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33 C h a p t e r On e Cultural Brokers in Interwar Orientalism In this chapter I examine two writers, Younghill Kang and Carlos Bulosan, who lived and wrote during the era of Asian exclusion (1882–1952).1 As a regime of immigration set up by laws and policies, Asian exclusion not only imposed a racial group identity on individuals socially and legally but also made it the determining factor of American citizenship. By prioritizing racial identity above everything else in determining national character and culture, Asian exclusion also homogenized the “barred Asiatic zone” in the public imaginary and “constitut[ed] ‘Asian’ as a peculiarly American racial category.”2 The numerous bids for whiteness in the legal briefs filed by Asians of a range of national origins during the exclusion era exemplify the disappearance of Asian particularities in the demonstration of exemplary whiteness.3 Not surprisingly, Asian exclusion has received much critical attention by scholars working on race and immigration, especially in Asian American studies.4 More importantly for my discussion , Asian exclusion has also functioned as what Fredric Jameson would call a “semantic precondition” for Asian American literary and cultural criticism, a foundational event that sets the parameters for interpretation.5 Even in cases where it is not explicitly referenced, the historical experiences of exclusion underwrite the definition and significance of Asian American identity deployed in critical exegesis of literary texts. One example of this is Elaine Kim’s interpretation of Kang and Bulosan as progenitors of Asian American literature on the basis that they “illustrate the transition from writers who view themselves as guests or visitors to those who want to find a place for Cultural Brokers in Interwar Orientalism 34 themselves in American society.”6 If the US laws claimed them unfit for citizenship due to their racial identity, Kim’s argument locates the essence of Americanness not in the law but in cultural spirit, in Kang’s and Bulosan’s defiant claims on social membership in the face of exclusion.7 While an important revision of what constitutes an American (writer), Kim’s argument also relies on the very legal distinction between visitors and residents that she critiques when she distinguishes Kang and Bulosan from Asian writers who preceded them. The figure of ownership she evokes here, while being figurative and limited to the cultural domain, still carries the suggestion of a liberal order of possessive individualism. The investment in an Asian Americanness, in other words, potentially becomes a “possessive investment,” as George Lipsitz terms it, even if the investment is not in whiteness.8 What political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock shows as the “but for” approach to equality (or “the equality as sameness logic”)—“We are just like you [normative Americans], but for [this difference that should be immaterial to social and legal equality]”— could be viewed as one line of development in arguments for inclusion by marginalized groups that presume the idea of possessive individualism .9 I would like to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Kang and Bulosan, or any other writer subject to racial laws such as Asian exclusion, should not argue for inclusion or criticize the racial laws that fall short of democratic ideals. Rather I see this as one example of how the idea of the possessive individual functions as a double-edged sword for people of color and how protest and profit entwine in social struggles within the liberal economy. In this chapter I shift the context of reading Kang and Bulosan from exclusion to Orientalism with the aim of revising the narrative of American belonging from whether one claims to be American or not to what the cultural performance of citizenship entails. I am interested in what we can learn about the historical period of Asian exclusion and the liberal mode of inclusion by turning to Orientalism as the cultural condition of performing acceptable Asian identities at the time of Asian exclusion. In particular, I am interested in how Orientalism , as Edward Said’s conceptualization of Western ideas of the East that reflect Western desires of the Other more than Eastern realities , becomes a cultural epistemology for Kang and Bulosan as they negotiate belonging in a largely hostile world. If bringing Younghill Kang and Carlos Bulosan together through Orientalism seems like a Cultural Brokers in Interwar Orientalism 35 curious move, this is not because Bulosan was not affected by Orientalism but because the Orientalist tropes used in representations of the Philippines were not...


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