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.
James Kyung-Jin Lee
Ellen McGrath Smith
Anne Sexton is one of the most charged and memorable personalities in American literature. Her image as a taboo-breaking, glamorous housewife-turned-poet has made her a cultural icon for two generations in the United States and beyond. This iconic status has led some critics to dismiss much of her work as sensationalistic, while overlooking Sexton’s incomparable flashes of imagery and insight. At the same time, that status has attracted many readers who might not have read much poetry before encountering Sexton’s bold and playful style, and thereby expanded the audience for American poetry. In between these two extremes fall readers who, for many reasons, recognize Anne Sexton as a key player in the emergence in the mid-twentieth century of a more personal and direct type of poetry, often referred to as confessional poetry, a term coined in 1959 by the critic M. L. Rosenthal in his review of Robert Lowell’s groundbreaking collection of personal poetry, Life Studies (1959).
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.
Writers have long explored illness and care as key themes in a wide range of work across a variety of literary genres. In the second half of the 20th century, literature and medicine emerged as a subfield of literary study as well as a component of medical education. In the American context, since the 1970s, research and teaching methods associated with the subfield of literature and medicine have become increasingly institutionalized in universities and medical schools. As with many emergent fields, there has been much debate around the name of the field and its primary objects of study and methods of analysis. Interdisciplinary scholars have expanded the field from a narrow focus on literature to a broader interest in the multiplicity of discourses, texts, genres, and forms—including verbal, visual, digital, and multimodal forms of creative expression and pedagogy. As a response to this expansion beyond literature, several alternatives to “literature and medicine” have been proposed and institutionalized as part of the process of field formation. Around 2000, “narrative medicine” emerged as a clinical practice that emphasizes the role of stories in medical encounters and seeks to teach health practitioners narrative competence as a form of care. Other scholars have debated whether “medical humanities” or “health humanities” best captures the parameters and investments of the field, with health humanities offered as a more inclusive name indicating the importance of spaces, practices, and practitioners beyond the institution of medicine. Some scholars have proposed “health studies” or “critical health studies” as encouraging the cross-fertilization of theories and methods from the humanities and social sciences (including medical sociology, history of medicine, philosophy, and literary studies), as well as from the interdisciplinary fields of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, science studies, critical race studies, and disability studies, into medical and health thought and practice. Scholars calling for a more critical medical humanities or health studies argue for the importance of structural analysis and an examination of how power operates in medicine and health care. Many notable developments—including the turns to narrative, to comics, and to structural analysis—have had global impacts, especially in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The experience of illness and its diagnosis and treatment connects the local and phenomenological—the embodied individual in the world and in relation to others (loved ones, caretakers, health practitioners, health advocates, and activists)—with national and transnational systems and structures, including health care policies and delivery services, basic and applied medical research and development, and poverty, racism, war, climate change, and other environmental factors contributing to the increasing precarity of vulnerable people and health disparities between populations.