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Conversations: Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Posted by litdaily on May 25, 2011

SD: In our current political climate, Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, resonates with the trepidation, ambiguity, and tension that are characteristic of our post-9/11 world.  Hamid situates the protagonist of his first-person narrative, Changez, in a unique globalized and problematic space between America and Pakistan where the national and international boundaries become complicated by capitalism and terrorism. Changez disturbs these spaces by whispering to his readers in an intimate voice while physically sitting in a modern café in Pakistan and reminiscing about his life in the United States as a “janissary” of the American Empire. The rational delivery of his narrative, which at various times creates joy, suspense, thrill, shame, and terror, aims to disrupt not only space and time through a non-linear narrative, but also challenges readers to question the truth.  Certainly, he is an unreliable narrator but one that draws in his audience and dares them to believe an alternative truth through the very act of questioning itself.

Do you think that Changez’s voice disrupts boundaries in such a way so that American audiences might be able to question right from wrong, Pakistani from American, capitalism from terrorism?  Does the doubt that he creates through his act of story-telling powerful?

SM: Hamid makes the reader re-think the usage of the word “fundamentalist.” Changez is a “fundamentalist” because his profession is to evaluate the “fundamentals” of American corporations. He is not particularly interested in religion, and in that sense he is not a religious fundamentalist. His allegiance, therefore, is not to Islam but to a Pakistan that he thinks has been used by America as a pawn in promoting American interests at the expense of Pakistanis’. Changez says the following to the American across the table: “A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers” (Hamid 178). These lines suggest that according to Hamid, the “war against terror” is not so much a problem of religion but a political problem.

This play on the word “fundamentalist” is not a gimmick. Rather it points to that significant argument you make about the book’s connection between capitalism and terrorism. Changez belongs to a class of Pakistanis whose heyday was in the days of British colonialism. His grandfather and father both had been educated in England. But the promise of modernity that British colonialism was supposed to herald had fallen apart, and now “the money simply was not there” and Changez’s family is in a state of decline (Hamid 10). Changez is not poor but he dreams of reclaiming the promise of upward mobility that his family had once been assured of by getting a degree from Princeton and taking up a job at a New York financial valuation firm. “I felt I was entering in New York the very same social class that my family was falling out of in Lahore,” Changez says (Hamid 85). But when Changez’s American dream falls into ruins after 9/11 and he realizes his own complicity with the American empire as a part of its financial machinery, he goes from being one kind of “fundamentalist” to the other. In American perception, he is a fundamentalist solely because he is anti-American and not due to any religious fervor or belief in violence.

You taught this book as a part of an Asian American Studies class. What was that experience like? Considering the tensions between the terms “South Asian” and “Asian American,” how does Hamid’s novel prompt a re-thinking of the relationship between these terms?

SD: My students really enjoyed this text and felt that they could relate to Changez.  Because the narrative reads like a thriller and keeps its audience enthralled by constantly playing with the dubious figure of the terrorist, they felt that the author illustrated the reality of American empire.   For a significant portion of their own personal lives, “terrorism” and “terrorist” has been a central, pervading concern, a backdrop against which they have lived in.  The other texts we read in class, such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Kim Ronyoung’s Clay Walls, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men illustrated tensions regarding assimilation and alienation prior to 1965.   Most of the students felt that “assimilation” has ceased to be an issue for Asian Americans and regardless of whether this can be debated, it makes one wonder what direction Asian American literature and politics is headed.

This leads me to your second question regarding “South Asian” and “Asian American.”  American academe still has a hard time incorporating Asian American into American literature.  This issue is reproduced with the inclusion of  “South Asian” into “Asian American.” Some might argue that the Asian American canon doesn’t easily include “South Asian” because there was very little South Asian migration and literary production into the United States prior to 1965.  The dramatic growth in the South Asian scholarship and migration, however, complicates the issue of inclusion/exclusion and one way that academy has incorporated “South Asian” into its curriculum is through other titles, such as “Postcolonial.”

How would you classify Hamid’s text? Would you call it “American” literature, “South Asian” literature, “Asian American” literature, or “Postcolonial” Literature?  Do we define “American” by the race of the author? Shouldn’t Hamid’s novel be considered American literature since it is set in U.S. and uses the American imaginary?

