The Remnants of Angels: Seeking Immigrant Representation in Literature + Beyond

Black and white image of refugees sitting on a dock at Angel Island, with three guards watching over them. Three translucent, colored circles are placed on top of the image. Original image via NPR.

Black and white image of refugees sitting on a dock at Angel Island, with three guards watching over them. Three translucent, colored circles are placed on top of the image. Original image via NPR.

by Valerie Wu

“While America surely transformed some of these impoverished emigres into wealthy returnees, it turned many more into something else—hyphenated Americans, Americans who would always remember their homelands as a treasured past but find in America their future.”
Iris Chang, The Chinese in America

It is more than one-hundred and thirty-five years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, and I am just a ferry away from freedom on an island named after angels.  My mother speaks to me of liberation as if it is a bridge. There are people asking me questions I don't know the answer to, like what’s your mother’s maiden name? What street did you live on when you were young? Where are you from?

Where are you from?

The story of diaspora is one I should know by now, but how do you describe a country’s migration? How do you take the sound of a nation and put it into words?

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Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer starts off with: “I am a spy, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” He talks about a narrative as if it is always battling itself, an eternal bildungsroman that will never quite end. It is an island. He is two pieces of the same half, a continent that has broken apart.

In some ways, I believe I’m a double agent as well. I am two individuals at the intersection of ethnicity and humanity. There is some kind of universal meaning to warfare. It is a conflict that never quite gets resolved—a sparring between two identities, a literary truth. In the novel, Nguyen speaks about how the Vietnam War was one uniquely Vietnamese, one born out of a need for independence. It was a country with a heart of resistance, one pulsing with liberation.

There is a kind of necessity that comes with talking about decolonization. My parents were born and raised in Taiwan, an island that can not yet be called a country but is yet too large to be called inconsequential. I lived in the city of Hsinchu for a week as an exchange student; my classmates talked about America as if it was a dream. It must be nice, one said, her tongue thick and heavy with the weight of an alien language, to live in a country that is not a ghost. It has been more than seventy years since the Japanese colonized Taiwan, and the island still remains uncertain of where its loyalties lie. It takes knowing these individuals to fully grasp what it means to be drifting and weightless. The ghost haunts from the margins, a glimpse of a racial history lying in the periphery—always invisible but never forgotten.

Sometimes I think of a narrative as a time machine. I think going back in time to see and understand why things are the way they are and why a people’s invisibility remains today. I search for it in the white markers across San Francisco, across the water from Tiburon. I search for it in the Bones in Transit, the bones of the Chinese workers on the railroad being shipped back home.

When I think of myself in history, I see the Los Angeles Chinatown massacre of 1871. Seventeen Chinese residents were lynched, the largest mass lynching in American history. One, a doctor named Gene Tong, volunteered to give up his wedding ring for his life. Before, he had had the option to work in the “American” side of town, but decided to remain in the Alley, where he felt the citizens needed more help. He was dragged across the side of the street, begging in both English and Spanish, a desperate attempt to appeal to his audience. They shot him in the mouth; the finger holding his ring was cut off, but they never mentioned this in my United States History textbook.

Resistance matters, but so does resilience in the face of a dominant narrative, a silent challenge.

In a land far far away, my parents packed their bags, their immigration documents tucked into the front pocket. There is no way of distinguishing this story from the story of others. There is no way of avoiding the fact that they were revolutionaries in their own right—individuals wanting something to be changed, something to never be the same.

Maybe the immigrants were searching for gold, a promise of opportunity. Maybe they wanted to build a railroad. Maybe they wanted to not only be seen, but heard. My United States History textbook called it “cultural displacement.” My textbook named them using numbers and statistics; their identities were dissolved in the oceans they crossed and the land they touched. They never had the opportunity to regain their narrative. Their story was taken away from them.

Erasure doesn’t have to be deliberate. There’s erasure in complicity as well. That kind of erasure is by far the worst—an ache of absence that will never go away. The ferry leaves—it is a one-way trip. I think of literature as the embodiment of a racial imaginary, an explicit statement of a binary that needs to be redefined. I write because there in the time period after the Civil War, there was a Reconstruction. I write because there is a careful formulation of race as a social construct that needs to be rebuilt. I want to say that there is no such thing as “revolutionary” literature when the literature champions individuality above all else, but I cannot be further from the truth. Because the truth is, there is as much revolution in individuality as there is revolution in collective resistance. It is a frightening revelation that words have become the substitute for misrepresentation and prejudice, and yet it’s empowering.

It is more than one-hundred and thirty-five years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, and I am lost in the process of translation, of a history of an island named after angels, of a hyphenated identity, of individuals who deserve to not only have their humanity reiterated, but their inhumanity as well. These are the remnants of a universal meaning.

The story of a nation is one you should know by now.