Golden nuggets for moving away from a technological culture to an ecological culture

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cohen, author of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, writes about Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, who inspired his book and field of study.

I was a young city and regional planner in the 1970s. It was a turbulent time especially as there was a growing awareness that we are doing some fairly serious harm to our environment. I had heard about a dynamic professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was one of the organizers of America’s first Earth Day. He was scheduled to give a presentation in April 1970 at the University of Delaware and I decided to go and find out what was really going on. Well, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and regional planner let his audience of over 500 people have it straight and to the point. We are despoiling our environment and if we don’t change our ways we may in fact be threatening our survival. He extolled us that we must embrace ecology in how we plan, design, and build our human settlements. The year before McHarg had published Design with Nature that immediately became a hallmark call for reversing current trends. It was a challenge not just to planners and designers, but to everyone else.

McHarg’s message to design with nature became my professional commitment that steered my professional life for over three decades and has lasted with me to this day. I would later study with McHarg at Penn and that educational experience became the icing on the cake.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture_SMThose of us in both the professional and academic worlds that have a curiosity for discovery are continually looking for that little piece of wisdom, brilliance, or revelation that will bring about a new awareness—not just intellectually, but emotionally. We can find these “golden nuggets” almost anywhere as we proceed through life experiences. I discovered one at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in 2006 when I was part of a team that interviewed a number of forward looking thinkers concerned about the present state of our environment. It was Graham Leicester director of the International Futures Forum who somewhat casually remarked: “We are subject to rapid technological change, new interconnectedness, speed of advance; we are in a world we don’t understand anymore. The old rules no longer seem to apply. The new rules haven’t been discovered. What we need is a Second Enlightenment.” This was more than a discovery, it was a jolt of lightening.

In retrospect I can say that my professional work as an ecological planner discovered a new twist with this golden nugget. Yes, I concluded we do need to embrace a “second enlightenment” that will be a guiding mantra to move us away from a technological culture to an ecological culture. The evolution and development of the machine—from the earliest clock to today’s computer—has for sure given us great advantages to make life easier and more enjoyable. And this strikes at the center of the concern: Has the advance in technological achievement begun to steal away our basic humanity? Are we losing a connection with our natural environment?

These two points became the focus of the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford, one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He bemoaned the reality that human aspiration and purpose was becoming overwhelmed by technological progress. Think about it; think about how our cities and small towns have declined and how suburbia has grown exponentially. Think about how we have damaged our cultural resources; how we have witnessed diminishing natural and agricultural areas; how we have to tolerate increasing traffic congestion; and how we have seemingly become addicted to our Smartphones and other electronic devices. If we all stand back for a moment and take an assessment of where we are in the continuum of history can we say we are satisfied with our lives, our living patterns, and our environment?

This overriding question gave me the impetus to write Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture. I firmly thought when I began this enterprise that I could somehow meld historical trends with today’s realities and provide a future direction. It was not difficult to conclude that the work of both Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg gives us a strong guiding light to examine and even project that the achievement of an ecological culture is both evident and a necessity. This transition takes on special significance when we look at our current educational system. How we prepare the next generation of planners and designers will be crucial to our success. By advancing an ecohumanism philosophy, as the premise to planning, designing, and building our human settlements, we can see the light of an ecological culture on a reachable horizon. We just need to get there to preserve our environment and our humanity.

 

 

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Vice as a tourist attraction?

This week in North Philly Notes, Andrew Israel Ross, author of Public City/Public Sex, writes about the “problem” of public sex in cities. 

I recently visited Amsterdam for the first time and I could not help but be struck by how successfully the city marketed what once would have simply been considered “vice” as a tourist attraction. After making their pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House, for example, tourists can take advantage of the walking tours of the Red Light District. Meandering along the streets of the Dutch city, gawking through windows at nearly-naked women hawking sexual services, women, men, and children can tell themselves that they participated in a venal economy even if they did not actually purchase anything from the women. Indeed, the success of the Red Light District as tourist district has outstripped the imaginations of those who legalized it. The Dutch government has considered limiting how many people could enter the area and permitting sex workers to work elsewhere in the city. The legalization of sex work may or may not have actually made it safer for those engaged in the profession, but it definitely made it into an apparently appropriate experience to the millions of international tourists who flock every year to the Dutch capital. Inscribed in the city, but also cordoned off into its own zone, female sex work becomes a carefully curated experience of the urban center.

