#Asianfails and Asian Canadian Studies

  • Eleanor Ty
    Asianfail: Narratives of Disenchantment and the Model Minority. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Roland Sintos Coloma (Editor) and Gordon Pon (Editor)
    Asian Canadian Studies Reader. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Malissa Phung

It has been almost two decades since Asian Canadian Studies (ACS) was established as an undergraduate minor program in Canada. What is even more remarkable is that these programs still exist, especially when undergraduate enrolment in the humanities keeps decreasing. Yet the editors of Asian Canadian Studies Reader, the first and only anthology of its kind, make an impassioned case for instituting ACS programs in post-secondary schools across Canada since Asian Canadians make up the nation’s largest visible minority demographic and coverage of their historical and material experiences remains conspicuously under-represented in post-secondary curricula. Despite several systemic and political barriers that the editors rightly identify as obstacles to the field’s institutionalization, a rigorous body of scholarship on Asians in Canada has flourished in the past two decades, as evidenced by the rich collection of essays assembled here. The anthology is indeed a showcase of innovative research from academics working from a broad range of disciplines. Covering a diverse range of topics and issues, Asian Canadian Studies Reader usefully organizes each subset of essays around the interrelational framework of “encounters” so as to emphasize the limiting and liberating aspects of analyzing settler-colonial, racial, ethnic, class, gender, sexual, national, religious, and disciplinary categories.

But while the Reader offers considerable value as an academic textbook for educators and students, it would have done well to include more junior scholars currently working in ACS, a limitation offset by the contribution of Laura Kwak, who provides insightful research interventions for junior and senior ACS scholars to consider. If the editors hoped that publishing this collection would advance the establishment of ACS in Canada by attracting and inspiring the next wave of scholars and students to work in the field, then would it not have been prudent to bring attention to the work of less established ACS scholars, especially when they observe that Asian Canadians are severely under-represented in university faculty ranks? Further, before the nationwide implementation of ACS programs can happen, a demand for ACS is required. Given the ways in which neoliberal policies have increased precarious employment within and beyond academia over the past two decades, would the students of Asian descent supposedly overpopulating elite Canadian university STEM programs (according to the “Too Asian?” article in Maclean’s) flock to the field if ACS were simply offered as a program of study?

Reading about the protagonists in Eleanor Ty’s literary and cultural study would seem to suggest that they would—that is, once they hit a wall in achieving Lauren Berlant’s notion of the “good life” by climbing the ladder of success inculcated by the model-minority discourse. In her study of literary and cinematic works produced by 1.5- and second-generation Asian Americans and Canadians in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Ty observes a strik-
ing set of narrative shifts doing away with the pressures of achieving the American or Canadian Dream. In her perceptive close reading of a broad range of genres and storytelling approaches by Asian North American authors and artists, protagonists are increasingly failing to fit the model-minority stereotype. In a sense, they are #Asianfails—a popular hashtag for social media users to humorously report on all the ways that they cannot succeed where Asians are supposed to excel. But in Asianfail, these failures are not always comical; in fact, they often result in affective responses of dis-enchantment, depression, unhappiness, and perpetual melancholy, inevitably leading characters to focus on cultivating their affective relations and pursuing other non-materialistic dreams that Asians are not supposed to excel at.

Asianfail is an engrossing and timely contribution to the study of contemporary Asian North American culture, but one cannot help but wonder if the book’s transnational focus is as much a pragmatic choice as it is an important comparative methodology. Not as many Asian American Studies scholars would pay equal attention, as Ty does, to the creative output and cultural context of artists and authors from both sides of the border: the breadth and range of knowledge required to do so is impressive. What is most illuminating is the interdisciplinary research that Ty brings to the conversation, historically and culturally contextualizing these Asian failures as a result of racial discourses, neoliberal economic policies, globalization, and the traumas of war and dislocation. However, while it seems that reading youths, elders, refugees, and immigrants unequivocally as Asian failures makes conceptual sense—and for the most part it does—the connective thread does get lost in Ty’s otherwise great analysis of lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For and Madeleine Thien’s Certainty.

This review “#Asianfails and Asian Canadian Studies” originally appeared in Concepts of Vancouver: Poetics, Art, Media Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 235 (Winter 2017): 135-136.

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