Editor’s Introduction: Space, Land, and the Global Environment of Ethnicity

MELUS, Sep 2013

Cutter, Martha J.

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Editor’s Introduction: Space, Land, and the Global Environment of Ethnicity

please e-mail: . DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt043 MELUS Volume 38 Number 3 (Fall 2013) Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/melus/article Editor's Introduction: Space, Land, and the Global Environment of Ethnicity Martha J. Cutter Editor MELUS The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become. And that means shaping hearts and minds for our life together on this planet. In a recent book about American literature, Caroline F. Levander remarks that the question, “Where is American literature?” can be “a compass” that leads us into unexpected places: “into the mall, the cloud, the movie theater, and almost always to the edge of familiar terrains” (188). The same can be said for the question, “Where is multi-ethnic US literature?” Our field has always been diverse and multifaceted, but recently it has come to encompass even broader spaces, environments, and media for the articulation of ethnicity. MELUS has featured or will feature essays and interviews on Norwegian American immigrant authors, Jewish American comics, visual culture and race, television, film, Asian American performance art, Cambodian American rap, mixed-race literature, cross-racial collaboration, white ethnicity, and other diverse topics. At times, of course, this makes attempting to define the space, land, and environment of multi-ethnic American literature difficult. A potential author recently wrote to ask whether MELUS would be interested in publishing an interview with a writer who had emigrated from China to the United States as an adult; she writes in English, yet her novels are predominantly set in China. Was this multi-ethnic literature of the US, wondered the author? I answered this question as I usually do: “While 'the United States' has come of late to mean (broadly) authors or works of literature that in some way are set in, cross over, or are imbued with US ideologies, politics, settings, characters, or writing styles, we have not totally disregarded this term. . . . What might be of great interest is the ways this author's writing has been affected by her life in the US and the rhetoric and style of US multi-ethnic and Anglo-American authors.” Multiethnic literature no longer signifies simply a place-bound or geographical space. Content matters more than geographical location, and the space, land, and environment of US ethnicity have become mobile, global, mutating, and fluctuating. A very loose connection to the conception of the US needs to be present in the texts, but the construct of the United States is now more of an ethos or symbolic figuration than a geographical or even geopolitical spatialization. - Of course, this does not definitively answer the question, “Where is multi-ethnic literature of the United States located?” or even, “What is multi-ethnic literature of the United States?” Yet it does provide a useful starting point to comprehend some of the shifts this term has undergone in the last decade. The essays chosen for this issue of MELUS in some way interrogate the space, land, and environment of ethnicity, showing this environment’s exilic, mobile, and mutating quality. Our cover image—from Jean-Paul Bourdier’s Leap into the Blue (2013)—is meant to symbolize the openness that currently constitutes the global space, land, and environment of US ethnicity. Bourdier’s copper-colored female figure could be any race; she stares out into an open landscape that could be anywhere. We know that the multi-ethnic subject—who is often imprinted with oppressive stereotypes not only of race and ethnicity but also of gender, class, and particular kinds of embodiment—perhaps does not have so much freedom to make a “leap into the blue,” but we also want this issue to hint at some of the broader possibilities for multiethnic literature that this images implies. The grouping of writers discussed in this issue indicates possibilities not only for spatial sovereignty but also intellectual autonomy to become truly diasporic, translocal, and transnational subjects not defined by geographical, national, environmental, or physical limitations. These essays also thoroughly interrogate the concept of “America” itself—and by extension, the process of Americanization that the nation attempts (and often fails) to enforce. Fittingly, then, the first space under interrogation in this issue is America, or rather, the process whereby some so-called foreign individuals are taken away (symbolically) from their “alien” homelands and made into American citizens. “There are thousands of the Americanborn who need Americanization just as much as do the foreign-born” (445), writes the Dutch-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime editor of Ladies’ Home Journal Edward W. Bok in his very American autobiography, published in 1920. Maria Lauret’s original and humorous essay, “When Is an Immigrant’s Autobiography Not an Immigrant Autobiography? The Americanization of Edward Bok” sees the interest of Bok’s autobiography lying in its ability to offer a discourse in which “Americanization was equated with Americanism.” For