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Relative Histories

Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs

Rocio G. Davis

Publication Year: 2011

Relative Histories focuses on the Asian American memoir that specifically recounts the story of at least three generations of the same family. This form of auto/biography concentrates as much on other members of one’s family as on oneself, generally collapses the boundaries conventionally established between biography and autobiography, and in many cases—as Rocío G. Davis proposes for the auto/biographies of ethnic writers—crosses the frontier into history, promoting collective memory. Davis centers on how Asian American family memoirs expand the limits and function of life writing by reclaiming history and promoting community cohesion. She argues that identity is shaped by not only the stories we have been told, but also the stories we tell, making these narratives important examples of the ways we remember our family’s past and tell our community’s story. In the context of auto/biographical writing or filmmaking that explores specific ethnic experiences of diaspora, assimilation, and integration, this work considers two important aspects: These texts re-imagine the past by creating a work that exists both in history and as a historical document, making the creative process a form of re-enactment of the past itself. Each chapter centers on a thematic concern germane to the Asian American experience: the narrative of twentieth-century Asian wars and revolutions, which has become the subtext of a significant number of Asian American family memoirs (Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress, May-lee and Winberg Chai’s The Girl from Purple Mountain, K. Connie Kang’s Home Was The Land of Morning Calm, Doung Van Mai Elliott’s The Sacred Willow); family experiences of travel and displacement within Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which unveil a history of multiple diasporas that are often elided after families immigrate to the United States (Helie Lee’s Still Life With Rice, Jael Silliman’s Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, Mira Kamdar’s Motiba’s Tattoos); and the development of Chinatowns as family spaces (Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain, Bruce Edward Hall’s Tea that Burns). The final chapter analyzes the discursive possibilities of the filmed family memoir ("family portrait documentary"), examining Lise Yasui’s A Family Gathering, Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury’s Halving the Bones, and Ann Marie Fleming’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. Davis concludes the work with a metaliterary engagement with the history of her own Asian diasporic family as she demonstrates the profound interconnection between forms of life writing.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. ix


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pp. xi

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Chapter 1. Relatives and Histories

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pp. 1-8

Family memoirs, also called “multigenerational” or “intergenerational auto/ biographies”, have become ubiquitous in ethnic writing in the United States. Since Alex Haley’s dramatic (albeit controversial) Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), ethnic writers have increasingly used family stories to engage the history of immigration, adaptation, and presence in American society...

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Chapter 2. Family Memoirs in the Context of Auto/biographical Writing: Mediating History, Promoting Collective Memory

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pp. 9-30

In his book, Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur explains that identity is partly bound up in identification with significant others, which is the reason why, especially in autobiographies, writing the self implies writing the other. This idea resounds with one of the key insights in autobiography theory in the 1990s, namely that identity—for both men and women—is essentially relational, formed and defined in relation to others...

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Chapter 3. Representing Asian Wars and Revolutions

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pp. 31-68

The narrative of Asian wars and revolutions in the twentieth century, which led to massive immigration to the United States, is the subtext of a significant number of Asian American family memoirs. Events of the midtwentieth century that have become part of our general knowledge of world history—the war in China and the Cultural Revolution, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, in particular—are the focus of the four texts I examine in this chapter...

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Chapter 4. Multiple Journeys and Palimpsestic Diasporas

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pp. 69-93

The family memoirs analyzed in this chapter illustrate an important facet of Asian history, namely the experience of travel and displacement within Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Current criticism on Asian American writing generally focuses on issues of displacement, acculturation, or transculturation within American borders, but an examination of the history of immigrants to the United States often reveals a previous narrative of cultural transitions—usually brought about for political or religious reasons...

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Chapter 5. The Chinese in America: Histories and Spatial Positions

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pp. 94-115

In his book, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian American History and Culture (1994), Gary Okihiro explains that “Asian American history is more than an assemblage of dates, acts, names; it is more than an accounting of the deeds of the famous and wealthy; it is more than an abstraction from the realm of the senses to the reaches of theory and discourse. To be sure, Asian American history is all that, and more” (93). He then describes the kind of history that connects with the practice of family memoirs...

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Chapter 6. The Asian American Family Portrait Documentary: Multiplying Discourses

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pp. 116-139

Current scholarship on film studies underscores the role of the photograph, the film image, and the documentary in the construction of historical chronicles and invites us to analyze films as forms of historical mediation. “Independent video constitutes a field of cultural memory, one that often contests and intervenes into official history,” Marita Sturken explains in “Politics of Video Memory” (2002)...

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Chapter 7. We're Everywhere: Asian Diasporic Transnational Families

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pp. 140-149

This examination of the family narratives of Asian diasporic subjects gives us a sociohistorical portrait of an increasingly dynamic phenomenon. These stories explain particular histories by juxtaposing public events with private experiences, to reveal the ways families construct (or reconstruct) identity within the experience of diaspora. Giving a sense of cohesion and closure to the lives of grandparents and parents can establish a sense of authority and meaning to the writer’s own life story...


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pp. 151-161

Works Cited

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pp. 163-176


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pp. 177-183

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860868
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834586

Publication Year: 2011