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Ecologies of Entanglement in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This article develops a critical framework—“ecologies of entanglement”—to examine the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a site of Asian American racial formation. The Garbage Patch’s nonhuman ontology, as explored in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013) and several shorter works, necessitates revision of the most fundamental paradigms of analysis of Asian American studies: the individual and the nation-state. The first half of the article recuperates the category of garbage as a metonym for deracinated history, while the second situates plastic, the material that constitutes the majority of the Patch, as an Asian American racial form. By perceiving transpacific relations beyond human and transnational frames, ecologies of entanglement show how Asian American literature and criticism constitute a distinct and salient discursive field even in the seemingly postnational, postracial, and posthuman moment of the Anthropocene.

Where do the gone things go?

—Kimiko Hahn, “In Childhood”1

Kamilo Beach, located on the southeast coast of Hawai’i, has historically been a place to find things; the fifteen-hundred-foot shore, whose name means “the twisting of ocean currents,”2 is a site where indigenous peoples used to collect logs to carve into canoes. In recent years, Kamilo Beach has become littered with colorful manmade debris, 90 percent of it plastic. It is also the site excavated in a June 2014 Geological Society of America paper that documents the discovery of plastiglomerates, or “a new ‘stone’ formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, [End Page 95] basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris.”3 This technoscientific rock formation, which the study’s authors speculate could become a permanent part of the geologic record, marks the materialization of the Anthropocene, a term popularized by Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000. The neologism is meant to signify the ways in which the human species, both through sheer numbers and through technological development, has made indelible and irreversible changes to the physical properties of the planet. For literary scholars, the Anthropocene has ushered in an increased attention to the environs as well as an attenuation of character-driven analysis based on the human, with the hope of exploring what the ostensibly nonhuman can teach us about human engagements and responsibility.

Kamilo Beach’s plastic shoreline calls up another transpacific littoral zone peppered in plastic—the beach of Whaletown, one of the locales of Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Man Booker-nominated novel A Tale for the Time Being.4 This article examines the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in A Tale for the Time Being and several shorter works through a posthumanist lens in order to contemplate Asian American racial formation in unexpected locations and contexts, ones thought of as peripheral to the field of Asian American studies. Ozeki’s third novel tells the story of a Japanese/American schoolgirl named Naoko (Nao) Yasutani, whose world collides with that of a writer named Ruth when a barnacle-encrusted plastic freezer bag washes up on the shore of the remote island of Whaletown, British Columbia, where Ruth lives.5 Inside the Hello Kitty lunchbox, Ruth finds Nao’s secret diary, hidden within the covers of a vintage copy of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, along with a bundle of letters written in Japanese, a composition notebook written in French, and a Seiko watch whose back is inscribed with kanji. The package is assumed to be part of the debris of the Tōhoku tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11, 2011 (memorialized as “3–11”), killing over fifteen thousand people. The central mystery of the novel revolves around Nao’s diary, the ending of which changes as Ruth reads it.

Although Kamilo Beach and Whaletown are thousands of miles apart, they share a transpacific ecology. Similarly, A Tale for the Time Being’s topography spans Japan and British Columbia, two locales outside the de facto “America” of Asian American studies (the United States). Yet it is the novel’s leitmotif of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that demands a transpacific reading. Yunte Huang has famously described the “transpacific imagination” as “a host of literary and historical imaginations that have emerged under the tremendous geopolitical pressure of the Pacific encounters.”6 But even as transpacific readings aim to reconceptualize the scope and span of oceanic exchange, they often rely on the same units of analysis—nation-states [End Page 96] and peoples—that have long anchored the traditional framework of Asian American studies.7 Mobilizing the transpacific critically means taking seriously the Pacific Ocean itself as a distinct space of cultural production, rather than as mere gap or empty expanse between landmasses. Thus, transpacific critique is an act of deterritorialization in two senses: first, the examination of the extranational space of the ocean itself, and second, the generation of oceanic epistemologies.8 While A Tale for the Time Being is deeply invested in the relationship between the Pacific Ocean and its human characters, the novel complicates these connections through a studied exploration of the nonhuman—specifically, oceanic waste.

Figure 1. Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i.
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Figure 1.

Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i.

Copyright Patricia L. Corcoran. Reproduced with permission of the photographer.

In A Tale for the Time Being, the physical concept of quantum entanglement, or the phenomenon “by which two particles can coordinate their properties across space and time and behave like a single system,” emerges as a central theoretical apparatus.9 By using entanglement to structure the narrative, Ozeki suggests that the principles governing the molecular also structure other relations and scales of perception and experience. Extending this scalar thinking to Asian American critique suggests that rather than [End Page 97] thinking through gaps in representation, which assume a static, a priori truth or reality, we should be thinking through the discursive and material relationships that constitute ontological becoming. Physicist and feminist philosopher Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism uses entanglement to reconceptualize the subject/object divide by focusing on emergent phenomena rather than discrete entities.10 Barad defines phenomena as “ontological entanglements,”11 a term that highlights relationality, a central axiom of the feminist new materialist school of thought associated with thinkers such as Barad, Elizabeth Wilson, Stacy Alaimo, Susan Squier, and Rosi Braidotti. In agential realism, subjects and objects are the result (not the cause) of phenomena—their discreteness appears only as an effect of their interactions with other entities. Barad defines entanglement as “not intertwinings of separate entities but rather irreducible relations of responsibility. There is no fixed dividing line between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘past’ and ‘present’ and ‘future,’ ‘here’ and ‘now,’ ‘cause’ and ‘effect.’”12

In order to rethink Asian American racial formation through Barad’s relational ontology, this article advances an interdisciplinary mode of reading that draws on feminist new materialism and ecocriticism, while remaining attuned to Asian American literary criticism. I proceed in the spirit of Kandice Chuh’s proposal that “taking Asiatic racialization seriously opens and sometimes compels avenues of inquiry and raises questions and creates archives that would otherwise be unavailable,” an extension of her influential call for a “subjectless discourse.”13 I call this framework “ecologies of entanglement,” which are networks of circulation that diffuse the boundaries of the human by foregrounding the relationships between us and the world with which we interact, including the environment. This framework focuses on the emergence of subjects and objects as effects of epistemological cuts, which shifts the “object of study” from objects in themselves onto the phenomena that create and bind them. Ecologies of entanglement also formulate more clearly the relationship between the dis-cursive and the material, where “discursive practices are not human-based activities but specific material (re)configurings of the world through which boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted.”14 Thus, while entanglement’s definition suggests coordination between two particles, thinking about entanglement ecologically allows for the synthesis of more than two agents, but not in an undifferentiated, free-floating manner.

