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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.

Article

The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.

Article

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.

Article

Tuija Laine and Kirsti Salmi-Niklander

Vernacular literacy began in Finland with the Reformation. Michael Agricola, the first Finnish reformer, studied in Wittenberg, and, after returning to Finland, translated the first books into Finnish. The books were originally intended for priests, but in the middle of the 17th century a literacy campaign was conducted throughout the Swedish realm, one that was quite effective in expanding the reading audience. A number of bishops in the diocese of Turku were also active in writing basic religious material for the common people, including primers, catechisms, and hymnals. The church also examined its parishioners’ reading skills. People could not acquire the status of godparent, attend the Eucharist, or marry without proper reading skills and a knowledge of basic Christian doctrine. In the first phase of the campaign, reading was only learning by rote, but by the last decades of the 17th century bishops and priests were emphasizing the importance of reading from books and understanding their content. Literacy progressed further in the 18th century, and literature published in Finnish became more varied. During the 19th century, Finland’s literacy rate continued to rise gradually. For the vast majority of the rural population, however, “literacy” meant only the very basic reading skills required and examined by the Lutheran Church. The statute for primary schools was laid down in 1866, but the law on compulsory primary education was not enacted until 1921. The Russian government began to promote the Finnish language in the 1860s. The consequent growth of Finnish-language literature and the expansion of the press allowed for reading by large segments of the population. The popular movements established during the final decades of the 19th century (the temperance movement, agrarian youth movement, and labor movement, for example) provided further opportunities for literary training. Among the lower classes in rural Finland, many self-educated writers submitted manuscripts to the Finnish Literature Society and sent news of their home parishes to newspapers. Some of them became professional writers or journalists.

Article

Juan Velasco

The overwhelming critical attention received by Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) has eclipsed the complexity and diversity of his work as well as the discussion on his impact on Latina/o studies and autobiography studies. A great deal of bibliography dedicated to Rodriguez is the result of the ideological battles the book was engaged in during the 1980s. The political context in which the book was used (mostly to oppose affirmative action and bilingual education) defined the rest of Rodriguez’s work, as some critics considered his positions on education almost treasonous. Lee Bebout summarizes those reactions in “Postracial Mestizaje: Richard Rodriguez’s Racial Imagination in an America Where Everyone Is Beginning to Melt,” as he mentions how most critics saw Rodriguez’s work as the result of a colonized mind, a mannequin for white America. “Tomas Rivera, Ramon Saldívar, William Nericcio, and others critiqued Rodriguez’s thinking, and sometimes Rodriguez himself, as the result of a colonized mind, blind to history and structural inequalities, and playing the role of a “Mexican” mannequin in the mind of white America.” In an interview with scholar José Antonio Gurpegui in Camino Real, Rodriguez admitted “I do see myself—in some more complicated way—as truly being a traitor to memory, if not exactly a traitor to Mexico or to Latin America. I do think I betrayed my family, betrayed my mother and father by becoming someone new—a ‘gringo.’” If we place his work in this context, Rodriguez’s work brings urgency and new significance to Latina/o studies in the 21st century by highlighting the unresolved contradictions that memory, culture, and identity posit as vehicles of agency. His approach to autobiography redefines traditional notions of identity, race, and language, and offers critical notions of subject formation beyond cultural nationalism, proposing queer paradigms that complicate and challenge writing as a clear vehicle for self-empowerment. His writing, queer to cultural nationalism, is deeply committed to the exploration of autobiography as discontinuous space—a space of disruptive transgression where words are barely a ghostly shell; a floating dream in search of an identity.

Article

Ricardo L. Ortiz

For half of his nearly sixty-year writing career, John Rechy was recognized primarily for his contributions to homosexual literature in the United States, even as from the beginning of that career he consistently cast his major protagonists as young men of mixed ethnicity, part-Mexican and part-Scottish, hailing like him from the border city of El Paso, Texas. As the fields of queer and US Latinx literary studies emerged in the 1980s, critics and scholars began to study the important intersectionalities of Rechy’s multiple identities more explicitly and intentionally, and that attention has been sustained ever since, leading to a significant rethinking of earlier responses to Rechy’s literary work, and a significant opening of the possible viable readerly approaches to Rechy’s entire writing career. Underrepresented in this matrix of critical approaches toward Rechy’s work that favor issues of identity, however, is a more direct, committed interest in describing the specifically literary, and aesthetic, aspects of Rechy’s contributions to the cultural traditions to which he matters, regardless of whether that interest foregrounds or not the understandably compelling factors of identity (ethnic, gender, sexual, class, geographic, etc.) that drive so much extant Rechy criticism. That critical project will surely benefit from a greater attention to, for example, Rechy’s experiments with form, style, and the materiality of print across the six decades of his career, very likely discovering there that those experiments can open alternative doors to understanding not only Rechy’s artistry, but also the unique qualities of his queerness, and the unique qualities of his latinidad.

