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Thinking about the Ghosts in As the Earth Turns Silver

April 5, 2012

An article I read recently on the many examples of ghosts in Asian American literature (and the role they play there) had me thinking about Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver. Already, I had wondered about the ways in which this text can be connected with certain well-known Asian-American works (for a variety of political, historical and literary reasons). Reading this article got me wondering about the ghosts in As the Earth Turns Silver. Kim (in her article, ‘What’s with the ghosts? : portrayals of spirituality in Asian American Literature’) writes:

“From the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan to recent works by Lan Cao, Patricia Chao, Fiona Cheong, Suki Kim, Amiee E. Liu, Anchee Min, Fae Myenne Ng, Ruth L. Ozake, and Julie Shigekuni, we can find stories of ghosts narrated in the context of Asian America.” (241)

“Despite the ubiquitous presence of ghosts in Asian American literature, few have delineated the spirituality that is deeply embedded within the literature. Since Asian American literature has not focused on probing spiritual experiences and no Asian American writer has explicitly named relationships with the ghosts as “religious,” calling such episodes “religious” would seem to impose a category from without. Furthermore, a notion of religion without a set of logically derived doctrines and regularly rehearsed rituals defies Western categorization of religiosity. The problem of categorization not withstanding, I would argue that these stories of ghosts represent a way to resist the powerful [-p.242] force of assimilating racialized people into the dominant culture. The stories of ghosts can be read as attempts to narrate the “social construction of reality” of Asian Americans if we take seriously their experiences of the sacred and their agency of meaning-making on their own terms.” (241-242)

“protagonists in Asian American literature look to stories of the ghosts and the dead ancestors to provide the shared history.” (243)

“For the ghosts who “demand loyalty” from the living, who want to “help more to go to their heavens,” who speak a “language of love” and “secret senses” are knowable only by a people who come from the community of sharing stories of such ghosts.” (243)

“The ghosts are spirits of the ancestors, rhetorical agents, repositories of the past, and useful cultural interpreters. They demand the protagonists to remember, invent, and change the past to fit the situated present. As relational characters with their own idiosyncratic tendencies, the ghosts also change their minds and learn from the protagonists.” (243)

“In conclusion,” Kim writes, “the ghosts in Asian American literature are at once marginal and central to the protagonists. The ghosts guide, critique, sustain, and heal the protagonists on the one hand; and they change their minds, admit their mistakes, and learn from the protagonists, on the other hand. Given the pragmatic and this-worldly nature of the ghosts, the spirituality portrayed in Asian American literature defies clear boundaries between the living and the dead, and the sacred and the profane. Thus, it is not surprising that no Asian [-p.247] American fiction writers have explicitly named Asian American relationships with these ghosts as “religious.” Instead, the complex relationships between the ghosts and protagonists in Asian American literature point to the power of “what is being said by not being said.”For “fiction makes you think; propaganda tell you how to think.”” (246-247)

Ref: Kim, Jung Ha. (2006) What’s with the Ghosts?: Portrayals of Spirituality in Asian American Literature Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Volume 6, Number 2, Fall 2006, pp. 241-248

Ghost Talk

As I think about it, there is a really good short story by a Chinese writer, available in English translation, that might bear analysis/comparison in this same vein (and that might widen the discussion fruitfully – maybe; not saying I’ve tried!):

Yang Lian ‘Ghost Talk’ (Guihua), 1990 (translated by Charles A. Laughlin)

I really liked this story – it’s rich in openings for discussion and interpretation.

[Source: David Der-wei Wang, ed. Running Wild: New Chinese Writers, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp.101-107]. According to David Der-Wei Wang’s blurb (pp.262-263), “Yang Lian (1957-) was regarded as one of the most promising young Chinese poets before the Tian’anmen Incident. He left China on the eve of the incident and has since exiled himself successively in Germany, Austria, the United States, and New Zealand. Some of his poems have been translated into English and published under the title Masks and Crocodiles (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991). ‘Ghost Talk [Guihua]’ appears in Nuxingren [W.M.], vol 4 (1990).”

Just thinking about it, there would definitely be avenues of analysis – the symbol of the house; the experience of exile…

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