What constitutes the category of Asian-American literature is by definition problematic. It is a constructed category, based upon the vague sense of geography, and perhaps culture, shared by persons from the region of the world, defined by the West, as "Asia." This constructed region draws together Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and many other nations that were deadly foes in their own national context. Now, the immigrants of persons from this area who have moved to Asia are lumped together, when they write as "Asian-American writers" according the viewpoint of Western literary critics. Thus, the first question one must ask is if the category of 'Asian-American writers' is valid at all?
Perhaps. Because, as diverse and multifaceted as all authors identified as Asian-Americans may be, all of these authors share a common, paradoxical sense of estrangement. They are neither of America, completely, nor of the Asian community of America alone. Nor can they return and become seamlessly part of the nation of their parent's birth. Asian-American literature, as opposed to literature written by Asian nationals in America is often a literature characterized by extreme alienation, estrangement, and existential self-doubt of what it means to be an American, and what it means to have a dual sense of self. The Asian-American person is forever divided between how he or she appears to the outside work and how she thinks of him or herself internally. To the outside world, an Asian-American may appear 'Asian' while the person behind the face feels American, maybe even feels White like the author Eric Liu of The Accidental Asian,' or feels frustrated that he or she cannot (or can) communicate in the language of his or her parent's or grandparent's native land.
This theme of internal estrangement becomes a metaphorical plot device in The Interpreter by Suki Kim. The protagonist of the novel has two murdered parents. The young woman is a both a literal and figurative orphan of her home, her original Korean culture, and cast adrift in America. If she can find their murderers, Suzy hopes, she will gain a sense of identity and a greater affinity with her national past. However, her pursuit of justice only drives her deeper into psychological turmoil and a sense of displacement, as she seeks her parent's murderers in vain in the Korean-American underworld of New York City.
The book begins with the young woman, desperate in an anonymous fast-food chain, eating cheap food and smoking a cigarette, completely disconnected with her fellow human beings. She is filled with a sense that she is in the wrong place, in the wrong clothes, and living a lie.
Over the course of the novel Suzy Park is continually haunted by the idea that her success and "chic ensemble" is "a pumpkin dream ready to pop." She works as a professional interpreter, so most of the words she speaks every day are not even her own thoughts. Eventually, over the course of the novel, she gains some life's purpose in finding her family's destroyer, although the criminal, marginal Korean-underground world she descends into often renders her just as anonymous as her initial existence as an interpreter.
The idea that finding one's parents, or connecting with one's parents as a way of finding an identity frustrates Suzy, ultimately, much like it frustrates Gish Jen's protagonist of "Who is Irish?" where three generations of Asians clash about the correct way to discipline children, as all have different levels of exposure to non-Asian cultures.
The novel The Interpreter continually problematizes the nature of Asian-American identity. The curious confluence between Asian-Americans, who are seen as 'the same' despite their different nationality is evident in the following passage in Chapter 1:
She [Suzy] can tell who's Korean from miles away. Of course, she's been wrong before, though only a handful of times, mistaking a Japanese person for Korean. She is not sure why, perhaps something in the history, a possible side effect of the sick affinity between the colonizer and the colonized -- Japan had once ruled Korea for thirty-six years, her father never forgot to remind her. Or it might simply be the way their facial bones are shaped, Koreans and Japanese more oval while Chinese seem flatter. All she knows is that she can always tell, and he can tell, and they both know that they are the same kind, sitting so close amidst a roomful of the rest of the world.
The two Koreans know one another, but no one else can see their true nation, to the eyes of Whites they are simply Asian. Even Suzy, used to living amongst Whites, occasionally mistakes a Japanese person for a Korean, which would be a sin in her home culture. This shared sense of displacement amongst Koreans, yet also between Koreans and other Asians as well, makes all Asians strangers in a strange land, and to some extent, at least on a superficial level, forced compatriots. The interpreter, as she is an expert in her Korean language, is also a secret expert in reading Korean faces, parsing the difference between Korean and Japanese, yet even she makes mistakes. When she finds a 'true' Korean, she feels that, as one Asian person in a roomful of whites she is curiously close to that person, but only close in their mutual sense of alienation and estrangement from the rest of the world.
The No-No Boy, by John Okada similarly defines Asian-American identity in terms of alienation and displacement within the American fabric. Its protagonist, Ichiro is interned as a result of his ancestry -- and also his refusal to fight for America. He reflects upon his inability to reconcile his American and Japanese identity within himself, when looking at his mother.
I was that lad in the peach and you were the old woman and we were Japanese with Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was all right then to be Japanese and feel and think all things that Japanese do even if we lived in America. Then there came a time when I was only half Japanese because one is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America and one does not speak and swear and drink and smoke and play and fight and see and hear in America among Americans in American streets and houses without becoming American and loving it.
The young man is torn between the two conflicting lessons, for to be America requires him to cast off his native ancestry and to reject his birth. Because of who he is, Ichiro is confined to a virtual prison in the internment camps, and at times he feels shame as if he has committed a crime, even though he has done nothing wrong, in his view. He could have avoided living in the camp if he had agreed to serve in the United States army, but serving would mean validating a system he abhorred, a system that imprisoned his people simply because of their race, although it did not do so to persons of German or Italian ancestry. The 'No' boy is neither an American nor a Japanese. He is estranged from both communities by a deep sense of 'wrongness,' wrong for not serving, for being born to a woman who came from another nation. His fellow Japanese-American compatriots reject him. When he rejects the option of American military service, his mother approves of his decision but his brother does not, so not even his home can remain safe, and intact.
The Japanese and Chinese nations were rivals during World War II, but the themes of the No Boy resonate in the non-fiction essays of the Chinese-American Eric Liu. The real-life Liu, like the fictional Korean Suzy Park, grapples with his relationship to language, but not in terms of a fluency that gives him another life and identity, but the fact that in spoken Chinese, he is not quite conversant, even though many of his relatives speak Chinese best. Even more paradoxically, despite his erudition in English (Liu is a Yale Law graduate) he is illiterate in Chinese writing.
Liu identifies himself thoroughly American in his national identification -- yet he finds it necessary to justify the fact that he is married to a White woman named Carol. Their real-world relationship is more successful than, for example the 1969 fictional relationship between the single, Vietnamese mother Tran in the short tale "Paper from Grass Roots" which provides some hope for the ability of identity to be worked out more easily in the real world. Still, Liu is clearly conflicted about who he is, and how he is 'read' as an American. The cover illustration of his book depicts the Western implement of a fork besides a bowl of rice. Liu knows that although 'looks' Asian to the world, he grew up in a largely White suburb, and had not always embraced the term 'Asian-American' fully as his own.
Liu admits that often…