Since the 1990s, a new cohort of Asian American writers has garnered critical and popular attention. Many of its members are the children of Asians who came to the United States after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted long-standing restrictions on immigration. This new generation encompasses writers as diverse as the graphic novelists Adrian Tomine and Gene Luen Yang, the short story writer Nam Le, and the poet Cathy Park Hong. Having scrutinized more than one hundred works by emerging Asian American authors and having interviewed several of these writers, Min Hyoung Song argues that collectively, these works push against existing ways of thinking about race, even as they demonstrate how race can facilitate creativity. Some of the writers eschew their identification as ethnic writers, while others embrace it as a means of tackling the uncertainty that many people feel about the near future. In the literature that they create, a number of the writers that Song discusses take on pressing contemporary matters such as demographic change, environmental catastrophe, and the widespread sense that the United States is in national decline.
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About the Author
Min Hyoung Song is Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, also published by Duke University Press, and editor of the Journal of Asian American Studies.
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The Children of 1965
On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American
By MIN HYOUNG SONG
Duke University PressCopyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Everyone is invested with expectations of various kinds, to one degree or another, and some of these undoubtedly bear striking similarities to the ones that most frequently adhere to discourses about Asian Americans. Still, specific expectations pose challenges for Asian Americans that others, who are differently raced, do not face. The young in particular have often been reminded of how young they are and of what awaits them once they reach maturity. Harold Bloom, one of the most venerable American literary scholars of the postwar era, provides a vivid illustration of this point when he observes:
One of my growing convictions, founded upon the last 20 years or so of my more than 40 years of teaching at Yale University, is that the life of the mind and the spirit in the United States will be dominated by Asian Americans in the opening decades of the 21st century. The intellectuals ... are emerging from the various Asian-American peoples. In this displacement, the roles once played in American culture and society by the children of Jewish immigrants to the United States are passing to the children of Asian immigrants, and a new phase of American literature will be one of the consequences.
While it is now a commonplace to compare Jewish Americans of an earlier era with contemporary Asian Americans, as in this passage, the former were not compared to another group when they were first leaving their mark on American society. This means that the former were not confronted with the same demographic expectations that now confront the latter, namely that they will follow the path laid out by another group in a kind of rite of ethnic succession. This succession begins with "the children of Jewish immigrants" and has as its only successor "the children of Asian immigrants." This does not mean that comparisons between Asian and Jewish Americans cannot be made. They are often made and can prove highly informative. It does suggest, however, that there is something salient about Asian Americans and their relationship to the imagination of the future that can bring them into proximate discussions with other groups that might not be as immediately obvious. In this instance produced by Bloom's self-assured prediction, focusing on expectations brings into relief what is particular about "the children of 1965": that they have become a potent representative of a future America, one which will no longer be majority white but will nonetheless keep alive a contiguous national character.
As the root word of expectation suggests, having "to look out for" the future as Asian Americans do is fraught with ambivalence. From the Latin verb ex-spectare, the word conjures two intertwined feelings that are simultaneously at odds with but inseparable from each other: "to hope for" and "to dread." These feelings succinctly capture the relationship many Asian American writers working within the last decade of the twentieth century and the early years of the twentieth-first century have with the future. They look with both hope and dread on what they are trying to accomplish with their work and on how their work will be received. In their myriad ways, they carefully and creatively wrestle with the specific racial expectations that condition, surround, enable, and possibly choke the lives their works seek to imagine. While they each focus explicitly on individual characters, as individuals these characters are stymied by hopes and dread intimately related to the topic of race that exceed attempts at self-definition, agency, and autonomy. By struggling with such expectations, their works also give texture to the ways in which race both affects and does not affect lived experiences, personal longings, and aspirations for meaningful existence.
This chapter begins with a discussion on how such expectations have come to shape the experiences of Asian Americans and how Asian American writers have sought to negotiate their forceful and often contradictory impositions. It does so by theorizing the concept of expectations, considering along the way how such expectations keep bringing Asian Americans into surprisingly intimate juxtaposition with other discourses about personhood, including those that directly shape cultural understandings of children and queers. While the connections between the latter two have been richly explored, critics have yet to consider in an equally rich way how the racialization of Asian Americans might also be linked. The chapter then turns to the work of theory itself, explaining how the use of writings by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychotherapist Felíx Guattari seeks to respond—perhaps paradoxically—to the need for published work in the humanities to be at once accessible and engaging at a time when the humanities itself is under fire.
