Academic journal article Genders

Negotiating Neoliberal Citizenship: An Interview with Pamela Thoma about Her New Book Asian American Women's Popular Literature

Academic journal article Genders

Negotiating Neoliberal Citizenship: An Interview with Pamela Thoma about Her New Book Asian American Women's Popular Literature

Article excerpt

[1] Desai: Your book Asian American Women's Popular Literature: Feminizing Genres and Neoliberal Belonging brings us back to one of the most foundational and formative topics in Asian American Studies--the conversation about Asian American women's popular literature. You reframe this conversation in light of cultural citizenship and neoliberalism to examine how Asian American women's interventions into the public and political occur through popular literary genres such as mother-daughter narrative, chick lit, detective fiction, and food writing. Attending to formations of cultural citizenship through popular genres, the book transforms the theoretical and methodological debates about Asian American women's literary texts within Asian American Studies and feminist ethnic studies. I also appreciate how you ground your argument within Asian American and feminist debates that have long recognized the significance of media and cultural texts (e.g., literature, cinema, comics, and television) to the interrelated formations of race, gender, and citizenship.

[2] The popularity of feminist texts by Asian American women authors created a vortex of conflict that defined literary studies for a lengthy period of time; Asian American women writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan were accused of inauthentically shilling a feminized Orientalism within a racist capitalist literary market. The debates reflected the great ambivalence about popular forms and ideological heterogeneity within Asian American cultural production. Why were you drawn to writing about popular genres?

[3] Thoma: My training as a scholar of Asian American literature coincided with the moment when literary critics were beginning to rigorously theorize the Maxine Hong Kingston-Frank Chin debates and the subsequent popularity of Asian American women's writing and Asian American literature in general. While discussion was sophisticated and concerned with the heterogeneity of Asian America, it in some ways sustained the debates. Certain observers continued to subscribe to the resistance/assimilation mode of reading ethnic literature and ultimately retained a bias against popular genres, actually redoubling efforts to create a particular sort of canon for Asian American literature, one that would better serve political commitments to institutionalization in the culture wars-embattled academy of the 1990s. While I do not mean to suggest either that there was a unified interpretation of the debates or that there was universal and uncritical acceptance of institutionalization, I now understand the early theorization of the Kingston/Chin or popular/literary debates as relatively important in the institutionalization of Asian American studies. It provided a sort of prospectus on that investment, indicating what the multicultural university might expect in return from this academic field, which had to do with positioning itself in positive relation to the production of knowledge as a form of cultural capital, and thus creating social distinctions and hierarchies. Mark Chiang has recently written in detail and insightfully about this process, but at the time, the meaning of the complex economic and symbolic forces involved (beyond capitalist commodification and racist fetishization of Asian American culture) was played out through discrediting Asian American women's popular literature, often though not always implicitly in the valorization of more identifiably literary works.

[4] Despite graduate study in women's literature and familiarity with both the long history of its discounting in the Anglo-American tradition of the novel, as well as the feminist theorization of reception that refused a simple dismissal of the pleasures and cultural work of mass genres of popular culture, I fell prey to the theory of literary value that was being mobilized in that moment. In my dissertation, which was on transnationalism and Asian American women's writing, I selected works in which critics found literary merit and I even hewed toward texts that were evidently impacted by theoretical concerns, such as Theresa Cha's Dictee. …

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