Eleanor Ty's The Politics of the Visible takes as its starting point the paradox that while Asian North Americans are widely regarded as a visible minority, Asians are still largely invisible in mainstream public and cultural spheres. Ty coins the phrase the "politics of the visible" in order to discuss "the effects of being legally, socially, and culturally marked as 'visible,' and, paradoxically, . . . the experience of being invisible in dominant culture and history" (11–12). Building on work by scholars such as Lisa Lowe, Timothy Fong, and Traise Yamamoto, Ty considers the response of Asian North American writers and filmmakers to the politics of the visible. She argues that the nine authors and filmmakers considered in her study
disrupt visible signs dealing with the expectations of being Asian Americans or Asian Canadians, whether these are physical or cultural, thereby reinscribing the marks etched on their corporeal selves. They reciprocate the gaze and destabilize the set of meanings commonly associated with their Asian bodily features. By highlighting the means by which they are "photo-graphed," they begin to shift the unequal balance of power that accompanies such structures and representations.(11)
The Politics of the Visible is groundbreaking in several ways. In the introduction to the book, Ty describes her theoretical approach as "a creative hybrid" (30) because she draws from a rich variety of critical sources in developing her argument concerning the politics of the visible including Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, David Palumbo-Liu, and Jacques Lacan. However, the phrase could fittingly be applied to the book as a whole as well. Ty's study moves beyond geographical boundaries, focusing on works by Asian Canadians and Asian Americans. Despite historical and contemporary differences in the treatment of these two groups, Ty argues that "their juxtaposition reveals many noteworthy comparisons" (13). For instance, in both countries, "what generates the classification and ordering of things is still predominantly appearance or the scopic drive" (8). Ty's study is also not limited by genre, and she considers fiction, nonfiction, and film, suggesting that the demarcations of fiction, biography, and autobiography are not always clear in Asian writing. This is true of a number of the texts she considers. For example, Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children (1994) is part family memoir and part fiction. Ty refers to the book as "historiographic autoethnography" because Chong "questions the way that history has been narrated; [End Page 201] what, and from whose viewpoint, it has been told" (36). Finally, although she acknowledges the importance of the tropes of visibility and invisibility in canonical works such as The Woman Warrior (1977) and Obasan (1981), she chooses underexamined works for her study in order to expose the richness of Asian North American texts, many of which have not been fully, or at all, explored.
The Politics of the Visible is divided into three sections, each of which includes three chapters focused on a single work. Part 1 is titled "Visuality, Representation, and the Gaze" and includes chapters on Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children, Bienvenido Santos's The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor (1983), and Mina Shum's Double Happiness (1994). Ty argues that the works in this section intervene in representational practice by humanizing and de-exoticizing "what has been othered and Orientalized" (28). Part 2, "Transformations Through the Sensual," features analyses of Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Among the White Moon Faces (1996), Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (1995). In these works, characters "attempt to transform outward 'visible' signs—one's body, the food one makes, one's accent—into things of power and beauty" (28). In Part 3, "Invisible Minorities in Asian America," Ty focuses on Cecilia Brainard's When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1994), Hiromi Goto's Chorus of Mushrooms (1994), and Bino Realuyo's The Umbrella Country (1999). This section serves the important purpose of demonstrating the often unseen complexity of Asian North American cultures and the sometimes hidden differences that...