Reevaluating Realism: Asian Identity in English VoicesSince the beginning of this century, depictions of Asians in film and text in English have largely been composed based on certain realist principles. The various technical experiments deployed by the modernists in their projects of representing character have been largely eschewed by artists when representing the Asian Other. In the last fifteen years, however, traditional representations of Asians in English have been challenged by a number of works whose content and technique perform conscious critiques of realist techniques commonly deployed in a variety of genre. While realism has remained the dominant mode in which the Asian subject is presented to English-speaking audiences, artists from a variety of socio-historical positions have used technical innovation to undermine the audience's belief in the capacity of the text (1) transparently to represent some extra-textual Reality. This shift in emphasis corresponds to recent shifts in the notions of the individual subject as theorized in various parts of the academy. Innovative prose representing Asia has moved from the traditional depictions of characters taken to represent multiple and separate individuals toward various moves of resistance to the concept which Frederic Jameson has described as "individual consciousness as a monadic and autonomous center of activity" (Political Unconscious 153), forsaking the synchronic representation of multiple character for the more and more detailed depiction of the positioning of a particular subject in time and space.
Earlier in this century, various British and American modernists deployed textual innovation to trace out the precise specificities of multiple characters' consciousness interacting within the work of art. Depictions of individuals in novels such as Ulysses, The Waves and As I Lay Dying were surrounded by various sorts of ellipses intended to emphasize the importance of the spaces between individuals. The more recent work which I intend to examine emphasizes the positioning of the individual in relation to its various spacial and temporal contexts, focusing not on individuals separated by some sort of break or lapse but in their constant connection to a variety of social and historical contexts and discourses.
In realist prose of many different genre, a central assumption has been that the text is designed to use language or visual image to form audience belief in their transparent correspondence of character to "real person" and textual action to action in the non-textual world. The mechanism behind the production of these beliefs was to remain largely invisible, not drawing attention to its own operations [Booth 1983]. The task of representing character may be construed in various ways from the reliance on stereotype evident in the Victorian novel to the demand for detail of the various modernist projects. This dependence on multiple characters interacting through time in the text is, however, always imagined to be congruent with contemporary notions of the functional equivalency of the political and economic subject [Jameson 1989, Lloyd 1990]. The logic of the multiple, however, has gradually resulted in increased attention to difference between the entities defined as equivalent for certain purposes, and in early twentieth century modernist meditations on character, we see, following Henry James, the development of the distinction between that character worth representing as opposed to that which is not [c.f., Ulysses and The Waves].(2)
As ready distinctions of all sorts have come to be more rigorously interrogated in our poststructuralist moment, however, artists have experimented with a variety of techniques to examine those spaces within collections of items conceived as entities, which were previously ignored simply as that between significant spacial and temporal positions. The resulting technical innovations are most readily apparent in texts which situate themselves at the edge of such constructs.
In my dissertation, I will examine the methods by which four women have performed recent representations of Asians in a historical moment which is constantly demanding critical examination of lines and boundaries. I have chosen these four women because their techniques in various ways problematize the historically accepted means of depicting a community of those previously denoted Other to diverse, but still largely white, audiences. Three of the authors I have selected are of Asian descent, but their place in an Asian American community is problematized by the fact that each immigrated from her country of origin. Also, though they have chosen to compose their pieces in English, their textual focus back toward a point that could be conceived their origin renders their placement in the Asian American community problematic. It could be argued that their views of identity are shaped by their difficulties in locating a community of which they are unquestioned members, the act of immigration separating them from the Asian and the act of writing a non-American history from the goals of the Asian American community (3). Theresa Hak Kyung Cha came to San Francisco from Korea with her family when she was eleven and lived in the United States until she was killed in 1982. Trinh T. Minh-ha came to the United States from Vietnam to attend college and has lived here since, with some intervals in Africa. Jessica Hagedorn came to the United States from the Philipines in her teens. All three of these women have composed pieces representing Asians and Asian Americans in a variety of genre; I will be examining the longer narrative pieces they have composed in text and on film, reading Cha's text Dictée\, as well as two of her longer cinematic installations, Exilée and Passages, Paysages; Trinh's two films on Asia, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989) and Shoot for the Content(s); (1991) and Hagedorn's 1991 novel Dogeaters.
