Bodies of evidence: history and fantasy in twentieth-century African American and Asian American literature

Shin, Andrew, Department of English, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

Race in America has traditionally been conceived of in polar terms--as black or white--a process that has elided Asian Americans from the landscape of American cultural politics. This dissertation inserts Asian Americans into this discussion by contextualizing the production of Asian American identity in the language game of black liberation, an approach that acknowledges the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and insists that the Asian American experience be discussed not in isolation but in terms of the similarities and differences between Asian and African Americans. To what extent does ethnic pride demand separatism? Does separatism run the risk of foundering in exoticism and an orthodoxy of victimage? What is the role of gender, sexuality, class, and generational difference in the construction of Asian America?

Accordingly, this dissertation examines representations of the ethnic body in the novels and dramas of African American and Asian American writers from the inception of the Civil Rights movement to the present, a period that arguably witnessed a shift from nationalist to post-nationalist consciousnesses. I focus on the body as a central trope for history because the despised ethnic body is at once over-determined and invisible, both malleable and stubbornly resistant to representation. The cultural mythology of the West has fetishized ethnic bodies, reducing them to a compendium of exotic parts: the black phallus, black skin, nappy hair, full lips; slanted eyes, jaundiced skin, queues, and diminutive limbs. The ethnic writers I discuss dramatize the oppressive confluence of racism and sexism, confronting images of debasement-- lynching, rape, enslavement, incarceration--in attempting to construct a fully integrated, de-fetishized body, the symbol of political agency. My approach is both historical and psychoanalytic, because ethnic writers challenge mainstream narratives by tapping into the unconscious and rewriting the sexual fantasies of the West.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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