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Between Asian Girls: Minor Feminisms and Sideways Critique

  • Author(s): Tran, Sharon N.
  • Advisor(s): Lee, Rachel C
  • et al.

This dissertation expands existing accounts of the history of Asian racialization in the United States by examining the various discursive, symbolic, and affective economies through which the “Asian girl” has been trafficked. I mobilize the “Asian girl” as a critical framework for attending to an especially vulnerable, young female population and girlification as a particular mode of racialization. I examine the Asian girl queered by militarization, the kawaii (cute) Asian girl, the cybernetic/transgenic Asian girl, and the feral Asian girl as critical sites for seriously grappling with material conditions of political constraint and dependency. The project identifies girlish vulnerability as a structure of disavowal/contempt in a historically masculinist minoritarian politics that emphasizes autonomy, sovereignty, and militant resistance and takes forms of vulnerability as a basis theorizing an alternative affective politics. My research draws on the works of Asian/American novelists, poets, and visual artists for how they (re)imagine Asian girls in lateral associations of compoundedness, eroticism, and nascent political solidarity.

As the title, “Between Asian Girls,” suggests, this dissertation seeks to recuperate theorizations of female homosociality, famously dismissed by Eve Sedgwick, as overly “intelligible”—thereby too facile for investigation—and at the same time, as politically illegible. I offer a postcolonial, critical race studies intervention to theorizations of female homosociality. Engaging with Asian Americanist scholarship by David Eng, Gayatri Gopinath, Jodi Kim, among others, I trace how histories of racialization, militarism, and imperialism intimately structure relations between Asian girls. This project also redefines the stakes of theorizing homosociality through a focus on the girl, a liminal figure that is heavily sexualized in U.S. culture but is simultaneously not allowed to be sexual. I take up the Asian girl as a critical framework for thinking queerness in terms of minor(itized) bodies, how girlification is a mode of racialization indexed in the construction of figures such as the “Asian sissy” and “China doll.” My project is thus in conversation with girl studies and recent queer critique on the child. Responding to Lee Edelman’s polemic on the politics of reproductive futurism organized around the child, I follow Kathryn Bond Stockton and J. Jack Halberstam in probing how minor girl “acts” can shift our understanding of the political. Instead of a politics for the child, I take the child and Asian girlification as a point of departure for theorizing minor feminisms.

The Asian/American cultural productions I analyze foreground various structuring conditions that inhibit the Asian girl from growing up, in the heteronormative sense, to become an autonomous adult human, and lead her to instead, “grow sideways” (cf. Stockton 2009). I probe how these works stage the Asian girl’s queer bonding with other contingent, proximal objects and organisms and provide critical imaginaries for theorizing alternative forms of social and political collectivity. My opening chapter examines how Sarah Bird and Nora Okja Keller deploy the trope of lateral birth in their fiction as a means of critiquing and negotiating histories of gendered militarized violence, while later chapters mine the possibilities of a compound political subjectivity in depictions of kawaii collectivity across different genres from Japanese anime to Chang-rae Lee’s novel On Such a Full Sea, stinky multispecies assemblages in the speculative fiction of Larissa Lai, and her collaborative ecopoetics with Rita Wong. This dissertation also seeks to further develop and enact a mode of sideways critique taken up by some feminist and queer studies scholars (cf. R. Lee 2014). Argumentation typically entails a logic and expectation of verticality, the linear ordering and building up of ideas to some final culmination. In each of my chapters, I perform variations of sideways reading practices that mine the contingent, lateral points of connection between texts for how they can move us sideways toward queer critical terrains.

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