My interest being focused on this historical moment rather than a marking out of the spacial connections of the "Asian American artist," a term already problematized in the case of women working in the various Asian diaspora, I will also look at the recent novel of a white British novelist, Margaret Drabble, who, with The Gates of Ivory in 1991, attempted a work whose action moves from England to Cambodia and Thailand, extrapolating from her previous tendency to cover larger spaces and more communal issues in her work. The ethnic and national gaps between Drabble and the other three women raise an apparent problem of incommensurability, but I would argue that the conceptual gap between the apparent community of Asian women writing from America and this white British woman brings up exactly the issues of allegorical symmetry that I wish to discuss where a more "balanced" collection might allow for the fantasy of a Real constructed in groups.
All of these women's compositions have been constructed, I would argue, in response to various critical currents which have, particularly in the last two decades, shaped the ways in which representations of Asians have been received. I intend to spend my first chapter examining the critical debate which has been taking place in the Asian American community since the publication of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior in 1976. A group of male Chinese American artists, led by playwright Frank Chin, has asserted that Kingston's blurring of the distinction between the fictional and the autobiographical text has political consequences which outweigh the artist's prerogatives as they have come to be interpreted in the twentieth century. Chin's arguments are strongly and apparently unreflectively based on an ideology of realism which requires the readers' belief in textual reality in direct correspondence to a non-textual reality. Critique of his position comes mainly from Asian American feminists (4), who all work to clarify the implications of Chin's nationalist positions for Asian American women. It is the inevitable implication of Chin's demand for authenticity and certain continuities in historically determined gender positions that has formed the basis for my decision to examine the work of female artists. Although I am as interested in critiquing the lines of gender as other boundaries, the work of these artists does much to demonstrate the particular intransigence of this line both in Asia and in the critique of art representing Asians in English-speaking communities.
In opening my discussion of the Asian American debates, I will use Mikhail Bakhtin's essays on polyphony in Dostoevsky's novels as well as Wayne Booth's response to Bakhtin's arguments in the introduction to Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. I will argue not that Chin and his colleagues have been directly influenced by Bakhtin's contentions, but that Bakhtin's assertions and Booth's response mark out a set of assumptions about the act of interpreting texts that underlies Chin's critiques of Kingston's fictionalization of history. These arguments depend on a certain notion of reader response which continues to act as an implicit assumption in much writing about representational texts. The argument posed in the Asian American community is that in a predominantly racist society, the author must anticipate the reader's desire to read in a racist way and consciously deploy techniques which oppose this tendency. As filmmaker Valerie Soe claims in her essay "Like a Clear Mirror: Asian American Film and Video Diaries":
When Asian Americans pick up the camera and describe the plain daily experiences of their lives, it isn't narcissism, self-interest or vanity driving them. Rather, it's the need to make visible the realities of their lives and their culture in a truthful, straightforward way. Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha once wrote in a letter to her mother, "I will be satisfied with illuminating my ideas like a clear mirror to one or two persons." (Soe 1995)The intention of the artist is here circumscribed by the assumption that she wants to represent the reality she has experienced, in a move that connects the work of art to the mirror, transmitting images commonly believed to correspond to that perceived without the aid of linguistic representation. While Soe apparently makes this claim only for the diary form, her inclusion of Theresa Cha's work in this genra raises questions about where the boundaries of the diary form are to be established, since Cha's work obviously defies narrowly defined limits for most genre. Criticism based on these assumptions takes place in terms of "representativeness" and "authenticity" as Shelley Wong notes in "Unnaming the Same: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée" (US):The choice of realist forms that centered on the development of autonomous selfhood made possible the literary representation and achievement of an Asian American subjectivity (a subjectivity that had been conspicuously absent in mainstream depictions or objectifications of Asians) that could serve as a prelude to the Asian American subject's achievement of political representation. (US 130)Wong adopts the assumption that the realist depiction of subjectivity is readily taken by white/"mainstream" audiences of text and film to create a notion of the existence of an Asian American subjectivity. As white readers have been taught to read realist constructions of white subjectivity as a match for the subjective interiority they experience [Booth 1983], an equivalent representation of Asians or Asian Americans is understood to construct the possibility of an equivalent subjectivity in these groups of racial others and an equivalent system of human interaction within the ethnic community (5). The reader's acceptance of this equivalence creates some willingness to create an equivalent space for the Asian American in the political arena. Older texts marked racist are figured in this scheme as having refused to mark out an equivalent subjectivity for the others they claim to represent. This argument, implicit in most recent realist narratives, depends on the artist's willingness to represent characters in ways in which white characters have previously been depicted in the various media.
