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Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave

reviewed by Victor Bascara - July 19, 2011

coverTitle: Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave
Author(s): Yoonmee Chang
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813548012, Pages: 252, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989), there is a moment that revealingly resonates with a key premise of Yoonmee Chang’s recent book on the convergence of “Asian American” and “ghetto.” In Lee’s film, we see a mob, justifiably angry at lethal police brutality, refrain from burning down a Korean-American bodega in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. “Me Black. Me Black,” says Sonny, the broom-wielding shop owner (Steve Park), to laughter and at least momentary persuasion from the mob, momentary enough to keep the business from receiving the same charred fate as Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. At this intense moment in the story, the stage direction in Lee’s screenplay revealingly says: “The mob starts to laugh. They feel for him.”1 Such laughter and empathy – or laughter as empathy – are not without precedent, as in the case of a 1935 Harlem race riot later recounted by Alex Haley/Malcolm X in 1965: “And we laughed about the scared little Chinese whose restaurant didn’t have a hand laid on it, because the rioters just about convulsed laughing when they saw the sign the Chinese had hastily stuck on his front door: ‘Me Colored Too’.”2 In both cases, the alignment is played for a joke, but, as the saying goes, it’s funny because it’s true. The premises of each of these occasions for laughter is akin to the premise of Writing the Ghetto: a perceived disconnect between histories of Asian American racialization and the conditions of urban unrest that are linked to ghettoization. Chang’s book of literary criticism, along with these moments in Spike Lee’s narrative film and Malcolm X’s collaborative autobiography, help us to see these connections as well as the work that is needed to make those connections appreciable.

While Chang’s book is not explicitly a study of comparative ethnic studies, it shares with virtually all fields of ethnic American studies a concern with understanding the connections between race and class. Chang’s book argues that the development of political movements and academic fields has led to the ongoing need to illuminate the connections between race and class, succinctly writing at one point that “the ethnographic imperative has influenced Asian American literary production and resulted in the obfuscation of Asian Americans’ experiences of structural class inequity” (p. 67). Illuminating the connections between – the mutually constitutive relationship of – race and class is a form of analysis that has arguably been at the center of critical Ethnic Studies from its outset more than four decades ago, and especially before the so-called “cultural turn” in the U.S. academy. That maligned “cultural turn” has probably since given way to a more-than-slight return to an empirical emphasis, an emphasis perhaps newly energized with resentment at having momentarily been made to feel problematic, that is to say, as indeed problematic as uninterrogated positivism is. That is to say, in interrogating traces of positivism, Chang’s study is a part of the critique of identity politics that emerges when movements are based upon and therefore ironically reproduce (most notably through cultural nationalism) the epistemological tendencies to arouse combat. It may well be that the call to recognize, or un-obfuscate, class inequity is at the very origins of Asian American Studies and U.S. Ethnic Studies, for these are fields presumed to be founded on racial/ethnic identity-based movements and are therefore at risk of always being reduced to being only understood that way. And so a dominantly race- and ethnicity-based analysis must be revised to recognize the fundamental importance of class formations in the United States. For example, see Ronald Takaki’s Iron Cages or Edna Bonacich and Lucie Cheng’s Labor Immigration Under Capitalism, both more than two decades old. To appreciate the stakes and context of this critique, it may be helpful to appreciate how Black British scholarship has had to do the opposite: revise a dominantly class-based analysis to recognize the fundamental importance of race. For example, see the early work of Paul Gilroy in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, also more than two decades old. All of this scholarship, including Chang’s, is not only about the relationship of race and class but also about the relationship of race, class, and culture.

So then two key analytical interventions emerge in Chang: (1) the above-mentioned strategic emphasis on class-focused analysis and, perhaps more suggestively, (2) a case for Asian American literature as a literature of the urban and its epistemologies. As with James Kyung-jin Lee’s Urban Triage, the latter intervention is one that promises to be an enduring one, as the idea and practice of the city is a motif in Asian American studies that has rarely gotten such extended conceptual attention over a broad range of urban formations. This conceptual attention and range of contexts can be tied to the fact that her book is solidly rooted in the productively wandering field of literary studies, with selective invocations of sociology that help readers to see the emergence of the explanatory power of such ideas as ethnic enclaves and ethnoburbs. While disciplinary sociology or anthropology might demand highly focused attention to a specific context, usually manifesting as studies of geographically localized objects and occasionally studies of translocal networks, literary studies makes it possible to constellate contexts via thematic criticism. And this is the main method that Chang’s book deploys in its orchestrations of chapters devoted to Japanese American, Korean American, Chinese American, and Indian American urban formations. The book’s conceptual focus could certainly be brought to bear on historically important Filipino American urban communities (e.g., see scholarship such as Linda Maram’s Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila) and post-1975 Southeast Asian refugee communities (e.g., see literature such as le thi diem thuy’s The Gangster We’re All Looking For and documentaries such as Sokly Ny’s AKA Don Bonus and Christopher Woon’s Among B-Boys). And the book’s generative attention to class could readily integrate the important histories of colonialism and imperialism that these communities, as well as of course the ones included in her book, make visible though their critical engagements with class formations, structurally and historically, that are always already global.

Chang’s book draws on key texts of the Asian American canon, from Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter and Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone to Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, in ways that provide useful insights for the teaching and further study of these texts across a diversity of course offerings. The book’s appreciation of textual details as both reflecting and producing critical ideas about class and gendered racialization are solidly executed exegeses of literary texts. Writing the Ghetto is a suggestive and provocative contribution to ongoing scholarly work on the central importance of class-focused analyses of Asian American literature, made particularly compelling through the lens of a selection of urban legibilities.


1. Spike Lee with Lisa Jones, Do The Right Thing (New York:  Fireside, 1989), 251.

2. Malcolm X/Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York:  Plume, 1965), 114.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16479, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:34:15 AM

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