The notion of an “Asian American” literature emerged at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, when members of a generation just reaching their adulthood began to connect their commitment to left politics with creative expression. A few short decades later, we find ourselves witnessing a flowering of literature by Asian Americans that would have been hard to predict. Are there any continuities between the earlier generation of writers which first raised the banner of an Asian American literature and a later generation of writers which inherited it? Does it even make sense to talk about contemporary American writers of Asian ancestry as comprising a generation, and if so, what are some of their shared commitments?
–Min Hyoung Song, Associate Professor, Boston College, editor of The Journal of Asian American Studies, author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (Duke UP, 2005)
Asian American literature is difficult to pin down because of the many underlying strands of social-political forces and diverse streams of cultural influences at work at any given period of time. Analyzing the past fifty years of Asian American literature is like capturing a moving target. We can, at best, point to key social movements and mainstream literary trends that have impacted the consciousness of different generations of Asians in America. My generation, for example, was profoundly inspired by the Civil Rights and the Black Liberation movements, as well as the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements of the 60s. The Vietnam War was the epitome of everything that went wrong in the country. (Who would’ve thought we would’ve blundered back into the same death trap a generation later?)
The coalescing of progressive communities of color for causes, like working class rights for seamstresses and hotel and restaurant workers in U.S. Chinatowns, gave voice to a national grassroots arts movement, with Basement Workshop and Bridge Magazine in New York and their parallels, Kearny Street Workshop and East Wind Magazine appearing in San Francisco. This underground scene gave a space to upcoming writers to share and critique their work in their own community environments outside the dominant mainstream academia, which had always been the purveyors and arbiters of American literary tradition.
It was a very exciting time, because we were fledgling voices stretching our literary wings for the very first time, without the sanction of the media, academia, or the mainstream establishment. We ignored the categorical dismissal of our work as “Propaganda poetry” and “Community Art”–as if there weren’t as much or far worse bad writing about non-topical subjects. We were in revolt against the bourgeoisie so we didn’t need their blandishments. We published our own alternative magazines, newspapers, books, and poetry/music recordings. Most of my public readings in those years were done at political rallies and community fundraisers. It was poetry for the people without apology or compromise. We were part of a power much greater than the power of our singular voices. We didn’t have iPhones, iPads, or computers to spread the revolutionary word, unlike today. Our message took much longer to get out and be heard. Nonetheless, we were fiercely passionate in our own snail-paced, people-to-people, grassroots way.
I feel this same current of energy exploding today. The Arab Spring and the Occupation of Wall Street are a revolutionary tsunami being witnessed and shared by millions through blogs, iPhones, Youtube videos, spoken word, theater, dance, and poetry. The movement threatens to be much greater than the movement of the 60s even, because with the aid of technology there’s no lag time and also, communities of color are more diverse and populous today than ever before in U.S. history. In the 60s, the most prominent Asian American voices were those of Chinese, Japanese, and Pilipino descent. Today, emerging voices range from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma to India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tibet, expanding the canon beyond what we had ever imagined fifty years ago.
The common ground for all these diverse ethnic groups is the experience of immigration and the issues of assimilation and dislocation of identity. As each new group joins the U.S. fold, the familiar recurring themes of generation gap, tradition versus modernity, and adaptation get repeated in a variety of patterns and ways. What gives these stories resonance are the distinct ways in which these same themes are told and retold and the variegated cultural lenses through which the same sets of challenges, such as racism, sexism, homophobism, and classism, are viewed and witnessed.
What does it mean to be American? Perhaps it means to empty or lose the self so that a new one can be found? Or is it the act of reinventing one’s self by writing one self into/in-two being? This is the challenge for Asian American writers of the diaspora–to create an authentic identity out of a dynamic, inchoate, American persona that is as everchanging and amorphous as time itself.
When I was in my teens, my friends and I would take the N Judah train from the Sunset District and transfer to the 30 Stockton bus to get to the heart of Chinatown to find that one Chinese theater showing kung fu movies imported from China and Hong Kong. You can imagine how electrifying it was back then for boys like myself watching Bruce Lee, an Asian man, literally rip the blond chest hairs off Chuck Norris playing a villain in Return of the Dragon. When I tell my students this in my Asian American literature class, they stare at me blankly and wonder: Man, how old is this dude?
I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s and early 1980s when an earlier generation was raising the banner of Asian American literature. I was an English major and my favorite writers were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. I gravitated toward the moderns. The great Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan might as well have been an underground cult figure. His autobiographical novel America is in the Heart (Washington University Press, 1973) was being passed around by the young untenured faculty in the newly established Asian American Studies program at San Francisco State University. If there was such a thing as Asian American literature back then, I am almost certain my English professors did not know about it. But I was fortunate to have been living in the city where small independent bookstores thrived, and I recall one afternoon browsing through the stacks of this tiny bookstore in Noe Valley and coming across a book by Jessica Hagedorn. It was Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (Momo Press, 1983), a hybrid collection of prose and poems that absolutely floored me. Was it the familiarity of her subject matter–Filipino Americans living in the Bay Area, estranged from their families and connections in the Philippines, or was it the sheer hipness of her style, a beat flavor I was just discovering from reading Kerouac’s On the Road? Whatever it was, I found a sense of home and familiarity in her work.
Another watershed event for me occurred when I found a copy of Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets, edited by Joseph Bruchac (Greenfield Review Press, 1983). I fell in love with the poems of Luis Cabalquinto, Lonny Kaneko, Kimiko Hahn, and Walter Lew. If I were writing poetry at that time, they would have been my early models. It wouldn’t be for another decade that I would begin meeting many of the poets I grew acquainted with in that yellowing, dog-eared anthology I carried with me through the various states where I was living the itinerant life of a student and later teacher. Over the years, some of the poets in Breaking Silence became friends of mine, like Luis Syquia and Jaime Jacinto. Others I met at professional conferences, presenting on panels or sharing the podium at readings. A couple of writers, David Mura and Garrett Hongo, were my creative writing professors at the University of Oregon.
