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