- Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures
Sheng-mei Ma’s Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures suggestively reflects some of the emerging theoretical trends evident in contemporary Asian American (literary) studies. Following the lead of many scholars concerned with transnationalism or “denationalization,” Ma attempts to move beyond a strictly domestic American critical framework for understanding Asian (American) literature by addressing works which can be described as “diasporic” in terms of their sensibility as well as conditions of production and reception. Thus, in addition to analyzing the writing of canonical Asian American literary figures such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Carlos Bulosan, Ma also considers Taiwanese writers like Nieh Hua-ling, Yu Li-hua, and Pai Hsien-yung whose texts are primarily written in Chinese and geared towards a Chinese-language readership. This diasporic approach is one strength of Immigrant Subjectivities in that it allows Ma to explore the recurring thematic tropes that unite various literary texts across lines of national and linguistic boundaries—a scholarly approach which is relatively underdeveloped in Asian American studies where the emphasis is on literature produced in English rather than immigrant or diasporic texts in a native Asian language. Ma’s internationalist perspective in part stems from the fact that his work cannot be solely located under the rubric of Asian American literary studies but rather engages with a variety of disciplinary perspectives and theoretical traditions. As he notes in the introduction to Immigrant Subjectivities, Ma specifically wishes to position his text at the intersection of ethnic, postcolonial, and area studies so as to fill in the gaps—or “overlapping lacuna”—found in the scholarship of each discipline. (p. 1) As a unifying theme for this project, Ma in particular utilizes the representation of immigrant subjectivity in Asian (American) literary texts as a fundamental unit of analysis and broader organizing problematic.
Divided into three overarching sections addressing “The Representation of [End Page 326] the Asian Other,” “Immigrant Subjectivity through Eroticism,” and “Immigrant Self-Representation,” Ma’s text examines these discursive figurations of immigrant subjecthood so as to elucidate the underlying dynamics of identity, power, and global socioeconomic relations that inform them. In the first section, Ma asserts that the depiction of Asian immigrant experience in the work of many Asian American authors uncritically tends to reiterate dominant Orientalist racial discourses, particularly as they describe Asian linguistic and bodily differences as grotesque, alienating, or exoticized. Fundamentally influenced by market demands for representations of a fetishized ethnic difference, these texts often are concerned with the claiming of an Asian American identity that is premised—implicitly or explicitly—on constructing the Asian immigrant as a kind of ontological Other to be repressed or disparaged. Ma’s argument is compelling in that it enables him to suggest that the work of writers as antithetical as Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin share a common if unintended literary problematic. Though often conceived as diametrically opposed in perspective, both Hong Kingston and Chin, among others, tend to appropriate immigrant experience as a signifier of Asian ethnicity in unwitting conformity with a highly marketable literary Orientalism—with Hong Kingston’s writing specifically reflecting a broader discursive strategy characterized by ethnographic style depictions of Orientalized culture implicitly linked to a white feminist framework and termed by Ma as “ethnographic feminism.” (p. 12) Contrary to the essentializing and masculinist critiques of Hong Kingston enunciated by Frank Chin and other cultural nationalists, Ma’s analysis of Hong Kingston seems to arise from a more materialist perspective based upon an awareness of how the powerful influence of market-driven publishing and distribution imperatives shapes artistic production. Indeed, this emphasis on the importance of market and audience constraints in the formation of a writer’s work is one commendable aspect of Ma’s text in general, enabling him to connect critical exegesis of various texts with more sociopolitical considerations.
The second section of Immigrant Subjectivities focuses primarily on the work of Carlos Bulosan and other Asian male writers in America, arguing that the eroticized representation of white women’s sexuality...