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.
Asian American literature has capaciously explored the issues of gender, sexuality, and reproduction that have been so foundational to Asian American racial formation. It has likewise engaged, directly or indirectly, with “eugenics,” a pseudoscience by which nation states sought to improve their populations through managing reproduction. Eugenics, a term coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton in 1883, spans the late 19th to the early 21st centuries, where it continues in the form of population control and the “new” eugenics of genetic and reproductive technologies. In some national sites eugenics was aligned with feminist movements for birth control, whereas in others, such as the United States, they were largely opposed. Nonetheless, eugenic feminists argued that women’s right reproduction was the necessary mechanism by which women should gain rights within the state; as a formation, moreover, eugenic feminism specifically targeted Asian American women as standing in the way of US feminist advance. As such, one of the key ways eugenics was practiced in the United States in relationship to Asian populations was through immigration policy. The history of Asian exclusion in the United States therefore speaks to a larger eugenic project predicated on the notion that Asian immigrants embodied a public health threat in terms of diseases and deviant sexualities of various sorts. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up Asian immigration to the United States and also gave rise to a new set of stereotypes, gendered and otherwise, about Asian Americans as model minorities. Asian American literature has critically mined these issues, with some Asian American literature acceding to eugenics by stressing an assimilationist politics and with other works challenging it by critiquing eugenics’ reproductive logic of purity.
Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.
Bilingualism is an integral element of the lives and experiences of Asian Americans as well as a condition, theme, and style of a large and diverse body of Asian American writings. The history of Asian immigration, U.S. imperialism, and anti-Asian laws and policies all contributed to creating the material conditions for the linguistic environment of Asians in the United States. Whether the strictures of Asian exclusion, which severely limited immigrants’ access to English, or the stigmatization of the Japanese language during the Pacific War, social and cultural hostility to bilingualism was common. Despite such hostility, this literature of exclusion and incarceration reflects vibrant language-worlds in which writings in the language of the immigrant’s origin, as well as transliteration and translation of Asian languages into English, suggest the formal creativeness and psychological resilience of Asian Americans who navigated life in two languages. U.S. imperialism in the Philippines promoted English as the language of colonial bureaucracy and opportunities in the islands while also giving rise to literature in English as part of Filipino literature. Filipino diasporic writers note the power and prestige of English while being cognizant of the colonial origins of English in the Philippines. In a climate where bilingualism is regulated not by exclusionary laws and policies but by social and cultural forces, post-1965 Asian American literature explores the persistence of Asian non-belonging in English, with tropes of the mother tongue and the psychology of language loss recurring in its exploration of citizenship and assimilation. Asian American writers from Hawai‘i provide a distinctive postcolonial outlook, resisting assimilation into English through the use of Pidgin. As a rich and innovative literary language, Pidgin captures the experiences of Hawai‘ians excluded from the privileges of whiteness. The broader literary apparatuses of American literature also significantly conditioned bilingualism. American literary modernism’s Orientalism valorized Asian languages but employed limited and fixed ideas of the Other. The global dominance of English as a literary language has become a backdrop for new experiments with bilingualism in Asian American literature and new models of writing in English by Asian diasporic writers.
Audrey Wu Clark
In her pathbreaking book Asian American Panethnicity (1992), Yen Le Espiritu traces Asian American panethnicity to the Yellow Power movement of the civil rights era of the 1960s. Thereafter the political struggles of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino Americans were documented in literature and studied in literary anthologies such as Frank Chin et al.’s Aiiieeeee! (1974) and David Hsin-Fu Wand’s Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (1974). However, early Asian American literature suggests that Asian American consciousness emerged earlier than the civil rights era. During the era of Chinese exclusion (1882–1943), Chinese American writers such as Lee Yan Phou, Sui Sin Far, and Onoto Watanna—Sui Sin Far’s sister, who wrote under a Japanese pseudonym—wrote about Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. The subsequent era of Japanese exclusion (1907–1945) brought about the modernist haiku poetry of Japanese American writers Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Popular Front era of the 1930s that various forms of panethnic and queer Asian American political consciousness emerged in the literature of Korean American writer Younghill Kang, Filipino American writers Carlos Bulosan (who mentions Kang in his novel, America Is In the Heart) and José García Villa, and Chinese American writer H. T. Tsiang. The politically progressive Popular Front of the 1930s, together with the influence of experimental literary forms of high modernism from just a decade before, set the stage for the Asian American panethnicity and queer consciousness that are described in the works of Kang and Bulosan, and Villa and Tsiang, respectively. Kang’s autobiographical novels The Grass Roof (1931) and East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) and Bulosan’s novel, America Is in the Heart (1943) exhibit important thematic influences by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Likewise, Villa’s Have Come, Am Here (1942) and Tsiang’s novels The Hanging on Union Square (1935) and And China Has Hands (1937) demonstrate the influence of queer modernist Gertrude Stein. Just a few decades earlier, Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann were both writing modernist haikus that responded to those of their friend Ezra Pound. However, without the language of political solidarity that the Popular Front provided, Noguchi’s and Hartmann’s politics, implicit in their poetry, remained overlooked by critics until the 1990s.