Sunday, May 22, 2011

Consuming Asian Americans

The blog-post title is also the theme of this year's conference of the Association of Asian American Studies in New Orleans. Four days, from May 18 to 21, with 132 panels and roundtables, covering multiple disciplines such as history, literature, media, sociology, geography, performance and fine arts, ethnic studies, gender studies and women's studies.

Many papers referred to the transnational turn that has taken place in Asian American studies. The field has moved from recovery of buried pasts to looking beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. The turn involves expanding the term "American" to cover the hemisphere, linking the States to the countries of immigrant origins, studying diasporas and analyzing globalization.

Most of the papers I heard were informed by social constructionist theory, primarily Marxist, feminist, postcolonial and poststructuralist. These papers, speaking the same language, seemed like ingenious applications of one theory or another. An interpretation of Chang-rae Lee's novel Native Speaker, for instance, focused on its referentiality, rather than on its relationships. As such, the papers operated in the same discursive universe. They didn't clash. The one panel where two papers disagreed was a sociological panel on the practice of motherhood in the Indian transnational community. There, empirical findings seemed to contradict one another, but the sample sizes were too small for any clear disagreement or firm understanding.

More impressive were the papers on what I regard as more traditional scholarship. Symbol Lai (University of Washington) researched the UN archives to determine the role of the UN commission to repatriate Korean POWs in her paper "Demilitarizing Subjects: Space, Repatriation and U.S. Colonialism in Korea, 1952-1954." The commission thought it was giving the POWs the humanitarian choice of where they wished to be repatriated, but up against POWs' resistance found itself imposing more and more draconian control over them.

Linda Espana-Maram (California State University-Long Beach) pleaded urgently for "Re-thinking the Contours of Filipino American Studies" by describing the Chinese trading community in Manila in the 1650s, America's first Chinatown, as she put it. Theodore S. Gonzalves (University of Hawai'i at Manoa) on the same panel questioned the proof for the earliest Filipino community in the States, a myth which he cherishes, along with other Filipino Americans, but argues that is untenable by the standards of historical scholarship.

If the historians and sociologists at the conference appeared to adhere still to some objective standards in their disciplines, the literary scholars did not feel such disciplinary constraints. On the same panel with Espana-Maram and Gonzalves, literary scholar Kale Fajardo extolled the virtue of imagining what is not there. If we cannot find any sign of human society on the island of St. Malo, we can imagine it. Instead of challenging Fajardo, Gonzalves ascribed the differences between them condescendingly to the difference between their disciplines. Literary scholarship came out looking bad.

More remarkable then, a pair of papers on Asian American literature that were at once rigorous and sensitive. In "Who Was Jessica Hagedorn's Sylvia Beach?: The Avant-Garde Poetry Scene and Cultural Production," Rei Magosaki (Chapman University) examined Hagedorn's archive, recently made available, to recover two mentors of the young poet, who were eclipsed by the fame of Kenneth Rexroth. It was all the more poignant that one of the two hidden benefactors was Rexroth's wife, who encouraged Hagedorn in many letters and promoted her work to others.

The other paper, by Audrey Wu Clark (United States Naval Academy), looked at the Japanese American poet who introduced Pound to the haiku. The paper not only read Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" in the racial terms it invites, but also haikus by Yone Noguchi, detecting in the latter poetry a desire to be white. This desire was situated in a historical context in which the States enacted laws against Japanese immigration and ownership of property.

There were film screenings and readings too at the conference. I heard Ken Chen read from Juvenilia, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Karen Yamashita read from I Hotel, a finalist for the National book Award. In the main reading of the conference, Zach Linmark and Jessica Hagedorn read from their new novels, the first about Manila, the second about New York City. Both books were witty and stylish, but did not blow my head off.

On the last day of the conference was our turn to read. Organized and chaired by Tim Yu, whose book Race and the Avant Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry won the AAAS book award for Literary Studies, our roundtable consisted of Ching-In Chen, myself, Janine Joseph and R. A. Villaneuva. Ching-In read a long poem about mothers and daughters, a rich tissue of images and ideas. First time I heard Janine read, and was drawn to her subversive and rather devastating use of humor. Ron read poems notable for their synthesis of disparate ideas, facts and images. They were poems curious about the world. I read "Hungry Ghosts" and "Childhood Punishments" from Equal to the Earth, and "What We Call Vegetables" and "Study #5: After Frida Kahlo" from Seven Studies of a Self Portrait. I was pleased to sell a copy of each book.

One more conference, next weekend, the American Literature Association, in Boston. GH will be with me, and we will stay overnight in P-town.

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