Asian American autobiographical writing about immigration—from the earliest available examples to the contemporary experiments with genre and form—does not tell a straightforward story. Rather, Asian American autobiographies trouble the sustaining myths of American exceptionalism, the American dream, meritocracy, and belonging and therefore challenge narratives of immigrant striving and success. Immigrant narratives examined in this essay by Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, Kathleen Tamagawa, Carlos Bulosan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kao Kaila Yang, and Shailja Patel, among others, show the contested and constructed quality of national borders. They show that the nation has always been constructed transnationally, through relationships with other countries and cultures and flows of migration that exceed straightforward definition. Examining narratives from various historical periods and cultural traditions brings into view the connections and contradictions among them and shows how each text intervenes in immigration discourse and exercises autobiographical agency. Rather than straightforward stories, then, Asian American autobiographical narratives illuminate the various entanglements of self-representation, family, identity, and agency with imperialism, racialization, nationalism, and global capitalism. Nor does autobiographical writing merely document experience or history. Instead, it actively constructs self, identity, and nation even as it draws on the culturally available narratives that enable and constrain the stories writers tell about their lives. As it does so, it creates new, unstraightfoward narratives and forms.
Theresa A. Kulbaga
Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.
Tracy Devine Guzmán
Indigenous Studies as a topic of scholarly inquiry in modern-day Brazil comprise over five hundred years of colonial and national history, nearly three hundred distinct peoples with a collective populace of approximately 900,000, and some 270 languages or dialects, many of which approach extinction. Official estimates of indigenous populations have varied tremendously ever since officials began making such assessments during the late 19th century, in large part because a host of political and material interests have always informed and mediated the counting process. Who is indigenous, under what circumstances, with what conditions, and according to whom, are legal and philosophical queries—unresolved and likely unresolvable—that shape not only indigenous-centered scholarship and activism, but also, most importantly, the lived experiences of Native peoples across the country and the region. Political crises and catastrophic environmental disasters since the early 2000s have brought renewed international attention to the critical situation of indigenous Brazil. While non-indigenous peoples, beyond a doubt, also suffered tremendously from the impact of these events, the situation of Native Brazilians has been exceptional for two reasons: First, their miniscule numbers vis-à-vis the general population render them, their collective interests, and their political voices invisible or easily ignorable for the holders of power. Second, legal contradictions render their juridical condition vis-à-vis the Brazilian state unclear, resulting in a long-standing dynamic through which purported indigenous interests are represented not only by non-indigenous entities, but also by non-indigenous entities that are overtly hostile to collective indigenous interests. While distinct state mechanisms for “Indian protection” have been in place since the beginning of the 20th century, they have consistently lacked indigenous leadership or significant indigenous participation and have functioned, more often than not, to the detriment of the purportedly protected population. Indigenous peoples from radically distinct realities have responded to this dire situation in correspondingly distinct ways. Over the past two years, for example, Brazilians saw an indigenous woman (Sonia Guajajara) run for vice-president of their country, at the same time isolated Native communities in the Amazon fled from the National Indian Foundation’s highly controversial efforts to bring them into contact with dominant society for the very first time. In light of these radical differences, any effort to generalize the interests, needs, or lived experiences of Native peoples in Brazil is inherently flawed, resulting in overly simplified renderings of the past and a flattening of diverse Native subjectivities into idealized or demonized “Indianness.” Lauded or reviled, generic “Indians” and their Indianness are time-honored staples of Brazilian national identity and popular culture. To recognize the profound heterogeneity of indigenous Brazil is not to say that Native Brazilians do not share many of the same experiences, interests, and goals. Indeed, the very articulation of an “indigenous movement” requires a strategic suspension of, and extrapolation from diverse histories and present-day circumstances so that many voices, sometimes representing conflicting perspectives and priorities, can articulate their goals as a collectivity. Brazil’s so-called indigenous movement took root during the 1970s. With a focus on creating favorable (or at least, less prejudicial) national legislation, the first wave of that movement culminated in indigenous participation in crafting the 1988 post-dictatorship Constitution of Brazil, which represented, in theory, a profound change in the way the Brazilian state would engage with indigenous peoples. It is precisely the failure of dominant society to enforce those changes that has inspired the majority of subsequent work by indigenous intellectuals, scholars, writers, artists, and other activists. Acknowledging the profoundly antidemocratic political reality in which their voices are either muffled or ignored, indigenous peoples have not given up on politics. On the contrary, they have redoubled their political work by taking their struggles to diverse social organizations and expressing them through forms of cultural production that allow them to articulate their needs and interests to a broader audience, oftentimes with the support of social media. Demands for land rights and environmental protection measures often lie at the heart of these efforts, placing the well-being of indigenous peoples into direct conflict with multinational development interests (such as mining, agribusiness, and tourism) that operate with insufficient oversight, or even with the outright support of the Brazilian government. This dynamic has pushed indigenous peoples and organizations to seek national, regional, and global backing from Native and non-Native allies who mirror their critique of unchecked developmentalism and their concern for the shared ecological future of humanity.
