- The Fiction of Asian American Literature
Epistemology is true as long as it accounts for the impossibility of its own beginning and lets itself be driven at every stage by its inadequacy to the things themselves. It is, however, untrue in the pretension that success is at hand and that states of affairs would ever simply correspond to its constructions and aporetic concepts.—Theodor W. Adorno
Asian American Literature: Institutional Legacies
The boundaries of what constitutes Asian American literature have been periodically interrogated and revised, but its validity as an ordering rubric has survived these debates and repeatedly been salvaged by pointing to some existing or imminent stage of ethnogenesis, in which its representational logic would be manifest. Inherent in more recent definitions of the term has been the practice of a strategic deferral—an invocation of the work of culture-building that the debates themselves perform, and through which Asian American identity and its concomitant literature would come into being. Unlike African American, Native American or Chicano literature, Asian American literature inhabits the highly unstable temporality of the “about-to-be,” its meanings continuously reinvented after the arrival of new groups of immigrants and the enactment of legislative changes. 1 However, the tactic of deferral in the interests of institutional consolidation has had its costs, and it is these costs that this essay will consider.
The affirmation of ethnic identity as a means of political and institutional space-claiming, and the very newness of the field which originated in the late sixties, have deferred questions about its founding premises. But it is precisely this question, “How are we to conceptualize Asian American literature taking into account the radical disjunctions in the emergence of the field?” that it has now become historically and politically most urgent to ask, because of pressures both inside and outside the community. The radical demographic shifts produced within the Asian American community by the 1965 immigration laws have transformed the nature and locus of literary production, creating a highly stratified, uneven and heterogeneous formation, that cannot easily be contained within the models of essentialized or pluralized ethnic identity suggested [End Page 315] by the rubric Asian American literature, or its updated post-modern avatar Asian American literatures. 2 Moreover, we have entered a transnational era where ethnicity is increasingly produced at multiple local and global sites rather than, as before, within the parameters of the nation-state. This dispersal of ethnic identity has been intensified, in the case of Americans of Asian origin, by dramatic geopolitical realignments under way in the Pacific, that have reshaped the political imaginaries of “Asia” and “America” and the conjunctions between these two entities. Asian American literary production takes place within and participates in this transformed political and cultural landscape. Asian American Studies is, however, only just beginning to undertake a theoretical investigation of these changes, rendering itself peripheral to the developments inside its constituent group. Instead of an engagement with the new critical forces shaping its interdisciplinary project, much of the scholarship in the field has either continued to rely on paradigms of ethnicity produced in the inaugural moment of the field, or has sought to incorporate the changes through the fashionable but derivative vocabulary of post-modernism, post-colonialism or post-structuralism; formulaic invocations of “multiculturalism,” “hybridity,” “plural identities,” or “border-crossing” are used promiscuously without any effort to link them to the material, cultural or historical specificities of the various Asian American experiences. Although substantial historical scholarship has been produced, the field has been weak in theoretical work, especially when compared to Chicano, Native American and African American Studies. The lack of significant theoretical work has affected its development and its capacity to address the stratifications and differences that constitute its distinctness within ethnic studies.
I will substantiate these arguments by reviewing the interpretive methods adopted thus far in delineating the boundaries of Asian American literature. I will do this by examining three paradigmatic attempts to discuss what constitutes Asian American literature, and analyzing the methodological problems and impasses revealed in these critical works: Frank Chin’s Preface and Introduction to Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974); Elaine Kim’s full...