- The Place of Transgressive Texts in Asian American Epistemology
At the 2008 Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) conference awards banquet, the prize for best work of Asian American fiction was given to James Janko’s Buffalo Boy and Geronimo.1 When Janko, a white American man in his mid-fifties, strode up to the podium, I heard murmurs of confusion and consternation from surrounding tables. A friend turned to me and asked, “Is that a white guy who just won the award for Asian American fiction?” I nodded my head slowly and then, in the days following the banquet, polled people for their reactions to Janko’s winning this award. The Asian American literary scholars I spoke with were baffled and uncomfortable with the Asian American fiction award going to a white American author. And I must confess that I shared the initial sentiments of my tablemates, friends, and colleagues. No one I knew had read his novel, so we were not questioning the literary merits of his work; rather, our reaction was due to the fact that a white American writer had just won an Asian American fiction award.2
In the months following the banquet, I have mused on what this award signals for the field of Asian American literature, since officially the AAAS has now recognized a non-Asian American writer as producing a valid and valued work of Asian American creative writing. Although I do believe, from an intellectual point of view, that Asian American epistemology should be inherently anti-essentialist, I felt distinctly uncomfortable when Janko won the fiction prize. I believe [End Page 205] my visceral reaction stemmed from my awareness of the myriad ways in which Asian American voices have been silenced and marginalized by white supremacist forces in US history and society. And I am all too aware of the double bind that Asian American writers face—that they are often pigeonholed into being race writers: damned if they weave an ethnic tale and damned if they step outside their ethnic and racial backgrounds in their creative endeavors.
When sorting out my reaction to the 2008 AAAS fiction award, I recognize that I am also trying to understand how my knowledge of Asian Americans is transmitted through texts that we, the gatekeepers of academia and the shapers of literary canons, call Asian American literature. Thus, my essay addresses Asian American epistemology by questioning how Asian American scholars have come to define Asian American literature and by taking on transgressive texts—texts in which the identity of the author does not correspond to the identity of the main protagonist or main characters of the work in question. According to Shelly Fisher Fishkin, transgressive texts are those “in which black writers create serious white protagonists, and white writers black ones” (121). Although Fishkin’s study concentrates on African American writers who depict whiteness, she acknowledges in her first footnote that the theme of transgressive texts is applicable to other ethnic American literatures, such as Asian American. Taking Fishkin’s central conceit—the disjunction between the body of the author and the body of the text—this essay raises a number of questions: What is the value of transgressive texts in Asian American epistemology? Which bodies matter more when trying to define Asian American literature: the bodies of the writers who create the material or the bodies of the characters who populate the fiction? What is at stake in defining Asian American literature by either/both the writer and/or the material? Do we have a place for non-Asian American writers who write on Asian American topics? What is the responsibility of Asian American literary scholars in evaluating Asian American creative fiction as forms of knowledge?
I open with these provocative questions to suggest that Asian American Studies has been grappling with these types of questions, directly and indirectly, since Asian American literature gained prominence in both the academy and the marketplace. I want to investigate what we as scholars and teachers of Asian American literature may find productive about imagining these texts as part of the growing canon of Asian American literature and to examine how transgressive texts...