Despite the prominent work produced by Sri Lankan American writers Michael Ondaatje and Rienzi Crusz since the 1970s, Sri Lankan American literature and culture has maintained a doubly marginalized position in Asian America due to the historical disregard of South Asian America and the dominance of Indian America. Literary and cultural work by writers and artists of the first and second generations reveal how Sri Lankan America is, to use Rajiv Shankar’s phrase, “a part, yet apart” of the South Asian American milieu as well as postcolonial Sri Lankan studies. First-generation writers initially reflect on the common diasporic theme of nostalgia for the land of origin, but their larger body of work is not directly related to “Sri Lankan” topics. For instance, Ondaatje, who gained prominence as a “Canadian postmodernist,” kept Sri Lanka largely peripheral in his early poetry until his 1982 memoir Running in the Family. However, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), presaged by the state-sanctioned pogrom of Tamils known as the Black July riots of 1983 that occasioned a second wave of immigration to North America, the volatile political background at home and the national “betrayal” by the Sinhalese Buddhist government became a major thematic motif for Sri Lankan American writing. Indran Amirthanayagam’s 1993 poetry collection The Elephants of Reckoning reveals a new responsibility embraced by the diasporic writer—to recognize that “the dead have tongues” and to pose the question: “What are they saying?” Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) reiterates Amirthanayagam’s position, becoming a blueprint for a new generation of Sri Lankan American writers and popular cultural artists invested in social justice vis-à-vis not only race, ethnicity, and citizenship but also politics of gender and sexuality. Second-generation Sri Lankan American writing such as V. V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage (2008) experiments with new archival forms by mediating traumatic “inherited memories” of the civil war, pointing to the future directions of the Sri Lankan American literary and cultural terrain.
Julia L. Mickenberg
Children’s literature can be radical in its form, its content, or both. At the most basic level, radical children’s literature challenges conventions and norms—about society and, often, about childhood—and it inspires change, especially movements for social and environmental justice. Radical children’s literature represents a paradox. On the one hand, some of the most enduring works of children’s literature are in some way subversive. Yet because of the persisting ideal of childhood innocence, “radical children’s literature” might be seen as an oxymoron, an impossibility: if it is radical, it cannot really be children’s literature. And yet, not only is “subversive children’s literature” a core thread within mainstream children’s literature, but radical children’s literature has also been an adjunct to nearly every social movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, and gay liberation. The history of radical children’s literature is tied closely to the history of children’s rights (within whose history the impulse to protect and the impulse to liberate children have sometimes been at odds: with each other, and with the real needs of children). Radical children’s literature, like the children’s rights movement, is both a reaction to “childism,” or prejudice against children, and is also vulnerable to it. Like the romantic ideal of the essential Child, the child subject or object of radical children’s literature is almost always an adult projection, thus liable to serving adults’ needs over those of children. Within this dialectic, however, children’s literature has been a powerful force of positive change in many parts of the world, responding to and for the most part advancing the place of children in society. This has been the case even in repressive climates and under regimes hostile to change, both because children’s literature has tended to be a marginalized field, controlled by women and not seen as worthy of attention, and because of various institutional factors, from educational policies to children’s book awards that have inadvertently or actively helped promote the production and dissemination of radical children’s literature. Like the majority of historical children’s literature, contemporary children’s literature remains predominantly an agent of embourgeoisement. Even so, the range of radical children’s literature published, especially in the past few decades—challenging racism, sexism, and heterosexism; promoting environmental responsibility, internationalism, peace, and collective solidarity against injustice and the abuse of authority; and urging children to challenge childism and to imagine other possible worlds—has been vast.
To the extent North Korea features within Asian American literature and culture, it primarily does so in a body of Korean American cultural production—memoirs, biographies, documentary films, oral histories, fiction, and multi-media political advocacy—that is distinctively post-9/11 but not-yet post-Korean War. The irresolution of the Korean War, a war that has yet to be ended by a peace treaty, serves as defining extraliterary context for representations of North Korea. Not reducible to historical setting, much less an event safely concluded in the past, the Korean War, as a contemporaneous structure of enmity between the United States and North Korea, conditions the significance of this cultural archive—its urgency, politics, and reception. Often markedly instrumental in nature, indeed defined by the antithetical political ends it wishes to foster, Asian (mainly Korean) American cultural production on North Korea falls into two broad camps: on the one hand, “axis of evil” accounts that advocate, at times explicitly, for US intervention against North Korea, and on the other, more emergent cultural expressions that seek to expose the human costs of unending US war with North Korea.