Ecologies of entanglement describe how material existence is constituted across geographical, temporal, and conceptual distances. Explaining why scale has become an increasingly useful analytic, Julie Sze writes scale is “intimately connected to intensifying conditions of globalization, specifically capitalist economic development and related ideologies of [End Page 98] neoliberalism, privatization, and deregulation.”15 In order to address the Garbage Patch’s multiple scales of existence, the first section of this article examines Ozeki’s novel through the molar category of garbage; focusing on waste draws attention to jettisoned histories of disregard and violent erasure. The insights of the first section, which recuperates the category of garbage as a metonym for deracinated history, invite a concomitant recalibration of the molecular and the particular.16 Accordingly, the second section deploys a synthetic reading practice that draws upon other Asian American texts and cultural representations to engage the Garbage Patch at the molecular level through the racialization of plastic. Plastic is a conceptual problem, and its paradoxical qualities are particularly useful for thinking about Asian American racial form. By focusing on the oscillation in scales between macro and micro, molar and molecular, this article shows the nonpriority—or, to use a key term from A Tale for the Time Being, the complementarity—of these approaches. Rey Chow describes entangled relationships as “a diminution of distances among phenomena that used to belong in separate orders of things, [which] necessitates nothing short of a recalculation and redistribution of the normativized intelligibility of the world, including a realignment of the grids, sets, and slots that allow for such intelligibility in the first place.”17 In addition to revising the relationship between “Asian” and “American” in “Asian American,” this literary-cultural studies reading contests the division between literary and “real” worlds, a concept explicitly taken up in A Tale for the Time Being. By perceiving transpacific relations beyond human and transnational frames, ecologies of entanglement show how Asian American literature and criticism constitute a distinct and salient discursive field even in the seemingly postnational, postracial, posthuman moment of the Anthropocene.

Mattering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Ecologies of entanglement allow for a bracketing of the human/nonhuman binary; rather than depending on static categorical distinctions, they foreground the natural and sociocultural interactions entities have with each other and their environment. For example, the trajectory of Nao’s diary follows ocean currents, but it also traces the forces of human history and culture. By bringing together the reverberations of World War II—geopolitical human crisis—with those of the Tōhoku tsunami—natural disaster—the novel shows the ways in which they must be considered together. Both connect Asia to America through the Pacific Ocean, and Nao and Ruth refract the difference between Japanese and Japanese American [End Page 99] involvement in World War II. The Japanese letters and French notebook that accompanied Nao’s diary are revealed to belong to Haruki #1, Nao’s grand-uncle who was drafted into service as a kamikaze pilot for Japan. Thus, the freezer bag and its contents have a specifically Japanese/American history, indelibly shaped by Japan’s military engagements with the United States. By contrast, Ruth’s personal history includes the Japanese American internment. Although she now lives in Whaletown, at a far remove from the typical sites of Asian American culture such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the geographical periphery also indexes the effects of racialization. Nearby the place where Nao’s diary washed ashore is an old building that used to be colloquially known as “Jap Ranch”:

No one on the island called it by that name anymore, but [Ruth’s friend] Muriel was an old-timer and knew the reference. The old homestead, one of the most beautiful places on the island, had once belonged to a Japanese family, who were forced to sell when they were interned during the war. … Once Ruth heard the nickname, she stubbornly persisted in using it. As a person of Japanese ancestry, she said, she had the right, and it was important not to let New Age correctness erase the history of the island.18

Ruth’s insistence on preserving what now registers as a racial slur—“Jap”—suggests that historical amnesia is not the beneficent evidence of a healed society, but rather the purposeful jettisoning of its discomfort. A politically correct name change does not purge the violence and trauma of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. “My mom’s family were interned, too,” Ruth asserts, yoking her family’s past experience to present-day Whaletown. The tension over Jap Ranch’s name reminds us that a “postrace” society is not one beyond or over racism, but one defined by its structural and emotional legacies; as Ramón Saldívar has suggested, the use of the term “postrace” is meant to be invoked “under erasure and with full ironic force,” as it symbolizes the ambivalence of “white supremacy as the unacknowledged ideology of our times, along with a concomitant and untrammeled persistence of the desire for the transcendence of race and racism in the literature of the post-Civil Rights era.”19

This name-as-remainder is echoed by Whaletown itself, whose eponymous mammals were decimated in the nineteenth century by the aggressive hunting of white settlers in search of blubber—Ruth ruminates, “You can imagine them chirping and cooing to each other in their beautiful subaquatic voices. Stay away! Stay away!20 There are no Japanese Americans at Jap Ranch, no whales in Whaletown. Changing these names would negate the mark of erasure signified by a no-longer-representative name. [End Page 100] Jap Ranch’s name stands as an artifact of Asian American history in a place so remote one needs to take a ferry to the nearest sushi restaurant, and suggests the importance of reading for race in deracinated locales. The parallels drawn between the disappearances of both human (Japanese American) and animal (whale) demand a reconsideration of social and natural history, one that pays attention to the presence of absence.

