- Reviewed by
In a book that spans an immense range of heady critics and theories, Phillipa Kafka explores contemporary Asian American women writers who undo what she calls “the missionary position,” or a hegemonic view of culture. Her readings, arising from established ideas about the marginalization of ethnic women, link contemporary works by Amy Tan, Faye Mynne Ng, Gish Jen, R. A. Sasaki, and Cynthia Kadohata through an innovative concept she dubs “gender asymmetry,” or the recurrence of an unequal distribution of power between the sexes. Citing scholars such as Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, Henry Giroux, and Cornell West, all avid critics of Western exclusionism and monolithic practices, Kafka contends that despite their intentions to re-present the marginalized, the colonized, and the universalized, they have consistently overlooked another other: gender. To dismiss gender hierarchies and their resulting dire consequences as they are illustrated in contemporary Asian American texts, Kafka claims, is to discredit these writers’ contributions to “mainstream feminist theory,” which she defines, quite simply, as Second Wave feminists who erroneously proposed to speak for all women while most represented predominantly white and heterosexual women. Kafka thus describes her critical work as the unraveling of gender asymmetry through angles contrary to traditional feminist theory.
Kafka’s introduction announces a broad range of weighty topics, such as “pragmatic syncretism” for immigrant Asians, a model of double vision/double irony applicable to minority women, the paradox of accommodation and resistance, unreliable narrators, subterfuge, revisioning [End Page 407] history, and silence/silencing. Anchored by Maxine Hong Kingston’s groundbreaking The Woman Warrior, she skates through a bevy of cultural and feminist critics, a dizzying and complex network of quotes and agendas which obscures the introduction to this provocative theme of asymmetry.
Chapter 1 tackles the recently ubiquitous thread of generational conflicts between mothers and daughters in Asian American literature. Using The Kitchen God’s Wife, Kafka shows how Tan redefines the Chinese concept of ying/yang—referencing male and female characteristics, respectively, in Confucian doctrine—through mothers and daughters, allowing the maternal to occupy the formerly masculine and patriarchal “yang” position. This alteration of gendered hierarchies establishes the main thread of Kafka’s first chapter as well as the theme of her entire book. Whether her readings galvanize a resistance to mainstream feminist theories, as she claims, however, is suspect. Rather, her numerous chapter divisions on disparate topics and her reference to feminist theorists whose tenets are often not thoroughly incorporated into her ideas demonstrate breadth of interpretation as opposed to depth.
The transformation of traditional avenues of understanding paves the way for chapter 2, on syncretism, or the emergence of women as embodied connections between personal and political goals, a theme Kafka finds in Faye Mynne Ng’s Bone. Lei, the protagonist, serves as the syncretic bridge not only between her mother and her sister Ona, the sibling who commits suicide, but also between contemporary America and her mother’s immigrant mentality, as well as between Lei’s feminist ideals and her stepfather Leon’s often clumsy understanding of these ideals, which are embraced by his three daughters. Her exploration of Leon—the emasculated Asian man who remasculates himself by asserting his patriarchal privilege over women only to reject this approach later in the novel—demonstrates Kafka’s commitment to illuminating how both female and male characters in these contemporary Asian American texts may be mired in, but can overcome, gender asymmetry.
Kafka’s most interesting analysis arises in her astute readings of Jen’s Typical American. Paralleling Jen’s wit and sarcasm, Kafka cleverly interrogates those sections of the text that suggest a typical, albeit ridiculous, sense of Americanness, one that insidiously disempowers [End Page 408] both Chinese male and female immigrants who dream of living its tenets wholeheartedly. In emphasizing entrepreneur Ralph Ding’s trials, which include literally throwing his wife out of a picture window (a shattering of the American dream, Kafka points out) and running over his own sister with the family car (the literal laying low of women), Kafka...