Modern Language Association 2008, San Francisco, California
Monday, 29 December
718. Re-forming Queer Asian American Subjects: Transnational Crossings, Literary Experiments
9:00-10:15 p.m., Hilton San Francisco
A special session
Presiding: Ruth Yvonne Hsu, Univ. of Hawai'i, Manoa
1. "Dissociation, Sex, and Travels," Paul Y. Lai, Univ. of Saint Thomas
2. "Love and Death in Edinburgh," Martin J. Ponce, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
3. "Queering Asian and American Transnationalisms: 'Gertrude Stein, Love Is Not a Bowl of Quinces,'" Denise Cruz, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
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This panel focuses on contemporary Asian/American novels that feature male protagonists, whose non-normative sexualities and desires are structured by transnational crossings. While not dismissive of the usual themes found in gay male literature (homophobia, "coming out," or the documenting of queer subcultures), Lawrence Chua's Gold by the Inch (1998), Alexander Chee's Edinburgh (2002), and Monique Truong's The Book of Salt take up formal and figurative crossings to foreground the ways that social differences mediate same-sex eroticism. But what is most striking about these novels is their self-reflexive insistence on formal techniques to evoke the complex interior and material lives of their protagonists. The term "re-forming" in our title thus gestures toward the interrelation between two broad characteristics: the ways that these re-formed, multiply-positioned subjects give rise to formally innovative, renovated novels. These novels challenge us to recalibrate our analytical frameworks in order to account for the mutual constitution of subjectivity and literary form.
Our papers build on theoretical and political insights that animated queer Asian/American studies when it emerged in the 1990s. Works like Dana Takagi's "Maiden Voyage: Excursion into Sexuality and Identity Politics in Asian America" (1993), Russell Leong's edited Asian American Sexualities (1996), and David Eng and Alice Hom's edited Q&A: Queer in Asian America (1998) mounted a racial critique of the "whiteness" of queer studies, on the one hand, and a queer critique of the heterosexual presumptions anchoring Asian American studies, on the other. Since then, this field has expanded, particularly in the pursuit of examining the imbrications of nation and sexuality. Texts like David Eng's Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (2001), Martin Manalansan's Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (2003), and Gayatri Gopinath's Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005) interrogate nation-based frames (and nation-states themselves) as demarcating and limiting the boundaries of gender, sexual, and erotic expression.
This panel meditates on transnational crossings to reassert, and simultaneously reassess, the significance of the sexual and the formal as analytical categories for Asian/American literature. Although the terrain of what we might loosely designate as queer Asian/American literature has grown exponentially, scholarship has yet to offer a serious reckoning of the role that literary form plays in these texts. Our transnational framework, then, works to illuminate the unstudied forms and complexities of queer Asian/American literature. For although transnational crossings in Chua, Chee, and Truong’s novels may imagine new spaces for the elucidation of queer desires and subject positions, their formal strategies caution against reading the transnational as easily celebratory.
In "Dissociation, Sex, and Travels," Paul Lai examines the picaresque adventures of the unnamed Asian American narrator in Lawrence Chua's novel Gold by the Inch (1998). As the narrator returns to Thailand and Malaysia to visit relatives, he embarks upon a series of sexual encounters while pursuing an unrequited romantic relationship with a hustler. His narrative emerges through an alternating series of passages in first- and second-person points of view (in which the "you" refers at different moments to the unnamed narrator, the hustler, or the reader). Interspersed throughout the text are excerpts from newspaper articles, ethnographic works, and historical narratives that create a collage of disparate views on Southeast Asia. The effect of these passages and excerpts is both alienating and intimate, drawing the reader into the folds of the narrator's logic and emotions. As a whole, the narrative suggests the dissociation of aspects of the narrator's subjectivity as he struggles to make coherent the radically different perspectives on the world that his subject-position makes possible.
While Lai focuses on Chua's sweeping Southeast Asian geographies, Martin Joseph Ponce's "Love and Death in Edinburgh" considers the transnational in Chee's debut novel by focusing on the ways that allusions to Western cultural traditions (Greek mythology, European opera, Mary Renault's novels) compete with references to Korean history and myth. Broaching issues of child molestation, gay adolescent sexuality, and Asian-white desire, Edinburgh ultimately disentangles pederastic exploitation from adult, consensual homoerotics by having the Korean American protagonist Fee wind up in a long-term relationship with the white man Bridey. Ponce's paper moves beyond these thematics to analyze how Chee's melodramatic story deploys allusion, metaphor, and shifting narrative voices to evoke the unbidden, disruptive, and even deadly force of love and desire. While Edinburgh complicates notions of the "homeland" as the site of recovery, the novel nevertheless draws upon Korean history and myth by likening molestation to the "comfort women" system of WWII, and framing the narrative with the fox-demon story of Lady Tammamo, who self-immolates on her husband's funeral pyre. Examining this cross-cultural intertextuality, Ponce suggests that the Korean references act in counterpoint to the ways that Western traditions are used to sanction intergenerational sex.
