Annotation: Rachel C. Lee’s “An Asian American Cultural Production in Asian-Pacific Perspective” (1999)

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Lee, Rachel C. “Asian American Cultural Production in Asian-Pacific Perspective.” Boundary 2. 26.2. (1999): 231-254. Print.

Lee begins her essay discussing how Asian American scholars must grapple with the pressures of globalization to reconcile the field’s foundational US-centric national focus with transnational forces and concerns. She notes how Asia-Pacific Rim scholars also assert the need to explore “the meanings of Asian American cultural production to the formation of alternative imagined communities ‘created by travel and trade, and…mobilized in dispersion’ rather than primarily through settlement within individual nation-states” (232). In her essay Lee specifically explores Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, which she argues speaks directly to these field contentions.

She begins by offering helpful background on how the concept of “Pacific Rim” was initially derived as foil to NAFTA. Lee notes that while Pacific Rim evokes a definite geographic locale, it is “defined by an economic logic specifically designed to transgress national borders,” thereby “undermin[ing] the persuasiveness of territorial nationalism (235). Lee goes on to cite a passage from What Is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea where Arif Dirlik argues that in the Pacific region, “[e]mphasis on human activity shifts attention from physical area to the construction of geography through human interactions” (236). For the purposes of my own paper, I argue that this is particularly true with respect to Yamashita’s other novel Tropic of Orange, where “human interactions” shaped by political and economic forces such as NAFTA precipitate the literal morphing of the geographic topography of the Americas.

In her discussion of Through the Arc of the Rainforest Yamashita asserts that the novel is a “respons[e] to the unsettling effects of globalization or time-space compression” (238). Lee relies on Doreen Massey’s definition of “time-space compression” which she describes as the “movement and communication across space, to the geographic stretching-out of social relations, and our experience of all this” (238). Lee notes how Yamashita sets her novel in Metacão, a fictional territory that calls attention to the fiction of geographic borders in general, especially in a globalized world where transnational flows and exchanges repeatedly transgress those boundaries. Lee suggests that borders are then merely political national constructions used to regulate the flows of capital, people, goods, culture, etc. She calls attention to how “heterogeneous national, racial and cultural components” converge at Metacão, which is represented through a highly diverse cast of characters. Lee emphasizes how Yamashita takes pains to depict “globalization as a multiform” rather than exchanges between the East and West.

Elaborating on the novel’s relation to Asian American studies, Lee asserts that the Japanese immigrant character, Kazumasa Ishimaru emerges as “a subtle parody of a familiar archetype, the Chinese American railroad worker” (242). Lee discusses how Asian American scholars have traditionally deployed this history of Chinese immigrant involvement in the construction of the transcontinental railroad as an argument for Asian American enfranchisement and belonging in the US. She claims that by reworking this archetype, from Chinese to Japanese immigrant and manual track laborer to more advanced position of railroad technician and inspector, Yamashita articulates the need and means for shifting the field of Asian American studies from a narrow national perspective to trans- and even post-national considerations. Lee writes:

[I]n a time when national utitilies are fragmenting into competing capitalist units, when building the infrastructure is less important than downsizing to maximize profits, when railways signify less as patriotic achievements and more as a ‘lucrative travel business,’ crafting a national hero is to create a deliberate anachronism, a figure who, despite having saved ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives’ (TAR, 10), is outplaced.” (245)

Lee emphasizes that Yamashita does not entirely abandon the history of the railroad but rather demonstrates how its construction and the act of laboring on the railroad is infused with new meaning and implications within a contemporary globalized context.

She asserts that this Japanese immigrant character’s presence alongside a multicultural, multinational, and hybrid cast, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest differs from other conventional works of Asian American fiction, suggesting that the forces of globalization compel narrative expansion beyond a solely Asian or Asian American focus. Lee claims that Yamashita is more concerned with the emergence of “alternative communities…composed of nationally and racially heterogeneous social actors who are globally interrelated by virtue of worldwide media links, touristic travel across borders, international finance networks, transnational trade, and a shared ecology” (247).

Lee finally concludes her essay by suggesting that resistance against the convergence of Asian American Studies and Asia-Pacific Rim Studies stems from overlooked “class cleavages” rather than territorial disputes (250). She suggests that while Asia-Pacific Rim scholars celebrate the cosmopolitan, “transnational Asian capitalist” that form comprise of an elite entrepreneurial class, Asian American scholars will not embrace the field unless more attention is given to “marginalized, even disenfranchised, subjects in the basin” (251, 250). Lee asserts however, that the realities of our globalization demonstrate that Asian American scholars can no longer cling to their “foundational subaltern identity politics” and must come to acknowledge the economic privilege of some Asian/American groups in spite of their racial marginalization, which Yamashita powerfully depicts in her character, Kazumasu. Lee finally leaves us with the observation that Through the Arc of the Rain Forest “advocates a forgetfulness of traumatic monoracial politics in order to enable the imagining of hybrid—and even pleasurable—spatial, racial, and cross-class convergences” (254).

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