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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 1043-1044

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Book Review

The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation

Theory And Cultural Studies

Rachel C. Lee. The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1999. xi + 205 pp.

Writing from the intersection of Asian American, American, and gender studies, Rachel Lee attempts to promote an Asian American collective identity that is attentive to gender issues. Convinced that Asian American literary criticism needs to go beyond analysis of "traditional ethnic themes of generational conflict and biculturalism," Lee argues that "gender and sexuality essentially modify the varied inscriptions of America by Asian American writers, and that representations of America often obscures the novels' discourse on family, eroticism, and gender roles." Her "gendered analysis" thus focuses on "the crises and knotty barriers confronting the study of cultural representations of America, gender, and sexuality in contexts informed by the politics of nation-states in oftentimes (neo)colonial relationships upon a terrain increasingly defined as global and borderless." Lee seeks to highlight how gender intersects significantly with articulations of national belonging and international migration, particularly in the idea and representation of America, suggesting that the term is inherently doubled for the Asian American subject: "America" is not one reality, but a series of disjunctive paradigms that undercut monolithic structures of meaning.

Lee's gendered readings of Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart, Gish Jen's Typical American, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, and Karen Tei Yamashita's Through the Arc of the Rain Forest are incisive and thorough. As she makes clear, her intention--supported by numerous references to other theorists--is to offer close readings and a "larger critique of culture and ideology" in order to provide a clear vision of the overlooked centrality of gender and sexuality in Asian American literary expression.

Lee's most important assertion is that the Asian American novel offers us the opportunity to observe the complex and varied manner in which gender politics figure into the narrative stances that mediate the authors' transgressive intent. She forwards her own critical terminology to conceptualize the novels' strategic formation, discussing, for example, the "cultural scripts" in Jen's novel of "performative excess." These scripts continually make demands on the Changs, leading them into an "intrafamilar masquerade [that] illuminates the power differentials within [End Page 1043] a household that racial and ethnic paradigms often elide." In this context, Lee's task is to "explore how racial disparity and gender subordination collaborate with each other." She also proposes a re-reading of Yamashita's "quasi-magical realistic novel" as a redeployment of the archetype for postnational purposes: redesigning Asian American cultural nationalism.

This is where the strength of the study may also become its weakness. As Lee proposes a revised prism through which to view the texts, she overstretches her point in her bid towards gendered reading, occasionally making her analyses less successful than her formulations. For example, in her rereading of Bulosan's novel, she focuses on the "eroticized women" who are presented as "expendable foes--catalysts who set into motion the real tragedy: the loss of male companionship." This emphasis diverts attention from the central focus of the novel, the history and price of early Filipino labor migration. Further, to support her claim that Hagedorn's novel "takes as its primary topic the desires of Filipinas," Lee justifies evident chronological lapses as "the trace of Hagedorn's choice both to link her stories of female embodiment to national questions [. . .] and yet not to concede all forms of topical legitimacy to questions of nationalism and national allegory." Hagedorn's manipulation of chronology and events in the story need not be validated by solely feminist intentions, but may respond simply to artistic demands of the narrative.

In a manner of speaking, Lee strives to recover both a theme and a prism through which to view the working of cultural politics. She attempts to promote a more comprehensive appreciation of Asian American literature by unveiling the complexity...


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