The concluding paper builds upon Lai and Ponce's concerns. Truong's The Book of Salt (2004) opens in Gare du Nord, where the first-person narrator, Binh, a queer Vietnamese chef, waits with his Mesdames, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Featuring crossings—of roads, literal and figurative; queer bodies, historical and fictional; their narratives, transnational and diasporic; and intimacies, culinary and erotic—this scene miniaturizes Denise Cruz's interests in "Queering Asian and American Transnationalisms: 'Gertrude Stein, love is not a bowl of quinces.'" Cruz argues that Truong's formal play critiques Stein's fascination with raced and classed others, and questions the writing of Asian bodies as exploited objects (sexual, laboring, or representative). As Binh moves from the Governor-General's mansion in Vietnam to Stein and Toklas's kitchen, he rivals processes of colonial knowledge; the passage of food from his hands to the bodies of Mesdames and Messieurs undoes power dynamics of labor and empire. Similarly, acts of narrative and translation (Binh ostensibly translates Vietnamese, to French, to English) unravel the practices of those who would read, know, and use Binh as exotic, sexual object, or laboring Asian body. Ultimately Cruz explores a larger crossing: she reads the story of U.S. transnational modernism, embodied by the paradigmatic Stein and Toklas, as inextricably linked to networks of queer bodies, imperial histories, diasporic migrations, and globalized labor.
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Denise Cruz's research and teaching at Indiana University question categorical boundaries of gender, sexuality, geography, and chronology that have determined studies of Asian/American and, more broadly, other U.S. literatures. She is also deeply interested in narrative strategies in works of literature and in structures of critical scholarship. Her published and forthcoming work fuse these concerns. "Reconsidering Frank Norris's 'Mark' and 'Mac': Intersections of U.S. Naturalism, Imperial Masculinities, and Desire Between Men" (American Literature, 2006) uncovers same-sex desire in McTeague to dispute the links scholars frequently draw among white hyperbolic masculinity, naturalism, and U.S. empire. She is currently working on a book manuscript that examines works produced by transpacific Filipina/os who, because of the U.S. occupation, traveled between the U.S. and Philippines, held graduate-level degrees from U.S. institutions, and published in both countries. This project theorizes productions of transpacific femininities as the center of Filipina/o nationalist literature. She has also edited and provided introductions to selections of Filipina and Filipino writers in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (forthcoming 2009), and she is producing a scholarly edition of Yay Panlilio's The Crucible: An Autobiography of Colonel Yay (contracted with Rutgers University Press), a WWII-memoir authored by a Filipina-Irish American mestiza.
Paul Lai teaches Asian American literature at the University of Saint Thomas. His book-length project considers sounds as the focus for cultural critique in Asian American studies, taking up objects ranging across anthologized literature, performed poetry, popular music, and standup comedy as sites for the articulation of sounds to Asian American politics and identities. His publications include a contribution to a dialogue on teaching Asian American studies, "It's a Required Course: Asian Americanist Critique Outside the Asian American Studies Classroom," in Journal of Asian American Studies (2006), and an essay, "Autoethnography Otherwise: Challenging Poetics and Re-Meaning Race in Fred Wah's Creative Critical Writing," in Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography, edited by Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn (Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2008). He has previously presented conference papers on literary and cultural texts that explore queer Asian American subjects through the figures and writing of slam poet Staceyann Chin and playwright Diana Son.
Martin Joseph Ponce's main fields of research include Asian American and African American literatures, queer studies, diaspora studies, and U.S. imperialism. His publications reflect these interests: "On Becoming Socially Articulate: Transnational Bulosan," Journal of Asian American Studies (2005); "Langston Hughes's Queer Blues," Modern Language Quarterly (2005); "Framing the Filipino Diaspora: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Criticism," Philippine Studies (forthcoming); "Fictions of Villa: Queer Love, Queer Art" (submitted to a book collection on Asian American literature and gender). His current book project examines the formation of Filipino literature in the U.S. through the frameworks of imperialism and diaspora and argues that the transnational dialogues constituting this discursive field must also be read through a queer lens. At Ohio State, he regularly teaches a special topics course on gay and lesbian literature that offers a comparative view of queer Asian American and African American literature. His paper on Chee's Edinburgh emerges out of this pedagogical context.