Reading the Star Fisher: Toward Critical and Sociological Interpretations of Immigrant Literature

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Immigrant literature is literature that depicts the experiences of various immigrant groups including, for example, Chinese, Irish, and Mexican. In the wake of the literature-based movement in literacy education, multicultural literature such as immigrant literature is becoming more prominent as curricular materials in many elementary classrooms. Because books have the power to either promote favorable attitudes and positive behavior or reinforce prejudices and stereotypes (May, 1995; Short & Pierce, 1990; Sims, 1983), it is crucial that teachers choose books of high quality that do not seek to replicate stereotypes but ones that move beyond the common mainstream views to uncommon realms (Banks, 1997).

For many children, their only contact with immigrants may be through representations in children's literature. Because representations are always inscribed by ideology and power which have the potential to shape our world views and attitudes (Kincheloe, 1997), it is vitally important that teachers engage children in critical and thoughtful reading of multicultural literature. This is particularly true with immigrant literature. Immigrants generally do not have the economic resources or political power to create their own representations (Kim, 1982). As a result, they are mostly represented by others whose perspectives, as some scholars (e.g., Hoffman, 1996; Lim & Ling, 1992) have suggested, are often shaped by dominant cultural ideologies and values. It follows that in order to genuinely understand representations in immigrant literature, we need an approach that critically examines the ideology and values behind the construction of immigrant images, while also taking into account the social and political context in which the historical events took place.

In this article, I propose a critical-- sociological approach to analyzing immigrant literature. Toward this end, I shall examine how Chinese immigrants to the United States of America are represented in Laurence Yep's (1992) The Star Fisher, the winner of the Christopher Award. I chose Laurence Yep because he is a well known Chinese American author whose books on Chinese Americans are widely available in school and are often considered among the best by many scholars (e.g., Cai, 1992; Johnson-Feeling, 1995).

I chose The Star Fisher because it is an award winning title that depicts the (Chinese) immigrants' experiences in America. Taking cues from Sau-ling Cynthia Wong's (1993) discussion of ways to read Asian American literature, I look in particular at how the issues of race, class, and ideology influence the author's construction and representation of Chinese immigrant subjectivities in the novel. In the remainder of the article, I first discuss the theoretical basis of this approach. I then model a critical reading of The Star Fisher using a critical-sociological approach. Finally, I discuss the educational implications of the approach.

CRITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF LITERATURE

Cognizant of the need for a multilayered discourse in literary analysis and interpretation (Young, 1996), I adopt an interdisciplinary approach that combines the theoretical frameworks of critical literacy (Anderson & Irvine, 1993; Apple, 1993; Giroux, 1994; Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994; Shannon, 1995) with sociology of literature (Albrecht, 1954, Hall, 1979; Laurenson & Swingewood, 1972). I believe that this approach provides a more indepth and thorough analysis of immigrant literature.

Critical literacy posits that literature is socially constructed. The main goal of this theory is to disrupt and challenge unequal power relations that exist in the society. According to the theory, experience and knowledge are historically constructed within specific institutional power relations. Kincheloe and McLaren (1994), for example, asserted, ... that all thought is fundamentally mediated by power relations that are socially and historically constituted; that facts can never be isolated from the domain of values or removed from some form of ideological inscription; that the relationship between concept and object . …