- The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction by Caroline Rody, and: Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Gish Jen’s coming-of-age novel Mona in the Promised Land (1996) offers a hilarious and timely take on conventional immigrant narratives when its Chinese American protagonist, Mona Chang, converts to Judaism in order to assimilate to the upper-middle-class environment of Scarshill, New York. Jen’s comic send-up of multicultural politics, Americanization, and model-minority identity has proven particularly resonant for literary scholars interested in cross-ethnic relations. Jen’s novel figures prominently in two recent studies, Caroline Rody’s The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (2009) and Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (2011), which set out to explore new paradigms for the comparative study of ethnic literatures. Working from but extending well beyond the vantage point of Asian American literature, Rody and Schlund-Vials demonstrate that ethnic literary traditions need not be confined to separate spheres.
Rody’s and Schlund-Vials’s differing treatments of Mona in the Promised Land indicate the varied directions that cross-ethnic scholarship can take. For Rody, Jen’s novel is one of many examples culled from contemporary Asian American fiction of a “historic literary shift” that she terms “the interethnic imagination.” This shift, in which “what we have long thought of as ethnic literature is becoming interethnic literature,” can be attributed to the increasing globalization of culture and to changing “patterns of migration, settlement, labor, communications, and interaction among peoples from all parts of the world” (ix). [End Page 179]
In her first chapter, Rody establishes a theoretical paradigm for reading interethnicity in literature. Neatly summarized in her subtitle, this paradigm simultaneously takes into account “roots”—the vertical axis by which texts emerge as part of an ethnic literary tradition—and “passages”—the horizontal movement that allows critics to chart encounters between cultures. As Rody indicates in this chapter, her book joins other scholarship—from the early groundbreaking work of Werner Sollors to the more recent comparative studies of Dean J. Franco—that practices interethnic literary criticism, rather than “over-isolat[ing] subfields in ethnic American literary studies” (9). By her own admission, Rody may overstate the case for how dramatic this literary shift is. Sollors’s work, for example, suggests that ethnic literature has always been interracial and interethnic. What seems newest about Rody’s claims to an interethnic turn in contemporary literature is the notion that “the classic Americanization novel has become a novel of initiation into interethnicity” (9). This is where Mona in the Promised Land comes in. No longer do immigrant and ethnic protagonists Americanize by adopting a white or mainstream American identity; instead, becoming American entails trying on a variety of ethnic identities, as Mona Chang does by switching to Changowitz.
More innovative than Rody’s theory of interethnicity is her methodology, which dictates her book’s unusual structure. Three chapters offer in-depth close readings of representative texts: Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995), which is often viewed as an Asian American version of such classic African American works as Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952); Jen’s Mona; and Karen Tei Yamashita’s experimental novel, Tropic of Orange (1997). Interspersed between these chapters, however, are unnumbered interchapters that consider the broader implications of her focused close readings. Thus, Rody demonstrates that the black presence in Native Speaker can be contextualized within a tradition of cross-identification between Asian and African Americans, and that Jen’s deployment of Jewishness is part of an interethnic literary phenomenon that can be observed in the work of other Asian American writers such as David Wong Louie and in the work of black Atlantic...