Stephen Hong Song has written one of the smartest, analytical books on literature in the past year with Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds. Sohn isn’t just a scholar, but an excavator, an archaeologist, an explorer, and a poet, traversing racial narratives to challenge “the tidy links between authorial ancestry and fictional content, and between identity and form, to expand what is typically thought of as Asian American culture and criticism.” Challenge it does, examining a selection that includes “Sesshu’ Foster’s Atomik Aztex, Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft, Sabina Murray’s A Carnivore Inquiry,” and more. Sohn contextualizes all the works in a broader perspective and his inquiry disrupts cliches like a chainsaw to chopsticks, shredding the normal definition of “Asian-American” literature, or for that matter, any cultural brand that constitutes a “genre.” What stereotypes bind the disparate experiences together? How forced is that chain, and once bound, how can any set of writers defy, escape, or work within those constraints?
“In some sense, speculative fictions by Asian American writers push the field the furthest toward expanding its critical lenses, precisely because these narratives are so incredibly whimsical.”
Sohn goes on to highlight many of these whimsies with the meticulous attention of a connoisseur. The breadth of knowledge contained within Asymmetries is astounding (the notes and works cited at the end constitute almost 30% of the book on my Kindle). But it’s more than just an array of information assembled haphazardly. The arguments are deftly explored as Sohn creatively makes his points, balancing thematic analysis and literary insight. One of the best examples of this is an exploration of alien abduction stories in which “the form allows her (author Claire Light) to explore questions of authenticity, identity, and storytelling, as the veracity of these narratives is often questioned.” The parallels to the Japanese internment, as expressed in the imprisonment of protagonists by aliens, highlight the eerie alienation experienced by the characters. But it’s not just cult-like titillation at stake:
“The alien-abduction narrative invokes the binary, which first appeared during the Cold War, situating a human against an otherworldly being. If Cold War tensions signaled the dangers to American global supremacy in the mid-twentieth century, the alien-abduction narrative recasts issues of national identity and authority on an intergalactic scale.”
Or as Sohn puts it more succinctly, many scholars “read these stories of extraterrestrial captivity as analogies for transnationally configured racial tensions.” It’s a Cold War of identity, a wall established by misconception. Even as he tries to break the walls down, he piles together different arguments, positing a variety of opinions to emphasize the inventive forays by fictional writers to circumvent the limitations they’re traditionally bound by. The espionage these authors undertake is a matter of obviating stereotypical oblivion, hiding their message in the cryptic shell of a UFO. Sohn’s alien autopsy vivifies the fringes, and his scalpel then turns to the postracial aesthetic:
“The emergence of the so-called postracial aesthetic suggests that Asian American writers might be free to present stories completely unrelated to their own ethnic and racial ancestries. (Sesshu) Foster is a writer who demonstrates a kind of middle way between the bind of authenticity and the apolitical freedoms of the postracial aesthetic. Presenting his story through a first-person narrator from a minority background other than his own allows Foster to challenge any potential expectation or desire that he should write from a position that strongly mirrors his own ethnoracial descent.”
Ironically, Sohn, in writing about Asian American writers, presents a postracial aesthetic in Racial Asymmetries as he weaves together speculative tales and arguments that transcend authorial ancestry. Identity, imagination, and creativity aren’t simply facets of ethnic cliches, as exemplified by immigrant narratives. Rather, Racial Asymmetries, proposes: “We must attend to the ways that a given story is told and how the untelling unlocks fictional worlds that radically widen the social contexts of Asian American cultural productions.”
In a recent interview, I was asked why I chose Asian-American characters as the protagonists for my forthcoming novel. I was surprised by the question because I hadn’t considered the question of ethnicity when I began writing. There was never any doubt in my mind that the characters would be Asian-American because I’m Asian-American and wanted to write a personal tale. But the fact that strong Asian-American protagonists was a source of wonder, even curiosity, made me think a lot about the racial asymmetries of literary expectations and what is considered a typical Asian-American story. In Sohn’s book, there’s a sense of liberation, a libretto focused on good story-telling divorced from ethnic monotones. As an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford, Stephen Sohn is a curator, a beacon for Asian American literature in its many permutations. I am still finding my way. I’m glad for the light he shines.
Stephen Sohn currently has a petition to reconsider his case for tenure at Stanford which you can read more about at the following link.