The shape of the Pacific Ocean is hard to imagine: in addition to a dominant tendency to see oceans as the absence of land, it is physically bisected in the Western-centric Mercator projection, the most common world map. Maps are the physical manifestations of our psychic cartographies, which deny the shape of the Pacific Ocean and represent our failure to visualize it as a whole. Rather than thinking of the Pacific Ocean as a homogenous gap between Asia and America, A Tale for the Time Being demonstrates that the Pacific Ocean’s currents are what bind them together. As denizens and sailors of the Pacific know, the two “halves” of the Pacific Ocean do, in fact, touch (see Figure 2 for a nineteenth-century naval map of “Oceania,” the region encapsulating the Pacific Islands). The Pacific Ocean is also home to the North Pacific Gyre, the largest of the five main systems of rotating ocean currents, which encircles the Pacific Rim and joins Japan and British Columbia. The gyre, which brought Nao’s lunchbox to Ruth, is the largest ecosystem on Earth and is also the domicile of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also known as the “Pacific Trash Vortex” and “Trash Island,” the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a slowly rotating mass of marine debris and trash that is 90 percent plastic and commonly described as “twice the size of Texas.” These small pieces of matter, individually anonymous and negligible, become nameable and significant only when collected into the guise of one large piece of matter. But importantly, referring to the gyre as a distinct object, as I have been doing, is profoundly inaccurate; it is the confluence of currents from which plastic particulates and other flotsam and jetsam are continually escaping.

Just as the ramifications of human activity have permanently interceded into the ocean, the ocean continues to interrupt our shores—sometimes in one great catastrophic event, like the Tōhoku tsunami, but mostly more innocuously, in small pieces, like marine debris. It is therefore deeply poignant that a piece of garbage, matter that is discarded and forgotten, drifted ashore by Jap Ranch, the name marking a racialized history that nobody but Ruth references anymore. “Garbage” as a term presumably signifies nothing more than our detached orientation towards it. Anything can be devalued as garbage, or “material otherness.”21 When Ruth first discovers the freezer bag package, she makes no examination of its contents before deciding to bring it home to dispose of properly. “Oh, leave it, it’s garbage. [End Page 101] Something I picked up on the beach. Please don’t bring it into the house,” she tells her husband Oliver when he stumbles upon it on their porch.22 Ruth initially sees only what she expects to see—garbage, clearly unworthy of further inquiry. This endless process of deferral—of pushing the garbage somewhere else, somewhere appropriate—suggests that the comfort of waste management is also an act of psychological containment, meant to maintain the separation between humans and the abject messiness of our waste. Of course, as evidenced by the Garbage Patch, not everything has a place. Matter that escapes the sanctioned system of distribution and collection accumulates elsewhere, both physically and psychically.

Figure 2. Oceania and Pacific Ocean from Admiralty Surveys, 1867. J. Bartholomew FRGS, Adam & Charles Black. National Library of Australia.
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Figure 2.

Oceania and Pacific Ocean from Admiralty Surveys, 1867. J. Bartholomew FRGS, Adam & Charles Black. National Library of Australia.

When Ruth first discovers the plastic freezer bag, she thinks, “Not surprising. The ocean was full of plastic. … It must have been in the ocean for a long time.” She continues, “Inside the bag, she could see a hint of something red, someone’s garbage, no doubt, tossed overboard or left behind after a picnic or a rave. The sea was always heaving things up and hurling them back: fishing lines, floats, beer cans, plastic toys, tampons, Nike sneakers.”23 This recursive-but-active motion—of “heaving things up and hurling them back”—is attributed to the ocean, which resists its role as the passive repository for all that humans think we have “tossed overboard [End Page 102] or left behind.” In reality, this marine debris is immanently entangled with our own sense of cleanliness and self-sovereignty. Instead of viewing the waste as “someone’s garbage,” as Ruth initially does, but as our garbage, we can see how nonhuman agencies like garbage subtend the fantasy of individual human agency. Barad writes, “what is on the other side of the agential cut is not separate from us—agential separability is not individuation.”24 In other words, garbage is not an effect or byproduct of human life, but intrinsic to it.

Like Ruth’s initial blinkered understanding of garbage, limited frames of concern create material externalities that are not treated with exigency until they impinge upon our intimate lives. Oliver, an environmental activist and artist, muses on Ruth’s discovery:

Soda bottles, styrofoam, take-out food containers, disposable razors, industrial waste. Anything we throw away that floats … they’re there, and anything that doesn’t sink or escape from the gyre gets sucked up into the middle of a garbage patch. That’s what would have happened to your freezer bag if it hadn’t escaped. Sucked up and becalmed, slowly eddying around. The plastic ground into particles for the fish and zooplankton to eat. The diary and letters disintegrating, unread. But instead it got washed up on the beach below Jap Ranch, where you could find it…25

Oliver’s observation opens with what I designate a “plastic litany,” or a list of oceanic garbage. The plastic litany is a reoccurring trope in discussions and narratives of oceanic waste—it seems to be an unspoken rule that anyone who writes about the Garbage Patch is compelled to catalogue it. Here are the things that have been forgotten, not remembered. In each instance, though, the individual objects themselves are ostensibly irrelevant: the connective tissue of the list is the important part. What difference does it make, if it all ends up in the Patch as pulverized particulates?

But Oliver ascribes a narrative exigency to Ruth’s discovery of Nao’s diary by posing the counterfactual: “the diary and letters disintegrating, unread.” Simply by reading the diary, Ruth becomes entangled with, and therefore responsible to, Nao. As the two women are separated by time and space, responsibility is recast from an act of individual agency, something one “takes,” to “an incarnate relation that precedes the intentionality of consciousness, ‘an obligation which is anachronistically prior to every engagement.’”26 The fate of the diary becoming a meaningful text hinges on it being read otherwise, as particular and differentiable. It needs a conscientious reader, someone to perceive it not as an anonymous piece [End Page 103] of garbage. The Hello Kitty lunchbox’s red colorful casing is what attracted Ruth to it in the first place, allowing Nao’s diary to be read. In Ozeki’s narrative, this act of entanglement actually changes the narrative flow of time itself. The agential realism represented by Ruth and Nao’s entanglement redistributes Asian/American history across space and time. The violent legacies of the Pacific War—familial death, geopolitical discord, environmental degradation—continue to circulate long after V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), or August 15, 1945.

