Cho, Round Two

I was delighted to see that Margaret Cho is returning to television with a new show on VH1.  It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of tv history to know about Cho’s first sitcom (and notably, the first Asian American sitcom), All-American Girl and the debacle it became (all of which she chronicles, with a characteristic synthesis of pathos and humor, in I’m the One that I Want).

The LA Times article above features this description of the new show:

“It’s kind of a cross between Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare,’ ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Little People, Big World,’” she said. In truth, the series follows Cho and her family as they improv their way through scripted situations. During the first episode, Cho tells her parents that a magazine has named her Korean of the Year, and the show follows the family’s trip to San Francisco, where she’ll accept it.

In some ways, the format sounds more like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to me.

Cho’s return makes me contemplate the significant changes that television has undergone since All American Girl aired in ’94-’95.  In many ways, the sitcom seems like such a dead and deadening form, while the advent of reality television has pushed audiences and performers alike to explore new ways of including live footage into shows.  Meanwhile, the scrum of channels fighting for niche markets has apparently turned VH1 into the home for nostalgia, forgotten celebrities (hello, two Coreys!), and subcultural icons.  Having said that, I’m surprised that Cho isn’t airing on Bravo—can you imagine a Margaret Cho/Kathy Griffin lineup?  Perhaps an end of the season smackdown?  [Cho has already appeared on an episode of Life on the D List, where she joins Griffin and Cyndi Lauper for the Gay Pride Parade in Australia.  If Cho rates a float there, doesn’t she seem to belong to the Bravo family?]

Regardless, I have high but cautious hopes for the success of Cho’s new show.  In part, it’s personal: I have such a soft spot for her, and am so ready to see Asian Americans on television that aren’t pretending to be from another country (see Lost, Heroes, etc.).  Better yet, I think Cho may have a better chance outside the confines of the sitcom structure (which, I speculate, may have been more of the problem of the show than America’s unwillingness to see Asian Americans on television.  But perhaps I’m too optimistic).

So let’s hear it for the move beyond the sitcom, and look forward to the August 21st airing.  Keep your fingers crossed…

Print-less

If my theme for summer is “procrastinate until the point of panic,” then no single event typifies the theme better than my inability to order books for the fall.  I’ve hemmed and hawed about books for both the “fate of the novel” class as well as the asian-american studies course.  Tuesday, however, I awoke with the name of a book (Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, if you must know) clear and present in my mind, and figured it was a sign from the book fairies.  Order!  Order now!!  [The book fairies must be the fantastical creatures that do the bidding of our long suffering and truly wonderful bookstore manager, B.  It is a credit to him that these mystical beings are fairies and not devils.]

So I gamely sat down to make some hard decisions about what to order, in accordance with the secret logic of guiding each of these courses.  [The secret?  There is more than one logic, and it’s not always evident until I get into the course and students themselves begin to make connections that I never anticipated.  Wanna know why I love seminars?  That’s it in a nutshell.]  As I started to narrow the lists down, I logged onto Amazon in order to copy and paste ISBN numbers.  Horror of horrors: three of the books I was interested in were out of print!

This is a travesty in almost every case.  First off, it seems that any number of crucial texts in Asian American studies are out of print.  Throughout graduate school and most of my early teaching, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea was unavailable, which is a real pity.  As many critics have noted, Chu’s novel does some amazing work with mapping the bachelor society of New York’s Chinatown in the first half of the century.  The language is fantastic.  A quick google search seems to indicate that Lyle Stuart did a publication run in 2002, but that the book is, yet again, out of print.

I knew enough not to depend on Chu’s book, but I was surprised to find Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World unavailable as well.  Kadohata’s novel came out in 1989, and was a NY Times notable book.  It tells the story of a Japanese American family post-WWII, unable to settle anywhere due to lingering resentment and fear of the Japanese.  Kadohata has moved on to a successful career writing for young adults, and her skills there show through in this novel.  It’s very readable, and introduces some complex topics to students who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool lit fans.  In short, it’s great for an introductory Asian American class.  If you can find 25 copies of it used, that is.

If I was surprised about the fate of Kadohata’s book, I was shocked to find that David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming is also out of print.  That novel came out in 2000.  2000!!  I wrote a big fat chapter of my dissertation on that novel!  Louie has a great sense of humor, a narrative style that both sympathizes and critiques his characters, and close eye on the morays of popular culture.  At the height of the Iron Chef craze, Louie gave us a Chinese American protagonist who wanted nothing more than to use his Cordon Bleu training, but was constantly asked to “cook Chinese.”  It’s a story about food, about masculinity, about generations and interracial relationships, about the effects of television on cultural identity and performativity…and now it’s unavailable.  There is no justice.

