Ability has been central to Asian American history, as the notion has importantly shaped the “model minority” trope. A success story of Asian immigrants gaining upward mobility and socio-economic power in the United States by sheer perseverance and practiced efficiency, the trope has been used as a wedge against other racialized minorities—Black Americans in particular—cast as failing to succeed.1 Because of this divide and conquer ideology, perpetuated by white supremacy and anti-Blackness, disability has been strikingly invisible in both Asian American history and historiography. Asian American literature is rife with stories of mental and physical disability, not surprisingly so given war, mass death, family separation, and diaspora fundamental to Asian American history throughout the twentieth century.2 Early statistics from medical facilities and social service agencies in the 1970s and 1980s, too, indicate high risks and rates of disability among Asian Americans, particularly more severe forms of mental illness.3 And yet, the history of Asian American disability, arguably a mirror image of the model minority trope, has been poorly substantiated by historical records and inquiries alike.4

In this article, I articulate reasons for this paucity, a methodology of finding sources, and why it is necessary to tell a range of disability histories of the immigrant community that has been long mischaracterized as excessively able.5 In so doing, I aim to reveal more than what has been hidden from history: Asian American disability. Drawing on the scholarship on disability, archives, Black studies, and Asian American Pacific Islander studies, I delineate historically specific ways in which Asian American experiences of disability have been made invisible. Building on a few examples of Asian American disability histories that I have found in unexpected places, I show how ableism, as much as racism, has shaped the history of Asian immigrants in America and their archives. Making these histories more tangible is to begin to dismantle the ableism—a belief in non-disabled individuals as a social norm, against which disabled individuals always measure as inferior—that has underpinned US perpetuation of violence, war, and diaspora vis-à-vis Asians who have been deemed less able than Americans in colonial and postcolonial contexts.

Writing about colonial archives, Ann Laura Stoler argues the need for “the analytic shift from the high-gloss print of history writ-large to the space of its production, the darkroom negative” of history. Embedded in historical records produced by colonial authorities, Stoler contends, experiences of those subjugated by the authorities—voices that rarely make unfiltered entry into archives—might help us “trace disturbances in the colonial order of things . . . [and its] potential dissent and current distress.”6 I wish to make a similar turn toward Asian American disability, provoked by the difficulty of locating it in virtually all kinds of archives—national, university, and community. What if the reward of finding Asian American disability in moments of archive-making is to illuminate a kind of “dissent” and “distress” produced by US state violence? Given that many Asians are in America as the result of US colonialism and the nation's involvement in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, it is plausible that this “analytic shift” facilitates an attempt to conceptualize an Asian American archive of disability. This archive might barely seem to exist. By thinking of it as a collection of historical “negatives,” which produced and structured more readily tangible “positives” in archives, however, we might discover meaningful disturbances that erupted in the US imperial order.7

My exploration of the Asian American disability archive does not reproduce or reiterate stories of major “multicultural loss” and “loss of [historical] continuity” frequently associated with Asian American immigrants.8 Derived from the loss of kinship, language, and homeland common among Asian Americans, these stories make frequent appearances in Asian American archives, making Asians in America seem psychosocially deficient. Not only has this dynamism nurtured the essentialist notion that their homeland is too disabled to become independent of US influence, as Dorothy Fujita-Rony argues, the dynamism has also obscured the “ongoing . . . US empire and militarism” that has rendered “Asian American archives themselves . . . militarized constructs” from the moments of their formation.9 As a result, archival records appear to present Asian American experiences of loss as challenges that individuals are expected, and able, to overcome, presumably thanks to the abundant opportunities for self-improvement in the United States. Seldom, if ever, are histories of Asian American disability seen as indicators of US structural failure, which requires more than reactive remedies such as medical treatment and social services. Consequently, Asians as model immigrants of America, not Asian American experiences of disability, have come to the fore.

Keeping eyes toward ruptures in the ableist structure of US dominance in the Asia-Pacific, instead of individual deficiencies among Asian American immigrants waiting to be remedied in the land of opportunity, my articulation of the Asian American disability archive also relies on scholarship that points to the intersection of race and ability. Writing about Black women with disability, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah and Anna Mollow argue how difficult it is “for black women to be seen as . . . emotionally complex” beings fully capable of suffering from psychological illnesses.10 This difficulty arises because “emotional hardship is supposed to be built into the structure of [Black women's] lives,” rendering them as naturally equipped with a “birthright to strength.”11 There is much in Danquah and Mollow's articulation that is applicable to Asians in America. Historically, Asian Americans have been seen as emotionless or emotionally inscrutable. As Yoonmee Chang notes, disabled bodies of Asian Americans are often overshadowed by the social salience of their racial differences, as if a racial minority cannot have non-racial identity, such as an identity as a person with disability.12 These critiques of the invisibility of disability among the racially minoritized, I argue, help us respond to disability scholar Douglas C. Baynton's concern that historians of immigration, “with their attention confined to ethnic stereotypes,” have largely left unchallenged the notion that physical or mental disabilities “might legitimately disqualify one for [immigration].”13 Although I do not argue that this critique applies to immigration historians generally, I nonetheless see the merit of reclaiming disability as part of Asian American history in light of Baynton's critique. Given the ableist immigration policies stipulated by the Hart-Celler Act of 1965—which offered preference to immigrants equipped with professional or financial assets14—Asian American archives seem structured with an assumption that disabilities do not exist, are already cured, or are about to be. This structure has not only perpetuated US ableism but also obscured experiences of the racially minoritized living with disabilities.

Although the Asian American disability archive that I explore here might still be under construction, it is important to affirm that immigrants with disabilities did enter the United States and continued to live with disabilities both before and after 1965. It is useful, perhaps necessary, then, to consider what “critical fabulation” of absent experiences might look like in the context of existing Asian American archives. While Saidiya Hartman proposes this concept out of dire necessity—the archives of Atlantic slavery severely lack voices of enslaved people—I seek the possibility of making a productive use of fabulation by positioning Asian American literature in a continuum with Asian American archives.15 Using an oral history that is likely, though not certainly, related to Asian American disability, I aim “to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling” in order to rethink archives and their relationship to other historical and cultural constructs.16 After mapping a logic of the continuum between archives and literature in the first section, I offer in the second section a composite analysis of literary narratives and historical records that substantiates the logic. Here, I use records clearly related to disability, which makes them appear a reliable source of historical analysis. Then, I propose a new interpretation of a peculiar gap in historical statistics—a relatively small number of Asian Americans who suffered from milder forms of mental illness—using the oral history that seems less reliable as a historical record because of its ambiguous relationship to disability. Nonetheless, as I will show, finding meanings in this gap, using critical fabulation, is a step toward demystifying the model minority trope, as well as rethinking archives and archival practices. This, in turn, urges us to see the apparent lack of disability among Asian immigrants as a result, rather than a cause, of US ableism and its deep connections to US imperialism.

