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date: 07 March 2021

Bilingualism in Asian American Literaturefree

  • Jeehyun LimJeehyun LimDepartment of English, University at Buffalo


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.

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. Due to the panethnic characteristic of Asian Americans as a racial group, bilingualism in Asian American literature involves a wide range of Asian and Pacific languages. On the one hand, it shares with other immigrant literatures in the United States themes and tropes related to the dynamics of linguistic assimilation, language loss, and heritage language retention. Studies on language and ethnicity by linguists, commonly focusing on European ethnic groups in the United States, have illuminated the diverse factors that affect an ethnic group’s relationship to its heritage language and shown the significance of linguistic pluralism to the culture of American democracy.1 Literary criticism on bilingualism and multilingualism in immigrant literature often brings to bear on the interpretation of literary texts the insights of the scholarship on language and ethnicity.2

On the other hand, bilingualism in Asian American literature is constituted by unique historical, social, and political conditions that undergird Asian American racialization in the United States. US imperial expansion in the 19th century across the Pacific exposed the United States to various Asian groups and was accompanied by Asian migration to the United States. These contacts and encounters were fraught with racial anxieties over “Yellow Peril,” which not only manifested in social prejudices against Asian migrants but also influenced laws and policies. Asian exclusion laws that prevented Asian immigration and naturalization created segregated communities of non-English and limited-English-speaking Asians as well as enduring ideas of Asian incompatibility with American national identity. As the material matrix for bilingualism, these conditions affected Asian migrants’ access to English and influenced their psychological relationship to and affective investment in the two languages of their lives. While the hard laws and policies that regulated Asian immigration and social status in the United States were largely replaced with softer forces and forms of social and cultural regulation after 1965, the legacies of earlier eras’ hard laws and policies continue to trouble a seamless relationship between Asian Americans and belonging in English. Explorations of language loss and what psycholinguist François Grosjean calls dormant bilingualism—the condition where the home language of childhood becomes dormant when it is no longer regularly used—can commonly be found in post-1965 Asian American writings.3 Often, these explorations disclose persistent stereotypes of Asians as perpetual foreigners, a key sign of which is broken English. At the same time, post-1960s social changes to language laws and policies, led by scholarship and activism in language rights, bilingual education, and multiculturalism, also create new voices and perspectives on pride in ethnic languages and identities mediated by these languages.

Not only are the languages encompassed under bilingualism in Asian American literature diverse, but the ways in which the topic can be approached are also varied. From writings in languages other than English to occasional uses of a non-English language in italics, from representations of growing up or living with two languages to reflections on language loss, from balanced bilingualism to incipient bilingualism, a wide range of formal, stylistic, and thematic variation can be found in literary and critical attempts to address bilingualism in Asian American literature. Approaches informed by ethnic studies and postcolonial studies emphasize the significance of language to identity, the place of language planning and education in colonial practices, and the political economy of languages.

Exclusion, Immigration, and Life in Two Languages

While writings in languages other than English is common in immigrant literature in the United States, bilingualism in Asian American literature bears the particular history of Asian immigration. The racial systems of Asian exclusion (1882–1952) and US imperial ventures across the Pacific have troubled more straightforward trajectories of linguistic assimilation. Poems in Cantonese carved on the walls by detainees of Angel Island—the former immigration station in San Francisco Bay, California—between 1910 and 1940 show most immediately the predicaments of Asian immigrants under exclusion. Initially, the poems were viewed and studied as documents that bring to light the little-known plight of early Chinese immigrants.4 A rough correlation between admission to a polity and society and admission to its language and literary culture can be seen in these poems. Exclusion from citizenship is brought into high relief not just by the content of the poems—which includes the humiliation of detention, the betrayal of hopes and expectations, the sadness over China’s lack of power internationally—but also by adherence to the Chinese language and poetic forms.5 Te-Hsing Shan points out the multilingualism of these Chinese poems, a result of the different vernaculars and Chinese American colloquialism used by the detainees, and raises the question of how to translate these poems into English without privileging content over form.6 Recently, Asian American literary critics have called for a more nuanced approach to these poems that emphasizes the literary qualities of the poems over their historical or sociological significance. By attending to the Chinese literary tradition of tibishi (writings on the wall) and the concurrence between the poems and such American countercultural forms as jazz, Steven Yao suggests ways of reading the Angel Island poems as protest poetry that resonates with American cultural forms of resistance against racism.7

If Asian exclusion limited immigrants’ access to learning English, US imperialism spread English overseas to the Philippines. In Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946), literacy in English is associated with the illusory promise of social and cultural inclusion at a time of racial and legal exclusion. While the idea of English as a language of opportunities is prominent in many immigrant narratives, including Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1917), English in Bulosan’s writings is fundamentally linked to conditions of coloniality. America Is in the Heart begins in the Philippines, with English replacing Spanish as the new language of colonial administration. This multilingualism sets apart the language environment of the Philippines from the European countries from which many immigrants to America hailed. The spread of English in the Philippines since the Philippine–American War (1899–1902) created the conditions for Filipino literature in English. In his essay, “Filipino Writers in a Changing World,” Bulosan points to English, Spanish, and Tagalog as the representative literary languages of the Philippines.8 Bulosan’s contemporary, Jose Garcia Villa, had already published in English in the Philippines before he tried to gain recognition as a writer in the United States.9

Because English was a language of privilege in elite sectors of society in the Philippines, fluency and literacy in English were signs of education and status among Filipino migrants in the United States, which appears not only in Bulosan’s autobiographical fiction but also in the short stories of Bienvenido Santos.10 If Bulosan’s writings illuminate the world of Filipino migrant labor in Depression-era America, Santos’s stories show the world of Filipino foreign students, including pensionados—beneficiaries of the Pensionado Program, a state-sponsored educational program that provided opportunities for Filipino students to study at US universities, often facilitating their return to the Philippines to hold positions in the colonial bureaucracy.11 The characterization of the foreign student Santos employs in his stories implies a tutelage relationship between the empire and the colonial subject mediated by English. In the loosely connected stories that make up the collection, Scent of Apples (1979), English is associated with modernity and efficiency, whereas Filipino languages suggest nostalgia and connections with the past. Ben, who belongs to a group of Filipino students at elite universities, marvels at Basic English when he sees Chinese and Russian sailors quickly learn enough words “[i]n a few weeks” to give and receive commands in English.12 Basic English, a movement founded and supported by I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden, argued that English could be a lingua franca if one funneled the language down to a core vocabulary essential to communication and taught this vocabulary internationally.13 His characterization of Basic English as a “miracle of the written and the spoken word” shows Ben’s enchantment with the promises of a universal language.14 By contrast, the character Ambo, who is of working-class background, limited formal education, and primarily a speaker of Visayan, shows a deep skepticism about English, noting, in particular, how it functions as a marker of status and privilege among the Filipinos in the United States. The implications of the foreign student are reiterated and examined anew in later novels, such as Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student (1998), which illustrates a Korean foreign student’s move to the American South after the Korean War.

