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Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 368-371 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0017

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This book engages the question of how “Asian American family memoirs manifestly present the individual author’s self as discursively constituted, as issues of literary traditions, immigrant history, identity politics, and cultural contingencies participate in the construction of the text” (11). Davis argues for Asian American family memoirs as creations of a collective memory that elides the individual with the public—the coming together of historical events with the memories of the people who personally experience them. In theorizing collective memory, both in the general sense and with consideration of Asian American memoir, she invites the reader to study the intersections between the personal and the public, the private and the political, and the autobiographical and the narrative voice.

Davis’s book is an important critical work that expands the idea of autobiography to encompass narrative voices that span generations: the true collaboration of “autobiography” and “biography.” Basing her theory on foundational memory and autobiography theorists—Halbwach, Kansteiner, LeJeune, and Eakin, amongst them—Davis argues that the family memoir is voiced not just by the author, but by the family. Many recent publications have set the precedent for using family history as the basis for memoir, for example, Nancy K. Miller’s What They Saved and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss. Davis’s decision to approach the family memoir through Asian American studies; the inclusion of lesser-known authors; and the incorporation of film, photography, and archival work demonstrates her original contribution to the field. Though there has been a great deal of scholarly work on Asian American narratives in recent years (Eleanor Rose Ty’s The Politics of the Visible, Patricia Chu’s Assimilating Asians, Morris Young’s Minor Re/Visions, Judy Yung’s Unbound Feet, Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America), Davis’s exploration of relations between narrative forms and collective histories is a novel contribution to debates about what constitutes both family memoir and collective histories.

After two introductory chapters outlining her theory and approach, the subsequent chapters address memoirs arranged around particular histories: the role of “Asian Wars and Revolutions” in family memoir (chapter three), the “Journey and Diaspora” of relocation to other parts of Asia in the wake of war and revolution (chapter four), immigration to, and creation of communal spaces within, America in “The Chinese in America” (chapter five), and finally an analysis of the “Family Portrait Documentary” (chapter six). A final chapter tells Davis’s own global family history, a tale arching Asian, European, and American boundaries of time, space, and race. The final emphasis on the convergence of the personal with the public encapsulates what is most compelling about Davis’s study of “relative histories” and confirms why Davis is the ideal candidate for this project.

Chapters three and four center around the effect of wars, revolutions, and occupations of Asia on family history. Davis’s project is best illustrated through examples of her theoretical application to the memoirs; to demonstrate, I turn to her dissection of Helie Lee’s Still Life with Rice and Mira Kamdar’s Motiba’s Tattoos in chapter four. Lee and Kamdar use innovative narrative styles to tell multi-generational family narratives of families displaced within Asian in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: “Lee appropriates her grandmother’s voice to tell the family story in first person from the point of view of the past, and Kamdar juxtaposes the past and present as she recounts her grandmother’s and father’s lives as she visits the places they inhabited” (83). This type of project goes a step further than the double-voiced narrations of Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress and May-lee and Winberg Chai’s The Girl from Purple Mountain, or the occasional appropriation of voice in K. Connie Kang’s Home Was the Land of Morning Calm, Doung Van Mai Elliot’s The Sacred Willow, and Jael Stillman’s Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames (which is not to say that these examinations, which constitute chapter three and the remainder of chapter four, are not also insightful). Davis uses a particular moment to bind together Lee’s narrative...



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