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Reconciling Asian-American Studies:
Debt, Indebtedness, and Obligation
Duong, Lan. 2012. Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. $79.50 hc. $27.95 sc. 264pp.
Nguyen, Mimi Thi. 2012. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. $84.95 hc. $23.95 sc. xvi + 276 pp.
Ninh, erin Khuê. 2011. Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature. New York: New York University Press. $75.00 hc. $24.00 sc. vii + 207 pp.

Etymologically drawn from the Latin term for “something owed” (debitum), “debt” strikes a decidedly familiar chord at the turn of the twenty-first century. Set alongside contemporary banking crises, financial meltdowns, and governmental bailouts, “debt” coheres with economically driven characterizations of cooperative culpability (particularly with regard to state regulation) and individual responsibility (e.g., subprime loans). Simultaneously, the condition of being in debt—“indebtedness”—can refer to monetary liability or assume a more personal register, signaling an affective obligation to another party or entity. This ancillary definition, in which pecuniary metaphor remains interchangeable with emotional bond, semantically coexists with “gratitude,” in which one is—by way of gift or favor—beholden to another. Notwithstanding divergent resonances and differential registers, “debt,” “indebtedness,” “gratitude,” and “obligation” are [End Page 182] relational terms that underscore associations between and among individuals and groups.

This collective reading of “debt” fits the parameters of Asian-American studies as a now-established multidisciplinary field that was, from the outset, indebted to mid-century civil rights movements. Indeed, such movements vociferously and urgently emphasized the politicized obligation to reclaim and uncover histories of racialized oppression. The first generation of Asian Americanists recovered stories of immigration exclusion (for example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), racist incarceration (e.g., the Japanese-American internment), citizenship restriction (as exemplified by the 1922 naturalization case Ozawa v. United States), and political disenfranchisement. The field also owes—immediately and belatedly—a vexed debt to US foreign policy and shifts in immigration law. With regard to the former, twentieth-century American history lays bare longstanding engagements with and in Asia, emblematized by militarized interventions and occupations in the Philippines (1898–1946), Japan (1945–52), Korea (1950–53), and Southeast Asia (1959–75). In terms of the latter, the passage of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act (which eschewed nation-state immigration quotas in favor of East-West hemispheric designations) and subsequent refugee acts (in 1975 and 1980 respectively) enabled the first en masse migration of Asian immigrants to the United States.

These histories, which to varying degrees brought Asian-American studies into being, operate as identifiable anchors for three recently published monographs: erin Khuê Ninh’s Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011), Lan Duong’s Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (2012), and Mimi Thi Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (2012). Accessible to multiple audiences (including undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists), each work makes a considerable and commendable contribution to the interdisciplinary fields of Asian-American literary studies, Southeast Asian–American studies, and American cultural studies. In so doing, these projects highlight not only where such fields have been but also evocatively highlight where they are and should be going. To be sure, integral to Ingratitude, Treacherous Subjects, and The Gift of Freedom is a nuanced consideration of debt, indebtedness, and obligation. These theoretical evaluations—rooted in heterogeneous archives and manifest in variegated reading practices—productively render visible a flexible, debt-driven analytic that re-visions and recalibrates racialized legacies of immigration and war.

As the full title of Ninh’s monograph suggests, Ingratitude concentrates its affective and intellectual attention on the second-generation “debt-bound daughter” in Asian-American literature. Whereas Ingratitude focuses its narrative attention on the invested filial obligations between immigrant parents and their female children, Duong’s Treacherous Subjects evaluates—via film and literature—the indebted intersectional relationship between race, gender, and nation. Guided by contradictory characterizations of Vietnamese subjects (including “over here” [End Page 183] refugees and “over there” nationals) as “collaborators” and “traitors” during and after the American War in Vietnam, Treacherous Subjects provocatively recalibrates the extent to which the reconciliation of the militarized past remains subjective, elusive, and at times unfixed. Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom—which at the titular level most directly confronts the connection between “war,” “debt” and “other refugee passages”—brings together a highly interdisciplinary archive comprised of political speeches, photographs, mass-media accounts, and legislative policies. Nguyen carefully uses this archive to deconstruct euphemistic claims of freedom at the level of the nation even as she extends this critique to militate against US imperialism and neoliberalism (vis-à-vis the state).

