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ARE ASIAN-AMERICANS THE NEW JEWS?

12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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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.