The four artists whose work I will discuss in my second and third chapters, however, have chosen to deploy formal linguistic and structural innovation as a means of constructing a link between language and photographic image and the Asians to which these are taken to refer. My second chapter will examine the roles of Margaret Drabble and Jessica Hagedorn as exemplars of a larger group of recent artists who have critiqued realist assumptions through artistic techniques which superficially appear realist. Both authors, for example, examine problems of representing multiple characters through a representation of multiplicity. In contrast, my third chapter will focus on both the textual and cinematic texts of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Trinh T. Minh-ha, artists who have eschewed realist depiction of character and incident for formal experimentation which makes no claim to represent multiple characters and their relationships in time. While Trinh and Cha's work still frequently bears reference to people in the world outside their texts, they emphasize through a variety of techniques that these representations are never commensurate with reality. There is always a space of difference between the real and the text, a difference centered in the artist's subjectivity. Instead of focusing their task on creating several figures to be read as real people, they center on the problems of adequately suggesting the play of a single subjectivity through art, this subjectivity serving as the node through which social forces operate. While the techniques used to produce the realist effect are obviously different in film than in text, both normally work to produce the audience belief in the lack of mediation [Bordwell 1985, Booth 1983]. Further, realism in the fictional text has long been formulated explicitly in terms of the text's connection to the pictorial. Henry James made this connection explicitly in assertions that have influenced many in their notions of realism; in The Future of the Novel he writes:
The novelist can only fall back on that--on his recognition that man's constant demand for what he has to offer is simply man's general appetite for a picture. The novel is of all pictures the most comprehensive and the most elastic. (James 1956)In my fourth chapter, having examined the particularities of these projects, I will use the work of Frederic Jameson and Homi Bhabha to develop a theory about the directions of these works, particularly the trend toward examining the various sorts of lines and boundaries which are assumed by most members of the various English-speaking communities. I will contend that both Jameson and Bhabha are most interested in a continuous interrogation of the sorts of distinctions which both agree are permanent concommitants of language, but whose positionings should always remain in contention if we are to avoid creating an ideology which invokes their status as Truth. I will use these theorists' contentions' to shape a theory about the direction of narrative which lies at the limits, work by artists from a space that remains elsewhere to the English-speaking community, work that refuses to be named definitively along genre lines and which refuses to be categorized in terms of its subject. The central feature of this theory will be continual transition, not for the sake of some ideology of progress toward an imagined perfection, but the continuous imaginative shifts in position that both the artists and theorists here under discussion deploy in order to continue to undermine those concepts which continuously tend toward ideological fixity. (6)
I plan to frame my discussion of recent efforts to represent the limitations of realism in the context of an opposing effort to construct ever more realistic representations. Recent discussions of Margaret Drabble's work have frequently focussed on her tendency toward ever greater complexity in plot, often motivated by increasing numbers of characters in her works, and more formal innovation. I will be asserting that, compared to the other artists I will be discussing, Drabble's representation of Southeast Asia remains firmly grounded in the desire to combat the failures of realism with extensions of realist technique. Drabble's repeated reference in The Gates of Ivory to criticism of Joseph Conrad's works, however, make clear that she is consciously aware of the sorts of representations of otherness currently deemed unacceptable by many audiences, and in posing her main character as a reader responding to Conrad, she overtly frames the problem of possible receptions of her attempt at a similar project. I plan to perform a close analysis of Drabble's use of Conrad's work in historically and ideologically situating her text. Drabble's decision to follow Conrad in attempting to provide