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The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity
Asian American Studies/Literary Theory A polemical analysis of the ways Orientalism speaks through the texts of prominent Asian American writers. Asian American resistance to Orientalism-the Western tradition dealing with the subject and subjugation of the East-is usually assumed. And yet, as this provocative work demonstrates, in order to refute racist...
Asian American Studies/Literary Theory A polemical analysis of the ways Orientalism speaks through the texts of prominent Asian American writers. Asian American resistance to Orientalism-the Western tradition dealing with the subject and subjugation of the East-is usually assumed. And yet, as this provocative work demonstrates, in order to refute racist stereotypes they must first be evoked, and in the process the two often become entangled. Sheng-mei Ma shows how the distinguished careers of post-1960s Asian American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Frank Chin, and David Henry Hwang reveal that while Asian American identity is constructed in reaction to Orientalism, the two cultural forces are not necessarily at odds. The vigor with which these Asian Americans revolt against Orientalism in fact tacitly acknowledges the family lineage of the two. To identify the multitude of historical forms appropriated by the deathly embrace of Orientalism and Asian American ethnicity, Ma highlights four types of cultural encounters, embodied in four metaphors of physical states: the "clutch of rape" in imperialist adventure narratives of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen in comic strips of Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates and in the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson; the "clash of arms" or martial metaphors in the 1970s and beyond, embodied in Bruce Lee, Kingston's The Woman Warrior, and the video game Mortal Kombat; U.S. multicultural "flaunting" of ethnicity in the work of Amy Tan and in Disney's Mulan; and global postcolonial "masquerading" of ethnicity in the Anglo-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Broad in scope, penetrating in insight, Ma's work exposes the myriad ways in which Orientalism, an integral part of American culture, speaks through the texts of Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans alike. The result is a startling lesson in the construction of cultural identity. Sheng-mei Ma is associate professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University and the author of Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (1998). Translation Inquiries: University of Minnesota Press
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