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.

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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: Rachel Salazar Parreñas and Loc C. D. Siu’s “Introduction: Asian Diasporas- New Conceptions, New Frameworks” (2007)

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Parreñas, Rachel Salazar and Loc C. D. Siu. “Introduction: Asian Diasporas—New Conceptions, New Frameworks.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 1- 28. Print.

Parreñas and Siu begin their essay by offering a three-part definition of diaspora:

(1) displacement from the homeland under the nexus of an unequal global political and economic system; (2) the simultaneous experience of alienation and the maintenance of affiliation to both the country of residence and the homeland; and finally (3) the sense of collective consciousness and connectivity with other people displaced from the homeland across the diasporic terrain. (1-2)

They emphasize that this anthology attempts to shift away from theoretical discussions of diaspora to examine how individuals actually “experience, interpret, and give meaning to diaspora” (2). Parreñas and Siu particularly focus on those works that move beyond the borders of the US nation-state, insisting that these communities and spaces have been problematically overlooked by critics in Asian and Asian American studies. They emphasize that “Asian migration, after all, has always been global” and to simply focus on the United States or Asia in isolation of the rest of the world creates a critical aporia where the experiences of Vietnamese migrants who settle in France, for example, go unexamined. Parreñas and Siu emphasize the need to conduct comparative analyses that operate on two levels, “the place-specific/cross-ethnic” and “ethnic-specific/transnational” (3). They assert that the development of global communication technologies such as the Internet have made it increasingly possible to sustain diasporic communities making the study of diaspora all the more urgent.

At the same time, however, Parreñas and Siu recognize the potential dangers that may emerge as a result of this diasporic focus. They particularly site Sau-ling Wong’s concerns about the “‘denationalization’ of Asian American studies” (4). As a field that historically emerged from the civil rights movement, whose political project was to assert that Asian Americans belong in the US, the shift to diaspora essentially “challeng[s] the United States as the privileged site of analysis,” contradicting the fundamental goals of the movement and potentially endangering the fight for Asian American political rights in the nation-state (5). But Parreñas and Siu accentuate how the Asian American movement was always concerned with transnational politics, struggling to link the acts of racism and injustices within the United States to similar acts across the globe.

They also recognize the problematic label of “Asian” diasporas, which can be overly simplistic and reductive. Yet they assert the productivity of this nominal label because it “call[s] attention to the racializing-gendering process involved in diaspora making” as Asians, no matter where they move, are still classified as Asian (9). Parreñas and Siu further emphasize that Asian diasporas are distinct because Asian governments are actively invested in “producing and sustaining diasporic connections and identifications with their respective homelands,” making them a particularly important subject of study. Parreñas and Siu recognize that these multiple, heterogeneous diasporas operate on many different levels, making an explicit effort to “distinguis[h] those Asians who can move, especially to the West, from Asians who are left immobile by the forces of global capitalism and those who choose not to move because of their privileged access to global capitalism” (11).

In their “Introduction” they emphasize that to be “diasporic requires continual production of certain conditions and identifications” (12). They further note that the experience of diaspora can be incredibly liberating but also painful and marginalizing as diasporic subjects are characterized by their partial belonging in their state of residence and their homeland. Parreñas and Siu additionally assert the need to examine how Asians employ diaspora as a means of resistance to racism and xenophobia. They particularly isolate five major themes that connect the various essays in their anthology:

“the recognition of inter-Asian strife in past and present; the persistence of the nation state; the salience of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; the forces of labor, colonialism and globalization that maintain relations of inequality within Asia as well as Asia in relation to the West; and the centrality of culture” (16).

Annotation: David L. Eng’s “Out Here and Over There” (2001)

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Eng, David L. “Out Here and Over There: Queerness and Diaspora in Asian American Studies (Epilogue).” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 204-228. Print.

