- Tell This Silence: Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech
"Breaking silence," "speaking out"—these and similar phrases are often those associated with a feminist or multicultural politics. The idea behind such language is that an individual or group has only to "find her voice" in order to begin to transform oppressive discourses or situations. However, as numerous critics, from Audre Lorde to Trinh T. Minh-ha to King-Kok Cheung, have pointed out, and as Patti Duncan argues in her excellent study, silence is not merely a sign of absence of voice or power. While that may be the case, it is also crucial to recognize the ways silence can signify resistance and the ways speaking can be used in the service of dominance and subjugation. Early in her study of contemporary Asian American women's writing, Duncan notes that too many critics have read silence as "antithetical to the liberation of oppressed groups of people" and have "fail[ed] to recognize . . . the ways in which speech acts, too, are limited and constrained" (13). Not all silences are equivalent; nor are all speech acts equal in their implications and effects.
Building from this significant refiguring of the speech/silence dichotomy, Duncan provides readings of both familiar and unfamiliar texts by Asian American women writers. Her study begins with discussions of Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (1975) and China Men (1977), and she moves on to a reading of Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981). But she also treats lesser-known work, including Mitsuye Yamada's Camp Notes (1976), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée (1982), Norma Okja Keller's Comfort Woman (1997), and Anchee Min's Red Azalea (1994). In bringing together both "mainstream" texts like Kingston and Kogawa's with work that has only recently begun to receive critical attention, Duncan participates not only in [End Page 204] reframing our consideration of discourse but also in calling our attention to a range of genres—fiction (Obasan and Comfort Woman), poetry (Camp Notes and Dictée), and auto/biography (Woman Warrior, China Men, and Red Azalea).
Duncan's argument is organized around her claim that both women's and Asian Americans' relationships to silence and speech are vexed by historical and contemporary experiences. One of the strengths of this study is its inclusion of substantial discussions of Asian American history. For instance, Duncan's careful discussions of historical context allow her to make the compelling claim that speech functions differently depending on the power allocated to the speaker. Thus Japanese Americans could not contest the fracturing of Japanese identity from American (or Canadian) identity during World War II. Likewise, governmental authority imbued euphemisms like "relocation camp" with more authority than the counterdiscourse of "internment camp" or "concentration camp." "Thus, while silence may be misunderstood," Duncan argues, "speech, too, is dangerous. Language, controlled by those with power, may distort, stereotype, and control while concurrently shaping and defining reality for those who are dominated and/or marginalized" (88). At times Duncan's historical discussions are a bit heavy-handed, and they rely rather heavily in some cases on a limited number of historical studies (most notably work by Ronald Takaki and Suchen Chang). But while readers familiar with the histories of Asian American groups may not find much new information here, these discussions are crucial to the analysis Duncan builds. In order to understand why silence or speech is privileged and the ways in which each might be deployed as a strategy of resistance, we must understand the historical contexts.
One of the most complex issues Duncan negotiates is the notion of "unsaying." For many scholars confronted with historical silences, the goal is to uncover and reinsert lost—but already existing and coherent—voices into an official narrative. This move, which parallels the rhetoric of "coming into one's voice," complicates (by making multivocal) but does not actually disrupt totalizing historical narratives. If we read silence differently—as a marker of presence and resistance rather than simply a sign...