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Title:"The Everyday Affective Life of Racism": Forms of Racial Melancholia in Early Asian American Literature
Author(s):Im, Jane
Director of Research:Parker, Robert Dale
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Parker, Robert Dale
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Loughran, Trish; Paik, Angela Naomi; Spires, Derrick
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Asian American Literature, Affect Theory
Abstract:In “‘The Everyday Affective Life of Racism’: Forms of Racial Melancholia in Early Asian American Literature,” I summon the concept of racial melancholia put forth by Anne Anlin Cheng, David Eng, and Shinhee Han as a springboard, expanding their definitions by closely reading the forms of racial melancholia and ultimately arguing that racial melancholia is an everyday, stoic, weakly intentional, past-oriented, and collective affect. Specifically, I study melancholic feelings in early Asian American texts marked by racial suffering and contend that racial pain emerges in literary forms, such as repetition, understatement, intertextuality, and the motif of the divided self. My dissertation distinguishes itself from earlier works that present racial melancholia as a psychoanalytic concept and instead draws on conceptions of affect, particularly from cultural studies critics such as Ann Cvetkovich, Teresa Brennan, and Sara Ahmed. I contend that the forms of this early, supposedly assimilationist Asian American writing reveal alternative ways of being Asian American and show strategies that Viet Thanh Nguyen calls flexible and negotiative. Chapter 1 focuses on Winnifred Eaton’s appropriation of John Luther Long’s story “Madame Butterfly.” I contend that Eaton’s repetition of the Madame Butterfly story shows not only her inability to let go of the Butterfly plot but also a will to recover from it through a consciously pursued practice of writing that fosters the agency of Asian American subjects. In chapter 2, I uncover the ordinariness of racial melancholia as it materializes in silence and its counterpart, understatement. Using Sianne Ngai’s definition of tone, the chapter focuses on how an understated tone develops through the mode of mimesis, where narrators forego self-exposure and deemphasize the self that experiences the event. By using an understated tone, Sone and Wong maintain their narratives’ dignity and control. Delving into Cheng, Eng, and Han’s definitions of racial melancholia, chapter 3, highlights the motif of the divided self and reads Ichiro’s understated resistance through Sara Ahmed’s concept of the affect alien. The two warring ideals within Ichiro—represented by Ichiro’s mother and Kenji—disintegrate by the end of the novel when Ichiro rejects the melancholia of his mother as well as the fantasy of national reconciliation put forth by the affective community of his friends. I argue that Ichiro stands emphatically alone as an affect alien who discards the telos of happiness. Chapter 4 dramatizes the texture of racial melancholia through the affect of han, a collective feeling of suffering rooted in Korean culture. Pointing out Kang’s use of Romantic literature, I contend that Kang’s novels are Romantically-inflected Modernist novels that exemplify han. Defining han, with Park Kyong-ni, as a contradictory emotion of sadness and hope, tragedy and comedy, and the present and the future, I interpret han as a Romantic and willful affect that conflates and collapses opposite meanings to overcome dejection. The allusions to Romantic literature in Kang’s novels not only convey racially melancholic feelings but also control and sublimate them.
Issue Date:2021-07-16
Rights Information:Copyright 2021 Jane Im
Date Available in IDEALS:2022-01-12
Date Deposited:2021-08

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