Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Ontology of Disability in Chang-Rae Lee's the Surrendered

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Ontology of Disability in Chang-Rae Lee's the Surrendered

Article excerpt

The formal device of characterization in Chang-rae Lee's novel, The Surrendered, depicts differences between the ontology of race and the ontology of disability in ways that reveal the stakes of reading at the intersection of Asian American studies and disability studies. The Surrendered shows that in return for the privileged mantle of U.S. citizenship-which extols supersoldiers, model minority subjects, and humanitarian workers-ablenationalism demands the disavowal of impairments that are experientially rooted in supercripdom, neurodiversity, and substance addiction. The article argues that the co-articulation of race and impairment in Lee's novel suggests how intersectional reading practices can more fully explore the disability rights issues raised by racialized characters.

Introduction: Ablenationalism and Asian American Literary Criticism

Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered (2010) is populated by disabled characters: people who are experiencing cancer, substance addiction, the ailments of old age, and the enduring mental states associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this influential Asian American author's fourth novel, even minor characters are conspicuously marked by maimed or misshapen body parts, the outcome of physical injury or congenital anomaly. Taken together with his other stories of wartime and diaspora, The Surrendered points to the progression of a theme around race and impairment in Lee's work.1 As James Wood remarks in a mainstream review,

By the time he published his second novel [...] a familiar Chang-rae Lee narrator had begun to emerge: a finally solitary man, who has difficulty knowing himself, is efficient at repression, and has been abandoned by women who do not care to plow the rest of their lives into emotional archeology. (par. 11)

Although traces of disability imagery can be found in such descriptions of characters' states of mental health or social functioning, disabled bodies and disabled subjectivity have not heretofore been a major focus of criticism on Lee's writing.

This apparent occlusion supports the observation made by disability studies scholars about literary criticism's long-standing tendency to assimilate disability into broader social or philosophical contexts. In fact, cultural assimilation is the main framework utilized by critics who have read Lee's earlier novels as representative texts of the Asian American canon. "There remains a trauma of assimilation in the U.S. today for racially different bodies" (557), writes Anne Anlin Cheng in her discussion of A Gesture Life, and Hamilton Carroll reiterates this relationship between assimilation and trauma in his analysis while reversing the value of conformity to the national image: "the novel becomes a traumatic narrative that consistently displaces [the protagonist] Hata's tale of successful assimilation" (593). Unanchored to a conception of disability identity, trauma acts as a floating signifier in such readings of Lee's work, referring to his depictions of both wartime carnage and mundane suffering, to the role of diasporic memory and the impact of displacement in his narratives, as well as to the types of racist injury that preclude national belonging for most of his central characters.2

If trauma serves as a convenient placeholder for disability representation in Asian American literary criticism, it is largely due to the frequency with which its scholars point to "how racial, gender, and class difference have been conceived of as 'disability'" (8), as Jennifer James and Cynthia Wu claim in their introduction to a 2006 special issue of the journal of Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S. entitled "Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature: Intersections and Interventions." In a more recent submissions call for an upcoming special issue of a prominent journal on illness and disability in Asian America, the guest editors cite Chris Bell, who has written about "the failure of Disability Studies to engage issues of race and ethnicity in a substantive capacity, thereby entrenching whiteness as its constitutive underpinning" (275). …

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