- The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives
One of the first sustained comparative analyses of Asian North American narratives, Eleanor Ty's The Politics of the Visible is an important contribution to the study of Asian-American and Asian-Canadian cultural production. Moving beyond the United States racial paradigms that traditionally inform Asian-American literary criticism, Ty foregrounds the intersections between Canadian and United States racial politics in her readings of Asian-Canadian and Asian-American texts to demonstrate the 'primacy of the visible in the construction of the Asian Canadian as well as the Asian American subject.' Ty traces how Asian North American narratives negotiate the ambivalent and complex inscriptions of the racially marked body - its visibility as Other and the simultaneous invisibility of otherness - to formulate what she terms 'the politics of the visible.' According to Ty, the politics of the visible 'starts with the visual - a set of bodily attributes that has been represented in our culture as "Asian," filmic and pictorial representations of the Oriental - but moves beyond the visual to social, legal, political and historical spheres.' Just as the visible is a defining site of racialization and containment, Ty argues it is also site of possible resistance, and she illuminates the various strategies that Asian North American writers and filmmakers deploy to challenge their marginalization and reimagine subjectivity.
Ty's cross-border perspective is also reflected in her eclectic theoretic approach as well as in her choices of texts. Drawing from feminist theories of the subject, psychoanalysis, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theories, Ty analyses texts across different narrative forms and medias, from autobiography and fiction to photography and film. The book is organized into three parts. The first, 'Visuality, Representation, and the Gaze,' tracks the interrogation and internalization of the unequal relations of power that structure the gaze in Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children, Bienvenido Santo's The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor, and Mina [End Page 197] Shum's film, Double Happiness. Part 2, 'Transformations through the Sensual,' examines bodily inscriptions and embodiment in Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Among the White Moon Faces, Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife, and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony. The final section, 'Invisible Minorities in Asian America,' explores Cecilia Brainard's When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Hiromi Goto's Chorus of Mushrooms, and Bino Realuyo's The Umbrella Country to illuminate the histories that are invisible within dominant culture and also glossed over in Asian-American literary studies.
Through the range of texts examined, The Politics of the Visible testifies to the persistence of the visible as a locus of racial epistemology and the necessity of interrogating that persistence. Ty's analysis offers a compelling lens through which to study the connections between Asian-American and Asian-Canadian narratives and recalibrates the uneven critical attention that has, so far, defined their respective places in North American academies. If there is a flaw in Ty's synthesis of Asian-Canadian and Asian-American narratives, it is that its persuasive breadth of examples crowds out a concomitant assessment of how particularized forms of visibility are constituted at and through the US-Canada border. This downplaying of the US-Canada border, from its racialized enforcement to its material and discursive effects, implies a porous border where racialized Asian bodies can cross with the same ease as the Asian North American narratives she examines.
Despite this, The Politics of the Visible carves out a vital space not just for Asian North American literary studies but also for the study of comparative racial politics in a transnational framework. Ty's work bridges the gap between the institutionalized field of Asian-American literary studies and the emergent field of Asian-Canadian literary studies, and it challenges us to rethink the paradigms of racial and ethnic identity beyond the domestic nation-based models of United States ethnic studies and Canadian multiculturalism. [End Page 198]
Marie Lo, Department of English, Portland State University