Searching for Disability History, Connecting Archives and Literature

First, I would like to state the obvious: disability does exist among Asian Americans. Disability has been deeply entwined with lives of Asian Americans, both those who came before and after the 1965 immigration reform. In the earlier era, for which historical records are especially scarce, Asian American literature fills the void. Going beyond a small number of (often fragmentary) historical records of injuries or illnesses explored by scholars,17 which suggest that these conditions likely caused a person what we would call “disability” today, literary work about Asian Americans often presents richly autobiographical or semi-autobiographical narratives of disability in their daily lives. The foundational work America Is in the Heart (1946) by Carlos Bulosan (1913–1956) is a case in point. Perhaps the best known Filipino American author, Bulosan suffered from multiple disabilities. One of his legs was two inches shorter than the other, forcing him to walk with difficulty. A few years after he migrated to the United States, Bulosan was hospitalized in 1934 with tuberculosis, which led to his premature death.18 John Okada, in another seminal Asian American novel, No-No Boy (1957), told poignant stories of disability through one of the protagonists, Kenji Kanno. Although the novel is not autobiographical and does not clearly define Kenji's condition as a disability—understandably so given the relative scarcity of the word's usage in the United States before the rise of the disability rights movement in the 1960s19—Kenji's amputated, slowly rotting leg clearly serves as “narrative prosthetics.”20 In the postwar United States, where disabled veterans became socially salient, Okada made Kenji's disability a literary device to tell stories of national disloyalty, betrayal, and racism.21

The abundance of disability in Asian American literature continued into the post–1965 era. Ved Mehta's memoir Sound Shadows of the New World (1986) revealed the experience of the author himself as a boy, born and raised in India and sent alone to the Arkansas School for the Blind at the age of fifteen. His blindness is so closely intertwined with his encounter with a new culture that any of its elements—be it racism, codes of behavior, or Boy's Club—also become experiences of a person with disability.22 Turning our eyes toward more contemporary times, we find in Krys Lee's Drifting House (2012) stories of refugees from Korea self-inflicting injuries at key moments of the narrative. Searching for her estranged daughter in California, a Korean mother reveals her desire to be violently hit, sometimes to satisfy her sexual urges, other times to “ease all grief” and bring the world “to predictable pinpoints of pain.” This story of her “wounded body”23 echoes uncontrollable rages of the father of the nameless protagonist, a girl-refugee from Vietnam, told in lê thi diem thúy's The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003). Upon learning of a family death, he throws a “fish tank out the front door” of his apartment and “clenche[s] his hands into tight fists and punche[s] the walls” while his daughter watches him bleed. The girl herself suffers from what one critic identifies as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experiences delusions and social withdrawals.24 Regardless of whether the protagonist actually suffered from the medically diagnosed condition, her day-to-day experiences are evidently shaped by ongoing realities of loss, dislocation, and family disintegration in the United States.

In my reading, none of these stories are about “multicultural loss” or “loss of [historical] continuity” that mark Asian Americans as psychosocially deficient, people fundamentally in need of repair to become socially functional. To be sure, familial and communal losses are deeply felt by the protagonists, disruptions and discontinuities strongly coloring their cross-national journeys. And yet, the protagonists face these obstacles fully and with care. I see their reactions to losses, which often take the form of physical and mental disturbances, as expected and firmly situated in meanings of disability. What is more ordinary than a person responding to the deaths of their loved ones, followed by a disintegration of the family across national borders, with disturbed acts or emotions? Would it be healthy or healthier to show no disturbances? Before we place a medical or social diagnosis on diasporic immigrants, it is important to imagine how probable, even necessary, their expressed reactions are.25 Certainly, these immigrants must have resources if and when they need them for healing. They should also be empowered to define healing. Equally important, we must also ask what structural deficiencies have caused them disturbances and what meanings have been generated by immigrant lives with disabilities, including those that never healed. Regardless of whether authors specifically refer to any immigrants as people living with disability, Asian American literature is an abounding source of relevant life experiences. Many, if not all, narratives flow without an end point of being repaired or healed mentally, physically, or socially.

These stories of disability are much more muted in historical records. So far, I have been using the term “disability” broadly, to include any sustained disturbances in acts or emotions that make a person appear not fully functional or healthy in an ableist society. I continue to use the same definition in my search for historical records on Asian American disability.26 Prior to 1965, Asian immigrants were allowed to enter the United States based on restrictive national quotas. Until the McCarran-Walter Act opened the US gate to Asia in 1952, Asians had been variously banned or severely restricted from entering America. Although the quotas between 1952 and 1965 permitted only about one to two hundred immigrants per Asian country annually, they were deemed a liberal policy that promoted America's image as a democratic, racism-free nation.27 The resultant small number of Asian Americans justified state authorities’ neglect. One striking example of this neglect is found in the Kenneth Hahn papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Although California was (and still is) home to the largest Asian American population in the United States, the official statistics of mental illness and rehabilitation did not include “Orientals” as a subcategory until the late 1960s.28 They were combined with “Others,” making the number of disabilities among Asian Americans literally invisible. As then–Los Angeles County Supervisor Hahn noted, “black and brown community” members were overrepresented among the mentally sick, while Asian Americans were deemed not willing to pursue medical treatment. Their “cultural orientation” made them “fear” government facilities; they are more likely than others to “self-blame.”29 These blatant stereotypes, as well as the statistical lacunae, have made it nearly impossible for historians to find records of Asian American disability before 1965. Surely, there were Asian American individuals living with disability. But they failed to show up in archives except on the peripheries—by which I mean that Hahn papers do refer to Asian American patients anecdotally30—and not disaggregated.

After 1965, when Asians began to arrive in great numbers, the silence around disability in Asian American archives persisted. In the early 1970s, state and local authorities finally began to recognize that Asians are here, and the number of people with disability may be large. The influx of war refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia exacerbated the problem. Governmental documents reveal officials’ awareness of how these refugees were likely to need considerable mental health care,31 although these same documents are nearly silent about refugee experiences. US-born offspring of pre-1965 Asian immigrants took notice of this situation, making it one of their priorities in the Asian American Movement throughout the 1970s to create agencies and facilities more attuned to community needs. These younger Asian Americans’ activism helped establish community healthcare centers staffed with multi-lingual physicians, as well as social agencies that specifically catered to immigrant users.32 These facilities’ records could have made it possible to finally chip away the silence around disability. I have looked at the papers of these healthcare centers at both the Huntington Library and the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Following in the steps of scholars of disability such as Anita Ghai and Therí A. Pickens, who critique the medicalization of disability,33 I expanded my search beyond medical facilities by examining papers of social agencies such as the Japanese American Social Services, Japanese American Help for the Aging, and Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS between the 1970s and 2010s. Although these papers were useful for understanding institutional or organizational histories, they were unable to help me fully understand Asian American experiences of disability. Chronically underfunded, these community-based facilities did not have the capacity to keep detailed records of their clients, let alone maintain them long-term. Moreover, many of these records were off-limits due to privacy concerns and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance. Given how the majority of Asian American patients or recipients of social services were post–1965 immigrants, it was possible as of 2021 to access their records only within a narrow window between 1965 and 1971.

The archival silence stands in sharp contrast to eloquent literary story-telling. It seems not only that Asian American literature speaks for what is missing from the archives, but also that fictional narratives flourish because official records are critically lacking. The absence of historical documents sparks alternative ways of remembering—“loss gives rise to longing”34—placing history and story in a continuum. Stories may even be “a form of compensation”35 for archival “positives” that do not exist. This is not necessarily unique to the history of Asian American disability, but it is different from histories of other minoritized groups of whom archival records and literary narratives might be more evenly balanced—white women or white LGBTQIA2S+ people in the latter half of the twentieth century, for instance. Multiple suppressions that come from being persons of color and immigrants, as well as living with disability, certainly take a toll.36 Moreover, as the Hahn papers suggest, Asian American disability has been less likely to be documented than disability among other people of color such as Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans because Asian Americans historically have had less contact with medical and social agencies. To be sure, the immigration restrictions have been a hallmark of US history affecting all immigrants. And yet, the small number of Asian Americans with disability who left their traces in historical documents has made their experiences particularly difficult to locate in governmental and organizational documents, including records of the groups specifically serving Asian American communities. This means that not only state archives, but also university and community archives might offer only limited sources about Asian American disability. Despite archivists’ best intentions, the gap between their institutions and Asian Americans whose voices they seek to capture has not been easily closed. Writing about the Vietnam War Center and Archive in Lubbock, Texas, Long T. Bui notes how “the full inclusion of America's Vietnamese allies is challenged by the dearth of personal materials” from Vietnamese Americans who originated from South Vietnam.37 This is the same group of people that some Asian American community healthcare clinics sought to serve but did not leave many traces of. In this light, it becomes a necessity for historians to look for personal and family papers, in which experiences of disability might not be demarcated as such but nonetheless are present.

