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.
Timothy K. August
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.
Daniel Y. Kim
Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.