Recasting Subjectivities


Hope S. Yu

University of Calgary

Copyright © 2000 by Hope S. Yu, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Sheng-mei Ma. Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 188 pp.


  1. Sheng-mei Ma's Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures explores current theoretical issues in contemporary Asian American studies of denationalization and internationalization. Discovering an ideology entrenched in postcolonial studies which fabricate the Asian immigrant as "other" and recirculate the stereotypes, Ma reveals the Eurocentric perspectives that limit both Asian American and postcolonial scholars in their understanding of Asian American literature. Instead of employing the Western critical framework, Ma approaches the literary works in terms that explore both the conditions of production and reception as well as the thematic tropes that consolidate different texts across the borders of language and nation. Interesting examples that showcase his radical insights into immigrant subjectivities are studies of self-definition and self-empowerment in the works of well-known Asian American authors like Carlos Bulosan and Maxine Hong Kingston as well as works by Yu Li-hua and Pai Hsien-Yung written in Chinese specifically for a Chinese reception. Because Ma's work is informed by different disciplinary theories, his denationalist standpoint is what situates his book at the nexus of "current scholarship on ethnic, postcolonial, and area studies" (1).

  2. The book's first section titled "The Representation of the Asian Other," considers the growing number of Southeast Asian immigrants in the United States and how this presence can be a mine of information and stories. But Ma criticizes the portrayal of the Asian immigrant in many of the Asian American works for "adopting the white gaze and by projecting onto China and Chinese immigrants Orientalist -- often racist -- stereotypes" (25) such as "dehumanizing physical features and pidgin English" (4). The minority discursive practice addressing the dominant American audience is concerned with the specific market that calls for representation of ethnic difference based on the construction of the Asian immigrant as Other or exotic, for creating characters who are either "native informants" or subscribers of "ethnographic feminism." Frank Chin and the other editors of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers exemplify the identity politics of "native informants" who "demarcate themselves from Asians, while empowering themselves in the midst of a white society through immigrant memories and the mythic Asian past" (12). On the other hand are Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses or Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts which Ma cites as examples of "ethnographic feminism" (4). This reflects a discursive strategy portraying native informants "transposed into a feminist, Westernized context" (12) to appeal to the American market demand for the exotic. Ma also adds that Chin and Kingston's works, though seemingly antithetical, share a common literary problematic because they appropriate immigrant experiences to signify ethnicity and then render these a marketable commodity. Ma's highlight on the impact of market constraints on the production of literary works is radical but credible, making it possible for us to see unconsidered connections to political and social aspects.

  3. The second section of the book titled "Immigrant Subjectivity through Eroticism," centers on male texts by John Okada, Loius Chu, Carlos Bulosan and their eroticized representations of white women's sexuality as a form of self-empowerment. They "revise the age-old tactic of constructing male subjectivity by treating women as object and as other" (66). Ma criticizes their attempts as problematic because they replicate the racial stereotypes they purport to challenge and destroy. These writers "have to a large measure erected their subjectivity by tacitly acknowledging and submitting to the hegemony's image of themselves" (77). Since such race and gender problematics have already been critiqued by contemporary Asian American feminists, it would appear that Ma introduces nothing new in this section.

    The third section titled "Immigrant Self-Representation" is an investigation of two kinds of Asian diaspora literature: the overseas student and the nativist literatures which shed light on immigrant subjects whose sensibilities are Chinese and informed by the conditions of a specific social class. Overseas student literature written by Taiwanese authors like Chang Hsi-kuo and Nieh Hua-ling center on the experiences of both émigrés and students in America. The stories are characterized by a nostalgic desire to return to authentic Chinese culture as diasporic characters encounter exclusion as well as a sense of negative integration into the American socioeconomic order. Nativist literature positively portrays rural Taiwanese lives while at the same time critiques the complicit role of the Taiwanese "comprador" class in American imperialism, particularly the mushrooming sex trade that is built by American GIs on leave.

  4. Ma analyzes why this Asian diasporic literature which encompasses postcolonial contexts is relegated to the "cultural ghetto" of Asian departments and sinologists to show how the scholarship of Asian American, postcolonial and area critics straddle both sociopolitical and institutional forces that structure these areas. Following disciplinary demarcations is equivalent to yielding to the residues of imperialism institutionalized in the academe. Although it remains to be seen whether or not subsequent works of Asian American immigrants will be liberated from this "cultural ghetto," the necessity of knowing what forces may inform the emergence of new theories and studies will serve toward the interest of social justice.

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