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  • Ethnic Autobiography as Children's Literature:Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread
  • Rocío G. Davis (bio)

Ethnic American autobiographies are narratives that highlight the intersection of consciousness of cultural difference from the mainstream and personal development. Many of these ethnic autobiographies have challenged the generic scripts ostensibly required by traditional American autobiography. These revisionary texts center on individual awareness of the subject's ethnic position in relation to other dominant and minority cultural groups, and on the possibilities for its representation, and on how each group occupies certain areas, negotiates historical specificities, and forms communities. Importantly, these texts also subvert some of the traditional narrative structures of autobiography, offering innovative manners of inscribing life: through linked short stories, collaborative autobiographies, shifting or multiple perspectives, among other strategies. The evolution of recent ethnic autobiography for children written by minority groups has tended toward historical realism and toward intercultural narratives that emphasize the varied cultural influences a child growing up in the United States experiences, rather than on depicting that child acquiring a pure heritage identity. Contemporary ethnic literature for children tends to highlight ways of affirming and celebrating cultural differences as they simultaneously seek ways to cooperate and collaborate across different ethnic boundaries. When a constitutive part of that network of concepts involves ethnic appreciation and understanding, the autobiographical text plays a more operative role in articulating the context within which children can engage in a significant process of self-awareness, self-formation, and self-representation. These ethnic autobiographies thus perform a necessary task: by recontextualizing the forms and themes of traditional American autobiography, they enact alternative modes of being and identifying as American, through itineraries marked by separation and difference, rather than by integration. This essay on ethnic autobiography for children, which centers on two Asian American texts, supports the idea that language, immigrant histories, family, and location exist in a relation of dynamic interdependent parts that acquire significance as they are deployed in the representation of highly individual processes of subjectivity and affiliation.

Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Yoshiko Uchida's The Invisible Thread, both published in 1991, offer multilayered approaches to the act and the art of ethnic life writing. Close readings of Yep's and Uchida's texts illustrate how ethnic autobiographies for children can complicate and enrich traditional conceptions of life writing with a dialogical structure and a heightened concern for metaphor. The protagonists' engagements with bilingualism; their positions as speaking subjects who illustrate Betty Bergland's idea of ethnic subjects as "inscribed by multiple discourses, positioned in multiple subjectivities and situated in multiple historical events" ("Postmodernism" 135); and the evolution of their perspective on immediate reality are paradigms of their process of representation. Interestingly, both Yep and Uchida are among the most prolific of Asian American writers for children, and their autobiographies were published when their status as children's authors had already been established. With almost 100 volumes of children's books between them—including non-fiction, picture books, mythology and folk tales, realist and historical narratives, the majority of which center on immigrant life in the United States—Yep and Uchida represent a vital component of Asian American writing. Reading their autobiographies critically gestures toward the multilayered meaning of their fictional production. The metaphors the writers choose and the often fragmented quality of their narratives thus signify on several levels, communicating specific knowledges and discourses about the lives of Asian American children.

Thematic concerns related to the history and the role of Asians in the United States link Yep's and Uchida's autobiographies for children, and both foreground the act of writing as constitutive of the process of discovering or negotiating identity. These texts thus become highly complex engagements with ethnic and artistic reality because both are primarily Künstlerromane that stress their protagonists' process of creative development and describe the genesis of Yep's and Uchida's future literary endeavors. They are, likewise, autobiographies that emphasize how memories and consciousness of ethnicity in the United States inform and nuance their writing. Stuart Hall's description of the two simultaneous axes or vectors that "frame" diasporic identities applies to these texts: "the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 90-97
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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