In recent decades, world has emerged as one of the most fiercely contested concepts in literary studies. The more narrowly defined stakes of the debates over world literature concern the disciplinary mandate of comparative literature. One way of grasping the world as a problematic is in terms of a dispute over the correct unit of literary analysis. Should comparative literature scholars seek to illuminate broad historical patterns in the global circulation of influence as reflected, for example, in the morphology of literary genres or the adoption of tropes across different literary cultures? Or should they seek instead to come to grips with the singularity of the world—the unique systems of thought and meaning—presented in individual texts, using the methodology of close reading that offers a model for the ethical relation to otherness? The issue of scale is equally at play in the multiculturalist imperative to expand the literary canon beyond its traditional emphasis on European and Anglo-American traditions. While the general consensus is that undoing comparative literature’s Eurocentrism is crucial to the discipline’s continued relevance, the practical question of how to go about it has been contentious. If scholars are required to draw from a diversified literary canon, how can they attain the linguistic competence required to treat the enlarged field of inquiry with adequate hermeneutic care? The danger, according to some critics, is that world literature will normalize the study of literary texts in English translation. Another critique of such globalizing initiatives regards the value of diversity itself. Some have argued that conceiving of literary works as representatives of specific cultures or regions is itself a legacy of Orientalist Eurocentrism and that, therefore, a multiculturalist approach inadvertently entrenches the very problem it seeks to rectify. A range of political and ethical concerns are thus at stake in the endeavor to globalize comparative literature. Indeed, the concept of world literature has historically been bound up with an assessment of globalization’s liberatory potential and, increasingly, its oppressive effects. The emergence of world literature as a project or goal is often, though not always, traced back to Goethe at the beginning of the 19th century. Reflecting the Enlightenment value of universalism, Goethe’s evocation of Weltliteratur projects a world united through free literary exchange across borders and intercultural understanding. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels situate Goethe’s cosmopolitan vision in a materialist framework, presenting it as derivative of the economic transformations entailed in the world market. They also radicalize Goethe’s model of cosmopolitanism. Instead of an autonomous sphere of communication among the national literary traditions of the world, for them Weltliteratur stands metonymically for a future in which both the nation and private property—as manifested in the idea of national patrimony—are superseded by an internationalist commonwealth. Fleshing out the tension between Goethe’s and Marx’s visions of the globalized world, recent debates on world literature have generated productive confrontations between liberal humanistic, Marxist, deconstructive, and postcolonial perspectives on the gap between the world one inhabits and the world one wants.
Jen Hui Bon Hoa
Both the shape and substance of literary studies have been dramatically transformed since the late 20th century by a growing interest in the transnational nature of literary production and circulation, and by explorations of how literature engages with forms of experience that transcend nation-state boundaries. During this period, the nation-state model for organizing literary studies has been augmented by a number of others, including comparative, multicultural, postcolonial, world, and global, that have dramatically transformed the geographical and cultural organization of the field. This shift has been accompanied by a wide range of theoretical work on the concept of the transnational. In addition, critical analyses of literary texts across a range of historical periods have paid increasing attention to the treatment of transnational and cross-cultural experiences in literature, so that the importance of the transnational as an organizing principle for scholarship and teaching has been matched by its emergence as a key subject of inquiry—and vigorous debate—in literary studies.
