- Nowhere in Particular: Perceiving Race, Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft, and the Question of Asian American Fiction
I located two Asian American literature courses in which David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) was taught as an Asian American novel because the professors had simply assumed, from the way the book had been marketed, that the author was Asian American. One of the professors rationalized the error by saying that Guterson’s book was an Asian American novel, but that we needed to define Asian American differently. By these terms, if “Asian American” is a genre label, then other white writers like Danielle Steele—who also has a novel dealing with the Japanese American internment experience—can write it as well, in the same way that writers of any race may write a Mystery or Science Fiction novel. Such rationalization presents a troubling, somewhat “in your face” redefinition of our inquiry.—Heinz Insu Fenkel, “The Future of Korean American Literature.”
Though set outside North America and unconcerned with U.S. or Canadian relations with Asian countries or people, [End Page 183] these texts [Funny Boy and Anil’s Ghost] share with Asian North American texts the drive to interpellate the reader as a sympathetic observer of social injustices.—Patricia Chu, “A Flame against a Sleeping Lake of Petrol.”
The two quotes above signal some of the contradictions in defining the object of study for Asian American literary critics. Should this object be defined minimally in terms of the author’s ancestry, as Fenkl suggests? Should it be defined as a genre whose content treats Asian American subjects irrespective of the author? Or should it be defined irrespective of content or authorial identity and more in terms of a shared aesthetic or formal concern, as Chu does? What is the relationship between author and textual content for Asian American literature? Since the inception of Asian American Studies, Asian American literature has traditionally relied on authorial markers of Asian ancestry in order to delimit its boundaries. As the era of identity politics has come into question and more emphasis has been placed on heterogeneity, as well as on comparative and global frameworks, Asian American literature has broadened to encompass a wide array of projects and concerns.1 But the issue of how to define Asian American literature lingers because of an undertheorization of the category. The term Asian American bounces from author to text to context without a thoroughgoing inquiry into either the relations among these sites or between modes of racialization and ethnic literary studies. The result is consternation such as Fenkel’s, and reproduction of assumptions about what should or should not count as Asian American literature.
Colleen Lye lays out the effects of this under theorization on the projects of Asian Americanists. In her essay “In Dialogue with Asian American Studies,” Lye observes that even as critics strive toward inclusiveness within Asian American literature in terms of ideology, politics, and geography, they increasingly rely on biological notions of identity (requiring, for example, that writers be of Asian descent or have one Asian parent).2 Lye warns against “an ever-greater dependency on biological notions of identity to help us order our epistemological projects” and suggests that this dependency calls for a “much-needed dialogue between social constructionist theories of race and ethnic literary studies.” Acknowledging that this “racial reification” is the effect of political strategizing around the consolidation of Asian American identity (4), Lye nonetheless sees that recognition of Asian American heterogeneity (through intersectional, feminist, queer-based, and comparative frameworks) has done little to change overarching frameworks for understanding Asian American literature in terms of resistance to Orientalist stereotyping: [End Page 184]
The problem of theorizing “Asian American literature” remains one of how to move beyond a dualistic conceptualization of American and Asian American cultures, American and Asian American politics, American and Asian American subjects. To this extent, Asian American cultural studies can be said to have not yet moved beyond Orientalism—not so much in the sense that as Asian Americanists we are bound to reproduce Orientalist discourse, although this is a serious possibility, but that we have not found a way to...