Asian American literature has capaciously explored the issues of gender, sexuality, and reproduction that have been so foundational to Asian American racial formation. It has likewise engaged, directly or indirectly, with “eugenics,” a pseudoscience by which nation states sought to improve their populations through managing reproduction. Eugenics, a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton in 1883, spans the late 19th to the early 21st centuries, where it continues in the form of population control and the “new” eugenics of genetic and reproductive technologies. In some national sites eugenics was aligned with feminist movements for birth control, whereas in others, such as the United States, they were largely opposed. Nonetheless, eugenic feminists argued that women’s right reproduction was the necessary mechanism by which women should gain rights within the state; as a formation, moreover, eugenic feminism specifically targeted Asian American women as standing in the way of US feminist advance. As such, one of the key ways eugenics was practiced in the United States in relationship to Asian populations was through immigration policy. The history of Asian exclusion in the United States therefore speaks to a larger eugenic project predicated on the notion that Asian immigrants embodied a public health threat in terms of diseases and deviant sexualities of various sorts. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up Asian immigration to the United States and also gave rise to a new set of stereotypes, gendered and otherwise, about Asian Americans as model minorities. Asian American literature has critically mined these issues, with some Asian American literature acceding to eugenics by stressing an assimilationist politics and with other works challenging it by critiquing eugenics’ reproductive logic of purity.
Queer South Asian Diasporas can refer to the individuals and communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who trace their ancestry to the South Asian subcontinent, but have lived beyond its borders. These communities and individuals generate vibrant forms of cultural production: writing, activism, filmmaking, performance art, and creative manipulations of everyday practice. Additionally, queer diaspora can refer to a particular way of analyzing South Asian public cultures and discourse through a transnational lens with an eye toward the ways that normative genders and sexualities are managed and manipulated to secure and undo nationalist projects. Given the dislocation rendered by pushes and pulls from multiple nations and communities, a common theme in the theorization of queer diaspora and the representation of LGBTQ South Asian life is the struggle over and production of “home” as physical space, affective landscape, and shared embodiment. Theories of queer diaspora help scholars understand how some practices that are not particularly associated with mainstream queer identities can be interpreted as queer, especially when read in the context of South Asian histories. The homosociality of South Asian domestic life, filmic conventions, and ritual practices lend themselves to queer interpretations. While these intimacies do not read as queer to everyone, LGBTQ South Asians precisely apprehend these queer possibilities as alternatives to white and Western gay habitus. Also, queer diaspora explains that migrant, postcolonial subjects are often perceived as having non-normative genders and sexualities given the ways that imperial projects have managed those aspects of human life. This framework is reflected in the narratives of LGBTQ South Asians who name how their (un)desirability is based on race, including the hair on their body, their ethnic heritage, and the stereotypes they are associated with.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.
Lourdes Casal (1936–1981), award-winning poet, fiction writer, editor, social psychologist, and activist, contributed to the articulation of multiple interdisciplinary fields including Cuban studies, Latina/o, Latin American, black, and women’s studies, yet her work has not received the attention it deserves because she published different kinds of writing in two languages, each directed to disparate, sometimes conflicting or overlapping, audiences. Alternatively, it could be said that her writing addresses an emergent readership more visible today decades after her death, who see—as she did—the need for dialogue across disciplinary, linguistic, and political divisions. Although Casal has remained in print primarily in Latina/o literary anthologies, Casal made her living as a social scientist and a psychology professor, and she remained engaged with Cuba through editorial work and what scholars call today “publicly engaged scholarship.” Casal’s work exemplifies a transnational attention to both homeland (Cuba) and residence (New York) that has become a distinguishing quality of Latina/o literature. In 1978, Lourdes Casal defined herself in “Memories of a Black Cuban Childhood” as learning to assert herself as an “Hispanic Black” (p. 62). In an interview with Margaret Randall that prefaces translations of her poetry into English, she defines herself as a “Latina,” and she asserts her claim to speak as a Cuban, despite living outside the island. During the Cold War, this combination of identifiers constituted a paradox, which Casal asserted both against the mainstream of the Cuban exile community and against heteronormative cultural nationalisms. Casal’s bilingualism and skillful diplomacy provided her with the salvoconducto to weave across multiple borders, despite the walls that became almost impossible to scale after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and Cuba began relocating people to the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) camps in the mid-1960s. A queer feminist of African, Chinese, and European descent, Casal’s writings and editorial projects map the participation of a diverse group of Cuban exiles in the articulation of latinidad; yet even as she becomes legible in certain ways, she remains largely illegible, precisely because she ventured into uncharted, sometimes life-threatening, border spaces, in step with an unexpected ideological itinerary.
