Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies, Vol 3 (2012)

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Teaching Chang-rae Lee’s _Aloft_: Exploring the Limits of Race and Ethnicity

Jaime Cleland

Abstract


Chang-rae Lee’s 2004 novel Aloft may not be his most famous work, but it is a highly effective classroom text.  In its contemporary, multicultural, suburban setting, it portrays a world that students recognize; simultaneously, however, it can effectively challenge their assumptions about ethnic American literature.  The novel centers on Jerry Battle, an amateur pilot who distances himself from his problems in his private jet, and explores the problems of four generations of his multi-ethnic family.  The Battles, with both Italian and Korean heritage, are representative of the current landscape of race and ethnicity in America; mixed-race identities have become accepted and popularized through the election of Barack Obama, the visibility of celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Salma Hayek, and Shakira (to name just a few), and the changes to the U.S. Census in 2000 that allowed respondents to select more than one race when describing themselves.

In its portrayal of contemporary demographics, Aloft contrasts with earlier classics of ethnic American literature.  Commonly autobiographical or based closely on the author’s life, such works have typically relied on factuality and personal identity to combat racism, educate outsiders, articulate the challenges of belonging to a minority group in the United States, and express pride in personal heritage and community.  Aloft, however, is narrated by an Italian American character, rather than a Korean American like the author, causing students to question their expectations of ethnic writing.  Furthermore, Jerry’s identity provides a framework for discussing whiteness, so often an invisible category.  As Jerry recounts his family’s history, from impoverished immigrants to business owners, it is apparent that this upward mobility is bound up in the eventual acceptance of Italians as white rather than racially “other” (although the novel also helps to clarify continuing stereotypical attitudes toward Italian Americans).  The Battle family’s transition into whiteness also raises issues of class.  Aloft highlights the ways that race and class are linked, and questions whether the American Dream is really achievable or sustainable.  Finally, the novel features characters and situations that students are interested in; they enjoy discussing the characters’ decisions and exploring the book’s themes and symbolism.  The appeal of the story itself helps the class to rethink their expectations about race, class, and ethnicity.


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