While Nao’s diary is the most central example of how trash can be recuperated into our responsibility, Whaletown’s Free Store, run by the garbage man Benoit (who translates Haruki #1’s French letters for Ruth) is another suggestive instance. The Free Store is where Ruth’s mother Masako, who has Alzheimer’s, “discovers” discarded items over and over again. Although Alzheimer’s is a condition defined by forgetting, Masako is continually attracted to the same objects, intimating the extent to which unconscious patterns and desires animate us. Rediscovering a sweater that once belonged to her that Ruth had donated to the Free Store, Masako exclaims, “I’m so glad I found this. I used to have one just like it, you know…”27 Masako’s recovery of the sweater manifests responsibility; the sweater’s affective pull allows for it to become legible as not-trash. Mel Chen argues, “The history of objects is a combination of intuitive phenomenologically acquired abstractions and socially acquired histories of knowledge about what constitutes proper ‘thingness.’”28 Narrative can trace the life cycle of transient objects, as well as the construction and destruction of their value. Accordingly, the potential reincorporation of garbage as material us-ness, rather than material alterity, is one way A Tale for the Time Being makes visible the ecologies of entanglement human identity is already bound within. Garbage objects can return from the molar category of garbage to the order of the particular and molecular, but only if we envision them as part of our material and affective entanglements. Which is to say, the fantasy of detachment is, quite literally, unsustainable. Garbage is the opposite of detachment: it is the material cathexis of that fantasy.

Viewing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as an ecology of entanglement means seeing humans in the gyre, and the gyre in humans. Getting caught up in the gyre’s oscillating vortex necessitates a willingness to contravene established boundaries, to allow for surprising juxtapositions to emerge, and to seek rapprochement with links that have been erased or disconnected. Ruminating on the point at which information becomes obsolete, Ruth reflects, “The gyre’s memory is all the stuff that we’ve forgotten.”29 The history of racial violence means forgetting has material effects, even if they are barely legible or fail to be recognized, only nominally registered in a [End Page 104] name such as Jap Ranch or Whaletown. An Asian American politics that takes into account only humans and geopolitically labeled landmasses is a limited frame whose preservation requires forgetting, dividing, and eliding transpacific histories and matter like that which constitutes the Pacific Garbage Patch. The Pacific Ocean is just one archive of our forgotten, but not dead, waste.

Plastic’s Racial Forms

“Garbage Patch,” “Trash Island”—terrestrial metaphors rooted in solid ground seem to be the only way to make the Patch’s conglomerate ontology accessible to our imaginations. Far from being a stable landmass, the Patch is porous and liquid. While there are parts that resemble a chunky soup of debris, the gyre’s plastic objects typically photodegrade into microscopic particulates, which hang suspended in water columns and are invisible to the naked human eye. As Oliver explains to Ruth, “Plastic … never biodegrades. It gets churned around in the gyre and ground down into particles. Oceanographers call it confetti. In a granular state, it hangs around forever.”30 The enduring implications of the long half-life of plastic should not be lost on the human species: as part of the Patch’s entangled ecology and the top consumer of many food chains, we are already becoming plastic.31

This section explores Asian American racial formation through plastic, the material that represents the vast majority (estimates typically vary between 80 and 90 percent) of oceanic waste. I hope to demonstrate that plastic is an Asian American “racial form,” a term Colleen Lye defines as the relationship between “race understood as representation” and “race as an agency of literary and other sociocultural formations.”32 Lye’s approach augments Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s foundational theory of racial formation, or “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”33 While Lye’s formulation conjoins formal and historicist schools of interpretation, in this section, I adapt racial form for a posthumanist paradigm to argue that while much important scholarship has been done in Asian American literary studies on what it means to inhabit race, race’s serial transformations and its resulting effects on literary form remain understudied. The durability of race, which, much like plastic particulates, photodegrades but never biodegrades, demands an exploration of how Asian American racialization materializes and circulates even in the absence of readily identifiable human bodies.

Science fiction writer Ken Liu’s flash fiction piece “Build-A-Dolly,” published in Apex Magazine in 2013, eerily reanimates the Pacific Ocean’s [End Page 105] discarded objects—the ones that, unlike Nao’s diary, never return into the fold of human consideration. Where A Tale for the Time Being relies on a familiar character-based frame for narration—first-person (Nao’s diary entries) and limited third-person (Ruth’s sections)—“Build-A-Dolly” appropriates the first-person voice for a toy doll. The short piece follows the obsequious Dolly’s routine abuse by her owner Amy. “I adore Amy,” Dolly insists, “I love Amy. Amy is the purpose of my life.” When Amy playacts that Dolly is Stella, the popular girl in her class who refuses to be Amy’s friend, the pair’s playacting quickly turns violent: “Amy grips me by my nylon hair, twirls me around in the air, and then lets go. I slam into the wall, fall, crumble against the ground in a heap. I struggle to stand up, motors whining, gears grinding.”34 This cycle of violence is broken only when Dolly is strapped to a toy rocket and shot into the sky by Amy’s brother. But this is not the end for Dolly—even after crash landing in the ocean and having her clothes, hair, skin, and stuffing methodically stripped away by seagulls and the elements, Dolly does not die. “Miraculously, the batteries still send electrical currents to my chips,” she reflects, electrical mechanical bits approximating the nervous system and consciousness. Dolly eventually drifts into the gyre, where she confronts a now-familiar litany of plastic: “a tangle of milk jugs, nylon stockings, drinking bottles, bobbing barrels, shopping bags like floating jellyfish, plastic sheets, vinyl strips.” The story abruptly ends on a macabre scene: Dolly plaintively bleats for her Amy, her voice joining a chorus of other dismembered dolls animated by memories of their former owners and homes—“‘Talia…’ ‘Jenny…’ ‘Maddie…’”

