ARE ASIAN-AMERICANS THE NEW JEWS?
12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Since the 1989 publication of Amy Tan's enormously popular The Joy Luck Club, "a substantial literary sub-genre has emerged," according to literary critic Jonathan Yardley, "to rival the fiction from the 1950s and 1960s by Bellow, Malamud, Roth et al." Yardley is not the only writer to compare the recent boomlet of novels and short-story collections about the Asian-American experience to the Jewish-American literary explosion four decades ago. The trend was ready-made for the cultural moment, because Asian-Americans have something to offer everybody. There's a collision of Western culture and non- Western tradition; families that appear functional but feel dysfunctional; and an ever-present language barrier at a time when the "problem of language" is becoming more and more central to the art of fiction.
There are Chinese-American writers, Japanese-American writers, Korean- American writers. They have one fascinating commonality: Their first novels tend to be not so much autobiographical as genealogical, dealing more with the lives of their parents than their own. The boomlet is now old enough that its authors have produced second and third novels. Tan has published The Hundred Secret Senses and The Kitchen God's Wife. And two of the writers who garnered the most praise in her foot-steps, Gish Jen and Gus Lee, have come out this spring with their second and third novels, respectively.
Jen's Mona in the Promised Land (Knopf, 320 pages, $ 24) treats the children of the Chinese refugees who figured in her 1991 Typical American. In a suburb that resembles Scarsdale, young Mona gets swept up in the ethnic consciousness of the late 1960s. Mona loses her virginity to a hippie boyfriend who lives in a tepee on his parents' lawn; takes one of her parents' "exploited" black restaurant workers into the family home as a clandestine lodger; and winds up converting to Judaism. The net effect of the book is not to poke fun at ethnic preoccupations but to exalt them, yet the book is saved from multicultural mushiness by moments of ruthless satire, as in the point-scoring system that the Scarsdale children (black, Jewish, and Asian) resort to when they try to rank the victimizations of their respective parents. It's a respectable effort at a writer's-program slice-of-suburban- life novel, but since Jen is incapable of writing straight, it's a slog getting through its 320 pages.
Lee's Tiger's Tail (Knopf, 298 pages, $ 24) is a thriller about Chinese- American military lawyer Jackson Tan, drunkenly remorseful over his combat experiences in Vietnam. Tan goes undercover in Korea in 1974 to find his best friend, another lawyer who has disappeared while looking into the theft of nuclear materials. He battles a corrupt, Kurtz-like army captain and has a lot of hard-boiled adventures with prostitutes and enlisted men. The dialogue is movie-inspired and stilted, in a she-had-a-pair-o'-gams-that-just-wouldn't- quit style. The whole novel resembles a cross between Tom Clancy and Damon Runyon:
"Said I'd get the clap running with a harlot. He said, Is that all you can be? A whoremonger? He pulled out an M-16 with a short barrel." A CAR-15, an Armalite cousin to the M-16, prone to jams.
It's a good page-turning beach book. Like Mona in the Promised Land, it is better than the run-of-the-millnovels in its genre, but no one would confuse Tiger's Tail with The Adventures of Augie March, unless he were trying to make the case for an Asian literary Renaissance.
So there is a disparate bunch of relatively decent Asian-American writers out there with one or two things in common. But if Asian-Americanswere our generation's equivalent of Philip Roth & Co., how would we know it? How does one ethnic group come to embody the fictional aspirations of an entire big, diverse country? Two possibilities suggest themselves: the first is a turn of ethnic character that gives a people a gift for a particular type of storytelling. Saul Bellow, writing in 1963, discerned in various works from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav to Sholom Aleichem to Grace Paley a "Jewish attitude," in which "laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two." True, perhaps, but that's nothing a contemporary writer would own up to. In the three decades since Bellow wrote those words, the idea that any race has any specific cultural aptitudes has come to be seen as untenable, even revolting -- as Bellow himself found out when he was widely reviled for asking, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him."
A second possibility: Fiction is a moral art, and certain groups can be, for historical reasons, uniquely well-placed to recount the moral conflicts of an era -- Puritans in 17th-century England, rationalists in pre- revolutionary France, youths in the wake of World War I. Jews, victims in the preeminent moral event of modern times, certainly fitted that description in the wake of World War II. And that is not all. As Leslie Fiedler wrote of the 40s and 50s, "It was also a time of growing alienation and rapid urbanization, which made the Jews, experts on exile and the indignities of city life, appropriate spokesmen for everyone."
