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Long Le-Khac, Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America

Nicoleta Alexoae-Zagni
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Long Le-Khac, Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020, 247 p., ISBN 9781503612181 (paperback) | 9781503612198 (ebook), $28

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1Long Le-Khac’s comparative study aims at tracing the intertwined history of Latinx and Asian American communities in the post-1965 US, in the wake of the implementation of the Hart-Celler Act that ended the restrictions to Asian, African and more largely all non-Northwestern European immigration. As the author pointedly reminds us from the “Introduction,” this is also a context defined by civil rights movements, US interventions in Vietnam, as well as Cold War interests and reconfigurations. Le-Khac looks at the transformations of and in these communities through the prism of a common aesthetic paradigm, the “transfictional form” that he innovatively identifies—and subsequently sets out to theorize and work with—as one of the most prevalent contemporary Asian American and Latinx types of narrative (5).

2Indeed, in the introductory chapter titled “Transfictional Solidarities,” building on the work of sociologists and historians Nicholas De Genova, Mae M. Ngai and Eileen O’Brien, the author makes, on the one hand, an apt point of emphasizing the common challenges and intertwined fates of Asian Americans and Latinx, many of them marked by the necessity of negotiating black-white lines and of fighting an ever-present perception as alien. On the other hand—and drawing on “transmedia narrative studies—he scrupulously theorizes his central operational concept and object of investigation, the “transfictional form,” as “narrative works that create an effect of many distinct, semiautonomous stories, each focusing on different characters and events but taking place within the same imagined world” (8-9). This allows for the creation—and identification, on the reader’s side—of links among characters and stories while acknowledging their specificities and separations. Long Le-Khac expands on the manner in which transfictional works generally play on more ambiguous causal relations—“indirect, mediated, and tenuous networks of impact, communities of consequence that span distances and degrees of separation and defy clear mapping” (9)—given the impossibility, for one single story, to contain the numerous pieces and complexities of the social world the writers “shape into narrative” (9). Within the comparative scope of his analyses and ever mindful of the “social sense of artistic practice” à la Raymond Williams, he assigns transfictional storytelling the power to make readers think across—“not just many texts but, more fundamentally, many distinct fictions” (19).

3Following these liminary theorizations and mapping of the contours of his analyses, the two main parts of his study—“Forms and Formations” and “Panethnic Fictions,” each divided into three and two chapters, respectively—are meant to limn and illustrate the “situated powers of transfictional aesthetics” (22), gesturing to historical moments crucial to the shaping of the Asian and Latinx American experience.

4Chapter 1 proceeds, as its title “Decentering Bildungsroman Hermeneutics” makes it clear, to examine the manners in which writers coming from long established US, Chinese, Mexican, and African communities have rewritten this traditional literary form tracing an individual’s development. Le-Khac astutely demonstrates, through his examination of (now) canonical works by Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros and Gloria NaylorThe Woman Warrior (1976), The House on Mango Street (1984) and The Women of Brewster Place (1982)—the challenge these authors bring both to the aesthetics of the genre and to its practice in Latina, Asian and African American literatures. This is done through their narrativization of the “inequalities of race, gender, class, and life chances” (51) and their requiring of the readers to develop broader interpretive practices that place their characters’ itinerary and development in their “unequal relations with the development stories of others” (48).

5The second chapter, entitled “Narrating Cold War Displacement,” focuses on writers hailing from communities entangled in the histories of U.S. militarism. Here, Vietnamese American writer Aimee Phan’s 2004 short story cycle We Should Never Meet is read alongside with Junot Díaz’s Drown (1996), to show the deployment of a “transfictional tension of narrative borders and border crossings” (23) signifying disrupted yet related histories of migrations and diasporas. Through the lens of the “transfictional,” Le-Khac offers fresh readings and interpretations, compellingly demonstrating that narrative form can “model the force of national borders and vast distances in its fragmentation of narrative continuity” (64) while putting forward the necessary expansion of national narratives into transnational ones, the blurring of the lines between immigrants and refugees, as well as the connections between migrant stories from presumably distinct—and differently categorized—communities.

6“Unsettling Strata and Type,” the closing chapter of the first part, extends the scope of analyses to consider the restructuring of Asian and Latin American communities with the arrival of post-1965 economically driven migrant flows—intensifying the discrepancies between immigrant types and fates. In considering Indian American author Rishi Reddi’s 2007 story cycle Karma and Chicano author Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005)—in the same manner and through the same perspective as in the second chapter—Le-Khac offers new possibilities of interpretation. They emphasize the common challenges of ethnic groups caught within an interrelated neoliberal immigration system and the writers’ narrative grappling with “uneven legal and economic topographies” (98) as well as offer a very convincing discussion of stereotypes—and of literary techniques employed to unsettle them. The author befittingly concludes on the impossibility of “easy answers for representation in the face of entrenched stereotype, neoliberal categories, and class cleavage” (120), acknowledging the predicament in which many minority writers find themselves caught in: however numerous or successful the attempts to “satirize and deconstruct these images,” there will always be “alternative understandings of ethnic communities up for grabs” (120) as there is no avoidance of the “limited, compromised tools of representation” (121).

7After having examined many of the shared challenges and identified joint aesthetic strategies deployed by Latinx and Asian American writers, Le-Khac opens the second part of his study with a compelling reminder that the transformations of the post-1965 period—the increasingly diversified populations and agendas—have culminated in crises of unity altering and upsetting the very idea of these communities as ethnic groups. It is in relation to this context marked by uncertainty and reconfigurations that he makes the case for transfictional works as not only “modelling” some of the key conflicts these groups contend with, but as offering “conceptual structure and political imagination to the very ideas of these communities” (126).

8Along these very lines, the fourth chapter, “Forming Panethnicity,” explores side by side the debates on panethnic coalitions in Latinx and Asian American studies to reveal how their “central impasses” (128) are aligned. It goes on to argue that Cristina Henriquez’s 2014 novel The Book of Unknown Americans offers a “comparative vision for perceiving emergent forms of coalition” (135) by tracing its representation of “Political Latinidad” as a forum for Latinx unity and coalition that simultaneously aligns them and provides solidarities with other people of color (138). The force of Le-Khac’s arguments is to link the differences among Latinx that Henriquez’s novel only registers to Karen Tei Yamashita’s response to “the crisis of Asian American unity with expansive possibility” (151).

9The final chapter “Imagining Unity” looks indeed at Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) as relying on a “fluid form” (153) to advocate a utopian idea of panethnicity that “reconfigures the place of identity in movements and expands the scope of Asian American politics” (153). The interpretative lens honed throughout the previous chapters is expanded to skillfully investigate the complex manner in which Yamashita’s transfictional form allows for multiplicity, divergence and even conflict—of action and ideology—to call for an orientation of “Asian American politics toward ambitious transformations while harboring no illusions about easy endings” (177). The idea of unity and solidarity as a horizon toward which politics should aim is an apt conclusion to this section of the book and by the same token, to the entire study, harking back to the vision of a “grand political project” (181) at the heart of Asian American and Latinx coalitions from the start.

10With its lively, insightful and often refreshing readings and despite the occasional repetitions of the methodologies deployed—a consequence of organizing the book around particular works—Le-Khac’s project, capturing the contradictions and differences dividing communities and the new literary paradigms they imagine, not only engages but equally opens new investigatory trails. It represents an important contribution to the constantly growing body of comparative critical works on race and ethnicity and will prove of interest to theorists and scholars of American ethnic studies and American literature.

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Nicoleta Alexoae-Zagni, « Long Le-Khac, Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18143 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18143

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Nicoleta Alexoae-Zagni

Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis

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