Inscrutable Belongings
Queer Asian North American Fiction
Stephen Hong Sohn

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INTRODUCTION

IMAGINING QUEER ASIAN NORTH AMERICAN LIVES

“IT GETS BETTER, a project founded in 2010 by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, promotes what cultural critics and theorists might call queer optimism. Addressing a rash of gay teen suicides that rocked the nation, outspoken activists released public service announcements and video messages in which they reassured younger gays and lesbians that their lives as sexual minorities would improve over time. The rhetoric underlying the “It Gets Better” campaign is one of survivorship: the suffering queer subject must live for the chance to experience a better future. And yet, the short messages—often no more than a minute or two—do not always detail how and why things actually do “get better.” This campaign’s progressive message, one that proclaims an eventually happy life, offers some concrete evidence of the sea change that has occurred within the past decade, particularly in attitudes concerning same-sex marriage and other issues, in which queers—and queer cultures—are increasingly tolerated by the mainstream public in North America. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 (the law banning openly queer service members from participating in the U.S. armed services) and the 2016 Federal Drug Administration decision to reconsider banning blood donations by queer individuals, the move toward equality seems to continue unabated.1 Most notably, same-sex marriages were federally recognized by Canada and the United States in 2005 and 2015, respectively. The future for queer people looks, for perhaps the first time, promising.

The advent of legislative equality is no doubt fortuitous, but the “It Gets Better” campaign can function with a reductive ethos that homogenizes the LGBTQI community, especially from a frame that overshadows and even undercuts the persistence of social inequalities. As David L. Eng reminds us in The Feeling of Kinship, this story of queer activism is wrapped up in many other narratives, especially those coterminous with the unfinished project of the civil rights movement. Eng highlights the danger of regarding the injustices embedded in race relations as something from a bygone era in order to promote a different, apparently more pressing cause such as queer equality (4).2 Instead, race and queerness are indelibly and historically linked, as a host of scholars have shown, including Ian Barnard, Siobhan Somerville, Nancy Ordover, and Margot Canaday. The continuing struggles of both racial and sexual minorities emerge in forms that exist beyond the bounds of legislation and judicial precedents.3 Here cultural productions provide necessary correctives because they destabilize the fantasy of queer progress in a postracial milieu.4 Such narratives draw attention to the more private spheres of romantic entanglements and family rupture while gesturing to the ways that elements of everyday life have an impact on how we understand the dynamics of power and oppression as they unfold at local, urban, regional, national, and transnational scales, and at momentous historical intervals.

The interventions that fictional narratives can make to discourses of progress and futurity have become conspicuously evident to me, particularly as I have developed new course preparations concerning narrative and narrative theory. One common text I include in these courses is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In one instance, I recall lecturing on courtship and marriage plots, discussing why exactly Henry Tilney is the appropriate choice for the heroine, Catherine Morland. Henry’s witty, he’s handsome, he’s virtuous, and, perhaps most important, he comes from the appropriate class background. Although Catherine is a woman with limited means, she manages to snag her wealthy romantic foil and, of course, lives happily ever after with him. A lecture on a novel such as Northanger Abbey reminds me how much I enjoy the matrimonial dilemma at the center of courtship and marriage plots. But not one of the books I have been reading most fervently for my research—fiction penned by queer writers of Asian North American backgrounds—possesses even remotely similar plots. In fact, courtship and something like marriage seem secondary given that these books offer few, if any, appropriate and safe venues in which to express queer desire. Certainly I am aware that the contexts for a contemporary queer Asian North American fiction cannot be equated with nineteenth-century British cultures, but the comparison germinates political questions about the issue of courtship and marriage, and their relationship to larger national concerns about social recognition and familial constructs. Austen’s heroines could no doubt be seen as marginalized subjects, seeking forms of security through heterosexual marriage. An allied problem arises with the arrival of the queer Asian North American protagonist in fiction because he or she also strives to achieve some measure of social integration. Though scholars show that the institutions of the monogamous, heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family are far less relevant (and prevalent) in this contemporary period than during earlier epochs (including most famously the 1950s),5 the fantasy and idealizations of these normative social constructs on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border remain firmly embedded in their respective national cultures.6

Given these paradigms, my concerns have evolved: If courtship and marriage plots are not readily available or perhaps not always preferred by characters, then what narrative sequences are most prominent in queer Asian North American literatures? The answer to this question is the catalyzing point for this book, as I critically consider the correspondence between queer Asian North American protagonists in fictional works and the plots that emerge from these narratives. Two patterns become most evident: queer Asian North American protagonists are lucky simply to survive, and their survival depends on a community of other characters (including nonliving entities) who do not come from the protagonists’ biological families. Reading these stories against the “It Gets Better” campaign produces a jarring dissonance: things may improve, but the path to that point is littered with incredible trials, physical harm, and antagonistic forces. In some cases, things arguably do not improve at all. In other words, it can and often does get worse.