And on a completely different note (different course, after all), I’ve decided to brave the judgment of my senior seminar folk by teaching Gore Vidal’s scandalous Myra Breckinridge in the fall.  Because who can resist this opening paragraph:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because’. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them as it does all men, unmanning them in the way King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

[For the record, I know the film was a hot mess—in true Christian Siriano form.  But the novel, oh, it is glorious!]

You can see where this is going, right?  OUT OF DAMNABLE PRINT!!  Like Myra, however, I will not be held back.  We WILL read this novel!  We WILL find copies!

The larger question, of course, is what economic and/or cultural restraints are causing these books to fall out of print runs, and in the case of the first two above, so quickly and regardless of their critical reception?

There has been academic attention to the crisis in scholarly publishing for sure, but I begin to wonder if we should be just as concerned about the longevity and health of the popular publishing market.

[!sevil aryM]

Asian American History Month

What’s a better excuse to re-enter the blog than Asian  Pacific American Heritage Month? And what better way to avoid writing than to post a big ol’ set of videos? Actually, this last question is more than just tongue in cheek. I just wrapped up my Asian American literature class for the spring (one down, two to go! W00t!), and one of the students mentioned to me the power of video for showing us realities that we can’t always construct in our own imaginations. So, a salute to the power of the visual, in honor of the month:

First, via Jenn at Reappropriate, the Asia Society’s video featuring a cavalcade of Asian American actors, celebrities, politicians and entrepreneurs. Two additions: you can see extended footage from each interview both at YouTube and at the Asia Society website. The latter is also encouraging people to post video reflections on the question “what does being Asian American mean to you?” [And if you want to get really depressed and see how far Asian Americans have to go to make their issues visible to the public, check out the comment string for the YouTube video. Sigh.]

Second, a great idea passed on to me via a student (thanks Erin!)---a fake trailer for Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker, one of my top five favorite Asian American novels, and one of my favorite twentieth century American novels to boot. [If this trailer doesn't make you want to read the book---and to admire the filmmaker (you go, Bigjfrodo!)---I don't know what will. Someone call Miramax!]

And while I'm sorely tempted to post the red-band trailer for Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay here, just for a satyr-play closing video, I think I'll try to maintain this blog's PG rating. Instead, I'll leave you with the mesmerizing opening sequence from Greg Pak's Robot Stories, which is a profound and sometimes cheeky vision of contemporary Asian American life. And yes, it's THAT Greg Pak, for all you Hulk fans out there. Tip: you're going to be tempted to stop watching, but I promise that the end is worth it!!

Enjoy! Celebrate!

My Damnable Lack of Imagination

When I was a kid, I spent many summers with family in Hawaii.  [Don’t worry, I’m not about to complain about it.]  My grandparents were pretty invested in making sure that I, half Korean kid raised on the mainland, got a sense of the varied cultures that made up the landscape of Hawaii, and local music (and food, let’s not forget the food!!) made up a big part of that.  My grandfather was a bit of a whiz on the ukelele, and would occasionally bring it out and give me a taste of traditional Hawaiian songs.  Thanks to the beauty of YouTube, I can give you an example:

Not bad, right?  Mellifluous, lovely…but a bit staid for my young self (who was, as previously noted, busy grooving to The Thompson Twins and the like).  Despite the encouragement of both my grandparents and my mother, I never felt inclined to pick up the ukelele.  Four strings?  No bass?  It’s a bit tinny and too high to rock, right?

And thus we get the title of my post—my damnable lack of imagination.  Because I was busy trolling the archives over at Angry Asian Man today (all things Asian American pop culture and a Bruce Lee  fan to boot!), and he’s got a link up to a Jake Shimabukuro performance on Conan O’Brien, in which he plays George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”  Reposted here, for your viewing pleasure:

Holy moly!  Why, why did no one ever tell me that the tiny but powerful ukelele could do that, in the right hands?  Here I thought if I took it up I’d have to be standing on a stage somewhere wearing a grass skirt and a lei.  But no!  I could have been ripping it up with Beatles tunes!  Or, like this kid, classics from the Cars, or even, dare I say it, like Will Smith (who knew?!)!  That will teach me to ignore family knowledge.

