- Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography
Larissa Lai notes in her contribution to the volume that, for Asian Canadian artists, “not enough authority has suddenly become too much” (108). In their introduction, the editors map out the historical reasons for this shift in power. Earlier in the establishment of the field, Asian Canadian literature was marked by autobiographical or autoethnographic writing. Asian Canadian artists often relied on such first-person narratives to persuasively [End Page 223] argue for issues of belonging, legitimacy, subjectivity, citizenship, and cultural assimilation into the nation. During this time, authorship was conflated with authenticity, creating a burden of representation for minority writers. Asian Canadian literature was often read as anthropology or sociology, and its writers were assumed to be the “native informants” of their respective cultures. For literary studies, as critic W.H. New expresses, Asian Canadian literature was perceived to be “stuck in the convention of literary realism” (Ty and Verduyn citing New 11).
The late twentieth-century workings of globalization and transnationalism, however, have prompted skepticism toward the project of national inclusion that was once so crucial to the establishment of the field. Asian Canadian literature has responded to these historical changes, and the editors observe that it has “shifted noticeably and even dramatically in style, genre, and subject matter from [that] produced some twenty or thirty years ago” (1). More specifically, the editors note that “no longer are minority authors identifying simply with their ethnic or racial cultural background in opposition to dominant culture” (3). It is this shift in the literary landscape, from writing characterized as autobiographical or autoethnographic to formally more diverse, that the editors of Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography wish to explore.
Critics within the field of Asian Canadian literature may initially be wary of the book’s title. The word “beyond” evokes a teleological understanding of literature, one that potentially assumes autoethnographic writing as a phase that has ended. Yet, as the editors clarify, they do not discredit the importance of autoethnography as a genre. Rather, for them, “going ‘beyond’ autoethnography or critical ethnography means moving away from questions of ‘authenticity,’ essentialist identity politics, and a view of a cultural group that is static” (4–5). The book’s organization reflects this approach to autoethnography: each contributor engages with some of the most prominent theorists in the field (including Françoise Lionnet, James Buzzard, James Clifford, and Mary Louise Pratt) within his or her own unique critique of a range of different media: literature and critical writing, photography, and video art. As a whole, the collection promotes an understanding of Asian Canadian writing that encompasses the fine arts and emphasizes the political and historical dimensions of cultural production.
Part one of the four-part book is entitled “Theoretical Challenges and Praxis.” It is devoted to critical engagements with the concepts of “beyond” and “autoethnography” that frame the entire collection. Smaro Kamboureli’s contribution traces the cross-disciplinary emergence of autoethnography [End Page 224] within the fields of anthropology and literature. Importantly, she reminds us that there was a time when autoethnography was heralded as a “radical shift” in the politics of writing (33), as it attempted to reclaim the anthropological gaze and reassert a sense of self-identity. Paul Lai’s article, “Autoethnography Otherwise,” draws from Kandice Chuh’s recent work (Imagine Otherwise) that calls for a more rigorous engagement with literary theory and criticism. A critique of autoethnographic writing often falls prey to discerning what is “real” from what is “fiction,” and Lai argues that literary theory can circumvent this trap by foregrounding the politics of representation. Kristina Kyser’s contribution is an example of such an exercise in literary criticism. Her psychoanalytic reading of Shani Mootoo’s He Drown She in the Sea prevents an easy ethnographic reading of the novel, for a “psychoanalytic reading severs the novel from its Indo-Caribbean context, thereby troubling any essentialist connection between self [the narrator] and culture” (75).
Part two, “Generic Transformations,” opens with an intervention by Larissa Lai on the potential dangers...