Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation in Asian American Literature
Jungah Kim, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
In the fall of 2014, I taught Asian American Literature course which has been offered by English program at BMCC on a regular basis. On BMCC website, Asian American Literature course is described as “Representative works reflective of the collective experiences of Asian American writers are analyzed. American writers are analyzed. Fiction poetry, drama and non-fiction written from Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Japanese, Korean and South-East Asian cultural perspectives are discussed.” Many students came to the course with an expectation to learn about Asian American culture through literary representation. But I tweaked their expectation a little bit–my course began with questions and challenges to the historical and political formation of Asian America with critical attention to the role of Asian American literature in the ongoing construction of Asian and Asian American cultures and identities.
To me, teaching Asian American Literature is meant to evoke the historicizing perspective with openness to multifarious dimensions of Asian America. My teaching has been largely inspired by Lisa Lowe’s 1996 study Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. In it, Lowe keenly observed that Asian American literary practice “contains a spectrum of positions that includes, at one end, the desire for a cultural identity represented by a fixed profile of traits and, at the other, challenges to the notion of singularity and conceptions of race” (64). In other words, it is provisional to speak of Asian American literature as if it were one thing, and, within this spectrum, even notions of (ethnically, culturally, biologically determined) race are ultimately constructs–which, as I have seen in my Asian American Literature classroom, are not impervious to manipulation. So what I’m rendering here, in turn, is representing part of the ongoing journey of an educator whose primary focus is on the gap between academic theories and educational practices, as well as on those between academic and popular notions of culture and the lived experiences of individuals. With this regard, I believe that my students and their affiliations, allegiances, and experiences ultimately construct various modes of reading Asian American literature in multicultural urban community college classroom in the city of New York.
In the past, I read four novels with my students as well as scholarly essays that provided alternative narratives. As you can see from my syllabus here, I intently choose a multi-faceted, historically and culturally embedded text and then incorporate other accounts and other media that can help to fill gaps in the awareness of students who, for example, may have had little exposure to the history of Asia and the political construction of Asian America. In any case, I believe that counter-narratives often provide students with opportunities to reflect on people or cultures whose voices may have been silenced in the textual representation, and this, in turn, expands their latitude to formulate questions and perspectives of their own.
Two novels I read with my students in Asian American Literature class came to my mind. These novels often revealed dilemmas and challenges associated with notions of identity–that is, with what it means to be “Asian” and to be living in America. My students brought invaluable discussions on Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. We read this novel along with Frank Chin’s vehement critique of Kingston’s representation of Chinese women in The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Besides these written texts, we also watched a film Three Sisters on Moon Lake (2001), directed by Julia Kwan–in this short film, Kwan represents poignant, poetic, and tragic story of three Chinese sisters who caught up in their world facing conflicts between traditional Asian values and the opportunities available in their new home. While analyzing above examples that provided partial representations of gender politics rendered in Asian American literature, we explored how race and gender have been intertwined in Asian American history. Also, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine–story about one Japanese American family’s experience of internment in a Utah enemy alien camp during World War II–allowed us to re-imagine the role of citizenship, migration, and race in the United States. As Gayatri Spivak notes in her essay “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching,” I believe that literary education in humanities needs to be a setting to work that enables us to imagine the other. Otsuka’s text, in particular, provided my students with a space in which to imagine the “othered” Asian experiences in the United States. After reading Otsuka’s novel, we also watched a documentary film History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), directed by Rea Tajiri, and this personal, intimate account of Japanese internment memories moved many of my students. But I also introduced another counter-narrative written by a Korean American writer Chang-rae Lee to my students in order to link Korean immigration to the United States with the record of Japanese colonialism. I believe that it is important to provide opportunities for students to critically engage with the systematic inequalities built into American cultural institutions while rearticulating Asian American cultural productions as a site for alternative narratives and memories.
I offer this example with my assumption that many instructors who teach Asian American literature to diverse groups of students in the urban multicultural classroom often find themselves in the position of reinforcing Asian American cultural heritages through literary representations. But the moment we claim that Asian American cultural heritage is represented in literature, we are homogenizing cultural experiences rather than problematizing the labels and constructs associated with them. Our teaching, after all, can never totalize the meaning conveyed by literary representations of Asian and Asian American experiences. In this regard, I believe that learning in a tension-fraught world is largely a process of embracing the contradictions associated with our overlapping individual differences and diverse cultural heritages. All in all, my pedagogical aim is to make my students leave my Asian American Literature class session brimming over with questions. And when they do, I take it as a sign that real education is happening in my classroom.