 1 percent of the remaining old growth under conservation protection worldwide, plants appear as never before in fragile and contested communal terrains, overshadowed by people and other animals, all of whose existence depends on ongoing botanical adaptation.
Queer South Asian Diasporas
Queer South Asian Diasporas can refer to the individuals and communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who trace their ancestry to the South Asian subcontinent, but have lived beyond its borders. These communities and individuals generate vibrant forms of cultural production: writing, activism, filmmaking, performance art, and creative manipulations of everyday practice. Additionally, queer diaspora can refer to a particular way of analyzing South Asian public cultures and discourse through a transnational lens with an eye toward the ways that normative genders and sexualities are managed and manipulated to secure and undo nationalist projects. Given the dislocation rendered by pushes and pulls from multiple nations and communities, a common theme in the theorization of queer diaspora and the representation of LGBTQ South Asian life is the struggle over and production of “home” as physical space, affective landscape, and shared embodiment. Theories of queer diaspora help scholars understand how some practices that are not particularly associated with mainstream queer identities can be interpreted as queer, especially when read in the context of South Asian histories. The homosociality of South Asian domestic life, filmic conventions, and ritual practices lend themselves to queer interpretations. While these intimacies do not read as queer to everyone, LGBTQ South Asians precisely apprehend these queer possibilities as alternatives to white and Western gay habitus. Also, queer diaspora explains that migrant, postcolonial subjects are often perceived as having non-normative genders and sexualities given the ways that imperial projects have managed those aspects of human life. This framework is reflected in the narratives of LGBTQ South Asians who name how their (un)desirability is based on race, including the hair on their body, their ethnic heritage, and the stereotypes they are associated with.
The Reception of American Science Fiction in Japan
American science fiction has been a significant source of ideas and imagination for Japanese creators: they have been producing extensive works of not only written texts but also numerous films, television shows, Japanese comics and cartoons (Manga and Animé), music, and other forms of art and entertainment under its influence. Tracing the history of the import of American science fiction works shows how Japan accepted, consumed, and altered them to create their own mode of science fiction, which now constitutes the core of so-called “Cool-Japan” content. Popular American science fiction emerged from pulp magazines and paperbacks in the early 20th century. In the 1940s, John W. Campbell Jr. and his magazine Astounding Science Fiction had great impact on the genre, propelling its “Golden Age.” In the 1960s, however, American science fiction seemed dated, but the “New Wave” arose in the United Kingdom, which soon affected American writers. With the cyberpunk movement in the 1980s, science fiction became part of postmodernist culture. Japanese science fiction has developed under the influence of American science fiction, especially after WWII. Paperbacks and magazines discarded by American soldiers were handed down to Japanese readers. Many would later become science fiction writers, translators, or editors. Japanese science fiction has mainly followed the line of Golden Age science fiction, which speculates on how science and technology affect the social and human conditions, whereas the New Wave and cyberpunk movements contributed to Japanese postmodernism. Japanese Manga, Animé, and special effects (SFX) television shows and films (Tokusatsu) are also closely related to science fiction and have developed under its influence. Even as works of the Japanese popular culture owe much to American science fiction, they have become popular worldwide.
Settler Colonialism in Asian North American Representation
The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.
19th-Century Spirit Photography
Spirit photography emerges out of the widespread movement of Spiritualism in the 19th century. In 1848, the Fox sisters of upstate New York claimed that the mysterious knockings emanating from the walls of their farmhouse represented the opening of a spirit telegraph that faciliated communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Spiritualism quickly became a techno-religious movement closely aligned with the abolitionist and suffragist movements. The movement utilized burgeoning technologies to apply a scientific rigor to phenomena beyond the five human senses. The photochemical process and the swift advancement of photography as both an art and science were particularly powerful mediums for providing evidence that spirits can manifest in the visible world. Sir John Herschel coined the term “photography” by combining the Greek words photos and graphé, literally “light writing” or “writing by light.” The term itself advances the concept that the camera produced an unmediated reproduction of the natural world, and, with the first spirit photograph emerging in 1862, believers understood that the camera was both capturing spirits of the dead and scientifically proving that the spirits were real. Nineteenth-century debates about the veracity of these images pivoted on the question of what photography was capable of capturing. Scientists knew that photography could capture invisible fluorescence, and Spiritualists argued that if the camera could capture the invisible world, then it could also capture spirits.
The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature
Josephine Nock-Hee Park
The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war. The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.
The War on Terror and South Asian American Narrative Representation
The social and political conditions actuated by 9/11 have been a major catalyst for new literature, television and film about South Asians and Muslims in America. Stemming from a 2001 speech by then-president George W. Bush, the concept of the “War on Terror” has served to rationalize the domestic regulation of Muslims, while also validating the need for US imperialist and capitalist expansion. Where US government discourse highlights first-person narratives that figure America as a benevolent global protector of freedom and democracy, South Asian American fictional and non-fictional narratives posit critiques of Islamophobia and the US security state. Spanning a breadth of genres and styles, including the paradigmatic 9/11 novel, the bildungsroman, comedic satire, dramatic monologue, magic realism, documentary film, and urban fiction, South Asian American literature and media highlight narratives of interfaith and cross-racial solidarity. The imaginary worlds of these texts confront the injustices of US imperialism and the global War on Terror for Muslim communities both in the United States and abroad. At the same, South Asian American representation engaged with the impacts of post-9/11 politics and society has enriched understanding of the complex lived experiences of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Americans, as well as those of Indian Americans who are Muslim or trace their ancestry to the Sikh-majority state of Punjab. By centering the perspectives of those communities most affected by detention, xenophobia, and surveillance, post-9/11 South Asian American literature and media reveal how the exigencies of history produce new forms of narrative and cultural practice.