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  • Theorizing the Hyphen’s Afterlife in Post-Tiananmen Asian-America
  • Belinda Kong (bio)

It may seem odd to begin theorizing Asian-American fiction by way of observing that 2009 marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but such are the oblique affiliations produced by globalization. This essay focuses on Tiananmen’s ongoing diasporization as a new reality confronting contemporary Asian-American literary studies. In response, I propose we develop a bilateral hermeneutics of reading Asian-American texts geopolitically and biopolitically, a model I will call the hyphen’s afterlife. Although most current Asian-American scholarship tends to eliminate the hyphen, I have deliberately reincarnated it in this essay, not simply to deploy it as a visual metaphor for our reading practices, but also to highlight my argument that the conceptual premises of the hyphen’s vanishing must now face new geopolitical realities, and to suggest that we in turn can productively reencounter the hyphen in its spectralized afterlife. In Tiananmen’s Asian-American textual afterlife, we rendezvous again with history not only at its points and moments of occurrence but also in a year of remote and displaced convergences: 1976. [End Page 136]

Reading the Hyphen as Bilateral Geopolitics

From the publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in 1976 to that of Ha Jin’s The Crazed in 2002, just over a quarter century has elapsed. Taking these two works as symbolic markers, we discern a dramatic shift in Asian-American literary negotiations of the hyphen. For her part, Kingston has been hailed as a pioneer writer who “claims America” for Asian-Americans, a sentiment she voiced explicitly in relation to China Men in 1980 (“Talk” 14), but one that she already expressed in response to critics of The Woman Warrior. In these early defensive articulations, Kingston famously insisted that Chinese-Americans were above all Americans, that “Chinese” was at best an adjectival predicate to “American” as noun, and that the latter was the more descriptively precise and existentially weighty term:

And lately, I have been thinking that we ought to leave out the hyphen in “Chinese-American,” because the hyphen gives the word on either side equal weight, as if linking two nouns. It looks as if a Chinese-American has double citizenship, which is impossible in today’s world. Without the hyphen, “Chinese” is an adjective and “American” a noun; a Chinese American is a type of American.

(“Cultural Mis-readings” 60; emphasis added)

This view—which, her rejection of the hyphen notwithstanding, I will call a forward reading of the hyphen—soon became a rallying cry for much Asian-American literature and scholarship, a model of Asian-American self-definition that to some extent persists to the present. For now, I will simply call attention to Kingston’s own qualification that her thought arose from a temporally specific situation, the perceived “impossibility” of dual citizenship in 1970s and 1980s America. Although her perception was largely impressionistic and not quite legally accurate, it had the force of a prevailing cultural view of the period.1

In contrast to this canonical self-definition, Jin’s work exhibits an exact reversal. From his first novel, Waiting, in 1991 to War Trash in 2004, and with the sole exception of his latest A Free Life in 2007, he has focused exclusively on episodes of twentieth-century Chinese history, a choice of subject matter that typifies the Sinophone writer much more than the traditional Asian-American one. If an increasing number of prominent Asian-American authors since the 1990s (for example, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee) have turned to more bilateral flows of the hyphen and proposed more theoretically familiar models of cultural hybridity or transnational subjectivity, Jin [End Page 137] embodies the furthest pole from this trend in that the majority of his work maintains the outright priority of Chineseness. A Free Life, to be sure, marks a departure and is all too recognizably Asian-American, with its classic narrative of the immigrant family’s socioeconomic hardships, struggles with cultural and linguistic assimilation, and intergenerational conflicts, though Jin also pointedly alternates this immigrant plot with another more homeward looking one that focuses, sympathetically...


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