In the last few decades in the United States, so-called “minority literatures” have begun to surface from beneath the various social and economic repressions which had previously denied them access to most printed media. First blacks and Jews and, more recently, Chicanos, Native Americans, and women have been given, or have taken, some part in the huge publication deluge which pours from this country every year. As a result, educators in literature have begun to understand that the great books tradition of Western civilization is but one voice in the cultural heterogeneity that is modern America. Minority writing can no longer be considered minor since, collectively, it expresses the multitude of experiences of the numerical majority, a majority that was previously made silent through forces of law, education, and material opportunity.
Despite these advances, one minority group, Asian-Americans, has, until the last few years, been surprisingly reticent about its unique experiences and contributions. Even considering that they have been on this continent for fewer years (about 180) and in smaller numbers (about one percent of the total population) than most of these other minorities, their slight publications need some explanation. The extent and reasons for this lacuna are most evident in the Chinese-American community.
Until 1970, the number of well-wrought book-length publications in drama, poetry, or prose by this segment of society was probably less than ten. While special problems of language and culture are partially responsible for this scarcity (in that the dominant languages here are Occidental), two other factors are perhaps more important even if they are not unique to Chinese-Americans.
Before the twentieth century the Chinese in America were not only segregated geographically into legislated Chinatowns but also, and as a consequence, linguistically. After this, however, access to print was restricted more by preexisting models of Chinese than by a relative ignorance of English. Books and iconography about Chinese were as popular as they were unfair. Stereotypes abounded in certain characters of the coolie, the laundryman, the servant, or the opium dealer. The image of queued Chinese in black silk persisted well after World War II even though they were not worn after 1911. These generic misrepresentations were often joined by famous fictional characters such as Charlie Chan, Chop-Chop, and Fu Manchu. Thus, modern Chinese-Americans found their literary slot already occupied by prejudiced works which were not easily dislodged by their own oral tradition and knowledge of the depth, beauty, and age of Oriental culture.
The other important factor limiting Chinese-American literary production might be thought to be their very assimilation into the mainstream of white culture. It is this image, however, and not its projected reality which seems to be the culprit here. Again, the stereotype forced a silence upon this group.
Asian-Americans have been mistreated, tortured, and killed in the United States since their first real immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, but it has been popular since the Korean War to represent them as productive, servile, diligent members of the white community. While this largely fictional assimilation is no longer made physically impossible by geographic segregation, the pretense of the melting pot whitewashes the special history and culture of this subset of society. Nor is this fiction totally benign: the image is used as a role model both to denigrate and manipulate other minorities. It also functions as a script for Asian-Americans themselves. They realize that compliance assures survival and relatively little interference. Thus, this device is another cork in this group’s capacity for self expression: they are co-opted by the image of assimilation into the silence of real assimilation.
This background to the Chinese-American experience is important here because this tension between white myths about orientals and the contradicting historical facts has become a central theme in much of this group’s modern writing. Writers such as Frank Chin, Diana Chang, and Maxine Hong Kingston form a now vociferous middle generation of Chinese-Americans who can see back both to original Chinese culture and past white abuses, as well as “foreward” to the images and realities of the present. As a result their writing tends to be Janus faced. They write, however, not about an identity in crisis because of its ambiguity but rather find in this plurality the material for creativity and flexibility. They, like the Japanese-American Nisei (first American-born generation), form a biological and a conceptual bridge between the old and the new.
Maxine Hong Kingston is one of the best of this middle generation of Asian-American writers. She was born in Stockton, California, in 1940—the same year and the same city as Frank Chin. She has been and continues to be a teacher as well as a writer who has published in Hawaii Review, The New York Times, Viva, The New Yorker, American Heritage, and New West. Her first novel, The Woman Warrior:...
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