After the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
To query how Asian Americans, especially those of a specific generation, have come to be vested with the kind of expectations that Bloom singles out is to take seriously the claim made by many in Asian American studies that it is difficult to overstate the importance of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Publically available U.S. census data from 1960 to 2000 provide a dramatic sense of this act's importance for a population that grew more numerous and more heterogeneous with each passing decade of the second half of the twentieth century. This data is obviously limited. The categories the census uses to record its findings have not remained consistent through the years and, like all data, they must be interpreted. Nevertheless, their use provides at least a rough snapshot of the momentous demographic changes that have undergirded and marked the bildung of a generation of writers.
In the immediate decade before 1965, most Asians in America were born in the U.S.; in the decades after, they became numerically more foreign born. Before 1965, most Asians in America were of Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino descent, with the next largest Asian ethnic groups, Koreans and Indians, being far fewer in number; after 1965, the proportions between ethnic Asian groups changed rapidly and have expanded to encompass a dizzying diversity—a situation compounded by the arrival of many refugees after the end of the war in Vietnam. Even among the ethnic Chinese, diversity increased dramatically as new arrivals were more likely to be from all over China and the rest of the Pacific Rim, rather than primarily from a single southeastern Chinese province. Before 1965, most Asians in America were concentrated in the West, largely in segregated urban neighborhoods and in the agricultural countryside, with smaller but significant pockets in major urban areas like Chicago and New York; after 1965, major population centers formed across the country, with the largest numbers bunching on the West and East Coasts (see figs. 1.1–1.3).
Before 1965, most Asians in America were laborers and service workers, with a small but substantial class of merchants and an even smaller group of professionals, students, and diplomats; after 1965, a distinct socioeconomic hourglass-shaped split occurred, with a large group of professionals and a smaller group of managers being the most visible and another equally large, if not larger, group of service workers and laborers comprising a mostly unseen Asian American underclass. Before 1965, a large majority of Asians in America were male, with Japanese immigrants being one possible exception; after 1965, there were slightly more Asian women than men in the United States. And, finally, before 1965, Asians in America comprised adults who had a relatively small number of children after having settled in the United States; after 1965, many immigrants were of child-rearing age or had children when they arrived (see figs. 1.4–1.6). This last alteration has required the coining of a whole new category of immigrant that fell between the first and second generation. The "1.5 generation" names those who were born abroad but immigrated to the United States at such a young age that they were primarily acculturated here.
Hence, as the number of Asians in America ballooned in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the composition of this population altered substantially along most measures: nativity, ethnicity, geography, class, gender, and family. Of these, the alterations to class and familial arrangements are especially relevant to the study of literature. Much more than in the past, many groups of Asian Americans, often numerically weighted in favor of some ethnic groups over others, are now members in good standing of a professional-managerial class stratum. They serve in mainly techno-bureaucratic capacities, especially immigrants whose skills are valued by American employers—like engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, and computer programmers.
One result of the 1965 immigration act was the creation of a mainstream within Asian America, complicating the distinction between margins and mainstream that Gary Okihiro, among others, helped to make an organizing principle of Asian American studies. The creation of an Asian American mainstream has also complicated claims of racial minority status for Asian Americans, even as the high visibility of an Asian American professional-managerial class keeps from view the socioeconomic complexity of a population that is itself markedly split in terms of income and wealth. This is true even for those ethnic groups that are in the aggregate socioeconomically well off. All of this means that the emergent Asian American mainstream, marked by a heavy investment in higher education, instrumental striving for upward economic and social mobility, family centeredness, and the dominance of East Asian ethnicities (Chinese and Japanese in particular), has its own margins. These margins in part reflect the histories of U.S. imperialism and its many wars, transnational adoption, multiracial children born out of sexual relations between Asian women and American servicemen, geopolitically unequal accumulations of cultural capital that lead young people from Asia to study abroad in the West, and similarly unequal accumulations of capital as traditionally understood. Such histories have produced classes of Asians in America barely able to make ends meet, abused by their employers and the state, and fearful of how refinements of immigration law will affect their rights in the United States. In recent years, a focus on empire in particular has emerged as a powerful interpretative aid for organizing research and discussion, tying these various concerns to one another and connecting Asian Americans to other racial groups.
