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Surveillance in Asian North American Literature

Monica Chiu

Publication Year: 2014

Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field, Don Lee’s Country of Origin, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest. These and a host of other Asian North American detection and mystery titles were published between 1995 and 2010. Together they reference more than a decade of Asian North America monitoring that includes internment, campaign financing, espionage, and post-9/11 surveillance. However, these works are less concerned with solving crimes than with creating literary responses to the subtle but persistent surveillance of raced subjects. In Scrutinized! Monica Chiu reveals how Asian North American novels’ fascination with mystery, detection, spying, and surveillance is a literary response to anxieties over race. According to Chiu, this allegiance to a genre that takes interruptions to social norms as its foundation speaks to a state of unease at a time of racial scrutiny.

Scrutinized! is broadly about oversight and insight. The race policing of the past has been subsumed under post-racism—an oversight (in the popular nomenclature of race blindness) that is still, ironically, based on a persistent visual construction of race. Detective fiction’s focus on scrutiny presents itself as the most appropriate genre for revealing the failures of a so-called post-racialism in which we continue to deploy visually defined categories of race as social realities—a regulatory mechanism under which Asian North Americans live the paradox of being inscrutable. To be looked at and overlooked is the contradiction that drives the book’s thesis. Readers first revisit Oriental visions, or Asian stereotypes, and then encounter official documentation on major events, such as the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian internment. The former visions, which endure, and the latter documents, diplomatically forgotten, shape how Asian subjects were and are scrutinized and to what effect. They determine which surveillance images remain emblazoned in a nation’s collective memory and which face political burial. The book goes on to provide a compelling analysis of mystery and detective fiction by Lee, Nina Revoyr, Choi, Suki Kim, Sakamoto, and Hamid, whose work exploits the genre’s techniques to highlight pervasive vigilance among Asian North American subjects.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Chapter 1: Introduction: Under Scrutiny

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pp. 1-27

Over the past fifty years, the American government has been particularly interested in surveilling minority subjects. The now infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) illegally and clandestinely pursued scores of activists and organizations associated with the black liberation movement and civil rights movement...

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Chapter 2: Racial Playgrounds: Illusion and Danger in Don Lee’s Country of Origin

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pp. 28-47

Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and Little Tokyos have been entertainment hubs for Western tourists for more than a hundred years. Their Oriental architecture, unique food, and media promotions of their cultural attractions have encouraged white bourgeois forays into what I call Asian playgrounds, desirable for their intoxicating amalgamation of entertainment and danger. San Francisco’s...

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Chapter 3: The Conspicuous Subjects of Interracial Spaces in Nina Revoyr’s Southland

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pp. 48-67

Los Angeles long has served as a canvas for noir films and fiction, argues Liam Kennedy, a racial crucible in which Walter Mosley’s African American Easy Rawlins acquires “the double meaning of knowing one’s place,” Chester Himes’ African American Robert “Bob” Jones yearns for “invisibility and ordinariness,” and Raymond...

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Chapter 4: Persistent Vigilance and Racial Longing in Choi’s Person of Interest and Kim’s The Interpreter

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pp. 68-95

This chapter investigates how authors Susan Choi and Suki Kim manipulate the conventions of the detective genre to make evident the often sobering experiences of surveillance shadowing nonwhite subjects. The genre is premised on the careful examination of clues, the laying bare of that which heretofore has been undisclosed. When the innocent Asian North American protagonists of...

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Chapter 5: Intimate Details: Scrutiny and Evidentiary Photographs in Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field

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pp. 96-111

When I teach Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field, my students emerge from the novel confused and irritated. Understandably so, for Sakamoto cleverly omits necessary details of the Japanese Canadian internment that would assist a reader’s understanding of the novel’s psychologically bruised characters and the murders...

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Chapter 6: Double Surveillance in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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pp. 112-133

Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel that disarms as it alarms. Pakistani-born protagonist Changez constantly assuages the fears of an unnamed American guest dining with him in Lahore. Yet these assurances only encourage the American’s, and subsequently the reader’s, anxiety over potential bodily harm directed...

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Chapter 7: Conclusion

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pp. 134-138

In the persistent policing found in contemporary Asian North American literature, detection (scrutiny, watchfulness, observation, vigilance, racial profiling) provides an insightful metaphor by which to frame a history of Asian North American surveillance. Characters under suspicion possess a heightened awareness of...


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pp. 139-158

Works Cited

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pp. 159-170


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pp. 171-183

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824838430
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838423

Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 876088682
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Scrutinized!

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- Asian American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Canadian fiction -- Asian American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Detective and mystery stories, American -- History and criticism.
  • Detective and mystery stories, Canadian -- History and criticism.
  • Race in literature.
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