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Rocío G. Davis. Transcultural Reinventions: Asian American and Asian Canadian Short-story Cycles. Toronto: Tsar, 2001. 230 pp.
Davis's Transcultural Reinventions concentrates on genre, which makes her study a unique and necessary contribution to Asian American and Asian Canadian studies. While much scholarship overlooks the importance of how form, along with historical and social contexts, functions to illuminate identity and ethnic politics, Davis contends that studying literary strategies—both the appropriation and the subversion of traditional forms—that have been employed by Asian American and Asian Canadian authors can reveal insights into racial and gendered representations and into nationhood. In fact, Davis finds that the recent interpretation of Asian American and Asian Canadian works of literature as either transparent ethnographic studies, or as heavily theorized through Euro-American theoretical models, can become strategies of colonization that re-relegate the literature to places of inferiority. "Coherent investigations," Davis contends, must explore not only "what the texts mean, but how they mean" (3).
She concentrates on the how via the featured writers' use of "short-story cycles," or linked stories that may share characters, places, and situations. The cycles' flexibility of form allows authors to dispense with the traditional scaffolding of a novel and to experiment and to be challenged by a form that allows "unity in disunity," "cohesion and a kind of entropy," "between things that bond and things that pull apart" (6). As she outlines a history of the use of short-story cycles—a "transnational literary phenomenon [that] can cross geographic, cultural, ethnic, and even linguistic boundaries" (215)—Davis indicates that such transcultural reinventions demonstrate "a convergence of old traditions with a renewed concept of nationhood, the process of immigration, and the negotiation of multilayered positionalities" (8).
Davis discusses an impressive fifteen Asian American and Asian Canadian texts, touching on well-known works such as Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club or Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California, while also reading those works that have received little critical attention, like Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy or Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag. In the case of Tan, Davis explores how short-story cycles (or what she calls mother-and-daughter cycles) formulaically and emotionally connect not only the novel's parents with their children, but also press readers to make those connections themselves by "filling in the blanks" left unspoken by other characters (92). Tan has taken much criticism, especially for her Orientalist inventions, which many critics deem a clever marketing strategy aimed at a predominantly white reading audience. Davis alludes to the debates, [End Page 851] but graciously prohibits them from distracting her from the importance of exploring the significance of short-story cycles in the novel.
Equally admirable is Davis's ability to resuscitate literature that has fallen beyond the critics' view, such as Sigrid Nunez's 1995 A Feather on the Breath of God, about a female protagonist who is the product of a Panamanian-Chinese father and a German immigrant mother. Davis demonstrates that "division, and the frustrated attempt at reconciliation" (67) are illuminated not merely through the characters' thoughts and actions, but through Nunez's use of four stories, narrated by the unnamed protagonist. The characters wrestle with alienation, unable to find a sense of direction, which is mirrored in the four stories' ability to remain separate literary entities, as unfused and drifting as the protagonist herself.
Not all of the chapters, however, do so well in illuminating how the cycles work. Sometimes, the sheer complexity of a particular novel detracts from Davis's focus on form. I would have liked to read fewer plot synopses of the short stories in, for example, Mori's Yokohama, California, Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony, or Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers. In the latter, Davis concentrates on defining the place of protagonist Lovey Nariyoshi in Hawai'i, the contested use of pidgin, and the conflicts among the neighborhood's socio-economic and ethnic communities, but often...