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The White Gaze and Position of Asian American Writing in Native Speaker

By: Katia Innes 

In Chang-Rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker (1995), readers are introduced to Henry Park, a first-generation Korean American husband, son, and spy. For Henry’s latest assignment, he tails Queens councilman and fellow countryman John Kwang, then pens reports to his superior, Dennis Hoagland. As Henry mission progresses, he deliberately conceals knowledge in his reports, distancing the writer, himself, from the reader, Hoagland. Native Speaker is rife with writer-reader relationships: Kwang constructs his political persona through various textual forms, including posters, speeches, and press interviews, to gain the trust of his constituents, and a private spreadsheet that tracks membership in his gghe, or “money club,” falls into the wrong hands. In the novel, as in real life, it is important to take note of the expected readership to which Asian American creative production, such as writing, is consumed. Asian American literature may be written for an Asian American audience, but can also be read by a non-Asian American audience who can misconstrue certain depictions of racialized experiences. The performative aspects of living as a racialized person in a white society and the experience of writing for an audience are thereby intertwined, creating an uneasy dualism that creates space within the literary field at a cost of assimilation. 

Interpreted in relation to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of position taking, Asian American writers operate as a relatively new group that seeks to improve its position in the literary field. Positionality is relational; each position—meaning each genre—is subjectively defined in relation to the value or judgement ascribed to other positions, including dominant and subdominant positions. Authors define themselves relative to other authors through position taking, and in this way, authors attempt to conserve or challenge the existing literary field (Bourdieu 30). The rise of mainstream Asian American fiction occurred in the 1970s and was largely concentrated in the California Bay Area (Lawrence and Cheung 4), where Asian Americans are a minority group. With this in mind, Asian American writing is a new position as well as a subcategory of the ethnic novel. In turn, the cultural and economic worth of Asian American writing becomes dependent on how the literary field writ large (including other positions, writers, and audiences) engage with it and ascribe value to it. Through metafictional depictions of readers who consume Asian American creative output, Lee exposes the struggles imposed upon ethnic minorities by the position of a white public. In Native Speaker, metafiction reveals the ability of a white readership to alternately exploit or empower the work of Asian American writers. The white gaze has the power to shape the meaning and impact of Asian American literature. Thus, Asian American writing often reasserts a certain ethnic narrative to appeal to white audiences, even if it is disconnected from the creators’ own realities. Metafiction, however, can show how pandering to white audiences can still hold an undercurrent of truth. Though not immediately obvious, acts of writing can conceal and disrupt misconceptions of racialized experiences.

As part of his job at Glimmer & Company, a private contracting firm in Cold War 1980s America, Henry is tasked with collecting information on possible dissenters and writing “the tract of their lives, remote, unauthorized biographies” (22). Henry explains that each employee is generally assigned to their “own kind, more or less. Foreign workers, immigrants, first-generationals, neo-Americans,” under the assumption that they could understand the cases better due to shared cultural experiences and positions (17). This bureaucratic procedure mimics the burden placed upon ethnic writers to understand and represent the experiences of every individual in their community. Lee suggests that the intrusion of the reader prevents Asian Americans from achieving full autonomy over their image in society, reinforcing the dominant position. Hoagland’s reading of  Henry’s reports, as a white man, mirrors the dynamics of a white audience’s reading of Asian American literature. Internal community pressures and the imposition of the white gaze on texts reinforce each other in creating expectations within immigrant communities to succeed financially and culturally, often at the price of conformity or assimilation. Henry expresses this sentiment, noting the pressure for him “to be a clean writer of the most reasonable eye, and present the subject in question like some sentient machine of transcription” (203). This passage presents the paradox of Asian American life, which positions the individual as both subject of transcription and the writer who interprets. In this scenario, Henry is a writer who is not in control of the final interpretation of his work, just as Lee has no control over the readership’s interpretation of his work. 