Public City Public SexTwenty-first century Amsterdam represents the height of trends I explore in my book Public City/Public Sex: Prostitution, Homosexuality, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. The book traces the relationship between those who participated in and sought out a culture of public sex and those who sought to regulate, understand, and control that culture in Paris over the course of the nineteenth century. In doing so, the book shows some of the ways that public sex was more central to the nineteenth-century city than to the twenty-first. Public sex —primarily evidence of female prostitution and men seeking sex with other men — was not “marginal” to the life of the city. Rather, it was central. Indeed, I show how nineteenth-century urban culture relied upon a culture of public sex that could not be evaded. It was only with the rise of modern consumer culture in the latter decades of the century that public sex came to be a “safe” attraction for Parisians and tourists, sold by male entrepreneurs to a willing audience of middle-class men and women.

During the nineteenth century, state administrators, expert moralists, and private entrepreneurs collaborated in an effort to transform Paris in ways that would open the supposedly “medieval” city to control by the police, to business by capitalists, and to movement by residents. Coupled with new systems of regulation, urban development enabled greater surveillance of the city by the police, but it also offered opportunities for social practices the authorities had intended to prevent in the first place. In an effort to remove sex workers from the streets, the Prefecture of Police “tolerated” brothels that could and would be recognized by anyone passing one by. In an effort to clean the city’s filth, public hygienists advocated for the provision of public urinals that could and would be appropriated by men who sought sex with other men. The creation of new boulevards, parks, and commercial spaces such as cafés and dancehalls where people interacted and encountered one another all enabled public sexual interaction that could be viewed by anyone at any time. The existence and availability of public sexual activity became a key feature of the nineteenth-century city, as administrators, businessmen, prostitutes, men seeking sex with other men, and other Parisians all competed to define urban space in their own terms. The urban culture of the nineteenth century emerged through these tensions.

By arguing that the origins of “modern” urban culture rested on forms of public sexual activity recognized and recognizable by anyone and everyone, Public City/Public Sex historicizes efforts to manage the experience of urban environments, both those explicitly sexualized like the Red Light District and those meant to be asexual. Understanding our own responses to the sexualization of space depends on acknowledging the thin line between the two. Public City/Public Sex historicizes the experience of public sexual encounter by showing how female prostitutes and men who sought sex with other men in deployed city space to locate sexual partners and assert their right to the city. The emergence of the Red Light District as a solution to the “problem” of public sex, therefore, was as much as way of taking power away from sex workers as it was an attempt to ensure their safety in the modern city and can only be fully understood as a direct response to the more fluid sexual culture of the nineteenth century.

Celebrating Pride

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Pride month with a dozen Temple University Press’s LGBTQ titles.

City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972by Marc Stein

Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves is refreshing for at least two reasons: it centers on a city that is not generally associated with a vibrant gay and lesbian culture, and it shows that a community was forming long before the Stonewall rebellion. In this lively and well received book, Marc Stein brings to life the neighborhood bars and clubs where people gathered and the political issues that rallied the community. He reminds us that Philadelphians were leaders in the national gay and lesbian movement and, in doing so, suggests that New York and San Francisco have for too long obscured the contributions of other cities to gay culture.

Civic Intimacies: Black Queer Improvisations on Citizenshipby Niels van Doorn

Because members of the Black queer community often exist outside conventional civic institutions, they must explore alternative intimacies to experience a sense of belonging. Civic Intimacies examines how—and to what extent—these different forms of intimacy catalyze the values, aspirations, and collective flourishing of Black queer denizens of Baltimore. Niels van Doorn draws on eighteen months of immersive ethnographic fieldwork for his innovative cross-disciplinary analysis of contemporary debates in political and cultural theory.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice, by Ryan Patrick Murphy

In 1975, National Airlines was shut down for 127 days when flight attendants went on strike to protest long hours and low pay. Activists at National and many other U.S. airlines sought to win political power and material resources for people who live beyond the boundary of the traditional family. In Deregulating Desire, Ryan Patrick Murphy, a former flight attendant himself, chronicles the efforts of single women, unmarried parents, lesbians and gay men, as well as same-sex couples to make the airline industry a crucible for social change in the decades after 1970.

