In But Not Of the Model Minority: Myth and Discipline in Asian American Literature
It is perhaps the worst-kept secret of race relations in the United States, that the Asian American “model minority” is, in fact, a myth. But badly kept secrets are usually more useful when revealed than hidden. As a U.S.-specific political formation, the model minority myth emerged from a crucible of mid-20th century Cold War politics abroad, burgeoning cultural nationalism of various ethnic minority groups at home, and rapid institutional shifts following the Civil Rights era. Created by and for overwhelmingly white neoliberal interests who sought not only to qualify multiculturalism but to substantiate it, over time the myth’s implicit message has come to exceed conversations between sociologists and journalists. Beyond decrying the standing of other minority groups, more often than not the myth of the model minority comprises the only disciplining identity projected onto Asian Americans in contemporary U.S. society—the first that comes to mind, and thus the most powerful. When taken not only as a sociological phenomenon but as a disciplinary structure of cultural, psychic, and political identity and subjectivity, the model minority myth begins to constitute a generative and disciplinary force in literary productions, cultural memory, and the political-as-personal lives of Asian Americans vis-à-vis the institutions with which they contend. In this thesis I turn to narratives that the model minority discipline is arguably most concerned with and most recognizable through: works of second-generation Asian American literature; Nina Revoyr’s Southland, Don Lee’s Yellow, and Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone. The mighty complexities of mythic form and function in these works compel me to draw extensively from Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, Raymond Williams’s structures of feeling, Michel Foucault on normalizing power, and Judith Butler’s theories of identity performativity and the queered processes of racial passing. To situate these literary portrayals of Asian American identity in but not of the myth, this thesis sifts through unplumbed genealogies of desire, deep-seated investments in heteronormative sexuality, and dimensions of belonging and debt that begin to envision alternate conceptions of model minority’s essential components: melancholia, failure, and kinship. Such is the only way we can get at the inadmissible forces that—via circulations of power and structures of feeling—attempt to fortify, conceal, and mediate the myth. By peering closely at not only what the myth does, but what life lived around, within, and beyond its alignments and breakages can reveal—this thesis advances the argument that the myth will never be entirely expendable.