While written mostly in English, contemporary Filipino/a American literature acknowledges the history and tradition of multilingualism in the Philippines that go back to the islands’ pre-Hispanic past. A key feature of Filipina writing that Carbó identifies in his and Eileen Tabios’s effort to recover the long tradition of women’s writing in the Philippines in the literary anthology, Babaylan, is the lived experience of multilingualism and diaspora. It is not uncommon, Carbó suggests, for a Filipina writer to feel “comfortable expressing herself not only in her native dialect, but also in the national language (Pilipino/Tagalog) and in English” in international cities as varied as “Paris, Madrid, London, Sydney, and Singapore.”15 The “Poetry in Translation” section of the anthology features poems in the original language and in translation—or “transcreation,” as one poet calls it—side by side.16 The non-English languages that comprise Filipina poetic practice here include Cebuano, Kinaray-a, Ilocano, Tagalog, and Spanish.

Especially during wartime, relations between the United States and Asian countries affected both Asian immigrants and their children, not only legally but also in terms of culture and language. Narratives of Japanese American incarceration show how war and the loss of civil rights actively disabled bilingualism. Memoirs such as Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953) and Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982) show the once vibrant bilingualism of the Japanese American community wilting under wartime pressure, evacuation, and incarceration. In both memoirs, Japanese school is an important institution in the community and recollections of childhood entail descriptions of Japanese festivals, community events, and customs; these are rendered using several English transliterations of Japanese words and phrases. The pervasive bilingualism among Japanese Americans comes to an end, though, when everything associated with Japan is suppressed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The most telling sign of how the camps destroyed the conditions of bilingualism is the comparative lack of English transliteration of Japanese in the narrative after incarceration. Unlike the earlier parts of Nisei Daughter, which are laced with Japanese words and phrases, life after evacuation is rendered mostly monolingual.

The Japanese poetic form tanka—a thirty-one syllable poem divided into five syllabic units of 5/7/5/7/7—appears as an important literary vehicle for the Issei mothers in Sone’s and Uchida’s memoirs. In particular, the narrator’s mother in Desert Exile is a skilled writer of tanka who has published under the penname Yukari. Uchida translates into English four tankas by Yukari and places them at the end of chapters 1, 5, 7, and 8 in her memoir. As a result, the narrative includes a dialogue between Uchida’s own narrative and the mother’s poems, which, in turn, creates a bilingual dimension to the narrative. The tanka at the end of chapter 5, for example, shows a lyric I shedding tears and standing in line at the camp mess hall, yielding her place in line to an older woman who reminds her of her own mother, and learning to “call this horse stall/My family’s home.”17 Coming at the end of the chapter where Uchida narrates her family’s temporary resettlement at the Tanforan Assembly Center, which used to be a race track, the mother’s tanka provides a lyric summation of the pathos of the internee who modifies the forced racial kinship imposed on the internees to an imagined kinship capable of kindness to a stranger. Together, Uchida’s documentary narrative and the mother’s poems serve as what could be called restorative bilingualism that illuminates the humanity of the internees and the resilience of immigrant families.

The repeal of Asian exclusion and subsequent liberalization of immigration during the Cold War challenged the idea of Asian racial incompatibility with American citizenship. Yet post-1965 Asian American literature also contends with themes of foreignness and nonbelonging through the tropes of broken English, mother tongue, and the native speaker. The 1960s proved a turning point in legislative action and policies as well as attitudes on bilingualism. Interest in language right followed the civil rights reforms, and scholars and activists started to challenge prevailing ideas that associated bilingualism with cognitive disability, which affected the treatment of children from homes where English was not spoken in schools.18 The world of a second-generation Chinese American girl in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976), a narrative recreation of the writer’s memories of her childhood in Stockton, California, can be read against the backdrop of the fraught issues of bilingualism and language-minority students frequently debated in education. On the one hand, the narrator’s coming-of-age story moves from recognizing the different norms of speech and personhood in American and Chinese schools to acquiring not just normal but excellent English skills. On the other hand, this self-making in English is also accompanied by a keen awareness of how a normative subject of language is defined against ideas of the abnormal and the deficient, something that precipitates the narrator’s outbursts of violence toward a silent Chinese American classmate and anger toward a cognitively challenged Chinese American man in the neighborhood.

The trope of the mother tongue commonly appears in second-generation Asian American narratives to show the psycholinguistic complexities of bilingualism and its embeddedness in interpersonal relations. A dialogic relationship with the mother is a defining feature of the narrator’s navigation of two languages in The Woman Warrior. The narrative technique of “talk story,” which highlights the orality of the transmission of stories from the mother to the daughter in the text, most succinctly conveys this. Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” (1991) and Chang-rae Lee’s “The Faintest Echo of Our Language” (1995) both use the writer’s relationship with the mother to show aspects of growing up in two languages. Tan’s personal essay narrates a conversion of attitude on “broken” or “limited” English. While as a child she was affected by the stereotype that associates nonstandard forms of English with social and cognitive limitations, as a successful writer Tan claims that “all the Englishes [she] grew up with” inform her writings.19 A similar change can also be seen in her relationship to her mother. While previously as a child Tan was ashamed of her mother’s English and felt burdened by her demands to translate for her, as a writer she now sees her mother as the ideal reader, the reader whose approval—“So easy to read”—is a confirmation of the success of her writing.20 Lee approaches the same topic of the mother whose English is “broken” or “limited” more somberly in his personal essay, which features the story of his mother’s passing.21 Lee dwells on his immigrant mother’s diminished public presence and life due to her lack of fluency in English and his own increasing removal from the mother tongue, sentiments he reiterates in a brief 1996 op-ed for The New York Times, “Mute in an English-Only World.” For Lee, the communal relationship to language (marked by the first-person plural possessive in the title—“our language”) is a utopian goal for an immigrant family whose children leave behind the mother tongue.

While Lee presents assimilation into the national language as the fate of immigrant children in his personal essays, this does not necessarily mean that he envisions an easy relationship between American-born Asians and English. In his debut novel, Native Speaker (1995), Lee explores the idea of Asians as perpetual foreigners in America through his main character’s sense of unease in claiming English as his language. Henry, a spy who increasingly feels conflicted about his profession, marvels at his assigned subject, John Kwang. City councilman and mayoral candidate Kwang is an immigrant like Henry’s father, but, unlike his father, he is seemingly able to insert himself into the public scene and take control of the public language. In the novel, Asian immigrants’ precarious belonging in English is linked to their lack of political power and sociocultural inclusion, and the Korean immigrant politician’s popularity compels the reader to ask if the disadvantage of bilingualism and biculturalism can be turned into an asset in a new style of politics. Kwang’s bid for political power, however, crashes late in the novel, and the question goes answered.

