|dc.description.abstract||As Asian American literature has been constructed as a contested ground to produce and articulate a self-determined ethnic identity, I find the self-referential act of writing and story-telling in these three novels by Asian American women writers carries a profound concern for representing Asian American as subject with agency. By means of self-representation, the Asian American protagonists construct and produce themselves as ethnic subjects that foreground their subjectivity, rather than their subjugation to the existing racial hierarchy. When the novels end with the protagonists’ becoming of writers and their commitment to narrate the difference between Anglo-American and themselves in their writing, these novels seem to imply that the emerging ethnic consciousness of the protagonists and the act of writing have secured the visibility of Asian American and promised the actualization of full citizenship in the US. However, the literary debate on the construction of Asian American identity, which can be summarized as an argument over assimilation versus cultural nationalism, would question the validity of such representation: are these emerging ethnicized subjects uncritically embracing the idea of assimilation and multiculturalism or do they attract readership by self-orientalization? In other words, the debate on assimilation versus cultural nationalism problematizes all forms of subjectivities that are engendered through self-representation in Asian American literature. Thus, to claim that these three novels continue and contribute to the long-term effort of Asian American writers to represent Asian American as subject cannot be simply inferred from the suggestive ending, but has to be further explored and examined. In this thesis, I study the intertwining relation between literary representation and the fabrication and articulation of Asian American subjectivity by close reading of the motif of writing self appropriated in Tan, Kim, and Ozeki’s novels. My thesis is intended to answer the following questions: what kinds of particularized ethnic subjects that these narratives engender, how Kim, Tan, and Ozeki’s narratives produce difference, and what has been ignored and excluded in the new discursive construction of Asian American identity in these novels.
The brief review of the history of Asian American literature and its relation to the construction of Asian American identity, and the study of the coming-of-age narrative versus the debate on assimilation ground my inquiries of the three novels. By juxtaposing Tan, Kim, and Ozeki’s narratives with the history of Asian American literature and its relation to identity politics, I suggest the protagonists’ journeys toward ethnicized American identities carry out the theoretical debates on transforming Asian American identity. Kim, Tan, and Ozeki’s representation of Asian American subjects discloses and narrates the difference of North Asian American community that lies in the umbrella term of Asian American. In the courses of narration, these protagonists transform their racialized bodies or other characteristics of ethnicity from a locus of abjection and discrimination to a site that challenges the dominant white culture. The physical and cultural differences between Asian American subjects and white Americans are decoded and re-encoded into signs of self-determination and self-affirmation. The emphasis on differences as significant constituents of Asian American identity in these three novels reflects and reiterates the heterogeneity of Asian Americans in and for the 90s.
In regards to the question that if the adoption of the genre of bildungsroman in these narratives has already suggested the protagonists’ assimilation to the white American society and constrained the articulation of Asian American subjectivity, my research indicates that the coming-of-age narratives by Asian American writers, to some degree, contest and destabilize the normative construction of American subject formation, and thus, these narratives are interventions in American literary construction of race, ethnicity and gender. Moreover, this thesis emphasizes the contradictions, ambivalences, and indeterminacies that are implied and produced in these texts, rather than examining these new engendered ethnic specific female subjects in reading that sets upon opposition between assimilation and cultural nationalism. In so doing, I want to demonstrate the complexity of the representation of Asian American in some popular novels by Asian American writers, such as Amy Tan, and suggest their narratives cannot be readily disregarded as texts that cater to the dominant white readers and the hegemonic culture. In my reading of the three novels, I find the protagonists’ struggle to acquire their own voice and to become a self-determined ethnic subject provides an analytical frame that does not necessarily conform to the reading of assimilation versus cultural nationalism. The moment that the protagonists become aware of how their racialized bodies subjugate themselves to the interpellation of ethnic subjects in the dominant white society points out the possibility for the protagonists to claim their subjectivity. How to respond to such imperative and seemingly undeniable call in a way that will not let the physical difference pin down their cultural identity, and at the same time, will not eliminate their difference indicates the way that the protagonists conceive of and perform their agency. The narratives’ recourse to the practice of writing as the resolution of identity crises points out the undetermined and unresolved relation between cultural nationalism and assimilation, since their writing carries a sense of ambiguity toward both the American society and their ethnic background. On the one hand, the protagonists endeavor to write on subject matter that concerns their ethnic community, and thus, their act of writing is a means of self-producing and reproducing as Asian American. Their demand to ask for the acknowledgement of their differences implies their challenge to the racial hierarchy in the dominant society. On the other hand, the way that the protagonists narrate their differences is embedded in a series of identification and differentiation between the white American society and their differently ethnicized cultures, and therefore, their representation of ethnic differences, to some degree, has already been “Americanized.” In other words, for the protagonists, in order to claim their Americaness, some differences are too alienated to be included in their construction of Asian American identities--Ahn Joo’s condemnation of the practice of patriarchy in the Korean society, Ruth’s pity on her grandmother and mother’s impossibility and inability to enjoy an American life, and Jane’s disparagement of male chauvinism in the Japanese society. Some differences are those whereupon these particular fictional “ethnicized American-ness” get defined. As a result, the practice of writing is not simply conceived as an authentic representation of Asian American community, but a medium for strategically managing and inventing ever-new Asian American identity.