In his “Epilogue” Eng discusses how Asian Americans have been historically caught between the two paradoxical stereotypes of “model minority” or “yellow peril,” as “perversely assimilated” or “unassimilable aliens” (204). He emphasizes that Asian Americans’ vexed status in the US nation-state compels an examination of how diaspora may be a more productive theoretical framework through which to rework conceptions of kinship, home, and identity. Eng notes that queer studies also face a similar problematic relationship with “home” as queers are sometimes literally exiled from the nation-state or marginalized in the dominant heternormative society. Eng ultimately attempts to employ diaspora and queer theory to revitalize Asian American studies and open new possibilities for cultural and political affiliations. He notes, however, that while diaspora can be viewed as resisting the rigid boundaries of the nation-state, it can also be used to further nationalistic efforts such as in the case of Israel and must be deployed with caution. Eng further highlights the need to examine Asian American and more broadly American studies in a more transnational context especially within our increasingly globalized world.

In his essay Eng also offers a helpful history of the Asian American studies movement. He asserts that historically the movement was predominantly concerned with achieving civil rights and citizenship status within the US nation-state. Spearheaded to a large extent by the editors of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, the movement rejected the notion that Asian Americans were too foreign in order to claim their belonging in the United States. Eng emphasizes, however, that in the process these editors also “prescribe[ed] who a recognizable and recognizably legitimate Asian American racial subject should ideally be: male, heterosexual, working class, American born, and English speaking” (209). While they attempted to combat the white hegemonic emasculinization of Asian American men, they problematically perpetuated rampant homophobia and misogyny. Eng asserts that this “forced repression of feminine and homosexual to masculine, and of home to the nation-state, is a formation in need of queering” (210-11).

Eng notes that the cultural nationalism forwarded by the Aiiieeeee! editors worked to eradicate the hyphen, which they believe suggested that Asian-Americans have an irreconcilable split identity. Their project was to urgently demonstrate how Asian American identity is whole and something that is “wholly viable within the nation-state” (211). Eng points out, however, that the frequent reemergence of this repressed hyphen in various circumstances call attention to how Asian Americans continue to be perceived as foreign and not fully belonging in the United States. He asserts that instead of furthering this act of repression, critics should perhaps risk the hyphen.

Eng claims that one potential effect of acknowledging the hyphen is to compel scholars to more vigorously examine the “Asian” aspect of Asian American identity, effectively extending critical parameters beyond the boundaries of the US nation-state. Eng insists that this diasporic turn is particularly important with respect to the post-1965 immigrants hailing from “Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines,” whose narratives and experiences do not begin within the nation-state but rather external global locales that were subjected to US imperialism and colonization. He also urges Asian American scholars to examine new emergent identities, particularly the growing group of individuals who do not simply maintain political affiliation with a single nation-state but adhere to a more transnational diasporic existence. Eng offers “satellite people, parachute kids, reverse settlers, and flexible citizenship” as some prominent examples (214). Even in our increasingly globalized world, however, Eng emphasizes the enduring importance of the nation-state because transnational movements and exchanges still have to maneuver through and “within the concrete, localized space of the nation-state” (214).

Eng also asserts the need to expand the critical potential of queer theory beyond its primary association with sexuality, reframing it as a flexible tool “for evaluating Asian American racial formation across multiple axes of difference as well as numerous local and global manifestations” (215). He particularly critiques how gender and sexuality studies have failed to “embrace queerness as a critical methodology for the understanding of sexual identity as it is dynamically formed in and through racial epistemologies” (218). Eng ultimately urges Asian American studies to employ concepts of queerness and diaspora to rework conceptions of identity and home across multiple sexualities and locales.

