Introduction: Cross Wire: Asian American Literary Criticism

By Lim, Shirley Geok-lin; Valentino, Gina et al. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Cross Wire: Asian American Literary Criticism


Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, Valentino, Gina, Sohn, Stephen Hong, Gamber, John Blair, Studies in the Literary Imagination


She believes that out there, somewhere, in the machine rooms of the universe, there exists a small cross wire.... Everything is connected, weirdly connected.

--Gish Jen (Mona in the Promised Land 108)

Assuming that neural cross wiring does lie at the root of synesthesia ... perhaps a mutation causes connections between brain areas that are usually segregated. Or maybe the mutation leads to defective pruning of preexisting connections between areas that are normally connected only sparsely.... So we now speak in terms of cross activation. For instance, neighboring brain regions often inhibit one another's activity, which serves to minimize cross talk. A chemical imbalance of some kind that reduces such inhibition--for example, by blocking the action of an inhibitory neurotransmitter or failing to produce an inhibitor--would also cause activity in one area to elicit activity in a neighbor. Such cross activation could, in theory, also occur between widely separated areas.

--Ramachandran and Hubbard ("Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes" 55)

Why the trope of cross wiring for a special issue on Asian American literary productions of Studies in the Literary Imagination? Neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard's theory of a set of neural phenomena resulting in "cross activation," a reduction of inhibitions leading to connections that are usually segregated, is provocative in its analogous relation to the cross-cultural activations that are currently enlivening what is usually marked as Asian American textual production. As a number of critics have noted, Asian American literary studies may be in a moment of crisis because of the very values of multiplicity and heterogeneity that had placed ethnic-identity literatures in sight in the United States. Asian American imagination, unlike that in African American writing, has no single unifying grand narrative to organize the vast materials on which Asian American writers call. It possesses no single linguistic Other, as in Latina/o writing, on which to hinge a counter-tradition of stylistics. Instead, what Asian American works of imagination manifest in full is a plethora of seemingly separate threads--threads leading back to distinctively different national origins, first languages indecipherable to other Asian Americans, and cultural signs and codes of signification unintelligible to those identified as the same in census reports and academic discourses.

While the novels, plays, poems, and memoirs that compose Asian American literature do not always mark these cultural cognitive dissonances self-reflexively, it is also accurate to note that Asian American literary critics often ignore those textual sites in which such dissonances are acutely recorded. Examples might include the role of Chinese gambling houses for the Filipino American characters in Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart (1943) or the troubling silence of the Japanese American narrator in Hisaye Yamamoto's short story "Wilshire Bus" (1950), who says nothing while the Chinese American couple on their way to the Veterans Hospital are verbally abused by a white man drunk on spirits and triumphal anti-Asian racism. These evident imagined moments of "Asian American" crossings may be represented as failed, sordid, and painful. However, as Gish Jen's Mona in the Promised Land (1997) notes, there are other ways to represent these cross wires, not only in-between the ethnicities that are conflated as Asian American but also those that activate relations between and among other communities of identity--Jewish, Anglo-Saxon, Black and Latina/o.

"Cross wiring" suggests the dense and dynamic complexity of an evolving body of texts that, as much as it is insistently categorized as Asian American, is simultaneously interrogated and catalogued as Other: Filipino, Vietnamese, South Asian, Hmong, Korean, Southeast Asian, and so forth. When the first Asian American literature anthologies appeared in the 1970s, the editors had no compunctions about dividing the map of the field into Chinese and Japanese American writing, with Filipino American as a hardly visible minority, occupied by two authors, Carlos Bulosan and Jose Garcia Villa. …

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