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III 131 Introduction to Under Western Eyes Culture Wars in Asian America Since the publication breakthrough of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in 1976, an increasingly higher level of success and diversity has been emerging in Asian American literature . During the eighties, Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club was a runaway best seller and David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly had a hugely successful run on Broadway, winning several Tony awards. Young poets like Li-­ Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, John Yau, and Cathy Song rose to national prominence, winning awards and appearing in standard textbooks and anthologies . During the nineties, both Tan’s novel and Hwang’s play were made into commercial films, and mainstream commercial presses and regional and literary small presses have stepped up the publication of even more novels, memoirs, volumes of poetry, and collections of short stories by Asian Americans . A list of recognizable American literary names might now include those of Gish Jen, David Wong Louie, Wendy Law-­ Yone, Ben Fong-­ Torres, Sylvia Watanabe, Frank Chin, Gus Lee, Joy Kogawa, Philip Gotanda, Jessica Hagedorn, Fae Ng, and Le Ly Hayslip. Newcomer novelists Chang-­ rae Lee and Julie Shigekuni will be recognized very soon. Poets Li-­ Young Lee, David Mura, Kiyoko Mori, and myself are now publishing memoirs and autobiographies with commercial houses. It feels like a storehouse of cultural riches has been filled, and that there is a lot of literary goodwill in the cultural bank. Yet, alongside the recent rise in prominent national publications by Asian American writers, some troubling confusions and disputes have arisen concerning the public role of the Asian American literary artist, particularly with regard to questions of 132 politics, community, social justice, and the representation of Asians in mass culture. There is an extremely divisive cultural war going on, made visible recently by the newspapers, that has sparked debate on university campuses and served as a hot academic topic for symposia panels across the country. Structurally speaking, the war is taking place on two ostensibly different fronts—­ in the mainstream culture and within Asian American academic and literary communities themselves—­ on the one hand pitting the Asian American writer against mainstream cultural perceptions, and then, on the other, pitting the Asian American writer against a political agenda defined as organically arising from out of diverse Asian American communities. Recent events like the academic panel at the Asian American Studies Association’s 1990 convention, which featured several scholars presenting papers denouncing Ronald Takaki’s prize-­ winning book, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, have demonstrated that, despite what any single author might wish, this cultural war constantly engages the Asian American writer, marginalizing and censoring individual consciousness , playing out political arguments in a social arena, and absorbing the multiple meanings of any given work into oversimplified interpretive systems regarding the relationship between ethnicity and power. There have been critics who demand that writers serve as political instruments to bring about social justice. Claiming to act as spokespersons for the Asian American community, these critics argue that Asian American literary artists have not done enough to curb or eliminate certain exotic or negative portraits of Asians in our culture. They have even gone so far as to allege that the artists themselves have perpetuated these negative images . From the mainstream front there are yet others who feel that Asian American writers have been treated well by the culture and have little reason to argue with it and no ground for advancing political critiques. I would say that many academic colleagues , white liberals, and assimilated friends have tacitly but consistently required that we writers be silent about our outrage for the dearth of that justice being visited upon our lives. I feel that both of these perspectives are patronizing and proprietary and work to perpetuate the twin crimes of limiting artistic free- 133 dom and infantilizing the consciousness of the Asian American writer. The Japanese American poet David Mura once wrote an article for Mother Jones about the Actors’ Equity protest against the casting of British Jonathan Pryce, a white male, as the Eurasian lead in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. The point had to do with the fact that no Asian was given an audition for that role, that, yet again, a white was playing in yellowface. Mura’s article also exposed the breakup of his friendships with two white artists —­ a painter and a poet—­ as a result of...


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