A Response to the Literary Address by Min Hyoung Song
- By Patricia P. Chu
(Patricia Chu, Photo by Lee B. Ewing)
“When We Look, We See Each Other”:
Thoughts on Asian American Literature in the Twenty-First Century
First, thanks to Lawrence Minh-Bui Davis, Caroline Hong, and Mai-Linh Hong for arranging this gathering and permitting me to take part. For Min, I'm delighted to be here with you discussing our perennial favorite topic, Asian American Literature in the twenty-first century. I feel that we have travelled together from the eighties—when this was a new, unexplored field; when I prowled the stacks at Columbia, New York, and the New York Public Library seeking out the handful of authors mentioned in the handful of anthologies of Asian American writing I could find—to the nineties, when my university library had only seven books on its shelf for Asian American literary criticism—to this new century, when hundreds of Asian diasporic books can be found in our libraries, several dozen in the more literary bookstores, and maybe six, broadly speaking, at the airport bookstore. Seriously, the literary terrain and the critical terrain have changed. To cite a few changes: As you say, the globe is warming, and more people acknowledge it now than 20 years ago. It is also more urgent than ever to look beyond national boundaries to see ourselves in global terms. The voices of more people and different kinds of people, including Asian Americans and Asian diasporic writers, can be heard.
For your kids and mine:
After the 2016 elections, many people felt stunned and burned out. From her college, my older daughter wrote that her math professor was weeping in class. These feelings were particularly intense at the campus of my university, George Washington University in Washington, DC, which many students had chosen due to their strong interest in the political process; many of our students had celebrated President Obama's election from the gates of the White House itself. On November 9 of 2016—coincidentally my younger daughter’s birthday—I had conversations with two of my classes. On the day after the election, some of my students asked, what is the point of our work, when the country has elected someone so disrespectful of women, so committed to undoing what we have worked for? I told them that they could not undo alone the problems that have been building so long, and that this was but one election in a long string of elections to come, but that their job was to keep working, to find their calling and hone their expertise, and to have faith that each one of them could alleviate pain and do good. I told them about the healing work of my friend Barry Svigals, the architect who designed a new school for the community of Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Part of his work consisted simply of listening to the community, asking them to speak with him about their memories, fears, and hopes, and using his awareness of those stories to inform his creation of a new space that would empower them to honor their past, yet rebuild their lives. It is not obviously political work, but, having lived in a space redesigned by Barry, I understand it to be spiritual, powerful, and life-affirming work. I asked my students to take the long view. So our work, as writers, readers, teachers, and citizens, continues.
Your point about the heterogeneity of Asian Americans, and the danger of oversimplifying, is a good one that I invite the audience to discuss further. Still I feel "Asian American" is a useful term, since it amplifies the voices and visibility of those who belong to many differing socioeconomic, ethnic, and national groups who are otherwise rarely visible, and who are largely under media erasure. Living in the bubble of Washington DC for the years running up to the 2016 election, with nonstop coverage for about two years, I heard of nothing but white voters, black voters, male voters, female voters, and Latino and Latina voters. Asian Americans aren't ignored only in election coverage. In discussions of schooling, psychology, consumer conduct, family formation, and affirmative action, we are largely unrepresented. Once, when Garrison Keillor celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad on the Writer's Almanac, his daily NPR feature about writers, I thought this would be the one time in 20 years of broadcasting that he would mention Chinese in America. It would have been a fine occasion to acknowledge the existence of Asian American writers by citing Frank Chin, David Henry Hwang, Maxine Hong Kingston, Shawn Wong, or Laurence Yep, who have written plays and novels about the building of the railroads. But no. His point was that building the railroads caused the elimination of the prairies and the disappearance of the buffalo. In this small example, the time-honored tradition of erasing the pioneering Chinese railroad workers from the story of the American West, begun in the 1880s, was faithfully continued. Of course, we were not alone. The midwestern radio host also avoided mentioning the indigenous people who were most affected by the completion of the railroads, the elimination of the prairies, and the loss of the buffalo.
During those two long years of presidential election coverage in the New York Times, in The New Yorker, on NPR, and in similar Northeastern/national media, we—Asian Americans—could only conjecture if we were meant to be included in the discussions of “immigrants” and “Muslims.” If the popular image of an immigrant is a person from Europe or Latin America, and the popular images of Muslims conflate people from many different countries and regions of the world, who can tell, when a politician refers to “immigrants” or “Muslims,” if he or she is aware that some of these people are Asian or Asian American? It has taken dedicated activists to teach the nation that Black Lives Matter, a lesson that we as a nation still struggle to put into practice. As long as we are unmentioned ghosts in the media, and no one notices, we remain Asian American, and we need our writers. Whether we admit we are Asian American or not, our voices and lives also matter.
