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Reviewed by:
  • Beyond Literary Chinatown
  • Paul Lai
Jeffrey F. L. Partridge. Beyond Literary Chinatown. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2007. xvii + 246 pp.

Jeffrey F. L. Partridge's Beyond Literary Chinatown offers a nuanced discussion of "the dialectical process at the nexus of reader, author, and text" in the production of meaning about Chinese American literature (6). In exploring practices of reading and writing, Partridge analyzes commonplace claims about the critical reception of these texts as well as how authors respond to such reception within their texts. Rather than posit either the audience or the text as final arbiter of meaning, he explores how reader's expectations about the text and author interact with the text to generate moments of intelligibility, misreadings, and subversive possibilities. He thoughtfully turns to a range of prose and poetry texts as well extra-textual material for evidence to support these claims about the dynamics of meaning-making. His readings of promotional copy and reviews for books by Chinese American authors, for example, offer important support for claims about how publishers and reviewers help shape what readers expect of texts.

Over the course of four sections, Partridge builds an argument that examines the reception of Chinese American literature and a number of texts that exceed, challenge, and transform the audience's expectations. Partridge argues for an opening up of the readers' horizon of expectation while still accounting for the forces that construct that horizon. He engages with philosophers and reception theorists [End Page 401] like Paul Ricoeur and Hans Robert Jauss to posit this horizon as "a metaphor for the reading process . . . [in which] readers approach texts with a set of expectations and these expectations are either confirmed, and reified, or challenged, and modified, as the world of the text unfolds" (11). He reads a number of texts by Chinese American writers in order to push against fixed notions of Chinese American identities and narratives. Ultimately, he guides this argument to a discussion of the "polycultural" as a term and philosophy that extends and pushes against the "multicultural" by accounting for more fluid identities while still holding on to historical, material, and social valences of antiracism (ix).

In part I, "Literary Chinatown and the Reader's Horizon," Partridge first explains his term "literary Chinatown" as a reading practice rooted in Euro-American perceptions of Chinese and Chinese American alterity, and then he discusses the cultural and political work of the "ethnic-author function." Using Stanley Fish's interpretive communities as a touchstone, he discusses how the (white) reading public produces a particular vision of Chinese American literature in ways similar to the production of physical Chinatowns. Partridge's interest in the "dynamics of race and reading" (23) that inform these productions offers a useful complement to other work in Asian American literary studies that reads American literature broadly for stereo-typical representations of Chinese Americans. Instead of focusing on how Euro-American writers represent Chinese Americans in their own writing, he turns to how Euro-American reviewers of Chinese American literature persist in their interpretive strategies to assign meanings to Chinese American authors' texts that generally do not correspond to meanings that arise out of the texts themselves. To demonstrate this claim, Partridge reads David Wong Louie's collection of short stories, Pangs of Love, against its marketing reviews in the Kirkus Reviews, analyzing how the reviews insist on reading Chinese American immigrant protagonists and themes throughout the book even though many of the stories frustrate such expectations.

Taking up Michel Foucault's discussion of the author function as operating in various discourses tied to legal and institutional systems, Partridge examines how Chinese American authors function within expectations of the publishing industry and the reading public at large. He traces a few specific discursive functions of the ethnic author and offers examples from Chinese American authors such as Louis Chu, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, Amy Tan, Sui Sin Far, Onoto Watanna, Jade Snow Wong, and Ruthanne Lum McCunn. These functions include claims of the communal (individuals speak for the group), the authentic, the socio-cultural, the commodified ethnic other, and the tour guide. [End Page 402]

In the next section, "Exceeding the Margins," Partridge...


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