Josephine Park on authoring identity

The School of Arts & Sciences President’s Distinguished Professor of English discusses the way literature has influenced the experience of being Asian American in the United States.

“Where are you from?”

To an Asian American, this question can be an impediment to a greater sense of belonging, says Josephine Park, School of Arts and Sciences President’s Distinguished Professor of English. “It can be incredibly important to say, ‘Actually, I’m from Utah.’”

Park, whose courses include Asian American Literature, Race and Asian American Literature, and American Modernist Poetry, says literature is one critical lens through which a complex and ever-evolving Asian American identity can be examined.

Josephine Park.
Josephine Park, School of Arts & Sciences President’s Distinguished Professor of English. (Image: Courtesy of OMNIA)

“Literature was always at the forefront of American movements for racial justice,” Park says. “I tell my students, for populations like Asian Americans who were long deemed statistically insignificant, if you don’t have a quantitative significance, you want qualitative expression. Almost nothing is more important than individual expression, individual stories. For movements that are trying to capture minority identity, that kind of expressive capability is critical.”

Park cites Japanese American poet Lawson Fusao Inada, whose work has spanned the past five decades, as an influence. Inada’s poetry sheds a light on the complex racial dynamics experienced during and after World War II, a period stained by the internment of Japanese American citizens, which Inada and his family experienced firsthand. “When the Japanese were incarcerated,” Park says, “there was a button that people wore that said, ‘I’m Chinese.’ There was an effort to distinguish”—a fractured history Inada pointed to in order to work toward a collective solidarity, she adds. “By the late 1960s, the idea of ‘Asian America’ emerges,” Park says. “That really matters when you have these moments of racism, of reframing the racist efforts to lump together Asians through a collective vision.” As an example, she cites the anti-Asian sentiment during COVID.

Park says it is especially thrilling for her students to “dive deep into the experiences of groups other than their own. For example, in my advanced seminar on Asian American literature last spring, a Korean American student wrote a wonderful final paper on the Taiwanese immigrant experience, which explored the legacy of Taiwan’s colonial history on Indigenous populations. Her paper wove together personal and historical traumas into a broader framework of shared dislocation. Students who sign up for an Asian American studies course are often looking to learn their own histories, and our classroom conversations are enriched by the resonances they discover.”

Read more at OMNIA.