Currents of Study: Charting the Course of Asian American Literary Criticism

By Sohn, Stephen Hong; Gamber, John Blair | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Currents of Study: Charting the Course of Asian American Literary Criticism


Sohn, Stephen Hong, Gamber, John Blair, Studies in the Literary Imagination


Asian American literature has now been in production for over a century, (1) and recent decades have shown an exponential increase in its publication. With this critical mass firmly in place, Asian American literary criticism continues to grow as a field. Interestingly enough, this field of inquiry, is still fairly nascent and has only recently experienced a significant increase in terms of full-length texts. Of course, the connection between Asian American literature as a cultural production and Asian American literary criticism is quite explicit and symbiotic. The work of literary critics has been crucial to the ways that Asian American literatures have been defined, archived, re-issued, and taught at universities in the United States and internationally. At the same time, the heated pace of publication of Asian American writing expands the scope of literary criticism. In this examination of Asian American literary criticism over time and across general thematics, we posit tentatively three distinct, but not wholly partitioned, temporal phases and five thematic categories. These three phases of literary critical studies are: pre-1982, between 1982 and 1995, and from 1995 to the present. The appearance of thematic categories takes prominent shape in the third temporal phase. We begin with a short exploration of three anthologies published in the seventies and move to examinations of the first Asian American critical texts that appear in the eighties and early nineties. In the third temporal phase, we begin to fully differentiate the thematic categories that emerge. Finally, we conclude with a foray into the gaps within Asian American literary criticism, which leaves this field open to new avenues of study.

The five thematic categories that have been codified within the critical texts are: the problematics of defining Asian American literature, especially in relation to discourses on nation/transnation/globalization; studies on gender and sexuality; examinations of genre and form; single-author studies; and finally, meta-critical studies of Asian American literary criticism. A murky sixth category comes in the form of a separate listing of edited anthologies whose placement within a particular thematic context is difficult considering the myriad critical strategies included in those collections. Ultimately, these categories and temporal phases clarify and problematize the greater rubric under which Asian American literary criticism works. Whereas we fully understand the limitations and problematics involved with taxonomies, (2) the current study provides a jumping-off point for scholars to contextualize and negotiate an understanding of Asian American literary criticism. While a number of critics provide partial constructions of the critical terrain, we discuss texts and arguments by those we see as the luminaries and strong contributors to the field of Asian American literary criticism. In doing so, we have restricted our study mainly to full-length texts such as edited collections and single-authored literary critical books. We hope to offer a useful tool for understanding the manner in which the field has taken shape and continues to evolve today.

The first historical appearances of what can be viewed as Asian American literary criticism took place prior to 1982 in the introductions of edited collections of creative writing by Asian Americans. These edited collections began the controversial dialogue of constituting an "Asian American literature," which was defined by the inclusion or exclusion of certain Asian American ethnic groups. Much of the published creative work at that time was limited to what these editors considered worthy or could have accessed, which by the 1970s was composed primarily of works by writers of Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Chinese descent. Not surprisingly, the first collection of edited work, Kai-Yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas's Asian-American Authors (1972), contains references to only three ethnic groups within Asian American literature: Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese American.

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