Caroline Rody

 

On her book The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction

Cover Interview of March 14, 2011

A close-up

I would hope that a browsing reader would open the book to its first pages—which I intended as a lively, reader-friendly introduction.

I start with a roster of surprising characters from contemporary Asian American fiction, unfamiliar kinds of characters who, because of their genetic mixture, or by means of their virtuso performances of cultural hybridity, embody contemporary fiction’s urge towards imaginative engagement with the difference of others.

The three novels given most extended attention in the book all close with scenes that feature a family embrace around a mixed-race child.  Such children, positioned to leave the stamp of their faces on the books’ endings, look to me like a vision of the emerging American readership.  I mean to point to them, too, as emblems of an increasingly open-ended American literature.

Several adult characters from these novels, by mastering and mixing multiple ethnic languages, kinds of music, cuisines, rituals, or forms of political speech become—for other characters and for the reader—spectacles of charged, riddling, potentially liberating multiethnic fusion.

Novelistic characters are not the only sites of the interethnic turn that this preface investigates, but I use them here as an introduction to the energetic invention a reader will find in the new interethnic literature.

The preface goes on to discuss the way that the English language itself in contemporary American fiction is dramatically swelling, crossbred with myriad immigrant languages that daily enrich it.

In Jiro Adachi’s The Island of Bicycle Dancers, a young Korean Japanese immigrant in lower Manhattan tries to pick up the local talk, but finds herself surrounded by “too many different kinds of English”: “Korean English” from her relatives, “American English” from a friend, “Chinese English from the high school kids on the 7 train, Spanish English everywhere, Russian English and Polish English near Lucky Market; black English all over, even from white people and some Asians—everyone trying to act black.”

Not simply the hegemonic language of a superpower, English here is a dynamic medium of cultural interchange, being reworked on the tongues of multitudes of its new possessors.  The novels of the interethnic turn prefer their English different, mixed, new; they affirm linguistic multiplicity and fusion as in themselves good, finding uniform speech the enemy of vitality, beauty, and hope.  They deliver a kind of English with its ears open to the talking world.

These unprecedented kinds of characters and the fresh language they bring to the American novel constitute just the first layer of the book’s investigations of a literature in transformation.