Lauret, Americanization refers to a coercive campaign of social engineering and nation-building that attempted to fix the meaning of Americanness for both immigrants and American-born individuals; the Americanization campaign of the 1910s and 1920s undertook a strong effort to transform the immigrant and eradicate distinctive ethnic ways of life. As Lauret notes, “The Americanization of Edward Bok was never about the transformation of Edward Bok so much as it was about the Americanization of his native readership, peculiar as this may seem.” In view of current calls for renewed attention to the Americanization of immigrants and foreigners, such as the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ publication Building an Americanization Movement for the Twenty-First Century (2008), Lauret suggests that ethnic studies scholars take a hard look at the effects on ethnic citizens of earlier coercive Americanization movements so that we may better understand our present moment. Sarah Sillin’s “Heroine, Reformer, Citizen: Novelistic Conventions in Antin’s The Promised Land” similarly interrogates the symbolic process of Americanization. Mary Antin’s 1912 autobiography has been seen by many critics as idealizing America and Americanization, even though Antin represents immigration and naturalization as a deeply disruptive progression. Sillin argues, however, that Antin skillfully manipulates literary genres—in particular, antebellum sentimental novels and realistic fiction about urban tenement life—in search of a form that will allow her to convey the complexities and difficulties of her experience and 2 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/melus/article-abstract/38/3/1/1061648 by guest on 12 May 2018 identity. Sillin contends that “[t]he often-overlooked connection between sentimentalism and realism—particularly their shared but distinct relations to reform—serves as a fulcrum for Antin’s assertions of her patriotism and her criticism of the nation.” Through such “genre-blending,” Antin fosters the recognition of working-class immigrants as “not only the beneficiaries but also the agents of social reform.” Antin’s popular text thus interweaves genres to create a more flexible mode for addressing the adaptation of the immigrant to US culture. Also, and perhaps more importantly, her text suggests that immigrants themselves transform literary genres and the cultural processes of Americanization as a whole. A third essay interrogating the meaning of the American even more thoroughly and pushing the space of ethnic literature further is Margaret Hillenbrand’s elegantly written “Letters of Penance: Writing America in Chinese and the Location of Chinese American Literature.” Hillenbrand focuses on three texts that do not really seem “American ethnic” at first glance—the novel Beijingren zai Niuyue (Beijingers in New York) (1991), the 1993 Chinese television series based on it, and the short story “Zhijiage zhi si” (“Death in Chicago” [1964]) by the Taiwanese American writer Bai Xianyong. These texts represent the space of America to Chinese and Chinese American audiences. As Hillenbrand phrases it, “These are writings created in and about America but typically consumed in Chinese-speaking spaces: in the natal country, across the Greater China region, and in Chinatowns across the US and beyond. Thus, they lie on the threshold, perched between America and the Sinophone world and belonging equally to both.” Hillenbrand argues that these texts and others like them probe “the relationships between diasporan and immigrant, nation and transnation, and language and audience in ways that do not simply inflect the ethno-linguistic shape of American literature but also, and more importantly, extend its very location.” These works—which have often been misread as homesick paeans to China written by its exiled subjects—might better be understood as deterritorialized American literature that forges new global connections by circulating ideas about the US to new audiences at home and abroad. What might it mean, however, to be in exile in the porous and amorphous space of the transnational US? And what does “being displaced” mean in a world in which we have continual migration, global citizenry, and the transnational circulation of literary texts, characters, and authors themselves? The second set of essays in our issue turns to these exact questions, interrogating the idea of exile. In “Feeling Embodied and Being Displaced: A Phenomenological Exploration of Hospital Scenes in Rabih Alameddine’s Fiction,” Ther´ı Pickens examines the experimental work of Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese American writer. While most critics have focused on the condition of exile represented in his fiction, Pickens astutely attends to the way the material body helps characters to create space and work through aspects of displacement. More specifically, texts such as “The Perv” (1999), I, the Divine (2001), Koolaids: The Art of War (1998), and The Hakawati (2008) all feature prominent scenes of hospitalization, suggesting that exile is tied not only to memories of a past land but also to illness. However, Pickens contends that “[i]nstead of pathologizing exile, Alameddine’s fiction holds up the hospital space and illness as a means of working through displacement. Characters reject the idea that normalcy