Date of Award

Spring 2020

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Monica Chiu

Second Advisor

Petar Ramadanovic

Third Advisor

Sandhya Shetty


Historical narratives often focus on the victors of major global conflicts and leave out the mention of the oppressed. But trauma theorists note that literary arts can effectively offer insight to unremarked histories. My dissertation examines how contemporary Asian American novels and graphic narratives represent underrepresented historical trauma, with a particular focus on Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro, and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I focus on what I call “disembodied trauma,” a phenomenon which encourages readers to recognize silenced histories in the texts. Specifically, “disembodied trauma,” refers to a literary phenomenon in which a traumatized character’s words are repeated by another character in a changed context (temporal, cultural, and/or national), or in which an image from American popular culture, referring to traumatic histories from the past, returns to haunt a contemporary character. Recurrent but unnoticed by scholars, “disembodied trauma” encourages a kind of reading which creates a provisional community, thereby giving the heterogeneous groups among Asian Americans a sense of “we.” This sense of collectivity is developed through empathetic reading of trauma. This provisional community often exceeds nation-state boundaries. I claim that “globality” arises through the empathetic reading of this provisional community.

By suggesting an instance of globality in Asian American literature, “disembodied trauma” engages with questions revolving around a nation-based paradigm in Asian American studies and literary studies. Scholars of Asian American studies have noted the problematic political and social implications in the term “Asian American.” For instance, people of Asian descent are not, as the term seems to suggest, a homogenous group, and some of them do not see themselves as American at all, or they believe they belong to multiple nations. Moreover, the concept of “American literature” as a field needs reconsideration. That is, the adequacy of a nation-based paradigm itself is questionable in the context of globalization, especially when theorists prognose the decline of the nation-state. To take another example, study of slavery should include not only the American institution, but also its networks to Africa, Europe, and Asia. In a similar vein, we need to revise “the nationalized historical framework by which we have traditionally studied literature” in view of globalization. Significantly, the term “global” might need revision because it tends to assume “the world as a single, unified entity.” As opposed to this “global” premised on time and space affected by globalization, the globality emergent in disembodied trauma is a world that reading can open up. Through the kind of reading that “disembodied trauma” encourages, once-repressed histories emerge, and readers can be transformed into an empathetic community of witnessing. The empathy of this community may transcend nation-state boundaries, thereby forming a “globality.” Such reading can help us recognize our own implications in systemic injustice and structural inequality in the globalized world.

To analyze “disembodied trauma” beyond nation-state boundaries in the texts, I use Stef Craps’ postcolonial approach and Michael Rothberg’s transnational framework, as well as classical trauma theory. Specifically, postcolonial and transnational lenses allow me to address the textual and graphic symptoms, disembodied from the historical trauma, which are beyond the Eurocentric frames of classical trauma theory. I also employ Vilashini Cooppan’s pedagogical approach to world literature and Madigan Haley’s reading of “globality” emergent within contemporary novels, which help me examine historical and cultural references and their intertextuality in the texts. Taken together, these methods help me demonstrate an empathetic reading of disembodied trauma.

“Becoming ‘We’” provides an account of “disembodied trauma,” whereas no existing trauma theory can fully explain the phenomenon. This will be the first book-length study that brings together globality, empathetic reading, and trauma in Asian American literature. This study aims to shed light on Asian American literature and global studies by presenting a new framework to read an existing but unrecognized transnational phenomenon: globality organically arising within the Asian American texts. Thus, by balancing between the local and the global, my study engages with the dilemma that emerges from any transnational critical practice.

Available for download on Wednesday, January 01, 2025