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Relative Histories

Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs

Rocío G. Davis
Copyright Date: 2011
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    Relative Histories
    Book Description:

    Relative Histories focuses on the Asian American memoir that specifically recounts the story of at least three generations of the same family. This form of auto/biography concentrates as much on other members of one’s family as on oneself, generally collapses the boundaries conventionally established between biography and autobiography, and in many cases—as Rocío G. Davis proposes for the auto/biographies of ethnic writers—crosses the frontier into history, promoting collective memory. Davis centers on how Asian American family memoirs expand the limits and function of life writing by reclaiming history and promoting community cohesion. She argues that identity is shaped by not only the stories we have been told, but also the stories we tell, making these narratives important examples of the ways we remember our family’s past and tell our community’s story. In the context of auto/biographical writing or filmmaking that explores specific ethnic experiences of diaspora, assimilation, and integration, this work considers two important aspects: These texts re-imagine the past by creating a work that exists both in history and as a historical document, making the creative process a form of re-enactment of the past itself. Each chapter centers on a thematic concern germane to the Asian American experience: the narrative of twentieth-century Asian wars and revolutions, which has become the subtext of a significant number of Asian American family memoirs (Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress, May-lee and Winberg Chai’s The Girl from Purple Mountain, K. Connie Kang’s Home Was The Land of Morning Calm, Doung Van Mai Elliott’s The Sacred Willow); family experiences of travel and displacement within Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which unveil a history of multiple diasporas that are often elided after families immigrate to the United States (Helie Lee’s Still Life With Rice, Jael Silliman’s Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, Mira Kamdar’s Motiba’s Tattoos); and the development of Chinatowns as family spaces (Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain, Bruce Edward Hall’s Tea that Burns). The final chapter analyzes the discursive possibilities of the filmed family memoir ("family portrait documentary"), examining Lise Yasui’s A Family Gathering, Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury’s Halving the Bones, and Ann Marie Fleming’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. Davis concludes the work with a metaliterary engagement with the history of her own Asian diasporic family as she demonstrates the profound interconnection between forms of life writing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6086-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Chapter 1 Relatives and Histories
    (pp. 1-8)

    Family memoirs, also called “multigenerational” or “intergenerational auto/biographies”, have become ubiquitous in ethnic writing in the United States. Since Alex Haley’s dramatic (albeit controversial)Roots: The Saga of an American Family(1976), ethnic writers have increasingly used family stories to engage the history of immigration, adaptation, and presence in American society. Carole Ione’sPride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color(2004), Andrea Simon’sBashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest(2002), Louise DeSalvo’sCrazy in the Kitchen: Foods, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family(2004), Lalita Tademy’s mirroringCane River(2001) andRed River(2007), and Victor...

  5. Chapter 2 Family Memoirs in the Context of Auto/biographical Writing: Mediating History, Promoting Collective Memory
    (pp. 9-30)

    In his book,Oneself as Another,Paul Ricoeur explains that identity is partly bound up in identification with significant others, which is the reason why, especially in autobiographies, writing the self implies writing the other. This idea resounds with one of the key insights in autobiography theory in the 1990s, namely that identity—for both men and women—is essentially relational, formed and defined in relation to others. As Laura Marcus points out, “Recounting one’s own life almost inevitably entails writing the life of an other or others; writing the life of another must surely entail the biographer’s identifications with...

  6. Chapter 3 Representing Asian Wars and Revolutions
    (pp. 31-68)

    The narrative of Asian wars and revolutions in the twentieth century, which led to massive immigration to the United States, is the subtext of a significant number of Asian American family memoirs. Events of the mid-twentieth century that have become part of our general knowledge of world history—the war in China and the Cultural Revolution, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, in particular—are the focus of the four texts I examine in this chapter: Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’sBound Feet and Western Dress,May-lee and Winberg Chai’sThe Girl from Purple Mountain,K. Connie Kang’sHome Was the Land of...

  7. Chapter 4 Multiple Journeys and Palimpsestic Diasporas
    (pp. 69-93)

    The family memoirs analyzed in this chapter illustrate an important facet of Asian history, namely the experience of travel and displacement within Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Current criticism on Asian American writing generally focuses on issues of displacement, acculturation, or transculturation within American borders, but an examination of the history of immigrants to the United States often reveals a previous narrative of cultural transitions—usually brought about for political or religious reasons—that complicates our notion of the cultural baggage that these immigrants carry. Privileging narratives of multiple displacements, which Angelika Bammer suggests we think about...

  8. Chapter 5 The Chinese in America: Histories and Spatial Positions
    (pp. 94-115)

    In his book,Margins and Mainstreams: Asian American History and Culture(1994), Gary Okihiro explains that “Asian American history is more than an assemblage of dates, acts, names; it is more than an accounting of the deeds of the famous and wealthy; it is more than an abstraction from the realm of the senses to the reaches of theory and discourse. To be sure, Asian American history is all that, and more” (93). He then describes the kind of history that connects with the practice of family memoirs, what he calls “family album history”, which is “inspired by the strands...

  9. Chapter 6 The Asian American Family Portrait Documentary: Multiplying Discourses
    (pp. 116-139)

    Current scholarship on film studies underscores the role of the photograph, the film image, and the documentary in the construction of historical chronicles and invites us to analyze films as forms of historical mediation. “Independent video constitutes a field of cultural memory, one that often contests and intervenes into official history,” Marita Sturken explains in “Politics of Video Memory” (2002), as “many independent videotapes are deliberate interventions in the making of history and conscious constructions of cultural memory” at a point in time where “the photograph, the documentary film image, and the docudrama are central elements in the construction of...

  10. Chapter 7 We’re Everywhere: Asian Diasporic Transnational Families
    (pp. 140-150)

    This examination of the family narratives of Asian diasporic subjects gives us a sociohistorical portrait of an increasingly dynamic phenomenon. These stories explain particular histories by juxtaposing public events with private experiences, to reveal the ways families construct (or reconstruct) identity within the experience of diaspora. Giving a sense of cohesion and closure to the lives of grandparents and parents can establish a sense of authority and meaning to the writer’s own life story. Access to these stories also allows readers to understand the development of particular ethnic communities, as the narratives support the production of a history and culture...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 151-162)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 163-176)
  13. Index
    (pp. 177-184)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 185-188)