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Journal of Asian American Studies 6.2 (2003) 223-226
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Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing. Edited by Rajini Srikanth and Esther Y. Iwanaga. Rutgers State University Press. 2001
The editors of this voluminous anthology of Asian American literature suggest that there have been a number of very good Asian American anthologies since the foundational Aiiieeeee! was published in 1974. Hence, editors Rajini Srikanth and Esther Y. Iwanaga approach the readers of their recently published anthology, Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing, with some caution. They admit that "there is a certain presumptive quality to imagining that one could put together an anthology of Asian American literature and pull off the feat with reasonable success" (xv). And perhaps the mention of "success" in introducing an Asian American literary anthology underscores the ways in which collections of Asian American writings have been motivated by contestations of identity, culture, and nationality as much as by efforts to showcase that work. Bold Words is cognizant of these complexities in both its substance and organization. Srikanth's use of the term "success" in the introduction to the collection more generally references the difficulties of moving toward inclusivity, and at the same time interrogating practices of it. Insofar as one of the goals of this anthology is to "expand the representational boundaries of previous collections" (xvi), this volume certainly is successful.
Bold Words offers works by writers common to the Asian American canon like Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Toshio Mori. At the same time, it also includes an impressive array of new writers often marginalized within Asian American studies: those of Filipino, Southeast Asian and South Asian descent. Many of these writers articulate themes central to Asian American studies—immigration, assimilation, dislocation, exile, national belonging, family relationships and identity—differently than the authors of an earlier historical moment (pre-1965), who tended to register typically East Asian and West coast oriented experiences in their works. Through its textual choices, Bold Words attempts to display "the interplay in Asian American literature between the global and the local, between the pull of other nations and the pull of the United States, between the resurrection of other histories and the erasure of these same histories, between the United States as an external colonizing power and the United States as an internal colonizer (of certain groups—Native Americans, inner-city residents, for example), between the ideal of democracy espoused at home and the support of dictators abroad, between the promise of the United States and its realities" (xviii). [End Page 223]
But selection is not the only process that informs this anthology. Rather, the editors deploy specifically literary critical means to take on the issue of authenticity that has long haunted the circulation of Asian American literatures. By pointedly organizing their selections into genres—memoir, poetry, fiction, and theatre—the editors challenge essentialism as they "work against the prevailing tendency to read works by ethnic writers as documents to be mined for the 'authentic' ethnic experience" (xvii). At the same time, Srikanth and Iwanaga remain aware of intra-Asian American representational politics and register this in such ways as through the grouping of writers by ethnicity, offered to honor the outreach work of organizations like the Asian American Writers' Workshop in giving representation to Asian American ethnic groups who have been historically understudied.
Each section of Bold Words is introduced by a notable Asian American writer and provides a road map for the reader. By way of introducing the Memoir section, the editors' interview Meena Alexander, who reflects upon the form of the memoir. Alexander suggests that "what cannot be spoken cannot enter into history—so you write a memoir" (6). As documents that etch the experiences of marginalized people, memoirs have been particularly cathartic and powerful vehicles of expression for Asian Americans. The selections included here testify to this relationship among memoir, history, and power: Carlos Bulosan writes of becoming a writer and thus enters his Filipino/American memory into history; Maxine Hong Kingston reconstructs her Chinese grandfather...