The Gangster We Are All Looking For is a book about dislocation and memory, departure and arrival. The novel’s speaker, the survivor of a long and difficult journey from Vietnam through refugee camps in South East Asia and across the ocean to San Diego, inhabits a world colored by the ghosts of a traumatic past, her childish and fevered imagination, and the psychological stresses of a family on the verge of cracking apart. As you read le thi diem thuy’s book, reconsider the critical methods introduced in class and determine which ones might be useful in interpreting the text.
The prose of TGWAALF is clearly poetic: suffused with connotation, purposefully vague at times, highly imagistic yet hardly ever direct. The readerly pleasure of a work like this comes from the artfulness of its diction, the dramatic gaps and pauses in the text, the opportunities it provides for us to do our own work in “locating” (constructing) its deeper meanings. Read sympathetically, savored, it can tell us something not only about one version of the immigrant experience but how identity is formed by the forces of memory and history.
Most Californians are hyphenated: Mexican-American, Asian-American, African-American, etc. One of the issues we will need to discuss is what this process of hyphenation entails. The differences between the collective experiences of various groups of hyphenated Americans might seem obvious or insignificant. What is important here is to consider how the hyphen functions and for whom: the punctuation mark itself, -, seems both to join and to separate two distinct identities. Those contending affiliations are perhaps even more complex for Asian-Americans, who are ascribed an ethnicity so expansive that it threatens to become meaningless. What does an immigrant from the Philippines share in common with a 5th generation American of Korean descent? Sociological designations such as “Asian” simultaneously create and obliterate distinctions among large groups of people. In one sense they are patently false because the visual characteristics we associate with race seem to conceal the fact of our common biological origins. Yet on the other hand they make possible a collectivity within minority, the affinity that smaller groups can establish by virtue of their shared position in relation to larger groups. Does that make sense?
Put another way, citizens and consumers are not really human at all. As subjects of the State or the Market they are partial beings defined by their “rights” or “obligations” or “opportunities.” The citizen may be allowed to vote or protest some policy from the confinement of a free speech zone, but those activities do not exhaust her identity. In an analogous way the consumer may take advantage of “choice” to select a particular product or change employment. Yet what the market does not offer her is a space for the realization and expression of her person in its totality.