The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction

The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction

The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction

The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction


In the wake of all that is changing in local and global cultures--in patterns of migration, settlement, labor, and communications--a radical interaction has taken place that, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, has shifted our understanding of ethnicity away from 'ethnic in itself' to 'ethnic amidst a hybrid collective'. In light of this, Caroline Rody proposes a new paradigm for understanding the changing terrain of contemporary fiction. She claims that what we have long read as ethnic literature is in the process of becoming 'interethnic'. Examining an extensive range of Asian American fictions, The Interethnic Imagination offers sustained readings of three especially compelling examples: Chang-rae Lee's ambivalent evocations of blackness, whiteness, Koreanness, and the multicultural crowd in Native Speaker; Gish Jen's comic engagement with Jewishness in Mona in the Promised Land; and the transnational imagination of Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange. Two shorter "interchapters" and an epilogue extend the thematics of creative "in-betweenness" across the book's structure, elaborating crossover topics including Asian American fiction's complex engagement with African American culture; the cross-ethnic adoption of Jewishness by Asian American writers; and the history of mixed-race Asian American fictional characters.


Out of this conflict the ideal American character—a type truly
great enough to possess the greatness of the land, a
delicately poised unity of divergencies—is slowly being born.

—Ralph Ellison

The final scene of Chang-rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker presents a classroom full of children, immigrant New York City children whose families have migrated from many parts of the world, and who have been sent to ESL class to practice their English. But the last lines perform a reversal. As the children stand in quiet attention to be dismissed, their English teacher reads each of their non-English names one by one, “as best she can, taking care of every last pitch and accent”; and the hero, the teacher’s Korean American husband, “hear[s] her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are” (349). Haunting the scene is the memory of the couple’s deceased seven-year-old son, a boy of mixed Korean and Scottish descent, whose promise this diverse classroom of children memorializes and re-embodies.

At the close of another contemporary Asian American novel, Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange, the estranged Mexican American mother and Singapore Chinese American father of a small boy named after the sun finally recover each other and their missing child; and in the middle of the most chaotic, gargantuan possible public spectacle—a wrestling match between a blue-caped superhero of the southern hemisphere’s poor and a titanium-clad champion of multinational capitalism—the reunited, transnational holy family ends the book with their intimate “Embrace” (270).

And the final gesture in the comic, prenuptial scene that ends Gish Jen’s 1996 novel Mona in the Promised Land is given to the two-year-old daughter of the Chinese American-turned-Jewish bride and her Jewish groom, a toddler who loves, of all things, Italian food. Watching the intermarrying heroine’s long-deferred . . .

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