The Shortcomings of Shortcomings

Or at least its readers. A lot of articles about contemporary American literature note the growth industry in assimilation narratives—led by Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Ha Jin, to pick just three of the more obvious examples. But to hear Kenny Tanemura tell it in a piece for AsianWeek, the lessons of those stories don’t easily penetrate the minds of college students. Tanemura, who teaches composition at Purdue University, had the excellent idea of teaching Adrian Tomine‘s Shortcomings to his class. But:

One was confused and dismayed by the Asian lesbian character, and others were confused about the main character’s sway toward assimilation and about the forces that impacted this flow. Stripped of any understanding or curiosity about the intersection of race and desire in relationships, my students could only see Tomine’s characters out of context…. My students considered Ben Tanaka a one-dimensional character—merely a man who whines for no reason except to unnecessarily annoy his girlfriend. At best, a few perceptive students might say things like, “It seems like he’s ashamed of his culture and wants to be more accepted.”

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