In her Eidolon article introducing the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus, Stephanie Wong writes regarding her engagement with the field, “I might not have looked like a white person, but if I studied Classics, my brain could be a white person’s brain” (2019). While the pursuit of the “white person’s brain” may be a familiar motivation for many, such a narrative contextualizes a relationship with the ancient Mediterranean world in terms of one’s place, as a person of color, within a white-majority society. We must, however, also question how ties with the Classics may have formed and served as a token of identification within non-white communities.
This paper explores the ways in which an association with physical objects of Greek literature acted both as a means of performative whiteness and an instrument of boundary-making for refugees grappling with the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and their new place within the Chinese diaspora. It does so through the case study of two books – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – and the symbolic importance of their presence in the library of my parents, both Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the late 80s. Books and other inanimate objects, Ian Hodder suggests, “(appear to) have intentionality because they bring to mind associations that are meaningful to the person affected by the object” (2007, 33). Employing this theory of object agency, I argue that the presence of these books in our household allowed them to act as agents of a particular set of ideals which elevated the importance of Homer as a mainstay of western literature. Their visibility on our bookshelves empowered my parents to distance themselves from the tyrannical Chinese regime they fled.
A “reading” of these books through the lens of object agency raises a number of further questions. How did their form (appearance, edition, translation) impact their intentionality and reception? What do books say when their materiality matters more than the text itself? How do these messages shift, as the books pass from the hands of refugees to their children, for whom knowledge of the stories within are taken for granted? At its core, this paper pushes for an understanding of the Classics as a cultural symbol, not exclusively for the upper echelons of white society, but for immigrants and refugees constructing their own identities and seeking to create space for themselves in a new place they call home.
Classics In/Out of Asia