Can literary production assist this particular mode of archival quest? Should it? Historians have tip-toed around the relationship between history and fiction at the same time as being fascinated by it. Although it has become increasingly acceptable to use fictional writing in history classrooms, literature is still distinguished in historical research from supposedly more fact-infused historical documents. Both history and story create “a vast tapestry” from “disparate threads” to narrate a time and place previously unseen. And yet, historians are also quick to say that fiction tells the “truth using nothing but lies.”38 Unlike fiction, history remains faithful to archives, a source of certainty. Still, we recognize a kind of fictional history or historical fiction that “blur[s] the line” between the genres.39 Are Asian American stories of disability in this gray area? Certainly, many of them are semi-autobiographical, if not outright autobiographical. While individual specifics may be imagined, they may reveal family and community memories, sometimes even histories.

Instead of rejecting them altogether, then, I pursue a possibility of finding in Asian American fictional stories moments of “longing” for remembering, which nonetheless did not materialize in archives. Literature is a map for archival “negatives,” which in turn may illuminate disruptions in the ableist structure of ongoing US imperialism. If Asian American literature frequently illustrates lives with disability in dialogues between parents and children, I would seek family letters exchanged intergenerationally in my archival quest. If fictional stories are particularly revealing of disability in woman-to-women relations, I would look for oral history records of Asian American women conducted by women community members. Then, I would discuss how these sources were made invisible in archives-making and -organizing.

Here, I am merely stating my methodology more explicitly than usual; in all my previous historical writing, I must have chosen a thread of history I tell based on my particular sets of interests, spurred by things I know from Asian American archives. Nonetheless, it is important to clearly mark my way into archives. This is not only for others to assess how “fabulations” might be put in conversation with “facts” and how “lies” can productively upset assumed authenticity and authority of archives.40 This is also for us to expand narratives that frame and flow into archiving and those that arise from it, so as to tell histories that might have been if ableism had not erased them. Asians can be ill or disabled, and they die as much as others. And yet, as James Kyung-Jin Lee observes, it seems “as if Asian Americans have started dying only recently, in large part because they've long been expected to be harbingers of nothing less than the good American life.”41 Asian American people are not any more or less able than others if we read literary representations and archival materials dialogically. Instead, their lives with disabilities have been firmly part of US immigration history, refuting the nation's claim for its exceptional ability to enable its citizens.

Like Water Running Over the Ground: Silence and the Asian American Disability Archive

Saidiya Hartman observes how the history of slaves, like rainwater after a storm, “soon dries up and leaves behind no traces.” The lack of historical trace is exacerbated by slaveowners’ attempt to “eradicate the slaves’ memories,” driven by a view that slaves are “perpetual outcast[s], the coerced migrant foreigner[s]” who never belong.42 These observations strikingly resemble Eunjung Kim's argument that a culture can “exercise . . . force to erase differences for the putative betterment of the Other,” meaning in her context that those with disability may be made invisible to benefit those without.43 Despite a vast distance separating Hartman's and Kim's respective subjects—Black enslaved people and Koreans with disability—both observations point to intentional erasure leading to archival paucity. Looking for archives of “outcasts,” one notices that they do not seem to have a history. They only possess a longing for it, something that may be marked only by absence.

Asian American literature has thrived in elucidating this absence, producing a rich body of narratives that rely on “articulate silence.” Going against the West-centric notion that speech reveals while silence conceals, King-Kok Cheung has argued that silence can enable “soundless but alert and accurate knowing.”44 Not surprisingly, then, moments of silence in Asian American literature often signal longing to know the unknown. Many of these moments find a way toward disability. In Hisaye Yamamoto's “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,”45 the central character, an aging Japanese American ballerina who maintains a strikingly physical beauty, is subject to unfriendly gossip by her fellow camp inmates. Although many words are spoken about her, Miss Sasagawara is confined to silence. When she speaks, “no one takes her allegation seriously; it is automatically dismissed as hysterics,” leading to her hospitalization in a sanatorium. The narrator Kiku seems to be the only one not overtly hostile to the protagonist, although Kiku does not fully grasp the unfairness of the situation until she reads Miss Sasagawara's poems after the war's end. A delayed realization of the agony of madness is salient, for which Yamamoto nonetheless does not hold the camp community accountable. As Cheung points out, the “scandal-loving and finger-pointing community” is merely analogous to the “white majority, who allowed themselves to be swayed by prejudice and heresy into endorsing the imprisonment of an entire people.”46 In this light, the protagonist's silence and, by extension, “madness,” may be the “only appropriate response.”47 Silence in Asian American literature, then, raises “skepticism about language and received knowledge and calls attention to their own fictionality.”48

Such generative skepticism is deepened by a critical reading of Joy Kogawa's Obasan,49 which tells many stories of disability with pronounced silence. Both parents of the protagonist Naomi Nakane suffer a fatal disability. For her father, tuberculosis gradually takes away “his rich baritone voice,” a blow to the accomplished singer.50 Naomi's mother, whose disfigurement and death were caused by the Nagasaki atomic bombing in 1945, generates the longest-kept silence in the story. Naomi's uncle and aunt—Obasan—faithfully follow Naomi's mother's request to spare her child the truth. Although this concealment risks Naomi to be “cut off” from history and become “an amputee,” silence also allows her to experience her mother's love as a shield that protects “what is hidden most deeply in the heart of the child.”51 Silence, then, connects the mother and the child in “an intricate network of supportive female relationships.”52

Although this reading of Obasan certainly adds to Cheung's notion of “articulate silence,” it is also noteworthy that the most tightly kept silence in the story is about the atomic bomb. In both Asian American history and historiography, Japanese American concentration camps are one of the most richly studied subjects. The history of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans who suffered the bomb, by contrast, has been severely understudied.53 This contrast is problematically predicated in Obasan, in which a politically minded Aunt Emily outspokenly critiques the injustice of mass incarceration. Obasan, the other aunt, keeps quiet. Her silence “soothes”; it is a form of “charity” and “forgiveness”; it gives “strength to endure.”54 The constant need to care for others takes a toll. Obasan takes insufficient care of herself while serving others all the time. Her eyesight, speech, hearing all fail in old age.55 “Articulate silence” may represent a pronounced—perhaps exaggerated—care work in this context.

Taking cues from the layered silence expounded by literature, I search for archival silence that turns paucity to wealth. One instance of such silence fell on me while I was producing an archive, that is, while I was taking an oral history from an Asian American survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Unlike many Asian American hibakusha whose families originated from Japan, this survivor, Tomiko Shōji, was born in the present-day Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1926 and came to Japan as a thirteen-year-old. She was injured by the US bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and continued to suffer from radiation illness both before and after returning to her homeland in 1947. Her illnesses were numerous, including diarrhea, hair loss, anemia, dizziness, fatigue, mood disorder, and depression. Symptoms continued into her marriage, which soon collapsed when her husband blamed her for her many disabilities and started to live with another woman with whom he had a child.

None of the biographical or medical information cited here, however, was revealed to me by Tomiko. It was told by her daughter Minori, who was present throughout the interview. Tomiko used hearing aids but could not make out many of my questions. She had a headache and became tired after thirty minutes into the interview. She insisted that she “cannot say, cannot recall her symptoms too clearly because she is old” (she was eighty-nine years at the time of the interview at her home in Columbus, Ohio).56 She only mentioned how, after “being forced to marry,” she did not talk about her bomb experiences because “dizziness” got in the way.57 She sought medical treatment many times because her body felt as if it was “tied up with the bomb” and “completely transformed.”58 Regardless of the treatment she received, she did not think that she had ever recovered.

