Literary Genre as Ethnic Resistance in Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book
Royal, Derek Parker, MELUS
In one of his better known stand-up bits from early in his career, Woody Allen tells his audience that once, while hunting, he bagged a moose and tied what he believed to be the dead carcass to the front of his car (the premise itself is funny enough--imagine Woody Allen, tramping about the outdoors, stalking wild game). Driving back into Manhattan, he discovers that he only grazed and temporarily disabled the moose, so that by the time he gets back home he has a live moose on his hands and he doesn't have any idea what to do with it. Luckily, Allen remembers that he has a costume party to go to that evening, so he decides to take the moose to the party and dump him there. As one may guess, given the direction of this joke, the moose fits right in and starts mingling beautifully with the other guests. The critical moment in Allen's story comes when everyone votes on the best costume. The prize goes, not to the moose, but to an old Jewish couple, the Berkowitzes, who have come to the party dressed in a moose suit. The real moose, in a fit of indignation, locks horns with the Berkowitzes and the two parties fight for the prize.
Allen's moose joke is a humorously appropriate way to introduce some of the critical issues at work in Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. The joke and the novel share many things in common: both are surrealistic tales that defy a more traditional realism, both incorporate images of animals in terms of "the Other," both include a party and crowds of people in which critical revelations are made, and both are funny texts. (1) Yet, what is most important, at least in the scope of this study, is that both are tragi-comic narratives of the representation of identity; Wittman Ah Sing describes himself at one point as a "stand-up tragic" (317). Early in Kingston's text, Wittman's Asian American love interest, Nanci Lee, complains that a director criticizes her portrayal of an "oriental" peasant because she isn't "Chinese" enough. "Act oriental," he tells her. "Can't you act more oriental?"(24). Similar to Allen's moose, Nanci is caught in a bind of being upstaged by a fictional representation that threatens not only her economic livelihood, but the assumptions of identity which she (or at least the reader) has taken for granted. So that she will not be tempted to change either surgically or cosmetically in order to fit any preconceived roles, Wittman promises to write for her a theater "where the audience learns to fall in love with you for your ochery skin and round nose and flat profile and slanty eyes, and your bit of an accent" (27). The task for Wittman the artist figure, then, is to create a role that will allow Nanci a freedom of expression denied her in the popular media while at the same time disrupting those repressive stereotypical assumptions of what it means to be a Chinese American. As we see in the final chapters of the book, Wittman's theater is one of multiple possibility that defines itself not in terms of any static or categorical representations, but instead through an embracing of a freely negotiated ethnic heterogeneity.
The means by which Wittman attempts this critical intervention are most significant: he takes a well-established genre in Western literature, drama, and transforms it into a narrative vehicle that violates or transcends its assumed boundaries. He doesn't just engage in experimental theater where the fourth wall is violently transgressed or disjunctive dialogue is used to abuse the sensibilities of the audience. He brings to his stage a pastiche of discursive genres that, taken together, radically undermine any traditional notions of theater: family drama, comedy, improvisation, performance art, dramatic monologue, narrative epic, social protest, autobiographical confession, song and dance, and what Jean-Paul Sartre would call litterature engagee, just to name a few. What I would like to foreground in this examination of Tripmaster Monkey is the inextricable link between the construction of ethnic identity and the engagements of literary genre. …