Min, I like the fact that you question this category, and I agree that racial categories are arbitrary and unwieldy. My immigrant parents were Chinese; I grew up mostly in white neighborhoods, was the only Chinese American kid in my class throughout most of my school years and most of my college career, worked in white companies, and learned early to compartmentalize. Only after college did I hear the phrase “Asian American.” Some time in the 1980s, a creative writing professor at the New School in New York City asked me, “Why is there no Asian American literary tradition”? His question was both wrong—because there was and is a tradition—and right: because as a writer, I needed to hear that question. I had read English, American, French, and Chinese writers in college, but no Asian American writers, and few writers of color in high school or college. At the time, I considered this normal. But when I sat down to write a short story for that instructor, he pulled this question out of the blue, after glancing through my tortured, disembodied stories. Not only did I not know how to write a short story. I was still struggling to understand how to write about characters that were Chinese American, and how to write as a Chinese American, in the tacitly-white literary tradition I'd studied so diligently. His question had a fresh urgency. I took it with me to graduate school, and reinvented myself as a scholar of Asian American literature.
If you talk with Asian American literature scholars, everyone has a similar story. When did you first see yourself as ethnic, or racialized? When did you first recognize this as a valid topic for literature? When did you first ask who gets to decide? What is Asian American literature, and what is does it mean for you? Now, decades later, we can ask, how has the literature changed? How is it changing? As a scholar who trades in catalogs and categories, I can say, in the beginning, there was no visible Asian American tradition. Every Asian American writer invented ethnicity and race in her own way. Now, there are more or less traditional topics. I suspect there are also established techniques for dealing with the problem of the body, the problem of the external eye, the familiarity of certain stories, and the familiarity of certain debates about ethnic responsibility. But there is also more public space. One no longer has to tell only the stories of identity, assimilation, discrimination, mobility and its absence, migration, loss, and the transmission of family stories. It’s not that they're not important, or that these stories have been exhausted. It’s that the territory is better known and somewhat better theorized. We know something more about telling those stories, how to tell them, how to read them, how not to read them. And we are allowed by the larger culture to speak more individualized truths. Jennifer Chang, my colleague, writes poetry about the invisible figures in the canon, such as Wordsworth’s sister, the addressee of his famous poem “Tintern Abbey.” What, no grandma? Is this truly Asian American literature? You bet.
On Asian American literature:
Min, I admired the way you questioned the formulaic nature of film and TV; I admire you for ploughing through to read actual literature even at the end of the day, and for looking so well-rested in spite of your dedication to finding literature that is, you implied, truthful, ambitious, and provocative. Yesterday, as I talked with Professor Rajini Srikanth and poet Lee-young Li, we pondered when something was “trashy” and tried to define that. I argued that if it merely left you feeling depleted and depressed, with no rising awareness of truth, and no fidelity to the rules of the type of story being told, it was trashy. I met some resistance, but we arrived at a provisional, cocktail-fueled consensus that commitment to truth on some level was fundamental. I offer this as a question, and offer one more idea, actually several more ideas:
First, you've probably heard by now of the Bechdel test for being minimally inclusive of women: Does the story include at least one scene where two women speak only to each other, and not about the males in the story?
Second, I give you the Chu test for life-affirming vs. numbing violence in films and television shows:
1. Do under 50 people die in the course of the story?
2. Does everyone who dies have a name?
If the answer to either question is “no,” look out. Your heart is being hardened.
Third, here’s another test for minimal inclusiveness of Asian Americans at the movies:
1. Does the story include at least one scene where two Asian Americans speak to each other, but not about whites.
2. Name five American films you know that pass this test.
And finally, here's one more idea borrowed via Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Are You My Mother? quoting the object-relations theorist D. W. Winnicott. Winnicott argues that infant self-image is shaped by the mother, whose responses show the infant who he is. “The precursor to the mirror is the mother.” Defying Descartes’s individualist definition of the self in terms of thought (“I think, therefore I am”), Winnicott argues that we are defined by others’ responses to us: “When I look I am seen, so I exist.” Asian American writing, I suggest, is not about asserting one’s existence through thinking alone. It is about the formation of the self as a social being through mutual recognition, or what Professor Christine So calls the politics of recognition. A century after the first Asian American writers began to publish in English, fifty years after the beginning of the Asian American movement, Asian American writers know that we need not only seek others’ recognition. It is just as important that we recognize others, including our own: “When we look we see each other, so we exist.”
Patricia P. Chu, Professor and Deputy Chair of English at George Washington University, is the author of Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return (Temple University Press, 2019) and Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America (Duke, 2000). She has recently published essays through The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literature and Culture, MR (Winter, 2010), and the MR website ("Ten Questions for Patricia P. Chu").