“Build-A-Dolly” illustrates what Jane Bennett calls the “vitality of matter,” which she mobilizes against “the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter [that] feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.”35 Amy’s failure to see Dolly as anything but ancillary to herself is thus a cautionary tale about the violence of human disregard for the matter whose agencies subtend our own. Although the characters’ descriptions and names are racially unmarked, “Build-A-Dolly” encodes Asian/Americanness in several ways. According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, 85 percent of toys bought in the United States are manufactured in China.36 Dolly can be thought of as a modern “China doll,” marking the transition from porcelain to plastic as the country’s trademark material. The multitude of discarded dolls echoes stereotypes of Asians all looking the same, while their fungibility as toys rationalizes their obsolescence and relegation to the Garbage Patch. Their disposability is consistent with disparaging popular conceptions of “cheap Chinese crap” characterized by flimsiness (although importantly, Dolly’s violent jettisoning shows she became obsolete well before she broke [End Page 106] down).37 Dolly’s space flight also eerily echoes the kamikaze flight of Haruki #1 in A Tale for the Time Being. Made disposable by war, the body of Nao’s uncle, who scuttled his flight, was never recovered, but his diary continues to alter Nao’s (and consequently Ruth’s) present.

Dolly’s passivity also codes her as Asian American. In Sianne Ngai’s chapter on “Animatedness” in Ugly Feelings (2005), Ngai argues that whereas cultural representations of African Americans are characterized by an excess of animatedness, in which “emotional qualities seem especially prone to sliding into corporeal qualities,” Asian American representations are typified by a distinctive deficiency of animatedness.38 Dolly literalizes this trope; her body’s lack of force in a social field is so slack it becomes ontological immanence. Her subservient position to Amy evokes the notion of “disposable domestics,” or low-wage immigrant women workers whose compliance with exploitative conditions is often understood through cultural essentialism rather than through socioeconomic oppression.39 Finally, Dolly’s patently unimaginative name also references Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, whose body as livestock is meant to produce consumable commodities.40 As technoscientific subaltern creatures, both Dolly the domestic doll and Dolly the cloned sheep disturb the boundary between subject and object.

Asian American immigration, which skyrocketed after the 1965 Immigration Act, coincides in the latter half of the twentieth century with plastic’s eminence in American culture.41 While the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, it was the rapid industrialization of World War II that ushered in the plastic era, as the substance’s uses spread from military and industrial applications to consumer products. Thus the material that kept Nao’s diary safe from disintegration—the plastics that compose the freezer bags and the Hello Kitty lunchbox—was produced through the same transpacific history of war that conscripted Nao’s uncle Haruki #1 to his death as a kamikaze pilot in the Imperial Japanese Army and interned Ruth’s relatives. In Barad’s account of agential realism, she argues that “matter is not a fixed essence; rather, matter is substance in its intra-active becoming—not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency.”42 Plastic is made possible and makes possible through its ecologies of entanglement, which emerge from and reverberate across several spatiotemporal scales and histories of the transpacific—military, economic, environmental.

Charles J. Moore, the sea captain and environmental activist credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 (and a coauthor of the Kamilo Beach plastiglomerates study with which this article opens), draws a strikingly explicit connection between plastic and raced bodies in his memoir, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched [End Page 107] a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (2011). He writes, “Plastic is athletic. It scoots, flies, and swims. It travels without passport, crosses borders, and goes where it is, literally, an illegal alien. It has the endurance of a champ. It won’t melt in water like paper or corrode like metal.”43 Moore’s xenophobic characterization taps directly into the binary of racist Asian American stereotypes: yellow peril and model minority, foreign menace and diligent worker. This passage is drawn from Moore’s account of his work monitoring pollution in the Los Angeles River; uncoincidentally, Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, with especially significant Latinx and Asian American populations. The metaphor of the “illegal alien” is both telling and fatuous. Rather than viewing plastic as something in large part produced and consumed from within the United States, Moore intimates that “we” are being attacked from without by a foreign threat. His statement displaces the roles of U.S. corporations and people in order to affirm a nation-state paradigm of belonging and boundaries, one that accurately reflects neither the Pacific Ocean nor global networks of contemporary capitalism. The Los Angeles River’s mouth feeds into the Pacific Ocean, and Moore’s misapprehension of American entanglements with plastic as an invasion of sovereign boundaries is all the more clear in his conclusion that plastic has “already colonized oceans.” Given plastic’s consummate disposability, a more apt reading is that plastic goes where it has been conditioned to go—outside of nation-based consideration, into the Pacific.

The Garbage Patch’s extranational status indicates that strict national delineations are not the most useful way to think through plastic’s extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. “Made in China” and its accompanying significations of mass production, poor quality, and toxic contamination have been transformed into a rallying cry that blames China and, synecdochally, Asia for the influx of plastic into the Pacific Ocean.44 However, that narrow interpretation fails to consider the ecologies of entanglement from which these objects emerge. As Julie Sze observes, disdain about the proliferation of Chinese objects says as much about the United States as it does about China: “Reactions to ‘Chinese pollution’ become a mechanism through which we can analyze how the United States culturally makes sense of our changing historical and political power in a moment of global environmental, social, and economic crisis.”45

A sequence from Richard Powers’s novel Gain (1998), a fictional history of a chemical corporation that interrogates the relationship between environmental illness and industry, imaginatively shows what is elided in the “Made in China” stamp on a disposable camera whose photographs are never developed: [End Page 108]

