Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Expanding Asian American Literature

Go out and read Monkey Hunting by Cristina Garcia. It's a good novel...wait, let me clarify. It's a good Asian American novel.

Yes. A Cuban American writer has written an Asian American novel. I wish I were teaching this year (OK, not really, I am SO GLAD I HAVE THIS YEAR OFF) because I'd include this on the syllabus, along with Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars, and Ha Jin's Waiting and see what my students have to say about whether any of these qualifies as Asian American literature. Because, generally speaking, I (and many others) expect Asian American literature to be written by people who identify as Asian American and who write about experiences and characters which are Asian American. And yet, in all these examples, there is either a mis-match with the author's identity or the identity of the main characters.

I've been thinking a lot about Monkey Hunting and other novels by Cristina Garcia because I'm in the midst of writing a conference paper on the themes of globalization, the Asian diaspora, and this particular novel. And it's quite a departure from the two novels that came before, both of which feature Cuban American women, set largely in Cuba and NY/Florida. But the novel that Garcia just published this year A Handbook to Luck actually continues this theme of globalization since it follows three different characters from three different countries whose stories eventually intersect in Las Vegas (doesn't everything find its way to Vegas? Where else can you find Camelot, the Sphinx, and the Eiffel Tower in one place).

Anyway, Monkey Hunting follows four generations of a Chinese patriarch, Chen Pan, who arrives in Cuba in the mid-19th C. as an indentured servant and eventually escapes the sugar plantation to marry a mulatta woman. The novel takes place in 2 continents, 4 countries, 2 centuries, and references 5 different languages. But more importantly, it really expands the idea of Asian America--to include the Caribbean and hence to de-center English as the Diasporic language to which Asian American literature has always privileged--or put another way, to show the linguistic multiplicity of relying not simply on a binary English-Chinese translation and transculturation but a multiplicity of linguistic and cultural options. In the case of Monkey Hunting, it is Chinese-Spanish-English (with African and indigenous languages thrown in for good measure).

This novel broadens both our conception of what gets defined as "American" and who gets included in various diasporas, Chinese as well as Cuban. So at the end of the day, perhaps the most accurate description of this novel is that it is truly a work of globalization.


JoAnna said...

Thanks for the rec. I've been meaning to ask you for some fiction titles to pick up for night time reading, so this is perfect!

Jennifer said...

There are a few other fiction titles I'd recommend--many of them are listed in the right sidebar (in green) under books that are my current favorites--like Gish Jen's THE LOVE WIFE and Ruth Ozeki's MY YEAR OF MEATS--and one I recently finished that I liked very much was Louise Erdrich's THE PAINTED DRUM. Of course, also given your research interests, there's a new book by Lois-Ann Yamanaka set in 19th C. plantation Hawaii, BEHOLD THE MANY.

Enjoy the reading!
(ps. I own all of these so you can always borrow them from me--and this goes for any other local NC folk who are reading this).

louie said...

Hi there,

I came across you blog while researching resources for the (soon to be launched)Mixed Heritage Center, "an online clearinghouse of information and resources related to the mixed heritage experience." Sorry about the plug:) Anyhow, I noticed that you've included a link to the MAVIN Foundation- Thanks! I'd like to return the favor by linking your blog the MHC. I hope this is ok. Let me know if you'd like to get involved with the MHC project- I think you could really help us identify gaps in content, especially in regard to literature. Thanks,

Louie Gong, MAVIN Board Member

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the plug--and MAVIN is a great site (everyone should check it out) and I can't wait to learn more about the Mixed Heritage Center in cyberspace.

louie said...


THANK YOU so much for helping the MAVIN Foundation develop our literature section for the Mixed Heritage Center. The site launched without a hitch. Let's keep in touch. www.mixedheritagecenter.org