Annotation: Ruth Y. Hsu’s “The Cartography of Justice and Truthful Refractions in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” (2006)

Peer-Review: 0

Hsu, Ruth Y. “The Cartography of Justice and Truthful Refractions in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits. Eds. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, John Blair Gamber, Stephen Hong Sohn, and Gina Valentino. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2006. 75-99. Print.

Hsu begins her essay with the observation that Karen Tei Yamashita’s work in general “evoke[s] those familiar tropes or landmarks that have been staged in Asian American literature and scholarship,” while de-familiarizing them in new often global, transnational contexts (76). She asserts that the de-familiarization at work in Yamashita’s novels helps to productively distinguish Asian American immigrant experiences from those of the “quintessential American immigrant,” counteracting the reductive homogenization of notions such as the “melting pot.”

In this essay Hsu particularly focuses on the representation of Los Angeles in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, emphasizing that the narratives presented are told from the perspective of historically marginalized, racialized characters and directly challenge the dominant white supremacist perspective of many Euro-American narratives about LA. She also explores how Yamashita “appropriat[es] and redeploy[s] hegemonic tropes of cartography and geography in ways that maps Western colonialism” (77). Hsu claims that Tropic of Orange is structured according to the “physics…of quantum theory” (78). She asserts that characters’ motivations and actions “are ultimately mapped along the key principles of chaos…and fractal theories,” where the linearity of cause and effect is broken and severed (78). Hsu suggests that it is difficult to predict or fully know the consequences of an individual character’s decisions as they “affect the world in ever-widening ripples of power and influence” (79). In this respect, she asserts that Yamashita deliberately “challenges readers’ typical understanding and…experiences of time, space, and an orderly universe” (80).

Hsu goes on to describe how colonizers have deployed cartography to impose “their own grids of reality, in both material and symbolic ways” on indigenous land and lifestyle (81). She argues that Western maps place emphasis on the superficial topographical features of a given environment, while many “non-Western thought systems” acknowledge the multiple layers beneath the surface and understand that there are different, various modes of existence not entirely bound to rationality (85). Hsu connects Western cartography to Enlightenment beliefs that the world is fundamentally knowable, which contributes to the colonizing mentality that the land can and should be quantified, controlled, mastered.

She asserts that Tropic of Orange offers a history to counteract the history of Western colonialism, calling attention to how “people of color have predated white settlers and the ways that indigenous peoples continue to play crucial roles on that continent” (87). Hsu points to one scene where Buzzworm studies a map, recognizing its colonialist legacy as an instrument of politicians, urban planners, etc to organize the city along racial and class lines, segregating the rich and the poor and effectively containing potential riots in certain areas. She asserts that beyond the concrete freeways, characters such as Buzzworm and Manzanar recognize that people are and can be connected in other ways (89). Hsu describes how Manzanar, for example, is able to see the city in layers of multiple maps that depict different temporal and spatial realities simultaneously. He sees the past and present, familiar and unfamiliar spaces converging in highly dynamic ways.

Hsu then goes on to describe the two tables of contents Yamashita offers her reader. The first is a more conventional, linear depiction of the plot that suggests the easy, traceable flow of cause and effect. The second, however, is a Hypercontext Grid which “calls up the idea, in chaos and complexity theories, of open systems, or systems not in equilibrium” (92). She accentuates how this table calls attention to the characters within the novel are “propelled by random events,” their lives converging in completely unexpected, uncontrollable ways (93).

Hsu concludes by asserting that Yamashita offers a new “model of human connectivity” based on quantum physics chaos theory (94):

Not only are we connected or related to people we do not ‘know,’ we have, in a sense always known them. Not only are we connected to so-called strangers in an ever-widening matrix of complexity that defies logical, deterministic mapping, one’s actions change perhaps the texture, or the organization, or the meaning of that matrix, at specific locations, which in turn ripple out to change the totality of this nonlinear structure. (94)

Hsu pointedly distinguishes chaos from anarchy, insisting that the characters’ lives are guided by systems of order but that the trajectory of their paths are not always easily predictable. While she never mentions globalization in her essay, I would argue that the material effects of geopolitical relations and the transnational flows of goods and peoples very much precipitate the chaos in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.


Annotation: Y-Dang Troeung’s “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen'” (2010)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt: Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

Peer-Review: 0

Troeung, Y-Dang. “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 56.1 (2010): 113-135. Print.