Tomiko's difficulty with hearing, headache, and fatigue cast a veil on her narrative, while Minori continued to offer specifics of her mother's life. As I listened more from Minori and less from Tomiko, I tried to bring Tomiko back to conversation. I was thinking of pieces of Asian American literature in which intergenerational silence delays telling of disability stories, as was the case with “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” and Obasan. But every time, my attempt failed. On the one hand, I appreciated Minori's eloquence, which allowed me to grasp a contour of her mother's life. On the other, I felt a burning frustration; Tomiko's silence remained conspicuous yet untouchable, cocooned in her daughter's fluency. It was clear that much anger has shaped Tomiko's experiences of illness, impelled by both the bomb and the marriage. My Japanese background may have been an obstacle for the Taiwanese informant to speak freely about her personal sufferings.

But I must look for how she has been experiencing unhealed disabilities because, otherwise, a model minority who quietly yet resiliently suffers stays. Indeed, a narrative arising out of Minori's speech seemed to confirm the trope. Trained as a pharmacist in Hiroshima, Minori married a physician, who was soon employed by a US hospital because his medical skills were in high demand. “We were given green cards right after entering the United States. Citizenship also came fast,” said Minori.59 Shortly after Minori's family relocated from Hiroshima to Hawai‘i, Tomiko—who by then had been separated from her unfaithful husband—began to frequently visit. Tomiko became a US citizen in 1999. The house they live in was large and beautiful, nestled in a desirable neighborhood in a Midwest suburb. All seem to reiterate the story of post–1965, successful immigrants from Asia. Feeling burdened, I changed the subject and asked Minori if she thinks of herself as a second-generation hibakusha.

In retrospect, this question opened a way toward the second moment of silence, marked by both verbal and non-verbal signs. In response to my question about second-generation survivors, Minori began to talk about the impact that her parents’ “broken marriage” had on her.60 Only when she saw how both her father and mother lovingly look at their grandchild did Minori realize how deprived she had been. Growing up, Minori never saw her parents do things together. She thought that this realization, more than anything else, made her a second-generation survivor. Surviving the bomb meant a life with perpetual disabilities for Tomiko; this life, in turn, planted a seed for Minori's loss, sadness, and anger today. She cries often when she sees her parents fight. She feels she lacks qualities as a mother, as she was not raised by happy parents. Stunned by this sudden revelation, my mind also desperately wondered: her father looked at his grandchild lovingly? Together with her mother Tomiko? They fight in front of Minori? I thought that Tomiko left the marriage behind when she came to the United States. Seeing my eyes widen, Minori fell silent momentarily. She then lifted her arm and made a sharp gesture toward upstairs, her face glowing with disgust. Yes, he is here, she was telling me. Words returned to her: “Their relationship . . . they are divorced, they have been separated for fifty years. This year, it's fifty-three years. It was the fiftieth year when my father came [here].”61

This utterance was made nearly three and half hours into the interview. By then, Tomiko had long excused herself from the room where Minori and I conversed. I do not claim that Tomiko's silence was broken by Minori's speech or that Minori's gesture toward upstairs revealed Tomiko's history of unhealed disability. I only claim that the layered silence, which became salient at strung-together moments of the interview, unfolded meanings of disability in an Asian American family. I also argue that this revelation was made possible because of my preexisting attention to “articulate silence” that shapes intergenerational relations, as elucidated by Asian American literary authors. As Tomiko's and Minori's silence tells it, imperial war-inflicted disability has not healed. Rather, it lives on in a family where an estranged parent lives with the other parent who had been injured and betrayed. Through this ongoing historical process, their daughter became a survivor of the bomb. Although Minori is concerned about her physical ailments that might have been caused by Tomiko's radiation exposure, something less obviously physical yet equally tangible—her parents’ troubled relationship—effected nuclear survivorhood more powerfully. War continues to rage through generations, although one rarely sees or hears it.

A delayed revelation of disability may not be surprising, but it is important to note that such a delay can silence histories of disability in archives even more. In oral histories, we may be fortunate to have informants generous enough to give us a time to notice. In archives, however, the possibility of discovering disability may be further hampered by the archives’ existing structure. I came to this realization when reading the Midori Shimanouchi Lederer papers at the Tamiment Library at New York University.62 My interest in Lederer originated in the fact that she worked at agencies that served older Asian Americans. In the 1970s, she volunteered for a “drug rehabilitation agency at the Lower East Aide Center, which specialized in helping elderly Chinese individuals experiencing drug dependence.”63 In the early 1980s, Lederer founded the Japanese American Social Services, Inc., or JASSI, “a non-profit organization based in New York City dedicated to addressing gaps in social services for the Japanese American community”64 by offering “counseling services to Japanese seniors” and “assistance to restaurant workers, abused women and international students.”65 These agencies may have left documents about Asian Americans who did not interact with medical authorities but nonetheless lived with disabilities, I thought. After finding few sources about disability in the JASSI papers, I hoped for better luck with its founders’ papers. Of particular interest was a substantial oral history transcript dated from 2003–2004, conducted by an Asian American woman.66 Many stories of women-to-women interactions in Asian American literature, which reveal “articulate silence” around disability, led me to pick up the oral history folder with a special interest.

Born to well-to-do parents in 1923, Lederer had a life as a celebrity, working as a publicist in Hollywood, most notably with the film director Michael Todd. The interviewer, journalist Monica Miya, fully intended to use this series of interviews as a basis for a biography. They “have to make this story interesting . . . If it's a little spicy, all the better. You can't be shy and modest,”67 Miya told Lederer. Much energy was spent by Miya trying to find out with which actors or politicians Lederer socialized or had an affair. Whenever Lederer appeared to hesitate, the interviewer offered encouragements such as “Take your time” and “You are doing great.”68 Miya also seemed eager to establish a connection between Lederer's experience during wartime incarceration in Topaz, Utah, and the care work to which she dedicated herself later in her life. Miya would welcome “examples where your race and gender worked to your advantage and when they worked against you because you were a woman and because you were an Asian.”69 In this logic, any disadvantage or advantage that Lederer experienced as an Asian American woman could explain her successful career in establishing services for the socially disadvantaged.

Lederer frequently hesitated. At one point, she even asked for help: “Can you help me . . . see, I don't talk well.”70 This kind of moment—of evasion? I wondered—seemed most pronounced when she was asked to discuss personal matters. Sometimes, Lederer started to sing or hum instead of answer. Relying only on the transcript—the audio cassettes were not available to researchers because of their fragility—I began to wonder if this was a right folder. The conversation appeared to aim to pry open Lederer's privacy, while no substantial questions were asked about people with disability that Lederer interacted with. Should I move onto a different folder, I began to wonder. To be sure, Miya at one point suggested what may be the cause of Lederer's stumbling: “I remember what a brilliant, articulate person you were before you fell,” so I knew that some sort of injury was playing a role in the interview.71 But the responses Lederer offered contained little or no indication of disability. Furthermore, I relied on the finding aid that did not mention disability; she was a caregiver, not a beneficiary. A winner of multiple awards for her social services, she surely must have an archival biographical summary that includes references to major factors like disability.