The graduate program in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon was in the midst of a seismic shift in 1990 when I enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program there. Garrett Hongo was recently hired to direct the MFA program, the first graduate writing program in the country headed by an Asian American poet. There was one semester during my second year when we had in one seminar David Mura, Li-Young Lee, and Garrett Hongo team-teaching a course on poetry and memoir. Philip Levine once described workshop with Garrett as a dojo with Garrett holding all the weapons. For us workshop usually went this way: a student reads her poem out loud while the rest of us follow along with our already marked-up copy of her poem in front of us. After an awkward silence, someone chimes in, maybe offers some safe observations about the poem’s merits, its attention to details, its clear plot. Occasionally, someone would remark about an awkward syntax, or wordy sentence, perhaps entire stanzas requiring much-needed pruning. Garrett would usually speak last and respond to our comments either in agreement or disagreement with some or all of our observations. But on this one occasion, Garrett was rhapsodizing about a workshop poem’s dramatic lineation and brilliant use of spondaic end words. The terms “spondee” and “double spondee” came up a couple more times during Garrett’s mini-lecture on meter. My friend, Gary Clark, a plainspoken New Englander who had graduated from Dartmouth, timidly raised his hand and asked Garrett to explain what he meant by a “double spondee.” Garrett raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and paused for a good ten seconds and then said, “Fuck you, asshole.” Then slowly repeated each accented syllable again: “fuck…you…ass…hole. That’s a double spondee.”
If there is any continuity between one generation of Asian American writers and the next, it would have to be their commitment to art. “Literature,” Garrett Hongo writes in his introduction for The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (Anchor, 1993),
has always been available as a vehicle for protest against domination by the ruling class, by a ruthless family member, or the dangerous mindset of a controlling group. But literature is also art and just as it is important not to discount our social and political commitments, Asian American literature is primarily interested in intellectual passion and verbal beauty.
Isn’t the point of a studio model in a writing class driven by the ideal that students are invested in creating enduring work? If I were to imagine the lineage I draw from, having Garrett Hongo and Robert Wrigley as my two steady mentors while at Oregon, my literary grandfathers would be Philip Levine, C. K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Richard Hugo. I would venture to guess that Garrett’s early models were Derek Walcott and Robert Hayden, given his genuine affections for them. Outside of class, Garrett often spoke to me about Carlos Bulosan, who gave voice to migrant workers in the fields of California and canneries of Alaska. I had read America is in the Heart long before I moved to Oregon, and I owe it to my Asian American Studies professors at SF State for first introducing his work to me primarily as a sociological text that chronicled institutional racism in the United States.
What I valued from Garrett as a teacher was how he privileged the art and craft of poetry over the political and social significance of our subject matter. He never had to remind me about my racial identity and the importance of family when we approached what he described as the “big feeling” in our poems. And when I revisit Bulosan’s America is in the Heart with my students, it is Garrett I think about because he made me notice first the lyric quality of Bulosan’s prose and how Bulosan negotiated anger and violence with his ability to craft meaningful narrative. At DePauw University, where I teach, I officially added a course on Asian American literature to the English curriculum. One of my former students, a Filipino American from Honolulu, along with a group of activist students, is trying to lobby our university to establish an Asian American Studies major. I’ve listened to their arguments, their demands for a presence and legitimacy, perhaps also a sense of home. It’s going to be an uphill battle for our students, as it was for previous generations of Asian Americans.
As an English teacher, I am still making new discoveries when I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for my gateway course to English literature. But I think my ties to Asian American literature run much deeper than my affections for those writers who first captured my imagination as an undergraduate. My relation to Asian American literature is an ongoing journey that began in a small independent bookstore in San Francisco and intensified as a graduate student in Eugene, Oregon, and somehow is still finding new footing in the classroom at a small liberal arts college in Indiana.
Because of its geographical, historical, and cultural diversity, it is exceedingly difficult–if not impossible–to describe or define a coherent Asian American literary canon. Certainly, writers such as Carlos Bulosan and John Okada use well-documented historic injustices as their inspiration.
Later writers, fueled by the tumultuous political and social developments of the 1960s, use this ferment to examine their roles in a changing America and to push the canon further.
Among the latest group of writers, there is much greater diversity. Khaled Hosseini, for example, uses the events in his homeland of Afghanistan to inform and complete the story of his protagonist in America. This link to the ancestral home is reminiscent of approaches by earlier Asian American writers such as Bulosan.
In contrast, Ed Lin’s protagonists and plots reveal slices of urban, working-class Chinese American lives in the New York metropolitan area. Lin’s work, focused on the American stage, is reminiscent of Shawn Wong and others who developed their literary “chops” in the 1970s.
It is hard to predict in which direction the canon will go next. “Asian American” is a term large and unwieldy enough to encompass any number of possibilities. This could include, for example, some future story of an American-born Afghan telling his or her tale not about the homeland of his parents, real or remembered, but about his or her experiences with discrimination, acceptance, and identity in San Jose, California–his or her major, perhaps only, point of reference.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
I think it absolutely makes sense to talk about Asian Pacific Islander writers writing right now in the Americas as a generation. Like any generation, there are many subgroups. But I think that there is a specific, vitally important cohort of APIA writers, poets, spoken word artists, and lyricists who came of age in the late 90s/early 2000s. We reached for the radical APIA writing of a generation just before us–from Jessica Hagedorn to Lawson Inada to Brenda Wong Aoki. We bought copies of Charlie Chan is Dead and The Very Inside, sometimes from Powell’s and used bookstores’ poetry sections, or checked them out from the library. We came of age during a political and cultural moment when young people of color all over North America were becoming more visibly organized and culturally and politically active, and we moved into that moment and made a new radical Asian/Pacific Islander cultural convergence. To me, the most important current APIA literary generation is this one–filled with writers that flowed from I Was Born With Two Tongues, Mango Tribe, Isangmahal, Mangos With Chili, Peeling the Banana, Bamboo Girl benefit parties, South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Asian Arts Freedom School, Mizna/DIWAN, and so many more groupings. Our shared commitments begin with writing the truths of our 90s-2000s APIA lives to destroy a constructed invisibilization of those lives. We record the truths of growing up in Dearborn, New Jersey, Hawaii, Queens, New Orleans, Toronto. We go beyond reversing stereotypes to just testifying, over and over again, to our lived experiences, struggles, solidarity with other communities of color, and homeplaces here on this continent and back home. We build on our literary ancestors of the 1970s and also talk back.
