Southeast Asian American autobiographies: Aesthetics of testimonial space
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The project of re(imagining) history in Southeast Asian testimonials remembers and reconstitutes subjects and subjects of history. In this reconstitution of subjectivity and history, such texts necessarily speak of the violence and trauma of American imperialism enacted on refugee bodies. And while the war in Vietnam, the "Secret Wars" in Laos, and the Cambodian genocide each trigger traumatic experiences experienced respectively by Vietnamese, Hmong, and Cambodian refugees, these traumatic experiences have been severed from the imperialistic violence that occasioned the trauma of war in the first place. In other words, America's invasion of Vietnam, the Central Intelligence Agency's recruitment of Hmong men to fight on the side of American ideology, and the bombing of Phnom Penh by American B-52 planes disappear from American consciousness. The three Southeast Asian refugee testimonials addressed in this thesis each actively engage modes of knowledge production as they are enacted upon the refugee body. I approach each of the texts as testimonials to trouble the dynamics of autobiography and memoir but also to foreground the way in which testimony produces knowledge and history. Chapter 1 engages Chanrithy Him's text When Broken Glass Floats by focusing on the aesthetic design of Cambodian American testimonials as screens for traumatic memory. In Chapter 2, I offer a reading of a recent Hmong American memoir, written by Kao Kalia Yang, entitled The Latehomecomer . By foregrounding what I call "testimonial excess" in Yang's text, I consider the ways that the text authorizes testimonial speech by engaging both the refugee and ethnographic models of Hmong subjectivity. In Chapter 3, I engage the aesthetic of asceticism to demonstrate how lê thi diem thúy's text, the gangster we are all looking for , disrupts dynamics of referentiality in relation to how knowledge of the Vietnam War becomes produced by focusing on the body. While it may tempting to read Southeast Asian refugee testimonials as courageous fugitives from traditionally western autobiographies, I maintain that autobiography as a set of socio-politically informed writing practices is actually produced in a moment when identity-politics threatened to overthrow logics of individualism and teleology. I argue that these texts reconfigure testimony vis-à-vis the mode of self-representational accounts to testify to American imperialism, specifically during the Vietnam War and its aftereffects. Taken together, all three texts' engagement with testimonial discourse forces us to reconsider and reconstitute the manner in which testimony authorizes and offers evidence to produce knowledge about the refugee subject.