Burning Down the Little House on the Prairie: Asian Pioneers in Contemporary North America
The Kappa Child (2001), by Japanese Canadian author Hiromi Goto, has been widely read as a remarkable piece of speculative fiction, fantasy or science fiction, and it obtained the James Triptree Jr. Award, "an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender" (James Triptree Jr. Award website). Vietnamese American Bich Minh Nguyen's Stealing Buddah's Dinner (2007), on the other hand, is subtitled A Memoir, and was distinguished with the PEN/Jerard Fund Award that "honors a work in progress of general nonfiction" ('Jerard Fund Award', online). Leaving aside the 'fact or fiction', 'fantasy or reality' divisions that would traditionally catalogue these books onto separate generic shelves, I will be considering here both texts as the truthful fictionalized narratives of childhood of two Asian girls growing up in North America who share, among other things, an interest in food and a passion for Laura Ingalls, the popular protagonist of the famous Little House series. For both of them Laura is, at a given moment in their lives, a pioneer heroine and inspiring role model who gradually becomes a source of unease and anxiety. In this article I will attempt to assess the influence of Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic narrative of migration and settlement on these two Asian girls in North America, examining their perception of the racialization of the characters in Little House on the Prairie (1935), their critical evaluation of the gender and racial flaws in that text, and the subsequent process of construction of their own racialized subjectivities. (1)
2. Bitter/sweet childhoods: food and migration
Hiromi Goto's unnamed narrator is an 'unproven pregnant' lesbian woman whose weird experience with an alien Kappa, probably the biological parent of an egg supposedly growing in her body, leads her to reminiscence on difficult passages of her childhood and adolescence. Sandra Almeida has described this novel as "a first-person narrative laden with ironic and humorous overtones [that recounts] the family's dislocation, remembering the poor and destitute childhood in the hostile prairies of Alberta after their immigration from Osaka, in Japan, to Canada" (2009: 50). Reflecting on her sarcastic character, the narrator herself explains that
A child isn't born bitter. I point no fingers as to who tainted the clean, pure pool of my childhood. Let's just say that when I realized that I didn't want to grow up, the damage was already done. Knowing that being grown up was no swell place to be means that you are grown up enough to notice. And you can't go back from there. You have to forge another route, draw your own map. (Goto 2001: 13)
The narrative in this novel can be read as a map of her efforts to forge that route for her adult life, a mapping that draws upon the narrator's memories of childhood because, as she realizes, "[m]y childhood spills into my adult life despite all my attempts at otherwise and the saturation of the past with the present is an ongoing story" (2001: 215); it is a story she revisits in order to explain her current state of confusion at her abnormal pregnancy from this kappa "of questionable gender and racial origin" (2001: 121).
Bich Minh Nguyen's memoir Stealing Buddah's Dinner recalls her family's settlement in Michigan "with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes" (Nguyen 2007: 1), after having fled Vietnam in 1975 when "everyone in Saigon knew the war was lost" (2007: 4), and it spans the years until 1997, when she returns "as a tourist in the country where I was supposed to have grown up, ... a foreigner among people who were supposed to be mine" (2007: 245). Her first sights of America are those of a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee (Arkansas), "from behind the barbed-wire, chain-link fence" (2007: 8) where the patient exiles await for sponsors to join 'the real America', which for them is just an ambiguous abstraction built upon a mixture of clashing rumors: "The optimists said easy money, fast cars, girls with blue eyes; others said cold, filled with crazy people" (2007: 8; italics in the original). At this time, becoming American seems as easy as just crossing that barbed wire: "We are a people without a country, someone in the camp said. Until we walk out of that gate, my father replied. And then we are American" (2007: 10; italics in the original). For little Bich, from the very beginning, America is best identified with 'exotic' junk food: the chocolate bars that American soldiers guarding the camp give to her grandmother. From this moment onwards, she will learn about America through the new kinds of candy her father brings home every day (2007: 14). The happy days of naive ignorance she associates to these culinary discoveries: "We couldn't get enough Luden's wild-cherry-flavoured cough drops, or Pringles stacked in their shiny red canister, a mille-feuille of promises" (2007: 14). In a home where Christmas is a word that means nothing but glitter and gifts (2007: 14), Mr. Pringles is an equivalent of "Santa Claus or Mr. Heidenga [their American sponsor]--a big white man, gentle of manner, whose face signaled a bounty of provisions" (2007: 14). Food is a constant in Nguyen's memoir, a major structural and thematic motif giving title to the book, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, and to each of its sixteen chapters: 'Pringles', 'Forbidden Fruit', 'Dairy Cone', 'Fast Food Asian', etc.
The food motif in literary texts has been widely recognized as a most relevant marker of cultural difference (Cho 2010; Gabaccia 2000; Narayan 1997; Xu 2007) and it is a strong point in common of the two narratives I am considering here that will strongly affect their protagonists' appraisal of Wilder's text, an issue to be more carefully addressed in later sections of this essay. Heather Latimer summarizes the resort to this trope in relation to racial difference in her critical approach to Hiromi Goto's fiction:
many feminists and post-colonialists connect food to theories on difference and 'otherness' and often use food metaphors to talk about race. This theoretical link between food and race is also often explored thematically in the literary works of racialized authors and those who write from subject positions at a tangent to dominant communities. Self-identified 'ethnic' or 'hybrid' authors, these writers explore links between memory, race and eating by writing about the experience of being identified by and 'othered' through food. For instance, in both of Hiromi Goto's novels, The Kappa Child and Chorus of Mushrooms, eating is a gendered and racialized act that constantly informs how the characters see themselves emotionally and psychologically. Food, race and identity are slippery categories in Goto's work, and she purposely mixes them up to highlight their constructed nature; eating is part of how the characters explore their backgrounds, tell their histories, and come to terms with racism. (2006: online)
Enoch Padolsky has linked food to space in his study of The Kappa Child, remarking how the protagonist "meets the Kappa at a restaurant, and her eventual lover at a Korean market. The urban food locales thus become key moments in the exploration of female Japanese-Canadian identity that lies at the heart of the novel" (2005: 26). This is also the case in Nguyen's narrative, where food clearly identifies distinct spaces, as in the chapter 'School Lunch', dedicated to her time at Ken-O-Shea Elementary School, 'Holiday Tamales', about the reunions with her stepmother Rosa's Mexican-American family in Fruitport (Michigan), or 'Cha Gio', recalling her trip to Vietnam. However, it is …