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Asian Socialism, Magical Realism: Colleen Lye on The Woman Warrior

Colleen Lye, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, gave a talk on Wednesday, May 16 as part of the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism in which she asked: why does global Maoism’s influence on the Asian American Movement often receive less attention than its impact on the Black Panther Party? Her presentation, titled “Asian Socialism, Magical Realism” analyzed Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1976 novel The Woman Warrior through a historical lens focused on global Maoism in the 1960s and 1970s.

By recovering some of the ideological alliances happening in this era between Asian American social justice movements, third worldism, and second-wave feminism, Lye sketched out suggestions for new ways we may think of the emergence of contemporary notions of race, class and ethnicity.

Global Maoism, meaning adherence outside of the official party of China, has been of significant interest to historians in recent years. Feminist and anti-imperialist movements of the time often drew upon concepts from Maoism, for example in theorizing the significance of the subjective. Lye proposed that her analysis of Kingston’s work can be a labor of uncovering formal literary traces of the interactions happening between US activists and Asian Maoism between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Lye presented material from an in-progress book chapter on The Woman Warrior, proposing to re-historicize and re-Marxify histories of intersecting feminist, racial and class identities. The diffusion of Maoism within US social movements in this era was significantly linked with third world movements which, in turn, have been identified as precursors to contemporary identity politics.

Coming from a critical ethnic studies perspective, Lye says that the Maoism critique of the eurocentrism of Soviet Marxism was the starting point of taking race seriously.

The Woman Warrior repurposes the medieval Chinese folk tale of Mulan, the woman who poses as a man to serve in the military. Lye traced evolving representations of female Asian warriors and linked these representations to various political imaginaries, with a focus on the female warrior in global Maoism. Magical realism was a prominent feature of this genre, and the same is true of Kingston’s novel.

The late new left of 1970s America saw both race and gender simultaneously emerging as the subject of attention. Many second wave feminists were engaged in debates about the universality of patriarchy and class or gender inequality. Second wave feminism borrowed some Maoist ideals- consciousness raising, for example, or the idea that the personal is political- but they also looked to Chinese women’s experience to investigate what features of patriarchy might be consistent across modes of production, and to ask how necessary socialism might be for women’s emancipation.

Colleen Lye is the author of America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945, a study of the making of “Asiatic racial form” through the mutual influence of literary naturalism and US immigration and foreign policy in an era of US expansion across the Pacific.

The last event of this quarter for Racial Capitalism will be coming up May 23 with a reading group discussion on the Anthropology of Marxism.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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