Asian American autobiographical writing about immigration—from the earliest available examples to the contemporary experiments with genre and form—does not tell a straightforward story. Rather, Asian American autobiographies trouble the sustaining myths of American exceptionalism, the American dream, meritocracy, and belonging and therefore challenge narratives of immigrant striving and success. Immigrant narratives examined in this essay by Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, Kathleen Tamagawa, Carlos Bulosan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kao Kaila Yang, and Shailja Patel, among others, show the contested and constructed quality of national borders. They show that the nation has always been constructed transnationally, through relationships with other countries and cultures and flows of migration that exceed straightforward definition. Examining narratives from various historical periods and cultural traditions brings into view the connections and contradictions among them and shows how each text intervenes in immigration discourse and exercises autobiographical agency. Rather than straightforward stories, then, Asian American autobiographical narratives illuminate the various entanglements of self-representation, family, identity, and agency with imperialism, racialization, nationalism, and global capitalism. Nor does autobiographical writing merely document experience or history. Instead, it actively constructs self, identity, and nation even as it draws on the culturally available narratives that enable and constrain the stories writers tell about their lives. As it does so, it creates new, unstraightfoward narratives and forms.
Theresa A. Kulbaga
Clint J. Terrell
Jimmy Santiago Baca is a poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and activist who began his literary career in Florence State Prison, Arizona, where he was incarcerated from 1974 to 1979. Baca spent most of his adolescent years between orphanages, stints of homelessness, and time in juvenile detention facilities. He credits learning to read and write in prison as the galvanization of his journey from illiteracy to worldly poet, and his endorsement of literacy as an avenue for individual and community empowerment echoes the black nationalist political thought of Malcolm X. In addition to an overarching theme of literacy, he also maintains a critical awareness to the politics of land ownership. He is of Chicano and Apache descent and often draws on his Indigenous heritage, as well as his prison experience, to critique the colonial settler ideology that associates private property with personal liberty. He is among the gallery of canonized Chicano pinto (prisoner) poets like Ricardo Sánchez and Raúl Salinas who discovered their talents while incarcerated. His poetry and prose are in harmony with prisoner discourse that indicts the state for economic injustices and contextualizes crimes as economic necessity instead of demonizing the individual. Similar to Sánchez and Salinas, Baca’s poetic voice can be both figural and visceral in the same breath. But distinct from these pinto poets, Baca’s poetic introduces a proliferation of personas that go back and forth between a poet who wants to love and make peace and a pugnacious identity that was nurtured by the violence of life in various state institutions, particularly prison. He has published eighteen books that include poetry, memoir, fiction, creative non-fiction, essay collections, and chapbooks. He is an active writer and frequently has additional publications in various stages of production, showing us that the negotiation of his traumatic past is never fully complete. Indeed, he continues to push his boundaries as a writer and challenges any preconceived notions about the literary limits of a prison cultivated intellectual.
The Cold War (defined here by the popular, though much-questioned, time frame of 1947–1991) coincides initially with a post-World War II wave of literature by Asian Americans as well as reforms affecting immigration numbers and national origins. Post-1965, further immigration reform and refugee admission led to a different wave of authors, which coincides in its turn with geopolitical shifts, including the ongoing massive conflicts and regime changes in Asia, that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the generally accepted end of the Cold War around the late 1980s. Furthermore, these years coincide with the birth of pan-Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, there is an unsurprising plethora of literature from this era, as well as an increasing volume of literary criticism on it, though neither usually treats the geopolitical or domestic US concerns most commonly identified with the Cold War. Asian American literature and authors importantly fit the logic of the early Cold War by illustrating, as proto-model minorities, the blessings of life in America as a contrast to an increasingly Communist-identified Asia after the “loss” of China to Communism in 1949. Their identification with Confucian or other traditional ideals also made them role models for the domestic social containment that constrained middle-class America to conformity in the 1950s (though, of course, there were less mainstream narratives that combated this trend). However, both of these narratives shifted in the 1970s. From exemplary immigrants, Asian American literary depictions turned toward much more ambivalent and traumatized refugees, chiefly from Southeast Asia. Likewise, a generation of authors rebelling against the model minority image protested racial inequities in both a domestic and international framework. Linking nation and globe via Third World solidarity, later Cold War works and post-Cold War reflections on the period heavily critiqued the US military presence in Asia and reflected on the enduring traumas and difficulties of racialization for Asian Americans inextricably identified as foreign or Other. Calling for civil rights out of a re-narrated history of exclusion, incarceration, and discrimination, rather than appealing to the vague pluralism of the early Cold War, Asian American literature illustrates this era’s conflict through exemplars of containment and a more explicitly revolutionary and diverse set of works.