Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Narrating Chinese M/others: New Orientalism in Amy Tan's the Joy Luck Club

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Narrating Chinese M/others: New Orientalism in Amy Tan's the Joy Luck Club

Article excerpt

Since the 1960s and '70s, the voices of the Third World have been recovered and recognized by the academy in the name of subversive politics. Interestingly, most of the works selected and privileged by the academy are those seen as most directly addressing and/or deconstructing oppressive representations of "Third World women." As native informant texts, they are used to round out the syllabi of women's studies, postcolonial studies, and literature courses that seek an authentic representation of Third World women's subjectivity and subjugation. Third World women writers, along with their texts, are often treated as unproblematic embodiments of authentic otherness. Although they have consistently complained that their works are treated as if they provided unmediated access to the experience and knowledge of alterity, these authors find themselves fetishized as transcendental signifiers of authenticity and oppression.

Postcolonial feminists are cautious about the popularity of native women's stories. In her book Woman, Native, Other, Trinh T. Minh-ha firmly attributes the rise of the "Third-World woman" to the ideological tourism of Western/liberal feminism. She criticizes the paternalistic and self-congratulatory tokenism that sustains "Special Third-World Women's" readings, workshops, meetings, and seminars. In every such event, Trinh argues, the veneer of cross-cultural, sisterly colloquium disguises an unpleasant ideology of separatism. The "Third-World woman" is everywhere required to exhibit her ineluctable "difference" from the primary referent of Western feminism: "It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone's private zoo" (82). This voyeuristic desire for the colorful alterity of Third World women seriously compromises the seemingly egalitarian politics of liberal feminism. Likewise, because of her refusal to surrender "Third-World women" to the sentimental and often opportunistic enamourment with "marginality," Sara Suleri argues that feminism's investment in the Third World woman depends on an iconicity almost "too good to be true" (763). Fetishizing the difference of Third World women is not much better than dismissing them because their works lack universality. Indeed, as previously marginalized materials are inserted into academic curricula, some of us are unconsciously participating in what Gayatri Spivak, in "Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value," calls "new Orientalism":

 
   It is at the moment of infiltration or insertion, sufficiently under 
   threat by the custodians of a fantasmatic high Western culture, 
   that the greatest caution must be exercised. The price of success 
   must not compromise the enterprise irreparably. In that spirit of 
   caution, it might not be inappropriate to notice that, as 
   teachers, we are now involved in the construction of a new object 
   of investigation--"the third world"; "the marginal"--for 
   institutional validation and certification. One has only to 
   analyze carefully the proliferating but exclusivist "Third 
   World-ist" job descriptions to see the packaging at work. It is as 
   if, in a certain way, we are becoming complicitous in the 
   perpetuation of a "new Orientalism." (222) 

The phenomenon of "new Orientalism," I would add, also appears in the rapidly developing area of American "minority" or "ethnic" literary writing and criticism, which has gained sympathetic exemption from critical scrutiny by demanding respect for its "difference." Obviously, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club has achieved the status of an informant text in the American literary academy. Tan's novel was a critical and popular success, selling over four million copies and earning nominations for or winning a number of prestigious literary awards. (1) Thanks to the success of The Joy Luck Club, Tan has become one of the best-known American writers of Asian ancestry. As Sau-ling Cynthia Wong notes, "Tan has been chosen to perform the Asian American spokeswoman/figurehead function once assigned to Maxine Hong Kingston" (202). …

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