- Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives
In an age when the average North American consumer can own Samsung and Sony products, watch Padma Lakshmi host Top Chef, read Gish Jen's latest novel, and dine out at neighborhood Thai/Chinese/Japanese/Indian restaurants, the flow of people and products (both cultural and consumer) between Asia and North America seems to be part of the natural landscape. Yet how these people and products arrived in North America from Asia can reveal far more about these two geocultural sites, the people who populate them, and the state of the world. This is the central topic of Eleanor Ty's latest work; she shows how lives are "'unfastened'" from "specific nations, languages, or religions," as well as from borders that are "geopolitical, psychic, class, cultural, community, and social" (xxi). Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives argues for understanding the subjects in contemporary Asian North American narratives as mobile and displaced in ways that do not simply rehearse a language of assimilation, ethnic nationalism, or the vacillation between the two, but rather as active engagements with "critical globality," since Ty believes that the works in her study "interrogate, critique, and sometimes even playfully engage with the effects of globalized conditions" (xiii). An understanding of critical globality in Asian North American narratives, according to Ty, reveals the quotidian practices of both surviving and thriving. The stories Asian North Americans tell about themselves and their communities as mobile, global subjects demonstrate how they are both actors (people with agency) and acted upon (victims of globalization/history), since Asian North Americans are sometimes "put in situations not of their own volition" (xxvii).
Ty lays out in the introduction the main themes and critical terms of the study and fleshes out in the six substantive chapters and coda through critical readings of narratives in three genres—novels, plays, and films—her observations about how unfastened the characters are in their transnational [End Page 177] lives. She demonstrates how their stories illustrate changing power dynamics and power struggles over what it means to be Asian North American. One of the great strengths of Ty's work is its critical and generic diversity. Diversity is often used when discussing ethnicity and multiculturalism, but in Ty's hands the term takes on a literalism that is impressive in its breadth of material. She has clearly read a wide range of narratives (science fiction, romance, bildungsroman, historical fiction, fantasy, and postmodern) from multiple pan-Asian backgrounds (Indian, Korean, Filipino, Chinese, Singaporean, Japanese, and Sri Lankan) and across many critical schools (race theory, feminist theory, Asian American studies, global studies, disability studies, and postmodern theory). Of particular note is Ty's consistent inclusion of Asian Canadian narratives in her analyses, making Unfastened useful reading for anyone who wants a primer on Asian Canadian literature and literary criticism. By reminding readers of the importance of Asian Canadian works, Ty refocuses attention to the entirety of the North American continent and away from US-centric readings of Asian North American narratives, which truly is in keeping with the theme of her work: understanding stories and people who are unfastened from a particular place and subject position and who can move about as mobile, global entities.
Another strength of Unfastened lies in its embrace of popular genres such as science fiction/fantasy/magical realism. Ty devotes Chapter Five, "Shape-shifters and Disciplined Bodies: Feminist Tactics, Science Fiction, and Fantasy," to this topic in her analysis of Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl (2002) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices (1997). Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child (2002) occupies much of her last chapter, alongside the more realist narrative of Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation (2003). Noting that most Asian North American writers (and writers of color, for that matter) work within realist forms and genres, most often in first-person mode or through semi-autobiographical or ethnographic accounts, Ty lauds the flexibility of science fiction and fantasy "to look at...