From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United Statesby Craig A. Rimmerman

Liberal democracy has provided a certain degree of lesbian and gay rights. But those rights, as we now know, are not unlimited, and they continue to be the focus of efforts by lesbian and gay movements in the United States to promote social change. In this compelling critique, Craig Rimmerman looks at the past, present, and future of the movements to analyze whether it is possible for them to link identity concerns with a progressive coalition for political, social, and gender change, one that take into account race, class, and gender inequalities. Enriched by eight years of interviews in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and by the author’s experience as a Capitol Hill staffer, From Identity to Politics will provoke discussion in classrooms and caucus rooms across the United States.

The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture, by Heike Bauer

Influential sexologist and activist Magnus Hirschfeld founded Berlin’s Institute of Sexual Sciences in 1919 as a home and workplace to study homosexual rights activism and support transgender people. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. This episode in history prompted Heike Bauer to ask, Is violence an intrinsic part of modern queer culture? The Hirschfeld Archives answers this critical question by examining the violence that shaped queer existence in the first part of the twentieth century.

In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, by Michael Sadowski

Adolescence is a difficult time, but it can be particularly stressful for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identifying youth. In order to avoid harassment and rejection, many LGBTQ teens hide their identities from their families, peers, and even themselves. Educator Michael Sadowski deftly brings the voices of LGBTQ youth out into the open in his poignant and important book, In a Queer Voice. Drawing on two waves of interviews conducted six years apart, Sadowski chronicles how queer youth, who were often “silenced” in school and elsewhere, now can approach adulthood with a strong, queer voice.

Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural Americaby Colin R. Johnson

Most studies of lesbian and gay history focus on urban environments. Yet gender and sexual diversity were anything but rare in nonmetropolitan areas in the first half of the twentieth century. Just Queer Folks explores the seldom-discussed history of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity in rural and small-town America during a period when the now familiar concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality were just beginning to take shape. Eschewing the notion that identity is always the best measure of what can be known about gender and sexuality, Colin R. Johnson argues instead for a queer historicist approach. In so doing, he uncovers a startlingly unruly rural past in which small-town eccentrics, “mannish” farm women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were often just queer folks so far as their neighbors were concerned. Written with wit and verve, Just Queer Folks upsets a whole host of contemporary commonplaces, including the notion that queer history is always urban history.

Modern American Queer Historyedited by Allida M. Black

In the twentieth century, countless Americans claimed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identities, forming a movement to secure social as well as political equality. This collection of essays considers the history as well as the historiography of the queer identities and struggles that developed in the United States in the midst of widespread upheaval and change.

Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality by the U.S. Militaryby Gary L. Lehring

Officially Gay follows the military’s century-long attempt to identify and exclude gays and lesbians. It traces how the military historically constructed definitions of homosexual identity relying upon religious, medical, and psychological discourses that defined homosexuals as evil, degenerate, and unstable, making their risk to national security obvious, and mandating their exclusion from the Armed Services.

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer Americaby Miriam Frank

Out in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desireby Cynthia Wu

Cynthia Wu’s provocative Sticky Rice examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity.

Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, by Cynthia Barounis

Amputation need not always signify castration; indeed, in Jack London’s fiction, losing a limb becomes part of a process through which queerly gendered men become properly masculinized. In her astute book, Vulnerable Constitutions, Cynthia Barounis explores the way American writers have fashioned alternative—even resistant—epistemologies of queerness, disability, and masculinity. She seeks to understand the way perverse sexuality, physical damage, and bodily contamination have stimulated—rather than created a crisis for—masculine characters in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature.

Celebrating Juneteenth

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Juneteenth with a focus on Envisioning Emancipation by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. As we commemorate its 150th anniversary, what do we really know about those who experienced slavery?

In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs—some never before published—from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.

Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. From photos of the enslaved on plantations and African American soldiers and camp workers in the Union Army to Juneteenth celebrations, slave reunions, and portraits of black families and workers in the American South, the images in this book challenge perceptions of slavery. They show not only what the subjects emphasized about themselves but also the ways Americans of all colors and genders opposed slavery and marked its end.

Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture.

And check out all of Temple University Press’s African American Studies titles. 

Why Everyday Life Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Ulka Anjaria, author of Reading India Now, explains the importance of reading literature to understand the Indian present and its political futures.

The Indian general elections are once again upon us. Like the upcoming U.S. election, this one too is fraught with anxiety about whether the country will re-elect the right-wing party of its incumbent prime minister. As part of legitimate fears about a global right-wing turn, this is the brief period when Indian politics becomes global news. But what is happening in India between globally-significant elections? What is the daily life of this fast-changing country beyond institutional politics, what are the stories that might never make global headlines? How are people coming to terms with recent changes – not only at the voting booth, but as they imagine their everyday lives?

When I spent a fellowship year living in Mumbai in 2015-16, one of the many things I was struck by was how distant both scholarship and the news media are from everyday life in India. There were several disturbing and violent, national-level events that occurred that year, such as the assassination of Kannada writer M. M. Kalburgi in August and the Award Wapsi movement that followed, where dozens of writers protested the government’s increasing indifference to mob violence by returning their national literary awards. A beef ban was instituted in Maharashtra, exposing the encroachment of Hindu hegemony on eating practices in the supposedly secular nation. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, committed suicide in Hyderabad, revealing the continuing casteism that plagues even university campuses. But in between these events, daily life went along at an everyday rhythm, much as it does around the world. Looking around to see where I could begin to read about this everyday rhythm, I found that it was largely absent in the news media and in scholarly accounts. While the news media, in both India and abroad, focuses mostly on party politics and violent events, scholarship tends to take a longer view, uncovering the influence of historical forces such as colonialism and Partition on the Indian present. While both of these are important tasks, I found that I had to turn to literature, specifically contemporary Indian literature, to begin to understand the contours of the Indian present.

Reading India Now_SMFor in fact, India is experiencing a massive expansion of its publishing industry, with some anticipating that India will be the world’s largest English-language publisher within a decade. This means that whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, many Indian authors had to gain legitimacy by publishing first in the US or UK, now Indian publishers have made it much easier to publish as an Indian writer. This has resulted in an expansion of what genres authors can publish in, such as fantasy fiction, mysteries and detective fiction, romance, chick lit, self-help fiction, graphic novels, and so on. Most of these new works are geared toward Indian readers rather than, as was in the past, international ones. This is coinciding with an expansion of the English-language readership in India beyond those who are western-educated, to first-generation English readers who might otherwise be reading in the bhashas (Indian vernacular languages).

Reading India Now, looks at the implications of this publishing boom for rethinking what is important in the study of India. Much of this new fiction is written for young people trying to make their way in a new India, and are thus local stories for local readers. As such, they do not often engage with historical analysis or with who is in power, but address issues of more local importance: what is the meaning of success, what are the possibilities and limitations of the new capitalist economy, what are the new social and sexual mores of the new India, and so on. If read as complex works rather than just simplistic, market-oriented fictions, these new books tell us a huge amount about the kind of daily life that never makes the headlines.

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Association for Asian American Studies conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Asian American titles, which will be on display at the Association for Asian American Studies conference, April 25-27 in Madison, Wisconsin. Several Temple University Press titles will be celebrated at a reception for new books on Thursday, April 25, at 6:00 pm in the Madison Concourse Hotel.

But wait, there’s more!…

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Temple University Press is hosting a reception at 2:00 pm on Friday, April 26 to celebrate 50 years of publishing. Our Asian American History and Culture series editors are expected to attend.