Realism has been the dominant mode through which the trope of the mother tongue has been explored in Asian American fiction. Yet in his 2011 short fiction, “The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu explores the idea that interpersonal storytelling is a fundamental element of the human condition through the genre of speculative fiction. In this story of a biracial Chinese American man’s alienation from his Chinese-speaking, mail-order bride mother, Liu uses magic and supernaturalism as ways of overcoming the rift created by language difference. Like other writers before him, Liu views language as not just a medium of communication but a medium of emotional expression, something that makes humans uniquely human. Jack’s mother, who is denied this possibility in the story, suffers from dehumanizing alienation, and Liu attributes to her the magical power to breathe life into her origami animals to alleviate the pain of her suffering and to finally restore the dialogic relationship between her and Jack, previously lost in Jack’s “all-American pursuit of happiness.”22

In writings by transnational adoptees, a different approach to the trope of the mother tongue disrupts ideas of normative motherhood. In Jane Jeong Trenka’s memoir, The Language of Blood (2003), Korean is a language that the writer gradually learns as she recovers a sense of kinship with her Korean-speaking birth mother and family. Likewise, in Skirt Full of Black (2006), poet Sun Yung Shin approaches Korean as a language she desires to know based on her identification as part of the Korean diaspora. In this collection of poems, a section headed by the poem “Vestibulary” explores the Korean alphabet as visual signs that inspire poetic meditation. In Shin’s own words, she “use[s] the hangul characters and (the old Romanization)—their orthography, form—to create bits of narrative and images inspired by their shapes,” a process she views as “[t]he eros of language acquisition.”23

Pidgin, Linguistic Authenticity, and Resistance

A postcolonial optic on discourses of language, power, and domination can be seen clearly in conversations about the use of Hawaiian Pidgin English (or Hawaiian Creole English) and literature in Pidgin.24 The colonial history of Hawai‘i’s annexation and statehood and the history of plantation labor in the islands directly inform the origin of Pidgin as well as the linguistic hierarchy that developed between Pidgin and standard English. As Stephen Sumida shows in And the View from the Shore, representations of Hawai‘i in American print literature have been almost exclusively the purview of mainland, white, English-speaking visitors and settlers up to statehood in 1959.25 The publication of John Dominis Holt’s On Being Hawaiian in 1960 ushered in renewed attempts at establishing a discourse of Hawai‘i’s history, culture, and identity from the perspective of native Hawai‘ians. The rise of the local literature movement in the 1970s continued the concerns over discursive authenticity and autonomy in representations of Hawai‘i. Deep skepticism over the commercial motives and colonial attitudes of outsiders who wrote about Hawai‘i and an understanding that the mainstream publishing industry was much more favorably inclined toward those writing from the outside were hallmark features of the local literature movement in the beginning.26 Using Pidgin in writing, in this context, was viewed as a matter of authentic expression of identity and culture as well as a way of contesting the colonial legacies of domination through language. Challenging the long social history of Pidgin’s stigmatization, local writers beginning in the 1970s with Milton Murayama and Darrell H. Y. Lum have established a rich body of poetry and prose that illustrate the literary potential of Pidgin.

The story of Murayama being repeatedly asked to correct the grammar of the title of his 1975 novel, All I Asking for Is My Body, is well known.27 Self-published in 1975 and issued by the University of Hawai‘i Press in 1988, Murayama’s slim novel of just over a hundred pages tells the story of a Japanese American immigrant family, the Oyamas, who are saddled with a debt of $6,000, a debt whose origin and growth is inextricably tied to the plantation system’s exploitation of labor. Murayama’s use of both standard English and Pidgin in the novel—the first-person narrative of Kiyoshi is in standard English, while the dialogues amply make use of Pidgin—follows from his two main principles of writing: (a) “to get as close to the experience and if the experience is dialect, you write dialect” and (b) to still make the experience intelligible to a readership who may not be familiar with the dialect.28 In All I Asking for Is My Body, language and content are interwoven to show the plantation’s syncretic system of control and exploitation. Kiyoshi comes to discover the continuities between the parents’ use of Japanese traditional values—such as filial piety—to control the brothers and the plantation’s paternalism that allows for after-work activities and religion all to keep the workers within the system. The syncretic system of control developed out of the plantation locates resistance not in discrete cultures—such as Japanese or American—but in contingent actions that disturb, no matter how temporarily, the mechanism of control and the existing hierarchy. Pidgin Japanese and English, which Tosh and Kiyoshi use to communicate with their parents and other locals of Hawai‘i, is the linguistic counterpart of the plantation’s syncretism.29 Tosh and Kiyoshi’s coming-of-age struggles, then, are about figuring out how to use Pidgin to pursue freedom. As Tosh says to his mother, who berates him for his rebelliousness, “all I asking for is my body.”30 The reference to the body—and particularly of ownership over one’s body—is used again in a slightly different form among the plantation workers in the novel. And this phrase—“take care the body”—is a Pidgin saying that Susan Najita suggests “critiques both the Protestant work ethic and the Japanese sense of gaman, which argue that hard work and sacrifice will guarantee success in the long run.”31

The short stories of Darrell Lum, founder of Bamboo Ridge Press with Eric Chock, paved the way for writers like Lois-Ann Yamanaka and R. Zamora Linmark, who created memorable vignettes of what it is like to be young, nonwhite, poor, and Pidgin-speaking in Hawai‘i. Lum’s “Primo Doesn’t Take Back Bottles Anymore” (1972) and “Beer Can Hat” (1980) implode the stereotype of Pidgin speakers as unintelligent or inferior by featuring young Pidgin speakers who navigate their materially challenging circumstances with dignity, compassion, and intelligence. If Murayama links Pidgin to the plantation system in his novel, Linmark’s Rolling the R’s (1995) and Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (1996) show the public school and the playground as a central site of the cultural politics of Pidgin. Rolling the R’s shows a group of ethnically diverse ten-year-old children from Kalihi who, among other things, share a love of popular culture. In an interview, Linmark has called the language of the novel—Pidgin—and its setting—Kalihi—two major characters in the novel: “Remove Kalihi and the novel loses its color. It is Kalihi—and the Pidgin English dialect—that makes the novel unique.”32 In this episodic novel, Pidgin and Kalihi are what bring the characters and the episodes together. Edgar, Katrina, Florante, Vicente, and Mai-Lan band together and closely guard the expressions of their identity—which include Pidgin, sexual orientation, and other nonnormative aspects of their identity such as being raised by a single mother or being an immigrant. They receive instructions not to speak Pidgin all the time at school. Yet defiance is a keyword in their cultural politics, and they make Pidgin cool by peppering it with slang words and pop culture references and by using it in their reenactments of favorite films and TV shows such as Charlie’s Angels.

