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  • Theorizing Asian American Fiction
  • Stephen Hong Sohn (bio), Paul Lai (bio), and Donald C. Goellnicht (bio)

In assessing the state of Asian American literary studies, Susan Koshy claims that, “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” (316). Such a statement still holds sway as Asian American literary studies moves boldly into the twenty-first century, where creative productions continue to offer conundrums and challenges to field classification and ordering rubrics. Part of Koshy’s critique stems from the conception of “strategic deferral,” what Koshy defines as “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” (315). Here, strategic deferral marks how literary critics have avoided defining and categorizing what exactly hallmarks, embodies, and characterizes Asian American literature, suspending any boundary making precisely because the [End Page 1] contours of the racial community continue to change. What Koshy marks as “strategic deferral” might actually be reconstituted as a way of thinking about the poststructural investments of Asian Americanist critique.1 Precisely because the term “Asian American” is itself in constant instability, literary field classification and boundaries also must remain malleable and mercurial, open to continued critical negotiation.

A brief survey of Asian Americanist critiques and Asian American social contexts fleshes out the complicated emergence of the field, one that bears repeating if only to demonstrate the continually evolving nature of critical investigations and analytical methodologies. There is now a rough consensus that Asian American literary and cultural studies have gone through three overlapping phases: the cultural nationalist phase of the late 1960s to the late 1970s, the feminist phase that was dominant from the late 1970s through about 1990 (and still ongoing), and the transnational or diasporic phase from about 1990 on. The cultural nationalist phase was epitomized by Frank Chin and the Aiiieeeee! editors with an emphasis on racial identity politics founded on American nativity and the English language, and on the project of “claiming America” in decidedly masculinist, militaristic, working-class fashion. The feminist phase (ushered in by Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in 1976) opposed Chin’s masculinist ideology, despite the similarities of their projects in “claiming America”; it later broadened out to deal with the complexities of gender and sexuality more generally, culminating in extensive present engagements with queer studies. The transnational or diasporic phase, initiated by Lisa Lowe’s oft-cited article, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity” (published in the first issue of diaspora, 1991), sparked renewed interest in Asian/Asian American transpacific connections and “postnational” concerns.2 The diasporic turn is perhaps best exemplified by David Palumbo-Liu’s monumental book Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999) in which Palumbo-Liu traces in emphatic historical detail the mutually constitutive and transformative relationship between “Asia” and “America.” By the end of the 1990s the transnational paradigm was triumphant, with mainstream American historians trumpeting “the transnational turn” and Asian Studies adopting “comparative and transnational” perspectives.3 Most recently, there has been a shift of attention among some scholars toward aesthetics in Asian American literary studies, with care being taken to stress the political dimensions of aesthetics, but it is too early to tell whether this will become a dominant critical trend.4

It needs to be stressed that these disciplinary phases are neither distinct (they do not form a neat teleological development) nor are [End Page 2] they neutral but different temporalities; rather, they overlap in very significant ways. King-Kok Cheung describes the phases as “a dialectic that continues to spark debate” (1), and Jinqi Ling has warned that the division between early “domestic” and later “diasporic” phases is to some...