Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Re-Signed Subjects: Women, Work, and World in the Fiction of Carlos Bulosan and Hisaye Yamamoto

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Re-Signed Subjects: Women, Work, and World in the Fiction of Carlos Bulosan and Hisaye Yamamoto

Article excerpt


In a 1950 article on the latest crop of minority writers, author Ward Moore contrasts the aesthetics of Hisaye Yamamoto's and Carlos Bulosan's work as follows:

   Except that both are serious writers, the two have little in common.
   Miss Yamamoto, like most contributors to "little" magazines, is a
   classicist, occupied with form and texture, extremely conscious in
   her approach; Mr. Bulosan is a romantic who is so moved by the
   force of emotion that he carries his effects to his readers by sheer
   passion. His literary discipline is fundamental, evidently
   established in the very process of learning to put words together
   efficiently; Miss Yamamoto's is obviously imposed and clearly
   requires constant enforcement. She experiments, even at the risk of
   stumbling and floundering. Mr. Bulosan's footing is surer, for his
   path is narrower; she is an intellectual, he is an artist. (5)

Clearly impressed with Bulosan's social realism at the expense of what is presented as Yamamoto's contrived formal experimentation, Moore hits upon what appears to he a fundamental difference between the two writers: the passion in Yamamoto's writing is often hidden--indeed, unrecognized by Moore--within the subtexts of her intricately constructed narratives, while Bulosan's social realism forcefully purports to tell it like it is. The significance of these stylistic differences becomes even clearer as Moore presents Yamamoto's and Bulosan's views on the politics of writing. The section on Yamamoto concludes with her assertion, "I have no message.... I don't want to tell anybody anything. I just want to write--because writing is the easiest thing for me to do" (5). Yamamoto's avoidance of didacticism contrasts distinctly with Bulosan's response to the question, "Why do I write?":

   In the making of the writer there are many factors. There was
   always something in me yearning to know other people. And I
   needed to explain my people to others. Then too, I was one of those
   trying to organize the exploited agricultural workers, many of
   whom were Filipinos. Writing was merely an inevitable extension of
   this work. (5)

Unlike Yamamoto, Bulosan clearly has a message; consequently, writing for him is a political weapon, an "inevitable extension" of his labor organizing and his agitation for Filipinos' civil rights. In comparison, Yamamoto--"a classicist, occupied with form and texture'--appears to divorce art and politics. The distinction between the two writers can also be framed in Roland Barthes's terms: whereas Yamamoto's non-didactic, experimental work is "writable" (playful, open, and plural), Bulosan's social realism is "readable" (closed, structured, and authoritarian) (4-5).

Without eliding the important aesthetic and political differences between the two writers, both Yamamoto and Bulosan need to be studied within the multicultural politics of the Popular Front, especially as it pertains to Asian Americans. (1) Strictly speaking, the Popular Front refers to the period of Left-wing coalition building with bourgeois organizations and individuals in response to the rise of fascism in Europe and, as many argued, in the U.S. At this time, new social movements came into being that drew together anti-imperialist, anti-lynching, pro-union and labor feminist activists, and cultural workers. Popular Front multiculturalism flourished as African and Native Americans, immigrants, and their descendants articulated a new vision of democracy by recovering and re-evaluating their heritage. The Popular Front is often dated from the mid- to late thirties, but as Michael Denning, Bill Mullen, and others have shown, it lasted through the forties and beyond--and the work of Yamamoto and Bulosan shaped and was shaped by this alliance in ways that call attention to the convergences as much as the divergences in their political aesthetics. …

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