My sense is that the larger questions we’re prompted to think about here have to do with whether or not the age of Asian American literature has ended. Do we recognize works by contemporary Asian American writers as Asian American by the standards of an earlier generation–namely that of the sixties and seventies, more commonly known as the activist generation? Do the conditions (ideological, social, cultural, legislative, demographic, etc.) that compelled and unified earlier generations of Asian American writers exist to the extent that contemporary writers feel committed to write from them as well? If there are fewer “continuities” between contemporary works and those of earlier generations, and if there are far more Asian American writers creating works that seem to diverge from generational continuity, then has Asian American literature succeeded itself out of existence (or at least out of a brand name)?
The perceived lack of continuities between earlier generations of writers and later generations is partly what compelled literary critic Kenneth Warren to proclaim the end of African American literature:
While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature as an object of study, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.
One of Warren’s key arguments is that the far-reaching effects of legislation that defined African Americans as second class and kept them juridically marked as different from the mainstream (i.e., Jim Crow laws), “enforced by violence and by statute,” have thinned to the extent that such conditions in and of themselves are no longer the driving force that compel African American writers to write, to speak for a silenced community. In other words, inasmuch as contemporary African American writers continue to write and identify as African American, what they write can no longer be considered African American literature.
So I sense a similar dilemma brewing within this forum’s prompt. What is the benefit to Asian America if we’re seemingly left now with only formal elements such as style, theme, and genre to analyze contemporary Asian American lit, and no socio-historical contexts–“continuities”–that illuminate a tradition?
Asian American literary critic Sau-ling Wong’s response to similar questions resulted in her seminal work Reading Asian American Literature. In fact, it’s enough to recommend reading her introduction to grasp the scope of the questions raised in this forum and to appreciate the relevancy of Wong’s foresight about these same issues nearly two decades ago as she wrote within an earlier “flowering” of Asian American literature: “It is the semiotic status of the term Asian American that shapes our understanding of what kind of discourse Asian American literature is, and in turn, what kind of practice Asian American criticism is” (5). And it is, after all, those of us who “practice Asian American criticism” in the classrooms, conferences, and scholarship who will, among other engagements, illuminate “continuities” between generations of Asian American writers and discern “shared commitments” between them. Writers, on the other hand, even Asian American writers, will write whatever they damn well please, as well they should.
“[G]iven the multiple subject positions of the writers,” Wong writes, “there is no single, conclusive version of Asian American history to anchor their works and safeguard ‘correct’ readings” (10). The closest we can come to illuminating an Asian American literary tradition is through an intertextual reading of works, essentially reading them off of each other for discernibly shared themes. Wong continues:
The more flexible definition of intertextuality I subscribe to may be described by Thais Morgan’s formulation: a rethinking of literature and literary history “in terms of space instead of time, conditions of possibility instead of permanent structures, and ‘networks’ or ‘webs’ instead of chronological lines or influence” (11).
Admitting of certain anxieties that arise from reading Asian American texts as open and deriving meaning from each other (instead of cleaving to “the practice of drawing simplistic, ill-informed parallels with the dominant tradition”), Wong nonetheless maintains that an intertextual approach to reading Asian American literature could inspire its critics “to attend more closely to the myriad ways in which texts grouped under the Asian American rubric build upon, allude to, refine, controvert, and resonate with each other. In doing so, they contribute to a sense of an Asian American literary tradition” (12).
Perhaps the first step in addressing continuities between earlier and more recent generations of Asian American writers is to accept that there is, at its most definable, “a sense of an Asian American literary tradition.” There’s a difference in continuity having as much to do with ever-changing and growing demographics as with generations between, say, those Asian American writers of the eighties who desired not to be called “Asian American” writers, but only “writers” (or “actors,” or “artists”–panels of them proliferated in the eighties through the mid-nineties) and those contemporary Asian American writers who might claim, “Sure, I’m Asian American, but what’s that got to do with anything anymore?” The former complaint had to do with a fear of being pigeonholed into prescriptive formulations of being or writing Asian American, whereas the latter has more to do with that “flowering of Asian American literature that would have been hard to predict,” a flowering that freed these writers to move beyond a “commitment to left politics with creative expression.” Admittedly, what bothers is when AA artists gainsay the term Asian American only to then claim that it limits their opportunities and that they’d rather not be affiliated with it. Real as those limitations might be, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it, too (though many have tried). And the declamations against being identified with or ever identifying with the term show an inescapable a priori relationship with it, however accidental or incidental that relationship might be.
“Shared commitments” among writers, however they are defined, cannot be imposed, though critics can illuminate them in comparative analyses, as Wong does in her book. The challenge today in conducting a cohesive intertextual study such as Wong’s is the existence of so many more outlets of publication (e.g., small, independent, localized presses, journals, zines, blogs) and so many more forms of dissemination (via the Internet) as well as currently accepted forms of lit (e.g., graphic novels, spoken word). Do these conditions strain continuity to the breaking point? I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of critical works about contemporary Asian American literature, even those that proclaim to show new forms and expressions of it.
Personally, I wonder if it can get any newer or different than Theresa Cha’s Dictee, published in 1982. One can point to Cha’s work as perhaps the most groundbreaking for multiple generations of Asian American writers to follow. Did Cha think of herself as Asian American, as carrying the banner of a previous generation of Asian American writers writing all around her in the Bay Area at the time? As far afield as her work is from her contemporaries’ in style, theme, expression, perceived ideology, and literary sensibility, I can only imagine her responding, “Of course I am, but in so many more ways than you might think.”
As long as we live in a country that espouses class, race, and gender biases, there will always be a reason to have Asian American literature and/or studies. In some ways this is a good thing and in some ways this reflects a country that has identified a particular grouping as being strategic to its class-based interests. This may be a far-reaching analogy when I say that certain types of “studies” in the academy, such as Korean studies or Islamic studies, etc., are a result, directly and indirectly, of the way the U.S. imperialist empire has deemed to be important the preservation of the interests of their ruling elite. But it’s an analogy that I don’t think is farfetched.
