Asian-American Immigrant Literature and Highlighting Their Culture

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A cursory glance at the scientific discourse on migration literature in Europe of the last two decades shows that it is increasingly heralded as a ‘new world literature’. Migration literature transcribes the experience of everyday life in a globalized world and reflects on the challenges of existence in multicultural and multilingual contexts. This shift towards world literature, which some might read as yet a new turn in the naming of writing by migrant writers, therefore deserves to be looked at more closely. Migrant literature is either written by migrants or tells the stories of migrants and their migration. It is a topic of growing interest within literary studies since the 1980s. Migrants are people who have left their homes and cultural settings and who started a new life in another setting that is, in most cases, initially strange to them.

The aim of this type of literature is to illustrate and analyze the different narratives of the migrant’s social, political, cultural and economic aspects of life in their alien host societies. It often focuses on the social conditions of the migrant’s country of origin which prompts them to leave, their experience of the migration, the reception they receive in the host countries on arrival, on hostility and discrimination and on the sense of rootlessness and loss of identity which is a result of displacement and diversity in culture. This means that “the literature of migration,” to use Leslie Adelson’s term of art, would have to include all works that are produced in a time of migration or that can be said to reflect on migration. Whether one privileges social contexts or literary content, it is no longer principally a matter of distinguishing immigrant from nonimmigrant authors.

While colonialism does provide a setting for migration, not all postcolonial literature is about migration. At the same time, not all migration takes place during a colonial setting. It should be acknowledged that postcolonial theory functions as a subdivision within the even more misleadingly named field of ‘cultural studies’: the whole body of generally leftist radical literary theory and criticism, and various feminist schools of thought, among others. What all of these schools of thought have in common is a determination to analyze unjust power relationships as manifested in cultural products like literature (and film, art, etc.). Practitioners generally consider themselves politically engaged and committed to some variety or other of liberation process.

Postcolonial theory is applied to political science, to history, and to other related fields. People who call themselves postcolonial scholars generally see themselves as part of a large (if poorly defined and disorganized) movement to expose and struggle against the influence of large, rich nations (mostly European, plus the U.S.) on poorer nations (mostly in the southern hemisphere). Post colonialism played a huge role in shaping the overall image of the 19th and 20th century. It is also an important element in what we now know as migrant or new world literature. This paper aims at analyzing what exactly is Asian-American literature, its early works, and a comparison between two Asian-American works of fiction, Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin and The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini.

Early Asian-American Literature

For a very long time, Asians in America have been viewed as newcomers to the country and destined always to be outsiders. While the antiquity and greatness of their countries of origin were often touted, Asians themselves who crossed boundaries and set themselves up as immigrants to the United States were greeted with scorn. The following is an example of this attitude, published in 1904 in the widely read and much-respected Century Magazine: “These Orientals have a civilization older than ours, hostile to ours, exclusive, and repellent. They do not come here to throw their lot with us. They abhor assimilation, and they have no desire to be absorbed. They mean to remain alien; they insist upon being taken back when they are dead; and we do well to keep them out while they are alive.” Under these circumstances, it proved difficult for Asians in America to get good reader popularity for their work. They had to navigate through complex spoken and unspoken expectations about what they could and couldn’t write and how they could write.

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The first Asian –American writer who was fiercely sympathetic to common Chinese immigrants in Canada and the U.S. was the Chinese-American author Edith M. Eaton, under the pen name of Sui Sin Far. Her short stories and articles, first published in 1896, painted an accurate picture of the struggles and aspirations of the first Chinese immigrants in America who worked hard, menial jobs, lived in Chinatown enclaves, and endured racist taunts and violence. Her last collection of short stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), was rediscovered and republished in 1995.

Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s autobiography, A daughter of the Samurai (1925) introduced her readers the Japanese immigrant experience, shown from an upper-class point of view. Her book chronicled her return to Japan along with her daughters after immigration, followed by a return to American for her children’s education. This was something not uncommon among Japanese Americans. Younghill Kang’s The Grass Roof (1931) was well received, in part because immigration to America was the goal of the novel’s Korean protagonist. As the American public came to sympathize with China in its conflict with Japan, Lin Yutang’s work My Country and My People (1935) became a bestseller. Even H. T. Tsiang’s critical novel And China Has Hands (1936), about the oppressed life of a Chinese laundryman, saw publication. Mainstream American taste for Asian American literature turned sour when Younghill Kang’s second novel, East Goes West (1937), looked critically at European American society from an educated Korean American immigrant’s point of view. Decades later, however, the work was considered an early Asian American classic.

The attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, brought America into World War II. It also brought about significant changes in the portrayal of the Asian –American community as it was reflected in their literature. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, things began to change as Asian American authors rebelled against the style and themes of much of the classical Asian-American literature. They rejected these works by claiming that they promoted subservient immigrant assimilation to the point of cultural self-denial. Gradual changes in the immigration laws during the postwar era opened new doors for immigrant Asians. The economic developments of several Asian countries contributed vastly in breaking the deeply ingrained racial perception. Although Asians are still continued to be viewed as perpetual foreigners, this view is challenged by the underlying logic behind it. The post-1965 immigrants contributed to this by taking up writing and making a major impact on contemporary literature as a whole.

In the introduction to Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology (1971), David Hsin-fu Wand asserts the importance of Asian American literature to American literature as a whole before addressing the question, Why have these works been ignored? He writes, the neglect of Asian-Americans in American literature can thus be traced to the linguistic and cultural barriers of early Oriental immigrants; to the whites’ indifference to or discrimination against ethnic minorities (as shown in the history of United States immigration); and to the myth of the melting pot, in which all “alien” people are expected to shed their racial and ethnic identities and be assimilated as Christian and “loyal” Americans…. But Asian-Americans have distinct physical characteristics which bar them from total assimilation. And some of them are too proud to renounce their cultural heritage, the heritage of their ancestral lands. The recent awakening of black consciousness in the United States further convinced some Asian-Americans to seek their ancestral roots.

This highlights and places emphasis on the existence of writings by Asian-Americans, their importance to not only their own culture, but also the American culture. Creative writing is granted enormous powers to undo oppressive representations, to shed greater light on structural inequalities, and to make possible the acceptance of a more authentic self that is at once marked by racial difference but not degraded by it.

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