Understandably, scholars in Asian American studies, like many Asian American creative writers, have been preoccupied by these proliferating margins, seeking to illuminate the struggles of those caught within these spaces and to make sense of the structural factors that maintain them there. One consequence of this preoccupation, however, is that scholars and creative writers alike can lose sight of the accomplishments of those in the mainstream, whether established or emergent, who remain, despite their socioeconomic positioning, keenly aware of their own, often tenuous and fragile, construction as privileged and accepted members of their society. As Chang-rae Lee, during an interview conducted for this book, observed about his decision to write Aloft from a middle-aged Italian American man's first-person perspective, "Very early on, I definitely thought: well, is he Asian? Is he Korean American? And I decided very early on that he wasn't.... Obviously it's going to be set in the suburbs, and the character that I wanted, what I wanted that character to think about was exactly his sense of ownership and comfort. He was someone who was not at all at odds with his community or society or culture." This reasoning illustrates the belief on one writer's part that someone who is Asian American could not feel a "sense of ownership and comfort" in American society, which remains an affect pegged to a privileged racial and gendered and class position. What is notable is that Lee did not in his earlier works lose sight of the ways in which Asian Americans enjoy many societal privileges. His Asian American characters are notably a part of an American mainstream that is in the process of reinventing itself, usually through some kind of multicultural compromise.
To call attention to the significance of the 1965 immigration act for Asian Americans is one way to foreground the sense of emergence that surrounds an Asian American mainstream within an American mainstream. This sense of emergence, if maintained, entails the strongly felt recognition that members of the Asian American mainstream did not achieve their relative successes alone, through individual effort, obligated to no one but their own self-possessed selves, and that such successes remain still highly tentative. It also reminds writers that their current relative successes and numbers is a new phenomenon, something writers who started their careers even a few years earlier did not know. This is a point that Lee stressed when asked about the successes of his literary Asian American peers:
MHS: I'd like to think that Native Speaker in some ways was one of the very first of your cohort to really break through, to gain a lot of serious attention, and then it was followed by the work of Susan Choi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Han Ong, the list goes on and on. Asian Americans have their fingerprint all over contemporary American fiction in a way that ten years ago would have been unthinkable.
LEE: Yeah. That's absolutely true. And I think it's changing. I mean, I think it's evolving. I think there's much more acceptance, of course, of who we are. But I still don't really, really believe—and maybe it's just a function of who I am, and how old I am, and how I grew up—I still don't really believe that your typical reader—and that typical reader is usually white, right?—will see a certain name on a book, that seeing an Asian name wouldn't send off some kind of sense that, oh, well maybe that book's not really for me. You know what I mean? I still think that happens. And I think that it would be crazy for someone to say, no, that doesn't happen. I think it does happen. Someone like Susan Choi, who's gotten such wonderful reviews, and is respected, why doesn't she have a larger readership?
Like everyone else, Asian Americans remain part of histories that they may be barely aware of but which nonetheless profoundly influence the shape of their lives. This is undoubtedly true of the ways in which the 1965 immigration act has acted as a crucial condition of possibility for the current flowering of Asian American literature. As the title of this book is meant to highlight, one notable effect of this demographic consideration is the ways in which it has fed the view of Asian Americans as childlike. The Children of 1965 turns on the notion of children to refer to the ways in which the Immigration and Nationality Act helped give birth to a whole generation of Asian Americans who started to reach the age of full adulthood in the early 1990s and to the ways in which this generation has entered the popular imagination as embodying the many promises and anxieties surrounding the imagination of children in the United States. Consider, for instance, the image of the Asian American whiz kid who exceeds all academic expectations by excelling in grade-school science and math. Consider the racial composition of elite American college campuses, which now comprise numbers of Asian American students—and increasingly international students from Asia—largely out of proportion to this racial group's demographic share of the general population. Consider the Asian adoptee, the most visible and pioneering figure of transnational adoption in the United States, who increasingly stands in for the children who professional middle-class families are not having biologically but who, ideally, are loved and protected as if they have been. Consider the multiracial children of mixed coupling, who are now associated with crumbling taboos against intermarriage, especially between whites and Asian Americans (and most visibly between white men and Asian American women). Or consider, finally, the emergence of international families comprising primarily children who live and study in the United States while at least one of their parents lives and works in an Asian country.
Excerpted from The Children of 1965 by MIN HYOUNG SONG. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. "We All Have Our Reasons" 1
Part I. Impositions of Form
1. Theorizing Expectations 29
2. The Trope of the Lost Manuscript 59
3. Not Ethnic Literature 81
4. American Personhood 104
Part II. Lines of Flight
5. Comics and the Changing Meaning of Race 127
6. Allegory and the Child in Jhumpa Lahiri's Fiction 152
7. Becoming Planetary 179
8. Desert–Orient–Nomad 197
Conclusion. World-Making 220
Appendix. Contemporary Asian American Literature 101 241
Works Cited 261