Monday, 31 January 2011

On teaching racially fraught literature in racially diverse classrooms (American Born Chinese) The two problems that confront any author attempting to write a confessional comic are likely best summarized in these two sequences from Art Spieglman's Maus: In short: how are painful memories and painfully stereotypical people best represented in a medium associated with childishness? I'll discuss Spiegelman's answer to this question in more detail when I teach Maus in a few weeks. For now, it is enough to pose it and identify it as a critical problem faced by all non-white authors, including that of American Born Chinese, Gene Yang. Unlike Maus, in which an already assimilated Art Spiegelman is depicting his decidedly unassimilated father, American Born Chinese is very much concerned with the process of assimilation: what is gained, what is lost, etc. For example: Those panels are not consecutive, but they do get the point across: the central metaphor of the novel is a Transformer toy and its primary function is as a figure of the costs and benefits of cultural assimilation. Is it better to be a robot who can turn into a car or a car that can turn into a robot? If you can move between the two states fluidly which one is the default? Most students claim that it is better to be a robot who can turn into a car then a car that can turn into a robot, and the fact that I used the relative pronoun "who" to refer to the robot and "that" to refer to the car betrays why: the robot is seen to have greater agency even though it still thinks, is still sentient, as a car. Map that onto to the assimilation debate and you end up with this: To undergo this transformation, Jin Wang must "forfeit [his] soul," which indicates fairly strongly that his essential identity is Chinese and points to what I think is a central problem with this book: it can easily be mistaken as an argument in favor of identitarian politics. Map the moment-to-moment transition in that panel there back onto the Transformer metaphor and it is clearly better to be a vanilla robot than a robot who can transform into a car because a vanilla robot still possesses its soul, whereas a transforming robot has forfeited its. I don't actually think that's a tenable reading of the book, but it's certainly a palpable one when, for example, your student population consists largely of Asian-American students whose parents have insisted on the cultural superiority of the Asian half of that equation for their entire young lives. The reason I don't find the superior-of-the-still-ensouled-robot reading defensible is that these same students sympathize strongly with Wang; that is, they prefer their culture to that of their parents. Except their culture isn't the lily white "American" one that Yang offers as an alternative to the "Asian." It's profoundly hybrid. Yang understands this, as is evident from the fact that the typical "American" storyline—which interleaves with a repurposing of Journy to the West and Wang's bildungsroman—initially and explicitly...
Dave Sim's relationship to literary modernism and Dear Lord whose prose is that? I'm revising the paper for the Cerebus collection I mentioned earlier and, to be frank, I'm not sure I recognize myself. Too much blogging and writing a pedagogy book instead of revising the dissertation must do that, I suppose, because this doesn't even sound like me: Linking Sim to Pound by reference to their similarly developing relationship to form and to Joyce by their analogous material circumstances may seem like an attempt to shoehorn Sim into a canon in which he does not properly belong. However, Sim's inclusion and ventriloquism of another notable Irish modernist, Oscar Wilde, in Jaka's Story requires at the very least that the book be considered an homage to, or possibly a parody of, Wilde's high modern aesthetic. Whether the book partakes of that high modern aesthetic depends upon an estimation of the success of the ventriloquism, but even if it is unsuccessful, the inclusion alone is enough to warrant numbering Sim among academic modernists like Pound and Joyce. Because there exist as many definitions of “modernism” as scholars of it, for the purposes of the current argument—not to mention general relevance—these competing modernisms will be defined specifically by the attitude they strike to history. In this respect, the high modernism of Wilde can be characterized by its rejection of mimesis and the attendant distancing from history that that rejection entails, whereas the academic modernism of Joyce and Pound seeks to, as the latter urged, “make it new,” with the “it” in question being the nightmare of history from which the former struggled to awake. That Sim lifts Wilde from history and employs him as a narrator in Jaka's Story is not merely an irony seemingly designed to irritate the author of The Decay of Lying, but in “making Wilde new,” Sim demonstrates a formal and aesthetic solidarity with the academic modernists. The highest irony of Wilde operating as a narrator is that he is not narrating Sim's book, Jaka's Story, but one that exists within Sim's titled Daughter of Palnu—meaning, in short, that not only does Sim's imitation of Wilde violate the principles of high modernism, but he employs the imitation to write a book which itself violates the principles of high modernism by relating the actual story of an exiled princess named Jaka. The word “actual” is not meant to imply that Daughter of Palnu is factually accurate, merely that because her story is related to Oscar by her husband, Rick, no matter how fantastically Oscar embellished the novel would still be one in which, to paraphrase Wilde in The Decay of Lying, art would be imitating life. I feel like, I maybe need, a few more, commas. Also, this is, or may be, my most boring, post ever.

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