The Coherent Incoherence of Asian American Difference

By Douglas S. Ishii

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program Director Konrad Ng thanked the artists and authors of “Asian American Portraits of Encounter Between Image and Word” via remote introduction for their work that “sustains narratives critical to understanding the Asian American experience.”7 The term “Asian American” here suggests a shared experience across individual lives—the term coheres through its social value. By contrast, David Ward, one of the exhibition’s seven curators and symposium session moderator, explained to the audience that the curators made “Asian American” second to bringing in “the best—intrinsic, formalistic, striking, wow—pictures.” He constructs a range among the artists between Roger Shimomura, “whose family was in America before [his] family came,” to Satomi Shirai, who identifies as a “Japanese living in Queens,” to understand “Asian America” as only a superfluous label imposed from on high. In Ward’s analysis, “Asian American” is more of an obstacle than a framework.

Whether or not “Asian American” is a usable and useful category is a debate that extends far beyond Ng and Ward—though I am wary of any attempt to dispose of the term. Instead, what if we understood “Asian American” as a designation that gained power through what scholar Jodi Kim calls its “coherent incoherence?”8 After all, Asian Pacific America is a conglomeration of over twenty ethnicities spanning no fewer than five centuries in the Americas; the sheer complexity of our communities and lives makes any fully inclusive representation incoherent. However, while we must recognize the different and sometimes divergent identities, experiences, cultures, and communities to which we can stake our claims, what draws us together are the many anti-Asian racisms that plague our pasts, presents, and futures; we cohere less because of some sameness implied by “Asia” than because of our shared experiences of survival—an “Asian America” from below. Born of activism to overthrow the dehumanizing term “Oriental,” “Asian America” comes from politicized roots that always threaten the happy conditional inclusions of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” In the wake of Tiger Mom, Linsanity, Marion Barry, Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, and incessant suggestions that we are “post-racial (so don’t make me learn about racism),” we need to find public ways of spreading “Asian American” as the name of political activism and cultural creation. Can “Asian American” signify something other than an alchemic formula of race, ethnicity, nationality, and place?

We can see an affirmative answer in playwright David Henry Hwang’s response to Tam Tran’s My Call to Arms (2009). Echoing his acclaimed M. Butterfly (Plume, 1993), Hwang’s one-minute play lifts Tran’s “self”-portrait out of the lauded gallery and imagines it in an online dating profile to address, as Hwang put it, “How we look at Asian women, and that […] objectification.” He interrogates the sexual and racial fetish’s transformation of people into things, addressing what scholars have called the “grammars of embodiment”—the cultural rules of how bodies get read, and the very real consequences of those readings.9 Hwang’s play does not feature an Asian American narrator; instead Hwang examines what it meant to be, in his words, “looking at this image” of Tran’s gendered and raced body. As Hwang illustrates, how Tran identifies does not change that reading; this shifts our critical gaze from Asian American identity to Asian American difference. We can understand this as the critical and creative power of the symposium: the framing and reframing of what it means to see and be seen—what gets seen, and how this seeing structures relations of power.

Spoken word poet Bao Phi’s work, like the Roger Shimomura painting it references, cannot be read with the uncritical assumption that he is expressing his “Asian” and “American” selves. However, we can read Phi and Shimomura as reimagining what it means to be “looking at this image” through an Asian American lens. Shimomura’s painting Shimomura Crossing the Delaware (2010) revises Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851); instead of Washington and his crew being welcomed by a dawning sky, they face a storm, a warning. Phi responds in kind in “Villain/elle: Shimomura Cross Over in the Flat of the Night” by narrating the forcible theft and desecration of Native lands, the Atlantic slave trade, “coolie” labor, and nuclear warfare as the genocidal conditions that have made racial difference fatal. He connects these old grammars of embodiment to their reiterations: the “War on Terror,” the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border, the death of Pvt. Danny Chen, and the U.S.-centrism of “globalization.”

Telling is Phi’s use of the villanelle, a form made standard in American high school classrooms by Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” Thomas uses the villanelle’s repetition of lines and sounds to express his cycles of grief over his father’s last moments; in a cycle, progress is impossible. Phi gives the villanelle teeth by using the cyclical form to question our own progress myth. Through these connections between then and now, Phi shows how, as much as we try to not see it, the deathly violence of racism keeps returning; we’re not really “post” anything. Shimomura and Phi demonstrate that seeing “Asian American” means learning to un-see unnecessarily celebratory images like Leutze’s by seeing this nation and our presence here alongside their histories of violence.

