By Christopher B. Patterson. Rutgers University Press, 2018. 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8135-9186-5
The United States’ relationships to different, nonwhite cultures have always been tumultuous, as the nation tries to balance its imperial and neocolonial interests against its disdain for influxes of various groups of immigrants. The current political climate best illustrates the two seemingly opposing masks the United States wears: one of extreme racist vitriol that denigrates minorities in the name of white/American exceptionalism and one that appears to celebrate racial differences in the name of multiculturalism. But these two conflicting viewpoints may share more than most realize, for both can be powerful tools to uphold the white hegemony. In his book Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific, Christopher B. Patterson examines how various authors of Southeast Asian literature question concepts of multiculturalism and diversity to demonstrate how pluralist governments use these beliefs to rule over heterogeneous populations. Through his analysis of various Anglophone texts centered on Southeast Asian populations, Patterson showcases how many are beginning to resist ideologies that insist on shallow, strictly defined notions of cultural authenticity.
Patterson covers a mixture of literature in a very deliberate manner, and his terminology is key to his viewpoint. He chooses to use the term “Anglophone literature” over Asian, Asian American, or some other variation, allowing him to cover a broad range of literature from the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia, as well as Southeast Asian migrant experiences in North America. From a theoretical perspective, Patterson’s terminology emphasizes his purpose of sliding between different countries and borders while also alluding to the colonial influence that impacts these English-speaking Asian cultures. These purposes are further illustrated through Patterson’s definition of “transitive cultures,” his titular term, that goes beyond the common perception of transition as becoming something else or achieving an “authentic identity.” Instead, “transitive cultures” cross the borders of various identity markers to recognize that identity formation is a complex, ongoing process that requires people to navigate colonial histories and their own changing relationships to their cultures. By focusing on transition as a position between different conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, and nation, Patterson gives focus to those with constantly shifting, less clear-cut identities, such as mixed-race or queer Asians.
Transitive Cultures is divided into six chapters in three sections, with each chapter comparing two different texts of various cultural backgrounds. In Part I: “Histories,” Patterson looks at how some Southeast Asian texts resist the official histories pluralist governments produce, as these governments use diversity and multiculturalism to claim harmony among disparate groups and appear progressive while preserving racial, gendered, and class hierarchies. Patterson’s decision to compare texts from different Southeast Asian cultures here and throughout the book highlights how these cultures may share strategies of resistance.
Part II: “Mobilities” centers on Patterson’s examination of how “novels of transpacific travel” showcase the shifts in various racial, gender, and sexual identities that can occur when protagonists must question and compare their identities at home versus abroad (27). His readings of Peter Bancho’s Cebu and Lydia Kwa’s This Place Called Absence as social satires instead of social realist texts are particularly compelling. This viewpoint, which goes against the prevailing scholarship that reads these works at face-value, showcases how the protagonists’ complex relationships to the United States and Canada, respectively, lead them to denigrate and abandon the motherland in a manner appealing to Western audiences.
In Part III: “Genres,” Patterson analyzes how the “literary tone, form, and style” of novels can challenge preconceived notions on “diversity, tolerance, and racial harmony” (28). Patterson’s focus on the understudied genre of Anglophone speculative fiction brings to light how Asian authors may move beyond the nation-state to assert that these issues take place on a larger scale. Yet, the complexities and possible consequences for this broader perspective are not lost on Patterson, as he utilizes his own experiences of using a more ethnic sounding penname, Kawika Gulliermo, to give readers a direct insight into how cultural currency is used in the publishing world. This personal connection illustrates the great debate for or against cultural authenticity given that this concept can be used to reinforce both traditional notions of white representation of minorities and shifting minority identities that do not fit neatly into strict categories of race, gender, and sexuality.
While Patterson focuses on how various pieces of Southeast Asian Anglophone literature expose the abuses done in the name of multiculturalism and tolerance, his scholarly purpose is to question and open a dialogue on these issues rather than unquestionably condemn them. This perspective, which has been gaining traction among various Asian American scholars like Lisa Lowe, makes Transitive Cultures appealing to various Asian American studies and cultural studies scholars. Asian American literary studies are on the rise and ever expanding, and Patterson’s book is a strong addition to this field. Patterson’s literary analysis is also clear and innovative, meaning literary scholars, fans of those novels, or even those who are interested in Southeast Asian culture but have not read those pieces can enjoy reading this book. Anyone from or a part of the cultures Patterson examines, and especially those who exist in a transitive state, would also be interested. Patterson’s critical perspectives on the institutionalization of diversity and multiculturalism make Transitive Cultures a necessary read for all given how these concepts permeate U.S. culture and are often used to uphold the Western, white hegemony they claim to fight against.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas