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In Her Mother's House: The Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing
In Her Mother's House: The Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing. By Wendy Ho. Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press, 1999.
Few would disagree that the current of Asian American literary studies now rushes away from the focus on generational struggle that was often the Gibraltar of past studies. While there is no single reason for this redirection in scholarly attention, perhaps the most obvious catalyst has been the dawning recognition that both mainstream and critical readings of popular Asian American texts--and here The Joy Luck Club inevitably leaps to mind--have seized on generational conflict as a means of diminishing the cultural and political incommensurabilities of Asian American existence. In freshman composition classrooms and book club discussions across North America, the "problem" of Asian America is contained as a family struggle between first and second generations, primarily between mothers and daughters, which reproves the lessons of a late twentieth-century self-help culture in its sensational uncovering of tragic secrets and promotion of healing through the universalizing love shared by mothers and daughters. It seems the present alternative to the historical inscrutability of Asian American culture has been the leveling of its relevance as political critique. Your mother is, once again, to blame.
Wendy Ho's new book, In Her Mother's House: The Politics of Asian American Mother-Daughter Writing, takes on a considerable task in arguing for a re-evaluation of the subversive potential of the topoi of mother-daughter relationships in Asian American literature. Her book is structured around readings of Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and Fay Myenne Ng's Bone, prefaced by some discussion of the cultural and historical politics informing the academic reading of Asian American women's writing. Directing her attention to Chinese American women's writing, but drawing freely from observations in other areas of American ethnic and feminist studies, Ho picks her way with care, aware of Ramon Saldivar's injunction that "mother-daughter nurturing, the sisterhood of women...should not be regarded as transhistorical concepts that uniformly liberate women from oppression, but as constructions that acquire specific meanings at different historical moments and under different economic and racial conditions." (quoted, 21) Yet neither can she deny the symbolic and ideological importance of the mother-daughter bond in the formation of women as national citizen-subjects. Through readings of Kingston, Tan, and Ng, Ho attempts to "situate their mothers and daughters at domestic-familial sites, which are complicated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and social-economic issues." (35) Although Ho does not specify it as such, her [End Page 291] strategy is clearly indebted to decades of feminist work that has challenged the presumption of the private/public divide to reinforce studies of women's culture, including the work of Joan Scott and Nancy Armstrong. In this sense, In Her Mother's House benefits from the observation that familial forms and domestic arrangements may be, at once, the instruments and means of rejection of nationalist ideologies, just as the mother-daughter relationships in the works of many Chinese American women writers reflect uneven negotiations of political and cultural hegemonies.
The "complicated vocabulary of rupture" encoded in the talk-story traditions of Chinese American storytelling, a tradition taken up by all three of the writers Ho privileges, is offered as evidence of the degrees and forms of everyday social protest practiced among women as mothers and daughters. Despite what Ho admits has been a disturbing attempt to force these narratives into the service of a white-liberal politics of race, she argues that they remain in the novels as narrative forms "that cannot be comfortably forced into the traditional categorical straitjackets of linear, coherent, and objective telling or writing" and that, furthermore, they "provide ways to rethink masculinist, nationalist, and/or capitalist configurations of the social body politic." (20...