Article

(East and Southeast) Asian Canadian literature has consistently been preoccupied with the transpacific: from its lived spaces, its imagined ones, and its hybrid literary constructions. This body of literature includes narratives of arrival, autobiographical texts, historiographic novels, magical realist fiction, and experimental poetry. While these texts have usually been read through historical frameworks, thinking through them spatially enables us to understand and trace the alternate geographies of mobility, belonging, and cultural change beyond the project of the Canadian nation. These texts are predicated on transnational spaces of commerce and labor, trauma and resistance, refuge and liminality, and mobility and materiality. They reflect and produce the complex and overlapping trajectories of communities and individuals from East and Southeast Asia. From fictions of Chinatown to testimonies of racist dispersal and exclusion, refugee narratives to speculative decolonial futures, Asian Canadian literature has shaped both rural and urban Canadian spaces and their transnational and local textures. Thinking through the transpacific spaces in the literature points to the ways in which racist and exclusionary policies have shaped the landscapes and social spaces of the nation whether through immigration laws or forcible dispossession and internment. Yet, it also gives rise to the possibilities of new collectivities and communities within and beyond the nation-state. In the face of unequal globalization and movements of labor and capital, this mode of analysis points to possible indigenous and diasporic solidarities and place-making. Contemporary texts from Asian Canadian writers also evince a consciousness of Canadian bioregions and the confrontation of extraction economics that allows for a discussion of intersectionality in the context of environmental humanities and ecocriticism.

Article

Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are the diverse expressions of how hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants experienced the Vietnam War and its aftermath. They are shaped on the one hand by a history of war in, and forced migration from, Vietnam and on the other by resettlement in multicultural Canada. Significantly, Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced within a distinct context of Canadian “forgetting of complicity” in the Vietnam War. A major shaping force of this aesthetics is the idea that Canada was an innocent bystander or facilitator of peace during the war years, instead of a complicit participant providing arms and supporting a Western bloc victory. This allows, then, for a discourse of Canadian humanitarianism to emerge as Canada resettled refugees in the war’s wake. Vietnamese Canadian refugee aesthetics are produced and received in relation to the enduring narrative of Canadian benevolence. In this way, they celebrate the nation-state and its peoples through gratitude for the gift of refuge. More importantly, however, they illuminate life during and in the wake of war; the personal, political, and historical reasons for migration; the struggles and triumphs of resettlement; and the complexities of diasporic existence. Refugee aesthetics are driven by memory and the desire to commemorate, communicate, and make sense of difficult pasts and the embodied present. They often take the form of literary works such as memoirs, novels, and poetry, but they are also found in community politics and activism, such as commemoration events and protests, and other popular media like public service videos. Produced by refugees as well as the state, these aesthetic “texts” index themes and problematics such as the formation of voice; the interplay between memory, history, and identity; the role of autobiography; and the modes of representing war, violence, and refuge-seeking.

Article

Philip Mead and Brenton Doecke

Concepts of pedagogy that circulate within various educational contexts refer to the abstract and theoretical discourse about ways in which learners and students are introduced into fields of knowledge and established ways of knowing. But when pedagogical theory refers to the actual social apparatus that drives the production and reproduction of knowledge it is referring to the everyday activity of teaching. Teaching can be relatively un-self-reflexive and instrumental, or it can be self-reflexively aware of its own modes and processes (praxis) and grounded in an awareness of its social settings and learners’ experience. This article explores how pedagogy and teaching are bound up with the complex, disciplinary relation between literary knowledge and literary theory. Specific accounts of classroom interactions, from a range of national settings, are adduced to indicate the complexity of the relationship between theory, literary knowledge, and classroom praxis and the ways in which literary meaning making is mediated by the social relationships that comprise classroom settings. The article draws on research with which we have been engaged that interrogates the role that literary knowledge might play within the professional practice of early career English teachers as they negotiate the curriculum in school settings. The article also raises the question of how literary knowing outside of formal education systems and institutions can enter into what Gayatri Spivak calls the “teaching machine.” How do pedagogy and teaching account for and incorporate the myriad ways in which we learn about literature in broad social and experiential contexts?

