What Do Latinxs and Asian Americans Have in Common? Look to Their Literature

Santo Domingo, May 1965, during the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. Two months earlier, U.S. combat troops officially landed in Vietnam. The graffiti expresses a Latin-Asian solidarity against Cold War intervention: Yankees out of Vietnam. Faculty Fellow Long Le-Khac writes that Latinx and Asian American literatures reflect shared artistic practices, histories and social challenges.

Interview with literature scholar Long Le-Khac

“The literatures of Asian Americans and Latinxs explore a history not recognized by many Americans: Millions of them are here because the U.S. military was in their countries during the Cold War,” says Long Le-Khac, assistant professor of English and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for the Humanities. Le-Khac asserts that reading together works such as Junot Díaz’s Drown and Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet — Cold War fictions that are fragmented in their storytelling, leaving gaps in the story and jumping back and forth in time (past and present) as well as place (“Third World” countries and the United States) — creates a new method for making visible the links between the two groups.

“Seeing this storytelling technique in both Asian American and Latinx literatures helps connect different groups that were scattered by the same international American military machine,” he says. “These groups have a shared interest in changing how the U.S. thinks of its foreign policy and the people it displaces.”

Below, Le-Khac previews his book-in-progress, “Transnarrative: Giving Form to Asian and Latinx America.”

Briefly, what is your book about?
The book compares the literatures of the minority groups most rapidly transforming the U.S.: Latinxs and Asian Americans. I argue that their literatures help us understand this transformation. I want people to consider the stories of these two communities as linked, not separate. When we read their literatures together, they reveal shared artistic practices, histories and social challenges that may help lay the foundations for a Latinx-Asian American solidarity. This solidarity could impact the future of the U.S. and its relationships to the world.

What does Asian-American literature and Latina/o literature have in common? What do you hope to draw out by writing about the literature of these two groups?
These literatures have been studied separately, but there’s little discussion of their connections. As minority literatures, they’re both often concerned with the social challenges of ethnic communities. Through comparison, I reveal many of these challenges as shared — for instance, how America’s immigration system has shaped both communities. But my comparison doesn’t just focus on themes and social concerns. Looking at literature that way can be reductive, as if literature were a transparent window on society. Instead I focus on artistic techniques. I ask, Why do Asian American and Latinx writers gravitate toward strikingly similar shapes for their stories? I look especially at a linked yet fragmented way of organizing stories. What does this organization reveal about the stories they’re trying to tell? I suggest that this shared shape can reveal less obvious connections between these communities that we wouldn’t see if we looked only for overt similarities of themes and social concerns.

Tell us about the concept of “transnarrative” literature. 
Transnarrative describes a shape for storytelling that links many separate stories within one book. This form is common across contemporary Asian American and Latinx fictions but it isn’t new. People may be familiar with earlier examples like Ernest Hemingway’s linked story collection In Our Time. In transnarrative books, readers encounter many separate stories involving different characters, events and settings. As we read across the different stories, we figure out how they’re linked. The stories in Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet, for instance, focus on Vietnamese and Americans during the Vietnam War. As we read, it emerges that these characters are disparate cogs in a massive operation evacuating refugee children. The stories in a transnarrative book never quite come together into one big, satisfyingly unified story. Sherwood Anderson described this effect as “lives touching, not quite touching.” Many of Phan’s characters never meet; their impacts on one another are indirect or left unexplained. The war scattered people and left gaps in many life stories. The plots of different stories don’t directly impact each other so each story can be read on its own. But reading them together lets us perceive a more expansive world with many distinct yet related stories, regions and people.

One pressing challenge for Latinxs and Asian Americans is tracing the migrations and histories linking different parts of the world. Another is bringing together diverse ethnic groups into a coalition without erasing the differences between them. The writers I examine use transnarrative form to allow us to feel these challenges in the very experience of reading. 

For readers who are not scholars of literature, what do you hope they get out of your book?
I want readers to see an important connection between Latinxs and Asian Americans that they didn’t see before. And I hope the book helps them become attuned to thinking comparatively across the racial divisions we too often take for granted. And even if they aren’t literature scholars, I hope they see that thinking alongside literature can help us perceive relationships that we haven’t yet appreciated and even imagine new ones.

How does this book connect to your broader research interests?
This project is part of a broader interest and conviction, that the stories we tell and the way we tell them have consequences for social change. Looking ahead, I’m eager to extend my research to how social movements and storytelling intertwine. This is a growing interest among social scientists but I’m excited to see what a literature and humanities point of view might bring to this question.