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Domesticating the Aliens Within: Sentimental Benevolence in Late-Nineteenth-Century California Magazines

From: American Quarterly
Volume 61, Number 1, March 2009
pp. 113-136 | 10.1353/aq.0.0058

Abstract

Abstract:

This essay analyzes the workings of romantic love and its legal institution, marriage, as signs of universal humanity in fictional representation of Chinese immigrant women in two important California magazines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Overland Monthly and the Land of Sunshine, including short stories written by Asian American/Eurasian writer Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton. Reading these fictional narratives in the contexts of the period's prevailing trope of "yellow slavery," antimiscegenation legislation that codified white heteronormativity, and the magazines' expansionist rhetoric, I argue that these narratives constitute a "culture of benevolence"-sentimental emancipatory discourse shaped by U.S. women's reform movements-which has been integral to the racial projects of the U.S. nation and empire. By tracing the tension between the trope of "yellow slavery" and marriage, I situate my analysis within the broader shared ideological structure and connected histories that racialized African Americans and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century all the while foregrounding how heteronormative narratives about Chinese immigrant labor produced the period's shifting boundaries between the domestic and the foreign. I argue that while sentimental narratives attempt to address injustices by "humanizing" the Chinese, that is, by imagining their inclusion in universal humanity through heteronormative love and marriage, the very terms of heteronormativity paradoxically rationalize the logic of exclusionary laws, obscure imperial historic power relations, and undermine the eligibility of the Chinese for citizenship, socially, culturally, and politically. These narratives thus expose the limits of emancipatory discourses that posit heteronormative love and marriage as the passages to full membership within U.S. capitalist and imperial relations.



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