During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in anti-Asian sentiment, with nearly 3800 incidents of harassment, discrimination, and violence toward Asian and Asian Americans reported this past year. Attacks against elders and the murder of six Asian American women in Atlanta on March 16, 2021 have raised a national outcry. These acts of violence against Asian Americans have highlighted the pervasiveness of a long-standing stereotype associated with Asian Americans: that they are forever foreigners. This notion explains why so many victims in these types of attacks are told they should “go back to where they belong.” The fact that so much anti-Asian violence hinges upon the belief that Asians “don’t belong” in the US wrongly suggests that Asians have no history in this country and no place within its borders, and that there is something ineluctably un-American, and therefore threatening, about Asian people.
Asian American Literature in Transition, 1850-1930 refutes all of these notions. Our volume focuses on the writings, performances, and depictions of Asian American and Asian Canadians before 1930, and emphasizes that Asian presence in North America, whether in terms of migration or cultural representation, was well-established by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though often neglected by scholars as well as forgotten by the broader public, this early period is particularly important today. Its social and political legacy, as demonstrated by the recent outcry against anti-Asian violence, is still very much operative not only in the repetitive images of “yellow peril” typecasting and the xenophobia driving the passage of laws such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the first immigration law that barred an entire nation of people from immigration), but also the resistant energies and aspirations of those who protested anti-Asian injustice.
Our sixteen original essays present a set of new perspectives that highlight the depth and diversity of Asian North American writing and culture in this early time period. Many of the works studied in this volume directly respond to anti-Asian racism, sometimes representing life in America and Canada as a bitter disappointment that in no way lives up to the promise of “Gold Mountain.” Some of its chapters focus on authors or performers who achieved a measure of global fame (Yone Noguchi, Anna May Wong) while others look at those whose expressive writing was a contrast to their relentless labor and their obscurity (the Angel Island poets). Authors of the time period wrote in many different genres and styles, including fiction, journalism, letters, plays, essays, and poetry; some wrote in realist prose, while others chose romance as the vehicle for expression. The book also moves beyond the printed word to look at stage productions, silent films, and celebrity images. Although their topics range broadly in ethnic and national origin, genre, and perspective, each of the chapters contemplates how the voices of the past speak to us today—and how we might use what we hear from them to cope with our troubled present.