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  • “I Will Make of My Scaffold, a Stage”:Performing the Asian American Subject in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book
  • Sun Hee Teresa Lee (bio)

Since Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1990) is a book about a book, writing about writing, it is no accident that its protagonist Wittman Ah Sing is an aspiring writer, working to discover his voice and style, and to create significant literature. This goal, however, is not easy to accomplish since his feelings of being misunderstood and rejected obstruct his ability to write meaningfully. While the novel is filled with moments that explore this creative struggle, one of Wittman’s early poems stands out as providing insight into his problems in writing. The poem is about a window-washer “climb[ing] over the edge of a skyscraper, one leg at a time, onto his swing.” There is a sense of danger and vulnerability in what he is doing, even more so when he “unclutch[es] the ropes,” makes a noose, and contemplates suicide. Suddenly the window-washer is interrupted by “sky doggies,” followed by “a stampede of longhorns.” What he should do now is capture these airy creatures: “Point the rope like a wand, whirl a Möbius strip, outline a buffalo. Shoot la riata sideways over the street, overhead at the helicopters, jump in and out of it, and lassoo one of those steers.” At the moment of his impending fall and death, he is able to corral the creature, which takes him “right off the plank—but the harness holds,” rescuing Wittman. The poem ends with a declaration: “I vow: I will make of my scaffold, a stage” (30).

More than an ordinary window-washer, this central figure in the poem doubles as a poet and is so identified during his fall. His fall, then, is a metaphor for imaginative process, the animals representing the possible fruits of his imagination. While the flight leads to specific gains—he captures the steer, which symbolizes artistic achievement—this is a risky moment as the poet teeters on the verge of death and the scene takes the reader to the instant before the poet’s possible demise. Emblematic of Wittman’s artistic endeavors, the poem identifies a clear anxiety that writing can be deadly, that the writer risks his own annihilation in the act of writing.

Given the novel’s well-documented postmodern elements, this anxiety about writing may be attributed to textuality itself; postmodern theorists tell us that discourse is not a controllable entity but comprises shifting signifiers and meanings, making obsolete the idea of authorial intent, the singularity of the artistic product, and the concrete meaning of art.1 While the instability inherent in language and writing troubles the writer’s position, this essay will focus on another basis of authorial anxiety in the novel: writing as an ethnic American in the United [End Page 126] States. A writer of color is often at the mercy of the general public as well as her ethnic community. In particular, the Asian American writer must deal with the mainstream audience’s penchant for exotic narratives of mysterious places and colorful characters while also creating the more authentic and progressive representations advocated by the ethnic community.2 Beset by these competing demands, the writer fears the loss of her unique voice, a kind of authorial death. Thus, the metaphor of the scaffold in the novel is related not only to authorship in general but also to Asian American authorship in particular.

For Kingston, authorial identity cannot be divorced from ethnic identity. As the scaffold metaphorically plays out the threatening aspect of authorship, it also functions as a site of Asian American subject formation.3 Indeed, as Wittman struggles to become a worthy writer, he wrestles with his identity as a racial minority of Asian descent. Patricia P. Chu points to this vital connection between authorship and subjectivity when she writes that “the writing of Asian American literature…. [is] a form of cultural struggle, and the emergence of authorship as a central trope for establishing oneself as an American subject, must be understood as part of a broader struggle for national and personal definition...


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pp. 126-145
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