Twenty-first-century understandings of how disability figures in Asian American literature and the representation of Asian American individuals have greatly evolved. Earlier, highly pejorative characterizations associated with the 19th-century “Oriental” or “yellow peril” as a carrier of disease whose body needed to be quarantined and excluded. Later, the model minority myth typecast Asian Americans as having extreme intellectual abilities to the point of freakishness. Disability studies asserts that having an “imperfect” disabled body is nothing to hide and questions beliefs in norms of behavior and experience. Focusing on disability in Asian American literature opens a new path to reflect on Asian American identity and experience in ways that break away from the racial types and narrative trajectories of immigrant success that have often been seen as defining what it is to be Asian American. Integrating a disability studies perspective into Asian American studies provides a compelling and necessary means of critiquing stereotypes such as the model minority myth, as well as to reread many classic texts of Asian American literature with attentiveness to difference, impairment, and loss.
James Kyung-Jin Lee
Alongside readings of Asian American literature that foreground the racial, gender, class, and transnational constitution of the community and the writers that produced literary work, one may consider how ill, disabled, and wounded embodiment work their way into the literature as well. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these differential modes of embodiment are constitutive of the corpus of Asian American literature itself, for illness and disability are often, though not always, the somatic expression of the kinds of racial and other forms of violence that Asian American authors take up as central themes. To explore the world of illness and disability and to pay attention to the ways that wounded embodiment figures in the literary provide a critical index of how Asian Americans have been and are valued. Moreover, to take the Asian American ill and disabled body in literature seriously as producing specific narratives themselves, rather than merely more deficient versions of those produced by their able-bodied counterparts, is to read Asian American literature as a site through which new ideas of sociality, intersubjectivity, and care might be possible, which then may trigger new political imaginations. Whether reading in Asian American literature’s most historical and canonical works traces of illness, disability, and wounded embodiment’s marks or the early-21st-century “boom” in nonfiction that attends to questions of illness and disability, death and dying, a generative, even capacious, understanding of Asian America emerges from the shadows of what was previously known and knowable as a social identity.
Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.