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Rereading History, Rewriting Desire: Reclaiming Queerness in Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart and Bienvenido Santos' Scent of Apples

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 5, Number 2, June 2002
pp. 91-111 | 10.1353/jaas.2003.0005

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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.2 (2002) 91-111


IT'S A BLEAK NOVEMBER DAY IN SAN FRANCISCO, and my Pilipino American literature class is listening to a student presentation on the possibilities of the homoerotic in Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, probably the best known and most taught Filipino American novel. The class is predominantly Filipino American (only three students are non-Asian), and I watch as the men squirm in their seats, and some of the women grimace; clearly the class is uncomfortable. The student's analysis is compelling, anchored in nuanced and sophisticated close readings—a literature professor's dream. But it soon becomes the student's nightmare when, after a long silence, a heated discussion ensues. His classmates tell him:

"You didn't read the book right. "
"You're not Filipino so you can't really appreciate this text, or understand how what you said hurts us."
"You must be gay and that's why you're forcing your reading onto this book."

Stunned by the vicious reception, and worried for my student, I feel defeated. Why are my students so invested in one particular reading (heterosexist) and why are they so threatened by another (queer)? What is at stake here?


Imagine an Asian America whose literary foundations are queer. How might our historiography, literary history and culture be transformed? What would be "lost"—and what would we "gain"? How would Asian American identity and community formation, scholarship and activism reflect this paradigmatic shift? Placing sexuality at the center of Asian American Studies demands our reconceiving how race, gender and class are constructed; however, a queer analysis—"a political practice based on transgressions of the normal and normativity rather than a straight/gay binary of heterosexual/homosexual identity"—demands a critique of our discipline's unexamined investments in heteronormativity, enabling a host of other possibilities which Asian America has often ignored ordismissed, to ourowndetriment. A queer lens then provides us with a powerful means of describing and dismantling entangled discourses around identity, sexuality and power, a project central to our understanding the multiplicitous significations inherent in the term "Asian America" itself. Indeed, David Eng and Alice Hom eloquently describe the significance of queer analysis in the following way:

From a queer studies point of view, to insert questions of sexuality, sexual identification, and sexual orientation into our concept of Asian American identity would immediately help to dislodge a static, outdated, and exclusively racial notion of who "we" are. Queer identity does not fit comfortably in the broadly polarized (and heterosexist) nationalist/nativist or assimilationist/feminist debate that has shaped Asian American studies and propelled analyses of Asian American racial formation during the 1980s and 1990s. To recognize that Asian Americans are never purely, or merely, racial subjects is a crucial task in the rapidly shifting 1990s political terrain of postidentity politics and multicultural and diversity management. As Asian American queers, we neither relate nor conform well to implicit heterosexual models of Asian American identity. Therefore, we need to articulate a new conception of Asian American racial identity, its heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity—concepts that have, after all, underpinned the Asian American moniker from its very inception.

This paper explores the queer significations of Carlos Bulosan's and Bienvenido Santos' works in an effort to deconstruct the prescriptive heteronormative investments of both Asian American literary criticism and historiography and to reclaim the transgressive, queer impulses which undergird these foundational Filipino American texts. While America Is in the Heart and Scent of Apples are probably the best known and most taught Filipino American texts and each have impressive critical histories, I contend that they have been given short shrift by literary critics and historians alike because Asian American investment in compulsory heterosexuality has dictated only the recognition of "deviant heterosexuality" within these texts—and this heterosexist compulsion has played a role in their enduring popularity. Lois Tyson maintains that the goal of queer criticism is to "reveal the problematic quality of . . . representations of sexual categories . . . to show the various ways in which the categories of homosexual and heterosexual break down, overlap, or do not adequately represent the dynamic range of...

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