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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Figuring Futures: Early Asian American Mixed-Race Literature

  • Author(s): Poulsen, Melissa Eriko
  • Advisor(s): Wilson, Rob
  • Hong, Christine
  • et al.

This dissertation examines figurations of Asian mixed race during the long period of Asian exclusion and enforced anti-miscegenation in the United States, when racial mixing was legally proscribed. During this time of U.S. expansion into Asia, and of unprecedented Asian immigration into the United States, such proscription helped maintain normative white identity while rendering the Asian American mixed-race body illegible, making cultural production one of the few sites where Asian American mixed race could be imagined. There, a defining feature of these figures was their consistent use in projecting potential U.S. futures; Asian mixed-race figures were used to work through the relationship of Asia and the United States, and of Asians in the United States, during these times of conflict with and phobia of Asia. Because this period’s tensions emerge from the confrontation between “white” and “Asian,” Asian mixed-race literary figures embodied through their mixed heritage the ideological and material threat Asia posed for the United States and the promise of a different future.

Tracing these early figurations of Asian American mixed race, this dissertation is arranged in two sections. Part One addresses representations of Asian American mixed race through American Orientalist ideology, where Asian mixed-race figures were used to support and naturalize U.S. imperialism abroad. Part Two explores the writings and reflections of Asian mixed-race authors and artists who sought to reimagine Asian mixed race through visions of world community that resisted imperialism and racism. By spanning the long period of Asian exclusion, this dissertation thus begins to uncover established and emergent figurations of Asian mixed race in the United States. In doing so, my dissertation uncovers the genealogy of the current proliferation of mixed-race figures in contemporary cultural production, where mixed race is synonymous with a future post-racial United States, one that all too frequently aligns with U.S. imperialism. By exposing the instrumentalization of the early Asian American mixed-race subject, my project traces the uncomfortable residue of race at the heart of post-racial discourse, promoting caution around the simplified acceptance of mixed race as somehow beyond or between race, while simultaneously uncovering alternate, anti-racist trajectories.

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