All hail the mighty ukelele.  Don’t let its size fool you like it fooled me.

Class Schedule vs. Viewing Schedule

One of the things  I often fail to take into account when I choose teaching time slots is what I’m watching during any given semester.  At many schools, this wouldn’t be a problem: the vast majority of the courses are during the day.  At Saint Rose, however, we tend to have a vibrant host of classes offered in the evenings, and those can cause all sorts of conflicts with the primetime lineup.

Take tomorrow night, for instance.  It’s the first evening of my graduate course Literature in the Information Age, about which I’m so excited I could spit.  Contemporary novels, hypertext, new media readings—good times!  And yet, tomorrow is also the Democratic debate in Las Vegas.  This is important viewing for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s in my hometown (this is the least important reason). Second, because it’s the lead up to the Nevada caucus on Jan 19—a first for the state and for the region.  The west gets to weigh in on candidates before SuperTuesday?  Hot damn!!  Third, and perhaps most pertinently, there is a significant voter drive going on in Nevada among Asian American populations.  The Asian and Pacific Islander Vote initiative has an article up describing the importance of the Asian American vote in this primary because of the significant populations in Vegas.  If the Democratic candidates are going to make any mention of Asian American issues, this would be the place to do it.

So, normally I’d be at home, glued to the television and mocking Brian Williams’ hair.  But instead, I’ll be having a delightful conversation with my intrepid grad students.  Immovable object meets irresistible force.  A war of two goods.

Thankfully, my Wednesday night class ends with just enough time for me to get home before Project Runway starts.

Asian American Feminism–Podcast Edition

If you haven’t been reading along at Jenn Fang’s Reappropriate site, you may have missed her interview at Fallout Central, a website that produces a weekly podcast devoted to Asian American issues.  True to form, she gives a lengthy and down-to-earth discursus on her definition of Asian American feminism—its relation to both AA activism and mainstream feminism.  The questions, and responses utilize my favorite intellectual apparatus—theoretical/political knowledge and pop culture references (Jenn beautifully fields a question about Tila Tequila, for example, with reference to media representation, third wave feminism, and positionality.  Not her terms in the interview, perhaps, but the ideas are right there).  And a particular highlight: a nuanced and civil discussion about the continuing gender friction within the Asian American community.

Both Jenn and the guys at FC are great examples of a new generation of AA activists using new media—something I’d like to think about more in the coming year.  In what ways are new media forms allowing access to political affiliation? God knows there was none of this when I was a kid!  It used to be the case that you’d have to be located on the coasts to get wind of these kinds of discussions.   Thanks to sites like these, kids with computers (and since Pew reports  that AA’s are using the internet far more than other ethnic groups, this might make some significant differences).  I’d love to use some of these sites for the Asian American Literature class I’m teaching in the spring.  Too far afield, perhaps?

Link Storage

Who says that blogs can’t be giant filing cabinets?

Here’s a link to a NY Times interview with David Henry Hwang (most famously the author of the play M. Butterfly) about his new play Yellow Face.  The play apparently features a character names D.H.H., who shares significant history with the playwright himself (thus giving my postmodernism students the chills.  or making them gag).  Meanwhile, the plot centers around a very particular conflict: apparently, D.H.H. casts a white actor thinking that he’s a mixed-race Asian American, and then believes that he has to cover up his mistake in order to retain his own reputation as an Asian American role model.  In the interview, Hwang explains what’s at stake:

For instance, the fact that the D. H. H. character in this play mistakes a white man for being part Asian. That’s actually a perfectly understandable mistake, because you can’t necessarily tell by looking anymore.

You can’t tell by the last name. You aren’t allowed to ask at auditions, legally, a person’s race. So what does race really start to mean when you add all that up?

I’m fascinated by the idea that Hwang sees this as a means of investigating the depths of race as a whole, but doesn’t mention the particular context of mixed-race identity here.  I realize that the first might encompass the second, but mixed-race identity in Asian American circles is no small deal; it’s linked to vexed political/historical relationships (e.g., war and post-war military occupations), deep-seated resentments about intermarriage, etc., etc.  Surely that’s got to play a role here?

Yellow Face opens Dec. 10 at the Public Theater (and apparently only runs through the 23?  Website info here.)  If I can get into the city to see it, I’ll post a review.