The camera jacket says: “Made In China With Film From Italy Or Germany.” The film itself accretes from more places on the map than emulsion can cover. Silver halide, metal salts, dye couplers, bleach fixatives, ingredients gathered from Russia, Arizona, Brazil, and underwater seabeds, before being decanted in the former DDR. Camera in a pouch, the true multinational: trees from the Pacific Northwest and the southeastern coastal plain. Straw and recovered wood scrap from Canada. Synthetic adhesive from Korea. Bauxite from Australia, Jamaica, Guinea. Oil from the Gulf of Mexico or North Sea Brent Blend, turned to plastic in the Republic of China before being shipped to its mortal enemies on the Mainland for molding. Cinnabar from Spain. Nickel and titanium from South Africa. Flash elements stamped in Malaysia, electronics in Singapore. Design and color transfers drawn up in New York. Assembled and shipped from that address in California by a merchant fleet beyond description, completing the most heavily choreographed conference in existence.46

The easy identification and assuredness of “Made in China” blackboxes the origins of the many pieces inside, placing responsibility in one national entity while concealing the contributions of others. By contrast, Powers’s list studiously catalogues the parts, procedures, locales, and passages that are enfolded into the constituent parts and their multinational processes of production, making evident components that pass unknown and unrecognized. The camera’s genealogy is prefaced with an allusion to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Plastic happens; that is all we need to know on earth. History heads steadily for a place where things need not be grasped to be used.” The combination of imminence and eminence in “Plastic happens” cultivates skepticism toward any easy attribution of oceanic plastic’s provenance that ignores transpacific histories of military intervention and economic policy. In contrast to Moore’s characterization of plastic as a human menace from the outside, Gain narratively deconstructs “the true multinational” down to the molecular level, revealing a simple consumer object to be complex “beyond description.”

Focusing on the racialization of plastic, a devalued and undertheorized substance that nonetheless happens and makes happen, forces a reexamination of fundamental assumptions regarding identity and authenticity. Plastic is seen as fundamentally ersatz; in Mythologies (1957; translated 1972), Roland Barthes calls it “a disgraced material” whose “hollow and flat” sound belies its fundamental inauthenticity.47 Without a unique essence, plastic can be read as exhibiting the “weak ethnicity” attributed to Asian Americans as a race. Variations of this ambivalent charge [End Page 109] are typically marshaled to contrast Asian American and African American communities by criticizing the former as an anemic imitation of the latter, plagued by “a self-consciousness of both the fractious plurality troubling this pan-ethnic identity, and the imitative stylings of other, stronger racial and ethnic formations.”48

And yet if we consider this perceived weakness to be the defining feature, and not a bug, of Asian American racialization, then countenancing plastic represents a particularly salient line of inquiry. Philosopher Catherine Malabou proffers that plastic is assimilation made manifest: “For is not plastic the substitutable material par excellence? Can it not take the place of every thing, can it not deconstruct every idea of authenticity, is it not always engaged in the process of its own disappearance?”49 Assimilation’s apotheosis is the model minority myth, which has been wielded to position Asian Americans as a wedge within the field of black/white race relations in the United States. The myth works as a strategy of containment; as Heather Davis writes, plastic “acts as a sealant, a barrier, both literally sealing something off from its surrounding environment … while also materializing the desire for impenetrability, for objects, bodies, and selves to be discrete, for categories not to mix, for a monadic identity separated from its environment.”50

As Ellen Wu and other Asian Americanists have shown, the model minority myth came to prominence during the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. Asian American plasticity is a technology of American racial hegemony, a barrier meant to buffer the white majority population from “bad” minority groups. Asian Americans have became upwardly mobile over the last fifty years not because of intrinsic racial or cultural characteristics, but because white Americans became less (or at least differently) racist against them. To be assimilated is to be, qua Malabou, “engaged in the process of [one’s] own disappearance”—until the moment Asian Americans are needed to affirm whiteness and/or to decry other minorities. Then, as the model minority, Asian Americans are revealed to still be fundamentally unassimilable, perpetually foreign.

Plastic is the model minority substance: its superficial pliability and lack of resistance serves as both characteristic and function. This interpretation can shed light on older Asian American texts, including a strangely compelling passage from Frank Chin’s 1972 play Chickencoop Chinaman, which was the first play by an Asian American playwright to garner a major New York production. The main character, Tam Lum, bombastically embodies plastic in a meditation on the figure of the Chinaman, voiced, per stage direction, partially in the style of a Bible Belt preacher: “In the beginning there was the Word! Then there was me! And the Word was CHINAMAN. And there [End Page 110] was me,” before continuing “Born? No! Crashed! Not born. Stamped! Not born! Created! Not born. No more born than the heaven and earth. No more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic! Drip dry and machine washable.”51

In the inverse operation of Ken Liu’s “Build-A-Dolly,” which humanizes Dolly, Chin’s protagonist objectifies himself as plastic materials, reducing the Chinaman’s ontological state to synthetic substance. In doing so, racial formation is aligned with a process of production, the Chinaman something made, rather than born. This sense of constructedness evokes the pan-ethnic category of “Asian American” itself, which, as Susan Koshy famously writes, has “no literal referent.”52 But as suggested by the scene in Chickencoop Chinaman, this distinction does not matter; as a plastic fiction, once the concept of Asian American as race is produced, it exists and circulates in the world. Plastic is not fake—it is all too real, and the troubled boundary between authentic and fake is neither essential nor chance, but sociopolitically determined. Once created, plastic’s fictions bind others in its ecologies of entanglement. In the gyre, plastic bags are confused for jellyfish by sea turtles, nurdles (preindustrial plastic pellets) are taken for fish eggs by birds, and plastic particulates are consumed by zooplankton looking for algae. If plastic is the master imitator, the model minority substance, its molecular recalcitrance to being digested suggests the ultimate failure of any superficial logic of assimilation.

