My own recent scholarship has centered on the difficulties implicit in denoting prescribing stable identities to minority individuals, particularly within the constellation of Asian American studies. My approaches thus far have been a combination of close readings, theoretical interventions, and popular culture analysis. A common theme among some of my recent projects has been the transformative ethos of violence, and the way violent interaction between opposing forces further obscures an already tenuous understanding of identity politics.
I was initially drawn to Adichie’s Americanah for its grotesque scenes of metamorphic physical violence as Ifemelu straightens her hair to adhere to white standards of beauty. The novel’s treatment of the scene marks perhaps the most viscerally affecting moment in the book, and it’s notable that the violence of the scene itself is entirely self-inflicted. Questions of erasure and silencing accompany the violence to which Ifemelu subjects herself, suggesting that there’s something inheres in Nigerian-American transnational movement that manifests as violence against women with certain visual markers.
I’m interested in contrasting this phenomenon with Chinese foot binding, a cultural practice whose prominence gradually faded in the early decades of the 20th century. Like Ifemelu’s hair, women subject to foot binding underwent drastic physical transformations, but what’s most curious to me is the attitude toward foot binding after it fell out of prominence. Waiting, a 1995 novel by Asian American author Ha Jin, explores the social and cultural politics of foot binding as it falls out of favor and becomes associated exclusively with uncultured, rural women. The difference between Americanah and Waiting, then, is the attitude toward drastic physical alterations and the necessity of such changes in the first place. This paper will emphasize the directionality of such transformations; as foot binding becomes less common, it is seen (especially among the first and second waves of American men and women immigrants from China) as increasingly barbaric, a cultural indicator of their vicious past, measured against a swiftly Westernizing and cultured present. These transformations are things to be erased. Straight hair, conversely, adopts no such temporal preoccupation; its directionality is comprised of movement from Nigeria to America, where if anything, it erases the past via violent transformation.
Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationalism seems to be a good starting point for this project (though it has mysteriously vanished from our library, so I haven’t been able to look at it too closely yet). Ong’s preoccupation with the confluence between self-censorship and political freedom directly speaks to the kinds of physical alterations the women of these novels inflict upon themselves, and her exploration of flexible national identity coincides especially elegantly with Ifemelu’s meditations on her place in America.