So it was not until the end of the transcript that I realized how wrong I was. The last of Miya's interviews was with Lederer's husband Peter, who clarified things for me in this single sentence: “We had thought that many of the symptoms she had had came from the fall but it's really the other way around: that the fall was probably caused by the illness that she developed.”72 The illness, Peter explained, is “a cerebellum disease . . . [that is] one of a family of neurological disorders that has some of the same symptoms as has Parkinson's . . . they don't know what causes it and they have nothing they can do for it.”73 What seemed to me Lederer's evasiveness, reluctance, or mischievousness, then, was her disability. It is easy to blame myself as I do, who should not have been so naïve to assume that a finding aid or biography without any reference to disability is unlikely to lead to any discovery about the subject.

And yet, there is more to be noted. Lederer's papers characterized her as a caretaker throughout, not only because of the social agencies she helped establish, but also because of the care she imparted throughout her life. Miya asked Lederer if “she felt a particular sympathy or attraction toward elderly gentlemen because [she saw an] elderly man . . . killed in camp.”74 Later in her life, she visited an old Japanese man “to help him wash and clean,” at the same time as inspiring young Asian American professionals who assisted her.75 For instance, Lederer took one of them under her wing and “helped her like a parent . . . [when] she was exhausted from . . . school work and loneliness.”76 Even during the most difficult time in her life—shortly after she was released from the camp—Lederer dedicated herself to caring. Her then-husband, a musician, suffered tuberculosis that did not respond well to treatment. “All of Midori's earnings went to pay the medical bills” during this time.77 These stories of Asian Americans as caretakers come to the fore in both the organization and content of Asian American archives, muddying the waters for those who search for histories of disability.

Creators of archives may pass over these histories as they do not fit an American success story. Readers may wish to find stories of resilience in lieu of disability, as they hope to push back the image of Asian Americans perpetually plagued by “multicultural loss.” As genuine as these longings might be, they obscure another kind of longing, one sparked by the absence of historical records about disability and giving rise to literary narratives as “a form of compensation.” By keeping this specific kind of longing in mind, we might begin to re-read histories of Asian American resilience and caretaking as archival “positives.” These “positives” need not to disappear as we discover “negatives”—Asian American disabilities. Regardless of her long history of being debilitated by radiation illness, Tomiko Shoji did care for her ex-husband from Taiwan. Despite Minori Shoji's insistence that the man upstairs is nobody but her “former father” who continues to pain her, she also agreed to take him into her home. JAASI still functions as a social agency for Japanese Americans in New York today, thanks to Midori Shimanouchi Lederer's dedication to care for others. That her cerebellum disease pushed her into daily fissures with her memory, speech, and songs, too, must be recorded as part of Asian American history. There should also be a place in the history for Minori, who has become an atomic bomb survivor only recently. By keeping these stories of disability that have been unmarked and unnoticed at the forefront, we can begin to elucidate ruptures in US ableism.

Outside the Archives: Statistical Conundrum, Time Slippage, and Care Work

Now I turn from the linkage between literature and archives to the continuum between archival and published records. Here, I continue my attempt to piece together different bodies of sources—be they fictional or more factual—through “critical fabulation” spurred by longing that arises out of absence. Published historical records that I focus on are the statistics about Asian Americans who suffered from mental or physical disabilities, which began to be published in great number in the 1970s and 1980s, largely by Asian American–identified social workers and psychologists. They worked with scholars who founded Asian American studies programs beginning in the late 1960s and thus were keenly aware of not only the problematic disparity in the statistics of illness among different racial groups but also the possibility of the disparity being misinterpreted as a proof that, indeed, Asian Americans are model minorities. An archival record, an oral history, that I pair with the statistics might not seem related to the disparity or disability. Nonetheless, because of the lack of unquestionably relevant records, I use the oral history not only to tell an “impossible story” but also to clarify how thinking about the impossibility opens up new possibilities.

Throughout the 1970s, Asian Americans researchers found, Asians in California used state mental hospitals at a rate two to three times lower than whites and three to four times lower than Blacks. When Asian Americans came to hospitals, however, they were more likely to be diagnosed with more severe mental illnesses.78 For instance, one study indicated that Asian American patients received a diagnosis of psychosis—arguably one of the severest forms of mental illness—22.4 percent of the time, compared to white patients’ 12.7 percent.79 As late as the 1990s, the same pattern persisted. For instance, one study found that Asian Americans constituted 9.1 percent of the population of San Diego County, California, but only 3.6 percent of the mental health service clients. In contrast, African Americans constituted only 5.7 percent of the county's population but 14.9 percent of the mental health service clients. When Asian Americans came to a mental hospital, though, they stayed longer than others, likely due to the severity of their symptoms.80 Clearly, something was causing Asian Americans to experience illness differently from other racial groups.

The professionals who published on this subject were concerned about how these statistically constructed characteristics of Asian Americans could feed into stereotypes. As previously mentioned, the notion of Asians in America having a “cultural orientation” that made them afraid of established US facilities or likely to hide their conditions because of cultural shame associated with mental disability was rampant throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.81 Additionally, the professionals were greatly concerned about how additional biases against Asian American culture might be derived from the statistics. For instance, they were worried that the small number of Asian Americans using mental health facilities can make their culture appear secure and interdependent, thus unlikely to produce mental illness.82 These assumed cultural traits could easily slide to the model minority trope. These Asian American practitioners were also concerned about the possibility of the statistics creating yet another version of the trope: Asians tend to recognize only severe form of psychosis as mental illness; they see milder forms of illness merely as personality problems. Standing stoically on a secure and stable culture, Asians set a high bar for considering illnesses severe enough to legitimately require medical or social assistance.83 Although these professionals’ concerns revolved largely around mental illness, it is not difficult to see their relevance to the history of Asian American disability more generally. Mental illnesses have been one of the chief bases of dysfunctionality constructed in ableist societies. If mental illness is hidden because of Asian American cultural characteristics, disability could also become largely invisible in our historical quest, presumably because of Asian American cultural desire not to make it count.

The historical records generated by Asian American professionals, then, posed a challenge for them to find a way not to use them to disbenefit their research subjects: Asian Americans living with disability. They met the challenge the best they could, but only partially, leaving us a conundrum. Some argued how the high prevalence of psychiatric disorders among Asian American patients—especially among diasporic immigrants from Southeast Asia—might be related to both pre-immigration traumatic experiences and post-immigration experience of discrimination. The prevalence of severe illness, then, was not because of any “cultural orientation,” but because of American racism and the brutality of the US military operations in Asia.84 While this argument clearly aimed to avoid cultural essentialism, it nonetheless left room for the image of perpetually traumatized Asians to become a source of “multicultural loss” that rigidly and narrowly defines Asian Americans. Other professionals focused on the fact that Asian American women, more than the men in the community, had interactions with medical facilities and social agencies, suggesting that “women in male-dominated culture are likely to experience poverty.” This poverty, in turn, led to an increased occurrence of mental illness among women and, by extension, Asians in America generally.85 Although this analysis moved away from the preconception that Asian Americans are susceptible to disabilities, it merely shifted the burden from race to gender, making it possible to generate yet another variant of the model minority trope, that is, it is built on misogyny. The notion of misogyny embedded in this variant was often West-centric, ignoring the difference among culturally specific forms of gender oppression that exist among Asian and American misogynies.86

How do we make sense of the gaps in the statistics without feeding the model minority trope? I would like to suggest a use of critical fabulation to assist our search for historical explanation. As discussed, the need for fabulation arises from moments of longing marked by archival silence. If we cast this framework on the number of Asian Americans with mental disabilities that appear in publications, we might see the statistical absence—of Asian Americans with mild forms of mental illness, who did not come see medical professionals or social workers—as a version of the archival silence that spurred Asian American literary narratives about disability. Although we may never have complete numbers of Asian Americans with mental disabilities, we may use this absence to retrace our steps back to archival silence. Let me return to Asian American archives and reiterate how, as seen both Shoji's and Lederer's cases, disability was there but difficult to delineate. This observation is our foundation: part of the statistical absence may be explained by invisibility, not absence, of disability in records of Asian Americans. We should also note two factors that construct archival invisibility. First, the ongoing nature of disability (Minori Shoji was still becoming a second-generation survivor as of the 2010s), and second, the likelihood that care work obscures disability in archival organization and content (Midori Shimanouchi Lederer was construed as a caretaker instead of a person with disability).