SM: I think the events of 9/11 particularly situate South Asians in the specific historical trajectory of racial formation that has defined Asian presence in America: the external “enemy” as the insider “alien”. Lisa Lowe writes that America’s relations with Asia and Asian immigrants have followed a distinctive logic whereby “American orientalism displaced U.S. expansionist interests in Asia onto racialized figurations of Asian workers within the national space” (5). This recurring pattern of history for groups as diverse as the Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese and, after 9/11, the South Asians, makes the case for these groups to be studied under the category “Asian American.” South Asian immigration might have diverged from the pattern followed by other Asian American groups prior to 9/11, but the post-9/11 connection between U.S. war and intervention in Af-Pak region and racialization of South Asian American men as terrorists, a connection that is at the core of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, strengthens the argument to study Hamid’s novel as tracing the broader pattern of Asian American history and its challenges to the inclusionary narrative of America.

Works Cited:

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

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Conversations: Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tropic of Orange”

Posted by litdaily on March 9, 2011

SM: I first read Yamashita’s book Tropic of Orange during my first semester as a graduate student. Every time I have read it again, I have experienced new pleasures in its complexity. Yamashita’s deeply entangled web of the narratives of seven characters spanning seven days belies the order and coherence of the grid of “Hypercontexts,” with which the book opens up. The book presents complex, overlapping and ever-changing mapping grids as the dominant metaphor for the American multicultural city in the moment of globalization. Manzanar has the following vision of the city: “There are maps and there are maps and there are maps. The uncanny thing was that he could see all of them at once, filter some, pick them out like transparent windows and place them even delicately and consecutively in a complex grid of pattern, spatial discernment, body politic” (Yamashita 57). If the global city’s realities are magical, how do we read this novel: as a realist or a magical realist representation?

SD: There are many scholars who argue against a dichotomous and antithetical relationship between the real and magical.  For example, Kum Kum Sangari in “The Politics of the Possible,” makes the connection between the real, the marvelous, and the truth. She says: “If the real is historically structured to make invisible the foreign locus of power, if the real may thus be other than what is generally visible, if official versions are just as visible and visibly ‘real’ as unofficial versions, and if even the potentially real is a compound of the desired and the undesirable, than marvelous realism tackles the problem of truth at a level that reinvents a more acute and comprehensive mode of referentiality” (163).  This statement can easily be applied to Tropic of Orange where the distinction between real and marvelous or magical cannot be made with regards to the experience of internment, mobility, labor, and imperialism.  Manzanar, for all purposes, simultaneously exists within and outside of the grid due to the historical and official invisibility of internment.  The lack of linearity that his figure invokes alludes to a different kind of historical consciousness.

SM: It is interesting that the elements that make readers think of the novel as a magical realist one are manifested in its spatial representations: from the above example of Manzanar’s ability to visualize multiple maps at the same time, to Rafaela’s experience of the “elasticity of the land and of time” as she sees Gabriel’s property walls as “not straight,” and Arcangel’s pushing the Tropic of Cancer “ever northward” by means of “hooks and cables” in his skin (Yamashita 150, 152, 212). Parallel to your point that Yamashita does not portray the marvelous and the “real” as opposed categories, I would also suggest that in her representation of L.A. as the global city, she refuses “utopia” and “dystopia” as binary opposites. The freeway crisis in the novel illustrates this point. The space of the freeway is crucial to the geography of a city that wants to be a serious participant in globalization (Yamashita 82). When the freeway is brought to a standstill by an accident that brings together disparate plot elements, it is understood as chaos and disorder of dystopia by the car owners who are forced to abandon their cars and incur economic loss. But what is seen as crisis by the state and the wealthy is seen as utopia by the homeless, for whom the crisis presents an opportunity to claim for themselves the urban space that is responsible for their displacement and homelessness.

Yamashita’s compelling characters come from various racial backgrounds. But I wonder if it is taught as much in other ethnic studies courses as it is in Asian American Studies courses. Is there something in the text, besides the author’s racial heritage, that marks the text as Asian American? Also, Yamashita represents a moment when multiculturalism was still cool? Do you think we are beyond that moment in our culture and literature?

SD: Your insightful inquiries regarding multiculturalism and its tangibility in the present moment has prompted me to reconsider the years since Yamashita published her novel.  In the context of the Pacific coast, multiculturalism may still resonate because the population stems from a history of internal colonization, regional imperialism, and border crossings.  The sheer visibility of these histories in that region may positively impact the literary and cultural production that invokes images of Latino immigration into the United States. Recently, Alex Rivera produced a film titled, Sleep Dealer (2008), which deals with virtual labor and a global digital network that cuts across borders.  We will continue to see these kinds of representations about the influx of different kinds of subjects in the United States; however, I don’t think that these representations will necessarily lead people to think about their linkages with multiculturalism.

