Musings on Asianfuturism?

Given the current moment, the worldwide pandemic, the uncertain future of the halls of democracy in the US–colleges and universities, public spaces and the arts, even voting and the election, the turn to thinking about alternative spaces, timelines, possibilities, and futures seems an unavoidable reality. Some of those imaginings, I must admit, are pretty dark and cynical, and some are brightly fraught and guardedly hopeful. I keep finding myself saying, talking about our “science fictional lives.” As someone who has read (and watched and played in) worlds like the one we are currently in, it is amazing and terrifying at the same time. Charles Yu’s recent essay in The Atlantic hits things spot on:

“What we really mean when we say that this pandemic feels ‘unimaginable’ is that we had not imagined it. Just as imagination can mislead us, though, it will be imagination—scientific, civic, moral—that helps us find new ways of doing things, helps remind us of how far we have to go as a species.”

It is in this science fictional world that I have been working on the skeleton of a new publication–which I think is a procrastination tactic for not working on my book manuscript (something I need to really put to bed this summer)–a publication that points to my second project–which has been necessarily fictionalized as about science and speculative fictions and games of color. It might be specifically about Asian American SF and games, but I am not sure at this juncture. However, with that churn of ideas in mind, I thought it would be helpful to offer a few draft chunks and thoughts. I have been looking back at the various courses I have taught and the texts I have read–especially developing classes on African American and Asian American SF and recently reading as a juror for the Otherwise Award. I have been thinking about the presentations I have been a part of at the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) annual meetings and the exhibits I have worked on for the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle that have dovetailed with my scholarship, pedagogy, and personal nerd-doms. And I have been working on my own creative projects–for example, the world book for my tabletop role-playing game Tellings–and trying to figure out what it means to not center a Western European aesthetic, sensibility, and norm in creating a fantasy world. It does seem like I am building an archive of experience, thinking, and creating that hopefully will materialize as new (and future) work.

Dawn Chan, thinking about Asian American art, asks in 2016, “Is it possible to be othered across time?  For almost a century already, the myth of an Asian-inflected future has infiltrated imaginations worldwide” (“Asia-futurism” 161).  Though the archive of orientalist (what I would call past-facing) and techno-orientalist (future-facing) works, histories, narratives, representations, and politics is long and deep—from the “Silk Road” to cyberpunk, from the “yellow peril” to the geopolitics of the Pacific Rim—the definition of “asianfuturism” has yet to fully coalesce.  According to Chan, this “Asia-futurism” continues to be “mirrored, magnified, and distorted in the Western world” complicated by an “already troubled construction of Asian American identity” (161).  Definitions of Asianfuturism(s) are still scarce, and what I am working on hopes to address that in part. Searching for the portmanteau “asianfuturism” on the web yields scant references. For whatever reasons, the term has not really caught on (or is still being chewed on and mulled over) unlike its brethren term “afrofuturism.”

Mark Dery in their 1994 essay “Black to the Future” coined “afrofuturism” meaning “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future…to tell about culture, technology, and things to come” (180-1).  How might then an Asianfuturism be articulated or a slew of Asianfuturisms that foreground Asian American themes and concerns for the twenty-first century and beyond. How might we imagine a resonant examination and recodification of our analog and digital worlds through the interpretative lens of Asian American culture? Is that even possible, doable, desireable?

For me, because I am an English professor and a scholar of texts be they literary or gamic, I will always turn to science fiction and other speculative mediums. My go-tos are Larissa Lai‘s Salt Fish Girl and her new book The Tiger Flu or Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda‘s Monstress graphic novels or Greg Pak‘s Robot Stories or the games of Mike Yi Ren like Yellow Face or Novel Containment. As I have been working on my game studies book, I am really interested in the idea that mediums are designed experiences articulated through materials, norms, choices, rhetoric, language, practices, and so on. So, I extend that idea and argue that Asian American speculative fictions as designed experiences. What is Asian American SF trying to say, show, argue, create? What worlds are being imagined, reconfigured, repurposed, destroyed?  For example, I turn to my work with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, particularly the main space exhibit from last year entitled “Worlds Beyond Here: The Expanding Universe of APA Science Fiction.”  The exhibit was designed to explore

the connection between Asian Pacific Americans and the infinite possibilities of science fiction…Despite the historically limited representation of Asian Pacific Americans in popular science fiction, they have had and continue to have a large impact in science fiction, often behind the scenes… For many Asian Pacific Americans, science fiction addresses issues related to identity, immigration and race, technology, morality and the human condition…

I was on the community advisory committee (or CAC) that tried to figure out what to include, what counted as Asian American, and more importantly, what would inevitably be left out. The exhibit laid bare the idea that the “story” that the space was to tell about APA science fiction had to be designed, organized, bounded, and made legible to museum visitors. In a sense, we were trying to feel out an understanding of APA SF and a version of Asianfuturism even if defining “Asianfuturism” was not an explicit goal. In designing the exhibit, we were defining our relationship to Asian American SF and what we wanted to say, show, preserve, promote, and enjoy in the space. Obviously, what was intended (and even unintended) might be taken up and transformed or even ignored by museum goers. This reciprocality, this reflexivity is something I would want to see in any understanding of Asianfuturism.

Maybe this would be a good start in defining Asianfuturism (my working definition):

Asianfuturism in literature, art, and media critically foregrounds Asian and Asian American cultures and concerns that reconfigures identities, embodiments, and technologies to imagine alternative, even radical narratives, desires, relationships, and play as “direct action” that challenges racism, sexism, ableism, phobia, and other technonormativities.

I think looking to and being inspired by Afrofuturisms (and Indigenous Futurisms and Latinx Futurism and so on) is key–not to flatten these ideas and experiences–but to see how literature, art, and media can (and should) develop history-specific, medium-specific ways to respond and reimagine the past, present, and future.

There are provocations and lessons to be learned from witnessing how Afrofuturist, Indigenous, and other marginalized speculative writers and creators engage the questions of why literature, mass media, and games matter.  For example, Octavia Butler’s essay “Positive Obsession” asks, “What good is science fiction to Black people?”  She answers, “What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past?  What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?  What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction?…what good is all this to Black people? (134-135).  I might ask now: “What good is Asianfuturism for Asian people?”

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