Copyright © 2000 by John Goshert, 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.
I'll learn to be a sore loser. I'll learn to hit people in the face. I'll learn to cry when I'm hurt and go for the throat instead of being polite and worrying about being obnoxious to people walking out of my house with my things, taking my kids away. I'll be more than quiet, embarrassed. I won't be likable anymore. (3)Reflecting the "noise of resistance" that Li finds throughout Chin's work (215), Dirigible's call to action against the stereotype is not inscribed by Chin, as Patricia Chu and Elaine Kim have argued, as an essentially American trait, for Chin clearly finds "American" identity just as empty of significance to the Chinaman as "Chinese" identity. Dirigible's experience is not divisible as the realization of an active American inheritance to be positioned alongside a passive Chinese inheritance, but is, rather, the realization that languages and identificatory features are all part of those multiple and conflictory "mother tongues bein' born to none of my own," that "talk of orphans" recognized by Chickencoop's Tam Lum (8). Because such opposition already suggests a sovereign freedom to choose between two inadequate identities, Dirigible opts for rupture, vowing to be more than quiet. He thus addresses the structural underpinnings rather than the symptoms of that dual personality argument so often forwarded as the effective repository of Asian American identity.
Born? No! Crashed! Not born. Stamped! Not born! Created! Not born . . . No more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic! Drip dry and machine washable. For now, in one point of time and space, as never before and never after, in this one instant of eternity, was focused that terrific, that awesome power of the universe that marks a moment divine . . . (8)Afterwards, Dream Girl concludes, "And then you were born" (8), but Lum's own conclusion is further deferred in claiming a birth that is also death: "Born. Born to talk to Chinaman sons of Chinamen, children of the dead" (8). The history of Asian America has always been for Chin the history of a moment that is divine, yet ultimately indescribable, in which the name Chinaman becomes not only operative for Caucasian America, but effectively interpellates the Chinese (-American). And, for the American-born Chinese, any actually existing Chinese inheritance is, while omnipresent, paradoxically graspable only in the fleeting traces of literature, architecture, artifacts, or people in Chinatown--a location that is itself neither Chinese nor American.
I wanted Sam to see that America was the road. America was a depot, a marketplace . . . American culture was not a fixed culture. American culture was a pidgin culture. American Standard English, the language of newspapers and TV news, was a pidgin English, an ever-changing marketplace-depot language. What we called American culture, like the language, was a pidgin marketplace culture. (295)Whether the American cultural landscape is figured through the highway or the railroad, those figures are employed to keep a running theme of transience in play, despite the historical detritus that Chin polemically refers to as the ground of authenticity. Through the double movement between tropes of authenticity and the coextensive disruption of any stable notion of Chinese American identity, Chin forms a restless and constantly provocative reading of the positionalities--past, present, and future--of ethnic Asians in the United States. Thus, what Chin finds in his meeting with Ben Fee, the prototypical Chinatown Cowboy, is an opportunity to form a different language, one unable to be permanently mobilized as authentic. Concluding his first interview with Fee, Chin states: "Thanks Ben. Ride with this Chinatown cowboy a bit while I run off to rustle strange words and maverick up a language to write this mess in" ("Chinatown" 71).
The theory we are looking for . . . must divest itself from economies of mastery and yet empower the "ethnic" contingently and historically; it must generate critical statements even as ethnicity is affirmed, endorsed, and legitimated; and it must be able to conceptualize the "post-ethnic" as a radical and necessary extension of the "ethnic." (53)Similarly, in the face of his critics who would position him as the proponent of an identificatory totality lodged in Asian American masculinity or history, Chin provokes Chinese American identity, at once arguing for the necessity of knowing the difference between competing histories of the real and the fake ("Come All Ye" ), yet also for the disruptive power of an unfixed "stealth personality" that Chin uses to respond to a test "where the only choice is between one blank that looks like the other" (Bulletproof 6-7).
How can I tell her the Chinatown Black Tigers and the Third World Revolution are all a shuck, a scam to cop War on Poverty chump change, a way to make a name doing the Chinatown Black Tiger Show, calling white people names in the name of the people?In this way, Chin's fictional characters examine notions like ethnic authenticity and political efficacy as games that, while they must be played, are nonetheless best approached by disrupting their supposed efficacy. More importantly, however, when Chin writes of the 1960s in the 1990s, he uses his characters to interrogate the supposed stability of political concepts, especially the notion of essential identity (whether masculine or feminine, white, black or yellow) that was for so many movements of the time the very foundation of efficacy.
. . . Diego and me are all for fun, the Chinatown Black Tigers are a yellow minstrel show, I want to tell Irma. But I don't know how to tell her how to play the game without believing in the Third World Revolution. But there is no Third World Revolution. No Third World Revolution is going to scour the earth clean of all her enemies, whoever they are. (218-19)
The Chinatown Black Tigers are bullshit. So Diego, my friend, the founder and Commandant of the Chinatown Black Tigers, tells her I am bullshit for me. That everything I say on TV news is bullshit. That giving up flamenco guitar for the people is bullshit. That the pledge to hunt down the last living white men to play Charlie Chan and try them before a People's Court is bullshit . . . The Black Tigers manning a fire perimeter around Chinatown at all times is both comic relief and bullshit. (219)If there is a point in Chin's fiction that best describes a different possible approach to take on the totality of his work, it may well be the image evoked above: the enforcement of a perimeter around Chinatown and its subsequent dismissal as both "comic" and "bullshit." One must, it seems, work on both sides of the battle over authenticity: at once posing it in the public spaces of the street, the university, mass media, yet also recognizing that those publicly posed stances are far from presenting a complete conception of the redress of whatever injustices they have faced and continue to face.
