America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945

America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945

America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945

America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945


What explains the perception of Asians both as economic exemplars and as threats? America's Asia explores a discursive tradition that affiliates the East with modern efficiency, in contrast to more familiar primitivist forms of Orientalism. Colleen Lye traces the American stereotype of Asians as a "model minority" or a "yellow peril"--two aspects of what she calls "Asiatic racial form"-- to emergent responses to globalization beginning in California in the late nineteenth century, when industrialization proceeded in tandem with the nation's neocolonial expansion beyond its continental frontier.

From Progressive efforts to regulate corporate monopoly to New Deal contentions with the crisis of the Great Depression, a particular racial mode of social redress explains why turn-of-the-century radicals and reformers united around Asian exclusion and why Japanese American internment during World War II was a liberal initiative.

In Lye's reconstructed archive of Asian American racialization, literary naturalism and its conventions of representing capitalist abstraction provide key historiographical evidence. Arguing for the profound influence of literature on policymaking, America's Asia examines the relationship between Jack London and leading Progressive George Kennan on U. S.-Japan relations, Frank Norris and AFL leader Samuel Gompers on cheap immigrant labor, Pearl S. Buck and journalist Edgar Snow on the Popular Front in China, and John Steinbeck and left intellectual Carey McWilliams on Japanese American internment. Lye's materialist approach to the construction of race succeeds in locating racialization as part of a wider ideological pattern and in distinguishing between its different, and sometimes opposing, historical effects.


Soon after I started teaching at Berkeley, I was invited to speak in a large student-organized undergraduate English lecture course called “Other Voices,” a course that exists primarily to introduce lower-division students to minority faculty on the campus. It was suggested by the course facilitators that I talk about my research interests, but that in preparing my remarks I bear in mind that I would be the only Asian American guest that semester. For the students’ reading assignment I chose a short poem by Mitsuye Yamada, “Looking Out”:

It must be odd
to be a minority
he was saying.
I looked around
and I didn’t see any.
So I said
it must be.

I framed my presentation around a reading of the poem, calling attention to the disjuncture between seeing and being seen, to the ambiguity in the speaker’s response (registered in the gap between sight and speech) that could indicate either a reluctant acquiescence to social construction or an ironization of the other’s perception. I wanted the students to wrestle with the misunderstanding that arises in the poem: is Yamada playing on the gap between external and internal perception or between different kinds of social perception held by the two people in the poem. I wanted the students to reflect on the kind of sociological and psychic construction signified by the term “minority” and its relation to questions of visibility, representation, identification, and subjectification. Yamada’s poem helped me to kick off an introductory lecture on a central problematic of Asian American identity: the invention of “Asian American” as a pan-ethnic construction by the yellow power movement of the 1960s, the coalitional character of its structuration, and its limitless tendency toward fragmentation.

Addressing undergraduates on the topic of ethnic identity is always tricky because it involves a double move—one of raising basic historical . . .

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