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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 288-290

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Book Review

Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America

Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America. By Patricia P. Chu. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

At the beginning of Assimilating Asians, Patricia Chu invokes Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker in order to suggest that not only do Asian American writers revise existing narratives of assimilation so as to challenge and re-create definitions of national identity, but that they also participate in this endeavor by figuring authorship, heroism, agency, and ultimately narrative itself in distinctively gendered ways. From this simple starting point, Chu develops a multi-layered argument about the significance of gender, genre, and generation in the production of Asian American literature in the last century. Chu asserts that her study is "the first extended literary study of the gendering of Asian American narratives of assimilation" and one of the most significant contributions in this book is her insistence that "it is both necessary and appropriate for men and women to adopt differing rhetorical strategies in the struggle for survival and acculturation." (6) While many critics have noted the "Asian American gender gap" that Chu investigates in her book, most by discussing the gendered tensions structuring the Frank Chin-Maxine Hong Kingston debate, few have delved as deeply or as insightfully into the necessity of such different rhetorical strategies for representing the sometimes antagonistic, sometimes complementary efforts of Asian American male and female writers to articulate identity formation.

Significantly, Chu identifies some key paradigms for understanding how narratives of formation--she emphasizes the bildungsroman as a critical form mobilized by Asian American writers --are structured differently by male and female authors in order to wrestle with the contradictions inherent in claiming [End Page 288] Asian Americanness. Assimilating Asians asserts that writing the double equation of Asian Americanness results in a paradox: not only do Asian American writers need to interrogate received ideas about what constitutes Americanness, they must also position such interrogation as a fundamental aspect of becoming American. The book's two sections, "Myths of Americanization" and "Constructing Chinese American Ethnicity," thus structurally reflect the twinned nature of the larger literary project that Chu writes about. The first section focuses on the ways in which many male authors privilege authorship by casting themselves as author-heroes so as to engage in the dual projects of "fathering" both family and literary tradition. As Chu persuasively argues, male authors rely upon abjecting Asian American women, who represent aspects of homeland or ancestral culture, in order to establish more convincingly their own Americanness. In this section, Chu also comments on female counter-narratives to these paradigms by focusing on the efforts of two very different writers, Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and Bharati Mukherjee. She suggests that the difficulties faced by these authors in trying to refigure American authorship, family formation, and self-construction in feminist terms through re-working Anglo-American bildungsromane expose the impossibility of completely subverting the genre's privileging of white, middle-class, female subjectivity. Section two addresses specifically the case of Chinese American representation and explores a very provocative question--"Is . . . a containment of Chinese history (or culture) necessarily evil, or even a necessary evil?" (187)--by revisiting the Chin-Kingston debate and re-examining the dynamics of the mother-daughter romance by which Amy Tan constructs Chinese American identity.

Despite dealing with a number of established writers and texts, Chu often comes up with fresh readings. For example, she revisits the critical attacks on Mukherjee's novel Jasmine and urges us to consider that while "Mukherjee's critics think that the obvious impossibility of Jasmine's story is a mistake . . . it is [actually] the novel's saving grace" because the "clearly untenable version of an American romance plot [in] Jasmine teaches readers to recognize and view with suspicion the ideological work that such myths do." (135, 131) Chu's literary analyses also gain richness from her ability...


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