Asian American literature was born from two mixed race Eurasian sisters, Edith Maude Eaton and Winnifred Eaton, who wrote in the early 20th century under the pen names Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, respectively. Edith spent her career chronicling, in fiction and non-fiction, the lives of Chinese in North America, and recounted her own multiracial experiences in the autobiographical “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” while Winnifred is best known for her popular fiction about the exotica of Japan, novels and stories that include several mixed race protagonists. More than thirty years later, Kathleen Tamagawa penned a mixed race memoir, Holy Prayers in a Horse’s Ear, describing the difficulties of living as a biracial Japanese-white woman trying to assimilate into the white mainstream of US society. The number of mixed race Asian American authors rose in the mid- to late 20th century due to an increase in mixed race marriages and Asian immigration. The turn of the 21st century saw prominent multiracial Asian American authors writing about Asian American lives, mixed race Asian American authors choosing not to write about multiracial Asian American characters, and monoracial Asian American writers who populate their fiction with multiracial Asian American characters. Among these authors, Ruth Ozeki stands out as someone who has consistently focused her attention on multiracial Asian American characters, illustrating the richness of their mixed race experiences even as her fictional storyworlds shine a light on the environmental issues in a globalized world.
Jennifer Ann Ho
Mixed-race Asian Americans have long been a part of the visual culture of Asian Americans, yet, like the wider culture, in Asian American studies the figure of the mixed-race Asian American is rarely recognized or acknowledged. This absence is notable given the field’s sustained interest in representations of Asian interracial romantic relationships in both print and visual media. The simplest explanation would be that mixed-race Asian Americans are difficult to recognize visually as Asian. This explanation locates the source of under-representation in the bodies of mixed-race Asian Americans and their failure to signal race correctly. Within that causal logic, some bodies push viewers to categorize those bodies incorrectly as monoracial or as confoundingly ambiguous. Since race is a social fiction, however, it does not simply exist in specific bodies waiting to be read. Instead, the ambiguity of mixed-race Asian representations resides in the exchange between the viewer and the viewed. The study of visual representations of mixed-race Asians intervenes in this racial narrative. While the visual apprehension of race may appear to bypass culture, the study of representations of mixed-race Asians makes apparent the ways in which the visual is constantly mediated by cultural codes. Race appears to exist on the surface of the body for the viewer to scan. On the contrary, the features that signal racial difference are socially determined, and people are trained to prioritize those features as they enter into culture. Representations of mixed-race Asians often fall outside common racial coding, slowing the process of assigning racial meaning to fetishized features. These bumps in the road open up a space for scholars to denaturalize visual racialization and to begin to unravel the cultural codes that inform readings of racial categories. Rather than looking for a solution to the problem of mixed-race Asian representations, scholars writing on mixed-race Asian Americans focus on visual representations to trouble racial categories and to question what it means to look—or not look—Asian. By tracking the shifting racialized reading of images of mixed-race figures such as Hollywood star Merle Oberon across time and genre, it becomes apparent how cultural context rather than mixed-race bodies shapes the visual apprehension of racial difference.
Sarah Park Dahlen
Asian American children’s literature includes books of many different genres that depict some aspect of the Asian diaspora. In total, the books should depict the breadth and depth of Asian diasporic experiences. Children’s books published in the early 20th century include mostly folktales, while books published after the 1965 Immigration Act tend to include contemporary fiction, poetry, and biographies. They address topics such as immigration and acculturation as well as capture landmark moments and experiences in Asian American history, such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the transnational, transracial adoption of Asian children to the United States. Books published at the turn of the 20th century have broached newer topics, such as mixed-race identities, and are written in a variety of genres including fantasy. As noted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the number of books by and/or about Asian Americans published is disproportionate to the total number of books published each year and to the population of Asians in the Americas. Also some Asian American writers continue to publish on topics unrelated to their identities. Academic researchers, practitioners, and writers have addressed various aspects of how this body of literature represents Asian Americans, mostly noting distortions and erasure and offering suggestions for improvement, emerging topics, and engagement with young people.