If Linmark’s novel focuses on the young characters’ fierce pride over Pidgin, the main character of Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Lovey Nariyoshi, has a relationship with Pidgin that encompasses the two poles of love and shame. For Lovey, speaking standard English is associated with a privileged way of life, and so she harbors a secret desire to be white and to “talk straight.”33 Unfortunately, she also repeats the prejudices against nonstandard English. In one chapter, Yamanaka shows Lovey comparing two opposing models of Chinese masculinity. The martial arts actor, Alexander Fu Sheng, is an object of romantic desire for the adolescent girl. The theater owner’s son, who sits behind the counter with his mother and tries to prevent Lovey from using the discount for children twelve and under, represents predatory sexuality and perversion. For Lovey, desirability and repulsiveness are most clearly represented in the ways the two men speak. Alexander speaks unaccented English; the theater owner’s son, on the other hand, speaks English with a thick accent. In fact, the antagonistic relationship she has with the theater owner and her son seems most viscerally captured in how Lovey hears their speech, transcribed in the novel as a string of stereotypes of broken English. Through Lovey’s stigmatization of accented English, Yamanaka conveys her character’s ambivalent relationship to Pidgin, the language she uses to express herself and the language of those she loves. So deeply inculcated is the idea that nonstandard Englishes are undesirable that she gives the same harsh judgment she receives to others who do not speak the “haole vernacular.”34

Writers such as Lee A. Tonouchi and Lisa L. Kanae engage in literary experiments using Pidgin and develop a richer understanding of Pidgin as identity. In Da Word (2001), Tonouchi tries out the Odo orthography—a phonemic orthography developed by linguist Carol Odo in the 1970s—for the first time in his short story, “pijin wawrz,” a work of speculative fiction showing a dystopic future in which an underground resistance of Pidgin guerillas fight the authorities who suppress Pidgin. How to transcribe the oral language of Pidgin has long been a question many writers have commented on and struggled over. In Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture (2002), Tonouchi reflects on what it means to have a fixed orthography for Pidgin. His understanding of Pidgin as essentially a language that resists control and regulation makes him skeptical of one orthography for the language. “[The linguists’] contention is dat since Pidgin is one language den should have da same characteristics as oddah languages,” he says; “But all oddah languages have bene put into captivity and placed insai a nice little cage so dat people can observe ’em and study ’em mo’ day. Pidgin exists in da wild.”35 The spirit of resistance and an egalitarian ethos are essential to Pidgin as identity—to be “born Pidgin” or to “live Pidgin”—in Tonouchi’s writings.36

Lisa Kanae’s chapbook, Sista Tongue (2001), engages in several kinds of visual and textual experimentation that both resonates with the effort of previous generations of writers to use Pidgin creatively and departs from theirs in formal choices. Kanae divides most pages into sections using different combinations of horizontal and vertical lines. Some pages are divided into noncongruent squares, and some are a combination of noncongruent squares and different lengths of horizontal or vertical lines. Additionally, different fonts, sizes, and styles for the letters, excerpts from other texts, and photographs of a man’s mouth in enunciation exercises create greater variation in the visual experience of the text. Of the many quotations used by Kanae, those from speech pathology books that treat Pidgin as a pathology are set apart by appearing as Xerox copies the author cut and pasted onto the pages. For all these visual variations, the narratives of the chapbook clearly fall into two categories: a personal account written in Pidgin in which the narrator remembers her brother’s painful experience with being misdiagnosed as disabled in speech and a social and cultural history of Pidgin, also written in the first person but using standard English. The tones of the two narratives vary. If the Pidgin narrative expresses the narrator’s anger and bitterness at the prejudices against Pidgin, the other narrative in standard English calmly and rationally explains these prejudices as stemming from a social and cultural hierarchy built to protect the interests of the elites. In the final page of the chapbook, the two narratives merge into one as the last sentence breaks the expectation of the standard English and turns to Pidgin, illustrating the idea that if taught in the language they are familiar with—that is, in Pidgin—the local Hawai‘i students will be encouraged to speak: “Afta dat, day talk up. Dey not so scared fo speak up anymo.”37

In the 21st century, the most challenging questions for writers from Hawai‘i using Pidgin may come from the critique of Asian settler colonialism, which developed out of the Hawai‘ian sovereignty movement of the 1990s and contested the idea of the local as it was used in support of working-class community struggles in Hawai‘i in the 1970s.38 Faced with the criticism that Bamboo Ridge, a press founded with the mission of cultivating local literature, is “neocolonial,” in “The Neocolonialism of Bamboo Ridge,” Eric Chock discusses the changes to the meaning of the term local from 1978 when the press was founded to 1996, the time of his essay. Political divisions of the 1970s were formed around “Local vs. Haole,” which placed Hawai‘ians of Asian descent in the category of the local; this division was later replaced with the “Hawaiian/Other paradigm” or the “Hawaiian/Local/Haole paradigm,” which problematized the inclusion of Hawai‘ians of Asian descent in local literature.39 In his 2002 “Living Pidgin,” Tonouchi’s reflections on Pidgin culture in the early 21st century register these contestations over the meaning of local and provide a clear understanding of Pidgin’s indebtedness to Hawai‘ian. Rather than see the two languages in competition, he wants to see the two as “partners in resistance.”40 The question of what local means continues the issues of language, authenticity, and resistance in the shadows of colonial history that are central to writings in Pidgin from Hawai‘i.

In and Against Ethnography

Another important aspect of bilingualism in Asian American literature concerns how the broader field of American literature has incorporated or represented Asian languages. Critics such as Yunte Huang and Josephine Park have examined American modernist poetry’s fascination with Asia.41 The genealogy of American modernism’s orientalism is often traced back to 19th-century writers such as Walt Whitman and Ernest Fenollosa, who turned to the East for inspiration. Ezra Pound’s interest in the sinoscript is a well-known affair in literary modernism. While each writer’s specific interests in Asia and the particular historical circumstances under which these interests evolved vary, the genealogy of American literary modernism nonetheless consistently demonstrates, as Park suggests, “a repeated desire to reinvigorate an epic sense of America through contact with the Orient.”42

One of the legacies of American orientalism for Asian American literature is the dominance of ethnography as a source of knowledge on Asia. Huang shows that literary and ethnographic interests intermingled for American modernist poets in their approaches to the East.43 For writers such as Lin Yutang and Younghill Kang, the ethnographic interest in Asia simultaneously created a space for them to publish in English and to vie for authority in the representation of Asia. Often dubbed cultural ambassadors by critics, Lin and Kang both drew on their knowledge of their countries of origin, China and Korea, respectively, to write books, such as My Country and My People (1935) and The Grass Roof (1931), whose purpose was to inform American readers about these countries.44 In the prologue to My Country and My People, Lin offers a polemic on who should be the interpreters of China. The power to represent China has been concentrated on Westerners, resulting in “a constant, unintelligent elaboration of the Chinaman as a stage fiction, which is as childish as it is untrue and with which the West is so familiar.”45 Lin’s book is intended not only as a counterpoint to this hegemonic representation of the “Chinaman” in the West but also as a way of provoking discussion on the ethics of representing foreign countries and cultures, and what he calls “international criticism,” a normative value that for him is “searching, not for the exotic but for the common human values.”46

