Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature in Malaya, the Philippines and Asian America

Patterson, Christopher. Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature in Malaya, the Philippines and Asian America. 2014. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation treats novels by Anglophone Southeast Asians who see their ascribed multicultural identities (Malaysian, Filipino or Asian American) as conflating notions of race, sexuality, nationality and labor. Southeast Asian Anglophone narratives allow us to trace contemporary global multiculturalism as a strategy of governance that emerged from three historical conditions: British colonial pluralism in Malaysia and Singapore, American colonization in the Philippines, and regimes of liberal tolerance in the United States. Whereas these histories are rendered invisible or incoherent by U.S. nationalist narratives and literary canons, Southeast Asian Anglophone texts expose them as legible counter-narratives. This dissertation is inspired by the Malaysian literary theorist Lloyd Fernando, who, in 1975, envisioned migrant cultures as "part of an unceasing process" that are "capable of continuing as if an infinite series" (14). I dub this unceasing process "transitive culture" and trace its appearance as a theme in Southeast Asian Anglophone literature that sees migrants as self-consciously managing and reinterpreting multiculturalist identities.

This dissertation builds on work by scholars such as E. San Juan, Jodi Melamed and Vijay Mishra who argue that the narrative of western multiculturalism often bolsters the U.S. as an exceptional power, giving legitimately to U.S. military and political interventions abroad. I engage with an overlooked archive of Anglophone writing to account for the multiple origins of multiculturalism that U.S. literature and discourses have helped obscure. While recent scholarship has used a framework of diaspora to disrupt nationalist formations, this has often marginalized the Anglophone cultures that imperial encounters have also helped produce. I adopt the label "Anglophone" to argue that texts from writers in Southeast Asia and in the diaspora allow us to see global multiculturalism as a governing strategy that conflates nation and ethnicity to mark national identities as befitting particular types of labor, and to cast "multicultural" nation-states like the U.S. as an exceptional force in global politics. By revealing the imperial strategies and historical emergence of global multiculturalism, Southeast Asian Anglophone texts disrupt the conflation of race, nation and ethnicity, and offer transition as a means of resisting rigid identity types.

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