Butterfly is one of the most celebrated of recent American plays, and the first by an Asian-American to win universal acclaim. The play is based on a bizarre but true story of a French diplomat who carried on a twenty-year affair with a Chinese actor and opera singer, not realizing that his partner was in fact a man masquerading as a woman. The diplomat apparently became aware of the deception only inwhen he was charged by the French government with treason—it transpired that his companion had been an agent for the Chinese government, and had passed on sensitive political information that he had acquired from the diplomat.
Chinese Australian Hsu-ming Teo is one novelist whose novels are critical responses to the depiction of mother-daughter relations in novels by Asian American writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan.
Their novels have been read as a paradigm of how Asian-American identity is structured primarily in the context of the domestic family. Lowe is critical of the way the mother and daughter relationship has been aestheticised by the American public in ways that render invisible the diverse particularities and incommensurabilities among Asian-Americans Lowe The daughters often confront their mothers, who seek to impose authority on their daughters through transmission of traditional beliefs.
This is precisely the weakness Lowe criticises: In a more nuanced reading of familial relations in Kingston and Tan, Yuan Yuan notes that mothers and daughters are allies who transliterate a China experience through recollecting and mythologising a diasporic history that becomes a self-reflexive discourse made meaningful as it is reinscribed in the American context.
Therefore, the work of writing for Kingston and Tan becomes a bilingual game of translation. These readings have tended to obscure the effects of class and gender differences in Asian-American migrant experiences.
Rather than promote essential ethnic identities, or nativism, as the solution to assimilation, Lowe argues for an aesthetic that does not privilege either the space of the native, nor that of the assimilated as culturally uncontaminated, or pure. Instead, Lowe argues for a hybridity that reveals the contested, heterogeneous and fluid positions within Asian-American cultural production.
Such a hybridity also needs to show how it is part of a process of being appropriated and commodified by commercial culture, while at the same time being rearticulated as a means of resisting fixed identity positions.
The term Asian-American is thus a strategic use of essentialism used to contest discourses that exclude Asian-Americans Lowe They speak from between locations and generate narrative attuned to being mobile and inter-national, a mobility that enhances their social status.
They are cultural brokers rather than opponents of the society they inhabit.
Malee for example, finds herself feeling at home in tropical Queensland at the end of the novel. Edwards notes that a contemporary figment of globalisation is the rootless male Chinese traveller who is forever traversing foreign territories, but who yearns to return to China These novels adopt the dialogic perspectives of mothers and daughters in order to understand the dilemma of being simultaneously inside ethnic groupings and outside the dominant culture of the Australian metropolis, a context in which the effects of class, religion, and gender are very much at the forefront.
The space of that mothers recollect is also past — nostalgic and traumatic. Both novels construct a loss narrative through the mother-daughter relationship, with daughters as protagonists. But the madness of the mothers should not be attributed to their reputed loss of traditional ethnic identity alone.
Madness need not be read as a negative and could be understood as a trope for the failure of the diasporic subject to come to terms with loss, or it could be used as a trope for the novel to imagine alternative ways of resisting patriarchy with the help of traditional visionary practices and fortune-telling.
Teo, Sallis and myself explore the meaning of haunting in of the lives of migrants. Ghosts and dreams become signs of the return of the repressed, or as portents warning the mothers and daughters that the past is a tradition that cannot be destroyed.
Power lost in the move away from countries of origin is restored through the construction of new Asian Imaginaries that mothers use to mould the subjectivity of their children, yet Vietnam and Singapore are not the pure and uncontaminated cultural signifiers used in the narratives that mothers use to reinforce an authoritative position.
If diaspora is read primarily as a migration from home to exile, and exile is an experience of the loss of home, a question often asked in these narratives is: How does the split self of the migrant become whole again? These stories about migrants becoming Australian show the displacement this entails.
Telling these stories is also the mode for reconstituting the lost subject of diaspora. Importantly these stories show how migrants and their children negotiate the gap between identities and places differently.David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is one of the most celebrated of recent American plays, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club() He has lived his own ideal.
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Amy Tan with longtime University of Arizona men’s basketball coach and Academy guest of honor Lute Olson at the American Academy of Achievement’s Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies held in Scottsdale, Arizona.
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