In her essay, Troeung argues that Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt challenges the conventional parameters of Asian American studies, pushing theoretical discussions beyond the strict geographic borders of the US nation-state and compelling postcolonial interpretations in a broader global(ized) context. She asserts that Truong evokes in her novel, the controversial debates surrounding the authorship of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as grounds to discuss the even more vexed and problematic practice of writing “postcolonial collaborative autobiographies” (117). Troeung cites Lorraine York’s study of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a work that was certainly produced through the “implicit collaboration” of both lesbian women, but where the power differentials in their relationship has led Stein to be popularly regarded as the principal, if not sole, author (115). In this respect, Troeung suggests that The Book of Salt powerfully recuperates Toklas’ forgotten labors, her genius as a cook and the tedious hours she spent typing up Stein’s manuscripts as important activities that enabled such a work to come to fruition.

Troeung notes that “Toklas’s labor is told to us by Bhin,” drawing a significant parallel between the two of them, emphasizing that such a history can only be revealed by a similarly marginalized domestic (laborer). She goes on to argue that these power differentials in collaborative authorship projects are characteristic of postcolonial collaborative autobiographies where “the white western co-writer is normally accredited as being the real writer/aesthetic genius while the racialized co-writer is either not credited as an author at all or is perceived as a secondary author who simply supplies the raw, authentic material for the autobiography” (117). But despite the similarities she recognizes between Toklas and Binh, Troeung admits that the latter’s status as a poor Vietnamese “illegal” migrant laborer relegates him to an even more vulnerable position.

Another noteworthy argument Troeung makes in her essay is how Stein and Tolkas’ salon in Paris functions as an allegory for the US nation-state. The couple’s commodification and objectification of exotic “others” through writing, recipes and labor can be understood as a stringent critique of US fetishism and consumption of diversity. In keeping with this allegory, if Binh’s entrance into their household is symbolic of his entrance into America, then Truong reveals the hollowness of American ideals of democracy, equality, and liberty. Troeung further notes how Stein and Toklas’ Parisian home also functions as a metaphor for US imperialism abroad. Troeung’s essay has been illuminating on many levels as it inspires me to consider more deftly The Book of Salt’s commentary on the United States and Asian American identity within a more global, postcolonial context.

Annotation: David L. Eng’s “Introduction: Racial Castration” (2001)

Peer-Review: 0

Eng, David L. “Introduction.” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 1-34. Print.

In his “Introduction,” Eng asserts that his book will explore how gender and sexuality influences the racialization of Asian American men, who are often conceived and represented as emasculated figures in the American popular imagination and culture. Eng explains that his title is drawn from Freud’s concept of “fetishism,” or “a psychic process whereby the man attempts to obviate the trauma of sexual difference by seeing at the site of a female body a penis that is not there to see” (2). Substituting the female “other” with the Asian American male, Eng calls attention to the refusal to recognize the Asian American penis that is actually there, leading to what he terms as an act of “racial castration” (2). Eng offers the relationship between Gallimard and Song in David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly as an example to substantiate his theoretical framework. Eng further notes that rather than being fetishistic and singular, this feminized conception of Asian American men has been problematically “normalized” (3).

Eng ultimately attempts to address through his book the oversight in psychoanalytic criticism, where scholars have traditionally ignored the intersection between race and sexuality. While psychoanalysis has been helpfully deployed in feminist and queer studies, Eng challenges its theoretical limitations by proposing new discursive parameters for psychoanalysis as a critical tool in race and more specifically Asian American studies. He stresses the pertinence of this connection by calling attention to how race has always been an important feature of Freud’s work. Eng cites, for example, the representation of the “primitive” in Totem and Taboo, who was distinguished and an “other” to the civilized European society because of his inferior sexual development as well as his “dark origins” which also connotes a “visual darkness” (8). Eng also discusses “On Narcissism: An Introduction” where Freud suggests that individuals are driven to repress their homosexual urges and assimilate to the dominant heteronormative society in order to claim legitimate membership in the family, class, or nation. Freud asserts that “modern, ‘civilized’ European political formations like family class and nation can be understood, in part on the basis of study of colonized subjects figured as pre-modern ‘primitives’” (12). Eng emphasizes that in this framework, colonized societies are posited as homosexual while heterosexuality is implicitly tied with whiteness.

