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Reviewed by:
  • Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures
  • Monica Chiu
Sheng-mei Ma. Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998. 188 pp.

Recent debates in Asian American studies include issues regarding denationalizing the field, addressed by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, and monitoring the effects of globalization and an increased Asian American population, championed by Lisa Lowe. As such, immigrant and postcolonial subjectivities in Asian American and postcolonial studies would seem an applicable and important arena for scrutiny. However, Sheng-Mei Ma finds an inherent ideology in the field that fabricates immigrants as “others” and replicates stereotypes it purports to destroy; as well, Ma unveils entrenched western-centric views within postcolonial studies, those limiting Asian American and postcolonial scholars to an ironic European-postcolonial stance. His intriguing angles and their accompanying textual examples are a major contribution to radicalizing traditional views of immigrant subjectivities.

The book’s first five chapters discuss how “Asian American discourse Orientalizes Asian immigrants and Occidentalizes white bodies.” Ma notes that those Southeast Asian immigrants who have been arriving on U.S. shores in great numbers since 1975 offer a rich field of information by which to glean biographies and other stories. However, he criticizes second- and third-generation story tellers—those who are often more linguistically apt to tell these immigrants’ tales—for creating characters who are “native informants” or who practice “ethnographic feminism.” The former, exemplified by Frank Chin and other editors of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, foregrounds the “exoticism” they resent while simultaneously “empowering themselves in the midst of a white society through immigrant memories and the mythic Asian past.” Ma introduces “ethnographic feminism” through the often praised The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. The protagonist’s mother, born in China before relocating to the U.S., becomes a “native informant” whose “fantastic” tales are effortlessly transcribed into a western feminist context. This feminism (which Ma regards as a gesture toward political correctness), combined with ethnography (read: orientalism), promotes, more than anything else, increased book sales. Ma names this orientalism among Chinese American authors a form of [End Page 542] “self-hatred,” wherein those who employ so-called effeminate Chinese male characters or who write in a so-called debased pidgin in order to defuse their negative cultural implications only reveal complicity in western orientalism. In other chapters of this section, Ma criticizes Asian American authors whose male characters eroticize white women’s bodies as a form of self-empowerment, and he explores two Taiwanese overseas student writers who produce schizophrenic immigrant characters, replicating and not dismantling the idea of the “unassimilable alien.”

In his last three chapters, Ma investigates two types of Asian diaspora literature which illuminate immigrant subjectivities whose consciousness and focal point are Chinese- and not western-centric. Liu-hsueh-shen wen hsueh (“overseas student literature”) addresses topics such as characters’ exclusion from both Chinese and American cultural arenas and the impact, on Taiwan, of political movements and western theories (modernism or existentialism) in novels like Yu Li-hua’s Again the Palm Trees! and Chang Hsi-kuo’s Rage of Yesteryear. Ma finds that Hsiang-t’u we-hsueh (“home-soil or nativist literature” from Taiwan since the 1970s) critiques, first, the Chinese essence of the aforementioned overseas literature as well as westernization, particularly that generated by American Gls on leave who establish a “mushrooming sex trade” abroad. Ma inquires why postcolonial studies, with its emphasis on nonwestern, nonhegemonic practices, has relegated such literature that obviously encompasses postcolonial contexts to sinologists and Asian—not Asian American—departments. He answers by defining western postcolonial studies as “deeply Eurocentric”: it accentuates the European angle of British or French colonies, as does Edward Said for example; it ignores Asian-colonized territories; and it focuses on minority subjects in the so-called first world. He concludes that western academics’ “linguistic and cultural self-interests” unfortunately exclude overseas (mostly middle-class) Chinese writers, who provide rich material by which to study immigrant subjectivities.

The most recent incarnation of overseas student literature, suggests Ma, is filmmaking. He concludes with provocative readings of Ang...

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