Even though plastic is so often used to contain and separate, it does not follow its own logic of containment; its disintegration is what allows for its molecular interpenetration and accumulation within bodies. “Immortal” (2014), Ozeki’s contribution to The Petroleum Manga art exhibition organized and illustrated by visual artist Marina Zurkow, portrays an unnamed and ungendered narrator who fetishizes plastic for its deathlessness. The narrator exhibits this through pica, a disorder classified under DSM-5 as the “persistent eating of nonnutritive, nonfood substances.”53 “There’s precision in eating plastic. It’s clean and tidy,” they explain, in correspondingly neat language. The narrator insinuates that by eating plastic, which is “perfectly dead,” having been “purified by the forces of heat and time and pressure,” they can ingest its immortality.54 Ozeki’s narrator hyperbolizes the fantasy of transforming themself from the inside out; they are changing the composition of their body, one particulate at a time, in order to take on the characteristics of plastic itself. The narrator’s visible, welcoming porosity invokes Stacy Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality, which posits that humans are not entities separate from their environments. Trans-corporeality “not only traces how various substances travel across and within the human body but how they do things—often welcome or unexpected things.”55 [End Page 111] Under the pretense of shielding themself from the outside environment’s pollutants and degradation—becoming immortal—the narrator becomes intoxicated, as a plastic ecology for the human body is a poisonous one. The narrator’s purposeful incorporation of plastic thus ironically calls to mind those workers, who, due to environmental racism and gender inequality, physically absorb the most plastic. Following plastic’s immortal life cycle requires traversing the transpacific, from those who produce and labor with plastic, to those who consume and play among it, to its undead suspension in the Pacific Ocean, and to its myriad recirculations thereafter.

Ingesting plastic carries serious health risks; among the most well-known is that bisphenol A (BPA), an organic synthetic compound used in many plastics, has been linked with endocrine disruption and autoimmune disease.56 Yet the style and affect conjured by “Immortal” is surprisingly pleasurable and playful—even loving. The narrator remembers fondly, “The first time? When I was a baby, of course. I was teething and crying, and Mother put a plastic nipple into my mouth to pacify me. Ever since that moment, plastic has the power to pacify and soothe me when I am upset and crying.”57 Beckoning the reader closer, the narrator’s intimate disclosures and sensuous tone enjoin the reader not to dismiss the ostensibly pathological out of hand. As Mel Chen argues in her study of mercurial affect, “an uptake, rather than a denial of, toxicity seems to have the power to turn a lens on the anxieties that produce it.”58

The hypervisibility of the narrator’s eating of plastic is rendered pathological by the clinical diagnoses of their doctors and caretakers, even though humans are constantly ingesting plastic. But interpreting intoxication as an ecological relation allows us to instead read “Immortal” as an act of social integration: by purposely consuming the very substance meant to contain and separate, the narrator makes observable the failed logic of assimilation. If this compulsive amplification of assimilation, as represented by the narrator’s desire for molecular recomposition, indelibly alters the former self, the short story turns on a confusion about who exactly is speaking—perhaps plastic itself? What is being assimilated into what body?

This ambivalent entanglement of plastic and human ecologies draws Asian American racial forms into the fold of what Lawrence Buell calls “toxic discourse,”59 or writing that brings attention to what circulates beneath the threshold of our perception. Race cannot be jettisoned, because it is not an object; it is the phenomenon through which the American body politic emerges. Intoxication reveals the untenable fantasy of plastic—of containment—to be underwritten by the same flawed reasoning that subtends unironic postracial discourses of Asian American assimilation. [End Page 112]


Rather than perceiving Asian American literary studies as an elective field, into which interest and responsibility can be opted in or out, the Garbage Patch’s epistemological import engages Asian American racial formation even in the absence of national boundaries or raced bodies. The post-human understanding enabled by ecologies of entanglement is not an eschewal of human concerns,60 but a denial of human exceptionalism or separateness. This is a lesson that A Tale for the Time Being voices explicitly through Ruth’s meditation on the Zen Buddhist teacher Dōgen’s words: “To forget the self is to be enlightened by all myriad things.”61 The ecologies of entanglement brought into relief by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch dialectically retool transnational and anthropocentric analytics in order to contemplate more fulsomely how engaging the increasingly complex ontologies of Asian America’s subjects and objects can expand the field’s critical capacities. As Asian Americanists, we must think across scales and between nodes of knowledge such as the ones that bisect the Pacific Ocean. Rather than beginning with a fixed sense of Asian American subjectivity, the flows and eddies of the gyre encourage us to understand it as an effect of our ecologies of entanglements—whose shifting relations require continuous redefinition.

Michelle N. Huang

Michelle N. Huang is a dual-degree doctoral student in the Departments of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her dissertation project examines posthumanist aesthetics in contemporary Asian American literature and culture. Her articles on twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature have appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature, Amerasia, and the Journal of Medical Humanities.


Thank you to special issue editors Aimee Bahng and Christine Mok, as well as to JAAS editor Anita Mannur, for their editorial acumen and for including me in this special issue. I also extend my profuse gratitude to Susan Squier, Tina Chen, and J. Ryan Marks, who all read countless drafts, and to Michael Bérubé, Crystal Baik, Christopher Eng, Christopher Fan, Andrew Leong, Sarah Wald, and the anonymous reviewers for their keen insights. The time it took to write this article was supported by a Humanities Initiative Dissertation Release as well as a dissertation fellowship from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State.


1. Kimiko Hahn, “In Childhood,” in The Artist’s Daughter (New York: Norton, 2002), 15.

2. John R. K. Clark, Hawai’i Place Names: Shores, Beaches, and Surf Sites (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), 158.

3. Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, and Kelly Jazvac, “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon in the Future Rock Record,” GSA Today 24, no. 6 (June 2014): [End Page 113] 4. See also Dana Luciano’s April 12, 2016 essay “Speaking Substances: Rock” in the LA Review of Books, which reads the plastiglomerate as geologically marking the human’s extinction via obscene overconsumption.

4. Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (New York: Viking, 2013) (hereafter ATFTB).

5. For clarity, I refer to Ruth Ozeki the author as “Ozeki” and to Ruth the character as “Ruth,” even as the novel invites readers to read the author and character as the same.