Even though the protagonists attempt to positively assert their ethnic differences and to claim for specifically defined Asian American identities through self-representation, the contrasting portrayal of women in the United States and in Asia in these three novels carries irresolvable contradictions and incoherences in the protagonists’ journeys toward differently “new” American identities. While the protagonists are adapting stories and narratives pertaining to their national origin as a manifesto of their ethnic differences, their description of the different situations between women in Asia and women in the United States serves to account for their Americaness. In a way, these accounts are like props or foundations; it is upon these “excluded” foreign women that American womanhood gets defined. That is to say, the fabrication of new gendered-ethnic specific identities is presented through the novels’ thematizing of the relation between women in Asian and the United States. Even though the thematic representation of the encounter between the First World feminists and the Third World women does not simply resemble the rescuer-victim relationship in terms of patriarchy in Asia, A Cab Called Reliable, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and My Year of Meats, identify and appropriate women’s subordinated status in Asia as a means to negotiate and fabricate a unique gendered-ethnicized American identity. While the narratives are contesting and reconstructing Americaness represented by Anglo-Americans by means of inserting ethnic and cultural differences, the description of women in Asia as the victims of patriarchy is at the risk of projecting the Oriental gaze on Asians and exaggerating the ideal of America as a country of gender equality. In A Cab Called Reliable, Ahn Joo’s narrative of her aunt and her imagined conversation between her mother and her friend in Korea state the difference between women in South Korea and herself, and praise the liberty and chance for education that the American women possess. In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Ruth laments the suffering of her Precious aunt and her mother in China, and marvels at the idea if her Precious aunt would have ever imagined a good life like hers in America. My Year of Meats blatantly condemns Japanese society as misogynic and patriarchal. To some degree, the textual representation of the three novels is using the existing generational and gender differences to demarcate a line between the approximation of Asian American and Asian subjects. That is, the presentation of feminist concern in these narratives serves as a displacement of the power relation between these Asian countries and the United States, although my reading of the narratives foregrounds the agency of the protagonists to construct themselves as ethnicized subjects. Since the different situations between women in the United States and in Asia are appropriated as a site of differentiation, the question of identity politics that concerns how Asian Americans perceive their differences in the American society is projected as an identification of American or non-American. Even though the contradiction between the image of a liberal and feminist America that the protagonists endeavor to fabricate in their writing and the image of a racially discriminated American society can be discerned in the narratives, the construction of these gendered ethnic identities still inclines to participate in a new multicultural American myth based on the notion of gender liberation.
Even though the narratives’ deployment of a feminist thematic suggests an uncritical integration into the American society that seemingly weakens the narratives’ effort to construct difference as a challenge or a disturbance to the dominant white culture, the representation of the protagonists’ attitude toward North America and Asia emphasizes the sense of ambivalence and indeterminacy. As such, the thematic representation of “East” and “Western” women does not simply signify the encounter between the First world feminists and the Third World women, which implies the emancipation of women from Asian patriarchy, but serves to point to the complicated sociohistorical and political relation between Asia and North America. The parallel reading of these three novels by Asian American women writers of different Asian-national origin has shown that even though the “new” Asian American women identity, to some degree, advocates the idea of multicultural and liberal America, the different portrayals of how the protagonists relate themselves with their ethnic cultures indicate that the literary representation of Asian American in the 90s concerns the relation between the United States and different Asian countries. In this thesis, I have endeavored to show that the products of these narratives of female bildungsroman are not integrated and assimilated, but heterogeneous and hybrid Asian American subjects, by identifying and unfolding the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity that lies in the course of subject formation. However, when closely examined, the effect on constructing and articulating self-determined Asian American subjectivity is weakened by the narratives’ attempt to claim “Americaness” by means of the protagonists’ acculturation of American feminism.||en_US|