Jeffrey Santa Ana dislocation by benbenzhou


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									Jeffrey Santa Ana

Assistant Professor in English and Women‟s and Gender Studies

Dartmouth College


2007 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies

Afro-Asian Anger: Audre Lorde, Han Ong, and Class Rage in Late-Capitalist New York City

In the beginning of Fixer Chao, Han Ong‟s spledidly ascerbic novel, the gay Filipino immigrant protagonist,

William Narciso Paulinha, feels disoriented while walking the streets of his East Village neighborhood—his

disorientation suggests dislocation amid the dizzying swirl of commercialism and financial transactions so

aggressively at the surface of daily life in New York City. Younger generations of Wall Streeters, trust-fund

kids, salespeople, and twenty-somethings armed with Ivy League degrees and eager for their slice of the dot

com pie have taken over William‟s neighborhood. These “younger people were everywhere around us,” Ong

writes, “spilling outside the open doors of … refurbished cafes … all the while talking and shrieking in party

tones whose meanings eluded us and made us feel like tourists from a depressed country” (Fixer Chao 29).

Alienated amid this flood of prosperity in New York, William takes a close look at his own downwardly

mobile status; for he‟s spent years doing minimum-wage temp work and laboring as a small-time prostitute

in the men‟s room at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The late-capitalist economy that‟s globalizing New

York with the sudden arrival of wealthy young hipsters marginalizes William; and hence, he laments that

“[s]o many things emphasized a sense of being at a remove, of being in America and not in America at the

same time, that I could have sworn I was dreaming and that this was the same place I visited every night—

not-Manila and not-New York, not-past and not-present. Stuck in limbo. Between departure and arrival. A

place like the future, thought of and imagined in ways that barely touched the circumference of its

incomprehensibility” (32). Seething beneath the surface of William‟s dislocation is his rage against an upper-

class society that effortlessly benefits from a new economy globalizing New York.
       In Fixer Chao, Ong excoriates New York‟s class society through negative feelings of anger. Rage in

his novel expresses the subjection of Asian immigrants like William Paulinha. Yet William‟s exclusion from

the system that benefits upper-class New Yorkers is not permanent. In a seedy gay bar which has

miraculously withstood bourgeois campaigns to clean-up Manhattan, William meets a failed Jewish writer

named Shem who‟s been ostracized by New York‟s literati. The two men concoct a revenge scheme in which

William poses as a Feng Shui master named William Chao. Together, William and Shem deceive wealthy

New Yorkers who are anxious to keep up appearances by their consumption of the most fashionable

multicultural trends. William‟s desire for vengeance, I want to suggest, expresses the novel‟s anti-capitalist

consciousness as a contradiction to economic exploitation. Fixer Chao thus underscores the injustices of

social division in a time of inexorable globalization. Rage in this novel registers material damage for

immigrants in the U.S. global city—damage such as subjection and exploitation based on racial differences

and exclusions.

       Yet nearly twenty years before Ong wrote his novel, Audre Lorde published her essays and

autobiography in which she also excoriates the racial subject‟s exploitation under capitalism. We might say

that Lorde is Ong‟s precursor; for the anger she expresses in Zami, her autobiography, is rage that articulates

her struggle to find a sense of “home” and defend her personal worth from exploitation in New York. Her

anger targets the oppression produced by capitalism. Her rage enunciates contradictions of surviving as a

black lesbian in a profit economy rife with homophobia and discrimination against African Americans.

       In this paper, I want to suggest that an anti-capitalist consciousness in both Lorde‟s and Ong‟s

narratives emerges from the racial subject‟s mediation with subjection under U.S. capitalism. In reading Zami

and Fixer Chao through critical theory, I suggest that Lorde‟s and Ong‟s depictions of oppression allow us to

understand the relevance of critiquing racism, sexism, and homophobia in the materialist project of exposing

social division under the laws of commodity production. Moreover, it is through their emotions of critical

consciousness, and from anger in particular, that Lorde and Ong imply their critique of inequality in capitalist

society. This is the political-economic dimension of feeling in their work: to express, from beneath the

surface of their writing, anxieties about commercialization and the fragmentation of human life in late
capitalism. Ultimately, the violent and alienating global city of New York portrayed by Lorde and Ong—and

critiqued through what I‟m calling “Afro-Asian anger”—is a backdrop for the ongoing fact of racialized

subjection under the capitalist commodity structure.

Of the many injustices that outraged Lorde and of the revolutionary politics she advocated to condemn these

injustices, it‟s her criticism of labor exploitation that remains trenchant for understanding today‟s condition

of racial injustice and subjection.

        In Zami, for instance, it‟s through experiencing exploitive labor that Lorde asserts her most forceful

expression of anger as an emotional contradiction of the capitalist commodity-structure. In 1952 Lorde

subsists on a series of menial jobs after enduring tragic loss. Her best friend, Gennie, kills herself after

suffering sexual abuse by her father. Implacably upset by her parents‟ callous reaction to Gennie‟s death,

Lorde leaves her family home in Harlem. She stays with friends, briefly attends college, rents her own

apartment, and, at eighteen, becomes pregnant. She terminates her pregnancy through an underground

abortion that leaves her bleeding in agonizing pain for days. Unemployed and nearly destitute, she leaves

New York to find work in the assembly lines of Stamford, Connecticut factories. At Keystone Electronics, a

plant that processes quartz crystals used in radio and radar machinery, she operates a commercial x-ray

machine, working alongside other black and Puerto Rican women, whose options, like Lorde‟s, are limited

because they are minority women without college degrees and lack office skills to work in better jobs as


        The work at Keystone Electronics is grueling, unsafe, and offensive in every way imaginable. Lorde

indicates that it‟s likely the cause of her cancer, which will kill her forty years later; she explains: “Nobody

mentioned that carbon tet destroys the liver and causes cancer of the kidneys. Nobody mentioned that the X-

ray machines, when used unshielded, delivered doses of constant low radiation far in excess of what was

considered safe even in those days” (Zami 126). We can sense here Lorde‟s struggle to fend off the self-

negation this dangerous work demands from her. Her rage seething beneath her performance of factory labor

conveys, inasmuch as it protests, the debasement of workers. This is an objectification process that restricts
the workers‟ feelings to performing work at the cost of depriving such labor of any humanizing fulfillment.

       Exploitation takes an immense psychological toll on Lorde. She expresses bad feelings of wanting to

do violence to herself—because at one point she reveals that the factory‟s horrible conditions make her want

to “slit [her own] throat.” Lorde‟s negative emotions here demonstrate the social fragmentation and

estrangement under objectification. In the brief week‟s time that Lorde works at the plant, she finds herself

struggling with the classic symptom of alienated labor, in which the machine and the workday merge with

and take control of the worker‟s self. Any satisfaction to be experienced in fulfilling labor is entirely

restricted—negated as each day becomes for her a conflict with mind-numbingly dull work. Anxiously

awaiting short breaks throughout the interminable day, Lorde feels the debasement that alienated labor enacts

on the worker's self-esteem.

       Years later, after living in Mexico for most of 1954, Lorde returns to New York in search of work.

She is determined to continue her education and enter a career in which she can express her love of reading

and writing. However, she must struggle dearly to achieve these goals. Although the Supreme Court had

recently made its historic decision to abolish segregation in public schools, racist oppression and exclusion

prevail as social norms in the U.S. In New York, Lorde endures work that is degrading, having little choice

but to take jobs that impose racist divisions and sexist hierarchies. Through the help of an employment

agency, she finds employment as an office assistant in a large hospital—a “girl-Friday-step-n-fetch-it for the

head of the accounting department” (188). Her boss is a white woman named Mrs. Goodrich, “an

overbearing and awe-inspiring woman,” Lorde explains, “who was the first woman ever to head the

accounting department of a major hospital in the State” (188). Working under a dictatorial and bitter Mrs.

