Contrary to the widely held assumption of their mutual exclusivity, Orientalism and Asian American identity were strange bedfellows in the 1970s, in the 1990s, and, I predict, will continue to be so in the twenty-first century. The struggle for ethnic identity presupposes a lack thereof, or a spurious identity imposed by Orientalism, the discursive tradition in the West dealing with the subject and the subjugation of the East. But in order to retire racist stereotypes, one is obliged to first evoke them; in order to construct ethnicity, one must first destruct what is falsely reported as one's ethnic identity. Both result in an unwitting reiteration of Orientalist images.
The term Asian American, inspired by the civil rights movement, was forged in the 1960s to empower heretofore disparate Asian American communities. Any construction of identity requires a reconfiguration, sometimes rather violently, of one's psyche and history. As a result, the groundbreaking texts in the formation of an Asian American literary tradition contain exactly such revolutionary, Yeatsian “terrible beauty.” The two pivotal texts in the Asian American project, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974) and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), are marked by the spirit of contestation in the attempt to wrest out of Orientalist grips an autonomous ethnic self. These two texts are joined, in the field of literary criticism, by Elaine Kim's equally pioneering Asian American Literature (1982). The preface to Aiiieeeee! and Kim's book try to establish a canon by attacking Western stereotypes of Asians, epitomized by Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan,