Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase some of our recent Asian American and Pacific Islander titles.

In the Critical Race, Indigeneity and Relationality series

Ocean Passages: Navigating Pacific Islander and Asian American Literatures, by Erin Suzuki

In her pathbreaking book, Ocean Passages, Erin Suzuki explores how movement through—and travel across—the ocean mediates the construction of Asian American and Indigenous Pacific subjectivities in the wake of the colonial conflicts that shaped the modern transpacific. Ocean Passages considers how Indigenous Pacific scholars have emphasized the importance of the ocean to Indigenous activism, art, and theories of globalization and how Asian American studies might engage in a deconstructive interrogation of race in conversation with this Indigenous-centered transnationalism.

In the Asian American History and Culture series

Giving Back: Filipino America and the Politics of Diaspora Giving, by L. Joyce Zapanta Mariano

Giving Back shows how integral this system of charitably giving back to their families, their communities, or social development projects and organizations back home is for understanding Filipino diaspora formation. Joyce Mariano “follows the money” to investigate the cultural, social, economic, and political conditions of diaspora giving. She takes an interdisciplinary approach to reveal how power operates through this charity and the ways the global economic and cultural dimensions of this practice reinforce racial subordination and neocolonialism. Giving Back explores how this charity can stabilize overlapping systems of inequality as well as the contradictions of corporate social responsibility programs in diaspora.

Graphic Migrations: Precarity and Gender in India and the Diaspora, by Kavita Daiya

In Graphic Migrations, Kavita Daiya provides a literary and cultural archive of refugee stories and experiences to respond to the question “What is created?” after decolonization and the 1947 Partition of India. She explores how stories of Partition migrations shape the political and cultural imagination of secularism and gendered citizenship for South Asians in India and the United States. Daiya analyzes literature, Bollywood films, Margaret Bourke-White’s photography, digital media, and print culture to show how they memorialize or erase refugee experiences. She also engages oral testimonies of Partition refugees from Hong Kong, South Asia, and North America that address the nation-state, ethnic discrimination, and religious difference. Employing both Critical Refugee Studies and Feminist Postcolonial Studies frameworks, Daiya traces the cultural, affective, and political legacies of the Partition migrations for South Asia and South Asian America.

Illegal Immigrants/Model Minorities: The Cold War of Chinese American Narrative, by Heidi Kim

In the Cold War era, Chinese Americans were caught in a double-bind. The widespread stigma of illegal immigration, as it was often called, was most easily countered with the model minority, assimilating and forming nuclear families, but that in turn led to further stereotypes. In Illegal Immigrants/Model Minorities, Heidi Kim investigates how Chinese American writers navigated a strategy to normalize and justify the Chinese presence during a time when fears of Communism ran high. Kim explores how writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, and C. Y. Lee, among others, addressed issues of history, family, blood purity, and law through then-groundbreaking novels and memoirs. Illegal Immigrants/Model Minorities also uses legal cases, immigration documents, and law as well as mass media coverage to illustrate how writers constructed stories in relation to the political structures that allowed or disallowed their presence, their citizenship, and their blended identity.

Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life, by Chia Youyee Vang, with Pao Yang, Retired Captain, U.S. Secret War in Laos

Retired Captain Pao Yang was a Hmong airman trained by the U.S. Air Force and CIA to fly T-28D aircraft for the U.S. Secret War in Laos. However, his plane was shot down during a mission in June 1972. Yang survived, but enemy forces captured him and sent him to a POW camp in northeastern Laos. He remained imprisoned for four years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam because he fought on the American side of the war. Prisoner of Wars shows the impact the U.S. Secret War in Laos had on Hmong combatants and their families. Chia Vang uses oral histories that poignantly recount Yang’s story and the deeply personal struggles his loved ones—who feared he had died—experienced in both Southeast Asia and the United States. As Yang eventually rebuilt his life in America, he grappled with issues of freedom and trauma.

The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America, by Timothy K. August

The refugee is conventionally considered a powerless figure, eagerly cast aside by both migrant and host communities. In his book, The Refugee Aesthetic, Timothy August investigates how and why a number of Southeast Asian American artists and writers have recently embraced the figure of the refugee as a particularly transformative position. He explains how these artists, theorists, critics, and culture-makers reconstruct their place in the American imagination by identifying and critiquing the underlying structures of power that create refugees in the contemporary world. August looks at the outside forces that shape refugee representation and how these expressions are received. He considers the visual legacy of the Southeast Asian refugee experience by analyzing music videos, graphic novels, and refugee artwork. August also examines the power of refugee literature, showing how and why Southeast Asian American writers look to the refugee position to disentangle their complicated aesthetic legacy.

