David Li’s Imagining the Nation

Li, David Leiwei. Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent. Asian America. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Li investigates the relation between As-Am exclusion and national formation, taking Asian American Literature as a site of cultural contestation and a means to subvert the dominant national narrative. So far, so conventional. But then Li moves from the heterogeneity of As-Ams to As-Am as abject and as object, and how As-Americans frequently moved through these roles in the object/abject dyad.

I see a great deal of this book as a precursor to Nguyen’s Race and Resistance, and Li’s ideas seem to be well placed as a transition between Lowe and Nguyen, where “Asian American formation is a problem in citizenship, which must be resolved through radical divorce of racial inheritance and national competence” (36).

“the object” as model minority and alienated subject seemed to dominate As-Am studies until Frank Chin’s insistence of As-Am as the “abject”, and in this sense, Chin’s project actually helps national formation by providing an “abjected object” to the nationalist narrative, and putting the abject into an anthology that accepts certain presuppositions dominant in the current racial formation–use of the English Language, for example.

In this sense, “Fifth Chinese Daughter” has been devalued for its eagerness to please “whiteness”, though Chin on the other hand is also addressing “whites” in his angry diatribes, and in a multiculturalist agenda, “pleases them”. So too does Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” help to reveal China’s status as an ancient, fantastic “blueprint” always abjected to the US national narrative.

The best part of this book is Li’s interpretation of my favorite As-Am novel, Kingston’s “Tripmaster Monkey”, as a novel that redefines the styles of national narrative–a heteroglossic, furious and dazzling legerdemain. This narrative creates a “sense” of ethnic battlegrounds and contestations, emphasizes itself as a work of individual lived experience that does not claim the burden of full representation of arbitrary pigeonholes (like As-Am) but has those burdens forced upon the text by critics like Chin. Kingston channels the burden of collectivity and shoves it aside as an unnecessary preoccupation with ethnic cultural identity.

Li goes through Jasmine (insists on its status as romance) and insists that the discourse of racial solidarity is actually intrinsic racism for it does not contemplate using race as a basis for inflicting harm (Appiah), noting that to bell hooks, “it is always the non-white who is guilty of essentialism” (121).

M. Butterfly (my favorite contemporary play!) makes an appearance as a confrontation with both Chinese emasculation and the legerdemain of “tripmaster”, when the butterfly turns out to be male, “sexploiting” the French “Pinkerton”.

The second half of Li’s text is similar to Kingston’s ending to Tripmaster Monkey, a diatribe against ethnic cultural politics:

Identity politics: these individuals seek their own gain and therefore do not represent the community, and their cultural claim is more or less arbitrary.

“Ambiguity of agent”: illusion of freedom on one hand, and acting for the agent of someone else on the other. Agency as mutually constitutive of author and audience, or representation disappears.

Representation: depends on full participation in nation-state, and demands an intensity of needs for help–must be active, otherwise “they” cannot be represented.

As-Am: Era of Nationalism, feminism, and the current era of heteroglossia, which is flawed for the same reasons that Nguyen extrapolates: the rising middle-class of AsAm is constantly ignored and becomes vilified, while As-Am as academic prospect is self-legitimizing, employing race as an arbitrary form of empowering collective. Empowering against what?–against the interests of other As-Ams. (I know, I keep using the hyphen…)

Li now attempts to understand an oncoming era of As-Am studies as focusing on:

Neoracism: (Balibar) not biological hereditary by insurmountably of cultural differences, exposing “tolerance thresholds” that demands minorities keep within their respective cultural boundaries.

Neoconservatism (Omi and Winan): Race as individual problem and choice, not collective, as it destroys collectivity and erases history.

Boutique Multiculturalism (Stanley Fish): The sacrifice of needs for white interest in consumer ethnicities,–also “consumer multiculturalism”.

While Post-Structural As-Am insisted on difference, it was a difference within certain interests and determinate goals. Rather, Li advocates a different type of multiculturalism that necessitates “real difference”.

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