a "realistic" representation of Asia seems to suggest that she believes that she can transcend the limitations of his representations. To this end, she chooses to represent several Asian characters and much action within Southeast Asia in some detail, shifting back and forth from a female to a male perspective, their socio-historical positionings being traced out in the text in some detail. Her deployment of various positions from which to attempt representations of the multiple Asian characters suggests both the desire for universality that we likewise see in Hagedorn's shifts in perspective, and a lack of belief in the possibility of achieving adequate representation from a single subject position. With a couple of brief exceptions, Drabble does not attempt a representation of the consciousness of an Asian character. Perhaps she senses a danger in such an attempt on the part of an artist situated in the former seat of colonial empire. Drabble's techniques finally seem to imply that the Other can never be adequately represented, despite detailed accounts of conversation and appearance that can be performed. Though she spends much of her text describing Asia and Asians, the plot lines which involve Asians repeatedly end with a renewed emphasis on the unnarratability of Asian subjectivity. While this indeterminacy is not unique to the situation of Asian characters, since Stephen Cox's death is represented only through the characters' dialogue, the attempted representations of Asian characters fade to nothing in every case.
Like Drabble, Philippine-American artist Jessica Hagedorn relies on many of the techniques of realist narrative, though realist passages are pieced together with techniques that undermine the authority of realist technique as they play on the margins against it. Sections of text are opened with citations from a very early work of cultural anthropology in the Philipines, text in which the author's motives for writing about the other are clearly racist. Unlike Drabble, Hagedorn responds to this other sort of realist narrative only indirectly. Her unwillingness to define her relation to these citations makes it possible for them to be read as writings which undermine the authority of Hagedorn's narrative, unwittingly propagating examples of racist discourse about the Philipines as new truths for incautious readers. Hagedorn's decision to shift from one first person narrative to another midway through the novel, and the continued shifts from first to third person narration throughout the novel can be read as an argument to the reader not to engage in the reading practices authorized by realism.
I would like to argue, however, that these techniques are insufficient to undercut the readers' desire to read her text as an alternative representation of the Philipines. In particular, the careful placement of her characters across the spectrum of possible race, class and gender positions may be read as the author's desire to represent some totality of the Philipines, though the gesture could also be read as a suggestion of the discontinuities of interpretations of history across different segments of society. Her shift in the first person narrator midway through the novel from the economically priviledged mestiza, Rio, to the underclass, homosexual mulatto Joey obviously serves at least partly as a device to dislodge the reader's assumption that the narrator's first person matches the voice of the biographical author. That the "I" of the novel can experience such a large shift reinforces the reader's concept of the fiction of the first person in the novel. Hagedorn's return to Rio's centrality at the end of the novel, when compared to the indeterminate exit of Joey from the text, allows the reader to reconstruct the fantasy of the text as the author's true story, embellished by fictional digression.
In contrast, the work of Cha and Trinh forces the audience continually to recognize both the shaping primacy of the authorial position and the fictionality of any reader's construction of that position. While we can argue that details of Drabble and Hagedorn's techniques should make the reader's transition from the ideology of realism possible, the compositions of Cha and Trinh offer their audiences no plausible alternative to understanding realism as a construct. Tracing out the conventions which make realist readings a possibility, both Cha and Trinh use narrative complexity to facilitate the reader's apprehension of the difficulty of interpreting text and the positioning of the author as subject in relation to the text. Both artists eschew the representation of multiplicity for the montage of various sorts of details which outline the various positionings of the artist more clearly than the relation of various characters situated in apparent separateness.