Goodrich, Lorde suffers her racist insults and belittling orders for subservience: “Mrs. Goodrich told me I

walked like a lumberjack, and made too much noise in the halls … I would have to learn to be prompt, even

though my „people‟ were never on time … I cringed secretly as she bawled me out for typing errors, in front

of the whole typing pool, then called me across the hall into her private office to pick up a pencil she‟d

dropped” (188). Hence, working for another woman proves to be just as intensely alienating as laboring at

Keystone. The experience again provokes within Lorde feelings of wrath that border on self-destructive
bitterness; she writes: “I dreamed of stepping on [Mrs. Goodrich‟s face] with an ice pick between my toes. I

felt trapped and furious … Mrs. Goodrich became the symbol of a job which I hated (I had really never

learned to type) and I came to hate her with the same passion” (188-189). Although the injustice of Mrs.

Goodrich‟s despotic behavior infuriates Lorde, she learns to mediate her anger so as not to succumb to

bitterness. At work, she uses her anger creatively to write poetry, and in so doing, fends off feelings of

abjection under alienated labor. “I fell asleep at my desk at every opportunity,” Lorde writes:

       and upon the slightest provocation, usually in the middle of typing Mrs. Goodrich‟s letters. In these
       mini-sleeps, I would type snatches of poems or nonsense phrases into the middle of straight formal
       sentences. I never bothered to proofread my letters, but only checked them as a work of art, brushing
       over the paper for correct margins and no strike-overs. Letters would arrive on Mrs. Goodrich‟s desk
       for her signature neatly and correctly typed, but with appalling sentences tucked into them. (189)

Creating poetry under degrading labor conditions becomes for Lorde a mechanism through which to channel

her anger, preserving her dignity against racist strictures that keep her from being promoted to levels held by

white co-workers. She writes, moreover, as a means through which to defend the perimeter of her worth, but

also as an act of imaginatively constructing community, affiliation, and a sense of home that negates feelings

of loss and estrangement. To reach this place of self-affirmation, Lorde must embrace the difficult and
ambivalent feelings of pain central to her history and subjectivity as a black lesbian. Using anger thus allows

her to critique social oppressions systemized under the profit economy.

Similarly, in Fixer Chao, Han Ong rages against the inequalities produced by capitalist globalization. As

Eleanor Ty suggests in her reading of the novel, Ong narrates the experience of “emotional and psychic

transnationalism,” which structures the rage of Filipino immigrants who are stuck in limbo between the

values of American capitalism and “the self-abnegating attitudes of other immigrants” (“Abjection” 121).

       Now what resonates so powerfully throughout Fixer Chao, as in Lorde‟s Zami, is a rational outrage

against an exploitive system under which everybody lives. In the new global economy of New York are

marginalized people, like William Paulinha—transmigrant and dislocated people dispossessed because they

lack the skills, values, and capital necessary to survive in a global city whose structural operative is global
capitalism. And their rage, Ong suggests, underscores the dehumanizing effects of objectification—evident in

William‟s struggle to survive under the predations of ceaseless competition consequent to the profit

economy, a system thriving on the divisions of class society.

       Like the way it begins, Fixer Chao concludes with a cynical indictment of human life under the social

forces of commodification. William is revealed to be a fake Feng Shui master. His downfall is swift. Nearly

every one abandons him and seeks to profit from their disassociation, including Shem—the con artist who

makes William his dupe. Back to taking a close hard look at his downwardly mobile life, William cynically

observes: “all around the world, there were people like me, rebounders, scrappers, survivors. People who

cheated and schemed, and who, having found that the schemes had run their course, retreated. Some of us, it

is true, capitulated to the moral blackmail of religion and politics. But I didn‟t care about any of that. I‟d been

hurt. I‟d been cast aside. Passed over (Shem‟s joke to me: I‟ve been passed over so many times it‟s enough to

make me twice Jewish)” (355).

       Fallen and “cast aside” within a multitude of transients in New York, William becomes an “invisible

man.” He flees to Los Angeles and spends his final days in New York with his sole remaining friend Devo, a

“layabout” who, like William, is the detritus of New York‟s global economy. Devo “stated in a clean, simple

way the same thing I hadn‟t realized I‟d always felt until I was in the thick of it: how we shared a common

hatred for those who did better than us, for whom New York seemed to have been exclusively built.