Multiracial, multinational, and multilingual author Anna Kazumi Stahl’s narration of her viewing of Shizu Saldamando’s work takes up this dialectic of seeing and unseeing to help us understand the underlying social, cultural, and political dimensions of difference. Stahl repeats key words in her response in English, Spanish, and Japanese, as though relishing the multiple contexts invoked through the very sounds of translation. Stahl’s final paragraph on portraiture is delivered almost exclusively in Spanish. My rough translation:

There is no exact translation. In English, there is a term which itself contains only the idea of an art dedicated to portraits. But Castilian uses a phrase composed of several words, not one. And this small difference makes me aware, again, that portraiture is a process, somewhat dynamic and a little linear, and involves multiple contradicting layers of reiterations. Layers.

As she explained after her reading, “I inflicted language on you.” Her “inflicting” splits words—their sounds, their meanings, their contexts—to unpack the “multiple contradicting layers of reiterations” within language itself that shapes our encounters with the world. Stahl does with portraiture what Phi does with the villanelle; they complicate what gets taken as natural by bringing out critical layers that help us see anew.

These authors and artists show us that the culture of “Asian America” from below is less about answering “what does it mean to be Asian American” than it is about rewriting, reimagining, and revising these layers of what gets seen, what gets unseen, and what changing our frames of sight may mean in a bigger picture. This “Asian America” is not playing nice with attempts to define it as a “range,” just as it refuses the assumption that “Asian America,” and not racism, is somehow the problem. Instead, these artists make “Asian America” cohere as a rescripting of these old grammars of embodiment—the point being not to un-see difference preemptively, to repeat that coercive sameness that sees difference as an obstacle, but to see, live, and thrive in difference’s coherent incoherence.

7 And on the topic of thanks, I would like to thank Betsy Yuen and Amanda Dykema for their friendship, intellectual generosity, and critical eye throughout my response-writing process.
8 Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 7, emphasis mine.
9 See for example Eva Cherniavsky, “Body,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 29.



By Douglas S. Ishii

In Shilpa Davé’s brilliant analysis of Kazim Ali’s presentation, she argues that “in order to model a queer practice of reading, he tries to break out of standard forms and get out from under the rules that define us.” Responding to an audience member who highlighted the queerness of the symposium’s format in its transgressing of forms, Ali explained that “the idea of transgressing as a queer person, and as a person of color, and in many other ways: to speak at all is to be a transgressor.” Queerness here takes on a dual meaning.35 Firstly, queer scrambles our systems of sexual identity and sexual orientation by refusing the kind of certainty expressed in terms like “heterosexual” and “gay.” Secondly, the term’s insistence on centering marginalized lives, experiences, and bodies makes evident just how strange the world is. Shilpa and Ali demonstrate the potential of queerness to complicate the boundaries of forms and norms through the very transgression the term implies. I’d like to take this further to explore the queer relationship between Asian American cultural production, the gatekeepers of American culture, and Asian American lives and experiences.

I use the term “cultural production” to get at everyone’s insights about how works of culture express variegated flavors of financial, aesthetic, social, and political value. The works of culture–visual art and literature, for example–are themselves products. Even the “highest” of art forms are not immune; see Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s analysis of patronage. At the same time, the works of “culture” produce knowledge about those doing the representing and being represented; for example, a collective Asian American culture is actively being produced and created through Asian American representations. Serving as simultaneously a portrait (cultural “representation”) and a proxy (political “representation”), any representation, as Vincent Pham makes clear, is shaped by power from on high, below, and every level between. Nonetheless, within the current systems of representation, Asian Americans must participate in this power play to become visible, not just in American culture, but to ourselves. Thus, Asian American cultural production is queer: it demands a crossing between art and life, between portraits and proxies, between the “Asian” and the “American” into an uncertain space that is messily both and neither.