In his book, Eng attempts to essentially address the gap in Asian American studies, where focus on “female subjectivity and gender” has led to an overlooking of “Asian American male subjectivity, and in particular, homosexuality” (15). He cites Immigrant Acts in which Lisa Lowe argues that specific juridical measures have worked to gender Asian American males. Eng notes, for example, how Asian American immigrant males have traditionally worked in professions stereotypically conceived as “feminine” such as “laundries, restaurants, [and] tailor’s shops,” demonstrating how economic class systems further contribute to the gendering of this group (17). Eng also mentions the “antimiscegnation and exclusion laws” that prohibited the immigration of Asian American women, leading to the creation of “Chinatowns as exclusive ‘bachelor communities’” (17). He suggests that these are ultimately “‘queer’ spaces institutionally barred from normative (hetero)sexual reproduction, nuclear family formations, and entitlements to community” (18). Eng therefore asserts that discussion of “‘deviant’ sexuality” is not just important to those individuals who openly identify as “queer, gay, or lesbian” because historical processes and political juridical measures have rendered a much greater part of the Asian American population “queer,” marginalized and excluded from full American citizenship status (18).

In his “Introduction” Eng also offers a helpful history of gender critique in Asian American studies. He challenges the way the editors of Aiiieeeee! attempted to reclaim Asian American male masculinity by reinforcing the same problematic heterosexual sexist paradigms that stimulated the movement in the first place (21). Eng also argues that the localization of major debates about gender and sexuality in Asian American studies behind the figures of Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston has served to further problematically marginalize the homosexual Asian American male from critical consideration.

Finally, Eng concludes that another prominent focus of his book is the psychological ramifications for those Asian American males who attempt to assimilate to the dominant heternormative, masculinist, white racist society. He suggests that this requires the development of complex physic formations where the Asian American male must “simultaneously recognize and not recognize the material contradictions of institutionalized racism that claim his inclusion even as he is systematically excluded” (22). Eng is therefore interested in not only how the dominant white hegemonic society but also how Asian American men themselves are invested and implicated in furthering the stereotype of emasculation.

Annotation: Kandice Chuh’s “Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres” (2006)

Peer-Review: 1

This annotation is for a paper I am currently writing for my ENGL 391W course at Queens College on Science Fiction. I will be conducting an analysis of the science fictional and magical realist elements in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange and the novel’s implications on contemporary discourses about globalization. See my prospectus here.

Chuh, Kandice. “Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres: Navigating Karen Tei Yamashita’s Literary World.” American Literary History 18.3 (2006): 618-637. Print.

Chuh’s article responds to the compulsion in Asian American literary studies to examine “occluded east-west connections” at the expense of neglecting ties between north and south (618). In order to address this significant gap in critical scholarship, she demonstrates the importance of engaging in hemispheric studies as a means to “look within and among but also beyond the Americas… to challenge the discursive centrality of the US” (619). By exploring this north-south dynamic, in relation to discourses about east and west, it becomes possible for us to reexamine and reconfigure our conception of America as a closed national space and instead examine the “Americas” from a broader, more nuanced perspective of its relationship to other communities and peoples. Chuh claims that Yamashita’s fiction provides the ideal model for considering the “impact of hemispheric approaches on Asian American literary discourse and the impact of Asian American literatures on hemispheric studies” because it does not conform to neat spatial or ideological categories (621). For instance, the “centrality of Brazil” to most of Yamashita’s work rejects normative conceptions of the national spaces often associated with Asian American fiction (620). In the article, Chuh analyzes in particular Yamashita’s Brazil-Maru and Circle K Cycles, which involve significantly different characters, histories, and geographies, from those that I will explore in Tropic of Orange, but many of the arguments she makes about the formation of global communities and identities remain relevant to my project. For instance, drawing upon Alex Woloch’s study, her identification of Yamashita’s characters as “character-spaces,” in which “individual importance and motivation” are relegated to the background “in favor of assessing how their dynamic interrelations… constitute the narrative,” provides an interesting means to interpret the “Hypercontexts” grid that opens Tropic of Orange as well as the novel’s complex interweaving of narrative voices (626). Finally, I would also like to extend Chuh’s consideration of the intersection between Asian American literature and hemispheric studies towards a more comprehensive analysis of how Tropic of Orange’s particular hemispheric and global perspective collapses boundaries between distinct genres and in doing so, intervenes in current discourses on globalization.