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The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V16, #26 (June 27, 2006), page 12.

An ongoing, creative process

American Knees

By Shawn Wong

University of Washington Press, 2005

Paperback, 240 pages, $14.95

By Josephine Bridges

In his introduction to the new edition of American Knees, originally published in 1995, Jeffrey F. L. Partridge points out that this novel "suggests that identity is not a stable essence that an individual discovers, but an ongoing, creative process." Of the author he writes, "Even considering all that Shawn Wong has done for Asian American literature as a researcher, anthologist, and professor, American Knees is perhaps his greatest contribution: It is the book of the Asian American present that has not forgotten the Asian American past."

This novelís title, based on the schoolyard taunt, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees," is its only weakness, but the 12 chapter titles, tantalizing appetizers, more than make up for it. Who could resist a book that explores the nature of identity with chapters titled not only "Gold Spike," but also "Moment Resistance," and "Medical History"?

Shawn Wong writes both descriptive passages and dialogue with economy and depth, and he earns this reviewerís highest praise ó I wish Iíd written that ó on more than one occasion. Early on he writes of his protagonist: "Raymond Dingís Chinese name translated into English was like all Chinese boysí names were supposed to be ó something grandiose and epic, like the name given to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese greasy spoon nestled at a crowded intersection, with chipped Formica tables and unmatched duct-taped Naugahyde chairs."

"The only two Asians at the party," Raymond and Aurora Crane try to avoid each other at first, but it isnít long before their conversation takes this turn:

"Iím trying to be polite on our first seduction. More graphic, dear?"

"No."

"How about mythic and heroic?"

"Yes, try mythic."

Itís not a whole lot longer before Raymond tells Aurora, whose ancestry is Japanese and Irish, "Each time you let something pass thatís generally insulting or racist about Asian people and it isnít specifically directed at you, youíre in a sense passing for white, or at least non-Asian." Aurora counters, "Not everyone can be a professional affirmative action officer like you. Iím your lover, not a case history."

Raymond and Aurora may take center stage in American Knees, but the supporting cast is also riveting. Raymondís friend Jimmy Chan, editor of National Asian American Weekly, writes that "on Bonanza a white woman would be shy about showing her ankle to Hoss or Little Joe, but she could walk around Hop Singís kitchen with her corset on without fear." Auroraís friend Brenda Nishitani makes short work of Jimmy: "Is there some book somewhere that tells Asian men how to accentuate their long-waisted bodies and short legs by wearing vertically striped shirts? No wonder they have names like Hop Sing in the movies instead of Bo or Leroy or Scarface."

Auroraís sister Julia, whose boyfriend Miles has "white values," suggests that Raymond also has "banana tendencies Ö Or heís popcorn ó you know, yellow yellow yellow yellow until you put him under pressure, then he turns white." Betty Nguyen, a colleague of Raymondís at Jack London College, whose brief, tormented affair with him will have lasting consequences, explains why she doesnít want him to meet her parents. "They speak English poorly. My brother and I support them. Thereís a class difference Ö I know you want to pay your respects. They donít expect you to. We live in America now. Iím not ashamed of you. You have to respect their shame."

Three cheers for Shawn Wong, who can make us laugh out loud and blink back tears in the space of just a few pages, provoke us to think hard all over again about some of the gnarly questions we thought weíd laid to rest, and entice us with the frank and steamy sex that takes place between these covers.

 

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon