Academic journal article MELUS

"A Lot You Know about Us Monkeys": Representation and Reference in Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

Academic journal article MELUS

"A Lot You Know about Us Monkeys": Representation and Reference in Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

Article excerpt

Near the middle of Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), the novel's protagonist Wittman Ah Sing strolls through a sun-filled Oakland neighborhood in which his erstwhile friend, Lance Kamiyama, lives. The narrator reports:

   A black-and-white cop car and a black-and-white cab cruised past
   each other. We're in a good part of Oakland, which used to be
   restricted. "No person of African or of Japanese, Chinese, or any
   Mongolian descent will ever be allowed to purchase, own, or even
   rent a lot in Rockridge or live in any house that may be built
   there except in the capacity of domestic servants of the occupant
   thereof." Lance was living there in an integrated marriage, and
   Wittman was walking there. Oakland Tech ought to be teaching this
   localest history. (150)

This passage condenses many of the anxieties that contributed to the social climate of Northern California in the 1960s, during which time Kingston's novel is set: the references to racially determined integrations and property restrictions indicate the increasingly prevalent politicization of race in the discourse of citizens' rights; the vaguely threatening presence of the "black-and-white cop car" suggests the spirit of confrontation between government authority and many elements of the general populace; and the reference to "Oakland Tech" explicitly invokes the university campus, the site for much of the radical political and social action that marked the decade.

This last detail demands further elaboration. The narrator seems to note a deficiency in the academic sphere's articulation of "history"--specifically in its determination of what historical phenomena should be taught. But the narrator offers no specific corrections or clarifications; even the phrase "localest history" leaves open a few key questions. For instance: How local is "localest"? Is this regional history, or history at the level of the city, the neighborhood, or the body? Moreover, given how Kingston's notoriously complex text situates its characters and readers, what counts as "history"? These questions are especially vexing given the difficulty of delimiting the particulars of the novel's setting. As Isabella Furth notes, "Wittman's space is quite literally indeterminate: the geographical and temporal scene of the novel cannot be established firmly. The 1960s--a time, the [novel's] epigraph announces, 'when some things appeared to occur months or even years anachronistically'--slide into all times" (308). The novel's indeterminacies concerning time and space may seek to enact the sheer force of change unleashed during that decade. Indeed, Kingston's whirling, shimmering, sometimes dizzying prose often seems on the verge of shaking itself to pieces. In this way, Tripmaster Monkey captures the texture of the moment it dramatizes. The novel's constantly shifting tonal values and syntactic structures also gesture toward the ferocious polemics of the competing narratives concerning the cultural significance of the 1960s. One might reference Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind on one end of the political spectrum and Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage on the other.

The novel's focus on the discourse of Asian American identity emergent in the 1960s engages with even more specific--and perhaps even more sharply contested--competing narratives. As Glenn Omatsu argues, the dominant narrative of Asian Americans' struggle for more representative modes of expressing identity during the decade indicates that "[y]oung Asian Americans were swept into [the] campaign" to secure civil rights for racial minorities. According to this narrative, the "most important influence on Asian Americans during this period was Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired them to demand access to policy makers and initiate advocacy programs for their own communities. Meanwhile, students and professors fought to legitimize Asian American Studies in college curricula and for representation of Asians in American society" (165). …

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