Dirty Bodies: Filth and Marginal Characters in Asian American Literature

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2008-06-01

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This dissertation's examination of Asianness and impurity through a close reading of Asian American literary works has illuminated a trajectory of what I see as a "Yellow Peril" discourse that registers in and shapes U.S.-based health and hygiene discourses. Understanding the racialization of public health in light of minor character analysis has facilitated my reflection on the ideologies and practices of progress and marginalization here. I have intended each chapter to take seriously the function of profoundly abject figures, as symbolized by their narrative minority and dirtiness, in animating class and plot advancement. Thus, the identification of "dirty bodies" and the study of both their historical significance and narratological functions constitute crucial threads that stitch together the chapters of the dissertation.

Analyzing impurity and minor characters vis-à-vis Asian American literature offers more than an opportunity for historical commentary and exegeses of plot dynamics. Indeed, a close reading of dirty bodies invites a reassessment of civil rights-based ideologies of success. This represents a second connective thread that weaves my chapters together. Though I question such success when it allows for the subjugation of others, I recognize its practical value, particularly in my last chapter. The aim throughout this project has been not to nominate one formula of ethical responsibility over another but instead has been to consider various attempts at ethical recognition of marginal subjects. Literary, or idealized, attempts at such recognition remind us that no single mode of resistance is adequate to the task of redressing material inequities, and that perhaps the only ethical approach to which we ought hold fast is one that insists on critical acknowledgement of such imperfections.

By situating the principal literary texts of the dissertation within Asian American studies' debates, I mean also to contribute to the field's current interests in understanding its pasts, presents, and the possibilities for its futures. Specifically, my chapters build on and analyze efforts: to incorporate the field's peripheral groups into the dominant field imaginary; to contend with the under-examined enthusiasm for "resistance"; to forge historical and theoretical grounds for field coherence; and to engage critique of modern plot dynamics.

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