Shirley Lim et al., Transnational Asian American Literature

Lim, Shirley. Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006.

The introduction of Transnational Asian American Literature, by Shirley Lim et al, begins with two statements that are, for anyone who is familiar with Asian American Studies, strikingly contentious. The first, that “sees nation-formation themes, often intrinsically tied to language strategies and formal features, as one subject [of many] rising from a set of historical dynamics that traverse and explain the collective body of Asian American Literature” (1). In other words, the themes of national citizen subject and exclusion that Lisa Lowe finds as a thread common in all Asian cultural forms, and are therefore more able to produce resistant subjects, is simply one of a myriad of subjects from which the various histories of Asian Americans give cultural form. Their second point is that there is an unacknowledged transmigratory nature of the Asian American experience, a “history characterized by disparate migratory threads, unsettled and unsettling histories churned by multiple and different notions of literary aesthetics, albeit most largely mediated through the English language” (1).

Like many Asian American Studies texts, one must begin by positing that Asian American Studies is in a state of crisis due to the heterogeneity of the field. Lim et al. push this crisis further, insisting that

Asian American imagination, unlike that of African American writing, has no single unifying grand narrative to organize the vast materials that Asian American writers call on; it possesses no single linguistic Other, as in Lintina/o writing, on which to hing a counter tradition of stylistics. Instead, what Asian American works of imagination manifest in full are a plethora of seemingly separate threads. (2)

Unlike nation-state centered threads, the ones discussed here lead to different national origins, different first languages, and cultural signs which are “unintelligible to those identified as “the same” by census and academic disciplinary discourses” (2). Efforts to resuscitate Asian American heterogeneity, from Lowe’s reliance on cultural form in Immigrant Acts to Kandice Chuh’s proposal of Asian Amercan Studies as postsubject critique and “Asian American” as an “abstract signifier whose signified contents are so shiftable, provisional, and undecidable that attempts to contain them will always result in incomplete narratives,” have attempted to erase the subject of Asian American discourse, turning it into a political method, rather than an aesthetic form that manifests from, as well as critiques, a certain social group. (4). For Lim et al., the “Asian American” is not theorized as subjectless, but as a “multiplier signifier, attributed with political, social, and cultural value particularly by U.S. institutional forces” (4). Forming this multiplied subject is “a combination of canny political agendas, individual imaginations, communal histories, erasures and elisions, provisional arrangements, and contingencies” (5).  Above all, “Asian American” offers a “way of understanding and constructing identity mediated by textual power…as an agent for novel imaginaries and social transformation” (5). This theorizing of Asian American is unique and called upon for it better supports subjects of non-U.S. incorporation, such as overseas writers, immigrants, sojourners, expatriates and regional writers.

Stephen Sohn’s “‘Valuing’ Transnational Queerness”

The best essay in the compilation is hands-down Stephen Sohn’s “‘Valuing’ Transnational Queerness,” an exploration of queer sexuality and commodification through a nuanced reading of Laurence Chua’s magnificent novel, Gold by the Inch. Following Viet Nguyen’s criticism of Asian American Studies for reading too heavily for “Bad Subjects” of Asian America—in effect, claiming the Asian American as always resistant and ignoring instances of complicity and oppression onto others—Sohn reads the transnational Asian American as a subject in an “ambiguous locus of power” that renders him “complicit in a kind of post-colonial exploitation and a lost subject without a coherent community to support him” (100). Sohn challenges Asian American critique by reading Chua’s novel as an anti-bildungsroman, where in the beginning the nameless narrator is already “politically cognizant of both his position and the postcolonial landscape of Bangkok, nevertheless continues to engage in activities that undermine his moral superiority. The novel marks corruption in even the most well-intentioned and informed individuals” (101). For Sohn, the knowledge of one’s own historical origins and contextual circumstance does not in effect guarantee an ethical life, but rather, produces a subject paralyzed by and complicit with the power relations of their time.

Sohn’s means into looking at this theoretical landscape is through the queer body and its commodification in instances where the subject is conscious of their own body-commodity and use it to as a form of agency. Hagedorn’s Joey Sands provides an excellent example of this, as a male prostitute who “believes he commands an agency in the sex tourism trade” and “further exerts a sexual power over johns, employing his body to entice his customers to do his bidding,” stealing from them when he can, perhaps to convince himself that he is with them because he wants to be, not because he was forced (105). Joey however must realize that his pithy resistances are buttressed by the monetary control of the john, that his “attractiveness exerts its own force that causes johns to capitalize on his existence,” and rather than being an individual of choice, he “remains enslaved to his physical beauty to provide for his well-being” (105-6).