The United States of India: Anticolonial Literature and Transnational Refraction, by Manan Desai

The United States of India shows how Indian and American writers in the United States played a key role in the development of anticolonial thought in the years during and immediately following the First World War. For Indians Lajpat Rai and Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and Americans Agnes Smedley, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Katherine Mayo, the social and historical landscape of America and India acted as a reflective surface. Manan Desai considers how their interactions provided a “transnational refraction”—a political optic and discursive strategy that offered ways to imagine how American history could shed light on an anticolonial Indian future. Desai traces how various expatriate and immigrant Indians formed political movements that rallied for American support for the cause of Indian independence. These intellectuals also developed new forms of writing about subjugation in the U.S. and India. Providing an examination of race, caste, nationhood, and empire, Desai astutely examines this network of Indian and American writers and the genres and social questions that fomented solidarity across borders.

The Problem with “AAPI”

This week in North Philly Notes, Erin Suzuki, author of Ocean Passages, explains the importance of distinguishing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Over the past year, the dramatic increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes across the United States have drawn public attention to long-standing histories of anti-Asian racism in this country. On social media, the hashtag #StopAAPIHate circulated widely in the wake of reports about increasing numbers of both verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans in 2020 and 2021, as both mainstream outlets and political figures insisted on racializing the novel coronavirus as both the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.” Yet as the term “AAPI” (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) moves out of academic and policy circles and into the mainstream of public discourse, it’s also important to know what the term means, where it comes from, and—when used casually or uncritically—how it can work to exclude despite its gestures to inclusivity. 

While many assume that AAPI is the proper or more politically correct way of referring to the Asian American community, the secondary inclusion of “Pacific Islanders” within and alongside the larger category of “Asian American” has a long and contested history. Adopted by Asian American activists and academics during the 1970s and 1980s and governmentally sanctioned as a census category in 1990 and 2000, the category of “Asian Pacific Islander” conflated two already internally diverse groups into a single massive category of people who account for over 60 percent of the world’s population. Although this naming ideally calls for an intersectional politics, a sense of solidarity, and mutual support between a range of communities who have differently suffered from racist policies and stereotypes in the United States, in everyday practice the term “AAPI/API” is most often used as shorthand primarily for Asian American—and more specifically East Asian American—communities. As a consequence, many Pacific Islanders find themselves swept up into discussions that do not directly affect their communities (at best), or that ignore or bury their concerns (at worst). 

The problems of the “AAPI” designation have only become more pronounced in the past year, partly because the kinds of racial violence that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience often take very different forms. As a friend of mine commented, “People aren’t out there punching Samoan grandmas—they wouldn’t dare.” But on the flip side, issues that disproportionately affect Pacific Islander communities are rarely identified as AAPI concerns. For example, during the COVID-19 epidemic, the Pacific Islander population in the United States have suffered from the highest rates of COVID transmission and death per capita of any racial group, yet the CDC’s practice of aggregating that data within the larger category of “Asian or Pacific Islander” obscured these numbers, meaning that the necessary resources were not always set aside or ramped up to address this very specific need. In this case, the inclusion of Pacific Islanders within the larger category of Asian Americanness in fact excluded communities in need from both the public eye and from receiving levels of assistance that should have been mobilized to help. 

As I discuss in Ocean Passages (and as Indigenous Pacific scholars have argued for many, many years), this harmful process of “exclusion through inclusion” has a long and complex history rooted in the ways that many Pacific states—including Hawai‘i, Guam, American Sāmoa, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia—were forcibly “included” into the political jurisdiction of the United States as the nation sought to wage war and engage in trade with Asia. In this sense, histories of anti-Asian racialization have a material, if often overlooked, connection to the colonization of the Pacific Islands. The dispossession and erasure of Native peoples’ claims to their ancestral lands and seas enabled many of the transpacific passages and military interventions that brought Asians into American space. If we want to mobilize against the myriad forms of interpersonal and institutional violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we must also engage with how the ongoing colonization of Pacific states continue to differently shape perceptions of and policies towards Pacific Islander and Asian American communities. We cannot allow “PI” to operate as a mere afterthought or addendum to “AA.”

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