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Narrating the Visual: Seeing Race in Asian American Literature


By severing the contingency of “Asian American” from essentialist principles governing authorial descent and mimetic contents, this dissertation reads the “Asian American” of Asian American literature as a particular configuration of aesthetic form, namely of fictional form. More specifically, I argue that the contours of what might comprise an Asian American literary archive can be drawn by the archive’s formal negotiation with aspects of visuality. This engagement with the visual takes after the critical ambivalences that have framed applications of schemas of the visible and the visual in Asian American Studies’ apprehension of Asian racialization in the social, political, and cultural domains. On the one hand, the visual logic of race depends on an optically-grounded epistemology that sutures embodied evidence perceptible to the eye to meaning which is passed off as knowledge. Scholars have deftly denaturalized these “common sense” notions, leading to the valuable interrogation of the social and historical construction of normalized ways of seeing and apparatuses of racialization. On the other hand, metaphors of visibility and invisibility used to understand the politics of representation have shaped and continue to shape our thinking about the racialized distribution of power and possibilities for transformative social change. This dissertation additionally revisits Susan Koshy’s characterization of “Asian American” as a catachresis that signals dissimulation through its analytical inadequacy by rereading catachresis as a strategy intended to lend legible form to unmarked racialized experiences. The texts taken up by this project are concerned with the way the visual has contributed to experiences of oppression, but moreover display investments in recuperating the visual as a mode of responsive resistance. Legibility means mounting the process by which these forms of the visual contribute to racialization, but also the ways in which these forms of the visual are indispensable to these texts’ self-imagining as Asian American literature. Accordingly, in order to demonstrate the consistency with which the visual inflects Asian American literary form, the selection of texts in this dissertation occupies a wide historical range.

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