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  • Bee-e-een! Nation, Transformation and the Hyphen of Ethnicity in Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey
  • Isabella Furth (bio)

Near the end of Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: his fake book, a linked pair of acrobatic twins somersault across a stage. Played by two Americans, one of Japanese ancestry, one of European, both wearing one green velveteen suit, Chang and Eng the Double Boys are both separate and conjoined, neither fully unified nor fully distinct, and expressible only by the grammatical impossibility of the plural singular pronoun (t)he(y). As an individual(s), (t)he(y) find loneliness and identity equally impossible, and their/his (un)solitary (un)doubleness extends to the culture (t)he(y) inhabit. Adopting green velvet and the surname of a battle of the American Revolution, (t)he(y) are included in the practice of cultural signification: (t)he(y) marry, get drafted, attend parties and get drunk. Simultaneously, (t)he(y) are debarred from it, relegated to a marginal world of Black women, yellow men, and freak show exotica. Assaulted by the audience and jailed for the ensuing riot, (t)he(y) berate the crowd through the bars:

"We know damned well what you came for to see—the angle we're joined at, how we can have two sisters for wives and twenty-one Chinese-Carolinian children between us. You want to see if [End Page 33] there's room for two, three bundling boards. You want to know if we feel jointly. You want to look at the hyphen. You want to look at it bare."

(TM 293)

The hyphen, the mark that simultaneously conjoins and separates, is a central trope of multicultural theory, yet it is seldom more central than it is in the discussion of Asian-American writers. It adheres to Asian immigrants with particular tenacity, for one; whereas for most European immigrants the hyphen drops out after a generation, it remains with citizens of Asian extraction like Kingston's hero Wittman Ah Sing even unto the fifth generation born on U.S. soil, a mark of Otherness and of the persistent failure to inscribe the Asian American fully within the limits of American discourse. The valorization of the hyphen, along with the imposition of a "model minority" paradigm and the highly eroticized attitude towards encounters in which "East meets West," is, Wittman argues, a dissimulation of the fact that "They want us to go back to China where we belong" (307). The putatively unitary and stable American "They" invoked by Wittman both fetishizes and rejects the more ambiguous and indeterminate (t)he(y) of Chang-Eng, doubled by his/their hyphen.

Kingston has long written against this practice of masking exclusionary politics with the rhetoric of inclusion, calling (as Wittman does in Tripmaster Monkey) for Americans of Chinese ancestry to call themselves unhyphenated "Chinese Americans" and so to reject the exoticizing implication that, for the racially Asian, both sides of the hybrid ethnic/national equation have equal weight. Yet in spite of the efforts of writers like Kingston to circumvent the hyphen, to return "Chinese" to the status of adjective, the case of Chang-Eng shows how the marks of separation are clung to, fetishized, and commodified. The current market for "ethnic fiction" is booming, as audiences clamor to see the hyphen, to see it bare and "authentic," and simultaneously to see it bracketed and contained, thrown into the freak show prison of exoticism.

From a critical standpoint, one need only turn to the critical discussion of Kingston's earlier semi-autobiographical works to see this fetishization of the mark of separation from soi-disant "mainstream culture." Again and again, Kingston is treated as a native informant and ethnographic source, as her critics attempt to valorize the "truth" of her ethnic experience and to discard the rest as "decoration" that, in the words of one critic, "fills in the gaps when accurate information is not available" (Neubauer 22). The persistent effort to authenticate Kingston's work by reducing it to a straightforward reference to some sociologically verifiable ethnic reality [End Page 34] brings to mind Salman Rushdie's acerbic observation that "'Authenticity' is the respectable child of old-fashioned...


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pp. 33-49
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