- Rethinking Asian American Literary Studies
As noted by David Li and scores of others, one of the central preoccupations of Asian American studies since its founding in the late 1960s has been how to define Asian America. Two assumptions motivate this long-standing critical discourse: first, that the label, which is almost universally acknowledged to be incommensurate to the experiences of Asians living in the United States, can nevertheless capture the existence of groups and individuals who might otherwise be ignored or marginalized, and second, that the idea of Asian America is useful and perhaps even necessary in fighting for the political visibility of the various groups and communities that it claims to represent. Thus, the questions surrounding how to define Asian America are really questions about inclusion: who can be counted in [End Page 182] Asian America, and how can these Asian Americans be incorporated into the US body politic?
The narrative of Asian America as inclusion underwent a jolting and paradigmatic shift with the 1998 controversy surrounding Lois Ann Yamanaka’s novel Blu’s Hanging. Blu’s Hanging recounts the experiences of the Ogatas, a Japanese American family struggling with poverty, illness, racism, and a colonial past in Hawaii; the novel was widely praised by the mainstream press and was awarded the fiction prize following its publication by the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), the most prominent professional organization for Asian American studies in academia. The prize triggered a wave of protest from those who argued that the novel’s depiction of a Filipino character, who molests his own nieces as well as the protagonist’s brother, reinforced stereotypes regarding the pathological nature of Filipino male sexuality. Critics also argued that the novel never addressed what Cynthia Wu calls the “ethnic hierarchy” (33) that structured the Hawaiian plantation system, in which Japanese workers supervised the labor of Filipinos and other Asian-ethnic groups, a system that was, of course, only possible in the first place because of the displacement of the Native Hawaiian population. The backlash against the book led the committee to rescind the award, which generated another uproar; the potential legal issues that the Association faced precipitated the mass resignation of the board and the near disintegration of the organization.1
If the clash over Blu’s Hanging was one of the first indicators that the field’s previous reliance on identity and inclusion rubrics to justify its constitution were no longer adequate, then the events of November 14, 2011 sounded the death-knell. That was the day that Jean Quan, the mayor of Oakland and a former activist in the Third World Liberation Front who also played a key role in the founding of Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies departments at UC Berkeley, ordered police to evict peaceful Occupy Wall Street protestors from the area around Oakland City Hall. Quan’s use of a militarized police force to quash demonstrations against the very economic disparities and racial injustices that she herself had been protesting for decades represents not just the embarrassing and hypocritical turnabout of one radical leader. It makes clear the utter incompatibility of an inclusionary Asian Americanist discourse with any kind of political radicalism or even resistance in an era of neoliberalism and transnational capital. The Quan episode also marks the increasing “incoherence of ‘Asian American’” (Fan) in naming an inclusive community as well as a radical political coalition. The question can no longer be “Who is Asian America?” but needs to become a version of “How is Asian America formed?” A more difficult iteration of [End Page 183] this question might be “How is Asian America both complicit in and resistant to racist, sexist, and classist institutions?”
As early as 1996, Susan Koshy called for Asian American literary criticism to move away from a “pluralistic idiom” of...