Teaching Asian American Literature
by Amy Ling
I find it useful to begin my Introduction to Asian American literature classes with a discussion of terminology. First, I deconstruct the term "oriental," explaining that as a signifier of someone or something of Asian origin it is no longer viable since it is burdened with all the negative connotations of inferiority, irrationality, and exoticism that Edward Said clearly delineated in his groundbreaking cultural history Orientalism. (NY: 1978) By contrast, the term Asian is a neutral geographical designation and therefore more acceptable.
Next, I explore the rather fluid boundaries of the terms "Asian," "American," and "literature." Asia, as the world's largest continent, stretches from what used to be the U.S.S.R, west of the Ural Mountains, as far east as the Bering Strait, and as far south as the Indian Ocean; it is separated from Africa by the Suez Canal, includes all of the Middle East as well as the islands of the South Pacific. However, the boundaries of Asia as employed by scholars of Asian American literature have been much more limited, focused primarily on writers of so-called East Asian origins. [East Asia is only east in relation to Europe, of course; from an American perspective, China, Japan, and Korea are the Near West.] Kai-yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas, editors of the first anthology in the field, Asian American Authors (1972) brought to light two generations of American writers from three Asian traditions: Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino, giving priority to American-born authors. Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, editors of Aiiieeeee!. An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974) included the same three groups and selected on the basis of what they claimed to be an "authentic" but undefined "Asian American sensibility." David Hsin-fu Wand, editor of another anthology Asian American Heritage (1974), extended the field to include Koreans, South Pacific islanders, and writers whose sensibilities had been formed in Asia. As South Asians and Southeast Asians are beginning to be recognized as writers, the boundary of Asian American literature is stretching.
The term "American" has been defined by Elaine Kim, author of the first book-length scholarly study, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (1982) as the requisite setting of an Asian American text. Writers of Asian ancestry living in the United States, like Richard Kim and Sook Nyul Choi, but writing books set in Asian countries would be excluded by her definition. This seems to me an unfortunate exclusion that cuts off important sources of history, culture and memory. Since Asia is an inherent part of an Asian American's past, whether distant or more immediate, it should be acknowledged. Writers whose sensibilities were shaped in Asia, those who write of American experiences in Asian languages or of Asian experiences in English have been designated "immigrant" or "emigré" writers, but should also be included under the rubric Asian American.
"There is always a surplus of humanness," as Bakhtin says, (Dialogic Imagination, 37) and several questions tease us as we try to put people into categories. At what point does an immigrant become an American? Should American citizenship be the sole criterion? Can't a lengthy residency "Americanize" an "immigrant" even if his/her citizenship has remained unchanged? Where do mixed-race people fit into these designations and how much Asian ancestry is necessary for the Asian American appellation? What about an author who is racially Asian and nationally American but who chooses not to write of his/her own ethnicity? Is Asian American literature defined by the ethnicity of the author or by its subject matter? These questions seem answerable only on a case by case basis, depending on the scholar or critic tackling them. In brief, for me the ethnicity of an author should be Asian and the subject matter Asian or Asian American to fit my definition of an Asian American text.
Finally, what is literature? By what criteria do we decide which texts are works of art and which are not? Feminists and ethnic scholars have been calling into question singular points of view that claim universality and putting in their stead alternate versions of history, of beauty and truth. We have begun to ask whose criteria we are using for inclusion into the "canon" and for what purposes. We are looking at autobiography, work songs, and diaries as literary texts worthy of study. We are urging everyone to admit to a perspective and to grant the validity of other perspectives. We are realizing that there are large gaps in history, many stories which have never before been heard by the populace at large, stories by those who are powerless, working class, and peoples of color.
Thus, Asian American literature has several purposes: to remember the past, to give voice to a hitherto silent people with an ignored and therefore unknown history, to correct stereotypes of an "exotic" or "foreign" experience and thus, as Hong Kingston says, "to claim America" for the thousands of Americans whose Asian faces too frequently deny them a legitimate place in this country of their birth. This literature cannot be read without some grounding in the historical and cultural contexts of Asians in the United States. Nor can the term "Asian American" be understood as a monolithic unity, for it contains hosts of nationalities and languages, dozens of religions, and a multitude of races as originating sources.
Though the Heath Anthology includes only ten Asian American authors out of several possible hundreds, it does present a chronological and a somewhat representative sample from a field growing in two directions as new writers become published and as scholars uncover writers of the past. Edith Maud Eaton (Sui Sin Far) ( 2, 884-901) is one of these discoveries. Like Harriet Jacobs, she has the distinction of being a pioneer, the first Asian American writer of short fiction; her younger sister Winnifred Eaton (who used a Japanese pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and is not included in the Anthology) was the first Asian American novelist.
As contemporary reviewers wrote of Edith Eaton's work, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," her autobiographical essay "sounded a new note" in American literature, spotlighting the between-worlds plight of Chinese Eurasians during a period of virulent sinophobia.
Sinophobia, which extended to all Asians, remained strong for nearly a century--from the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s until the immigration reform act of 1965, which ended discriminatory quotas favoring Europeans and equalized quotas worldwide. Consequently, much of the Asian immigrant experience has been a painful one. Sui Sin Far's short story "In the Land of the Free" recounts the high cost paid in anguish when unjust immigration restrictions are enforced without regard to human feelings. The events in the story emphasize the irony of its title, and the estrangement of the child from his mother at the story's end foreshadows his future assimilation into the dominant culture and the attendant loss of his motherland and mothertongue. The selection from Younghill Kang's autobiography East Goes West (2, 1747-1754), recounts the comic mishaps when a newly arrived Korean student of Shakespeare attempts the work of domestic servant in an American home, but the subtext exposes the limited choices open to an Asian immigrant in a land which prides itself on being a haven for the persecuted and a land of opportunity. Still another subtextual layer is the "feminization" of "alien" young men who themselves express male chauvinist views of their own women at home.
"Carved on the Walls: Poetry by Early Chinese Immigrants" (2, 1755-1762) and "Silence" by Filipino-American Carlos Bulosan (2, 1840-1843) continue to iterate the gulf between the rhetoric of America and the reality of living here. Having saved for the passage across the Pacific Ocean, would-be Chinese immigrants dream of entering the "Gold Mountain" but find themselves imprisoned on an island, for weeks, months, even years, tantalizingly within sight of the buildings of San Francisco. Instead of golden opportunities, they sleep in three tiered bunks two hundred in a room and wait for the interrogations which will determine their fate: permission to enter the U.S.A. or an ignominious return to China. Or, like the protagonist in Bulosan's poignant story, they dream in lonely rooms of warm human contacts which evaporate like mist.
In the latter half of this century, Asian American writing hasachieved new levels of maturity, artistry and emotional depth. Hisaye Yamamoto's beautifully achieved story "Seventeen Syllables,"(2, 1871-1882) written from the perspective of an adolescent and thus told obliquely, delineates the tensions in a Japanese American family where each of the three family members' life trajectories lead them painfully in opposing directions. The traumatic Relocation experience, attendant upon Executive Order 9066 which uprooted 110,000 Japanese Americans from their west coast homes and sent them to live behind barbed wire in inland desert camps, has much of the writing from this group. John Okada's No-No Boy (2, 1900-1912) traces the the psychological scars of the war at home in the efforts of a draft resister, Ichiro, to come to terms with his decision and contrasts his tension-filled home with the love-filled family of Kenji, a Japanese American veteran who returns from war with a gangrenous wound that continues to take inches off his leg and eventually takes his life. What price glory, the text seems to be asking, and what land is this where everyone seems to be filled with hatred for someone else?
The work of Maxine Hong Kingston (2, 2094-2115) and Janice Mirikitani (2, 2501-2509) reflect the ramifications of the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation Movements of the 1960s and 1970s: affirmation and assertion of the self as an amalgam of the specificities of race, culture, gender and class. Kingston in The Woman Warrior finds a meaningful model in a classical Chinese heroine, Fa Mulan, the woman warrior, whose story she embroiders on, while Mirikitani gives voice to the unvoiced struggle of her parents to survive in a hostile environment and to her silent daughter who denies she is like her mother. Both writers speak of the gulfs of silence and incomprehension between generations of mothers and daughters, gulfs that cry out to be bridged.
Finally, Garrett Hongo (2, 2550-2562) and Cathy Song (2, 2585-2593), two accomplished and acclaimed Hawaiian-born poets, through the use of striking, sensuous details render beautiful and extraordinary such everyday incidents as coming home from work, cooking, and bathing.
Students who have had no previous contact with Asian Americans, who know only the model minority stories in the media and the distorted Hollywood images of "orientals," are generally surprised to learn, after reading Asian American literature, that Asians are just people after all. If they have come to this realization, as small a step as it may seem to some of us, they have made a giant leap towards greater understanding. And perhaps, one day, authors like Hong Kingston and English professors with Asian features in the United States will no longer be "complimented" on their good English but will be accepted without raised eyebrows as belonging here.