Being Asian American in "Diasporic Poetics: Asian Writing in the US, Canada and Australia"

In looking into the similarities between Asian Americans and Asian Australians, I came across this book “Diasporic Poetics: Asian Writing in the US, Canada and Australia” by Timothy Yu. I was curious to see what connections and differences he saw in culture generation in these countries.

What does the term “Asian American” mean?

When the term “Asian American” was first used, it was during the civil rights movement in the late 60s-70s to unite activists of Asian descent behind a common political banner. It became over time, however, quite a “unitary identity” that was homogenous, and essentialized. As Lisa Lowe wrote, Asian American cultural nationalism became a reproduction of US nationalism, and ignored the variation in the material realities of Asian Americans. After that Asian Americanists/studies people began to acknowledge that, for example, not everyone was from China or Japan but from all over Asia and South East Asia, and could not be assumed to have any intrinsic similarities upon coming to America. 

In the introduction to his book, Timothy points out that this shift led to a preoccupation with recognizing people’s origins — acknowledging that a person came from X country, and honoring their history. But for him, that led to re-essentializing people — you must act how we think people from your country act. It also led to a neglect towards what Asian Americans do have in common — the “racialization and coalition-building that originally constituted the category of the Asian American,” which he wants to explore through the concept of “Asian Diaspora.”

He wants to turn his attention to “the common experience of being racialized” in white majority spaces. He says “the notion of an Asian diaspora allows us to make links between the histories of immigration, exploitation, exclusion, and discrimination that characterize the Asian experience in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.” In this, the diasporic experience basically becomes a process that travels from place to place, with commonalities appearing horizontally between locations. 

His approach to diaspora comes via Paul Gilroy’s theorizing of the black Atlantic, embodied in “the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa and the Carribean” in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and ongoing colonialism. For him this site has created a unique cultural formation wherein nationalist concepts of culture are rejected and instead the black diaspora can think of itself through “the special modalities that connect the lives of blacks in the western hemisphere whether or not they are directly conscious of it.” 

Timothy uses this framework to think about Asian American studies. In this book he would like to explore this idea of Asian diaspora through a few bodies of literature (mostly poetry) to draw insight on “the varied articulations and structures of this nascent formation.” Through a read of authors like Fred Wah, Ouyang Yu, and Cathy Park Hong, he tries to understand the development of Asian writing in their respective countries and draws connections between them.

In the conclusion of his book, he mentions the “poetics” of subtle asian traits, and how it is a space of ongoing negotiation of “Asianness” through images, memes, tropes. He asks, “what forms will this emerging diaspora take?” Interesting to look at SAT that way, I’ve never seen it as anything other than a nuisance, but edgy can also be called emergent behavior, isn’t it.

I haven’t seen this book cited that often, and it came out in 2021. Maybe it’ll be cited more in 2023 and after? Is this intro chapter on syllabi? I wonder what Asian Americanists think of this. Maybe they don’t think it’s anything new. I’ve been curious about this here term diaspora and where it can be applied, is it a framework? Is it a culture? Is it a pocket nation? I’m not sure. It’s more helpful to me as an analytical framework, and new. I’ll keep reading.

(Btw I took one of Lisa Lowe's classes, she is so kind and I had no idea the influence she had on these AsAm nerds. Also I interviewed her for this podcast)  


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