Christine Kim and Christopher Lee
Despite the supposed end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, its legacies remain unresolved in Asia and continue to shape Asian Canadian writing. The presence of what are now called Asian Canadians became increasingly visible in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967, the federal government passed a new Immigration Act that abolished national quotas which had effectively excluded most immigrants from areas outside Euro-America and introduced new opportunities for students and skilled immigrants. In the late 1970s, 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia entered Canada, the first time that Canada had admitted a significant number of non-European refugees. This period also marked the height of postwar Canadian nationalism: in 1967, Canada celebrated its Centennial and tried to project an image of liberal inclusion; this would be further consolidated in 1971 with the adoption of state-sanctioned multiculturalism. However, this specific Canadian national identity failed to address racial discrimination, including those forms directed towards Asian immigrants from the mid-19th century until past the World War II. While Canada’s Cold War politics are informed by these unresolved historical traumas, the multiple intersections between Asian Canadian experience and the Cold War remain largely illegible when read through the frame of the Canadian nation. Alongside the tradition of Asian Canadian cultural activism, Asian Canadian writers, such as Joy Kogawa, Roy Miki, Paul Yee, SKY Lee, M. G. Vassanji, and others, produced texts that sought to address the erasure of Asian historical presence while exploring and depicting the psychic as well as social costs of racial exclusion and discrimination during the 1970s and 1980s. SKY Lee’s novel Disappearing Moon Café (1991) explores how issues such as Asian–Indigenous relations, gender hierarchies, class relations, racialization, queerness, and the politics of memory are shaped under the subtext of the Cold War. Laotian Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa’s second book of poetry, Found (2007), engages with the history of her parents’ migration from Laos to Canada via a refugee camp in Thailand, and in doing so, Thammavongsa challenges the Cold War representations of Southeast Asian countries. Kim Thuy’s Ru (2009) examines migration in relation to the narrator’s journey from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp and then to a small town in Quebec. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) raises questions about post-Cold War justice by drawing attention to Canada’s involvement in the conflicts in Cambodia and implicitly posing the question of Canada’s unacknowledged responsibilities. Thammavongsa, Thuy, and Thien’s texts can be read as post-Cold War literature as the Cold War created the conditions for these literary projects to emerge. Beyond a source of thematic or historical content, the Cold War remains embedded, if ambivalently, in the very construction of Asian Canadian literature.
Few chapters of Australian history reveal more about the shifting social, cultural, and political climate of a nation torn between its European roots and its Asian destiny than the story of Chinese migration and settlement. From the Chinese diggers in the gold rush of the mid-19th century, through the long period of discrimination and exclusion during the White Australia policy (1901–1970s) to recent decades of mass migration and extensive transnational traffic, China has been, and arguably remains, Australia’s privileged Other, and Chinese Australia a barometer for testing the nation’s commitment to the policy of multiculturalism. Chinese Australian writers imaginatively trace and interrogate this history, at the same time reflecting the heterogeneity of the community and debating their allegiance to the host nation and to a real as well as mythical China. The first literary writing to emerge from the Chinese community in Australia was published in the Chinese language press in Sydney and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. It reflected the community’s passionate involvement in the political events of China in the lead-up to the republican revolution of 1911, but also their opposition to the White Australia policy and efforts to educate the lower classes to abstain from cultural practices unacceptable to the Australian mainstream, such as gambling, opium smoking, and polygamy. After a long hiatus, Chinese-language writing again blossomed in the 1990s, a direct consequence of the new wave of migration from mainland China following the opening-up policy of the 1980s and the crushing of the protest movement in 1989. Once again, this writing was community oriented, reflecting both their attitudes to the political climate in China and the challenges facing the new migrants in their integration into an at times hostile host culture. The story of Chinese Australian writing in English is quite different, in terms of both the writers’ background and the nature of their output. The majority of writers are ethnic Chinese who arrived in Australia from Southeast Asia or Hong Kong, often educated in English and conversant with Western as well as Asian cultures. For these writers, and for those born in Australia, China is a distant, often ambiguous, cultural memory, and questions of identity are tied up with complex individual histories and hybrid ethnicities. From positions at the same time inside and outside the dominant culture, they engage with identity and belonging in innovative ways, writing into being a “Chineseness” that owes less to cultural roots than to their negotiation between community expectations and personal memory. Refusing to be pigeonholed or confined to conventional themes of diasporic writing, Chinese Australian writers respond to their diverse cultural and literary heritage and lived experience by inventing selves, voices, and stories that reflect the complexity of contemporary life at the intersection of local, (multi)national, and global perspectives.
The South has generated a unique set of myths, which are often at odds with the dominant Puritan-bred tales of American exceptionalism. If the North had to downplay vertical visions of the social, class stratifications have always been recognized more readily in the Southern regions. Rather than disentangling race from class, however, these categories were seen as closely connected in the antebellum slave-holding South. Even after the end of slavery, class was never solely an economic category; surprisingly close to notions of caste, class dynamics came fully entrenched with cultural distinctions, which more often than not were cast in the language of blood ties—the rhetoric of race. As a result, strong values were attributed to these distinctions. And although the North, too, assessed the rich and the poor in the stern moral vocabulary, the influence of pseudo-scientific Eugenics studies and other factors added a new dimension to this moralizing of the hierarchic order in the South. This had repercussions on the way the poor were perceived. The allegedly chivalrous planter aristocracy at the top found their counterpart at the low end of the stratum in a form of abject poverty. Some poor whites were located just a notch above the black citizenry whose exclusion dramatically exceeded went beyond economic hardship. It proved to be a proximity structuring the cultural imaginary to come. Intricately linked to the logic of racism, a slur such as “white trash” introduced a categorical difference into whiteness—the good, reformable poor were pitted against the hopeless “dirty” poor—thriving on stereotypes similar to the dehumanizing depictions of African Americans and begging the question of reciprocity between “them” and “us.” From the Old South to the New South, literature has fulfilled a variety of functions in this regard. Often, it was complicit in maintaining the biases of this peculiar culture of poverty, by revitalizing the stock of stereotypes of poor whites, or by downplaying the terror of the plantations and naturalizing the hierarchies between the classes. At times, it also subverted the household representations and created ambiguous tales of class and life in poverty; at others, writers aimed at a more truthful account, or tried to tell tales of solidarity. The literary history of white poverty is only the most consistent tale to be told when it comes to Southern writing. While not unrelated, another tradition has come to the fore when African American writers were able to create and publish their own accounts of black life. Ever since Jim Crow laws created a black underclass in the Reconstruction period, depictions of their life experiences included economic hardships as well. Tied to different genres and poetological interests, black writers engaged in a reflection of the twin exclusions of race and class. Finally, in the so-called Postsouth era, the literature of poverty has been rejuvenated by a more self-reflexive aesthetics that moves beyond the earlier concerns of Southern literature.
Timothy K. August
The study of food in Asian American literary and cultural studies is particularly concerned with the political significance of rhetorically linking of identity and cuisine. Addressing the ways eating, cooking, and preparing food is represented in a number of literary works and cultural texts, these academic studies investigate how culinary and literary tastes serve as boundaries that define and manage racial expression. Indeed, Asian American studies scholars approach food by taking culinary taste, ethnicity, and racialized labor as co-constitutive, rather than given. For the ways Asian American chefs, cooks, eaters, and food workers engage food, in part, defines their cultural position, both internally and to the US population at large. The performative force of these acts is transformed by writers and artists into personal and sensual histories, that for various gendered, linguistic, and economic reasons would otherwise be silenced. Further, Asian American authors and artists can strategically use an interest in food and cuisine to convey the complexity, multiplicity, and history of Asian American identities and politics. Recently the study of food has been transformed into a critical practice used to combat the challenges Asian Americans endure surrounding the question of authenticity. Stories of culinary ethnic affiliation are marketable, and Frank Chin’s calls of “food pornography” loom whenever a predominately white audience wolfs down overly saccharine stories of Asian American culinary solidarity. But in the same breath the genre is also commercially viable because of its unique ability to communicate culturally specific stories in ways that are appealing to younger generations unfamiliar with, or who want to learn more about, customs, traditions, and historical events. Indeed, these stories are unique insofar as they can provide material histories that explain how socioeconomic institutions reproduce racial inequity; yet remain palatable for those outside the ethnic group, even if these readers are those whose subject position comes under review. This article will serve as a reminder, then, that culinary writing remains a robust literary form that makes use of its market appeal to write about Asian America in a manner that is at once personal, material, and historically potent, while the study of this work recognizes that the rhetoric that becomes attached to culinary acts is a unique, active, and, at times, combative, discursive space. The study of food in Asian American studies has been invested in demonstrating how the rhetorical linking of identity and cuisine is a politically significant act. As the “event