While Cha's Dictée, for example, is infused with languages formed by many sorts of authorities, these languages are not represented as emanating from particular mouths, they remain generic representations of certain sorts of authority. The words of the language instructor, for example, are connected to no particular body or site or time, though there is a loose connection to a time before the present tense of the text. Instead of describing a particular teacher and a particular classroom, Cha offers up the situation stripped of particular context. I would argue that there is only a single voice, stripped of connection to physical particularities, that could be denoted a character. The words are attached to no physical description or name, unless we are to attach the name of the text's author to this configuration of consistent memory, thought and physical sensation. In contrast to Dogeaters, with its shift of the first person from a female to a male position, there is nothing in the text which renders a reading of the center of all discourse as a single character untenable.
In her films Surname Viet Given Name Nam and Shoot for the Content(s), Trinh Minh-ha chooses to connect her films to Asia by selecting a form that looks like documentary about Asia. Her films are not centered on a plotting that would bring her characters into relation with each other. The documentary form, though often stripped of emphasis on the connections of characters through action, operates as a form of realism in its insistence on the immediate perceptibility of the represented, that which is represented being displayed as that which could be perceived in life outside art were one placed in the correct position.
In Surname Viet Given Name Nam, four women each speak for several minutes, their bodies each on the screen in isolation from others. Their monologues roughly conform to the conventions for the documentary interview, the camera serving as a transparent mechanism for recording. Several elements of the filming situation could be taken as clues to the director's interest in mediation: the absence of the interviewer's voice to initiate exchange, the angling of the women's bodies away from the camera, and the refusal to offer realist settings for these monologues. These details, however, have often served merely to accentuate the audience's desire to accept the film as unmediated truth.
Even here, where voice does seem to be connected to physical features and spacial locations, these very details are used to undermine, rather than to reinforce the audience assumption of realist character. The same female bodies are deployed with two discreet voices each, the Asian and the Asian American. In each case, the language uttered during the first half of the film is filled with an elevated diction belied by many mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, mistakes often at odds with the apparent transcription of the verbal performance offered in the subtitles. The reader is given to believe that the individual realities of these women's voices are being unified by an authority who normalizes all errors. In the second half of the film, each of the women is again represented, speaking in a very apparently different way. Vocabulary is greatly simplified, and in some cases, the woman no longer expresses herself in English but in Vietnamese with English subtitles. The content of their second monologues is their feelings about preparing for their previous role in the film.
The voice that elicits each woman's monologue has been erased. This procedure tends to unsettle the reader's expectation of what is to be considered distinct. Trinh has invested her film not only with fractures in what is usually believed to be distinct and singular (the women as individuals) but coalesces that which is often perceived as multiple into a new sort of singular concept. She has taken the multiplicity of the women's various voices and used the totality to point repeatedly to the control that she finally exercises over the entire product, a control which renders the concept of simply representing a collection of various truths of Vietnamese women a falsehood at the same time that she remains obviously committed at some level to not merely reducing the whole to her personal voice.
Trinh's focus in Shoot for the Contents seems to center on the languages of authority embodied in such items of common Chinese cultural inheritance as the sayings of Mao and Kong Tze and the various figurations of the dragon, the symbol of imperial power that runs as a motif through both the visual and the spoken aspect of Trinh's text. While she does not reduce the text to a single predominant figure's words, her constant returns to a few pivotal figures point to the consistency of her interests. The words of the legendary males are presented in the filmic text by two female voices speaking in English with a precision that suggests that their comments about Chinese history have been scripted for them. Contrasting written and spoken words, images and lore of male power with the filmic focus on places far from the centers of power, rural villages and details of the interiors of the houses of the less priviledged, Trinh refuses to place herself precisely in relation to words and images. At the same time, the very apparent lack of randomness in her selection of spoken and visual points of representation marks the relation of the issues the film undertakes to her position as a female filmmaker in the Asian diaspora. In undertaking a representation of an Asian culture to which she does not "belong," Trinh seems willingly to sacrifice the transparency of her authority to speak based on her ethnic identity. Retaining some priviledge as a female artist of color in a tradition whose rules are understood to have been set by white anthropologists and ethnographers (7), Trinh seems reluctant to offer opinions about her subject as she freely did in Surname Viet Given Name Nam, where the boldest opinions are expressed in the director's own voice. Here she seems both to guide the direction of the histories represented and to return incessantly to the transience of any description of a past whose description constantly changes in the light of the continuation of history.
