[Access article in PDF]
Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. By Viet Thanh Nguyen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Not much has changed since 1899 when Onoto Watanna and Sui Sin Far—the Eaton Sisters—confronted the dreaded binary that seems perpetually to define Asian Americans as either "model minorities" or "bad subjects," as those who either collaborate with or resist corrupt American racial practices. A century later, the "mainstream Asian American intellectual class," inclusive of "academics, artists, activists, and nonacademic critics," still struggles with this rhetorical burden, at times incapable of collapsing this problematic binary, other times intentionally reaffirming it for personal gain, so argues Viet Thanh Nguyen in Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Moreover, according to Nguyen, Asian American creative writers exhibit a far greater range of fluidity and ambivalence in their writings when it comes to engaging this binary than Asian American literary critics, who, since 1968 (the birth of the idea of "Asian America"), have been trapped in an academic version of Groundhog's Day—day after day, year after year, repeating the "ideologically simple" task of searching for signs of "resistance and accommodation" in Asian American literary production (ho-hum), where works viewed as resistant to U.S. hegemony have been positively evaluated and "prioritized" while works judged to be accommodationist negatively evaluated and "condemned."
Nguyen all but accuses the vast majority of Asian American literary critics, past and present, of hypocrisy: While profiting from radical politics by posturing themselves "at the forefront of political consciousness in Asian American studies," they manage conveniently to remain "invested in the visibility and value of Asian American literature as the proof of their own professional usefulness to the academy and the English department." Nguyen reads this behavior as a "contradiction between the radical intellectual goals of Asian American studies [End Page 101] and its institutional location," as a sign that the Asian American intellectual class has disavowed panethnic entrepreneurship. In other words, Asian American intellectuals—and literary critics in particular—want to eat the cake of accommodation and have the cake of resistance too.
This, of course, is quite a provocative claim, clearly intended to arouse, if not irritate. What is not so clear is the exact target of the provocation. In making his case, Nguyen liberally employs the generic terms "Asian American intellectual class," "Asian American intellectuals," "Asian American academics," "Asian American literary critics," and "Asian American panethnic entrepreneurs," most noticeably in the "Introduction" and the first chapter. But while he tells us over and over again of the inadequacies and flaws of Asian American intellectual, academic, and critical practices, he never quite gets around to telling us who these intellectuals, academics, and critics are.
Who knows, Nguyen might be onto something; in all probability, he might even be right. There may very well be a pattern of groupthink behavior categorically attributable to Asian American intellectuals. It may very well be that most Asian American critics have tended and still "tend to see texts as demonstrating either resistance or accommodation to American racism" and all those Asian American panethnic entrepreneurs may very well be "deeply invested in stable categories of racial identification." But the burden of proof to demonstrate this claim rests on Nguyen's shoulders, does it not? By failing to do so, or rather by choosing not to do so, by not naming names, Nguyen tacitly asks us to simply take his word for it. (This is a polemical strategy not unlike the one found in Garrett Hongo's "Introduction" to The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, where the disgruntled poet accuses Asian American studies of "facism," "bigotry," and "ethnic fundamentalism," behaving like Ayatollah Khomeinis to the Salman Rushdies of Asian American creative writers. Neither does Hongo name names.)
Race and Resistance, therefore, is not really a book of Asian American intellectual history that explores the genealogy and evolution of Asian American critical thought, as the "Introduction" and the first chapter would have us believe...