- Urban Triage: Race and the Fictions of Multiculturalism
The pages of James Kyung-Jin Lee's Urban Triage: Race and the Fictions of Multiculturalism begin with an epigraph from Russell Leong's cautionary poem about multiculturalism, "Beware of the M Word." In this excerpt, Leong likens multiculturalism to a cosmetic worn on bodies as a mark of fashionability. The poem, with its distrust of multiculturalism as a discursive structure more invested in its superficial effects and renderings than structural change, is a fitting beginning for Urban Triage, which serves as a poignant critique about the problematics of liberal-inclusive multiculturalism in the 1980s. The opening chapter states the central problematic fuelling this study: how multiculturalism came to occupy the status of national fantasy in the United States at the same time that urban communities of color during the Reagan era experienced disproportionately high levels of cultural and political decay. At heart, Urban Triage grapples with the fantasies of multiculturalism, its promises of inclusion and utopic visions. As Lee states, multiculturalism in the 1980s became the global story, indeed new fantasy, which garnered its strength in the political-cultural arena in its deliberate insistence on valorizing imaginary crossings of metaphorical lines rather than through a systemic engagement with what it might mean to dismantle real walls. Decidedly uncelebratory, and cautiously skeptical of the promises of the parable of multiculturalism, Lee takes stock of an alternative manifestation of Eighties style multiculturalism, "one in which the work of representing race differently, the work of crossing lines, has not resulted in the work of redistributing resources." [End Page 106]
The phrases "urban triage," as Lee defines it, offers a more complex way to understand the fictions of race in the 1980s. The term "triage," Lee reminds us, derives from the French verb "trier"—to pick or to cull, a term that in its agricultural usage refers to process of winnowing. Triage, Lee suggests, "is a tool for making order out of chaos, and most importantly, for assigning values to that order" (xxvi). Wresting the term "triage" from its more typical moorings in scientific and agricultural discourse, Lee posits urban triage as a metaphorical lens through which to view the cultural production of the 1980s, paying particular attention to how multiculturalism became a cause célèbre in the institution and marketplace at the same time that the groups being written about were in the throes of urban degeneration.
The works examined in this study include, Alejandro Morales's Brick People, Hisaye Yamamoto's "Fire in Fontana," John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire, Rita Dove's "Nigger Song: An Odyssey," Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, and Andrea Lee's "The Day of the Thunderbirds." Each work implicitly addresses the racial, political and economic anxieties of the 1980s, albeit from radically different perspectives. Through sustained analyses of each of these works, Urban Triage weaves a narrative—what Lee names "an urban palimpsest"— uncovering the (at times) nightmarish racial realities of urban life as well as the fictional apparatuses used to augur each writer's vision of the havoc wreaked upon those same urban communities of color.
The first chapter lays the theoretical groundwork for understanding the importance of "urban triage." The next chapter is concerned with Alejandro Morales's deployment of "lo real maravilloso," a literary strategy most frequently associated with Latin American practitioners of magical realism. At least in Latin American contexts, magical realism has often been read as a genre which is politically resistant in its aesthetic innovations. Lee's reading brings the specificities of Chicano socio-economic history to bear on Morales's novel; in the process, he implicitly cautions against reading narrative innovation as a mark of political resistance.
Of particular note to Asian Americanists will be Lee's chapter on Hisaye Yamamoto's "Fire in Fontana." This chapter serves as a powerful rejoinder to historical amnesia and the consequences of forgetting an inter-racial history. The chapter, entitled "Appropriations of Blackness," is an extended analysis of Hisaye Yamamoto's "A Fire in Fontana" (1985). As...