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Beginning in the early 1970s, scholars have been recovering an Asian American literary archive. The first anthologies of Asian American literature defined the field in divergent ways. Some focused on US-born writers and a politics of cultural nationalism. Others embraced a wider range of writers and a variety of political positions. The second wave of anthologies and scholarly discussions reacted against more limited views of Asian American literature and extended the field to encompass more women writers, genres such as poetry and drama, works written before the 1960s, and authors from beyond those of East Asian descent. Depending on the particular project, recovery has meant unearthing forgotten writings, revaluing discounted or discredited texts, or rethinking the sociopolitical context of works. Recovery continues today in print and digital editions released by both independent and mainstream publishers. Questions remain about which authors and works deserve recovery, and the stakes are high since inclusion in a canon can serve as a proxy for inclusion in a culture.
Like many authors today, early writers often found that their only means of entry into mainstream discourse was through positioning themselves as cultural representatives. From there, some take the opportunity to assert themselves as artists and political agents, while also negotiating new ways of understanding China as a nation or Chinese Americans as a group. Still others capitalize on the general receptivity toward autobiography to achieve different aesthetic and ideological goals. While early Chinese American writers desired access to mainstream print culture for various reasons, and while many mainstream readers desired knowledge of China and Chinese culture through their auto ethnographic works, present-day scholars in Asian American studies sometimes turn to their life writings for documentary reasons. The origins of Chinese American autobiography reside in the idea that a Chinese American self must be constructed and new models can be forged, no matter the social and literary constraints.
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