Thomas Xavier Sarmiento
Literature that features Asian Americans in the Midwest simultaneously functions as an archive that documents the existence and experiences of people of Asian descent in the heartland and as a provocation to reimagine the relationship between race, place, and (trans)national belonging. Although Asian people have been immigrating to the middle of the country since the late 19th century, the Midwest continues to figure as a hinterland where Asian people do not reside and have no desire to visit. Thus, fictional, semi-fictional, and autobiographical accounts of the region from the perspective of Asian Americans, spanning at least eight decades, help debunk the impression that Asian Americans are practically nonexistent in the Midwest, or that Midwestern Asian Americans do not have an authentic sense of racial-ethnic identity. These novels, short stories, memoirs, and plays not only engage the strangeness of being of Asian descent in America’s heartland, but also they explore imaginative ideas of affinity and place: what it means to dream of elsewheres or to rework the realities of “here” from the lens of so-called nowheres. Some of these texts depict the history of Asian migration to and refugee resettlement in the US interior, gesturing toward alternative genealogies of movement and displacement. Others create new worlds that fuse food (e.g., pop and tea, hotdish and chicken afritada), language, and other transcultural practices. Midwestern Asian American literature encompasses stories by and about East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian peoples whose lives intersect with gender, sexuality, class, and ableness. Literature about Asian Americans in the Midwest often communicates a sense of racial isolation: the loneliness and abjection Asian Americans feel in being the only Asian person or one of a handful of persons treading in a sea of whiteness. However, it also can provoke readers to reimagine the Midwest as Asian, female empowering, and queer. Whereas dominant cultural attitudes often associate the region as devoid of people, opportunities, and racial, gender, and sexual diversity, Midwestern Asian American literature represents the heartland as abundant, with counter-narratives that encompass emotional attachments to place, social interactions different from those on the coasts, and Asian American characters who inhabit areas that are often seen as incompatible with, if not hostile to, cultural difference. The range of stories indicates more broadly that there is no unified Asian Midwest or Asian American experience. Rather, the literature of Asian Americans in the Midwest calls attention to the significance of space and place in conceptualizing racial formations as diverse and dynamic.
South Asian American visual culture is a diverse field of visual art, created by artists who are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other diasporic locations (e.g., Kenya). South Asian American artists work in a range of media forms, including photography, sculpture, installation, video, painting, and drawing. Collectively, these artworks are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries as depictions of contemporary South Asian immigrant life. However, a close reading of individual works produces a more dynamic picture. Instead of viewing South Asian American visual culture solely in terms of artists’ own immigrant biographies, scholarship and museum practices have begun to focus on how its aesthetic and political contributions have been central to the representation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized immigrant bodies in the United States since the turn of the millennium. Drawing across archival collections, aesthetic histories, and digital media forms, artists create works that link the colonial documentation of “native” bodies on the subcontinent with the surveillance and documentation of immigrant bodies by the US state. Alongside artists, academics and activists also work to produce curatorial interventions through exhibitions that generate feminist and queer critiques of the relation between nation-state and diaspora. Emphasizing the transnational ties of capital and labor that bind together the subcontinent with the United States, South Asian American visual culture creates new frameworks for the relationship between race, visuality, and representation.