Inspired by the endurance of these characters and the dynamic social formations that they construct, Inscrutable Belongings is an extended study of queer Asian North American fictions that have emerged alongside the rise of activism concerning LGBTQI equality, postracial thought, and the evolving discourses undergirding normative family values and kinships.7 Reading queer Asian North American fictions demonstrates that optimism must be guarded: these stories relay the ongoing dangers of racial and sexual minority existences. Russell Leong’s “Camouflage,” for instance, a short story I will return to in Chapter 2 for a lengthier critical engagement, establishes a far more ambivalent depiction of a queer Asian North American’s life. For the Filipino American protagonist-storyteller, Bernard Amador Angelo Tan, queer desire is set within the frame of physical brutality and the possibility of death. Bernard performs as a Japanese exotic dancer at the titular bathhouse, where he may be contributing, however indirectly, to higher HIV infection rates; he volunteers at a local AIDS clinic; and he cruises for sex at Griffith Park. He struggles with many issues: the aftereffects of childhood molestation by his uncle, his failure to become a filmmaker, and his response to the recent murder of a gay man whom he knew. Romance seems hardly an option, as Bernard battles drug dependency and job insecurity. Further, Bernard retains no sustained connection to biological family members. In Leong’s depiction, the future is always in question. Though Bernard survives to tell his tale, the story’s last scene is of Bernard having sex with a patient at the AIDS clinic whom he knows is HIV positive. “My thirst,” explains Bernard, “drives me to do crazy things” (100). Even the short story’s title performs a metaphorical layering by asking us to think about visibility and how camouflage defends against capture, consumption, and ultimately death.8

Notes

1. As of 2017, some policies concerning the LGBTQI community are finding some obvious resistance from the new presidential administration. Trump recently ordered a ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military.

2. For legal consideration of marriage equality and race, see Khuu.

3. See Barnard; Somerville; Ordover; and Canaday.

4. By using the term postracial, I mean a period in which a discourse emerges that suggests that racism is an artifact of the past. For considerations of postracial discourse, see Squires; Carbado and Gulati; D. T. Goldberg; and Tesler.

5. For consideration of the drop in marriage rates and changes in long-term social relationships in the American context, see Cherlin; and Heuveline and Timberlake; for an exploration of the decline in Canadian marriage rates as a result of social relationships such as cohabitation, see Kerr, Moyser, and Beaujot; and Beaujot and Ravanera.

6. In the context of a study involving interracial dating, Rocío García introduces her topic in this way: “Despite the increase in U.S. ‘alternative’ families from divorce, cohabitation, interracial relationships, and adoption, the nuclear family remains the form of family institution that accrues various economic, legal, and emotional benefits” (807). Canadian scholars have made similar findings from the perspective of a study involving couples and their ideals about monogamy and marriage. Green, Valleriani, and Adam note that, despite harboring liberal views concerning various sexual arrangements within a marriage, most heterosexual couples interviewed nevertheless retained a private ideal that marriage was a monogamous arrangement and expected as such in their own relationship (427). These studies help elucidate the cultural ideals concerning marriage and family that are still being retained on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

7. LGBTQI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex. I often use the term queer as a shorthand for that acronym. Additional letters are sometimes added, including a Q to mean “questioning,” a T to mean “two-spirited” in the context of Indigenous individuals, an A to mean “ally” and/or “asexual/aromantic.” In addition, this manuscript chooses to employ gender-based terminology that may seem to reinscribe a binaristic formulation between male and female, but I have chosen to use this approach as a measure of grammatical standardization rather than of a political orientation concerning this issue. Indeed, I am well aware of the construct of gender. My use of gender-based pronouns must be conditioned with the understanding that my use of terms such as him and her necessarily implicates the complicated discourses that help us engage these terms as occasionally limiting (and reductive) and, in some cases, in need of radical transformation.

8. The motif of camouflage dovetails with Kenji Yoshino’s consideration of “covering,” a tactic employed by minorities involving assimilation into mainstream cultures. In the case of Leong’s short story, Bernard seeks to express his sexuality in such a way that he cannot be deemed a public target.