Despite the prominent work produced by Sri Lankan American writers Michael Ondaatje and Rienzi Crusz since the 1970s, Sri Lankan American literature and culture has maintained a doubly marginalized position in Asian America due to the historical disregard of South Asian America and the dominance of Indian America. Literary and cultural work by writers and artists of the first and second generations reveal how Sri Lankan America is, to use Rajiv Shankar’s phrase, “a part, yet apart” of the South Asian American milieu as well as postcolonial Sri Lankan studies. First-generation writers initially reflect on the common diasporic theme of nostalgia for the land of origin, but their larger body of work is not directly related to “Sri Lankan” topics. For instance, Ondaatje, who gained prominence as a “Canadian postmodernist,” kept Sri Lanka largely peripheral in his early poetry until his 1982 memoir Running in the Family. However, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), presaged by the state-sanctioned pogrom of Tamils known as the Black July riots of 1983 that occasioned a second wave of immigration to North America, the volatile political background at home and the national “betrayal” by the Sinhalese Buddhist government became a major thematic motif for Sri Lankan American writing. Indran Amirthanayagam’s 1993 poetry collection The Elephants of Reckoning reveals a new responsibility embraced by the diasporic writer—to recognize that “the dead have tongues” and to pose the question: “What are they saying?” Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) reiterates Amirthanayagam’s position, becoming a blueprint for a new generation of Sri Lankan American writers and popular cultural artists invested in social justice vis-à-vis not only race, ethnicity, and citizenship but also politics of gender and sexuality. Second-generation Sri Lankan American writing such as V. V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage (2008) experiments with new archival forms by mediating traumatic “inherited memories” of the civil war, pointing to the future directions of the Sri Lankan American literary and cultural terrain.
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.