My engagement with Asian Canadian critique began when I was an English major at the University of Calgary in the 1990s. There I had the good fortune of taking a course with Fred Wah called “Disjunctive Poetics,” which had a profound impact on me. His class opened my eyes to the intersection of racial, cultural politics and aesthetic experiment. I eventually wrote an undergraduate thesis on his Diamond Grill and went on to Dalhousie University to write a Master’s thesis on the critical reception of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. From here, like others who sought a way to concentrate on Asian Canadian studies when the field was virtually nonexistent, I ended up in the US studying Asian Canadian cultural production under the support and guidance of Asian Americanists. I remember the first sentence of my SSHRC proposal was “Asian Canadian literature is almost a subject.” Working through the experience of being Asian Canadian in Asian America, I gravitated toward comparative examinations of Asian Canadian and Asian American cultural politics, as well as comparative racial formation in the US and Canada. Ultimately this led me to explore the transnational intersection of settler colonialism, Indigeneity, and Asian racialization in North America.
As I attempt to demonstrate in my own work, I think it can be useful for Asian Canadian critique to move beyond the nation, as long we remain critical about what constitutes “the nation.” If we don’t take the Canadian nation form as axiomatic and instead privilege First Nations land and sovereignty claims, Asian Canadian critique is always already transnational. You don’t have to leave the territorial boundaries of the Canadian settler state to engage in transnational politics. In my own work, I have identified more strongly with a hemispheric transnationalism than the east-west axis of more familiar approaches to transnationalism and diaspora in Asian Canadian and Asian American studies. While acknowledging the importance of east-west migratory flows, I’ve tried to highlight the structure of hemispheric Orientalism in a framework of settler colonialism in North America. A lot of difficult but urgent questions emerge from this standpoint. How might we approach Asian labour migration and settlement alongside the forced relocation and dispossession of Indigenous nations? How can Asian Canadian cultural politics challenge anti-immigration policy or labour exploitation while supporting First Nations’ sovereignty and resistance to Canada’s resource agenda? Or, how might we rethink national belonging alongside a politics of refusal of settler citizenship articulated by Mohawk and Dene scholars Audra Simpson and Glen Coulthard? These are only a few questions that can animate the ways Asian Canadian critique can think beyond the settler nation.
As a professor at a small liberal arts college in the US, Asian Canadian critique has shaped my teaching in two principal ways. First, it has enabled me to complicate the idea that Asian racialization exists “between” Black and white. Drawing on an Asian Canadian context, I can demonstrate to students how parallel expressions of anti-Asian sentiment intersect but also exceed a US based racial formation anchored by white supremacy and a paradigmatic anti-blackness. This is not to deny the violence of anti-blackness in Canada, but to also recognize the existential otherness of First Nations populations, and how settler colonial logics are embedded in white supremacy in North America. This helps me push students to think about Asian America in relation to both race and Indigeneity. Secondly, I regularly draw on Asian Canadian critiques of legislated multiculturalism in order to caution students from turning toward an uncritical embrace of state mandates for “tolerance,” “inclusion,” “equality,” and “recognition.” Unlike the history of Asian American cultural nationalism, which prioritized “claiming America,” Asian Canadian critique was forged as a challenge to the fictive unity of the settler nation and in opposition to the mandates of liberal multiculturalism.
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