6. Yunte Huang, Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), 2.

7. “Transpacific” means different things in different contexts; valences include the economic, the military, the environmental, and the cultural. See Erin Suzuki’s essay “Transpacific” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, ed. Rachel C. Lee (New York: Routledge, 2014), 352–64.

8. Studies of “Pacific Basin” locations such as Guam, Hawai’i, and the Mariana archipelago importantly draw attention to those who actually live in the Pacific and generally exhibit a deeper engagement with the Pacific Ocean. Teresa Shewry argues, “These relationships between people and the ocean are not simply a product of the rise of global environmentalism in the late twentieth century. They emerge from the long durations in which Indigenous peoples developed environmental protocol and knowledge in the wake of the great migrations through which the first people inhabited the Pacific, as well as from colonial economic contexts that saw intensive marine environmental change.” See Hope at Sea: Possible Ecologies in Oceanic Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 18.

9. Ozeki, ATFTB, 409.

10. Two anthologies are commonly cited as representative of feminist new materialism: Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman’s Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) and Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010). In August 2016, another collection titled Mattering: Feminism, Science, and Materialism, edited by Victoria Pitts-Taylor, was published by New York University Press.

11. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 333.

12. Karen Barad, “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come,” Derrida Today 3, no. 2 (November 2010): 265.

13. Kandice Chuh, “It’s Not about Anything,” Social Text 121 (Winter 2014): 131; Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 9. [End Page 114]

14. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 183.

15. Julie Sze, Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 8.

16. I use the word “molecular” in two senses: firstly, the minute scale of material composition and secondly, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theorization of the molar and the molecular in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

17. Rey Chow, Entanglements; or, Transmedial Thinking about Capture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 10–11.

18. Ozeki, ATFTB, 32.

19. Ramón Saldívar, “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative,” Narrative 21, no. 1 (January 2013): 2.

20. Ozeki, ATFTB, 58.

21. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 458.

22. Ozeki, ATFTB, 9.

23. Ibid., 8.

24. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 393.

25. Ozeki, ATFTB, 36.

26. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 392.

27. Ozeki, ATFTB, 223.

28. Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 5.

29. Ozeki, ATFTB, 114.

30. Ibid., 93.

31. An October 29, 2015, Scientific American article, “Plastic Contaminates Table Salt in China,” summarizes a study conducted in China that demonstrates oceanic plastic’s interpenetration of humans at the molecular scale via foodways. While the study immediately stoked extant fear of Chinese contamination, Sherri Mason, Professor of Chemistry at SUNY-Fredonia, warns against drawing narrow conclusions that revile China when the United States has yet to conduct any similar studies: “Plastics have become such a ubiquitous contaminant, I doubt it matters whether you look for plastic in sea salt on Chinese or American supermarket shelves. I’d like to see some ‘me-too’ studies.”

32. Colleen Lye, “Racial Form,” Representations 104, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 99.

33. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 55.

34. Ken Liu, “Build-A-Dolly,” Apex Magazine 47 (April 2013).

35. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), ix. [End Page 115]

36. “U.S. Department of Commerce Industry Report: Dolls, Toys, Games, and Children’s Vehicles NAICS Code 33993” (Toy Industry Association), http://www.toyassociation.org/app_themes/tia/pdfs/facts/2012toyoutlook.pdf.

37. Rachel C. Lee points out the doubled devaluation of Chinese plasticized bodies in the Body Worlds exhibit: “Only later did attention turn to the specific dodgy quality of Chinese manufacture in the production of these shows.” See Rachel C. Lee, The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 6.

38. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 94–95, emphasis original.

39. See Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2000).

40. Thanks to Aimee Bahng for this insight.

41. See Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

42. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 183–84.

43. Charles J. Moore, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (New York: Penguin, 2011), 66. Alaimo glosses this excerpt from Moore as “unfortunate, given the prejudices pulsing through the United States,” but does not address the racial coding of plastic further. Stacy Alaimo, “Oceanic Origins, Plastic Activism, and New Materialism at Sea,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 199.

44. See Fan Yang, Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

45. Sze, Fantasy Islands, 20.

46. Richard Powers, Gain (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), 347–48.

47. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972), 98.

48. See Lee, Exquisite Corpse, 9.

49. Catherine Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 74.

50. Heather Davis, “Life & Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic,” in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 348.

51. Frank Chin, The Chickencoop Chinaman/The Year of the Dragon: Two Plays (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 8. Thanks to Christine Mok for pointing out that this scene is particularly ironic given Chin’s polemic in The Big Aiiieeeee! (1991), “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and Fake,” which denigrates “fake” Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and David Henry Hwang. [End Page 116]

52. Susan Koshy, “The Fiction of Asian American Literature,” Yale Journal of Criticism 9, no. 2 (1996): 342.

53. “Pica,” in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

54. Ruth Ozeki, “Immortal,” in The Petroleum Manga, ed. Marina Zurkow (New York: Punctum Books, 2014), 118.

55. Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 146.

56. See Johanna R. Rochester, “Bisphenol A and Human Health: A Review of the Literature,” Reproductive Toxicology 42 (December 2013): 132–55.

57. Ozeki, “Immortal,” 116.

58. Chen, Animacies, 220. This idea is expanded in a more recent article that argues for an “intoxicated method” of scholarship that turns the lens back on the “cognitive idealism” that governs expectations of criticism and that relentlessly values “cognitive elaboration, purity and clear thought.” See Mel Y. Chen, “Unpacking Intoxication, Racialising Disability,” Medical Humanities 41 (2015): 29.

59. Lawrence Buell, “Toxic Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 639–65.

60. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 136.

61. Ozeki, ATFTB, 399. This article does not do justice to A Tale for the Time Being’s treatment of Buddhism. The novel’s treatment of science and religion clearly suggests that Buddhism and quantum physics, rather than being mutually exclusive domains, are meant to be read in complementarity. [End Page 117]