Ongoing disability delays historical recognition. People in the process of realizing their disability are unlikely to come to medical or social agencies. The HIPAA limits the availability of sources less than a half century old in all archives, which may help us capture delayed disabilities and explain the statistical gaps found in the 1960s and 1970s. For a group whose number exponentially increased after 1965, this limitation, combined with the still-ongoing nature of Asian American disability, may have an outsized effect. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that recent immigrants and refugees from Asia see a US hospital as a place to go to heal their emotional or physical turmoil.87 Many originate from a nation bruised by the US military. It is not their fear of authority or cultural orientation that dictates their decisions. Instead, it is a delay caused by non-alignment between US military operations, medical institutions, and the notion of healing among Asian Americans. Because disability is socially constructed, the effect of time slippage can be further amplified by a lack of social recognition produced by the model minority trope.

Notably, these factors are not the only reasons the ableist trope of mentally secure Asian Americans continues to thrive. As Eunjung Kim argues, for instance, South Korea during the Cold War had a strong “national need for disabled people to be controlled so that the national character could be improved.” This need was equally felt in the United States, whose militarism was a major reason for the presence of a number of disabled and dislocated Koreans. In this dynamism, “the present continues to disappear through the imperative of cure, habilitation, and rehabilitation.”88 Not only is a recognition of disability delayed, then, disability also recedes into the future. Disability perpetually awaits discovery in the past, present, and future, disrupting “the linearity of Western history and conception of time.”89 Taken together, it is no exaggeration to state that there has been little or no historical space for Asian American disability and that the lack of space has historically specific reasons. Finding an archive for Asian American disability, then, requires that we rethink archives and archival practices to accommodate new, non-linear kinds of historical narratives.

Although we have limited historical means to reach back to Asian Americans with disabilities who did not leave clear archival traces, we may begin to identify sources that inspire a critical fabulation. Here, I take the example of Susan Wong, whose family history is recorded in the Asian Women United Oral History Collection at the Tamiment Library.90 We know that her mother received a diagnosis of schizophrenia and treatment for it (and thus left at least one archival record), but we don't know if Wong herself received any social or medical assistance for “a lot of mental abuse, in addition to physical abuse, [that she] suffered.”91 Evidently, though, her caretaking responsibility delayed, and nearly made disappear, a recognition of her torment: “I know that she [my mother] was always sick, and she was always at home. And she was always in bed . . . I used to get a lot of beating . . . because I was the oldest one, I took the brunt of everything . . . I guess I see myself as responsible and taking care of them [my siblings].”92

The delayed recognition of disability came to the fore many decades later, when Wong and one of her younger siblings had a chance to talk about the parental abuse for the first time. Wong recalled: “I remember one time . . . [when] my sister and I had a long conversation. And that was the first time she . . . said ‘If it weren't [for] you, I don't know that we would have survived everything.” Because she knew that “‘because a lot of beating and all the frustration was on you, we were safe.’”93

Physical abuse became care work in this recollection, but this recognition did not lead to a revelation of Wong's disability. Thus, we don't know if her story is part of the hidden history of disability that we seek. Hers might seem a weak, perhaps inappropriate, historical record to consider Asian American experiences of disability. But if we recall moments of silent longing that frequently marked Asian American disability in both archives and literature, we may find reasons in Wong's oral history to fabulate her story as a history of disability. While remaining silent about her disability that might have been, she expressed an urge to end the postponed recognition of disability: “My first response when I was told she [my mother] died was, oh, she couldn't die yet. We haven't had a conversation. Because I wanted to ask her, “Why were you beating on me?” . . . Ever since then I made a point that I have anything to say with anyone . . . I am going to tell them right there, then. I am not going to wait.”94

This determination did not come to Wong until her mother passed away; it did not lead Wong to further articulate her own suffering at the time of the oral history, either. A delay in historical recognition of disability has happened and may be still happening, making disability recede into the future. Wong’ mother's disability may be legible, but its archival traces do not progress linearly. Wong's disability may exist but it has not yet become legible. In this light, it is unrealistic to expect that archives, whose structure tends toward chronological linearity, offer many records on Asian American disability, which tends toward non-linearity. The notion that the rate of mental healthcare facility use at any given moment can indicate either presence or absence of mental disability, then, is deeply presentist and US–centric. It is also ableist. It assumes that, once in America, any individuals can act like Americans, leaving no trace like water running over the ground.

Until more archives are open to those who wish to understand what Asian immigrants hold in silence, one thing historians can do to rectify the model minority trope might be to exercise critical fabulation. Asian American literature offers openings for the disability archive to come out of shadows. Although the full contour of the archive remains elusive, we can choose to seek signs that may mark our way. At least, we know that it does not make a straight line and has a tenuous relation to chronology. These archival “negatives” signal that a yet-to-be-explored history exists for Asian Americans living with disability, and that America as an unfailing enabler is a trope that urgently calls for imaginative disruption. By putting historical facts in conversation with the critical power of lies, we can begin to make a fuller use of Asian American archives and history.


I thank Judy Tzu-Chun Wu who organized a panel in 2022 at the Organization of American Historians where I presented a paper that formed the basis of this article. Madeline Hsu and Suzanne Sinke's support made this special issue possible. I am also grateful for the JAEH's two anonymous readers and Jonathan Hsy, Selena Moon, and Alice (Yang) Zhang for their thoughtful and extremely useful suggestions.


Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).


In addition to the works discussed in this article, Toshio Mori, “Unfinished Message,” in Unfinished Message: Selected Works of Toshio Mori, ed. Lawson Fusao Inada (1947; Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2000); Chiang Hua, Crossings (New York: New Directions, 1968); and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Father of the Four Passages: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), to name a few, offer a useful look into Asian American disability. Asian American literary scholarship on the subject is robust, of which the recent examples include Kristina Chew, “Disability Studies and Asian American Literature,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture, ed. Josephine Lee (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019), 905–22; Jennifer Ho and James Kyung-Jin Lee, eds., “The State of Illness and Disability in Asian America,” special issue, Amerasia Journal 39, no. 1 (2013); Mimi Khūc, ed., “Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health,” special issue, Asian American Literary Review 7, no. 2 (2016); and James Kyung-Jin Lee, Pedagogies of Woundedness: Illness, Memoir, and the Ends of the Model Minority (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021). See also Kim Park Nelson, “The Disability of Adoption: Adoptees in Disabling Societies,” Adoption Quarterly 21, no. 4 (2018): 288–306 and Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Cynthia Wu, “Rethinking Embodiment and Hybridity: Mixed-Race, Adoptee, and Disabled Subjectivities,” in The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, ed. Daniel Y. Kim and Crystal Parikh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 197–212, which explore the intersection of race, disability, and adoption.


