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Reconciling Asian-American Studies: Debt, Indebtedness, and Obligation

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 182-187 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Etymologically drawn from the Latin term for “something owed” (debitum), “debt” strikes a decidedly familiar chord at the turn of the twenty-first century. Set alongside contemporary banking crises, financial meltdowns, and governmental bailouts, “debt” coheres with economically driven characterizations of cooperative culpability (particularly with regard to state regulation) and individual responsibility (e.g., subprime loans). Simultaneously, the condition of being in debt—“indebtedness”—can refer to monetary liability or assume a more personal register, signaling an affective obligation to another party or entity. This ancillary definition, in which pecuniary metaphor remains interchangeable with emotional bond, semantically coexists with “gratitude,” in which one is—by way of gift or favor—beholden to another. Notwithstanding divergent resonances and differential registers, “debt,” “indebtedness,” “gratitude,” and “obligation” are relational terms that underscore associations between and among individuals and groups.

This collective reading of “debt” fits the parameters of Asian-American studies as a now-established multidisciplinary field that was, from the outset, indebted to mid-century civil rights movements. Indeed, such movements vociferously and urgently emphasized the politicized obligation to reclaim and uncover histories of racialized oppression. The first generation of Asian Americanists recovered stories of immigration exclusion (for example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), racist incarceration (e.g., the Japanese-American internment), citizenship restriction (as exemplified by the 1922 naturalization case Ozawa v. United States), and political disenfranchisement. The field also owes—immediately and belatedly—a vexed debt to US foreign policy and shifts in immigration law. With regard to the former, twentieth-century American history lays bare longstanding engagements with and in Asia, emblematized by militarized interventions and occupations in the Philippines (1898–1946), Japan (1945–52), Korea (1950–53), and Southeast Asia (1959–75). In terms of the latter, the passage of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act (which eschewed nation-state immigration quotas in favor of East-West hemispheric designations) and subsequent refugee acts (in 1975 and 1980 respectively) enabled the first en masse migration of Asian immigrants to the United States.

These histories, which to varying degrees brought Asian-American studies into being, operate as identifiable anchors for three recently published monographs: erin Khuê Ninh’s Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (2011), Lan Duong’s Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (2012), and Mimi Thi Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (2012). Accessible to multiple audiences (including undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists), each work makes a considerable and commendable contribution to the interdisciplinary fields of Asian-American literary studies, Southeast Asian–American studies, and American cultural studies. In so doing, these projects highlight not only where such fields have been but also evocatively highlight where they are and should be going. To be sure, integral to Ingratitude, Treacherous Subjects, and The Gift of Freedom is a nuanced consideration of debt, indebtedness, and obligation. These theoretical evaluations—rooted in heterogeneous archives and manifest in variegated reading practices—productively render visible a flexible, debt-driven analytic that re-visions and recalibrates racialized legacies of immigration and war.

As the full title of Ninh’s monograph suggests, Ingratitude concentrates its affective and intellectual attention on the second-generation “debt-bound daughter” in Asian-American literature. Whereas Ingratitude focuses its narrative attention on the invested filial obligations between immigrant parents and their female children, Duong’s Treacherous Subjects evaluates—via film and literature—the indebted intersectional relationship between race, gender, and nation. Guided by contradictory characterizations of Vietnamese subjects (including “over here” refugees and “over there” nationals) as “collaborators” and “traitors” during and after the American War in Vietnam, Treacherous Subjects provocatively recalibrates the extent to which the reconciliation of the militarized past remains subjective, elusive, and at times unfixed. Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom—which at the titular level most directly confronts the connection between “war,” “debt” and “other refugee passages”—brings together a highly interdisciplinary archive comprised of political speeches, photographs, mass-media accounts, and legislative policies. Nguyen carefully uses this archive to deconstruct euphemistic claims of freedom at the level of the nation even as she extends this critique to militate against US imperialism and neoliberalism (vis-à-vis the state).

Ingratitude opens with the assertion that “this...

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