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Caroline Rody. The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. xvii + 196 pp.

Caroline Rody offers a comprehensive study of Asian American literature to highlight "a strong strain of the visionary, a creative reimagining of the potential of intergroup contact and engagement for our language and literature as well as for our lives" (xi). Charting an Asian American literary permeability that engages other minority literatures, Rody posits a new American writing—interethnic literature—invested in the composite, polyglot, and multiple, rather than the singular, monolingual, and discrete. Even as Rody recognizes the risk that celebrating cultural heterogeneity can function as an alibi for structural and racial inequalities, she is insistent that the interethnic strain present in contemporary American fiction marks a shift, inevitable in a global multicultural American sensibility, toward a hybrid mode of reading and writing that evokes heterotopic possibilities. The Interethnic Imagination rigorously engages Asian American literary studies, predominantly Sau-Ling Wong, Lisa Lowe, Anne Anlin Cheng, David Palumbo-Liu, David Eng, and Kandice Chuh, as well as a wide range of postnational, globalization, and diaspora studies exemplified by Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, Fredric Jameson, and Donald Pease, to argue that Asian American literature is a vanguard drifting "toward the borders of ethnic experience . . . to the condition of being-ethnic amidst a hybrid collective, as part of a difficult, but undeniable 'we'" (ix).

Rody's chapters are driven by politically formalist criticism and Bakhtinian dialogics that insist on the primacy of an aesthetic form and an ideological critique to redraw social, geographic, and literary boundaries. Following the elaboration of interethnicity that opens The Interethnic Imagination are three chapters of single-author studies [End Page 158] focused on Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker (1995), Gish Gen's Mona in the Promised Land (1996), and Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange (1997). Two additional interchapters, one on the African American presence in Asian American literature, the second on the project of writing Jewishness across ethnicity, broaden the book's theme of boundary-crossing in contemporary ethnic literature. For Rody, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 heralds a diasporic and multicultural future, but it is the cultural milieu of the 1990s that shifts the thematic and formal/aesthetic against "the 'vertical' axis of memory and return, traditionally dominant in ethnic literatures" toward a "spatial, horizontal axis of encounter" (xxii).

Rody focuses on spatial analytics—via cities and mixed-race bodies—that revise older frameworks such as Warner Sollar's, emphasizing interethnic encounters over traditional family models and descent. Her original work further contributes to literary studies by insisting on the shift in emphasis from ethnic engagement with whiteness toward the influence of literary and cultural traditions by artists of other ethnicities. Her chapter on Lee's Native Speaker animates the ambivalence of the relationship between African Americans and Asian Americans, and by extension, the ability of Korean Americans to be members of a multicultural assemblage. The focus on the multiethnic crowd of New York City is fraught both with possibilities when pointing to global English and mixed-race progeny as sites of lateral relations, and with conflict when represented as the urban black-Korean conflict.

The chapter on Mona in the Promised Land best elucidates Rody's vision for the ethical potentials of interethnicity. She argues that Mona's individual choice to be Jewish does not signal a desire to replace collectivity with a reified individualism (Palumbo-Liu's "model minority discourse"), but is instead an unprecedented act of hybridization and self-transformation: "the ethical value, the beauty, and the liberatory potential, for the minoritized subject, of somewhere else to go on the way back to the self, of a way out of pain through cross-ethnic identification" (92). Rody identifies a departure from the outsiders' angst—the frustration of an alienated other encountering a rigid homogenous America—prevalent in earlier Jewish and Asian American fiction in Jen's comic narrative of the development of an emerging hybrid. As opposed to reading the interethnic exchange as handing down the title of "model minority," Rody reads Jen's novel for the shared symbols of twentieth-century homelessness...


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pp. 158-160
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