Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Asian American Literature in the Time of the Coronavirus

Rajini Srikanth, Min Hyoung Song

One of the most salient ways in which people of Asian ancestry in the United States (as in many other places) have been racialized is being perceived as foreigners. They’ve just always stood out as being from somewhere else, and not really fitting into the societies they may have lived their whole lives in. And so it’s no surprise that when the president of the United States called Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” it contributed to already hardened feelings against Asian Americans and the kind of abuse that’s been leveled against them since the outbreaks began. The list of abuses is long and lurid, and well-known, so there’s no need to go into the details here.

Unsurprisingly, since these abuses are part of a much longer historical pattern, American writers of Asian ancestry have had a lot to say on the subject. Their works have often directly addressed, and even challenged, the ways in which attitudes toward foreignness have shaped the experiences of Asians in the United States. There is an entire corpus of compelling fiction, poetry, and memoir about the 19th and early 20th century experiences of Asian Americans and the Japanese American incarceration during World War II that provide irrefutable evidence of the pernicious racism against Asian Americans. In this moment, against the backdrop of that literature and against the present reality of the vicious attacks on Asian Americans today, we redirect attention to a deeper more generative landscape that Asian American literature offers: a terrain of necessary hope and re-imagining.

Asian Americans, Asian Americanists, Asian American literature—what we know, what we find inscribed in the writings, those etchings of feelings and thoughts on page, is this: humanity is interconnected, our lives are entangled in one another; national borders are artificial and feeble, because what happens in one place is inextricably linked with what happens elsewhere. This reticulate world of ours persists over time, even when there are those who inevitably try to separate, isolate, alienate, rent us asunder. Humanity can be manipulated into believing that walls protect, that our salvation lies in our enclosures. Those who write, study, and teach Asian American literature have always known that people’s histories and identities, their aspirations and anxieties, are a complex weave of multiple fabrics and threads.

The sensibilities of Asian American writers, artists, and communities are vast, their lived and inherited experiences intricate and multifarious, encompassing migrations, wars, economic hardship, refugee camps, ocean journeys, disruptions and anticipatory hope. A roll call of countries—Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Fiji, Australia, France, Laos, Brazil, Peru, Panama, Sri Lanka, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and many more, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia—animates Asian American literature. The Asian American body traverses the planet, and Asian American writing absorbs, records, archives, envisions the unrestricted historical and geographical sweep of the Asian American experience. Paradoxically, in such a time of pandemic lockdown and mandated minimal social contact, the global dimensions of the Asian American literary imagination offer a way of being and re-imagining our lives for an ecologically humble and responsible future.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s essay “How Does the Coronavirus Behave Inside a Patient” in The New Yorker (March 26, 2020) is infused with an Asian American understanding of long history and wide geographical interconnectedness we have just conjured. Mukherjee is a renowned oncologist based in New York, but his essay begins in Kolkata, in India, at a shrine for a local goddess who is believed to “protect children from smallpox, heal the pain of those who contract it, and dampen the fury of a pox epidemic.” The visit to the goddess launches Mukherjee into a breathtaking narrative of early practices of inoculations and vaccinations, the Indian followers of the goddess 250 years ago having learned the practice from “Arabic physicians, who had learned it from the Chinese,” for “medical healers in China had realized that those who survived smallpox did not catch the illness again” as early as the 12th century.

These early forms of vaccination had taken hold all over the Arab world, observes Mukherjee. In the 18th century, Sudanese women bargained with each other “over how many of a sick child’s ripe pustules” they could purchase to scratch into and so protect their own child. Before pulling us back into the present and to focusing on the body of a single patient infected with the coronavirus today, Mukherjee offers us yet another remarkable historical fact: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople in the early 18th Century and herself a survivor of smallpox, marveled to her friend in a letter at the practice she observed in the Turkish countryside. An old woman, carrying a “nutshell” of the smallpox virus, placed the material into the vein of a person, who would then take ill for a few days before recovering relatively unscathed and with the face only mildly scarred.