Henry’s conflicting responsibilities—to fulfill his job and to protect a fellow Korean American—cause him trouble in writing reports about Kwang. He is aware that his reports have sociopolitical consequences and expresses concerns about them: “I know that Hoagland is now busy recompiling my daily work, preparing it for his secret reader, who will do with it what he wishes” (78). This “secret reader” is another representation of the white gaze in Asian American lives. Henry recognizes the purpose and position of his work, which recalls the anxieties writers face upon publishing their work, especially marginalized writers. Asian American writers must inevitably face such anxieties as their personal narratives become models for racialized communities and are subjected to scrutiny by a predominantly white audience. Henry’s recollection of his suburban childhood home expresses his fears of being a model minority: a stereotype of Asian Americans being particularly polite, law-abiding, with higher levels of success than other immigrant groups. He and his father try to impress their neighbours by “making money, polishing apples in the dead of night, perfectly pressed pants, perfect credit, being perfect” (53). Henry’s reluctance to let Hoagland read his reports reflects the degree of perfection that racialized people must achieve in order to gain respect in a white society, as Henry fears admitting Kwang’s wrongdoings. 

Kwang also engages in a cultural production of his own work, albeit with the purpose of strengthening the Korean American community in Flushing, Queens. In his politics, Kwang uses print media to craft his political persona, as well as to endear himself to wider audiences. Flushing, Henry describes, has “Kwang’s name everywhere on stickers and posters, the red, white and blue graphics plastered on the windows of every other shop and car along Kissena, Roosevelt, and Main” (83). By depicting Queens as covered in Kwang’s written name, Lee employs metafiction to awaken readers to Kwang’s ability to construct a political persona. Kwang’s shaping of his political self reflects another level of acclimatization that racialized people undergo; whether it be in everyday life or in professional fields, an implicit expectation exists of one’s behaviour  according to their ethnic background. In turn, this expectation is representative of the larger Asian American experience of continuously having to be a model minority. Kwang goes to great lengths to win over his constituents, memorizing printed profiles of every person who walks into his offices. His dedication to consolidating this list of individuals “[is] more of a discipline for him, like a serious craft or martial art, a chosen kind of suffering involving hours of practice and concentration” (177). Though this production of cultural output is not intended for a public audience, Kwang still puts in a tremendous amount of effort into crafting his gghe. In a sense, this work is similar to the effort of Asian American writers who attempt to use their work to represent their specific experiences. Kwang is racially marked and must exist within the limits ascribed to what an ethnic politician can accomplish while becoming “the model by which [other minorities] will work and live” (326). 

Henry’s work as the bookkeeper for Kwang’s gghe, in Flushing is another act of writing meant for private use, but his work eventually ends up in the hands of an unintended audience: the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The act of transcribing the payments demonstrates how an Asian American individual may be positioned to empower or exploit their communities. First created by Eduardo, then given to Henry, the spreadsheet of participants in the gghe indexes much of the immigrant population, creating a tangible and textual manifestation of the community. Money is transferred from constituents into Kwang’s hands through “hundreds of white envelopes” and is then transcribed into spreadsheets (278). From Henry’s perspective, he has “become a compiler of lives” and is “writing a new book of the land” (279). Similar to his reports for Hoagland, Henry’s job as Kwang’s bookkeeper distills the nuances and complexities of the immigrant experience in a tidy, orderly fashion. Nonetheless, this attempt to constrain the dreams of every immigrant in Flushing within tiny vertical columns creates a tension between material realities and abstract aspirations. Just as the lives of immigrants are precarious, so are their communities. While the consolidation of the families into a list initially provides emotional and financial support, when found by the INS, it facilitates the mass deportation of hundreds of undocumented immigrants (329). 

