Enhancing Awareness of Heterogeneity and Relevance to Students in Asian American Literature
Christa Baiada, Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY)
Keywords: Identity, Community, Culture
The course I was most focused on in relation to the seminar was my Asian American Literature course at BMCC. Obviously the challenge was not to integrate Asian American content as the content is necessarily Asian American; rather my goals were to diversify and update the content to be more reflective of today’s Asian American communities and diversity and to be more relevant and interesting to my students.
This semester I added Bushra Rehman’s Corona, one of the books we read in the seminar, to my required course reading. Corona replaced Lois Ann Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre as part of the first unit of the course paired with Kingston’s foundational memoir Woman Warrior. Although Yamanaka’s text has elicited strong reactions from past students, published in 1993 and set in Hawaii, the poetic novellas still played out at a significant distance from my students who found it too easy to categorize the stories of both Yamanaka and Kingston as long ago and far away. I had hoped that Rehman’s more contemporary work (2013) set in Queens, NY, would allow my students to connect their lives and world more readily to the literature.
I think the inclusion of Corona worked well as did its pairing with Woman Warrior. The texts are different genres, but both authors play with genre. Both address female coming of age, but in different cultural and temporal moments; gendered expectations and experiences; negotiation of Americanness and Otherness but in different terms (e.g., Kingston’s Maxine struggles more with a negotiation between Chinese and American culture, more common for earlier Asian American literature, while Rehman’s Razia is Othered more in terms of religion and its contemporary politicization regarding Muslims and by her non-conformist sexuality); connection to family and community that includes ambivalence; and the power of art/writing. In many ways Rehman’s novel continues in the tradition of Kingston’s but explores experiences and themes that go far beyond what might at the time of Woman Warrior could have been imagined. On a lesser note, the length and quick pace of Corona was a nice shift for students at the start of the semester after the somewhat heaviness of Woman Warrior.
Students seemed to either love or hate Corona strongly, which is a good sign in my opinion. The student discussions on religion, Razia’s feelings toward her childhood neighborhood Corona, the contradictions and conflicts of freedom in the novel, and her relationship with her parents demonstrated with long comments and active interaction. (Note: my class in an online course so discussion takes place over Blackboard Discussion Boards.) Two Muslim students made direct comparisons between Razia’s community and family and her own and answered questions of other students about tradition and beliefs. There was also a gratifying discussion of the structure of the novel considering students often shy away from more literary questions about form (as they did with Woman Warrior this semester). A persistent resistance to accept Razia’s sexual fluidity persisted throughout despite my attempts to open up perception in line with the text’s depiction, and this is something I might try to address more preemptively either in lectures or with supplementary materials on sexuality next semester.
The discussion board questions worked well to elicit discussion of many of the major themes and elements of the novel while allowing for different student interpretations. The essay questions, however, were not fully successful in encouraging comparison or connection to Woman Warrior as intended. The questions will have to be revised to either abandon the idea of synthesis/comparison and allow greater freedom in exploring the individual works or to identify or rephrase the connections in ways that students can more easily tackle.
Student responses from an unofficial student survey at the end of the semester about how the course may have affected their understanding of Asian America(ns) or America(ns) and their assessment of its relevance suggest that my goals were fairly well met from student perspectives and that the addition of Corona to our reading list clearly contributed. Student comments, some of which I’ve included below, confirm that the course readings are diverse enough to suggest the complexity of Asian America and that students did relate and connect their lives to the reading, a phenomenon that Corona was mentioned in relation to more than once.
- “Honestly, my idea to Asia American was pretty narrow before. I only see Chinese American struggling in their life most of the time. I guess it is because I am surrounded by my own people, I don’t really see other people’s life. From reading all the books in this class, I know that there are many more others like me are fight spirit in America. They are from different background and looking for different things in their life. Some times can be good, sometimes is not. I like it because I would understand more beside people from my own ethnic background but people from Japan, India, and Korea etc.”
- “This course has definitely shown me that the inner struggles of another minority is the same as mine as a latina especially in mother/daughter relationships. It has shown me that identity isn’t a black and white issue. It has shown me that Asian America is very much so a driving force to be more than just the model minority but to be accepted and being able to find balance between their american identity and asian heritage.I think it brings me peace especially when it comes to those with a south asian background who share the same internal struggles as you”
- “From reading the books, I could clearly relate the struggle that my family faced. As an immigrant I know how hard it is to be an American and also to keep up with your own tradition. In Corona, Razia faced the same struggle, where her family wanted her to keep up with their own tradition, culture and religion even though she has been raised in USA”
- “This class helped see Asian American culture in a whole different light. Prior to this class my knowledge of authors and books from Asian Americans were limited. This class introduced me to some authors that I truly enjoyed and I might continue ready more books they’ve have written. I really enjoyed the diversity in the readings, each book was very different from the previous and it kept me interested the whole time. It also reminded me that most cultures experience similar things when it comes to immigration and trying to adapt to a whole new environment. It does not matter where you come from, once you go to a different country you’re leaving your birth place behind and call this new environment home.”
- “I do think that in this particular class your choice of books have some relevance in today’s world, if not direct it can be indirectly. For example: Corona- being about a girl growing up in Queens from a strict family and trying to find herself in the process. M. Butterfly being about homosexuality. Prior to this class I had no clue what Asian American Literature really was, I took the class because I had to. I’m glad I did because it gave an understanding about Asian-American history that I didn’t know anything about.”
- “I think this course is actually really relevant today. There are certain topics of these books that I did not know about like Orientalism and I actually brought it up to someone I know because they used the word oriental to describe Asian Americans. I told them to just use the word Asian American because I saw it as a bit offensive although no one would really know and told them where Oriental derived from. I think it is important to educate yourself on other ethnicities and cultures so you are not only educated about American history but others as well. It is important not to be ignorant of what actually happened and what is currently going on.”
- “The novels each showcase a similar pattern even though many are decades apart, you have Comfort Woman, Corona in the 90s-early 2000’s, No No Boy-50’s, Interpeter Maladies I believe the 80-2000s, and M.Butterfly 60s to 70s. Each produce a similar approach concerning identity.I think courses like these are very important because I believe it unites everyone to go either the system sucks or that we realize we have more in common that we fail to realize especially in a society that tries to segregate and create cultural division. I have taken latino courses and as a latina myself it was enlightening and at the same time very comforting and pushed me to know my history because I wasn’t taught it. I took african and asian studies and it made me realize it all comes full circle, I hope to use my history degree and once I leave minor in media journalism or english because I want to help people and be a civil rights activist but I can’t do that unless I know the history of the people I want to help. It’s intimidation because you go “I’m not asian” or “I’m not latino” or “I’m not black” it doesn’t matter because if you do that you really miss out on a lot of knowledge and the ability to grasp that understanding.”