Mukherjee thus recalls a history of shared medical, cultural, and social knowledge and practice carried across countries and entering into the traditions of diverse peoples. Science, folklore, history, diaries, stories—all come together in this panoramic narrative. A similar mix can also be found in Ruth Ozeki’s recent novel A Tale for the Time Being, which offers a presentation of an enmeshed world, where surprising intimacies traverse borders. A Japanese American woman on the West Coast finds herself linked—by flotsam ejected from Japan as a result of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami—to the life of young Japanese women whose family had to return from the US, where her father had been fired from a lucrative engineering position after refusing to work on technology for the US military. The Japanese girl’s story is told in diary form, and Ruth, the women who finds it on the other side of the Pacific, tells a story of reading this diary. In this way, the novel focuses on a world of connections and holds us in thrall as we yearn to make sense of the uncertain future that seems to lie ahead.

Likewise, Amitav Ghosh’s earlier novel The Calcutta Chromosome (subtitled “A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery”), although set in the near future, retells the history of Sir Ronald Ross’ discovery in 1898 of the transmission of malaria through the anopheles mosquito. One of its central characters is obsessed with Ross and the history of his discovery of the transmission of malaria in late 19th-century India (where Ross was born), and it is this obsession and the events that unravel from it that form the rest of the thrust of Ghosh’s novel. Through Murugan’s frenetic narrative voice, we hear how Ross entered a field that was already teeming with scientists from many nations. Through Murugan, then, Ghosh gives form to the global world of science, its unrelenti­­­­­­­­­ng activity, its multiple sites of research, and its community of questors. This is a world in which discoveries can come from unexpected quarters, where epiphanies happen because of foundations built years ago in places both near and far.

We don’t, of course, know what will happen in a post-Covid-19 world. It’s difficult enough to imagine its rate of infection going down enough so that we can attempt to shorten social distances. It’s difficult enough to imagine being able to go to the bookstore, or get our haircut at a salon or barber shop, or to enjoy a cup of coffee in a cozy, crowded cafe. So much of what we’ve taken for granted seems to have been stripped for us. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem too much of a hazard to guess at some possibilities.

On one side, the ethnonationalist sentiments that have fueled the rise of right-wing governments across the planet might grow even more emboldened, making gains in cutting nations off from one another and further inhibiting their ability to address shared problems, like climate change or wealth inequality or the possibility of another pandemic. Such sentiments fuel protests against the very measure designed to safeguard the health of the protestors. On another side, there’s the possibility of a fast return to business as usual, which the pandemic has just revealed to be full of vulnerable people living paycheck to paycheck, already physically unhealthy and lacking access to proper medical care, and understandably unhappy about the way wealth is distributed. If there is a return, it will be an unsteady one, unanchored as it is to a vision of making progress toward something better.

And, finally, there’s one more possibility: a robust internationalism that shrugs off the reactionary thinking of ethnonationalism and the bankruptcy of business as usual in favor of the very vision we’ve outlined above. We are all connected to one another, borders are artificial and more often than not make problems worse, and the challenges that lie ahead are best met by sharing resources, recognizing commonalities. The search is on for a future in which we can all find a way to thrive together. Such a robust internationalism would strive to create new collectivities, make new solidarities possible, and build new enduring structures to sustain its momentum. This is what we feel Asian American literature can offer a post-Covid-19 world, fuel for the imagination of such a desperately needed alternative.

The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature by Rajini Srikanth and Min Hyoung Song

About The Authors

Rajini Srikanth

Rajini Srikanth is Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is the author of Constructing the Enemy: Empathy/Antipathy in US Literature and Law and winn...

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Min Hyoung Song

Min Hyoung Song is Professor of English at Boston College. He is the author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and winner of the ASAP Book Prize for The Ch...

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