 

Temple University Press titles in Asian American Studies for 2018-2019

From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold Warby Edward Tang, examines the work of four Japanese and Japanese/American artists and writers during this period: the novelist Hanama Tasaki, the actor Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the painter Henry Sugimoto, and the children’s author Yoshiko Uchida. Tang shows how the film, art, and literature made by these artists revealed to the American public the linked processes of U.S. actions at home and abroad. Their work played into—but also challenged—the postwar rehabilitated images of Japan and Japanese Americans as it focused on the history of transpacific relations such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the Asia-Pacific War, U.S. and Japanese imperialism, and the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modernby Shirley Jennifer Lim, re-evaluates the pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong who made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning to provide a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.

America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empireby Marguerite Nguyen, challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns.

Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return, by Patricia P. Chu. In researching accounts of diasporic Chinese offspring who returned to their parents’ ancestral country, author Patricia Chu learned that she was not alone in the experience of growing up in America with an abstract affinity to an ancestral homeland and community. The bittersweet emotions she had are shared in Asian American literature that depicts migration-related melancholia, contests official histories, and portrays Asian American families as flexible and transpacific. Where I Have Never Been explores the tropes of return, tracing both literal return visits by Asian emigrants and symbolic “returns”: first visits by diasporic offspring. Chu argues that these Asian American narratives seek to remedy widely held anxieties about cultural loss and the erasure of personal and family histories from public memory.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire, by Cynthia Wu, examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity. Wu lays bare the trope of male same-sex desires that grapple with how Asian America’s internal divides can be resolved in order to resist assimilation.

Coming Home: Asian American root journey narratives

This week in North Philly Notes, Patricia Chu, author of Where I Have Never Been, writes about developing her interest in narratives of return.

About sixteen years ago, I decided to go to Taiwan to give a paper on stories about Chinese Americans who visited China for the first time. At the time, I was in the same position as the heroine of an Amy Tan novel, for my mother had died just about a year earlier, and I had never seen mainland China or the relatives who lived there. A friend told me I needed to develop an international audience, and I was invited to attend a conference on history and memory in Taiwan. I hadn’t traveled much during my mother’s illness and my probationary, pre-tenure existence, so I threw together a proposal for a paper on Asian American roots journeys—narratives where Asian Americans returned to their parents’ homelands for the first time. Oddly, I felt at home in Taipei, which I had last visited as a child with my immigrant parents and American siblings. Despite my illiteracy in Mandarin and my failure to buy local currency before leaving the airport (not being used to traveling alone outside the U.S.), I felt happy, surrounded for the first time in years by Chinese people, and staying in a hotel that offered noodles and rice porridge for breakfast.

My conference paper began by describing a set of personal essays about the experience of coming to China for the first time. This was Cultural Curiosity: Thirteen Stories about the Search for Chinese Roots, edited by Josephine M. T. Khu. The writers of these essays belonged, as I did, to the generations born abroad by members of the Chinese diaspora.  Like the writers Amy Tan and Gish Jen, the designer and architect Maya Lin, and many others, the writers in this collection were children of emigrants; having grown up outside of China, they had visited China for the first time as adults after it was reopened to the west. In my paper, I talked about the cultural steps taken by these essayists, many of whom were estranged linguistically, culturally, or personally from their family origins. They studied Chinese; they learned about Chinese customs; and they arrived as foreigners in China, often meeting their relatives for the first time, and struggling to understand the complex family histories their relatives related. One contributor, Lily Wu, recounted how, as visiting student at Beijing University in the 1980s, she was welcomed by her Chinese relatives while studying in Beijing, but was embarrassed to see them, because no one had informed them of her mother’s mental illness. When she got to know her mother’s brother, he and his wife took her to see her mother’s favorite sister, who had cared for her mother when they were girls. Tragically, this beautiful aunt, who resembled her mother, had also become mentally ill and been placed in a mental hospital. When Lily met her aunt, she was stricken, not only by the dozens of stories she had heard by that time of her classmates’ trials during the Cultural Revolution; not only by the terrible waste she could see in her aunt’s desolate existence; but also by the realization of her own loss when her own loving mother, due to her mental illness, had psychologically withdrawn. As I recounted Lily’s tale of overwhelming sadness and tears, and her uncle’s kind response, to my scholarly audience, I also felt stricken with sadness and deeply moved by her story. Khu’s collection had confirmed for me the stakes of this literature of migration and return: loss, mourning, reconciliation, and the telling of stories before they vanished.