I do consider myself an Asian American writer, a Korean American writer, a writer from Hawai’i (note that I do not say a Hawaiian writer, as right now this syntax may be considered perhaps insensitive given the current Native Hawaiian sentiments, of which I am supportive), a Local writer (a moniker that I would probably use only in the islands), etc. Depending where I step off the plane, I will give myself a particular name to facilitate an easier entrance, or intrusion, into the culture I am entering. As I once stated in an interview, you can call me whatever you want to my face as long as it is not derogatory, and if it is, then perhaps my street sense will kick in. (Also, I do not like to be called something that I am not–for example, an Asian colonial settler. This label tells me that those who invented this term and/or use it disparagingly do not have a dialectical and materialist understanding of the political forces at the turn of the century that forced many peoples to leave their homelands, such as in the case of my grandparents.)
When I am home in the islands, I do not consider myself an Asian American. The label that would define me best is Local: I was born and raised in the islands, I presently live in the islands, I have been nourished by the land and by the spirit of the islands. My culture is the culture that has been created since the first day people walked on the islands, a culture that was also shaped, developed, hybridized, synthesized by and through the waves of immigrants that came here. Though my ancestors did not come from the islands, in the most basic sense I am from the islands. Period. My roots from four generations back are in the Korean peninsula, and my most recent ancestors were coerced by imperialism (at that time, it was the Japanese form, but it could have been American or whatever, given the historical circumstances) and their own bourgeoisie (my maternal grandfather referred to those Korean sell-out traitors and collaborators with the colonial occupiers as sang-nom, or bastards) to leave the country of their birth to seek political, economical, social, spiritual refuge in another land, a land where my parents were born and raised–where I was born and raised–where my culture and spirit have been created and shaped, where my culture and spirit are still developing.
There will always be an Asian American literature and writers to write this literature. And we will always look at the pioneering writers such as Sui Sin Far, Younghill Kang, Carlos Bulosan, Toshio Mori, John Okada, etc. proudly as our tradition, given our understanding of the struggles they had to endure to get their work in print; and there are other, less-known cultural workers whom we have rediscovered, such as Sadakichi Hartmann, Onoto Watanna, No-yong Park, and Lee Hong-ki, whom we will include as part of this tradition (even if perhaps we do not agree with their political viewpoints). And we might find many others who aspired to join the conversations but could not because of class, race, and gender, such as the marvelous jazz singer Ethel Azama and jazz drummer Paul Toyama, and many, many others, whom I call flowers that could not bloom because they never had a chance to blossom with their enormous creativity. This is intended for those Asian American writers who are currently experiencing some level of success (e.g., contracts from the “major” publishers, academic jobs at “top” universities, “major” literary prizes and grants): mainstream American white culture has given you “distinctions” and hopefully they will not bloat your ego and blind you from your social purpose. Writers and other cultural workers need to know their roots, as with this understanding there is a power that creates imaginative works that serve the good of all humanity. Art is not for art’s sake. Art is to raise humanity’s vision to the highest claim it can make. Art is for the people. How can you write for the literary elite and others who follow a narrow, privileged outlook, especially in this day and age?
I believe the literature of Hawai’i for the most part is rooted in the spirit of the land. You can feel this when you read the mo‘olelo (historical accounts) of the 19th century Native Hawaiian writers John Papa I‘i, S. N. Kamakau, Davida Malo, S. N. Haleole, Kepelino, and others; you can read this in the 20th century novels of John Dominis Holt, Ozzie Bushnell, Milton Murayama, and Jon Shirota; in the plays of Ed Sakamoto; and in the many writers of the next generation published in the many Local literary magazines, which include Bamboo Ridge, The Hawai’i Review, and ‘Oiwi. (I am purposely not including any names here as this would be describing writers of my generation, and if I miss anyone on the list s/he will get mad at me! Don’t need to carry that! And many of them, anyway, are well known to Asian American literary scholars.) Today, a new generation of writers has come forward, such as Chris McKinney (fiction and screenplay), Lee Tonouchi (fiction), Robert Barclay (fiction), Michael Puleloa (fiction), Lisa Kanae (fiction and poetry), Brandy Nalani McDougal (poetry), Sage Takehiro (poetry), Jill Yamasawa (poetry), Ken Quilantang (fiction), Alexei Melnick (fiction), Lyz Soto (poetry), Tiare Picard (poetry), and many, many more who are finding the depth of their voices.
I am proud to be part of the literary traditions of these islands, traditions that are grounded in the spirit of the land and that are changing with each call of the wind and wave, voices that are being rooted deeply as the mountains that create the rain.
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Between 1975 and 1979–over the course of three years, eight months, and twenty days–an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished under the Khmer Rouge as a result of starvation, forced labor, execution, and disease. This period, known by most outside Cambodia as the era of the “Killing Fields,” remains–despite the passage of more than thirty years since the regime’s dissolution–juridically non-reconciled. Indeed, only one Khmer Rouge official–Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a. “Comrade Duch”)–has been tried and convicted in an international court of law. On July 26, 2010, the hybrid U.N./Cambodian Khmer Rouge Tribunal (known officially as “the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” or “ECCC”) found the notorious head of Tuol Sleng Prison (who oversaw the executions of approximately 12,000 Cambodian detainees) guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The then-sixty-seven-year-old Duch expressed no emotion as presiding judge Nil Nonn recounted the brutality that would become synonymous with Tuol Sleng Prison and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror: extreme authoritarianism, forced confessions, months-long torture, and eventual death. Notwithstanding the officious nature of the verdict, Duch’s thirty-five year sentence would garner in-country criticism and international critique. In custody since 1999, the ex-prison warden would serve, at most, nineteen years.
I had the exceptional opportunity to witness–firsthand–this historic verdict. On that fateful July morning, just a few miles outside Phnom Penh, I stood alongside foreign journalists, in-country Cambodians, and three out-of-country Cambodian Americans. As we moved from one checkpoint to the next, through U.N. guards, Cambodian police, two metal detectors, and innumerable court officials, I was admittedly struck by the mundane nature of the court chamber. With theater-style seating, the auditorium abruptly gave way to a large, reinforced glass window, which protected court spectator from juridical actor. A few minutes shy of 10 a.m., black-robed judges entered the trial chamber, along with international lawyers and Cambodian attorneys who served as Duch’s entourage. Dressed in a light blue shirt and slightly wrinkled khaki pants, the infamous prison warden was uncannily familiar and distressingly avuncular. He seemed well-fed and well-rested, and his placid demeanor contributed to the surprisingly quotidian nature of the proceedings.
