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  • Minor Character, Minority Orientalisms, and the Borderlands of Asian America
  • Stephen Hong Sohn (bio)

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison forcefully reveals how American literature's representational terrain can be understood through the history of enslavement and oppression. Her paradigm is not only political; she also advances an innovative interpretive approach to American literature, encouraging us to take a closer look at racialized minor characters. An intellectual investment in the minor character helps generate comparative race critiques that expand how American literatures can be analyzed. Along these lines, this article focuses on a particular inclusion of a minor character, an Asian American female, within a Chicano literary production.1 In order to illuminate the importance of what we might call minority Orientalism, I explore the ways in which Alejandro Morales figures the futuristic Asian American subject within his speculative novel, The Rag Doll Plagues (1992).2 Although this article focuses on one book, my critical methodology and theorization can be applied much more broadly. An interpretation of minority Orientalist texts spotlights the figure of the Asian or Asian American as a minor character who functions to clarify the comparative and asymmetrical nature of racial exclusions.

Some questions to consider: What is particularly unique about Chicano literary Orientalism? Why do Chicano writers seem collectively invested in employing Asian and Asian American characters and contexts to flesh out the fictional world? Such questions can be unpacked by thinking interracially and interethnically: Chicanos and Asian Americans are two populations that have been linked historically through citizenship status, class, labor exploitation, and regional habitation. At various points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the American [End Page 151] West, particularly California, beckoned as a site of economic opportunity to working-class migrants of both Mexican and Asian descent. The rapid rise in these minority populations led to massive legislative restrictions and exclusionary federal policies, which connected the two groups as foreigners and aliens. For those of Asian descent, the National Origins Act of 1924 effectively ended the possibilities for immigration. In that same year, the United States Border Patrol was officially founded, an organization intended in part to restrict illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Such historical contexts figure those of Mexican and of Asian descent as individuals who cannot assimilate and are therefore unfit for American citizenship. However, these transnationally inflected racial formations cannot exactly be equated, as specifically evidenced by the shift in the conception of Asians and Asian Americans in the post-1965 era. Even today, Asian Americans are tied to a mythos of racial uplift under the guise of their status as model minorities. The model minority formulation implicitly critiques other racial groups who are assumed to be underperforming and underachieving, thus potentially rendering Asian Americans distinct from Chicanos in terms of class status or intellectual capacity. In thinking about racial formation comparatively, we can see multiple functionalities for minority Orientalism in connection to Chicano cultural productions. The depiction of Asian and Asian American characters and contexts allows Chicano writers other inventive aesthetic avenues to explore issues of exclusion and oppression and to illuminate potential alliances and oppositions among racial groups in shifting power matrices.

The Rag Doll Plagues provides an ideal fictional world to explore how Chicano writers imagine minority Orientalism. The novel proceeds through three narratives contained in three distinct books, each taking place within a different time period and each involving a different form of epidemic, all centered around characters named Gregorio or Gregory.3 The final book, upon which I concentrate, is narrated from the perspective of Gregory Revueltas, the medical director for the Triple Alliance, a conglomerate of three countries: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The plot takes place in LAMEX, "The region from the center of Mexico to the Pacific Coast" (Morales, 134). Along with the help of his Asian American lover and medical assistant, Gabi Chung, Gregory must combat the ever-menacing masses of polluted gas clouds [End Page 152] that are infecting and killing individuals all over the planet. In all three books, the narrative voice is sustained across historical time through the Gregorio/Gregory figures, who all seem related to each other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1460-2458
Print ISSN
0882-4371
Pages
pp. 151-185
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-13
Open Access
No
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