Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

The Korean American Cowboy and the Fallacy of Regenerative Violence in Leonard Chang's the Fruit 'N Food

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

The Korean American Cowboy and the Fallacy of Regenerative Violence in Leonard Chang's the Fruit 'N Food

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This essay examines the incompatibility between violence deployed by Asian American male subjects and their pursuit of masculinity in Leonard Chang's novel, The Fruit 'N Food. According to Richard Slotkin, American history has evidenced that violence affords hegemonic men a venue by which to validate their masculinity and gain access to its cachet. Asian American men's appropriation of violence, however, effects the converse; even as they endeavor to tap into the regenerative quality of violence, they discover that their violence is delegitimized by their race and hence loses the capacity to restore their masculinity divested by the dominant discourse.

KEYWORDS LEONARD CHANG, THE FRUIT 'N FOOD (BOOK), ASIAN AMERICAN MASCULINITY, RACIALIZED VIOLENCE, VIGILANTE JUSTICE

'In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks." -James Baldwin (1955 [1998, p. 320])

The lone figure of the cowboy, romantically roaming the mythical West, is perhaps the single most identifiable figure in the American imagination; capturing the American spirit of rugged individualism, the cowboy, alongside other archetypal figures as the hunter and the frontiersman, is the "founding father" in the American mythogenesis who "tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness." As such, these mythic founding fathers have continued to resurface throughout American history, conveying the "myth of regeneration through violence," which has become the "structuring metaphor of the American experience" (Slotkin, 1973, p. 5).

Although the mythic frontier of the Wild West now has become a thing of the past, a nation-state, observes eminent historian Richard Slotkin, constantly "invent[s] new forms of adversary [since] without an adversarial other, it begins to atrophy" (Christensen, 2008, p. 312). The urban riot wars and the attendant racial violence in the latter half of the twentieth century can thus be read as a "modernized and somewhat distorted version of the 'frontier myth'" (Slotkin, 1973, p. 125). Recast as Asian within the context of the 1992 L.A. Riots, arguably the worst urban civil unrest in American history, the Korean American cowboy, not unlike his predecessor who set out to tame indigenous enemies and the unruly wilderness in the struggle for nationhood, rode roughshod into the cataclysmic racial mayhem to reinstate law and order into the American megalopolis plummeting into a vortex of anarchy. Leonard Chang's The Fruit 'N Food (1996), which indubitably recalls the Riots, features Thomas Pak as the latest Korean American incarnation of the cowboy, waging war against the "renegade" minorities of the urban ghetto engaged in an illegitimate innercity turf war.1 Serving as a reminder of the incorrigible racial strife which connotes the violence embedded in the American landscape, Chang's novel elaborates on how violence becomes a Catch-22 for the ghettoized men of color as neither the Korean American cowboy nor his Black adversaries are able to tap into the regenerative quality of violence. In other words, Thomas Pak's association with a distinctly American icon like the cowboy bears little fruit as he is unable to achieve true selfhood, which remains the prestige of hegemonic men. As such, The Fruit 'N Food's portrayal of violence as unfailingly degenerative for all men of color begs a consideration of the inextricable nexus between race, masculinity, and violence, as well as how Asian American (male) subjects in particular are reified time and again as victims even as they become agents of violence. Ultimately, I contend that Chang's novel, although praiseworthy in its attempt to re-conceive conventional archetypes in order to disassociate Asian American men from the dominant discourse which reinforces their emasculation and victimhood, envisions a rather grim and defeatist ending for Tom in that he seeks to embrace something ostensibly intangible to American men of color- masculinity -by means that further delegitimize their existence- violence. …

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