Transpacific Subjectivities: "Chinese"--Latin American Literature after Empire.

Author:Fu, Puo-An Wu
Position:Critical essay


The following essay is based on a presentation of the same title given on October 6, 2017, during the international conference "This Land Is Our Land": Chinese Pluralities through the Americas, organized by the Chinese Historical Society of America.

In the analysis presented below, I juxtapose excerpts from two authors who have familial ties to both Asia and Latin America. This analysis is part of a dissertation project that follows the TransArea Studies research agenda initiated by scholars affiliated with the Universitat Potsdam, Germany. My approach follows three of its core objectives:

  1. to frame cultural production in the historical continuity of the four phases of globalization, the first beginning with European colonial expansion and the fourth continuing in our current time;

  2. to challenge the notions of national canons and world literature; and

  3. to pay special attention to literature and knowledge in the movement of people between multiple areas and regions of the world. (1)

An approach based on these three research directives allows for a reading practice not founded on national borders or essentialist ethnic representation, but one that highlights the complexity of the "Chinese'--Latin American experience. In particular, this essay focuses on two narratives that problematize the adjective Chinese authored by members of the postmigration generation, both of whom were born in the mid-twentieth century. These publications show two different cases of narrative voices that identify a parent who migrated from Asia to Latin America during the global political shifts in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Both of these voices are defined by the consequences of transpacific movement after Empire. Using literary devices, they create narratives that destabilize national delimitations without having to assume the role of cultural translator. If anything, they disprove the assumption of universal translatability, of a world where all languages and cultures can connect as perfect equivalents. In other words, they do not seek to build interregional cultural bridges between Latin Amer ica and Asia. To the contrary, these are narratives that delve into the very particularities of the "Chinese"--Latin American voice--contradictions, conflicts, and disparities included.

The first publication is Mudas las garzas (2) by Selfa Chew, published in Castilian Spanish by independent Mexican publishing house Ediciones Eon in 2007 as part of their Testimonio series. Selfa Chew is the pen name of Selfa Alejandra Chew-Melendez, a Mexican writer and professor at the University of El Paso, Texas. She is a descendant of Cantonese immigrants on her father's side and is of Mixteca lineage on her mother's. Chew was raised by a Japanese family in Ciudad Juarez (3) and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the deportation and internment of Japanese/Mexican (4) persons during World War II. (5)

In terms of sheer volume, the majority of Chew's Mudas las garzas is dedicated to the stories of Japanese/Mexican individuals and families, focusing on persecution, imprisonment, and mass deportations. The only exception to Chew's focus is a short text that spans pages 40 and 41. Here we find a first-person narrator who refers to a photograph of a Dr. Fujimoto and invokes the memories of the narrators Cantonese-speaking father. Within these two pages, the speaking voice establishes the emotional driving force behind telling this history. This essay analyzes this brief but pivotal break in the narrative mode to show how the descendant of a "Chinese" migrant chooses to reject her inheritance when faced with intergenerational passing down of collective trauma.

The second publication is Louie Kin-sheun's [phrase omitted], which has been translated as "So Far Away in Cuba" in the online press. (6) As of the date of this essay, Louie's book has been published only in traditional script Mandarin by Oxford University Press China in 2015 and in simplified script by the CITIC Publishing Group Beijing in 2016. Louie is a Hong Kong-based nonfiction author and scholar who was born in [phrase omitted]. (7)

During his early childhood in the 1950s, Louie's grandfather and father migrated to Cuba. They settled in La Habana, periodically sending their earnings across the ocean. Louie, still a child, moved with his mother, siblings, and paternal grandmother to Hong Kong, then occupied by the United Kingdom. Louie imparts this information in the initial chapters of [phrase omitted] in a frank autobiographical tone, a style of narration that pervades his anecdotes, impressions, informal summaries of historical research, and even transcripts of oral interviews. Early in the book, we learn that Louie's motivation in traveling to Cuba was to reconstruct the unknown life story of his largely absentee father. Once in Cuba, he begins to collect information that allows him to paint a picture of everyday life in the barrio chino, (8) the Cuban term used for the "Chinese" neighborhood in La Habana.

One particular common experience in Louies book stands out. Going home, or even characterizing where home was, became an arduous task for people who, like his father, transited the Pacific several times in the decades following the Ching dynasty. Of the many relevant subjects discussed in his book, this essay focuses on the role of language in the author's construction of a "Chinese"-Latin American sense of selfhood, both for his father and for himself. As 1 show later on, translation is imperative to this process of subject construction and, specifically, the construction of a "Chinese"-Latin American voice.

The central argument of this essay is that reading Chinese-Latin American authors through the lens of translatability as a complex problem enables the reader to understand the unique voice of the postmigration generation. As a result, the analytical reader is able to derive a kind of knowledge distinctly absent from sociological, statistical, economic, or even anthropological studies. Often these fields of scholarship are limited by national borders and rely on sweeping generalizations for the sake of representation. In contrast, the knowledge derived from the work of "Chinese"-Latin American authors stems from the particular voice of the postmigration generation after the decline of global empires. Furthermore, in both Chew and Louie we find voices that express their emotional motivations in translating "Chineseness" into the Latin American context.


Chew's literary piece resists categorization. The book contains both independent and related strands of narratives, poetry, transcripts of oral testimony, photographs, and other material woven together and differentiated by strategic spacing and stylistic printing choices. The title of Chew's book refers to a stanza in Yamasaki Sokan's Japanese-language haikai. Castilian Spanish translations of the stanzas appear interspersed throughout the book in italics and a slightly larger font size. Chapter and subchapter markings are noticeably absent. On one page the reader might find a haiku, on the next a photograph, and on the next a fragment of an unrelated storyline that does not continue until a few pages later. From the very beginning, the reader is tasked with piecing together several narrative puzzles.

Furthermore, Chew's intricately crafted piece freely transits between fact-based historiography and literary fiction. The author explains the objectives of the book in a preface titled "Advertencia"--"warning" or "disclaimer," in English. In this preface, an unidentified authorial voice briefly names the historical circumstances in question, and explains that the following text is an attempt to tell the story of Japanese/ Mexican families during this time, a task so complex that, according to the text, "it is necessary to integrate interviews, legal documents, police reports, memories, poems, and stories without specifying genre, the degree of veracity, or the exact source of the texts." (9) Hence, the voice explicitly states, the book does not seek to be a...

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