Harry H. Kitano, “Mental Health in the Japanese-American Community,” in Minority Mental Health, ed. Enrico Jones and Sheldon J. Korchin (New York: Praeger, 1982), 44–53; Arlene Hori Kushida, Marilyn Montenegro, Paul Chikahisa, and Royal F. Morales, “A Training Program for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans,” Social Casework 57, no. 3 (1976): 185–94; Stanley Sue and Herman McKinney, “Asian Americans in the Community Mental Health System,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 45 (1975): 111–18; Wen H. Kuo, “Prevalence of Depression among Asian-Americans,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 172, no. 8 (1984): 449–57. See also Freda Cheung and Lonnie Snowden, “Community Mental Health and Ethnic Minority Populations,” Community Mental Health Journal 26, no. 3 (1990): 277–91; and Sheying Chen, Ning Yang Sullivan, Yuhwa Eva Lu, and Tazuko Shibusawa, “Asian Americans and Mental Health Services: A Study of Utilization Patterns in the 1990s,” Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work 12, no. 2 (2003): 19–42, which offer useful overviews of Asian American use of mental healthcare facilities in the 1970s and 1980s.


A small number of studies that explore Asian American disability in historical contexts include Adria L. Imada, An Archive of Skin, An Archive of Kin: Disability and Life-Making during Medical Incarceration (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022); Thy Phu, Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), Chapter 3; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012). On the challenge of finding historical sources that reveal Asian American experiences of disability, especially those that go beyond state and medical conceptualizations of such experiences, see Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected, 9, 23–24 and Nerissa Balce, Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 10–14.


While historians have critiqued the “model minority” trope as a “myth” unsubstantiated by historical materiality, recent scholarship has complicated this critique by suggesting how the notion of model minority in fact drives racially minoritized subject formation. In this article, I use “trope” instead of “myth” as I recognize that the model minority notion embodies lived experiences of some, perhaps many, Asian Americans. As I will discuss, the trope also influences how Asian American archives are organized in a way that makes disability invisible. Equally important, though, Asian American subject formation varies and may not always be driven by the notion of model minority. First generation immigrants who lived with disability in the 1960s, for instance, may not have experienced their disabilities as a “failure” to embody the trope the way third generation Asian Americans might. On the model minority notion as foundational to racialized subject formation, see erin Khuê Ninh, Passing for Perfect: College Imposters and Other Model Minorities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021); Takeo Rivera, Model Minority Masochism: Performing the Cultural Politics of Asian American Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).


Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 101–8.


I use “archives” to refer to individual archives owned by state, university, and community, etc., while I use the singular “archive” when I refer to the Asian American disability archive as a register of thought that I explore in this article. Colleen Lye has argued that “the Asian American literary archive can never consist of a given set of texts but is constantly subject to redrawing as a result of . . . textual and historical interpretation.” The shifting boundary of the archive that Lye articulates is applicable to the Asian American disability archive that I envision in this article, which, as I will discuss, contains not only historical archives but also literary representations of Asian American disability. Literary scholars like Lye have argued for an expansion of Asian American literary texts by reading them in more historically contexualized ways across ethno-national boundaries. By bridging literary representations attentive to “the historicity of Asian American identity” and what historians customarily call archives, I hope to expand these discussions of the literary archive interdisciplinarily. See Colleen Lye, “Reading for Asian American Literature,” in A Companion to American Literary Studies, ed. Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine (2011), 483–99 (quote: 492); Denise Cruz, “Imagining a Transpacific and Feminist Asian American Archive,” PMLA 127, no. 2 (March 2012): 365–70. I am grateful for JAEH's anonymous reviewer for alerting me to Lye's and Cruz's work.


Dorothy Fujita-Rony, “Illuminating Militarized Rupture: Four Asian American Community-Based Archives,” Journal of Asian American Studies 23, no. 1 (February 2020): 1–27 (quotes: 2).


Fujita-Rony, “Illuminating Militarized Rupture,” 2, 5.


Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Women's Journey Through Depression (New York: Ballantine, 1998), quoted in Anna Mollow, “’When Black Women Start Going on Prozac’: Race, Gender, and Mental Illness in Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's Willow Weep for Me,” MELUS 31, no. 3 (2006): 76–99 (quote: 81).


Ibid., 86.


Yoonmee Chang, “Asian Americans, Disability, and the Model Minority Myth,” in Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 241–53.


Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 33–57 (quotes: 50, 43).


Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).


Throughout, I use Hartman's notion of “critical fabulation” to illuminate challenges that historians face when confronted by a paucity of archival sources and to recognize a long history of Asian Americans learning from Black Americans’ articulation of race and intersectionality. Asian American studies as a scholarly field came into existence in the late 1960s, spurred by the establishment of Black studies. Black scholars have taken the lead in illuminating the structural unevenness in all aspects of scholarly inquiry, including those related to archival practice. My reliance on Black studies scholarship in this article belongs to these institutional and intellectual lineages. By using “critical fabulation,” then, I do not suggest that historical reasons for the archival paucity for Asians and Blacks are the same or that their experiences of racism and its consequences are comparable without qualification.


Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (June 2008): 1–14 (quote: 11). See also Anne J. Gilliland and Michelle Caswell, “Records and Their Imaginaries: Imaging the Impossible, Making Possible the Imagine,” Archival Science 16 (2016): 53–75; Lilia Topouzova, “On Silence and History,” American Historical Review 126, no. 2 (June 2021): 685–99.


In addition to the works cited in note 4, historians have examined exclusionary immigration regulations and public health policies vis-à-vis Asians because of their assumed susceptibility to diseases. See, for example, Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Joanna Poblete, “The S.S. Mongolia Incident: Medical Politics and Filipino Colonial Migration in Hawai‘i,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 2 (May 2013): 248–78; Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).


Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart: A Personal History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946). A rich body of literary criticism exists about Bulosan's “wounded masculinity” as a Filipino immigrant in the United States. See, for example, Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Wounded Bodies and the Cold War: Freedom, Materialism, and Revolution in Asian American Literature, 1946–1957,” in Recovered Legacies: Authority and Identity in Early Asian American Literature, ed. Keith Laurence and Floyd Cheung (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 158–82 (see 174–77).


On the changing terms that referred to what we might call disability today, such as “unsightly,” “mutilated,” “crippled,” “handicapped,” “diseased,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded,” see Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), xiv, 103; Susan M. Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 11–12.


David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001).


John Okada, No-No Boy (1957; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022). See also Nguyen, “Wounded Bodies,” 170–73; Suzanne Arakawa, “Suffering Male Bodies: Representations of Dissent and Displacement in the Internment-Themed Narratives of John Okada and Toshio Mori,” in Recovered Legacies, ed. Laurence and Cheung, 183–206; James Kyung-Jin Lee, “Elegies of Social Life: The Wounded Asian American,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion 3, no. 2.7 (January 2012): 1–21.


Ved Mehta, Sound Shadows of the New World (New York: Norton, 1986).


Krys Lee, Drifting House (New York: Viking, 2012), 23.


lê thi diem thúy’, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 92. See also Yu Min Claire Chen, “Crossing beyond the Pacific Ocean: Death and Trauma in lê thi diem thúy's The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) and Fae Myenne Ng's Bone (1993),” ariel: a review of international english literature 46, no. 4 (2015): 89–121.


Johanna Hedva, “Sick Women Theory,” in “Open in Emergency,” ed. Mimi Khūc, 142–50.


Historians have used similar, broad definitions of disability. See, for example, Imada, Archive of Skin, 21–23; Nielsen, A Disability History, xi–xii. Schweik, The Ugly Laws, 11–12.


Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of California (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Cindy I-Fen Cheng, Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Caroline Chung Simpson, An Absent Presence: Japanese Americans in Postwar American Cultures, 1945–1960 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).


Geraldine Branch, “Health Resources in the Area to be Served by the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical College and the Martin Luther King Hospital Service Area,” February 14, 1969, Series, Box 956, Kenneth Hahn papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (hereafter HL). See also Bok-Lim C. Kim, “Asian-Americans: No Model Minority,” Social Work 18, no. 3 (May 1973): 44–53 (45 in particular).


“Proposal for a Los Angeles County Asian Community Center, December 1, 1970,” Series 1.13.1., Box 95, Folder 1, HL.


