Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Voicing Asia: Post-Cold War Novels, Geopolitics, and Human Rights

  • Author(s): Xiang, Sunny Yang
  • Advisor(s): Lye, Colleen
  • et al.

This dissertation explores how novels and geopolitics differently represent a voice as "Asian." By incorporating cases studies of how U.S. policy "voiced" culturally representative anti-communist voices, it highlights the historical and formal specificity of post-Cold War Asian novelisticauthor's racial identity and ideological disposition as the primary determinants of the narrator's reliability. Voicing Asia considers the narrative technique of unreliability with respect to human rights flashpoints within U.S.-Asian geopolitics. Paired with the "voices" of puppet presidents, POWs, and cultural diplomats, the post-Cold War narrative voices in my study offer a critical response to the geopolitical production of Asia's Cold War allegiances and a formal manifestation of the contradictions within a post-Cold War order. Specifically, these voices are all unreliable in ways that elicit a historically specific form of Oriental inscrutability.

In the novels of Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ha Jin, Wei Hui, and Mian Mian, unreliability keys to ethnic betrayal, excessive patriotism, calculated disinterestedness, and uninhibited consumerism. These forms of unreliability bear out an especially insidious and morally inhumane form of capitalist modernization that is specific to post-Cold War Asian states. I argue that the formal features of first-person "Asian" narration index but also disrupt this racial economy of Human Rights Discourse. In the novels of Lee and Ishiguro, narrative unreliability doubles as a racial trope and a literary technique, eliciting both an extraordinarily inscrutable "Asian" and a normatively fallible "human." In the other novels I explore, unreliability is much less at the narrative surface. For Jin, Mian Mian, and Wei Hui, unreliability results from the recruitment of Chinese literature for the contradictory ends of globalization (which finds its most insidious manifestation in Pacific Rim economies) and human rights (which takes Asian development as paradigmatic of modernity's inhuman conditions). I contend that novelistic evocations of "Asian voice" register, without being irreducible to, Asia's geopolitical status. Most strikingly, these novelistic voices, precisely at their most unreliable moments, can produce the narrative effect of an "Asian human." I show that locating and hearing an "Asian human" voice requires first, a more nuanced account of the formal relation between Asian narrators and Asian authors and second, a less thematically oriented approach to locating in post-Cold War literature transnationalism, globalism, cosmopolitianism, and other variations of what Eric Hayot calls "world-oriented discourse." This "Asian human" challenges the geopolitical contradiction between the homo economicus of Pacific Rim Discourse and the Western liberal subject of Human Rights Discourse. As a distinctly literary voice, it also undoes the perceived correspondence between the subject of the literary humanities and that of human rights. The historical specificity of a post-Cold War historical juncture, in which Asian capitalist modernity represents the limit of humanity, helps us register the exceptionality of an inscrutable yet fallible, Asian and human voice that can be heard only within the domain of literature.

Main Content
Current View