On that day, I was with Leakhena Nou, the founding director for the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia (ASRIC). A trained medical sociologist, Leakhena had worked tirelessly to gather testimonials from Cambodians in the United States who had survived the regime. Her family had escaped Cambodia months before the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, and it was through ASRIC that our paths crossed. I am a biracial Cambodian American, but my personal history is–unlike that of my 1.5-generation compatriots–not marked by forced migration, Khmer Rouge violence, and country-wide genocide. I am the biological daughter of a Cambodian woman and an American G.I. father. I was born in a northwest Thai province (Udon Thani) roughly six months before the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, outside Royal Thai Udorn Air Force Base. Out-of-country sponsorship for me took the form of a rather quick adoption. My adoptive parents–an “almost” Japanese war bride and a career Air Force man from New England who married in 1955–secured the necessary paperwork to get me and my brother out of Thailand in late February 1975. I have no idea what happened to my biological mother after we left. The particular records have been lost. And her personal story is largely forgotten. These amnesic frames foreground the focus of my current research, which maps the shifting terrain of Cambodian American genocide remembrance in film, hip hop, and literature.
Such modes of forgetting are at the forefront of the ongoing machinations of Cambodia’s international court. Indeed, as the U.N./Khmer Rouge Tribunal moves forward with so-called “case 002,” which involves the prosecution of former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Ieng Thirith, it remains unclear whether those facing the trial will remain mentally stable, let alone survive the proceedings. In November 2011, Thirith–who served as the regime’s Social Minister and director of the Red Cross, and was known as the “Khmer Rouge First Lady”–has been diagnosed with dementia and is possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Cambodia’s current prime minister, Hun Sen (a former Khmer Rouge soldier), has repeatedly opposed unburying the past and has publicly declared that after case 002, no more trials will be held. More than $150 million has been spent, yet financial mismanagement has plagued the court, and a series of high-level resignations (including by judges and lawyers) have further tainted the proceedings. Last, but certainly not least, the notion of reparations–inclusive of memorials, financial compensation, and education–for regime victims has been a constant source of contention, especially for a country that remains the second-poorest in Southeast Asia. Hobbled by allegations of corruption, crippled by vociferous claims of state non-culpability, and tainted by procedural inconsistencies, state-sanctioned justice will, it appears–even with international attention, aid, and investment–be at best elusive.
This juridical context–which brings to light a particular tension between a war-torn past and a still-unsettled present–assumes a transnational, generational register when situated vis-Ã -vis a U.S. context. To be sure, the diasporic dimensions of my own experience, which in some (qualified) measure intersect with a distant geography and temporality familiar to other 1.5-generation Cambodian Americans, are what mark contemporary literature about coming-of-age under the Khmer Rouge. From Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000) to Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (2000), from Daughter of the Killing Fields (2005) by Theary C. Seng to the recently published Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey by Ronnie Yimsut, Cambodian American literary production instantiates an alternative site for revelation, reclamation, and justice. Recounting the Khmer Rouge past, commemorating those lost, and monumentalizing survivor agency, Cambodian American authors recapitulate one of the founding tenets of Asian American literature as a means of what Lisa Lowe notes is a “tireless reckoning” with the past. In so doing, they represent a new generation of human rights writers who militate against calls to forget and engage a potently re-imagined juridical activism.
Velina Hasu Houston
As a playwright of Asian descent, I find my perspectives on Asian American literature naturally gravitate toward Asian American dramatic literature. As early as the 1920s, Asian American playwriting emerged with Gladys Li’s The Submission of Rose Moy (1924). In the early phase, other Asian American women wrote for the stage from that period through 1959, such as Wai Chee Chun, Bessie Toishigawa, and Patsy Saiki. After the 1960s, the playwrights often referred to as the “first wave” emerged, including Frank Chin, Wakako Yamauchi, Edward Sakamoto, Momoko Iko, Linda Faigao-Hall, Jude Narita, Perry Miyake, and Genny Lim.
This was followed by a second wave that included David Henry Hwang, Elizabeth Wong, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jeannie Barroga, Jessica Hagedorn, Cherylene Lee, Alberto Isaac, Henry Ong, C.Y. Lee, Karen Huie, Perry Miyake, Amy Hill, Jon Shirota, Cynthia Gates-Fujikawa, Denise Uyehara, Dan Kwong, Shishir Kurup, and others. I think of my work as falling between the second and third waves and therefore across their borders (which is indicative of my transnational life in general). When I moved to Los Angeles, I was a new entry in a field that already included the writers known as second wave.
The third wave includes such writers as Chay Yew, Naomi Iizuka, Diana Son, Ken Narasaki, Sung Rno, Julie Cho, Prince Gomolvilas, Aditi Kapil, and others. Shall we say that the fourth wave has begun and includes such voices as Boni B. Alvarez, Shane Sakhrani, Lily Ling Wong, Mayank Keshaviah, Reme Grefalda, Weiko Lin, Kristina Wong, Esther K. Chae, Jeanne Sakata, Jamil Khoury, Lina Patel, Annette Lee, Janine Salinas, Jesse Shao, Michael Premsrirat, Madhuri Shekar, Nahal Navidar, Yussef El Guindi, Kemba Saran, and others?
Sources and Reasons for Writing
I know there are many names missing from my recapitulations, and that, in essence, is a good thing because it illustrates that the number of playwrights of Asian descent in the U.S. has grown to a point that one cannot recount their names effortlessly. It speaks volumes for the legacy of Asian American creative writers and the new Asian American writers that enter the field in impressive numbers as time goes by. I characterize the field genuinely. From the names that I mention, it is clear that I do not limit my view of Asia to the Far East. In addition, I am cognizant that West, Central, Southeast, and South Asian heritage must be embraced in the notion of an Asian American identity.