Ingratitude opens with the assertion that “this is a book about the Asian immigrant family and intergenerational conflict—conflict that we think we know; after all, the story has been often enough told” (2011, 1). In highlighting “the Asian immigrant family and intergenerational conflict,” Ninh addresses what is arguably one of the most worn and recognizable dyads in Asian-American literature: the aforementioned parent/child relationship. Cast as a cultural conflict between “two worlds” (the East versus the West) and an assimilative tension betwixt “two cultures” (Asia and the United States), this thematic is epitomized in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), a popular yet oft-dismissed text within Asian-American literature. However, as Ninh constructively contends, such a conflict is one we “think we know,” and her project convincingly prompts us to reconsider its sociopolitical and economic dynamics by “conduct[ing] a reading of the immigrant nuclear family as a special form of capitalist enterprise” (2011, 2).

Deftly cognizant of the relationship between the filial and the financial, Ingratitude seamlessly moves between well-known works (specifically Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior) and less-discussed memoirs (for example, Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu and Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid by Evelyn Kid). This archive, explored over the course of four chapters, enables Ninh to “reconstruct the processes by which diligent, docile immigrants’ daughters are produced” (2). Such reconstructions, which also include valuable analyses of works by Gish Jen, Fae Myenne Ng, and Chitra Divakaruni, among others, take seriously the degree to which daughterhood “is a conditional in a universe of sovereign parental power” (66). The absence of an explicitly transnational critique marks a departure from the majority of Asian-American literary scholarship, yet the focus on domestic imaginaries proves, in the end, to be a strength. By insisting that family dynamics are not only sociopolitical but also economic, Ingratitude situates original rereadings of canonical works alongside innovative considerations of contemporary texts, creating in the process a debt-driven frame that is capaciously applicable to the larger field of ethnic American literary studies.

While Ingratitude expands the analytical possibility and textual purview of the Asian-American literary canon, Duong’s Treacherous Subjects confirms and extends the field’s multidisciplinary vistas by way of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American [End Page 184] cultural production, which include film, literature, and popular culture. A truly transnational project, Treacherous Subjects considers the degree to which Vietnamese diasporic artists and directors inhabit paradoxical roles as wartime collaborators and postwar traitors. These politicized characterizations, predicated on past affiliations during the American War in Vietnam and redolent of subsequent relocations to the United States and France, reveal both the politics of national indebtedness and the unreconciled contours of peacetime remembrance. Drawing from diasporic cinema (including films by Tony Bui, Tran Anh Hung, and Trinh T. Minh-ha) and literature (such as memoirs and novels authored by Le Ly Hayslip and Linda Le), Treacherous Subjects skillfully juxtaposes the divergent critical receptions of such work vis-à-vis domestic and internationalist politics.

As Duong astutely maintains, such “treacherous subjects,” haunted by the recent militarized past, “have been caught between opposing forces: nationalism, communism, occupying powers, and domestic states with competing claims to the name of Viet Nam” (2012, 2–3). Contending that “the collaborator is often figured as a female traitor, an ‘outsider’ who enables collective solidarity against the menace of the treacherous subject that she embodies,” Duong judiciously reassess the role of gender in the making of nations (3). Her investigation of these gendered cultural politics, which she terms as the critical optic “trans-Vietnamese feminism,” builds upon other works in Southeast Asian–American studies which, to varying degrees, insist on syncretic readings of “over here.” Arguing that such feminism accordingly “decenters nationalist notions of the family and familial notions of the nation, both dependent on each other and on circumscribed roles for men and women” (3), Treacherous Subjects charts an ambitious course that is necessarily delimited by movements inside and outside Vietnam. The wide-ranging yet nonetheless focused nature of this analytical mode matches the multinational nature of Duong’s archive, which includes Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and Vietnamese-French works. Treacherous Subjects closes with Duong’s evocative assertion that, as feminists, “sustaining our sense of solidarity with others must be a form of politics that fundamentally challenges colonialism, imperialism, and war, and the structures of classism, racism, sexism, and heterosexism that reinforce such systems” (187).