Lin, who wrote both in Chinese and in English (he already had a body of publication in Chinese by the time he started writing in English) and is part of both Chinese and American literary traditions, shows the challenges of reading and understanding a bilingual writer who straddles two different national literatures. Initially seen as a writer who was sheltered from racism due to his privileged background, Lin’s contributions have increasingly come under reassessment in Asian American literary criticism.47 Yunte Huang notes, for example, that Lin’s “seeming lightheartedness” or “his apparent self-mockery as a Chinese” has been misunderstood by Asian American critics as catering to stereotypes of the Chinese.48 Lin’s seeming acceptance of the gendering of the East as feminine and the West as masculine or his discussion of Pidgin in My Country and My People may appear naive and unquestioning to contemporary critics. Yet it is also important to note that Lin uses these gender stereotypes to subvert the argument, advanced by linguists such as Otto Jespersen, that English is well suited to be a global language because it is a masculine language due to “its love of economy, common sense, and forcefulness.”49 Relying on the trope of the feminine China, Lin suggests that it is the Chinese language, as the purveyor of femininity, that “reveals an extreme simplicity of thinking, concreteness of imagery and economy of syntactical relationships.”50 Furthermore, he turns a critical eye to the language purists who decry Pidgin. Calling it “English meat with Chinese bones,” Lin asks whether Pidgin does not have all the traits of simplicity, economy, and directness that Jespersen extols in English.51 Jing Tsu’s recent analysis of Lin’s interest in developing a Chinese typewriter, an invention that mechanizes Chinese writing and makes it more amenable to be used globally, likewise highlights Lin’s skepticism over the push to increase the accessibility of English and to make it into an international language.52 At a time when the dominant view was that the phonetic alphabet system, as opposed to the ideograph, is much better equipped for global influence, Lin refused to accept that English was the only language with universal potential.

Later texts in Asian American avant-garde poetry, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), explicitly go against the ethnographic tradition of representing the Asian Other by questioning the ways in which meaning is created through language. As several critics have pointed out, Dictee’s fragmentation of narrative and the employment of nonstandard forms of English refuse to associate language with transparent meaning.53 More fundamentally, Cha questions whether language can be anticonventional given its habitual and therefore thoroughly conventional uses. The scenario of an unnamed woman taking a phone call that opens the chapter “Thalia/Comedy” poses this question succinctly. Instead of narrating what the woman says into the phone, Cha instead describes the rehearsed and ritualistic aspects of answering a phone call. As if stifled by the prescripted performance, the woman wishes for language to have animistic power: “She wishes that it would metamorphose the other. The voice alone, by its force by its pleading by some inexplicable power.”54 Yet this wish is futile. Cha suggests that such desire is bound to meet with disappointment as language is inadequate to the phenomenology of being. Hence the woman’s “search” for “the words of equivalence to that of her feeling” inevitably ends up being the search for its “absence,” or a series of approximations,“[s]ynonym, simile, metaphor, byword, byname, ghostword, phantomnation.”55 Given this view of language, it goes without saying that Dictee’s view of translation is anything but finding equivalence between different systems of codes.

What is Dictee’s investment in translation, then, if it is not about the transposition of meaning from one system to another? An interest in multilingualism and a skepticism toward monolingualism are apparent in the text, which includes French poems and dictation exercises, Chinese calligraphy, and some Korean words, both Romanized and in the original Korean alphabet. Asian American literary criticism has mined the cultural politics of language in Cha’s text, especially around the issues of language loss and acquisition for the Korean diaspora in the 20th century.56 Cha juxtaposes the science of language learning, suggested in the anatomical images of human organs of speech and the dictation exercises, with the stories of Korean women, drawn from history and autobiography, who experienced the loss of their mother tongue under Japanese colonialism to illuminate the sociopolitical contingencies of language.

Rather than offer translation as a means of knowing the Other, Dictee turns to the space between language worlds. Toward the end of “Clio/History,” where she ruminates on Japanese colonialism in Korea, Cha wonders whether something like the colonial experience could be translated “[t]o the other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions.”57 The instability of meaning Cha explores on an individual level becomes even more amplified when language’s role to mediate meaning is thought of at the level of the collective and across collectives. Cha cautions against conventional means of translating historical suffering, suggesting that these means are “bland, mundane, no longer able to transcend their own conspirator method, no matter how alluring their presentation” and can only elicit a “no-response” from the audience.58 The multilingualism of the text and its unwillingness to translate holds in suspension the idea that translation is about easy and smooth mediation. By rejecting the belief in the knowability of the Other through translation, Dictee radically departs from the orientalism of American modernism.

Bilingual Writers and World Literature in English

The dominance of English in literary publishing in the United States is a significant constraint for language diversity in American literary culture. Werner Sollors, among others, has turned a critical eye to the absence of multilingualism in multicultural literature in the United States.59 His interest in recovering literature in languages other than English as a legitimate part of American literature is based on appreciating language difference as a crucial element of cultural difference. From a slightly different perspective, translation scholars also lament the lack of interest in languages other than English in the American publishing industry. In his 1995 study of translation, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, Lawrence Venuti tracks the consistently low numbers of publications in translation since the 1950s in an expanding publishing industry. With the exception of the 1960s, when the annual rate of translated books peaked at 4 percent to 7 percent of all published books, the rate lingers between 2 percent and 4 percent.60 More recent surveys also show similar results.61

Recent critical approaches examining the power and influence of English as a literary language from a global perspective tend to employ either economic or ecological models. Economic models understand language as transformed into cultural capital once it enters the field of literature, which employs its own standards of evaluation, merit, and reward. The interpretation of literature, of course, exists in tandem with an economy of literature, where sales, prizes, and reviews all play a role in mediating the values of books and authors. Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (2004), where she charts how English takes over French as the most prestigious literary language of the 20th century based on a comprehensive tracking of the economy of literature around publishing and literary awards, is exemplary of this model.62 Ecological models prefer the metaphor of ecological system over markets in examining language environments.63 According to translation scholar Esther Allen, such metaphorical understanding of languages is indebted to the new field of ecolinguistics.64 If the dominance of English is indexed by its value in the economics model, the ecological model approaches this by likening English to “an invasive species.”65

Bilingualism in Asian American literature can be examined using these concerns regarding the global dominance of English as a literary language and the limited opportunities that writers in languages other than English have to be translated into English. David Henry Hwang’s English-Chinese bilingual play, Chinglish (2011), breaks through the strictures of English monolingualism that Sollors criticizes and shows the possibilities of theater to incorporate languages other than English. In the play, an Ohio signage businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, tries to strike up a business deal with a Chinese city, Guiyang, to save his family business. His lack of Mandarin makes him vulnerable to an unscrupulous interpreter—a Mandarin-speaking British expat—and leads him through a blundering affair with Xi Yan, the Chinese official who helps him secure his business deal but has her own agenda in mind. As a stage production on Broadway, Chinglish used supertitles to translate the Mandarin dialogues into English for the non-Mandarin-speaking audience, delivering a complex performance in two languages.