Article

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the present day, a wide range of performers and playwrights have contributed to Asian American experimental theater and performance. These works tend toward plot structures that break away from realist narratives or otherwise experiment with form and content. This includes avant-garde innovations, community-based initiatives that draw on the personal experiences of workshop participants, politicized performance art pieces, spoken word solos, multimedia works, and more. Many of these artistic categories overlap, even as the works produced may look extremely different from one another. There is likewise great ethnic and experiential diversity among the performing artists: some were born in the United States while others are immigrants, permanent residents, or Asian nationals who have produced substantial amounts of works in the United States. Several of these artists raise issues of race as a principal element in the creation of their performances, while for others it is a minor consideration, or perhaps not a consideration at all. Nevertheless, since all these artists are of Asian descent, racial perceptions still inform the production, reception, and interpretation of their work.

Article

Contemporary English-language prose and poetry writers, primarily of Chinese descent, are employing a range of stylistic strategies and exploring increasingly diverse themes in their representations of China and Chineseness. Through these representations, these contemporary writers build on, adapt, and contest a historically complex relation between “global” and “China” within an American imaginary. Twenty-first-century literary novelists and poets raise many questions about this relationship. These literatures of and about “Global China” both extend from and depart from, a “Chinese American” literary tradition. For instance, writers such as Jenny Zhang, Sharlene Teo, and Wang Weike are reworking long-standing narrative tropes such as intergenerational strife and transforming conventionally ethnic genres such as the autobiography. Contemporary literary works also take more heterogeneous approaches to referencing the United States and even “the West” more generally. And, unlike a prior tradition of Chinese American literature, these works open us to consider multiple kinds of China that far exceed the putative origin point of Mainland China (the most famous instance is Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which features Singaporeans of Chinese descent). On the flip side, representations of “Global China” may lack representations of identifiably “Chinese” characters (for instance, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin). In other cases, Chinese characters may be relegated to a role, or Chineseness may be insignificant to a story’s plot. New themes and topics are emerging, most notably adoption, biraciality, mental health, and return-to-Asian journeys. Finally, the literatures of Global China include robust outgrowths of genre literature, ranging from speculative fiction to detective fiction. Writers of genre fiction include Ovidia Yu and Ted Chiang.

Article

Laura Browder

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.

Article

Josephine Metcalf

Luis J. Rodríguez is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, children’s author, and activist. Born in 1954 in Mexico, his family migrated to the United States when he was young. As a youth, he spent many years immersed in the street gangs of Los Angeles while concurrently partaking in community protests and mobilizations that became known as the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It took Rodríguez several years to extract himself from a life of crime and addiction to drugs, though all the while he was writing, painting, and being inspired by revolutionary figures. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, but it was his memoir of gang life, Always Running—La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, released in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA riots, that garnered him mainstream literary attention. Always Running and its sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, eighteen years later, can be labeled testimonio for detailing a Latina/o “lived” experience and fighting social injustices. In many ways Rodríguez can be deemed a “classic” Chicana/o author: he addresses the experience of migration and writes in both English and Spanish; he explores themes of prejudice and identity for Mexican Americans in the United States; and he considers the role of heteropatriarchal aspects of Mexican culture in defining his relationships (with women and children). His steadfast dedication to Native American/indigenous spirituality is a more recent focus in his life and writings, situating him among a long list of Chicana/os who have embarked on the “Red Road,” that is, life as indigenous-identified subjects. But what most arguably sets Rodríguez apart from fellow Chicana/o writers is his allegiance—throughout all his works in all genres—to proletarian politics and concerns for the working classes. His critiques of deindustrialization and its subsequent effects, particularly poverty, are reflected, for example, in his depictions of the Bethlehem Steel Mill of LA, where Rodríguez worked.

Article

As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.