British Association for American Studies


Panel Review: ‘Recent Work in Asian American Studies’

Chaired by Eithne Quinn, the roundtable ‘Recent Work in Asian American Studies’ was a critical component of the larger British Association for American Studies (BAAS) conference. Deeper discussion of marginalised texts and authors is always pertinent, and this certainly includes the entire “body” of Asian American literature with its many intricate blends of genres and movements, which only became an official field of study in 1982. Considering the horrific murders of six Asian American women in Georgia in March 2021, as well as the increasing violence and abuse recently enacted on Asian Americans as blame for Covid-19, it was particularly appropriate to counter such prejudice with a session that both celebrated developments of Asian American writers, as well as zealously urged further scholarship in an under-studied area. The presentations also warned that even throughout our growing awareness of the evils of racial privilege and bias, it is extremely easy to only seek superficial solutions, or even reaffirm harmful tropes under a different guise. These three panels were thus a crucial examination of how Asian American writers have resisted literary stereotypes, while still sometimes participating in rebuilding hegemonic norms, and the significance of these works to current events and movements.

The roundtable started with Dr Anna Maguire Elliott’s paper, ‘“Your Plum Blossom”: Sentimentalism and the Environment in Mrs Spring Fragrance [1912] by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton)’. Dr Elliott pointed out that from the surface, Far uses many typical tropes of sentimental, feminine “Asian culture” within this collection, particularly in the extensive use of floriography. The protagonist, Mrs Spring Fragrance, particularly refers to many generic flowers like daffodils, roses, and wallflowers, granting them special significance and meaning despite the fact that they are just common garden varieties. As a Chinese immigrant who has only lived five years in the States, she not only displays errors in her knowledge of North American horticulture but in literature as well, even earnestly mistaking Tennyson as one of the greatest American poets.

(Chen Hengke, ‘近代 陳衡恪 梅花 冊頁’. Donated by The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Yet despite the protagonist’s seeming misunderstanding, Dr Elliott reveals that there is subtle subversion within the text as well: a form of ironic trickster humor that turns potential mocking on its head. Even as an American audience might laugh at the protagonist, the text is aware that U.S. literature is itself not established, grappling for relevance and identity. America’s distinction from but consolidation to British culture is similar to Mrs Spring Fragrance’s own struggle to forge a whole, naturalised self. The fact that she identifies herself as a traditional Chinese plum-blossom, yet her footnote only mentions that plum-blossoms signify purity and virtue rather than their other cultural associations of resilience and endurance, shows her determination to highlight or display certain aspects of her identity. She does not disclose details about her experiences of overcoming suffering, either as a bereaved mother or an immigrant. Instead, she controls her narrative as one of assimilation and belonging rather than fragmentation or fusion—an attitude which Elliott describes as being intrinsically American.

While Dr Elliott’s paper addressed an example of Asian culture as sentimentally feminised, Dr Harriet Stilley examined how many male Asian American authors used hard-boiled crime genre to counter this stereotype in a manner that sometimes re-established hypermasculine tropes even as it pushed against them. The two primary racial binaries promoted since the 1850s depicted Asians as either being malleable model minorities, or dangerous, uncontrolled subjects seeking to destroy America. These negative coded images of Orientalism were represented in the crime genre through two primary typecasts: 1) Charlie Chan, an effeminate, deficient, asexual ally to his white American masters; and 2) Dr Fu-Manchu, the evil (and often homosexual) ‘Yellow Peril’ who represented all of the United States’ anxieties that an exotic and barbaric Asia would demolish the West. The images below demonstrate some of these racist stereotypes widely used in popular texts and images—the postcard with Charlie Chan, on its typical yellow background (in contrast with those featuring white detectives, usually printed in bright blue, red, or noir colors) portrays the character in an unfavorable light, smiling foolishly or even disingenuously. The caricature of Dr Fu-Manchu and his “henchmen” is even more overtly intolerant, depicting them with inhuman features: Fu-Manchu bristles with long claws and eyebrows while his guards display abnormally huge ears, foreheads, muscles, and mere slits instead of eyes. In the final image, the Chinese detective is labeled ‘Ching Fat Chinese Detective’ and portrayed as a grumpy dog, utterly stripped of human features except for those racist conventions that could identify his nationality, such as the stereotypical hat and queue.