I am not certain if the fourth-wave playwrights inherited a literary legacy from the pre-first-wave or first-wave playwrights and, if they did, I would hazard to guess that they are not fully aware of that fact. I think it is true that as dramatizations of Asian or Asian American stories became more prevalent on U.S. stages, it made it easier for future Asian American playwrights to bring their works to those stages. I also know, however, that the processes of selection that bring any play to any stage in the US are complicated labyrinths, the outcomes of which can never be said to be (at least entirely) connected to ethnicity (or gender). It is an intricate political and often socioeconomic subjective jumble that brings the play from the page to the stage, and the larger the stage, the more complex the jumble.
Above all, it is important to note that artists and their muses are a unique state of affairs. This, in fact, may be the sole arena of continuity that is shared by all waves of Asian American playwrights. Writers write out of singular passions that are individual to each writer. What motivates or inspires one writer is usually different from what motivates or inspires another writer. And if the motivation or inspiration happens to be the same, the plays that emerge from them will not be. Why we write what we write is a curious matter that cannot be simply defined, deconstructed, or categorized.
For instance, people often ask me why I am interested in transnational East-West themes. It is not the themes that interest me. It is simply that I often (but not always) write from that point of view because it is my heritage, just as Russian perspectives interested Anton Chekhov, Irish American ones interested Eugene O’Neill, African American ones interested August Wilson, and Southern Jewish ones interest Alfred Uhry. I am absolutely sure that fourth-wave Asian American playwrights share a connection with Gladys Li: their muses compel them towards certain stories that are unique to their own experiences, ideologies, and imagination. The fact that they are all of Asian descent may have less to do with continuity than the creative compulsions that drive writers in general do.
A Diverse Continuum
Even so, however, I find that many emerging Asian American playwrights are interested in themes that have some connectivity to their ethnic heritages or to other Asian or Asian-descent heritages. If they are transnational like me, I also observe that they are interested in the East-West or some other cross cultural milieu and the conflicts and collusions that breed within them. When I talk with these writers about it, however, they express their commitments to such environments as if they are new notions that have never been broached before. This indicates to me that their impulses are fresh and innate to their beings, not necessarily inspired by writers who came before them.
Perhaps earlier playwrights’ successes helped theatres to begin to consider the Asian American experience as a valid one to explore on U.S. stages, but above and beyond that, Asian American playwrights wrote and write driven by their own particular desires and will continue to do so. Central to this nurturing of an Asian American or, in my case, transnational consciousness is the fact that many first-, second-, and third-wave Asian American playwrights continue to contribute powerful plays that are being produced in mainstream theatres around the globe. A diverse continuum is necessary to cultivate literature in general and, in particular, Asian American literature.
It is probable that U.S. theatre was not ready to embrace the Asian American voice historically and, in many respects, still finds it foreign to the American mainstream. Often when Americans think about the notion of race, they think in black-white bipolarisms that maintain what is Asian American as, at best, an anomaly. This can work in one’s favor or against it when one is hoping for a theatre to produce one’s work or when one is selecting a play to see. It can be anomalous to the point that it offers a refreshingly different point of view or it can be anomalous to the point that one, if you will, does not patronize that restaurant. On the positive side, what headway Asian American playwrights have made has raised the consciousness of many spectators and cultural producers so that successive generations may find it easier to get a foot or leg or torso in the door. Theatres are still learning to embrace the Asian American consciousness, but at least the learning is in progress, and that is a victory. To quote The Beatles, “It’s getting better all the time.”
I find it exhilarating to see new voices of Asian descent contributing to the field, despite the fact that many emerging playwrights continue to struggle to overcome the speed bumps of their stories being seen as too different or foreign by the U.S. mainstream. There are of course sundry exceptions to that rule, and it is true that playwrights of any hue or ethnicity may find it hard to be produced in an increasingly fiscally driven production environment. The hill, however, can often be harder to climb for playwrights of Asian descent, particularly for females of Asian descent.
The sheer number of playwrights of Asian descent writing for global stages is an embarrassment of riches and surely an indication that the field is expanding brilliantly, gradually becoming an innate part of the global literary environment–which it always was.
*The Velina Hasu Houston Collection is part of the APA Playwrights Series in the Library of Congress, housed in the Asian Division’s AAPI Collection. For inquiries, email email@example.com.
Susan M. Schultz
I am not an expert in Asian American literature. I am a publisher of “experimental poetry from the Pacific region,” as the mission statement for Tinfish Press, which I’ve edited since 1995, puts it. Tinfish does not publish Asian American poetry as such (or poetry by members of any other groups). But we do publish poetry by Asian Americans, which is why I’ve been asked to contribute to this round-table. Whether or not the poetry I publish can be considered “Asian American” may have to do with the hinge distinction Timothy Yu makes in writing about the critical reception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. According to Yu, in Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965, Dictee has been read as Asian American writing or as experimental writing. The poetry Tinfish publishes is experimental, but a good deal of the content of the work has to do with the experience of being Asian American. And so we swing on the hinge that Cha crafted.
Let me begin with a stark contrast, one I can quarrel with a bit later. Over the past eight months, Tinfish has been putting out one chapbook a month in our Retro Chapbook Series, which will end after one year. Three of our titles have been by Asian American writers, namely Mao’s Pears, by Kenny Tanemura, yellow/yellow, by Margaret Rhee, and ligature strain, by Kim Koga. These last two are both by women in their 20s, but the chapbooks could not seem more different from one another. Margaret Rhee’s chapbook is about being Korean American (as well as about being queer). In the opening poem, “Nectarines,” she writes about the (unmarked) hyphen between Korean and American as being like a nectarine, half one organism and half another. As we find out in the poem, the nectarine was developed by two Korean brothers, the Kims. She then poses a racist statement by Jack London (who is always good for such insults) against the words of Terry Hong: “I consider myself Korean and American. A Korean American is a hybrid product of/both the U.S. And Korean countries and cultures.” According to her biography at the back, Rhee is a hybrid poet-scholar, as well. She “writes poetry in the morning, teaches ethnic lit in the afternoon, and researches race, gender, and sexuality at night.” Hence her “hybrid” might be said to encompass the categories of Asian American and experimental poet, bringing together the two halves of the reception of Dictee.