Such challenges to “colonialism, imperialism, and war,” which are inextricably linked to multiple modes of systemic and internalized oppression, are at the dialogical forefront of Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom, which “parse[s] the seeming paradox in which US military interventions are described through beneficence and defense” (2012, xi). Focused on the Vietnamese refugee, The Gift of Freedom is consistently concerned with multiple movements or “passages” that are quite admittedly applicable to other Southeast Asian–American populations via analogous stories of reception, politics of co-optation, and polemical narratives of US exceptionalism. Nguyen examines the “occupations and dislocations of racial, colonial others in the name of the human, through invocations of peace, protection, rights, democracy, freedom, and security,” eloquently dismantling [End Page 185] the complex and often convoluted matrices of US imperialism, militarized humanitarianism, and present-day neoliberalism (xii). With regard to theoretical underpinnings, The Gift of Freedom opens with Jacques Derrida’s notion of the gift, which, as Nguyen summarizes, “incriminates an economy of exchange and obligation between giver and recipient” (6). Nguyen pairs this “economy of exchange and obligation” with Michel Foucault’s characterization of liberal government, which “proposes to manufacture freedom” between those who govern and the governed (6). Set within the context of US foreign policy, “the gift of freedom” is a problematical Western construct, strategically presented in direct contrast to so-classified authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the proverbial East. Focused on the Southeast Asian refugee, The Gift of Freedom is consistently concerned with multiple movements or “passages,” which encompass stories of reception, politics of co-optation, and polemical narratives of US exceptionalism.

Nguyen’s introduction, provocatively titled “The Empire of Freedom,” establishes the amnesiac and paradoxical politics at play with regard to US foreign policy (comprised of war-making “over there”), refugee acts (emblematized by the assimilation of foreign bodies “over here”), and imperial liberalism. Opening with the war in Vietnam and its aftermath, wherein refugees to the United States were both “ideal victims” and “freedom fighters,” Nguyen critically deconstructs the affective uses of freedom and convincingly argues that such structures of feeling serve as contentious justifications for soldier-driven humanitarianism during the Cold War and the ongoing War on Terror. As the author surmises, the oft-deployed “gift of freedom” operates as a “significant trope . . . to theorize the place of feeling subjectivity in the order of liberal empire as a reason for pursuing war—to want to give of itself, its surplus—and the rationale for pardoning its crimes” (29). Such rationales are, as Nguyen subsequently makes clear, evident in Timothy Linh Bui’s Green Dragon (2001), which is set in a refugee camp on a Marine Corps base in Southern California. The mainstream Hollywood film features Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker as military personnel and its plot involves refugees from the former Republic of South Vietnam. These problematic validations are also apparent in the postwar story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, best known as the subject of Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut’s haunting 1972 photograph of children running from a napalm attack. Phuc, as Nguyen recounts, would become a medical student who left Vietnam to study in Cuba, where she met her future husband, Bui Huy Toan. In 1992, while en route to their honeymoon in Moscow, the couple deplaned in Newfoundland, where they asked for (and received) political asylum from the Canadian government. More recently, the rise of Viet Dinh (one of the coauthors of the 2001 PATRIOT Act), along with other politically conservative Vietnamese Americans, is concomitant with the emergence of what Nguyen calls “transnational multiculturalism” (147). This internationalist pluralism allows the author to map the governmental contours of sovereign violence through the refugee subject, who constantly serves as the principle protagonist in stories of asylum and militarized preemption. [End Page 186]

This tension between refuge and violence, projected onto and embodied by raced, gendered, and classed bodies, links The Gift of Freedom to Ingratitude and Treacherous Subjects and to varying degrees engages a welcome intersectional analysis of Asian-American cultural production and subjectivity. In so doing, each work engages a legible act of reconciliation or reckoning with literature, culture, history, and memory. Suggestive of economic resolution and emotional end, indicative of consistency and comparison, reconciliation nonetheless relies on multiple factors that underscore coherence as well as disjunction. Taken together, Nguyen, Ninh, and Duong productively evaluate and incisively interrogate the indebted cultural politics and racial formations that remain at the forefront of Asian-American Studies. [End Page 187]

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials is Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies and the Director of the Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. She is author of two monographs: Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (2011) and War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (2012).

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