Assistant Professor Amy Cynthia Tang, of the American Studies and English departments, specializes in Asian-American and African-American literature—most recently, she has been reading satirical Asian-American plays. Professor Tang sat down with The Argus to discuss her favorite authors, her plans for future classes, and her manuscript.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Amy Cynthia Tang: So almost everything on these shelves is either a work of American literature or a critical or theoretical text about American literature, mainly Asian-American and African-American. I have some sections on cultural studies, critical race theory, and narrative theory. I have the books for the courses I’m teaching this term—Trauma in Asian American Literature, and Racial Passing in American Literature. And I have a small section devoted to art history.
A: Do you have anything you’re reading just for fun, not related to classes?
ACT: Right now I’m finishing up this collection of plays by Young Jean Lee called “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.” It’s a satirical take on what people expect an Asian-American identity play to be about. She’s an experimental playwright, so the characters are non-realist, and she uses stereotypes to engage received ideas of Asian-American identity and push back against them. I was just thinking that it’s sort of related to Theresa Cha’s Dictee—which we’re reading for Trauma—since they’re both by Korean-American women writers, and they’re both very experimental and non-realist. So Lee’s book is both work and pleasure, I guess.
Also I commute from New Haven, so I listen to books on tape—that really is fun. I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” I got interested in Foer because I have a thesis student who wrote on “Everything is Illuminated.” And now I’m ready to start Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published, unfinished novel, “Juneteenth.” I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time, and finally broke down and said well, there’s the audio book. And bizarrely, I just started looking at it, and it turns out it’s a passing narrative, and I’m teaching a class on racial passing, so there will be some resonances there.
A: Do you have a favorite author or favorite book?
ACT: It’s sort of what I am reading or working on at the moment, so I’m totally enamored by Young Jean Lee right now; I want to find out everything she’s written. There are other authors I return to; there’s Karen Tei Yamashita—she’s an amazing writer with an amazing range. Her book “Through the Arc of The Rain Forest” takes place in an unnamed Latin American country, and it has a sci-fi aspect to it and a magical realism aspect. Susan Choi’s work is really interesting to me. She’s an Asian-American writer who comes at it from an angle—for example, in “The Foreign Student,” writing about the Korean War but setting it in the U.S. South.
A: Were you already interested in Asian-American literature as an undergraduate?
ACT: I first got interested as an undergraduate, but there wasn’t very much published at that time, so I ended up working mainly in African-American literature. I was interested in questions of race, and the most immediate place to go for that was African-American literature. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was able to pursue Asian-American literature in its own right. But I’ve retained that comparative interest in African-American and Asian-American literature, which I think is true of Asian-American academics of my generation—the dominant discourse of writing and thinking about race is often African-American. We get a lot of our theoretical and critical lenses from that literature, so I still keep it in view.
A: It would be so cool if there were a class about the conversation between Asian-American and African-American literature.
ACT: I am trying to put one together! I think there are a lot of those conversations, and some of them are really direct. A text like Chang Rae Lee’s “Native Speaker” is a direct homage or reworking to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Because in the same way it’s true for the academics, it’s also true for the writers that African-American literature is the central way for thinking about race in American literature broadly. I think there are a lot of ways to draw the traditions together.
A: Are there any other areas of interest that you’d really like to teach a class in?
ACT: I’m really into contemporary visual art, so it would be fun to do a class on visual representations of Asian-Americans. I occasionally use some visual materials in my classes, but I haven’t yet put together a class devoted to that.
A: What classes are you teaching next year?
ACT: Next fall I’m team-teaching a class on temporality with Margot Weiss—Future Visions: Temporality and the Politics of Change—and then I’m on sabbatical in the spring. We have separately been interested in questions of how temporality intersects with politics—she’s been looking at it from queer theory, and I’ve been looking at it from the angle of Asian-American and ethnic studies.
A: What are your plans for your sabbatical?
ACT: I’m trying to finish my book manuscript, which is on strategies of repetition and rewriting in Asian-American literature. I’m looking at instances where Asian-American writers are drawing heavily on other texts, styles, or genres from the past. The usual argument is that these allusions to earlier works are ways of intervening in dominant accounts of history that marginalize Asian-Americans. But my argument is that, in a lot of these cases, these repetitions or retrievals of the past are actually ways for Asian-Americans to engage in reflections about the present, about some of the imperatives that condition being an Asian-American writer in the present—something like Young Jean Lee, and how she reflects on the expectations that people bring to a work of Asian-American literature; what Asian-American aesthetics amount to.