SSHRC Project 2004-2007
Beyond Autoethnography: Asian North American Voices from Transcultural Spaces
My present project, "Beyond Autoethnography: Asian North American Voices from Transcultural Spaces," continues and expands on the research I have done in the last five years.
The focus of this project is on novels and films that attempt to circumvent the unproblematised or essentialized link between ethnic identity and literary production. As in my previous book, I wish to explore both Asian American and Asian Canadian works, as I see many parallels in the histories, cultural representations, and experiences of Asians in North America. In particular, I concentrate on authors who consciously question or redefine the notion of "Asian Canadian" or "Asian American," while not denying or rejecting the racialized space from which they write.
In the developing stage of Asian North American culture, creative works produced by Asian American and Asian Canadian authors tended to be read for its anthropological interest and accuracy. Although many autobiographies and biographies are still being produced today, there is a growing body of works with more experimental forms, structures, as well as content; narratives with protagonists who are either less identifiably Asian or whose plots are not primarily concerned with the struggle between the traditions of the Old and New worlds. This is not to say that autobiographical narratives or the Bildungsroman cannot be innovative, but these recent works, encompassing a wide range of subjects and styles, are more overt in their rejection of easy assumptions about the equation of race, ethnicity, and identity. Asians in the diaspora, like other cosmopolitans, are no longer simply bound by allegiances to nation, cultural heritage, and ethnicity, but live plural identities shaped by many other factors, such as sexuality, gender, class, religious affiliation, education, health and age.
I aim to write a book that explores recent novels, films, and plays by Asian North American which deliberately attempt to go "beyond autoethnography," or the ethnography of the immigrant and those individuals caught between worlds. These works have been called multicultural, minority or ethnic narratives, but these terms tend to assume that European or white culture is still dominant and the norm. Instead I prefer the term "transcultural" to suggest a space where there is a more fluid crossing, exchange and circulation of energies between dominant and minority cultures (see Davis 8, Keefer 265). Contemporary Asian North Americans who go beyond autoethnography are conscious of having been "looked at" or ethnographized as objects (Chow 180), and they are aware of the traditional expectations of the bildungsroman of the hyphenated Asian North American. Instead of conforming to these expectations and media spectres of themselves, they play with genres, with representations, or subvert the characteristics of the form they choose to use.
These recent productions shift the notion of centres and margins, so that one can no longer perceive them in binary terms. Because an author often manifests multiple allegiances and influences, it is more useful to think of interstices of power and cultural locations. Traditional concepts of nation and national affiliations give way to more fluid ideas about transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, and globalism. By emphasizing place, location, and space rather than more rigid notions of nation, language, race, and ethnicity, I recognize the provisionality and permeability of identity and identification for many of these transcultural subjects. This study is important as it it provides a better way of understanding the desires and aspirations, the complexities of affiliation and identity, at explaining how transcultural subjects deal with different aspects of their social, institutional, legal, religious, and familial lives.