Reviewers of Chinglish have pointed out a similar frame between Hwang’s earlier play M. Butterfly (1988) and his more recent play—what one reviewer calls the frame of “a not-too-bright Westerner looking back in wonder at his own naïveté as a stranger in a strange land.”66 Despite this similarity, Chinglish marks a very different era of United States–China relations, registering, in Hwang’s own words, the “rise of China.”67 In several interviews, Hwang himself speaks of the Chinese interest in musical theater as the basis of his frequent invitations to the Republic of China, from which he came up with the idea for Chinglish.68 If the idea of the play has an international origin, the creation of the play also incorporates cross-cultural collaboration. Hwang attributes the Mandarin part of the play to the Hong Kong–based playwright Candace Chong, himself being more familiar with Fujianese than Mandarin.69 The experimental bilingualism of Chinglish is borne out of this internationalism where the Republic of China plays a significant role globally on par with the United States.

For Chinese immigrant writers like Ha Jin and Yiyun Li, however, writing in English is key to their professional identity. While they are certainly not the first Asian immigrant authors to publish in English, the fact that their books win prestigious literary awards, are well reviewed in acclaimed literary magazines, and are widely read no doubt adds to critical interest in their work. Most of Ha Jin’s fiction and poetry, including Under the Red Flag (1997), In the Pond (1998), Waiting (1999), The Crazed (2002), and War Trash (2004) are set primarily, if not exclusively, in the People’s Republic of China and address the felt cruelty of state violence in the everyday lives of common people. Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), The Vagrants: A Novel (2009), and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) are also set in the People’s Republic of China. If an earlier generation of Chinese immigrant and Chinese American writers who relied on their country of origin for material were often criticized for catering to an orientalist readership, the critical discomfort over Jin’s or Li’s works is often based on how they mediate stories of Red China for English-speaking readers.70

Nationalist assumptions about linguistic loyalty, in which faithfulness to one’s mother tongue is faithfulness to one’s motherland, are central to the accusations of betrayal levied against Jin and Li. For Jin, these charges necessitate a reexamination of where his allegiance lies, and he has responded that the writer should “be loyal only to his art.”71 For a writer who has left his mother tongue, “find[ing] his place in his adopted language” is of paramount concern.72 And while critics and scholars may review precedents (like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov) and form opinions on what creative invention can be achieved by an “outsider” (such as the question of whether a writer writing in a second language can achieve an inventive glibness of style), there is no one answer as to how an author can find this place.73 Some writers pursue “‘universal literature’ that is entirely translatable,” while others mainly focus on building a recognizable style in the adopted language.74 Jin suggests that loyalty to one’s own aesthetic is the guiding principle of the migrant writer writing in a new language, even if this means that “he may have to sacrifice his mother tongue, while borrowing its strength and resources, in order to accomplish a style in his adopted tongue.”75 By casting literature as an alternative homeland to one’s country of origin, Jin attempts to transcend the strictures of nationalistic language ideologies.

Li’s response to similar charges of betrayal centers on what she considers the very private act of writing, in which there is no reader other than the writer herself. Consistently, she dismisses ideas of the reader in her writing: “I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered over before it becomes my word. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.”76 That there is something quite daring and decisive in this vision of the private language can also be seen in the way Li phrases her decision to write in English. Likening it to “a kind of suicide,” she calls the decision “unnatural” in “the absoluteness of the abandonment [of the native language].”77 For Li, this absolute break with Chinese is necessary to gain ideal position for writing, a position where “I feel invisible but not estranged.”78 Being invisible immunizes her from criticisms motivated by nationalistic language ideologies, be it from the professor who criticized her for “writing in a language that did not belong to [her]” or the Chinese critics who call her a “cultural traitor” and question her “right” to “write about our country” in English.79 However, it also poses for Li the challenge of securing the private from annihilation, from just ceasing to exist, from what she calls “the danger of crossing a line from invisibility to erasure.”80

Jhumpa Lahiri’s foray into writing and publishing in Italian seemingly bucks the trend of English’s dominance as a literary language. Her release of In Other Words (2016)—written in Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, and presented as a bilingual edition with Italian and English as verso and recto—punctuates Lahiri’s record of publication in English, which includes two shortstory collections, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and two novels, The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013). Similar to writers such as Samuel Beckett or Nancy Huston, both of whom published mostly not in their first language of English but in their acquired language of French because they saw the acquired language as more suited to their creative practice, Lahiri also places at the heart of her venture into Italian the search for “another direction for [her] writing,” “a new approach.”81 A writer’s desire to shun the familiar—or, to use Lahiri’s term, “security”—and to revivify creativity in “a state of deprivation” where she has to take on an “imperfect, spare new voice” permeates Lahiri’s endeavor.82

At the same time, Lahiri’s turn to Italian also stems from her experiences as a second-generation Asian American, which is evident in her account of how growing up in a home where Bengali was spoken equipped her for her adult engagement with Italian, a language that she primarily discovered while writing her doctoral dissertation on the influence of Italian architecture on 17th-century English playwrights.83 Likening her childhood experience of life in two languages to “a kind of linguistic exile,” Lahiri confesses that it imbued her with a sense of “divided identity” that made her think of herself as “an incomplete person, in some way deficient.”84 Her rediscovery of herself as a creative writer in Italian enables a radical reinterpretation of deficiency and imperfection. As she embraces Italian as a source of creative rebirth, Lahiri also radically reinterprets the negative associations of deficiency and imperfection that burdened her in childhood to proclaim that “[i]mperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”85

If her description of what Italian does for her as a creative writer sounds euphoric, Lahiri is careful to acknowledge the limits of her social presence and belonging in Italian. Through an anecdote where an Italian shopkeeper automatically imposes foreignness on her based on her “physical appearance” while extending the assumption of nativeness to her husband, Lahiri takes note of “the border that I will never be able to cross,” “[t]he wall that will remain forever between me and Italian no matter how well I learn it.”86 Her explanation of “how the wall works” corresponds to the social dynamic of exclusion that many scholars of accent discrimination, including the linguist and writer Rosina Lippi-Green, has pointed out: “They don’t understand me because they don’t want to understand me; they don’t understand me because they don’t want to listen to me, accept me.”87 While stating her mission as “writ[ing] in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way,” Lahiri leaves open what the next phase of creative writing entails for her, and in what language it will be, in her Italian-language memoir.88 Whether Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian poses a significant deviation from the global dominance of literary English remains to be seen.

