- Asian American Women’s Popular Literature: Feminizing Genres and Neoliberal Belonging by Pamela Thoma
Asian American Women’s Popular Literature: Feminizing Genres and Neoliberal Belonging is a pleasurable read and an important contribution to recent scholarship on Asian American popular culture. As the title suggests, the book uncovers the ways in which Asian American women writers of different genres of fiction directly address Asian American women’s political subjectivity and problematize contemporary reformulations of US citizenship and belonging under neoliberalism. The novel, Thoma argues, continues to be central to the development of citizen-subjects even as it now integrates with other media within neoliberal consumer culture. While Asian American authors more committed to highbrow literary culture also address themes of identity and citizenship, they tend to reproduce “deeply seated liberal conception[s] of American political culture” (3) rather than investigate the nature of social belonging in contemporary times under neoliberalism. Thoma’s critical study, then, turns to Asian American women writers who have been remarkably successful and increasingly visible in the popular/ commercial literary marketplace over the last few decades. The author deftly reads the work of several Asian American women writers to elaborate how they variously negotiate and complicate belonging as a gendered and racial phenomenon even as they vie for wide readership.
Instituted in the 1970s as an economic ideology in the United States, neoliberalism has unmistakably extended its influence beyond the financial market and has, among other things, remade mainstream cultural narratives of Americanness and normative femininity. Asian American women are a particularly important case study in the privatization of citizenship under neoliberalism, idealized as they are as model-minority subjects and presumably cosmopolitan, mobile, compliant laborers willing to take “personal responsibility” for themselves and their families. For these women, belonging in neoliberal America is especially [End Page 225] contingent on their conspicuous consumption of American popular culture, adherence to neoliberal cultural values, and experience of what Thoma calls “transformative femininity.” In addition to Aihwa Ong’s and Shirley Lim’s scholarship on cultural citizenship, Lauren Berlant’s work on the intimate public sphere of “women’s culture” (which discusses how literature and other commodified genres of self-help and insider talk manage women’s “complaints” and other sentiments) is particularly salient to Thoma’s theorization of the influence of neo-liberal political rationality on US governance and conventions of subjectivity over the last forty years. The marketplace, which subsumed “women’s literature” and other feminized genres, has now become a site for expressing women’s political belonging and citizenship. Beyond state-controlled measures of immigration, questions of cultural citizenship persist within the intimate public sphere of everyday life and popular culture. As Thoma argues, Asian American women writers frequently manipulate conventions of already flourishing commodified genres in a contemporary intimate public sphere in order to intervene in such broad conversations. At the very least, they disclose the ways in which Asian American women’s cultural citizenship is “an object of contest” (5), contingent on certain kinds of conspicuous consumption and immaterial labor.
Chapter One is a broad overview of the book and its core theorization, some of which is outlined above. Each of the remaining chapters explores neoliberal gendered and racialized constructions and the concomitant labor attached to belonging in the context of specific literary genres and types of cultural citizenship. The genres themselves, as each of the chapters treats in detail, lend themselves to this kind of work, and Thoma discusses how some Asian American women writers have mined the potential of genre. She begins with the widespread (within Asian American fiction, especially) mother-daughter narrative, moving on to chick lit, detective fiction, and food writing. Conceptually, Thoma traces the textual representations and negotiations of “biological, consumer, cosmopolitan, and transnational citizenships” (33), respectively, within those chapters. The categorical correlation between specific genres and forms of cultural citizenship in each chapter is puzzling and seems forced, but it makes for interesting chapters nonetheless. At the same time, Thoma does not resist overlaps, and the...