perhaps more than any other public institution historically have resisted change. . . Nonetheless, this nation's institutions of higher education have mastered the tactic of coopting movements and swallowing up would-be social activists -- students and faculty alike -- and quickly distracting them from their dissatisfaction with the structure of society. (387)The delimiting of the scholars and the scholarship deserving dissemination into the academic world is a necessary feature of the cooptive forces deployed from both within and without those institutions. Most importantly -- and this returns us to the questions at hand regarding Chin's work -- Banks and Kelly continue, suggesting that the favored scene of marginal area studies (not in Black studies alone), is one in which the "particularists" are dismissed in favor of those who "blur or minimize distinctive aspects of African American history in favor of frameworks like 'the other' or 'people of color' [and] find receptive audiences, but have the undesirable effect of impeding very important dialogues . . ." (388). Likewise, as we see in the comparison between the treatment of Chin and the writing that is awarded institutional legitimacy, his constant dependence upon marking those particular differences and needs of Asian Americans (particularly Chinese Americans), may provide a more accurate, but always deferred ground of his veritable rejection.
Chow finds, in fact, "the cryptic Chinese term weiji, which is made up of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," to be an emblematic description of the irrevocably complex identificatory position of the ethnic Chinese diaspora in Hong Kong. Back
As Chow notes earlier when she describes the need for a non-teleological approach to the borders that define marginality: "Central to the question of borders is the question of propriety and property. Conceivably, one possible practice of borders is to prepare for the new proprietorship by destroying, replacing, and expanding existing ones. For this notion of borders -- as margins waiting to be incorporated as new properties -- to work, the accompanying spatial notion of the field is essential. The notion of a 'field' is analogous to the notion of 'hegemony,' in the sense that its formation involves the rise to dominance of a group that is able to diffuse its culture to all levels of society" (15). It is certainly possible, following this marginality-hegemony circuit, that Kingston's now super-institutional status has been largely due to a foundational notion of a stable marginality (as Rachel Lee suggests below) from which an "other" culture or identity may be singularly deployed. Back
An early public instance of Chin's being taken to task for his analysis of the field of Asian American literature may be found in Myron Simon's response to presentations by Chin and Ishmael Reed at a 1976 MELUS meeting, "Two Angry Ethnic Writers." Back
See, for instance, Homi Bhabha's introduction to his seminal collection, The Location of Culture. He claims form the outset that not only postcolonialism, but the location of the "question of culture" at large lies in the "shiftiness" of the beyond (1). Lodged in a critically mobilized complex of "post" discourses, culture is beyond utter identification in the sense that it "is neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past" (1). We find ourselves instead, Bhabha writes, "in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the 'beyond'" (1; emphasis added). Back
Jessica Hagedorn's anthology, Charlie Chan is Dead (1993), is one of the few attempts to present, without foreclosing around gender, period, or ethnic heritage, as complete a collection of Asian American literature as possible. Significantly, in her introduction Hagedorn recalls the formative experiences of reading 19 Necromancers From Now and the two Aiiieeeee! collections, and furthermore cites them as models for her own organizing strategies (xxv-xxviii). See also Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature (1996), part of the Longman Literary Mosaic Series, for which Ishmael Reed is the general editor. Back
Despite the scare quotes around feminism here, it must be said that this additional extension or translation between the womanism of the 1970s and Kingston's "feminist vision" in The Woman Warrior has been made consistently in Kingston scholarship through the years. It appears, however, as though the feminism implied or described by Kingston attains a level of permanence for the field, in which feminism is an impermeable totality, and is, most significantly, unaffected by the recent moves in deconstructive, or otherwise "post-sovereign," feminist theory. Back
Chin is not the only critic of Kingston who has noted episodes in The Woman Warrior that imply cross-cultural or cross-linguistic translation yet have no historical or linguistic relationship with China. See not only Toming Jun Liu's examination of the touchstone term in her novel, the "talk-story," but also the introductory "No Name Woman" episode. He argues that Kingston's combination of narratives and dominant motifs (including word use) often encourage rather than problematize the perpetuation of a "perverted Western fantasy" about China. Back
For a discussion of this movement, see Derrida's Positions. Although he refers to individual texts here, his statement that the "motif of homogeneity, the theological motif par excellence, is decidedly the one to be destroyed" (64), is compellingly relevant to this discussion of a field whose boundaries are drawn with the notions of homogenous gender, ethnic aesthetic practice, or historical model, each of which is posed as transgressive or oppositional, yet is simultaneously not subject to transgression itself. Back
Most significantly, he does not, for instance, criticize Kingston's China Men or Tripmaster Monkey despite, at least in the latter novel, a narrator's feminist vision that is, I would argue, far more provocative than in her first novel. On the other hand, Chin's criticism of The Woman Warrior has at times been applied as though it is aimed at the totality of her work, often laying the grounds for a quite disingenuous rejection of Chin. See, for instance, Patricia Chu's "Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin, and the Chinese Heroic Tradition." In her essay Chu describes The Woman Warrior as a "provocative feminist revision" of the traditional one (121); she claims that Kingston's work evinces a "feminist vision" (125); perhaps we arrive at the clearest definition of feminism for Chu, at least, when she notes a "distinctively feminist, maternal voice that evaluates and manages Wittman," the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey (132). Back