Since 1990, “life writing” has become a frequently used covering term for the familiar genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, and many other forms of life narrative. Initially adopted as a critical intervention informed by post-structuralist, postmodernist, postcolonial, and especially feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, the term also refers to the study of life representation beyond the traditional literary and historical focus on verbal texts, encompassing not only other media—film, graphic narratives, online technologies, performance—but also research in other disciplines—psychology, anthropology, ethnic and Indigenous studies, political science, sociology, education, medicine, and any other field that records, observes, or evaluates lives. While many critics and theorists still place their work within the realms of autobiography or biography, and others find life writing as a discipline either too ideologically driven, or still too confining conceptually, there is no question that life representation, primarily through narrative, is an important consideration for scholars engaged in virtually any field dealing with the nature and actions of human beings, or anything that lives.
Impersonator narratives exist at the intersection of literature and history; they serve as interventions during flash points in history. Impersonation takes a number of different forms, but in all cases it is contingent on reader reception. There are narrative impersonations in which reader and writer are willing collaborators and in which readers feel little to no discomfort with an author’s assumption of a voice far from his or her public identity; any novel written in first person is in a sense an impersonation. Yet even when author and reader agree that the work is fictional, this compact between fiction reader and writer can become disrupted when readers question the author’s right to assume a specific voice. There are literary hoaxes, which generally (although not always) involve a body of work whose author is supposedly dead (and thus it is impossible for any actual impersonation to take place). The most analytically productive for textual scholars, however, are the most committed impersonators—those who (at least part-time) inhabit the literary personae they have created. For this last group of impersonators, as is true for some of the others, success depends on having a readership with fixed ideas about the identities the impersonator chooses to inhabit. The impersonator succeeds through a deep understanding of stereotypes and, through his or her success, further imprisons his or her readers in caricatured thinking about race and identity. Yet the unmasking of the impersonator offers the possibility of liberation to readers, in that it forces them to consider the preconceptions that led them to believe in these false narratives, no matter how implausible. Impersonation can be a means for its practitioners to escape historical traps, or identities that no longer work for them; it can be a way for practitioners to put a historically understood label (Holocaust survivor, AIDS victim) on their private, uncategorizable pain or trauma. Impersonation is meaningless without the underlying belief in an authentic voice. And these authentic voices are usually from speakers outside the literary canon.
Louis G. Mendoza
The poetry, memoirs, essays, letters, prison journalism, and other forms of writing by Raúl Salinas (1934–2008) were grounded in his commitments to social justice and human rights. He was an early pioneer of contemporary Chicano pinto (prisoner) poetry whose work was characterized by a vernacular, bilingual, free verse aesthetics. Alongside other notables like Ricardo Sánchez, Luis Talamentez, Judy Lucero, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, Salinas helped make Chicana and Chicano prisoner rights an integral part of the agenda of the Chicana/o Movement through his writing and activism while incarcerated (1959–1972) and following his release. He was also a prolific prose writer in prison, and much of his journalism, reflective life writing, essays, and letters from his archives were published following his release. As important as his literary and political production in prisons was for establishing his literary recognition, it is important to note that the scope of his writing expands well beyond his prison experience. Though his literary and political interventions were important to a still emergent Chicana and Chicano literary, cultural, and political aesthetic, he was influenced by, but was not limited to, American and Latin American literary traditions. Given the scope of his life’s work, his indigenous and internationalist commitments, Salinas’ literary output make him a Xicanindio (indigenous identified Chicano) poet, a Latino internationalist, as well as a spoken word jazz and hip-hop artist whose work engaged, adapted and transformed elements of the American literary canon.
To the extent North Korea features within Asian American literature and culture, it primarily does so in a body of Korean American cultural production—memoirs, biographies, documentary films, oral histories, fiction, and multi-media political advocacy—that is distinctively post-9/11 but not-yet post-Korean War. The irresolution of the Korean War, a war that has yet to be ended by a peace treaty, serves as defining extraliterary context for representations of North Korea. Not reducible to historical setting, much less an event safely concluded in the past, the Korean War, as a contemporaneous structure of enmity between the United States and North Korea, conditions the significance of this cultural archive—its urgency, politics, and reception. Often markedly instrumental in nature, indeed defined by the antithetical political ends it wishes to foster, Asian (mainly Korean) American cultural production on North Korea falls into two broad camps: on the one hand, “axis of evil” accounts that advocate, at times explicitly, for US intervention against North Korea, and on the other, more emergent cultural expressions that seek to expose the human costs of unending US war with North Korea.