Herein lies the duplicity of writing: it can empower or manipulate. Though Henry can claim to be helping the gghe’s participants by awarding them financial freedom, he plays an irreconcilable role in the mass deportation of the community by creating and eventually turning over the spreadsheets. Kwang’s role is less obviously exploitative, as he never intended to publish the spreadsheets, yet the gaze of the public permeates regardless. While transcribing the gghe into a spreadsheet, Henry adopts a role similar to that of an Asian American writer tasked with recounting larger community or national narratives. Henry realizes this, admitting: “[m]y ugly immigrant’s truth, is that I have exploited my own, and those others who can be exploited. This forever is my burden to bear” (319-320). Henry’s reduction of immigrant lives into a compact spreadsheet is akin to a writer generalizing their experiences as a member of an ethnic community in order to reach a larger white audience. This mirrors a dilemma that Asian American writers face: their personal stories may be taken as universalizing experiences and they become unwilling spokespeople for entire communities. Notably, Maxine Hong Kingston faced criticism after the success of her autobiography The Woman Warrior (1976). Kingston’s use of the Cantonese fairy tale of Fa Mulan, as well as her depictions of her own struggles for self-definition, drew criticism from many male authors, who argued that she was self-Orientalizing. Frank Chin accused Kingston of promoting “white racism,” rather than an authentic Chinese experience in her embellishment of the Fa Mulan story, as he believed it wrongly exaggerated the misogyny and violence of Chinese culture (Chin 135-136). Regardless of whether Kingston intended to rely on Orientalist tropes to garner attention, or if she depicted her genuine experiences with misogyny in the Chinese community, non-Asian audiences are unable to differentiate between the two. Thus, representation can both advance and hinder public perception of Asian American authors.  

In the end, Kwang’s demise is brought about through news publications, which broadcast the firebombing, car crash, and gghe scandal. Pictures of his accident are shamefully plastered across storefronts, “papering their displays, their walls” (325). Kwang’s ambition, which was once prized by his constituents, is now constructed by the press as a moral lesson in pride, and he is reduced to a single tabloid image. In the article that details Kwang’s transgressions, Henry notes that “[t]here seem to be several points of view embedded within the article, though each of them is indignant and righteous in tone” (321). Kwang’s public and political persona acquires status as a literary text that may be interpreted beyond his control by a willing audience. The public’s gleeful vilification of Kwang challenges the misconception that ambition is a characteristic prized in immigrants, unravelling the classic narrative of “the heroic newcomer, [who is] self-sufficient, [and] resourceful,” (50). Such a narrative is enforced by Early Asian American writers like Siu Sin Far and Onoto Wantanna enforce such a narrative by frequently depicting Asian immigrants as hardworking and dutiful (Lawrence and Cheung 4). The historical predecessors of contemporary Asian American writing have influenced its position, as they have created an expectation as to what narratives may be acceptable (Bourdieu 61). Despite such drive and ambition, the field of power limits the range of positions available to racialized writers, as they may only be considered successful by reproducing the modes and styles ascribed by white writers. Thus, it is difficult for an Asian American writer to articulate certain experiences without universalizing them or employing popular tropes to please white audiences. 

As a novel, Native Speaker provokes the reader to make moral judgements about the actions of characters. Inadvertently, a reader’s preconceptions of genre, mode, or even the author themself might cause the reader to jump to conclusions. The reader has an implicit role in the position-taking of Asian American literature: the reader’s reception holds great interpretive power over how such texts may be understood and distributed. The various acts of writing in the novel fall upon different readerships, which result in a variety of readings imposed upon the written subject. Tasked with writing reports on his subjects for his job, Henry feels that his audience at Glimmer & Company forces him to conform to certain ideals of narratives ascribed to a normative Asian American experience. The pressures he feels from Hoagland to tell Kwang’s story warps his presentation of Kwang. Under the eyes of a watchful public, Kwang’s attempts to shape himself into a model community leader lead to a vitriolic reaction when he fails. Lee also demonstrates how writing can be spun to exploit a community, as seen in the outcome of the gghe spreadsheets. Lee’s metafictional emphasis on documentation and creation create an inevitable tension between Asian American identity and creative output. Each story in Native Speaker is met by a receptive audience who challenges its mode of narration and forces it to conform to racial stereotypes. Thus, the cultural climate warps attempts by Asian Americans to assert autonomy through written texts, with only few positions in the literary field available to them. 

Works Cited

Bourdieau, Pierre. “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed.” The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press 1993, pp. 29-73. 

Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake.” A Companion to Asian American Studies, ed. Kent. A. Ono, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005, pp. 133-156. 

Lawrence, Keith and Floyed Cheung. “Introduction.” Recovered Legacies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005, pp. 1-23. 

Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

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