While Trinh, unlike Cha, does not offer a coherent voice in the singular, deploying multiple bodies to shape the audience's consciousness of her interventions, the consistencies within and between her works suggest strong and controversial convictions which provide a center for the complex of word and image she offers her audience. She constantly plays against the very transparencies which the realist artist strives to deploy, reminding the audience constantly of the very particularity of her positionings in history. Like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, she remains reluctant to commit herself to univocality on many issues, preferring to present a nuanced intervention into the multiple positions she chooses to represent, altering the present image with the weave of that which comes before and after, both in terms of history and in terms of the flow of her work.
While experimental realists like Jessica Hagedorn and Margaret Drabble deploy a variety of devices to discourage their readers from accepting the apparent transparencies of their representations of characters moving through interactions in time, their continued emphasis on the interactions of characters in a representable chronology of events supports a position about history which is refuted in the techniques of artists like Cha and Trinh. The concept of histories which are not inevitably transformed with each shift in the positioning of the person undertaking a representation is undermined in all of the gestures that Cha and Trinh use to move their texts without reverting to the use of characters in time. I want to claim, then, that both Cha and Trinh have chosen to abandon a realism that purports to represent the multiple in time and in space for forms which zero in on the complex factors at work in what we denote a singularity, this particular position always influencing the representations of historical entirities that might in realism simply purport to be truth.
1. I am using "text" in its larger sense, to include both the narrative fiction and film which will be discussed in this project.
2. As James comments in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady (The Art of the Novel 55):
Maria Gostrey and Miss Stackpole then are cases, each, of the light ficelle, not of the true agent; they may run beside the coach "for all they are worth," they may cling to it till they are out of breath (as poor Miss Stackpole all so vividly does), but, neither ceases for a moment to tread the dusty road. Put it even that they are the fishwives who helped to bring back to Paris from Versailles...the carriage of the royal family.While it is very interesting to me that James phrases the distinction in terms of class, I would not limit the distinctions other authors make to the class-based (c.f., Ulysses).
3. Sau Ling Wong comments of the political exigencies of the Asian American artist/critic in her introduction to Reading Asian American Literature:
Asian American critics have always had choices to make: notably between tracing Asian influence in the texts and demonstrating their grounding in American historical experiences; between accentuating their universal accessibility and uncovering their particular preoccupations. My choice in this study, to focus on the latter of each pair, is based on the conviction that the tendency to "de-Americanize" Asian American literature is too rampant to need any inadvertant abetting. The literatures of other major peoples of color in the United States, though also vulnerable to exoticization, are less susceptible in this regard... (9)4. See, for example, Elaine Kim, 1982; King-Kok Cheung, 1990; Sau Ling Wong, 1991, Lisa Lowe, 1991; and Shelley Wong, 1994.
5. See, for example, F. Chin 1978, S. Wong 1993, J. Hagedorn 1993.
6. Jameson both notes the falsity of these concepts and insists on their persistence:
What becomes interesting in the present context is not the denunciation of the centered subject and its ideologies, but rather the study of its historical emergence, its constitution or virtual construction as a mirage which is also evidently in some fashion an objective reality. For the lived experience of individual consciousness as a monadic and autonomous center of activity is not some mere conceptual error, which can be dispelled by the taking of thought and by scientific rectification; it has a quasi-instrumental status, performs ideological functions, and is susceptible to historical causation and produced and reinforced by other objective instances, determinants and mechanisms. (Political Unconscious 153)7. See interviews with Trinh in Framer Framed.