- On Asian American Form
I doubt I am the only literature professor who frequently exhorts students to pay as much attention to literary form as to the content. Particularly so in my Asian American literature courses. For students—as for many readers—ethnic literatures have a particular kind of “aboutness,” as if one could describe the themes of a book by a writer of color without even opening the cover. Asian American literature, I learn in student papers, is about being “torn between cultures,” or “assimilation,” or “finding identity”—themes and phrases that I never use in class. Students come already equipped with them, drawing from dominant cultural narratives and stereotypes about Asian Americans. When the content of Asian American texts is in some sense predetermined through such expectations, it is often only through close attention to language, structure, and literary tropes that readers are compelled to acknowledge the actual complexity of Asian American writing. An emphasis on form, in short, leads us to see past our own expectations and to grasp the actual content of these texts.
Undergraduates are not alone in privileging a (highly reductive) sense of content over form. Asian American authors and critics frequently complain of the tendency to read Asian American writing—and that by authors of color more generally—as functioning “mimetically and sociologically as an ethnographic window into another subculture,” as Dorothy J. Wang puts it in Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (20). Asian American literature can thus appear as a literature of pure content, valued for its cultural stories rather than its aesthetic qualities. Like other ethnic writing, Wang argues, “Critics are more likely to think about formal questions—say poetic tone and syntax—when speaking about [John] Ashbery’s poems but almost certainly to focus on political or black ‘content’ when examining the work of Amiri Baraka” (xx). [End Page 414]
Wang’s Thinking Its Presence and Elda E. Tsou’s Unquiet Tropes: Form, Race, and Asian American Literature represent major efforts to correct this imbalance. Both focus on Asian American literature and are organized around literary tropes and techniques: allegory, parody, irony, catachresis. In their very structure, both insist on the literary elements of Asian American writing and make a strong case for the importance of formal analysis. But Wang and Tsou take their focus in quite different directions. Tsou’s emphasis lies on a universalizing move, rejecting claims for Asian American distinctiveness grounded in identity politics and focusing instead on rhetorical tropes as “part of a linguistic inheritance dwarfing any individual’s claim to own or originate it” (13). For Wang, in contrast, form is particularizing. “[A] poem’s use of form,” she contends, “is inseparable from the large social, historical, and political contexts that produced the poet’s subjectivity” (xxii). Each approach has profound implications for Asian American literature studies. While offering innovative readings of rhetorical tropes in Asian American writing, Tsou’s book also illustrates the perils of conventionally formalist readings and how they may ultimately reinforce postracial desires to transcend ethnic categorization. Turning away from Asian American literary studies’ deconstructive trend to argue for distinctively Asian American uses of form that may put the category of “Asian American literature” on more solid critical footing, Wang’s impassioned argument for a contextualized formalism ultimately strikes the more complex balance.
Tsou’s Unquiet Tropes follows the influential theorizing of Asian American literary studies of the past two decades, from Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts (1996) to Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique (2003). “It is now a critical commonplace,” Tsou observes, “to rehearse the failures of the term Asian American” (8). This “failure” is one of reference: the entity to which “Asian American” ostensibly refers is unstable and constantly shifting. Since the 1970s, when the term was used primarily to refer to US-born Chinese and Japanese Americans, the category has witnessed an ongoing expansion to include other East, Southeast, and...