Angry Asian-American Anthology
IN the United States, the old belief in assimilation - the so-called "melting pot has fallen into disfavor. Members of minority groups have taken a long, hard look at their parents' or grandparents' eagerness to shed a distinctive heritage in the rush to become "Americanized." But what happens when the drive toward ethnic identification - toward the proliferation of special interest groups, each demanding its share of a shrinking pie - is not being counterbalanced by a correspondingly strong drive towardunity, cohesion, and cooperation? Such were the thoughts that went through my mind as I read Frank Chin's long, rambling, rather strident essay, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," which opens the new collection of Chinese-American and Japanese-American literature that he has edited, along with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. "The Big AIIIEEEEE!" is a sequel to their earlier (1974) collection of Asian-American writers entitled simply "AIIIEEEEE!" Both titles refer to the crude caricature of the screaming yellow man that was a staple of white popular culture in the United States. The purpose of an anthology like this is to allow us to hear Asian-Americans speaking for themselves, in their own voices. One of the most interesting features of this particular anthology is the wide range of materials it draws upon. There are poems, short stories, excerpts from novels like Joy Kogawa's "Obasan" and Louis Chu's "Eat a Bowl of Tea," an excerpt from a play: Wakako Yamauchi's "And the Soul Shall Dance," and captioned drawings from Taro Yashima's autobiographical picture book, "Horizon Is Calling." There's even an entire one-act play, "Laughter and False Teeth," about life in one of the concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Broadening the term "literature" to include almost any variety of written or printed material, the editors offer us "An English-Chinese Phrase Book" compiled in 1875 by Wong Sam and assistants, which was widely used by Chinese immigrants trying to make their way in the alien world of the American West. There is also an excerpt from Michi Weglyn's pioneering study, "Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps." The common denominator of these wide-ranging selections is the way in which they challenge stereotyped perceptions about Asian-Americans, whether it be the stereotype of the crafty heathen Chinese promulgated by white racists in the 19th century or of the reformed, Christianized, eager-to-be-Americanized Oriental so dear to the hearts of Western missionaries then and now. The Asian-American that Chin and his associates present in place of this passive little brother to the white man is the proud product of a vital and venerable civilization: a self-reliant "soldier" modeling his or her actions on the heroic Confucian tradition. The power of many of the selections is undeniable. The poems of early Chinese immigrants detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay speak volumes: I roam America undocumented. White men blackmail me with many demands. I say one thing, and they, another; I want to complain of injustice, but my tongue stutters. At a loss for words - I wrack my brain for a solution, to no avail. Thrown into a prison cage, I cannot fly away. Don't you think this is cruel? Don't you think this is cruel? Nothing could be more different in tone and form from these lyrical outbursts than Weglyns's brilliantly researched expose of US concentration camps, yet both are part of the same need to speak out against injustice, even when no one seems inclined to listen. The editors unabashedly - indeed, proudly - present this book as a kind of political weapon. Both the brief "Introduction" and Chin's long, homiletical essay "Come All Ye Asian American Writers" are marked by an unpleasant blend of self-righteousness coupled with vehement attacks on those Asian-American writers whom these editors consider "fakes," including Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Betty Lee Sung. Not only does Chin berate Kingston for presenting false versions of Asian fairy tales to suit her own purposes (which may indeed be a valid complaint), but he also continually charges her - and whomever else may not share his political viewpoint - with betraying her people and her heritage. According to Chin, the only Asian-American writers to be accepted by mainstream publishers and readers are those who espouse what Chin calls the "Christian social Darwinist" view of Asia as a backward, morally bankrupt place from which the better sort of Asian is happy to escape. Writers like these he denounces as "fake.Real" is his term of praise for writers whom he judges to be loyal to their heritage. Chin constantly judges the actions of people in other times by today's standards of ethnic self-assertion. He misinterprets the drive of some Asian-Americans towards integration, assimilation, and intermarriage as a call to "racial suicide," when there can be little doubt that it was seen at the time (and still can be seen) as a minority's refusal to allow itself to be segregated and ghettoized. Fortunately, Chin's harsh propensity for separating sheep from goats, "real" writers from "fake," has not prevented him and his fellow editors from assembling a rich and varied collection of writings that go far beyond the constraints of political correctness that his essay tries to impose on them.
Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.