Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Real and the Fake, Revisited

Back when I was in college and graduate school, the Asian-American writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan were all the rage.

No one mentioned Frank Chin all that much, although Chin had been writing short stories throughout the 1970's.  He was one of the first Asian American playwrights to have a major New York production.

Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), on the other hand, was immediately and enormously popular (a chapter of my dissertation is on Hong Kingston's work).  Her next memoir, China Men (1980), appeared a few years later, to somewhat less popular acclaim (although quite frankly, I think it's a somewhat stronger work).

Amy Tan arrived on the scene a few years later with The Joy Luck Club (1989), and helped fan the flames of interest in Asian-American literature.  In 1993, her novel was made into what is, in my opinion, a truly cheesy and terrible movie.  Tan wrote a few more popular novels in rapid succession, including The Kitchen God's Wife and The Hundred Secret Senses.  I read the former and didn't like it at all--to such an extent that this ended my little run of reading Amy Tan.

In 1991, Fran Chin wrote an article entitled, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," angrily blasting Hong Kingston, Tan, and David Henry Hwang (the author of M. Butterfly) for writing works of Asian American literature that perpetuate racist stereotypes.

Chin was irate about the extent to which these works achieved instant and seemingly everlasting popularity with an American audience.  In his opinion, they do a serious disservice to "authentic" representations of the Asian experience in America by tapping into the very stereotypes that Asians have been trying to combat for centuries.

Specifically, Chin charges, "Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian American lore in history."

From a literary standpoint, what is at issue in Chin's charge is the way in which Hong Kingston and others revise (in Chin's words, "boldly fake") the stories told in ancient Chinese legends and novels.  For example, The Woman Warrior retells the legend of Fa Mu Lan, the medieval story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to go to war and spare her father.  She goes in place of the son the family does not have.

Have you seen the Disney movie Mulan?  If so, this is precisely Frank Chin's point.

The legend of Hua Mulan is a story that is potentially appealing to an American audience, in a way that other Chinese legends might not be.  Quite frankly, there are a TON of Chinese legends about the heroic deeds of male warriors who sacrifice themselves in acts of honor, loyalty and duty, out of a love for family and community. 

And why, really, does someone need to retell the story of Madama Butterfly, of all things?  This is also Chin's point: given the vast array of ancient and classical materials from the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions, readily available for Asian American artists to work with, why choose these particular texts as the organizing framework for a literary intervention in contemporary American literature and culture?

Chin's charge is that these retellings are "fake," that they pander to racist stereotypes of Asians and of Asian Americans, and that, as such, they lack "authenticity."

For her part, Hong Kingston countered that she never claimed to be writing "history," that The Woman Warrior and China Men are "memoirs," and that as such, she never intended them to be "representative" of the experience of "being Asian American."  They represent her experience, which is also, simultaneously, that of a Chinese-American woman.

And yet, I can't simply dismiss Chin's point, because I think he does have a point, and I think literary history may bear him out.

There was a time in the early 1990s when I suspect that a serious subset of the white female population strongly wished that their moms and grandmoms met for stories of wisdom, love, and laughter over games of mah-jong, a la Tan's "Joy Luck Club."  And while Hwang's retelling of the Puccini opera is interesting and compelling, in its depiction of Song Liling, it could very well be seen as drawing on racist stereotypes that have traditionally served to emasculate Asian-American men.

All of this to say that I have always been curious about Frank Chin's work, but I was initially turned off from it largely because of the tone he adopted and the terms on which he waged war with other Asian American writers.

Back in the late '80s and early 90's, it seemed relatively clear that, whatever the validity of Chin's claims about the preferences of the American literary audience regarding depictions of Asian Americans and writers of Asian American literature (and the test of time has shown that they may well have a great deal of validity), they paled alongside the notion that his own allegations were fueled by a measure of professional envy--and streaked with more than a hint of misogyny.