Now this is an argument for the Asian-American novel's importance that several important Asian-American writers clearly countenance. Unfortunately the new reality within which they see Asian-Americans as "appropriate spokesmen for everyone" is multiculturalism. "Asian American literature celebrates the culturally diverse nature of American society," the critic Qun Wang tells us -- as if there's a literature in any culture that "celebrates" social drabness. In her well-received 1994 anthology Charlie Chan is Dead (Penguin, 569 pages, $ 14.95), the Filipina fiction writer Jessica Hagedorn summed up Asian-American writing as a reaction to "stereo-types" from the movies and an attempt "to challenge the long-cherished concepts of a xenophobic literary canon dominated by white heterosexual males." Of her own writer's awakening, she writes, "With no real idea of myself as postcolonial Filipino, Asian American, or as a female person of mixed descent, but armed with this new and disturbing inspiration, I began to seriously write and read. . . . In spite of my political ignorance, I was blissfully driven to put word to paper."
That is, she didn't know the first thing about fiction -- the first thing being radical politics. In an introduction to the same volume, Berkeley professor of Asian-American studies Elaine Kim writes:
A century and a half of persistent and deeply rooted racist inscriptions in both official and mass literary culture in the United States perpetuated grotesque representations of Asian Americans as alien Others, whether as sinister villains, dragon ladies, brute hordes, helpless heathens, comical servants, loyal sidekicks, Suzy Wongs or wily asexual detectives. . . . Our strategy was to assert a self-determined Asian American identity.
Leave aside that much of what is most delightful in Gus Lee's work is the playing with stereotypes of black street criminals, bouncy Hispanics, Charlie- Chan-like Asians, and whites of both the loutish and the bleeding-heart varieties, or that ethnic stereotypes are the whole of the raw material of Jen's second novel. Asian-American literature, in Kim's view, must be examined strategically and politically.
That's an extremely limiting view, and the debate, if it can be called such, has moved on from there. Probably the preeminent theorist of multiculturalism, Asian American-style,is David Mura, whose second memoir, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality & Identity (Anchor Books, 272 pages, $ 22.95), is out this month. What can you say about a Japanese-American writer who, although he has received two NEA grants, takes his inspiration from the racial terrorist Frantz Fanon? Much of the book is given over to autoerotic reminiscences and to passages in which David Mura observes David Mura being moral. (One is reminded of the ridiculous line in the REM song, "That's me in the spotlight. . . losing my religion.")
The book is something of a literary manifesto, in which the most important tendency is a racial conception of identity, yoked to a deadly serious indictment of American racism. Mura thinks of himself as a "man of color," evincing a Hagedornian equation of victim status and artistic prerogative. It's thus not surprising that the internmerit of the Japanese-Americans during World War II is set up as a creation myth: "In the camps, with their communal toilets and showers and barracks, there was little privacy; in an effort to work around such close quarters, the fulfilling of sexual urges entered a zone of muffling. Did this engender a further silencing around sexuality?" The "strategy" here is to use the internmerit camps to jostle aside the concentration camps as the century's central moral reference point.
What sort of novels would result from Mura's view of the role of ethnicity in the writer's calling? Probably ones very much like What the Scarecrow Said (HarperCollins/ReganBooks,449 pages, $ 24) by the Japanese-American Stewart David Ikeda, a book made to be read not for pleasure or enlightenment but as a starting point for ethnic whining in the classroom. Its plot concerns the attempts of the immigrant William Fujita to recapture for a group of New England progressive farmers the indignities of . . . the internment camps, of course. But it also has many of the trappings of socialist realism (we might call the genre "multiculturalist realism") -- like a reproduction of George Bush's letter of apology to Japanese-American internees and a bevy of pedantic footnotes. Here's one:
During the war, Japanese Americans and others regularly hyphenated the term [Japanese-American], rendering it a compound noun -- a person other than an American, a third thing -- in keeping with the popular perception of that group by other Americans and, unfortunately, themselves.
Amid today's purported tyranny of so-called political correctness, my concern is with linguistic correctness-it is with accuracy -- and this is the style standard I've applied to this novel. Of course, mere grammar does not comprise conscience, tolerance, equality, etc. today any more than it did in WW II.
There's no question that Asians are reading one another's work with enthusiasm and curiosity: To cite just the authors under review, for instance, Amy Tan blurbs Gish Jen, Gish Jen quotes David Mura, and David Mura blurbs Stewart Ikeda.
But in the end, there is no distinctive school of Asian-American fiction, and it would be a bad thing if there were. Because "schools" are formed much less spontaneously than they used to be, and it is more likely than not that ethnic literary coteries will be based less on a shared probing of nettlesome questions than a shared political program, an attempt to garland a culture around an already-erected trellis of conventional wisdom.
In a sense, these writers are not to blame. It's often said that American blacks flocked to cities looking for manufacturing jobs just as manufacturing was replaced by a service economy and ended up in underclass ghettoes. Similarly, Asian-American writers risk being ghettoized for having, through no fault of their own, sought to make their mark on American fiction at the very point it was being marginalized by multiculturalism, television, and the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
By Christopher Caldwell