The growing visibility of Anglophone Asian writers presents the need for new ways of envisioning Asian American literature’s relationship to what may be called world literature in English. While the widely known history of British colonialism in India allows Indian writers writing in English such as Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth to be received without much confusion, the lesser known history of British colonialism in Malaysia creates different conditions of reception for someone like Tan Twan Eng. Anglophone Asian writings unsettle conventional expectations of who writes in English and call for new ways of understanding the relationship between national culture and international relevance.

Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado (2010) offers one example of straddling two national and international literary cultures. The novel is ostensibly about the search for the lost manuscript of Crispin Salvador, a prolific, if polemical, Filipino writer for whom the protagonist, Miguel, was an assistant when they both lived in New York City. Yet the novel is just as much about the worldliness of Filipino literature. From the ilustrado tradition he traces back to José Rizal to the literary coteries and digital platforms squabbling over Crispin’s literary achievements and notoriety, Syjuco shows the highs and lows of Filipino literary culture. Through Crispin’s vision of Filipino literature as world literature, Syjuco suggests that this national culture needs to be rendered international. “Be an international writer who happens to be Filipino,” Crispin suggests to Miguel.89 This advice is not so much about the location or language of writing but about inventing new ways of representing the Philippines. “What is Filipino writing,” Crispin asks, “Living on the margins, a bygone era, loss, exile, poor-me angst, postcolonial identity theft, Tagalog words intermittently scattered around for local color, exotically italicized.”90 Against the ossification of Filipino literature into a set of themes and a recognizable bilingual style, where Tagalog is used ornamentally, Crispin calls for “chang[ing] our country by changing its representation.”91 For Syjuco’s novel, Filipino literature is no longer defined by its language but by an inventiveness that can both propel the reader to see with clarity the social reality of the Philippines and marry such vision with the capacity to “transcend calendars and borders.”92 Compelling as this vision is, viewed against the global dominance of English as a literary language, the unasked question seems obvious: Can one be an international writer who happens to be Filipino and who writes in a language other than English? Bracketing this question, Syjuco’s novel gestures to the worldliness of literature as not a solution to the disproportionate power of English in the economy and ecology of world literature but an instigation to explore such questions further.

Discussion of the Literature

The topic of bilingualism in Asian American literature necessarily entails multilingualism. Whereas Spanish arguably can serve a unifying second language for Latino literature, notwithstanding the variances in Spanish dialects and indigenous languages of Latin America, Asian American literature’s panethnicity translates into a multiplicity of Asian languages used by Asian Americans. Given this multilingualism, Asian American literature usually focused on a specific ethnic group and its language(s). The study of Chinese American literature has fruitfully engaged with bilingualism, attending to the various Chinese vernaculars used by Chinese immigrants who either exclusively or partly composed poems and stories in their first language as well as attention to the ways in which Chinese American writers take inspiration from Chinese vernaculars. Xiao-huang Yin’s Chinese American Literature since the 1850s (2000) and Steven Yao’s Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity (2010) are examples of such scholarship. This ethnic-specific approach also dovetails with the critical interest in multilingualism in American literary criticism that has led to such anthologies as Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature (1998) and American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni (2002) and studies that widen the purview of American modernism to include languages other than English such as Joshua Miller’s Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism (2011).

Discussions of bilingualism for an Asian American ethnic group can seldom be completely divorced from the cultural politics of language and the political economy of languages. The strong representation of Chinese American literature in studies of bilingualism in Asian American literature, for example, occurs in the same context where Chinese is a widely taught foreign language in institutions of higher education in the United States.93 While more varied than studies of textual bilingualism in their emphases and approaches, studies that attend to the cultural politics of language illuminate the social and cultural dynamics of language diversity that inform Asian American lives and experiences. King-Kok Cheung’s Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa (1993) challenges the stereotype of the silent Asian women, while bringing into high relief the intersections of patriarchy and racialization as sites where Asian American women have to develop their literary voices. As mentioned, research on writings in Pidgin has also been a vibrant area of examining the legacies of imperial violence as they manifest through language. Post-1965 issues of language rights and discrimination and of bilingual education continue to influence critical studies of language diversity as it concerns Asian American literature.

Further Reading

  • Alarcón, Norma, and Elaine H. Kim, eds. Writing Self, Writing Nation. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1994.
  • Beecroft, Alexander. An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day. New York: Verso, 2015.
  • Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Grosjean, François. Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  • Grosjean, François. Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Huang, Yunte. Transpacific Displacement: Ethnography, Translation, and Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Lim, Jeehyun. Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.
  • Park, Josephine N. Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Shell, Marc, ed. American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Sollors, Werner. Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Sumida, Stephen H. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai‘i. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • Venuti, Lawrence. The Invisibility of the Translator: A History of Translation. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Yao, Steven G. Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Yin, Xiao-huang. Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.


  • 1. See Heinz Kloss, The American Bilingual Tradition (Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1977); and Joshua A. Fishman, Language Loyalty in the United States: The Maintenance and Perpetuation of Non-English Mother Tongues by American Ethnic and Religious Groups (The Hague: Mouton, 1966).

  • 2. Notable examples include Werner Sollors, ed., Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1998); Joshua L. Miller, Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Hana Wirth-Nesher, Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

  • 3. François Grosjean, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 239.

  • 4. For this contextualization of the poems, see the introduction to Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds., Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910–1949 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980).

  • 5. Steven G. Yao, Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 74.

  • 6. Te-Hsing Shan, “Carved on the Walls: The Archaeology and Canonization of the Angel Island Chinese Poems,” in American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni, ed. Marc Shell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 372–373.

  • 7. Yao, Foreign Accents, 89–90.

  • 8. Carlos Bulosan, “Filipino Writers in a Changing World,” in On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan, ed. E. San Juan Jr. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 135.

  • 9. Jonathan Chua, “The Making of Jose Garcia Villa’s Footnote to Youth,” Kritika Kultura 21–22 (2013–2014): 19.

  • 10. Bienvenido N. Santos, Scent of Apples: A Collection of Stories (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).

  • 11. Rick Baldoz, The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898–1946 (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 45.

  • 12. Santos, Scent of Apples, 48.

  • 13. For a history of I. A. Richards’s effort to spread Basic English in China, see Rodney Koeneke, Empires of the Mind: I. A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929–1979 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

  • 14. Santos, Scent of Apples, 48.

  • 15. Nick Carbó and Eileen Tabios, eds., Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2000), xi–xii.

  • 16. Carbó and Tabios, 292.

  • 17. Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 83.

  • 18. Jeehyun Lim, Bilingual Brokers: Race, Literature, and Language as Human Capital (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 70–79.

  • 19. Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue,” in The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (New York: Putnam, 2003), 278.

  • 20. Tan, “Mother Tongue,” 279.

  • 21. Chang-rae Lee, “The Faintest Echo of Our Language,” in Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America, ed. Garrett K. Hongo (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).