(Lobby card for the 1931 film Charlie Chan Carries On.)

(Dr Fu Manchu, I. W. Publishing, 1958, art by Carl Burgos)

Dorgan, Thomas Aloysius (Tad). ‘Rummy held for ransom’. Features Krazy Kat and Ignatz. Formed part of the ’Scenes of My Infint-hood: Celebrating the Birth of Krazy Kat’ exhibition at The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum held September 7 – December 31, 2010.
{{PD-US}} The author died in 1929, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or fewer.

Trying to escape these dehumanising stereotypes, many Asian writers attempted to prove the heteronormative, hardboiled masculinity of Asian men. Yet this could not be accomplished without returning to the original hegemonic definition of manhood: that of dominating the Other, (meaning anyone perceived as racially or sexually divergent, and of course, all women). Thus, criminal detectives like Henry Chang’s Jack Yu do not actually subvert patriarchy but simply re-appropriate an ideal of essential “male” qualities. There are some examples of recent works that challenge this epistemology, such as Ed Lin’s fiction, which features alienated, complicated protagonists unable to achieve satisfactory, tidy solutions to crimes. Dr Stilley points out a critical reminder from Foucault, however: discourse will remain problematic and hegemonic so long as it uses the same traditional language of dominance.

During the final panel, Joe Upton demonstrated the fracture that often occurs when writers try to balance on the divisive line of Eastern and Western culture, even in terms of autobiography. He first exemplified several examples of the covers of typical Chinese migrant accounts, from Red Azalea [1993] to Mao’s Last Dancer [2003], noting how publishers tend to use similar visual tropes, from sepia-coloured backgrounds and red fonts to grainy photos of children’s portraits. There is a linguistic expectation as well within the texts: a Western demand for Asians to use a Christian rhetoric device of confession to repent of divergent “Eastern Culture”—particularly one that contains any hint of Communist values.

(Cultural Revolution Front 2400, By ХорлоогийнЧойбалсан1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95970133)

Upton notes that during the Cultural Revolution [1966 – 1976], autobiographical confession was also utilised to punish prisoners, a method of simultaneous self-exhibition and self-effacement. Typically, however, Chinese-American immigrants have attempted to create a new self through autobiography, one that largely identifies with American Democracy and dissociates from negative stigmas of a Maoist China. Despite their claims of escape from excruciating acts of suppression, many of these accounts, like Ping Fu’s Bend Not Break [2012], have received backlash that they are ‘unrealistic’. Rather than acknowledging that all autobiographical texts have always been a balance of disclosure and obfuscation from an author’s subjective, filtered perspective, the translated parallel contexts of Chinese migrant narratives are expected to fit into neat categorised boxes. Once again, while there are opportunities to make life-writing a subversive art form, we must question exactly who is authorised to remember trauma, and what subtle forms of censorship still reside beneath the surface.

Despite the key insights relayed by all three panels, one noticeable issue was the fact that all talks happened to be based on Chinese American writers. Each panelist helpfully clarified that their paper could not encapsulate the experiences of other Asian writers (or even the totality of the experiences of Chinese Americans). Yet the fact remains, as I brought up in the Q&A discussion, that still seems to be very little study of works by other writers of ‘Far-east Asia’, whether of Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese backgrounds; even less from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore; and virtually no existence of mixed Asian narratives. I myself am a literature teacher of students who are still feeling disenfranchised. Therefore, I seek more examples of the diverse experiences of Asians within America that would resonate with young readers trying to negotiate their identity not just against the model minority stereotype, but from under the homogenous blanket of Asia-as-China typecast. The panelists gave some helpful directives of Korean and Vietnamese authors in the final moments before the roundtable’s conclusion but acknowledged the importance of further study in this woefully-unrepresented field. For now, even positive scholarly engagement with Asian American writing still contains gaps in the intersections of gender, ethnicity, genre, and now nationality. We must continually re-negotiate our own stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts judging which narratives are authorised as worthy of further study if we would ever hope to counter others’ monochromatic appropriation.


About the Author

JuEunhae Knox is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, whose pending thesis pioneers a comparison of digital and traditional poetry in light of New Labour capitalism and consumerism. She is currently co-organising the first academic Instapoetry collection, along with a special issue with EJES on cross-cultural and linguistic distinctions of global Instapoetry.