Now that I’ve finished my book on popular science and science fiction in the interwar era, Astounding Wonder (University of Pennsylvania Press, March 2012), I’ve returned to another project on geography, race, and Asian Americans that I’m calling Barred Zones.
Subtitled “The Strange Geography of Asian America,” the book asks an apparently paradoxical question: how do you locate a people or group you mean to exclude? Asian American historians have shown that the idea of “Asians,” particularly in the early 20th century, represented the limit of emerging American national identity. By definition Asians were “aliens ineligible for citizenship” and excluded both from migrating to the United States and from becoming naturalized citizens. Conventional historical ideas about America as a land of immigrants, of people moving from an ancestral homeland to a new adopted nation, did not apply because Asians were never given the opportunity to arrive. Exclusion laws, however, remained geographically based, most notably in the Asiatic Barred Zone defined in an omnibus 1917 Immigration Act. Nevertheless despite these exclusion laws Asian Americans found their way to and marked their presence within the United States. Barred Zones looks at how geography, which usually associates meaning to place, operated with and within race historically in the United States with regard to Asian Americans. Location framed and formed Asian American racial and ethnic identity so much that it, rather than the actual presence, or lack of, Asian Americans, defined local culture, community, and possibility. As his associate Walsh explains the tragic and unexpected turn of events at the end of Roman Polanski’s 1974 film to Jake Gittes, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown!”