See, for instance, a set of documents in Series 1.13.1., Box 96, Folder 3.b., HL, which discusses mental health issues among the growing Korean American community in Los Angeles County after 1965, and Series 1.28.1, Box 231, Folders 4 and 5 and Box 232, Folder 7, HL, both of which contain information about the community mental health care centers that aimed to offer multi-lingual services to Korean, Japanese, Samoan, Tagalog, Mandarin, and Hindi-speaking clients.


Borden B. Olive and Anthony Randolph, “The South East Asian Resettlement Program: A Working Staff Paper As Of May 2, 1975,” Series 1.25.6, Box 213, Folder 5.b., HL.


Daryl J. Maeda, Rethinking the Asian American Movement (New York: Routledge, 2011), 128; Linda Trinh Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004), 35–41; William Wei, The Asian American Movement (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993), 79–80, 173, 186.


Anita Ghai, “Disability in the Indian Context: Post-colonial Perspectives,” in Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory, ed. Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare (London: Continuum, 2002), 88–100; Therí A. Pickens, “Blue Blackness, Black Blueness: Making Sense of Blackness and Disability,” African American Review 50, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 93–103.


Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 4.


Ibid., 4.


On the challenge of finding sources about experiences of multiply marginalized populations, including persons of color and/or women with disability and female and/or sexually non-conforming individuals in colonial contexts, see Anjai Arondekar, “Without a Trace: Sexuality and the Colonial Archive,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, nos. 1–2 (January–April 2005): 10–27; Nirmala Erevellew, “The Color of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race, and Disability in Wartime,” in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 117–35; Therí Alyce Pickens, Black Madness :: Mad Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 15–16, 26–29.


Long T. Bui, Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 27. Although this article's examination of archival sources is limited to those related to East Asian individuals, my ongoing research includes South and Southeast Asian subjects derived from Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino American archives. The reason for this inclusion is twofold: first is my wish to explore the possibility of panethnicity in the Asian American disability archive with an attention to historically specific ways in which colonialism, Cold War capitalism, and the Vietnam War have generated diasporic immigrants. Second, because the “model minority” trope has affected Asian Americans variously, its effects on the Asian American disability archive call for multiple threads of inquiry. For instance, Vietnamese Americans suffer a high rate of medically diagnosed disabilities, including PTSD, while a large number of Filipinos and Indians are employed in medical fields.


Alix E. Harrow, “Seeking Truths through Fiction: Historians on Writing Historical Genre Fiction—Telling the Truth, Slantwise,” Perspectives on History 59, no. 9 (December 2021).


Jeffrey Wasserstorm, “Gaps, Plots, and Narration: Adventures in Teaching with Historical Fiction,” Perspectives on History 59, no. 9 (December 2021).


In addition to the works cited in notes 16 and 42, studies by historians, literary scholars, and archivists have explored the blurred boundary among archive sources, memory, and fiction. See, for example, Antoinette Burton, ed., Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Jean-Christophe Cloutier, Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); David William Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).


Lee, Pedagogies of Woundedness, 4.


Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 8, 155, and 5.


Eunjung Kim, Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Korea (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 14.


King-Kok Cheung, Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1993), 20.


Hisaye Yamamoto, “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” in Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 20–33.


Cheung, Articulate Silences, 58, 65.


Ibid., 69.


Ibid., 11.


Joy Kogawa, Obasan (1981; New York: Anchor Books, 1994).


Cheung, Articulate Silences, 141 (quoted from Kogawa, Obasan, 212).


Cheung, Articulate Silences, 143, 147 (quoted from Kogawa, Obasan, 71).


Cheung, Articulate Silences, 165 (quoted from Kogawa, Obasan, 71). See also Christina Tourino, “Ethnic Reproduction and the Amniotic Deep: Joy Kogawa's ‘Obasan,’” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24, no. 1 (2003): 134–53.


See Michael Jin, Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in the Pacific (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021), 136–37; Naoko Wake, American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 2–3, 8, 26–27.


Cheung, Articulate Silences, 128, 132, and 145.


Ibid., 151.


The author's interview with Tomiko Shoji, Minoru Shoji, and Isao Shoji on July 14, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio, Naoko Wake Collection of Oral Histories of US Survivors, Families, and Supporters, G. Robert Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University, East Lansing,












Midori Shimanouch Lederer Papers, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University, New York (hereafter MSLP).


“Biography,” Guide to MSLP.


“Summary,” Guide to MSLP


“Biography,” Guide to MSLP.


Series I, Box 1, Folder 12, MSLP.






















Series I, Box 1, Folder 13, MSLP.


Stanley Sue and Derald W. Sue, “Chinese-American Personality and Mental Health,” Amerasia Journal 1, no. 2 (1971): 36–49. See also Kitano, “Mental Health in the Japanese-American Community,” 152–53.


Sue and McKinney, “Asian Americans in the Community Mental Health System,” 114.


Chen, “Asian Americans and Mental Health Services,” 31. See also Lonnie R. Snowden and Teh Wei Hu, “Ethnic Differences in Mental Health Services Use among the Severely Mentally Ill,” Journal of Community Psychology 25, no. 3 (1997): 235–47.


Sue and Sue, “Chinese-American Personality,” 36–39, 48; Kushida et al., “A Training Program,” 190; Võ, Mobilizing an Asian American Community, 36.


The view of Asian American culture as secure and unlikely to produce mental illness can be found in George A. DeVos, “Adaptive Strategies in U.S. Minorities,” in Minority Mental Health, ed. Jones and Korchin, 74–117 (84–86 in particular). Critiques of such a view by social workers and psychologists are found in Kim, “Asian-Americans: No Model Minority”; Yu-Wen Ying and Li-tze Hu, “Public Outpatient Mental Health Services: Use and Outcome among Asian Americans,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 64, no. 3 (1994): 448–55.


Peter W. Chen, Chinese Americans View Their Mental Health (San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, INC, 1977), 46–55, 96; Roger G. Lum, “Mental Health Attitudes and Opinions of Chinese,” in Minority Mental Health, ed. Jones and Korchin, 165–89.


Stanley Sue, “Community Mental Health Services to Minority Groups: Some Optimism, Some Pessimism,” American Psychologist 32, no. 8 (August 1977): 616–24. See also Su Yeon Lee, Silvia S. Martins, and Hochang B. Lee, “Mental Disorders and Mental Health Service Use Across Asian American Subethnic Groups in the United States,” Community Mental Health Journal 51 (2015): 153–60 (158 in particular); Ying and Hu, “Public Outpatient,” 452.


Derald W. Sue and Barbara A. Kirk, “Asian-Americans: Use of Counseling and Psychiatric Services on a College Campus,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 22, no. 1 (1975): 84–86. See also Chen, “Asian Americans and Mental Health Services,” 26.


For instance, Asian American women often experience racism as well as sexism, while Asian women may be subjected to sexism embedded in patriarchal systems and structures. See Susan Koshy, Sexual Naturalization: Asian Americans and Miscegenation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); Ji-Yeon Yuh, Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America (New York: New York University Press, 2002); Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Larry E. Smith, and Wimal Dissanayake, eds., Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).


This incompatibility between Asian Americans’ needs and US medical facilities was suggested, though not extensively discussed, by Sue, “Community Mental Health Services,” 622; Sue and Sue, “Chinese-American Personality,” 47–48; Ying and Hu, “Public Outpatient,” 449.


Kim, Curative Violence, 33, 41.


Pickens, Black Madness, 80.


Asian Women United is a New York–based organization established in 1978 that sought to support, educate, and empower Asian American women.


Oral History of Susan Wong, Asian Women United Oral History Collection (2008–2009), Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, New York University, New York.







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