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Asian-American Literature

Mrs Spring Fragrance, America Is in the Heart

chinese poetry identity kingston

is usually centred on the identities of Americans of Asian descent in the context of their immigration histories beginning in 1850 with immigrants from China. Japanese immigrants began to arrive in 1885, followed in the early 1900s by immigrants from South Korea, South Asia, and the Philippines. These periods of immigration occurred in response to shortages of labour in the USA and ended with legislative exclusion. In essays and in the stories collected in Mrs Spring Fragrance (1912), Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton, 18651914), the daughter of a British father and a Chinese mother, vividly describes the struggles of immigrant Chinese at a time when US exclusion, alien land, and miscegenation laws made them unwelcome. Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart (1946) is another such classical representation, following Carlos, a Filipino immigrant, as he and other migrant workers struggle for social justice and acceptance during a time of nativist American hostility to Asian immigration.

Different immigration histories of national-origin communities give rise to writings reflective of cross-generational concerns and styles. Chinese-language poems written by immigrant Chinese on the walls of the Angel Island detention barracks (Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910–1940, ed. Him Mark Lai and others, 1980), as well as Issei (first-generation Japanese-American) tankas, have been translated, and added to the archival ‘canon’ of Asian-American literature. Such heterogeneous representations help to overturn stereotypes of ‘inscrutable’ Asian-Americans. Three early Asian-American anthologies, Asian-American Authors (ed. Kai-yu Hsu and others, 1972), Asian-American Heritage (ed. David Hsin-fu Wang, 1974), and Aiiieeeee! (1975), suggested that the ‘melting pot’ paradigm was inadequate to an understanding of Asian-American cultural identity. Influenced by the 1960s black civil rights movement, the editors of Aiiieeeee!, who later published plays (Frank Chin, The Chickencoop Chinaman, 1981), novels (Shawn Wong, Homebase, 1979), short stories (Jeffery Paul Chan), and poetry (Lawson Inada, Legends from Camp, 1993), went further in adopting a cultural nationalist stance.

Drawn from different national-origin communities, memoirs were the favoured genre with immigrant and first-generation writers. Younghill Kang's The Grass Roof (1931), Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant (1949), and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950) satisfied an American audience's curiosity about the strangers in their midst. Japanese-American internment history has been a major source for memoirs, poetry, and other literary works (Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter, 1956; Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar, 1973; and Mitsuye Yamada's poems in Desert Run, 1988). Chinese- and Japanese-Americans began publishing imaginative literature in the 1950s (Diana Chang's The Frontiers of Love received critical notice in 1956), but South Asian, Vietnamese, Hmong, and other newer Asian-American groups have also begun actively publishing in multiple genres. Wendy Law-Yone's The Coffin Tree (1983) narrates a Burmese-American initiation into the USA; Li-Young Lee, an Indonesian Chinese-American, has published poetry (Rose, 1986) and a memoir (The Winged Seed, 1994), as has Malaysian-American Shirley Geok-lin Lim (Among the White Moon Faces, 1996).

After the awards garnered by Maxine Hong Kingston's memoirs, The Woman Warrior (1976), much Asian-American writing has received critical acclaim; among these are the plays of David Henry Hwang (FOB and Other Plays, 1990) and Cathy Song (Picture Bride, 1983); the poetry of Garrett Hongo (The River of Heaven, 1988), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989), Bharati Mukherjee (Jasmine, 1989), and Gish Jen (Typical American, 1991); the novels of Faye Ng (Bone, 1993), Hisaye Yamamoto (Seventeen Syllables, 1988), and David Wong Louie (Pangs of Love, 1992); and Wakako Yamauchi's stories (Songs My Mother Taught Me, 1994).

In works that treat Asian-American women's struggles against Asian and American patriarchal attitudes, race analysis operates simultaneously with gender analysis. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is a complex series of narratives growing up in an asymmetrically gendered community. The anthologies The Forbidden Stitch (ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and others, 1989), Making Waves (ed. Asian Women United of California, 1989), Home to Stay (ed. Sylvia Watanabe and others, 1990), Our Feet Walk the Sky (ed. The Women of South Asian Descent Collective, 1993), and others contain writing protesting female subordination and male privilege.

Many Asian-American works still centre on heterosexual characters and focus on identity questions and ethnic community conflicts, among them widely taught works like Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California (1949), John Okada's No-No Boy (1957), Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), Bienvenido Santos's Scent of Apples (1979), Kingston's China Men (1980), and Kim Ronyoung's Clay Walls (1987). Many of these fictions are also regionally identified: for example, Okada's, Mori's, Kingston's, and Kim's narratives are set in ethnic-specific enclaves on the US West Coast, and Chu's novel in New York's Chinatown. Works written out of Hawaii, such as Milton Murayama's novel All I Asking for Is My Body (1975) and Lois-Ann Yamanaka's poems in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993), expressing a strong island identity, exploit English registers and dialect resources.

Younger contemporary writers, like novelist Cynthia Kadohata (In the Valley of the Heart, 1993) and playwright Philip K. Gotanda (Yankee Dawg You Die, 1991), following on Kingston's tour-de-force novel Tripmaster Monkey (1989), experiment with post-modernist techniques of parody, irony, pastiche, and bricolage, challenge the interlocking categories of ‘race’, class, and gender, and include sexual identity as central to the themes of identity. Using similar techniques, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters (1990), set in the Philippines, is a critique of US colonialism and the Marcos military regime, while celebrating Filipino cultural hybridity. Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker (1995) uses the devices of a thriller to depict the lives of Koreans in New York; the leading themes of the novel are language and identity. Many anthologies offer a range of poetry (Breaking Silence, ed. Joseph Bruchac, 1983; The Open Boat, ed. Garrett Hongo, 1993), fiction (Charlie Chan Is Dead, ed. Jessica Hagedorn, 1993), and drama (Between Worlds, ed. Misha Berson, 1990; The Politics of Life, ed. Velina Hasu Houston, 1993; Unbroken Thread, ed. Roberta Uno, 1993), and testify to the diversity of styles, genres, and voices underlining the vitality of Asian-American writing.

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