The terms upon which Chin staged the debate--my Asian-American texts are "real" examples of Asian-American realities, whereas yours are "fake"--is fraught with problems and even a bit odd, given that we're all talking about fiction here.

Or are we?  Ultimately, Chin's attack raises an excellent point: legends and stories, like stereotypes, are fictions that take hold of our world and shape how we perceive both ourselves and others.  They determine how we perceive experience--both our own, and that of others--and who and what we identify with, culturally, politically, and morally.

So if there's such a thing as a literary bucket-list, Frank Chin has always been on mine.  I have always wanted to read his work, and I knew that once I got over my initial annoyance at his mode of expressing his literary politics and found some time on my hands, I would.

I finally picked up Chin's 1991 novel, Donald Duk the other day.  And I must say, it was worth the wait and a very enjoyable read.  Chin's story of an almost twelve-year-old boy who is navigating the terms of his Chinese-American identity in the first days of the Chinese New Year is quite fascinating.

Chin draws upon American iconography--Donald is well aware that his name is shared by a cartoon character (and he hates this fact).  His mother's name is actually "Daisy Duk."  He longs to be "the Chinese Fred Astaire."

In short, Donald initially seems to participate in some of the most prominent stereotypes that have dogged the representation of Chinese-Americans in the United States: Timidity.  Passivity.  Internal self-hatred.

And then, slowly and systematically--and above all, artistically--Chin's novel undoes all of them.  Donald Duk confronts the stereotypes in clever, funny and original ways, and uses literary tradition to rethink how and why they have functioned in the way that they have.

As the novel unfolds, Donald begins to learn about the 108 heroes of the Chinese epic, The Water Margin.  Representations of these heroes begin to visit him in his dreams and offer a framework within which he begins to rethink the history of the Chinese who, along with a contingent of equally-shunned and similarly sterotyped Irish workers--built the Central Pacific railroad through the Sierra Nevada in the 19th century.

Chin's representation of the merging of Chinese and American culture is far more complex and literary than Tan's or Hong Kingston's.  I have to give him that.  I suspect I'll return to Donald Duk far more often than I have returned to Hong Kingston's narratives.

At the same time, I really like Hong Kingston's China Men, and it was particularly interesting to see how each of these gifted writers reflect on the role of their Chinese ancestors in the building of the American railroad.

Ultimately, Chin's criticism of other Asian American writers raises a point that I can't quite answer.  Is it dangerous to write for an audience that typically knows nothing about Chinese literature and to then impose significant changes on traditional Chinese materials?  Or to select only traditions that seem to fit more readily with what an American audience might want to believe--or think that it sees--when it looks at "what it means to be Chinese in America"?

Or do texts and traditions belong to the writers and readers who use them?  Are they always open to change?

I often think I'm in an odd position as a reader of Asian American literature: I've read several of the (very long, but very, very interesting) Chinese novels that form the basis of their literary tradition: The Journey to the West, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin.

In fact, the only one I haven't read, is the one Chin draws on: The Water Margin.  So now it's on my list.  Chin's novel has piqued my interest.  I actually have the novel, in all 4 volumes, sitting on a shelf in my office.  Time to dust them off and get cracking.

These works form the basis of Chinese culture.  If you mention any one of them, a Chinese listener will know exactly what you are referencing.  But readers and listeners in an American audience have usually never even heard of them.

Ultimately, this is the issue confronting Donald Duk: on the eve of his twelfth birthday and at the start of the Chinese New Year, he is poised to turn his back on Chinese culture as a whole.  He doesn't want to know about it, because he thinks there's nothing to know.  He thinks he hates everything "Chinese".  He thinks the traditions of Chinese culture have nothing to offer him.  He wants to be an "American" (whatever that might mean).

Whatever you might think of his literary politics, as a work of literary art, Chin's Donald Duk is the real deal.  It is a funny, clever and richly interesting novel about the dynamics of authenticity, identity and assimilation.  I highly recommend it.

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