Kim Koga’s bio note begins with her professional qualification, namely an MFA from Notre Dame. Nowhere in her note does she mention being Asian American. Instead, she lists publications and her curation of a reading series, as well as her work for Action Books. All we have to mark her as Asian American is her name. (As my children are Asian, but have my European last names–Webster Schultz–I know that names alone do not reveal one’s ethnicity.) Her chapbook more resembles the work of the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who has written many poems in the voices of rats (including those in Tinfish Press’s chapbook, When the Plug Gets Unplugged, translated by Don Mee Choi) than it does poems marked as “Asian American.” Koga writes about a beaver giving birth. The only people in these prose poems are referred to obliquely: “the beavers leave the gate open and hail away to cities and in habit your water. Fill cases of sewer detritus small pipelines of little bits of pink fleshes–come for teeth and shower nozzles–you bathe in squirming pink fleshes.” Where Kim Hyesoon’s poems engage South Korean politics and historical events, Koga’s poems engage contemporary ecopoetics.
Last year Tinfish published a chapbook by a 20-something Hawai’i writer, Gizelle Gajelonia, whose family came with her to Hawai’i from the Philippines when she was nine years old. Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus takes several angles of approach. Gajelonia rewrites famous American poems, including Wallace Stevens’ studies of the blackbird and Elizabeth Bishop’s of the moose (here a mongoose), by moving them onto the bus system on the island of O’ahu. She often uses Pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English, instead of the standard. She also employs Tagalog, a language she has mostly forgotten but overhears on the TheBus. And she also engages issues of being Filipino in a place where many native Hawaiians feel that their land is occupied. Hawai’i is one place where Asian Americans are sometimes seen not as a struggling, or even model, minority, but as powerful interlopers. (The Asian settler colonialist model is not one I find compelling, but students in my English department have to reckon with it.) Her finest moment is a rewriting of The Waste Land to include the words of Hawai’i’s last queen, Liliu’okalani. Finally, she writes a prayer for Ikaika, a boy on the high school football team that her speaker has a crush on.
Our one full-length book of this year is by Jai Arun Ravine, a Thai American transgender poet (female to male). If Asian American poetry can be said often to be about issues of identity and family, then this book fits. But if racial identity is marked more as language–the book works a seam between Thai and American English, then moves into questions of documentation, like birth certificates and visas–then the book expands that category. As language and race are not inevitably joined (as the name issue elucidates, and Ravine has changed his name repeatedly), this books questions Asian Americanness as it goes. And if Asian American literature of the 1970s was obsessed with food as a cultural marker, then Ravine’s book, by presenting us with instructions on how to peel a mango, joins in and deviates from that tradition.
What the book and chapbooks I’ve been writing about so far have in common, oddly enough, is an emphasis on sexuality and gender, as well as engagements with language (Rhee’s, Gajelonia’s, and Ravine’s, in particular). If 1970s literature came out of a liberation movement in part enabled by the Civil Rights Act of 1965, then the literature of the early 21st century builds on that movement by linking it to others–feminism and gay rights foremost among them. 21st poetry is highly synthetic, but its originality is in the ways in which ingredients are mixed, or mangoes and nectarines are created, and then peeled. It also grafts onto many strands of American poetry, by Asian and other writers, hybridizing, peeling, and consuming them as it goes.
One recent Tinfish book that deals directly with the Asian American experience is Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave, a long poem focused on a walk to the Expo Center in North Portland where Japanese Americans were first rounded up before being interned in the interior of the continent. This book, down to its appreciative blurb by Lawson Fusao Inada, participates in an important tradition of Asian American writing about that awful, immoral period in American history. That it was written by a woman whose birth heritage is Norwegian only complicates the question. It complicates matters in ways that are typical, I hope, of Tinfish’s publishing practice. We seek to explore history and culture, but we do not want overmuch to attach them to racial categories.
Juliana Hu Pegues
The place: a gallery in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis, a few blocks shy of the Mississippi River.
The time: Saturday evening in the early 1990s, after the LA riots but while Bush (G.W.) was still in office.
The event: AARGH!–a cabaret hosted by the Asian American Renaissance (AAR), the new pan-Asian arts organization in town.
The word was out and space filled quickly. There were not enough chairs so most folks sat on the floor. I remember a film by a Korean adoptee, several poets reading. By the time I was introduced, I literally had to crawl over people to get to the “stage,” a cleared space at the front of the room.
There I was, punk rock girl, sporting my queer uniform of shaved head, ripped flannel, and chunky black glasses, making my performance debut. I interwove a personal anecdote of someone complaining about “cheap shit from Taiwan,” my birth in Taipei and growing up in the U.S. in a mixed-race family with a white father and Chinese mother, and facts about the labor conditions of Taiwanese women making U.S. products. I remember my props made from cardboard. I remember shouting the line “Chinese, Japanese, skinny knees, look at these!” But most of all, I remember the feeling of camaraderie I felt with the Asian American artists and audience.
Because a place like AAR existed–a pan-Asian American arts space for community involvement and social change–I came of age artistically without the pressure to conform to white aesthetics or mainstream audiences. This freedom developed an inclusive sense of interdisciplinarity and risk taking. At AAR, we were promiscuous with genre and form, pushing the bounds of identity, artistry, and content. We were DIY before DIY became hip.
The leadership duo of first generation Asian American author David Mura and longtime community activist Valerie Lee meant access to nationally visiting Asian American artists who had shaped the Asian American movement. Because AAR was committed to the intersection of arts and social change it wasn’t just nationally known artists but activists as well–I will always remember meeting veteran radical Yuri Kochiyama at an Asian American Renaissance “fireside chat.”
The linked commitment to arts, community, and social change, all with Asian-centered FUBU attitude, fostered an emerging generation of artists and leaders. My cohort at AAR went on to become poets, novelists, filmmakers. We became writing professors and artistic directors. A Minnesota legislator. Founder of a Hmong literary journal. Puppeteers and slam poets. Started our own theater companies. Together, we shaped the culture and politics of the Twin Cities. That ten-minute piece at the AARGH! cabaret developed into my first one-woman show, Made in Taiwan.
The place: the offices of AAR, in St. Paul, Minnesota, between a major street filled with Southeast Asian stores and a smaller street with Korean restaurants.
The time: a weekend afternoon in the late 1990s.
The event: a community forum hosted by AAR to discuss responses to a local shock jock radio host and his anti-Hmong comments.
