- Collaboration and Translation: Lin Yutang and the Archive of Asian American Literature
In spring of 1947, Richard Walsh, editor in chief of the John Day Publishing House, wrote a letter to his star author, Lin Yutang, the famous Chinese diasporic writer and novelist. Walsh had invited Lin to relocate to the United States from China several years earlier. The radical 1930s in China had been unkind to Lin: as a self-described liberal, he had become the target of a mounting Chinese Communist backlash, earning the scorn and hostility of a growing number of leftist writers. In 1935, with the help of Walsh and Pearl Buck, whom he had befriended earlier in Shanghai, Lin fled to America in hopes of reconstructing his literary career outside the nation. The intervening decade proved far kinder to Lin. Between 1935 and 1945, Lin published three bestselling novels, including A Moment in Peking, that catapulted him to American fame and celebrity. He became the toast of the New York literary world and found admirers among writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and W. H. Auden. Lin’s partnership with John Day, as well as the sponsorship of Walsh, no doubt played a significant role in his sudden and massive rise to literary fame. Walsh and Buck commissioned his first novel, and carefully edited, revised, and marketed every book he wrote in the US. In the spring of 1947, sensing a hot new literary topic, they asked him to write a new kind of a novel—a [End Page 40] “Chinese-American” novel that dealt exclusively with the “experiences of the Chinese in America” (“To Lin” 30 Sept.). Lin happily agreed to their suggestion and quickly began the task of writing Chinatown Family, what would become the first Asian American novel published by a major publishing house and explicitly marketed as what Walsh and Buck would call “Chinese American” literature.1
One small obstacle, however, stood in the way of this project: Lin knew virtually nothing about Chinese Americans or the Chinese American experience. Despite his self-identification as a Chinese immigrant, Lin operated in a rarefied world of the cultural and social elite, far from the tussle and toil of Chinatown’s working poor. Thus, the project of writing Chinatown Family evolved into a complex collaborative venture between Lin, Buck, and Walsh. Ironically, Buck and Walsh, who had earlier organized the campaign to overturn the Chinese Exclusion Laws, knew far more about the Chinese in America than Lin.2 They represented a cohort of experts on Chinese America to whom Lin deferred in the writing process. Walsh regularly sent historical and sociological studies of Chinese Exclusion to Lin and established contacts for him at the Chinese embassy; he poured over Lin’s drafts of the novel and meticulously corrected perceived historical errors in his representations of Chinese Americans. Artistic autonomy succumbed to an aggressive form of editorial collaboration, while research replaced inspiration and sociology supplanted narrative.
Ultimately, the suppression of authorial independence only thinly masked a clear political and ideological purpose. Walsh and Buck’s investment in the repeal of Chinese Exclusion did not end in 1943; rather, they imagined Lin’s novel as generating a distinct vision of what Chinese America might look like in its wake: a micro US-China nation. The period between 1943 and 1950, a period often overlooked in Asian American Studies, signaled a new but uncertain era in Asian American social life. Suddenly, there existed the category of the legal Chinese American immigrant; yet, given the slowness of actual legislative change, a visible population of such subjects paradoxically had yet to fully emerge. The idea of a thriving modern “Chinese America” existed in mind if not yet in reality, and Walsh and Buck had a clear notion of what that should look like. The writing of Chinatown Family thus came to embody a crucial site in the production of new discourses of Asian racial identity in the US. What at first glance appears to be a rather mundane process of editorial handling in fact articulates a dynamic terrain or place of ideological formation. Here I want to underscore the physicality invoked by...