Asian American literature has capaciously explored the issues of gender, sexuality, and reproduction that have been so foundational to Asian American racial formation. It has likewise engaged, directly or indirectly, with “eugenics,” a pseudoscience by which nation states sought to improve their populations through managing reproduction. Eugenics, a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton in 1883, spans the late 19th to the early 21st centuries, where it continues in the form of population control and the “new” eugenics of genetic and reproductive technologies. In some national sites eugenics was aligned with feminist movements for birth control, whereas in others, such as the United States, they were largely opposed. Nonetheless, eugenic feminists argued that women’s right reproduction was the necessary mechanism by which women should gain rights within the state; as a formation, moreover, eugenic feminism specifically targeted Asian American women as standing in the way of US feminist advance. As such, one of the key ways eugenics was practiced in the United States in relationship to Asian populations was through immigration policy. The history of Asian exclusion in the United States therefore speaks to a larger eugenic project predicated on the notion that Asian immigrants embodied a public health threat in terms of diseases and deviant sexualities of various sorts. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up Asian immigration to the United States and also gave rise to a new set of stereotypes, gendered and otherwise, about Asian Americans as model minorities. Asian American literature has critically mined these issues, with some Asian American literature acceding to eugenics by stressing an assimilationist politics and with other works challenging it by critiquing eugenics’ reproductive logic of purity.
Audrey Wu Clark
In her pathbreaking book Asian American Panethnicity (1992), Yen Le Espiritu traces Asian American panethnicity to the Yellow Power movement of the civil rights era of the 1960s. Thereafter the political struggles of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino Americans were documented in literature and studied in literary anthologies such as Frank Chin et al.’s Aiiieeeee! (1974) and David Hsin-Fu Wand’s Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (1974). However, early Asian American literature suggests that Asian American consciousness emerged earlier than the civil rights era. During the era of Chinese exclusion (1882–1943), Chinese American writers such as Lee Yan Phou, Sui Sin Far, and Onoto Watanna—Sui Sin Far’s sister, who wrote under a Japanese pseudonym—wrote about Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. The subsequent era of Japanese exclusion (1907–1945) brought about the modernist haiku poetry of Japanese American writers Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Popular Front era of the 1930s that various forms of panethnic and queer Asian American political consciousness emerged in the literature of Korean American writer Younghill Kang, Filipino American writers Carlos Bulosan (who mentions Kang in his novel, America Is In the Heart) and José García Villa, and Chinese American writer H. T. Tsiang. The politically progressive Popular Front of the 1930s, together with the influence of experimental literary forms of high modernism from just a decade before, set the stage for the Asian American panethnicity and queer consciousness that are described in the works of Kang and Bulosan, and Villa and Tsiang, respectively. Kang’s autobiographical novels The Grass Roof (1931) and East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) and Bulosan’s novel, America Is in the Heart (1943) exhibit important thematic influences by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Likewise, Villa’s Have Come, Am Here (1942) and Tsiang’s novels The Hanging on Union Square (1935) and And China Has Hands (1937) demonstrate the influence of queer modernist Gertrude Stein. Just a few decades earlier, Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann were both writing modernist haikus that responded to those of their friend Ezra Pound. However, without the language of political solidarity that the Popular Front provided, Noguchi’s and Hartmann’s politics, implicit in their poetry, remained overlooked by critics until the 1990s.