of eating” is impossible to describe without using expressive language that catalogues communal values, the ways cultural producers write about cuisine is a unit of analysis that can be compared across national traditions, genres, and media. By historically situating how eating, cooking, and preparing food is represented in a number of literary works, academic studies of Asian Americans, food, and literary culture show how culinary and literary tastes serve as boundaries that define and manage racial expression. The ways Asian American chefs, cooks, eaters, and food workers engage food, in part, defines their cultural position, both internally and to the US population at large. The material force of these performative acts has been refashioned, aesthetically, by writers and artists to counter the persistence of the perpetual foreigner stereotype, as Asian American authors and artists leverage a general interest in their food and cuisine to convey the complexity, multiplicity, and history of Asian American identities and politics. Asian American studies scholars approach food by taking culinary taste, ethnicity, and racialized labor as co-constitutive, rather than given. This approach recognizes a unique and active Asian American culinary space, while opposing pernicious stereotypes that seek to limit the power of alimentary images and Asian American ways of life. In this light, the study of food has been transformed into a critical practice used to combat the challenges Asian Americans endure surrounding the question of authenticity. Faced with articulating the parameters of their community, often without the benefit of institutional power, Asian Americans have turned to food to tell not only “who they are” but to communicate sensual and complex histories that for various gendered, linguistic, and economic reasons would otherwise be silenced.
Hybridity captures various ways in which identities are characterized by complexity or mixed-ness rather than simplicity or purity. It is a term that functions as a description of how things simply are, but it frequently appears to take on the characteristics of a prescription. It is not only that identities on various scales are hybrid, but also that they ought to be hybrid, or should become more hybrid. This prescriptive sense prompts reflection on the processes that drive mixed identities, shifting attention away from a static hybridity toward a dynamic and unending hybridization. The idea’s use in many different disciplinary formations typically implies that, while all identities are minimally hybrid, specific historical shifts have exaggerated and accelerated hybridity. Those shifts are associated with European colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, neocolonial echoes, globalization, and the rise of the cyborg. Such associations raise the question of resistance to the prescriptive recommendation of hybridity to the extent that hybrid cultures are so frequently an outcome of violent domination. Formerly colonized cultures strive to re-establish more fundamental identities, casting the hybridizing colonial period as a brief if damaging and disruptive interlude. Resistance is also found in former imperial centers, with multiculturalism perceived as a hybridizing threat to the core integrity of a melancholic post-imperialism. And commentators continue to warn that automation and related AI will make unexpectedly diverse jobs obsolete in the very near future, a hybrid cyborg future that occasionally begins to feel more machine than human. Ultimately, it may seem that hybridity is opposed to various forms of indigeneity, purity, or in the most general case, humanity in general. However, such oppositions would be misleading, principally because hybridity as a cultural fact and as a concept implies nothing of necessity. Each context demands specific attention to the ways it is hybrid, the processes of hybridization, and the stabilities that follow.
Bill V. Mullen
Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anticapitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism. As a genre, proletarian literature was formalized in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the cultural arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, amid intense debate about the nature and function of workers’ culture under socialism. Yet its roots run much deeper, coinciding with the development of capitalism, industrialization, and the making of class society itself. In the 19th century, for example, both the slave narrative and nonfiction writing by factory workers can be counted as expressions of working-class life and subjectivity. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, may be taken as one of the first full-length, self-conscious examples of proletarian writing. That Davis’s book was written by a woman is also significant: proletarian literature reflects the disproportionate experiences of women, immigrants, migrants, African Americans, colonial subjects, and other people of color as members of the working class globally. Indeed, because the genre has historically been tied to the development of communist and socialist movements worldwide, proletarian literature is necessarily a global phenomenon, and an insightful indicator of the relationships between workers in different nations and colonies yoked together by global capitalism. Thus, proletarian literature should be studied as corollary to the development of capitalism across time and space; as an index to the lived experience of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and as one of the most important expressive forms and historical records left by members of the working class as a whole.