For the unnamed narrator of Laurence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, the fluctuation from power to disempowered is brought to its extreme and supplemented by the ethics of the author, who can be critical of the Thai people for their “complicity in the development of a late capitalist economy” while at the same time, participates in sex tourism. Likewise, the novel ends with no moral prescriptions, but only “offers a replicating narrative of the process of sexual exploitation and hedonism that overpowers the efficacy of political and historical knowledge” (107). One explanation for this moral ambiguity has to do with an ambiguous relationship to power. The narrator, in the United States, does not hold the power that would enable immediate ethical choices, but is always powerless due to his multiplicity of abjectness: he is queer, an immigrant, Pilipino, and lower-class. His sudden obtainment of social power due to his Americanness in Thailand and Malaysia, however, render the narrator into a sudden position of power, and due to his powerlessness in the United States, cannot see himself as complicit with oppression even as he is enacting dominance over others.  The narrator thus possesses an

“ambiguous stance towards capital,” for “even as he criticizes Bangkok for being overly commercialized, he nonetheless engages in sex tourism…in this way, the narrator embodies a fragmented subject. He is at once the queer Asian American male who has been objectified as a commodity in the United States, as well as a figure for the Western bourgeoisie who participates in sex tourism in Bangkok…his identity constantly shifts, unstable and uncertain. (117)

Sohn presents Chua’s novel as a challenge to Asian American Studies, because it cannot be read as a simple resistance narrative, and in fact, reverses the “political bildungsroman” that makes up the cultural form of Asian American literature. The narrator cannot identify with the oppressed in the third world, and instead, ends up “fully presented as corrupted by consuming desires, desires to consume the other and to be consumed himself” (120). In essence, Chua’s text exposes the queer Asian American not as a locus of resistance, but how he “becomes complicit with problematic political trajectories” (120).

Gita Rajan’s “Ethical Responsibility in Intersubjective Spaces”

Rajan’s use of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s post-modern code of ethics enables a reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” that calls for a universal code of ethics from the United States, one imbricated within the ethical as a responsibility towards contractual obligations, specifically through marriage.  For Rajan, ethics must be understood within a globalized, contemporary frame, to mean “conducting oneself responsibly in one’s area of interaction, wherein stated or subtle principles of justice undergirding one’s actions are open to negotiations” (125). In Lahiri’s story, when the Indian driver Kapasi chooses to morally chastise Mrs. Das’ adulterous past rather than offer her a comforted “talking cure” that might also encourage her as a victim of her husband, this is a symbol of ethical respect to the marriage contract and the responsibility over her children. For Rajan, Kapasi is the “haunting figure who reminds us that individual responsibility must go beyond conventional morality or social orthodoxy” and “his ineffectual response makes the reader think about living life with ethical (maybe personal) standards of conduct, wherein every action is scrupulously contextualized and treated with “honesty” (133).

Rajan’s essay, rather than presenting Kapasi’s moral injunction as one cultural ethics coming into contact with another, and becoming irresolutely incapable of understanding, presents the story as an “ethical vignette,” a moment of didactic U.S.-centered ethics based on the self-made individual. To Rajan, the fact that Kapasi still romanticizes Mrs. Das and seeks to be her adulterous lover, even after Mrs. Das has displayed time and again how inept of a mother she is, seems to suggest that Kapasi himself is no bearer of ethical virtue. One might wonder if, after he has fantacized so richly about taking part in an affair with Mrs. Das, his moral injunction near the end of the novel is not out of “individual responsibility” but rather out of jealousy. While Kapasi imagines himself being her adulterous lover, Mrs. Das only sees him in an Orientalist gaze, as a bearer of wisdom and understanding. It is this discovery that leads Kapasi to blame Mrs. Das for her adultery and her fantasy of leaving her family, not to purport ethical choice.

Eleanor Ty’s “Abjection, Masculinity and Violence”

Ty’s work focuses on the reactionary impulses of 1.5 Asian Americans (young immigrants) that often result in violent behavior and a lifelong engagement with unethical acts. To Ty, these impulses are nutured by “values of capitalist America” and “small but repeated acts of racism” (145). The effects of globalization also have a handing in producing the aberrant subject, by structuring desire around obtaining products as a means of somehow compensating for abnegating instances of racism and marginalization. As Ty says, the 1.5 generation “want the fulfillment of the American dream of wealth and success, and they want it now” (156). My sense is that Ty’s essay could have used more voices to explicate the effects of global capitalism on new racial formations in the United States and the Philippines, such as when she delineates the subject produced by global capitalist forces: “People in the third world are interpellated by U.S. media and advertising so much that their desires are structured around these products…ironically, these products are now manufactured through transnational labor” (153) an explanation of why she chooses U.S. media rather than Western, or “transnational labor” rather than labor of the third world, is in need of explaining.

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