Immediately, all those forgotten occasions returned to memory: staring at the padlocked facades of houses on

the Upper East Side; having been stared at every time we went into a fancy shop to admire the goods …”

(352). And so William prepares to leave a class society in New York that spurns him, and which he also
realizes will soon become utterly indifferent to him.


       What I now want to suggest, in conclusion, is that Ong might share with Lorde theories of bad

feelings like anger which may articulate criticism of capitalism‟s commodity-structure. There‟s contradictory
global truth in their writings that would imply the revolutionary potential of critical consciousness. Such

might be the case if we take into account the anger expressed in our current era‟s movements against

globalization, a worldwide network of solidarity among people whose politics share angry protest. Anger

articulated in support of progressive politics thus carries within it the potential to actualize collective

struggle. In her essay “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde maintains that anger “expressed and translated in the

service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification” (127). Anger is,

moreover, “loaded with information and energy” (127), containing volatile political content about which we
may learn a great deal when expressed publicly and creatively.

         It‟s therefore the case for Han Ong and his precursor, Audre Lorde, that between the dialectic of

feeling dislocated in the global city and realizing critical awareness, the radical consciousness of oppressed

people emerges and wins out. In validating the anti-capitalist critique embedded in Afro-Asian anger, then, I

conclude that the fervent passions through which racial minorities come to express themselves as critical

subjects are one of capitalism‟s most potentially revolutionary contradictions.

Works Cited

i   Notes

      I have in mind here Heather Love‟s work on negative feelings of shame and loneliness in theories of lesbian and gay history.
    In her reading of shame and loneliness as structures of feeling for lesbians in Radclyffe Hall‟s The Well of Loneliness, Love
    argues: “We need a genealogy of queer affect that embraces the negative, shameful, and difficult feelings central to queer
    existence. We have been used to thinking of such affects as waste, the inevitable by-product of our historical tough luck. But as
    long as homophobia structures our public and private lives, and books like The Well continue to be so eerily familiar, we cannot
    do without an analysis of intimate effects of homophobia” (“„Spoiled‟” 515).

ii An exception here would be that any memory of William might serve to remind us of the necessary condition of abjection
   deployed by a profit system buttressing New York‟s exclusionary commodity-structure.
iii     Lorde‟s metaphor of “using anger” to express political consciousness has, we might say, much in
common with radical concepts like Antonio Negri‟s which depicts a collectively expressed subjectivity in
today‟s anti-globalization movements. Negri claims: “Another thing which strikes me as absolutely
fundamental: people understood. They understood from that point on that subjectivity produces, and that all
activities become places of production … [A]s long as … consciousness spreads and deepens in as powerful
a manner as we‟re seeing today, certain watchwords begin to have weight, such as „desertion‟”
(“Interruptions” 132-144). Here, the subjectivity of a “people understood” expresses the global dimension of
anti-capitalist consciousness; and by “desertion,” Negri means the people challenging the ruling bloc‟s
“power alliance” in the organization of capitalist production, which for Lorde and Ong implicitly could mean
the power of an oppressed people‟s consciousness to overturn social division and render the freedom of the
oppressed by recognizing their radical anger.

       Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing P,

       ---. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing P, 1982.

       Love, Heather K. “„Spoiled Identity‟: Stephen Gordon‟s Loneliness and the Difficulties of Queer
       History.” GLQ 7.4 (2001): 487-519.

       Negri, Antonio. “Interruptions in the Empire, the Power of the Exodus: Interview with Tony Negri,”
       by Guissepe Cocco & Maurizio Lazzarato. The Anti-Capitalism Reader: Imagining a Geography of
       Opposition. Ed. Joel Schalit. New York: Akashic Books, 2002: 132-144.

       Ong, Han. Fixer Chao. New York: Picador, 2002.

       Ty, Eleanor. “Abjection, Masculinity, and Violence in Brian Roley's American Son and Han Ong's
       Fixer Chao.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the
       United States. Special Issue on Filipino American Literature 29.1 (Spring 2004): 121.

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