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Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave, by Yoonmee Chang. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010. X + 238 pp. $45.00 cloth. ISBN 978-0-813-54801-2.

In Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave, Yoonmee Chang discusses the notion of the ethnic enclave that dogs Asian Americans and their literature and ethnography, wherein class inequity is consistently reimagined and written as culture. A cultural enclave makes invisible class hierarchies, economic disparities, and the ongoing struggles of coethnics living and working together. According to Chang, naming an ethnic ghetto an "enclave" emphasizes how race improves class or how ethnicity improves race, both myths by which Asian Americans and their literature are unfortunately understood. Why are enclaves of African Americans considered "ghettos," she asks, but Chinatowns are [End Page 448] regarded as quaint ethnic quarters, as "cultural communities" worthy of tourism? She continues, "race has come to be a metonym for class inequity for blacks. But how has race come to signal just the opposite for Asian Americans?" She concludes that Asian Americans have been constructed as having only culture, embedded in the notion of the ethnic enclave, which comes at the expense of understanding its economic disenfranchisement. The effects of such oversight constrain not only Asian American political and economic upward mobility, Chang argues, but also Asian American literary, ethnographic, and social practices.

Chang situates her analysis in ongoing debates in the fields of both Asian American and American studies, especially those encouraging discussions of the inextricability of race and class. She pushes against recent arguments, such as that proposed by Walter Benn Michaels in his call to consider class over race. Her work rests admirably with that of Lisa Lowe, who examines how culture is driven by politics and economics, or accords with that of Viet Nguyen, who finds that one particularly powerful ethnographic imperative—that analyses of Asian American literature must cleave to models of literary-political protest even if such assignations are not evident or available—obscures other more pressing arguments regarding the structural class inequities faced by Asian Americans. Chang's second chapter in particular, "Like a Slum," is an excellent and careful explanation of why the ethnic enclave is more like a ghetto and what social, political, and literary implications exist in approaching it as such; what consequences have arisen in its definition as ethnic enclave? In this chapter, she carefully maps the term "ghetto" as defined by Chicago School sociologist Robert Park in the 1920s and 1930s, an "immigrant colony," one both structurally imposed and self-created, easing the pressures of the newly arrived. Yet according to Park, it is a transitory space from which residents leave to pursue better lives outside the ghetto. In such a model, culture is pathologized. Chang also investigates other sociological models that emphasize, seemingly contra Park, the ethnic agency and community embedded in the term "ethnic enclave," but finds that they often reemphasize Park's assimilationist bent. Chang proposes a return to the term "ghetto" because it so effectively emphasizes imposed class inequities ushered in by legislation and public policies while still promoting how coethnic cooperation is self-selected.

While Chang astutely discusses the literary works of early Chinese North American autobiographers and ethnographers, authors Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone (1993), and the "ethnoburbs" of S. Mitra Kalita's "corrective ethnography" Suburban Sahibs (2005), I was particularly taken by Chang's reading of economic class in the oft-investigated novel Nisei Daughter, by Monica Sone, about the Japanese American internment. Chang argues first that [End Page 449] Sone's autobiography adheres to several master narratives: the internment was justified to protect Japanese Americans; or it provided opportunities for internees to eventually attend college or land postinternment jobs. That protagonist Kazuko pitches the internment as "a socioeconomic assistance project" proves challenging to those who desire that Asian American texts must critique such master narratives, recalling Nguyen's caution that reading opposition into every Asian American novel is either anachronistic or a literary exercise that creates politically charged internal divisions in the field. Chang, however, cleverly reveals...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1096-8598
Print ISSN
1097-2129
Pages
pp. 448-451
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-10
Open Access
N
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