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American Literary History 18.3 (2006) 618-637

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Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres:

Navigating Karen Tei Yamashita's Literary World

Always a stranger, you move through these places,
and you find the things that are recognizable
from the places that you've already been.
Karen Tei Yamashita

Although Asian American literary studies have in recent decades taken the "transnational turn" that Shelley Fisher Fishkin has described of contemporary American studies (17), the particular rubric of "hemispheric studies" has not found as much traction in the field as, for example, "diasporic" or "Pacific Rim studies." Aside from a smattering of works that attend to Canada in a substantial way, most transnationally inclined criticism in Asian American studies has been more involved in mining understudied or otherwise occluded east-west connections than in looking critically north or south. This turn toward the transnational has also been accompanied by a certain amount of anxiety over the consequences of losing focus on the historic and continuing power of the US nation-state in racializing and regulating Asianness within its borders.1 Moreover, because of the distinctive ways in which Asianness has been racialized as immutably foreign despite nativity, citizenship, or acculturation within the US frame, a critical wariness attaches to any semblance of a presumed commonality of experience or identity across specific sites. In the absence of racial essentialism, in other words, there exists no prima facie case for connecting the expressive cultures of Asian Americans with Asians elsewhere.

I open this essay with this brief rehearsal of some of the conditions and concerns that attend debates about the spatial logics animating Asian American literary studies to provide a point of departure for understanding how they might participate in and perhaps advance [End Page 618] hemispheric studies. Understood in its broadest sense, hemispheric studies prompts a collaborative and dynamic link among studies of the Americas writ large. While critically mindful of and geared toward negotiating substantial unevenness in political and economic power, hemispheric studies as proposed by such scholars as Claudia Sadowski-Smith and Claire Fox complements "other emergent national, regional, and global perspectives in American, Canadian, and Latin American studies" (7). Such a model attempts to decenter the US nation and critical approaches based on or derived from US-centered studies even as it acknowledges the influential material power of the US.

My broad aim in this essay is to explore that complementary space between Asian American studies, conceived as a "national perspective" that seeks to understand the link between the national and the global, and hemispheric studies, understood as paradigmatically concerned with the relationship of the Americas to the local or national. Asian American studies offers a national perspective insofar as its primary objectives have been geared toward illuminating US culture and politics from the particular vantage of a domestic racial minority. It is, in other words, the specific site of the US nation and the processes of racialization that have shaped the various practices and structures of the US nation-state that have been the grounds upon which Asian Americanist critics have sought to interrogate the US's relation to the world. Because the histories of Asian racialization in the US have been so closely tied to its relations with Asian nations, it makes sense that transnationalism in Asian American studies has focused attention on what Gary Okihiro has described as the "East-West filaments" of Asian American history (25). Hemispheric studies poses a different kind of challenge, a different set of critical questions for Asian Americanists: In what way(s) can hemispheric studies enhance the study of racialization in the US? How might such a perspective advance Asian Americanist efforts to critique the US nation's reliance on and creation of racial difference? Through this exploration, I arrive at the suggestion that hemispheric studies articulated through Asian American literary studies underscores the need to look within and among but also beyond the Americas and specifically to Asia in critical efforts to challenge the discursive centrality of the US.

This study, then, underscores the complexity that...


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