- Recovered Legacies: Authority and Identity in Early Asian American Literature
In this important volume, Keith Lawrence and Floyd Cheung engage in a long-overdue "recovery of the rich, diverse, and complicated writing of Asian American literary pioneers." The archival work in this volume balances the often preoccupying essentialist paradigms that many current critics insist on applying to early Asian American texts as the essays highlight detrimental slippages in the ways many of these texts have been read and continue to be read today. In their brilliant and lucid introduction, the editors outline the perceived dangers of looking back at pioneering texts from a predetermined prism, emphasizing how a text's identity derives from specific "engendering circumstances," its structure and content. They thus invite us to re-consider how we select and remember these texts, why we choose to teach or write them, and what approaches we use to read them. Notably, they stress an obvious but critically overlooked point: that a reading of a nineteenth-century text cannot depend on a twenty-first-century reader's agenda. The volume aims, in sum, to correct the presentist trend in existing scholarship and rethink why multiethnic perspectives from the past matter to current scholars.
By highlighting these points, Lawrence and Cheung identify one of the most contentious metacritical issues we grapple with today: the ways current criticism uses literary texts as tools to validate particular political or ideological positions, to the extent of ignoring writer's processes of construction or aesthetic merit. As Sue-Im Lee explains in the introduction to Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Writing, current Asian American literary criticism is almost indistinguishable from the notion of "culture," a term most expansively understood as the material and discursive structures of organized life. In this mode of criticism, [End Page 329] literary works are generally examined as symbolic enactments of material forces; as examples of particular ideologies, phenomena, or conflicts; or as illustrations of the political, economic, sociological concerns of the times.
Indeed, we note quite easily the ways that certain catch-phrases tend to be repeated in recent critical studies. Repetitive use of words like "imperialism," "materialism," "commodification," "nation," and "transnation," to name a few, in fashionable articles signal how many critics currently espouse precisely the same kind of circumscribed approaches they often accuse other critics of deploying. Being Asian American is thus currently conceived as a series of ideological and political positions, rather than as individual approaches to life in the United States by persons of Asian descent. Importantly, much criticism on literary texts tends toward prescription, and the texts that receive most critical attention are those that conform to certain established paradigms of politically correct views. This limited and limiting perspective clearly ignores both historical contingencies and personal choices in favor of a specific social position.
In the process of what they call "transcending presentism" in reading pioneering texts by Asians in America, Lawrence and Cheung identify three "challenges": dismantling the resistance/accomodational model; resisting prescription and embracing dialogue; and viewing America as an eccentric culture. The editors are careful about the way they invite us to approach texts, noting that this renewed approach implies more than simply avoiding monolithic constructions. They suggest that each text needs to be read individually, paying attention to the context in which they were written and noting that we have also to consider the extent to which we might ethically require a writer to mirror our own position or ideology. One of the most interesting issues raised is our classification of many of these writers as "Asian American" before the term was even invented. This particular practice, in some ways, encapsulates many of the points these editors invite us to re-think critically regarding the positions we occupy when we read and the paradigms we apply to our reading.
The contributors to the volume, in the words of the editors, "have successfully named and refuted false cultural expectations, seductive brands of prescription-making, and bewitching displays of cultural 'nonwhiteness.'" In the...