Also, precisely because of varying histories, certain cultures are granted more space in the American imaginary.  While Yamashita focuses heavily on trafficking between Mexico and California, I don’t think she is widely read in Latin American courses. This is certainly a problem of stereotyping where the author’s ethnicity hinders the reception of the novel.

Although I hope that we are not “beyond” multiculturalism in the United Sates, cultural and ethnic differences seem to either be contained within rigid structures or negated completely.  Isn’t this exactly what Yamashita counters with the powerful image of an orange that links different geographical spaces and people across non-linear time?

Works Cited:

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.

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Gish Jen’s Novel “World and Town”

Posted by litdaily on December 4, 2010

In Gish Jen’s new novel World and Town, the world comes to an unrealistically pristine New England town in the form of the arrival of a poor Cambodian refugee family. The book focuses on the relation between Hattie Kong, the immigrant daughter of an American missionary mother and a Chinese father, and Sophy, the Cambodian family’s daughter who decides to achieve a sense of belonging in America by joining a fundamentalist Christian church…more>>

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“In Treatment”: Creation of Sunil’s Story

Posted by litdaily on November 29, 2010

Irrfan Khan’s role as Sunil, a Bengali widower living in Brooklyn, on HBO’s In Treatment is picking up critical acclaim. The New York Times presents interviews with the playwright Adam Rapp, actor Irrfan Khan, and author Jhumpa Lahiri who consulted with the series for Sunil’s character, as overlapping excerpts to highlight their collaboration in creating Sunil’s story…more>>

The interviews point out that Jhumpa Lahiri’s role in this collaboration was that of a “cultural insider” or “native informant,” brought on board to take playwright Rapp and mainstream American TV production “through the scenario of a man coming over from Calcutta, what he would eat, what he would smoke, what kind of novels and poetry he would read.” It is indeed problematic that such cultural consultation assumes that there is a singularly identifiable way that an immigrant from Calcutta would eat or that “naturally” such an immigrant would read particular novels and poems. In making such an assumption, the media industry obviously forgets that the so-called “Third World” is very much a part of the world, and that a city like Calcutta has always had a vibrant culture as it has both influenced and been influenced by movies, literatures, and art forms from around the globe. Jhumpa Lahiri herself steers away from such easy cultural assumptions in the portrayal of Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake (also played by Irrfan Khan in the Mira Nair movie adaptation).In the novel, Ganguli, raised in Calcutta, feels a strong connection to the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, not the first writer that comes to mind when thinking about the kind of literature an American immigrant from Calcutta would read.

In contrast to these simplistic assumptions, a more compelling analysis of the power of literary and media cultural texts to function cross-culturally comes from the interview with Irrfan Khan: “I’m from Bombay, I’m Indian, I have no cultural reference in this country. But I come here, I do a part, and everyone relates to it. That’s magical.”

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Lan Samantha Chang’s Novel “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost”

Posted by litdaily on October 8, 2010

Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost charts the dynamics between two poetry students and their teacher in a creative writing workshop, and through their lives beyond the MFA program…more>>

Chang is the first Asian American and the first woman Director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she discusses the process of writing her new novel in interviews here and here.

Students love to hate creative writing workshops, even as they find something addictive and compelling about the specific chemistry between students and teachers that propels the workshop in either productive or destructive directions. Thus, the writing workshop is a perfect setting for heightened drama between characters. Also, the novel seems to be an appropriate form for assessing the influence of writing workshops on a writer’s work over many years. While Lan Samantha Chang might be right in asserting that reports of the homogenizing influence of writing workshops are “greatly overrated,” the workshops do make demands that the stories be written in a particular way. As a graduate student of color in a creative writing workshop, I was asked not to use “foreign” words while at the same time I was repeatedly asked to explain “foreign cultures” in my writing. I would argue that the most prominent feature of the people and the writing in workshops is not the tendency to homogenize, but something else, that according to Brenda Wineapple’s review in The New York Times, defines the characters in Chang’s novel: “a prepossessing narcissism.” In writing workshops, we write “songs of ourselves”. Some of the writers realize the trap within this narcissism while others find liberation in it.

