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Reviewed by:
  • Begin Here: Reading Asian North American Autobiographies of Childhood
  • Gordon O. Taylor (bio)
Begin Here: Reading Asian North American Autobiographies of Childhood. By Rocío G. Davis. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007.

In this originally conceived and persuasively developed study, Rocío G. Davis explores—in the contexts of Asian American and Asian Canadian cultures—how autobiography may be seen over time, as well as in the contemporary moment, not only as testing the boundaries of the self but also as reshaping the contours of culture. In the process, she shows, across a spectrum of well-chosen examples, how the reclaiming of personal memory through autobiographical return to childhood can work not only towards completion of individual identity, but also towards a redefining of the inherited cultural memory from which, in a way, the autobiographical act took its initial impetus. [End Page 239]

A precisely focused introductory section, "To Begin Here," sets forth the conceptual groundwork for chapters to follow. Professor Davis states her "twofold" concern: first, with the literary-representational as well as the self-interpretive processes through which writers re-imagine themselves in autobiographical engagement with their early years; and second, with the intensified performative aspect of the resulting narratives, aimed at refining or revising cultural memory in its more collective or communal aspect. "These texts," she asserts, "present subjects actively negotiating their own histories, part of a creative adaptation and manipulation of a dynamic network of concepts that transforms them into artists of their own lives and protagonists of America and Canada's narratives of their history."

"The Asian Childhood" provides points of departure drawn from Yan Phou Lee's When I Was a Boy in China and Ilhan New's When I Was a Boy in Korea, late-19th- and early-20th-century publications in a series designed to present to American readers recollections of the "foreign" childhoods of immigrants to North America. Due as much to the formula of the series as to authorial assumptions in these early examples, the personal is largely subsumed into the culturally didactic, "translation" of Asian childhood into predefined terms of American receptivity seeming to dominate. Yet, as Davis demonstrates, within the confines of such limited autobiographical transactions, both Lee and New reflect "insurgent possibilities of the genre of the Childhood from its earliest appropriations by Asian American writers," possibilities advanced in Younghill Kang's The Grass Roof and a range of other texts representing a spectrum of ethnic and cultural loci. Such "insurgencies" of self, and their consequences for cultural consciousness, are at the heart of Davis's book.

Subsequent chapters constitute less a linear sequence than a richly reciprocal cluster of considerations, each with its distinct focus. "Cultural Revolutions and Takeovers: War as Structure" examines personal narratives of childhood in times of extreme social and political stress, as exemplified in Rae Yang's Spider Eaters: A Memoir and Da Chen's Colors of the Mountain, set during the Cultural Revolution in China, and in Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and Chanrithy Him's When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. In these and other works, by "engaging traumatic experiences and making readers aware of the silenced histories behind immigration," writers not only attest to the personal resiliencies of youth, but also transmit new forms of cultural understanding, reincorporating Asian experience into North American awareness, a sense of the past newly usable toward the future. [End Page 240]

"The Liminal Childhood: Biraciality as Narrative Position" probes the ways in which narratives by biracial children "complicate our views on the inscription of Asian experiences in both Asia and North America." Norman Reyes's Child of Two Worlds, Heinz Insu Fenkl's Memories of My Ghost Brother, Kien Nguyen's The Unwanted, and Michael David Kwan's Things That Must Not Be Forgotten—against the re-envisioned backdrops of the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and China respectively, and with a white and an Asian parent figuring in retrospect in each case—provide the basis for discussion of "a hybrid position that is increasingly common in Asian North American society but that has not yet received...


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pp. 239-242
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