It is important that we recognize our firm roots in America and our attachments to Asia, or our lacks thereof, but there is a queerness to recognizing that, through very different histories of immigration, imperialism, intervention, and reinvention, we are a people caught in crossings. As Alexandra Chang recounts in her poetic theorization of the “scaffolds of diaspora,” The KYOPO Project (2011) makes her think of bodies, emotions, thoughts, images, and lives in orbit, a “nexus of relationships.” Diaspora, a kind of homelessness that tracks how people and their cultures get moved, displaced, migrated, and scattered, can found a community identity shaped by strategic essentialism–as Vincent explains, a self-conscious strategy of representation shaped around an “essence.” A diasporic Asian America would take our diversity as our essence, which would speak back to racist representations trying to dictate our lives and shrink our desires. Alexandra’s imagery of scaffolding evocatively suggests that a strategically essentialist and diasporic orientation would require a continuous process of creating identities and building communities by crossing the lines that divide. Within diaspora, there are no boundaries but axes, nexuses, orbits, and revolutions; a diasporic Asian America would ask us to find out together what it means to live in space.

I think the beauty of The KYOPO Project is the way that it queers “art” by crossing and transgressing some of the hidden but nonetheless mediating relationships that, as Joseph and Vincent remind us, sit between us and our representations. The KYOPO Project is hung in the gallery as a series of photographed portraits, each one with an accompanying quotation from an interview. It seems the stuff of sociology and anthropology, experience but not “art,” even as it hangs in the Smithsonian. CYJO makes visible her mediation as an artist through her chosen photographic setting of sterile white walls and hardwood floors, but each photograph’s accompanying text reminds us that the image implies a “life in orbit.” In the spirit of Joseph’s second response, some philosophers would argue that “art” is more about the frame and the expectations we bring to it than anything inherent to an artwork itself. By contrast, many Asian American cultural producers are only too aware that Asian Americans are seen as not producing “art,” but testimony; “art” reveals itself to be a racialized gatekeeping category. And with that, CYJO makes “art” strange by challenging our expectations of it even as The KYOPO Project highlights the “artfulness” of diaspora–one of the ways that, as Floyd Cheung insightfully argues, the artists negotiate “the balance of burden and resistance” between expectation and expression. CYJO queers the arbitrary distinction between “art” and life by crossing them, thus desegregating “high” aesthetic culture from the “low” cultures of everyday experience.

One of Bao Phi’s symposium poetry selections, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby,” further demonstrates how Asian American cultural production engages in creative crossings that queer the simultaneous hypervisibility and forced invisibility of Asian Americans. Phi’s poem imagines the thought process of Cathy Nguyen, a would-be member of pop singer Gwen Stefani’s four-woman “harajuku” entourage: “Love,” “Angel,” “Music,” and “Baby.” The poem ends with a stanza as poetic as it is political:

I’ll lip-sync my new name
curl my lip into a fake accessory of an accent
if you take me in a limo to riot grrrrrl glam revolution
I promise I won’t speak English
when you take away my name.

This is more than an indictment of Gwen Stefani; she represents a personification of cultural gatekeeping. Phi introduced the poem and the contractual obligations of “Love,” Angel,” “Music,” and “Baby” that inspired it by saying that learning about them “made me sympathize with any Asian American who’s trying to break into […] entertainment, a system that is so belligerent and racist to us.” Phi’s poem is neither Margaret Cho’s indictment of Stefani’s minstrelsy nor “Music’s” defense of it. This stanza makes evident that Cathy buys into her own dehumanization even as it portrays one of the really complicated decisions that Asian Americans make in exercising our agency–our ability to make choices–in a culture that restrains our range of possibilities.

Neither fully victim of circumstance nor master of her own destiny, Cathy as imagined by Phi crosses these polarized positions and complicates them. This crossing of boundaries and complicating of givens that these scholars, writers, and artists have conducted throughout the exhibition, the symposium, and this conversation: that’s what’s at the heart of Asian American cultural production. It’s not about getting more Asian Americans through gates of mainstream American culture while others are held at the border. It’s about expressing just how complicated Asian American lives and experiences are in order to highlight the fundamental strangeness that goes into living in this world of norms and forms–like the very process of including some at the expense of others. To borrow an elegant phrase from Laura Kina, enlivening this strangeness is at the heart of what it means “to queer the structure of representation.”

35 For more on queerness and its political power, see Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (New York: The Free Press, 1999).