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Rushdie: Dangerous Times for Writers

Posted by litdaily on October 1, 2010

Salman Rushdie says that the current historical moment is a dangerous time for artists, writers, and journalists, who are trying to challenge the entrenched hierarchies and power relations. In light of these dangers, the role of artists assumes even greater importance…more>>

The article elaborates Rushdie’s own close encounters with dangerous times, when the author spent many years in hiding after a fatwa issued over the publication of The Satanic Verses. This incident situated Rushdie at the center of the contentious relationship between arts and culture, and religious fundamentalism. And so he gained uncomfortable familiarity with a conflict that the rest of the West grappled with only on 9/11. In a 2006 interview with journalist Johann Hari, Rushdie connects the dangerous times writers face in the aftermath of 9/11 with the fatwa issued against him in 1989: “We’re all living under a fatwa now….You can see the fatwa as the overture to 9/11. It’s not a direct line. Maybe you could say it was not the same piece of music. But in some way, it was a harbinger – a small thing before a big thing. The first crow, you know, flying across the sky.”

You can find an excerpt of Rushdie’s forthcoming book for young readers Luka and the Fire of Life here.

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Writing and the American Dream

Posted by litdaily on September 27, 2010

Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam writes about the anguish his family experienced when he told them about his decision to become a writer:

And for Vietnamese in America, education is everything. So, for someone lucky enough to escape the horrors of post-war Vietnam and be handed through the hard work of his parents the opportunity to become a doctor, to say “no, thank you” was akin to Confucian sin. By refusing to fulfill my expected role within the family, I was being dishonorable. “Selfish,” more than a few relatives called me.

more>>

Lam’s essay illustrates the extent to which writing and arts are considered antithetical to the American Dream. Writing is not considered hard work or labor, which is the core of the meaning of American Dream, especially for immigrants. Lam’s choice to be a writer also brings to the fore tensions between individual aims and community expectations, as the community labels his decision “selfish.” It is ironical, then, that being a professional—such as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—which involves amassing personal wealth and fortune is considered “honorable”; while writing a book or creating a work of art, which does not bring equal financial returns but instead brings visibility to the history and story of the entire community, is “selfish.”

Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir The Latehomecomer, on the other hand, represents her family, especially her father, as encouraging her ambition to be a writer to tell the story of Hmong persecution. Her father says:

It is very important that you tell this part of our story: the Hmong came to America without a homeland. Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people in moments of sadness and despair can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew our chance was here. Our chance to share in a new place and a new home. This is so important to our story. You must think about it, and tell it the way it is (Yang 273).

Part of the difference between Lam’s and Yang’s stories can be attributed to gender considerations, especially because Yang’s book dwells at length on the cultural value assigned to sons. The contrast between the two above passages demonstrates that while Asian American daughters might be encouraged to become writers; for Asian American sons, the decision to follow a career in writing invokes feelings of betrayal.

Yang’s memoir is remarkable because it cements the idea of attainment of the American Dream through writing. Throughout the book, Yang family has to continually defer their attainment of the American Dream because of their poverty. For a family that faced the consequences of America’s recruitment of Hmong in the “Secret War” against communists in Vietnam and Laos, the achievement of American Dream is finding refuge, a home, and family, even if they be in writing the words in a book: “We, seekers of refuge, will find it: if not in the world, then in each other. If not in life, then surely in books…. Together, we are typing on the keyboards of time” (Yang 274).

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DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Longlist

Posted by litdaily on September 22, 2010

The longlist for the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian literature has been released. The prize covers South Asian writing in English and translations from other languages. This year’s longlist includes authors from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and the US…more>>

Historically, the term “South Asian” has been more widely accepted and used in the diasporas. Therefore, it is interesting to see increasing use of the word in the region itself. By using the term “South Asian Literature,” the DSC Prize marks the role of arts and literature in emphasizing the interconnected histories of the region and the possibility of forging a common “South Asian” identity. According to Nilanjana Roy’s announcement of the longlist, the Prize seeks to define “South Asian fiction” not on the basis of the author’s identity or nationality but based on the content of the literary work: its setting in South Asia, representation of South Asian characters or South Asian history. This definition of “South Asian literature” makes it more inclusive; it encourages a critical engagement with South Asia and discourages identity politics.

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Anis Shivani Interviews Manu Joseph

Posted by litdaily on September 18, 2010

Anis Shivani’s interview with Manu Joseph, author of the novel Serious Men, is both compelling and entertaining. Shivani suggests that Joseph’s debut novel charts a new direction in Indian writing in English. “If there is one novel you must buy this year, whether or not you have the slightest interest in South Asia, make it this one,” he writes. Joseph responds to questions about writing a satire, and the overall process of writing a novel, with complexity and humor…more>>

Here is the blog link to The New York Times’ review of Joseph’s novel.