Where I Have Never Been_smDuring the next fifteen years, I reviewed over 100 Asian American stories in which the theme of return drove the narrative, opened or closed doors, or defined crucial moments in people’s lives. I considered films, plays, novels, some poetry, autobiographies, memoirs, and family histories, including a wider ethnic spectrum than I can describe here. I saw that my own wish to see my parents’ country was reflected in dozens of Asian American texts and is deeply American. Indeed, the trope of return to a parent’s homeland pops up in American texts from Presidential memoirs (President Obama’s Dreams of My Father) to Hollywood films about adoptees in search of their roots (Lion; Kung Fu Panda 2). Clearly, the search for origins theme had a universal aspect. But what elements of these stories were specific to Asian Americans?

In the case of Chinese Americans, I began by believing that the position of being cut off from the ancestral country during the Cold War, and the resulting alienation and sense of personal and cultural recovery, was in itself a story being examined by a generation of writers. I knew, also, that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast Asian, and South Asian Americans were affected in various ways by the six decades of the Chinese Exclusion laws. Beginning in 1882, Chinese laborers were forbidden to enter the U.S., with exceptions made only for merchants, diplomats, students, those who had previously lived in the U.S. and could claim the right to reenter, and their children. The law excluded those of Chinese descent, whether they entered from China, Hong Kong, Canada, or Cuba. Those of Chinese descent were also barred from applying for U.S. citizenship. And in the decades after 1882, Congress and the courts had extended the exclusion laws to bar most other Asians from entry and citizenship. When I began reading return narratives, I saw how these laws had resulted in many other Asian Americans being separated from their families, even before the Cold War.

In many return narratives, the stories of earlier generations who had come to the U.S. and returned were rendered more vivid in the family histories of present-day authors who returned to Asia to understand, research, and imagine lives and stories that would otherwise be lost. I was fascinated by the stories of Lisa See’s great-grandparents, an immigrant merchant and a runaway American girl who founded an American family despite the laws against their marriage and built family businesses on both sides of the Pacific, and the story of Denise Chong’s grandmother, a young woman brought to Canada to be the concubine of a Cantonese worker; she supported both two families, one in Canada and one in Guangdong province, on the slender wages of a tea waitress. And I was touched by the story of the father-daughter team, Winberg and May-lee Chai, who described the lives of May-lee’s idealistic grandparents, Charles and Ruth Chai, brilliant scholars who studied in America and returned to rebuild China, only to find that all the seeds of the Republican government’s collapse were already in place by the time they returned in the early 1930s. In the course of my research, I had the chance to speak with Denise Chong about what it meant to break her grandparents’ silence and publish their long-held secrets. She responded that she had searched for a way to remember them and their world as they really were, before it was too late. She became my first model for the author who by writing, seeks to repair the past.

At the very beginning of the tradition of Asian American return narratives is the autobiography of Yung Wing, who came to America in the 19th century, graduated from Yale, became a U.S. citizen, returned to China in mid-century to found the first major educational exchange program between China and the U.S., married an American, and published his autobiography in 1909. As an immigrant who worked in both countries but raised his family in America, Yung not only exemplified and anticipated the transpacific travel patterns found in later stories; his book represented the first attempt by a Chinese American writer to present himself both as a global subject (the equal of European globetrotters who documented their encounters with racial others) and as a kindred spirit to the African American authors of slave narratives. At least, that’s how I see it.

Toward the very end of the tradition—the recent past—I turned to the novels of Lydia Minatoya and Ruth Ozeki to answer my own questions about how the task of representing World War Two and the attached historical controversies have been taken up by Japanese North American writers. For many decades, Japanese Canadian and Japanese American writers have written eloquently about the internment of Japanese North Americans, but have been more cautious about addressing questions of Japan’s World War Two history. However, since the resolutions of the redress movements in Canada and the U.S., Minatoya and Ozeki are among the handful of Japanese American authors who have ventured to consider issues of Japan’s wartime past, and public and private memory, while also telling engaging stories about Japanese women who come to America, then return to Japan.

Did I myself ever return to China and find my long lost relatives? Yes, but that is another story.

 

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