or belonging is a state to which they should aspire, regardless of whether that norm or belonging is constituted in sexual, bodily, or mental terms. They are most at home in themselves when they are in a state of difference.” Using a phenomenological approach, Pickens’s essay maps out possibilities for understanding the relationship between being physically displaced and feeling materially embodied in Alameddine’s fiction. His writing 3 also implies that “working through exile requires that one usurp narrative agency”; sometimes illness, disease, or even death becomes the fulcrum for assertions of narrative authority. Physical exile and bodily (dis)placement from the sociopolitical realm of the United States are also strong themes in Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Tropic of Orange (1997). Indeed, one of the central characters—Manzanar Murakami—is named for an internment camp in which Japanese Americans were housed during World War II; moreover, cross-generational effects of exile and internment are present in Manzanar’s granddaughter Emi, who refuses to acknowledge the painful history she has inherited. Chiyo Crawford’s analysis of the novel, “From Desert Dust to City Soot: Environmental Justice and Japanese American Internment in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange,” broaches these topics in terms of an environmental justice framework. Environmental justice scholars have documented that people of color, the poor, and women suffer disproportionately from ecological devastations, and Crawford traces the way that marginalized individuals are affected by the past and present displacement of the internment and other environmental dangers. Crawford argues that internment’s “history of land theft and displacement, severe degradation of living and working conditions, and longterm psychological trauma . . . constitute important environmental justice issues” that have been ignored. Crawford also argues for a pluralist methodology in approaching Yamashita’s novel, which maintains the “interconnectedness of various environmental and social events” and therefore the imbrication of events such as the internment and other environmental traumas. Displacement is also a strong theme in Bunkong Tuon’s “Inaccuracy and Testimonial Literature: The Case of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” Loung Ung’s memoir concerns an individual who survives genocide in Cambodia, flees to the US to write her narrative, and then, in exile, is subjected to severe disparagement of her text centering on alleged distortions and inaccuracies. Tuon argues that “such harsh criticism does not take into account the impact on survivors such as Ung of losing family members, being separated from their homeland, and struggling with a new language and culture in an attempt to build a new home thousands of miles away from Cambodia, in a place with unfamiliar customs and rituals.” Sections of Ung’s text are inaccurate, but Tuon sees these inaccuracies as those of a survivor who needs to balance psychological healing with a political duty to speak publicly on behalf of the Cambodian people. Tuon argues that Ung’s “great sadness and anger from the injustices she suffered seeps uncontrollably into the pages of First They Killed My Father, even at the expense of historical facts”; therefore, in spite of its historical inaccuracies, Ung’s text “is emotionally and experientially truthful to its author.” For Tuon, the text’s emotional truth should be viewed as a legitimate piece of the narrative of the Cambodian genocide. Tuon therefore offers a new approach to the text that focuses not on accuracy but on how it allows its author to confront historical trauma. New approaches to the landscape of ethnic literature are also offered in our last two essays, which focus on the ways the body itself can create new spatialized performances of multi-ethnic subjecthood. In “‘I Will Make of My Scaffold, a Stage’: Performing the Asian American Subject in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book,” Sun Hee Teresa Lee begins by examining a short poem by Maxine Hong Kingston’s writer-protagonist Wittman in which a poet is also a window-washer, falling off of his scaffold and barely escaping death; ultimately, the protagonist declares that he will “make of [his] scaffold, a stage.” Lee argues that this metaphor provides a useful starting point for Kingston’s exploration of writing 4 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/melus/article-abstract/38/3/1/1061648 by guest on 12 May 2018 and performing Asian American authorship and subjectivity. The scaffold/stage is a space where the dominant culture constructs a reductive identity for Asian Americans but also a realm where ethnic American subjects can write and perform themselves differently. Lee notes that a writer of color is often at the mercy of both the general public and his or her ethnic community; the Asian American writer, in particular, “must deal with the mainstream audience’s penchant for exotic narratives of mysterious places and colorful characters, while also creating the more authentic and progressive representations advocated by the ethnic community.” Beset by these competing demands, the writer fears the loss of his or her unique voice. Yet the metaphor of the scaffold/stage offers one way out of this impasse