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Hanif Kureishi wins PEN Pinter Prize

Posted by litdaily on September 17, 2010

British Asian author Hanif Kureishi won this year’s PEN Pinter Prize, awarded to a writer who, like Harold Pinter, demonstrates a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies” …more>>

Kureishi’s writing is courageous, witty, and funny. His stories have always broken rules, and shocked the “politically correct” and the “thought police.” In the following interview with QTV, Kureishi talks about the changing representations of sexuality in literature and its role in our lives. Toward the end of the interview, he reiterates his own commitment, as a writer in the realist mode, to chronicle the “structure of the whole society and how it holds together,” from the richest to the poorest sections—a statement that makes him a worthy recipient of the PEN Pinter Prize.

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The Film Adaption of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go

Posted by litdaily on September 14, 2010

Mark Romanek’s second feature film is an adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go.  A hyrbid of Japanese and British sensibilities, the novel and the film exhibits a calm surface with underlying emotional turmoil…more>>

Having read the book a couple of years ago, I know that descriptions of Ishiguro’s work will never be able to do justice to it.  The most surprising aspect of his narrative is the way that the characters capture your heart, which in the end, feels twisted with emotion.  It is not an easy to novel to forget, and for this reason, there is no better title.

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Short Story Symposium

Posted by litdaily on September 12, 2010

Anis Shivani asks important questions about the short story—its form, aesthetic, relation to the novel, and its most important practitioners—in his conversation series “Short Story Symposium.” Authors Don Lee, Richard Burgin, and Dawn Raffel respond…more>>

You can catch the second segment of the “Short Story Symposium” here.

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Madhur Jaffrey’s “Climbing the Mango Tree”

Posted by litdaily on September 7, 2010

Last weekend, Madhur Jaffrey talked about her new memoir, “Climbing the Mango Tree,” at Spencertown Academy’s Fifth Annual Festival of Books…more>>

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V.S. Naipaul’s New Book “The Masque of Africa”

Posted by litdaily on August 31, 2010

Aminatta Forna writes that while Sir Vidia Naipaul’s new book The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief treats its subject with the required playfulness and patience, it is also fundamentally flawed because Naipaul does not provide enough evidence to prove gathered information. This exploration of “African” belief systems is chased by the shadow of Naipaul’s racist attitudes…more>>

In this case then, judge the book by its cover. The image of an African mask on the cover combined with the words “Africa” and “belief” in the title hint toward portrayals of “Africans” as “grotesque” and “primitive”. Perhaps, Sir Naipaul missed the satire in Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write about Africa”.

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John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

Posted by litdaily on August 31, 2010

On August 31, 1946, John Hersey published “Hiroshima” in The New Yorker.  Occupying 68 pages of space, the article was an instant success. The magazine issue sold out and the story was re-printed and broadcast in book form, marking the nuclear explosion as one the most significant moments in recent history…more >>

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Tao Lin: “New Lit Boy”?

Posted by litdaily on August 26, 2010

Tao Lin, whose new novel Richard Yates is going to be released on September 7, is being heralded as the “New Lit Boy.” Lin’s writing depicts the simultaneous isolation and over-exposure experienced in a technology-driven world. His work is a useful starting point for discussing how use of technology influences and alters authors’ writing styles. Lin’s new aesthetic coupled with his self-promotional marketing tactics have earned him both a loyal audience and scorn…more>>

Cultural critic Hua Hsu tries to decide whether Lin’s excessive self-promotional tactics, which have included selling shares online for his book and getting arrested for trespassing, should be read as narcissistic or as criticism of our Internet-embedded lives…more>>

For all things Tao Lin, check out the recently-launched Rumpus Book Club which is reading Richard Yatesmore>>still more>>

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One Book, One Chicago Opening Event

Posted by litdaily on August 24, 2010

On Sept. 7th, The Harold Washington Library Center will present Dwight McBride, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Professor of African American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies.  He will discuss Toni Morrison’s Mercy, asserting that she is more than just a novelist, but also a leading American intellectual…more >>

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Chinese Americans in Literature…more than just The Woman Warrior and The Joyluck Club

Posted by litdaily on August 24, 2010

Maylene Tang pays her respects to the first popular novel writer of Chinese American descent, Winnifred Eaton, who was born on August 21, 1875.  Writing under the pen name of Onoto Watanna, she passed herself off as Japanese American. She and her sister, known as Sui Sin Far, were biracial Chinese and English…more >>

While books like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s popular novel, The Joy Luck Club brought Chinese American literature into the limelight by discussing assimilation and gender, earlier writers portrayed the difficulties of belonging in a black/white America where “Chinese” meant being neither white nor black.

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