  • 22. Ken Liu, “The Paper Menagerie,” in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (New York: Saga Press, 2016), 185.

  • 23. Sun Yung Shin, Skirt Full of Black (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2006), 65.

  • 24. I follow the conventions of most Hawaiian writers who use the term “pidgin” to refer to what linguists call Hawaiian Creole English. For a succinct review of the linguistic discussion on pidgin and creole, see Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb, “Homing Pidgins: Another Version of Pastoral in Hawai‘i,” in Shell, American Babel, 165. Gottlieb suggests that Hawaiian writers’ decision to refer to their language as pidgin, rather than the official Hawaiian Creole English, shows that “certain linguistic categories and systems of classification do not fully accommodate this language.” I use the phrase “standard English” to refer to the variety of English most widely taught in the educational curriculum of American public schools.

  • 25. Stephen H. Sumida, And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai‘i (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991).

  • 26. Eric Chock, “The Neocolonialization of Bamboo Ridge: Repositioning Bamboo Ridge and Local Literature in the 1990s,” Bamboo Ridge: A Hawai‘i Writers’ Quarterly (Spring 1996): 16.

  • 27. Sumida, 112; Milton Murayama, “Problems of Writing in Dialect and Mixed Languages,” MELUS 4, no. 1 (1977): 7.

  • 28. Murayama, “Problems of Writing in Dialect and Mixed Languages,” 7.

  • 29. Murayama, All I Asking for Is My Body (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1988), 5.

  • 30. Murayama, “Problems of Writing in Dialect and Mixed Languages,” 48.

  • 31. Murayama, 40; and Susan Y. Najita, “Pleasure and Colonial Resistance: Translating the Politics of Pidgin in Milton Murayama’s All I Asking for Is My Body,” in Imagining Our Americas: Toward a Transnational Frame, ed. Sandhya Shukla and Heidi Tinsman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 125.

  • 32. Zamora R. Linmark, “So You Think You Can Disco? An Interview with R. Zamora Linmark,” February 11, 2016.

  • 33. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), 28.

  • 34. Yamanaka, Wild Meat, 148.

  • 35. Lee A. Tonouchi, Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture (Kaneohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2002), 30.

  • 36. Wayne Westlake, quoted in Tonouchi, 3.

  • 37. Lisa Linn Kanae, Sista Tongue (Kaneohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2001).

  • 38. Candace Fujikane, “Introduction: Asian Settler Colonialism in the U.S. Colony of Hawai‘i,” in Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai‘i, ed. Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), 27.

  • 39. Chock, “The Neocolonialization of Bamboo Ridge,” 13, 19.

  • 40. Tonouchi, Living Pidgin, 44.

  • 41. Yunte Huang, Transpacific Displacement: Ethnography, Translation, and Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); and Josephine N. Park, Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 42. Park, Apparitions of Asia, 16.

  • 43. Huang, Transpacific Displacement, 61–65.

  • 44. Ha Jin, The Writer as Migrant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 14. Elaine H. Kim calls them “ambassadors of goodwill.” Elaine H. Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), 24.

  • 45. Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (New York: Day, 1935), 11.

  • 46. Yutang, My Country and My People, 15.

  • 47. For such a discussion that centers on Lin’s most Asian American–themed novel, Chinatown Family (1948), see Richard Jean So, Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 144–154.

  • 48. Huang, Transpacific Displacement, 128.

  • 49. Lin, My Country and My People, 81.

  • 50. Lin, My Country and My People, 81.

  • 51. Lin, My Country and My People, 81.

  • 52. Jing Tsu, Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 52–65.

  • 53. See Juliana M. Spahr, “Postmodernism, Readers, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee,” College Literature 23.3 (1996); Joshua L. Miller, “Multilingual Narrative and the Refusal of Translation: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s,” in How Far Is America From Here? Selected Proceedings of the First World Congress of the International American Studies Association, ed. Theo D’Haen, Paul Giles, Djelal Kadir, and Lois Parkinson Zamora (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 473.

  • 54. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 139.

  • 55. Cha, Dictee, 140.

  • 56. For an excellent discussion of the cultural politics of language that also attend to Cha’s refusal to make language stable or fixed, see Norma Alarcón and Elaine H. Kim, eds., Writing Self, Writing Nation (Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1994).

  • 57. Cha, Dictee, 32.

  • 58. Cha, Dictee, 33.

  • 59. See Sollors, Multilingual America, introduction.

  • 60. Lawrence Venuti, The Invisibility of the Translator: A History of Translation (New York: Routledge, 1995), 12.

  • 61. Esther Allen, ed., To Be Translated or Not To Be: PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation (Barcelona: Institut R/amon Llull, 2007), 22–26.

  • 62. Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

  • 63. See Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (New York: Verso, 2015).

  • 64. Esther Allen, “Translation, Globalization, and English,” in To Be Translated or Not To Be: PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation (Barcelona: Institut R/amon Llull, 2007), 20.

  • 65. Allen, “Translation, Globalization, and English,” 21.

  • 66. Ben Brantley, “Can’t Talk Very Good Your Language,” The New York Times, October 27, 2011; and Gerard Raymond, “Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,” Slant, October 28, 2011.

  • 67. Raymond, “Between East and West.”

  • 68. Raymond; Dafina McMillan, “Interview: David Henry Hwang,” TCG Circle, Fall Forum.

  • 69. Raymond, “Between East and West.”

  • 70. Kwai Cheung Lo, “The Myth of ‘Chinese’ Literature: Ha Jin and the Globalization of ‘National’ Literary Writing,” Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese 6, no. 2/7, no. 1 (2005), 67.

  • 71. Jin, The Writer as Migrant, 60.

  • 72. Jin, The Writer as Migrant, 59.

  • 73. Jin, The Writer as Migrant, 50.

  • 74. Ha Jin, The Writer as Migrant, 59.

  • 75. Jin, The Writer as Migrant, 60.

  • 76. Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (New York: Random House, 2017), 146–147.

  • 77. Li, Dear Friend, 140.

  • 78. Li, Dear Friend, 147.

  • 79. Li, Dear Friend, 146, 157.

  • 80. Li, Dear Friend, 147.

  • 81. Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Knopf, 2016), 57.

  • 82. Lahiri, In Other Words, 85, 57, 85.

  • 83. Lahiri, In Other Words, 19.

  • 84. Lahiri, In Other Words, 19, 111.

  • 85. Lahiri, In Other Words, 113.

  • 86. Lahiri, In Other Words, 137.

  • 87. Lahiri, In Other Words, 139. See Rosina Lippi-Green, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1997).

  • 88. Lahiri, In Other Words, 145.

  • 89. Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 208.

  • 90. Syjuco, Ilustrado, 207.

  • 91. Syjuco, Ilustrado, 207.

  • 92. Syjuco, Ilustrado, 208.

  • 93. See Elizabeth B. Welles, “Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2002,” Profession (2004).