In his analysis of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, Eng celebrates how the film dismantles the popular stereotype of the Asian American male as passive and effeminate through its presentation of Gao Wai-Tung as a “successful, savvy, and handsome Asian male” with US citizenship status (221). Eng notes that Wai-Tung’s queer and diasporic identity becomes sources of power and strength as he is able to help Wei-Wei, a Third World Asian woman to obtain a green card and enter the United States. Yet the film ultimately shows the complexities in negotiating queer diasporic identities because Wai-Tung has to essentially mask his homosexual practices behind the guise of a heterosexual marriage. His eventual queer impregnation of Wai-Wai also problematically demonstrates how “Wai-Tun’s position as enfranchised citizen of the U.S. nation-state…is made possible only through his subordination of the diasporic Third World woman” (223).

While Eng recognizes The Wedding Banquet as a failed deployment of queerness and diaspora as modes of resistance against the hegemonic heteronormativity and patriarchal conceptions of the nation-state, he offers R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s as a more productive example. The novel explores the ethnic conflicts and differences between the inhabitants of Hawaii, which Linmark suggests are eventually overcome by “an obsessive queer sexuality…that binds them together as a social group with a common sense of purpose” (225). This, Eng asserts can serve as a viable model for real political activism. He further describes how Limark’s characterization of Orlando as the “model minority” student who overcomes his inferior “minority” status by demonstrating his capabilities in not only math and science but also leadership and representation of his fellow classmates, coupled with his queer sexual identity effectively overturns stereotypes and social expectations of Asian American men.

Annotation: Gretchen Woertendyke’s “Romance to Novel” (2009)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Woertendyke, Gretchen. “Romance to Novel: A Secret History.” Narrative 17:3 (2009): 255-73. Print.

In her article, Woertendyke asserts that Sansay’s Secret History stems from the 18th century British genre of the secret history with notable divergences. She explains that secret histories are Old World forms that connected tales of “political subterfuge, corruption and sexual scandal” to the private affairs and actions of political figures (260). Woertendyke provides Delariviere Manley’s The Secret History of Queen Zarah, and the Zaracines as one example of a secret history that introduces readers to “the uncomfortable intimacy between Queen Anne’s bedchamber and her governance of the nation,” where private and public history converge, mutually affecting and shaping each other (260). Woertendyke links Sansay’s Secret History with this tradition because of the author’s employment of real historical figures in the plot of her narrative and particularly, her bold confession that these letters are addressed to the former vice president Aaron Burr, a man who she had an actual affair with during her lifetime. Woertendyke critiques Dillon for analyzing Secret History as only a novel, insisting that Sansay deliberately compels readers to view her text as a “mixed genre” (257). Secret History calls attention to Sansay’s real sexual scandal with Burr as well as the real secret history of female oppression and exploitation often repressed beneath conventional conceptions of the Haitian revolution as a colonial race war. Woertendyke reveals that similar to Manley’s narrative, Secret History accentuates the intimate interrelations between the private and public sphere. She discusses how Clara’s body bears her private history of domestic abuse as well as the public history of colonization as General Rochambeau attempts to conquer her as well as the island, even imposing a trade embargo to prevent her escape. Woertendyke also notes that Sansay’s narrative diverges from the Old World form of secret history because of its “physical distance from a metropolitan center, and its temporal distance from the genre’s nearly comprehensive decline over half a century earlier”  (255). She emphasizes that Sansay’s broad geopolitical considerations offer readers a helpful transatlantic framework from which to consider the Haitian revolution. Woertendyke further suggests that temporally, Sansay’s Secret History introduces a new genre that conflates history and fiction in revealing ways. She, for example, narrates through the voice of two characters, Clara and Mary, to offer multiple perspectives on the various forms of oppression women face.

Like Dillon, Woertendyke concludes her essay asserting that the novel projects the possibility of realizing a feminist utopia in America but I would argue that Sansay’s ultimately resists such conceptions of a closed nation-state. I agree with Woertendyke that the historical allusions and references within the narrative compel an analysis of Secret History as something more than just fiction. She also touches on how Sansay depicts women committing extreme acts of violence against one other but I intend to elaborate on this point further in my own paper.