through the subversive and revolutionary possibilities of performance and theater. Theater and performance allow Kingston to articulate an empowered subject position, which seems almost impossible in the written form: “[T]he theatrical context of staging and performance permits a more palpable presentation of the voice, body, and agency of the subject, allowing Kingston to envision more concretely subversive acts of identity formation.” Bodily performance of another sort is present in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine (1989). In “Gold-Digger: Reading the Marital and National Romance in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine,” erin Khuˆe Ninh uses the vantage point of advanced globalized capitalism to explore the roles the heroine of the novel plays and the various scripts concerning the work she undertakes as an undocumented transnational migrant worker, a domestic servant, a caretaker, a sex worker, and a mail-order bride. Ninh argues that Jasmine navigates all of these key positions of the third-world woman in her sequence of employment and relationships in the US, yet these experiences ultimately demonstrate her perpetually liminal status, rather than her successful assimilation. The novel as a whole “prefigures the current discourse around global migration, labor, and family for the Asian female foreign body”; in fact, Mukherjee’s writing of Jasmine “took place at the precise historical moment when that ‘global woman’ was born” in the late 1980s. Such a perspective enables stronger comprehension of Mukherjee’s controversial text and the agency (or lack thereof) of her polarizing heroine. Ninh ultimately suggests that we read Jasmine not in terms of the idea of the self-made American but in terms of the various scripts of the global woman, where agency is always a double-edged sword that both grants a certain type of freedom but also keeps women firmly cemented in the roles they have crafted. The issue concludes with Eleanor Ty’s interview with novelist Ruth Ozeki, who herself transcends—in her writing and her life—any particular local space of ethnicity. In “‘A Universe of Many Worlds’: An Interview with Ruth Ozeki,” Ozeki discusses how her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being (2013), expands themes found in earlier works such as My Year of Meats (1998) and All Over Creation (2003). Influenced by events such as 9/11, the March 2011 tsunami, and Buddhist principles of interdependence, A Tale for the Time Being also moves back in time to re-envision events from World War II. Most interestingly, in terms of the themes of our issue, it features a sort of return to the space of Japan itself (as Ty points out). Whereas most fiction from the 1980s and 1990s manifests a trajectory from Asia to North America, more recent fiction depicts children of immigrants who journey back to their parents’ country. Many individuals also travel freely between different places and spaces of ethnic identity, like Ozeki herself, who migrates from the US to Japan to Canada and from various iterations of ethnic identity. As Ozeki comments, “[B]eing mixed-race, being hybrid has conditioned me to always assume that I’m never going to be any one thing, that I’m always going to be multiple.” The places, spaces, and lands of ethnicity that she inhabits and creates are global and constantly transforming. 5 In the past, many traditional ethnic texts found their place within the canon of US multiethnic literature because they were written in America or concerned various kinds of hyphenated Americans. Nonetheless, these texts often compel the realization that the US cannot be grasped in bordered, territorial terms. Even traditional works, then, to borrow Hillenbrand’s phrasing, may “reveal the extent to which American literature can only assume its full and requisite panoply of meanings when it is drawn back into the realm of the transnation, that broad corridor carved open by the very migrations that brought the US into being.” In other words, the place of the US is both within and without—both local and global, both bounded by borders and unbounded by national lands. Multi-ethnic US literature certainly has roots in the symbolic concept of the “American.” Yet it also forwards the crosspollination of this concept across national borders, even as it accepts into its figurative and physical spaces new articulations of multi-ethnicity that ultimately renovate the concept of America itself. Works Cited Appiah , Kwame Anthony . Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: Norton, 2006 . Print. Bok , Edward W. The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After . 1920 . 49th ed. New York: Scribner, 1930 . Print. Levander , Caroline F. Where is American Literature? West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013 . Print. United States . Dept. of Homeland Security. Citizenship and Immigration Services . Task Force on New Americans . Building an Americanization Movement for the Twenty-First Century: A Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on New Americans . Washington: GPO, 2008 . Web. 1 June 2013.

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Cutter, Martha J.. Editor’s Introduction: Space, Land, and the Global Environment of Ethnicity, MELUS, 2013, 1-6, DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt043