Interracial Encounters

Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

228 pages

October, 2011

ISBN: 9780814752562



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Julia H. Lee is Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

All books by Julia H. Lee

2013  Honorable Mention, Asian American Studies Association's prize in Literary Studies 
Why do black characters appear so frequently in Asian American literary works and Asian characters appear in African American literary works in the early twentieth century? Interracial Encounters attempts to answer this rather straightforward literary question, arguing that scenes depicting Black-Asian interactions, relationships, and conflicts capture the constitution of African American and Asian American identities as each group struggled to negotiate the racially exclusionary nature of American identity.

In this nuanced study, Julia H. Lee argues that the diversity and ambiguity that characterize these textual moments radically undermine the popular notion that the history of Afro-Asian relations can be reduced to a monolithic, media-friendly narrative, whether of cooperation or antagonism. Drawing on works by Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Younghill Kang, Interracial Encounters foregrounds how these reciprocal representations emerged from the nation’s pervasive pairing of the figure of the “Negro” and the “Asiatic” in oppositional, overlapping, or analogous relationships within a wide variety of popular, scientific, legal, and cultural discourses. Historicizing these interracial encounters within a national and global context highlights how multiple racial groups shaped the narrative of race and national identity in the early twentieth century, as well as how early twentieth century American literature emerged from that multiracial political context.


  • Interracial Encounters is a striking and original study of the triangulation of race among whites, African Americans, and Asian Americans during the turn of the twentieth century. By examining discourses surrounding national identity, the railroad, and orientalism (among others), this book includes new material on the historical development of race and traces the relationship, mutual influence, coalition, and tension between members of the African and Asian diasporas. It shows through painstaking juxtaposition of historical context and literary analysis how both African American and Asian American writers are profoundly conscious of the other racial minority and how they negotiate nuanced political positions that go beyond the black and white binary. The book provides deep insights not only into the texts studied but also into the interracial dynamics during this period. In charting hitherto unexplored ways of talking about race, it fills a significant gap in American studies and paves the way for further interethnic research.”

    —King-Kok Cheung, University of California, Los Angeles

  • "Lee's study is an invaluable addition to minority literature studies in large part because of her decision to have texts from two distinct traditions enter into conversation with one another. Her approach not only opens up these individual texts in new and exciting ways, but it also enriches and expands the understanding of race that is at their centers in ways that go beyond the traditional borders of a black and white binary."

    Journal of American Culture

  • "Lee's close reading of the Plessy case speaks to her book's methodological interventions. It shows the importance of literary studies in not just historical analyses of texts that have been read heretofore as concerning only blacks and whites but also Afro-Asian critique....Quite simply, the reading practice developed in Lee's book is original and insightful, and it brings to light figures and forms in late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century literatures that have often been rendered as insignificant nonpresence unrelated to other racialized figures."

    —Caroline H. Yang, Journal of Asian American Studies