What surprised many of the AAR regulars was not only the anger of the young Hmong present toward the racist station, but also their resentment of an older generation of predominantly middle-class Asian Americans of East Asian descent. As the group of Hmong artists and activists (many of whom participated in AAR’s programs) announced, this was not simply an Asian American issue but, first and foremost, a Hmong issue. And leadership would not be coming from AAR but a newly formed organization with Hmong American leadership. Other Asian Americans were free to join them but would not dictate the terms of the protest.
Part of this political shift was a response to changing demographics. Even as AAR was forming, the Asian American landscape in the Twin Cities was rapidly changing: Southeast Asian as opposed to East Asian, refugee not immigrant, a younger community, and more working class. These general shifts were common nationally yet also held local particularities: Minnesota was home to more Korean adoptees than any other U.S. state, and St. Paul was on its way to having the largest concentration of Hmong refugees outside of Asia.
The multicultural ethos of AAR’s pan-Asian vision was giving way to new notions of Asian American solidarity. Those of us who stayed involved in the KQRS boycott learned to balance tensions between a larger Asian American anti-racist analysis and an acknowledgement of Hmong leadership. While AAR has had a direct and indirect influence on multiple generations of Asian American artists in the Twin Cities, its legacy is neither total nor linear. AAR helped to foster and was in turn fostered by the many arts organizations that emerged subsequently, including Mu Performing Arts, home to both Theater Mu and Mu Daiko; Center for Hmong Arts and Talent; Hmong Arts Connection; and Pangea World Theater. A DIY respect for autonomy meant not only autonomy for Asian Americans in larger society but also autonomy within Asian America.
The place: a performance hall on the campus of a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The time: autumn, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
The event: a night of performance to fundraise and generate awareness around the case of Fong Lee, a Hmong teenager who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police. Invoking images of protest, militancy, getting arrested, and hands-in-the-air dance parties, the benefit was called “Up in Arms.”
The organizers for this event included former members of AAR alongside past leaders of the KQRS boycott. AAR alums and an even greater number of artists who had been mentored and taught by my peers were in the line-up. Our AAR cohort, having learned from the first generation of Asian American artists, were passing it on to the surfacing poets, emcees, b-girls/b-boys, and musicians stepping on stage–and frankly, we were being shown a thing or two by this youngest generation. The core organizers were Asian American, yet Hmong activists took the lead. We consulted with Fong Lee’s family, who attended the event and assembled a moving slideshow of Fong Lee that greatly contrasted with mainstream media images. All the artists performed for free, including national Asian American spoken word artists and rappers, and local poets, emcees, and musicians from Hmong, Asian American, Latino, Black, American Indian, and white communities. For this was a Hmong issue, but not only a Hmong issue. It was an Asian American cause, but not solely an Asian American cause.
I spoke at the event briefly, only to introduce my friend Michelle from the Philly-based spoken word duo Yellow Rage, as I was one week away from the expected delivery date of my first child. AAR had closed its doors five years previously, the gallery in the Warehouse District long since giving way to upscale restaurants and condos, yet as I stood on stage, belly full of promise, as banners behind me sang, “End Police Brutality” and “Justice for Fong Lee,” I was reminded of the power of community, arts, and social change. This is what AAR gave me, and what I give back.
In 1998, Rajini Srikanth and I, along with several (then “young” and now “senior”) scholars, debated the question of whether South Asians “belong” (or should even attempt belonging) in the paradigm of Asian America in a controversial essay collection, A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. It was a question that most of us who were first-generation immigrants in the academy were contemplating in our own personal and professional lives as we integrated into the U.S., and were setting out to define ourselves (or be defined) through job markets, tenure and promotion committees, and so on. Some of us were also literary scholars trying to define South Asian American literature as a worthwhile academic field that we felt needed to be studied further.
In the introduction, “Closing the Gap? South Asians Challenge Asian American Studies,” Srikanth and I had to work hard to justify to our readers that South Asian American writers did indeed exist and that their novels, short stories, poetry, and memoirs were available in print, even though neither our colleagues in Asian American studies nor the burgeoning second-generation South Asian American college student population had yet discovered them. Due to the restrictive immigration laws, there were very few South Asians who had fully settled in the U.S. before 1969, the moment of the birth of Asian American Studies at the San Francisco State University protests. Since most South Asians were allowed entry only after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, there were hardly any South Asian writers who self-identified as American until the early 1990s. The plethora of writers–with the exception of Bharati Mukherjee–who until 1998 had been barely noticed by either mainstream American media or by Asian Americanists, were waiting to be read and studied by a new generation of (South) Asian Americanists. These writers included Meena Alexander, Bapsi Sidhwa, Amitav Ghosh, Ved Mehta, Ginu Kamani, Tahira Naqvi, and Shani Mootoo, to name a few.
Since 1998, a huge shift has occurred not only with the publication of many more writers, but also with the phenomenal commercial success of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, who has brought Indian American perspectives into the mainstream of American literary life by winning the Pulitzer Prize, being a regular feature in The New Yorker, and having her bestselling novel The Namesake transformed into a highly publicised film by Mira Nair. Among literary scholars, the award-winning transnational and diasporic works of Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, and Meena Alexander have drawn attention in the first decade of the 21st century. Still, although the “ethnicized” aspects of the lived reality of South Asian Americans’ cultural and political lives has dramatically shifted due to their explicit racialization since 9/11 (recalling discrimination in the first wave of Indian immigration in the early 20th century), it is not yet part of the literary representations. Most South Asian Americans are still playing the role of the model minority, and the majority of writers have continued to write about the earlier Asian American paradigms of “Claiming America”–whether as first or second generations.
Within the field of Asian American and diasporic studies, South Asian American literary texts now occasionally make it into the curriculum or on conference panels, but it is still largely writers such as Bharati Mukherjee or Jhumpa Lahiri who are highly overrepresented. The expansion of the canon has followed an additive model and has not involved any paradigmatic shifts. Recent and forthcoming scholarship on South Asian American writers is focused on the same select few–Bharati Mukherjee (Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee, ed. Bradley C. Edwards, 2009), Kiran Desai (Critical Responses to Kiran Desai, ed. Sunita Sinha, 2009), Meena Alexander (Passages to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander, eds. Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts, 2009), and Jhumpa Lahiri (Naming Jhumpa Lahiri: Canons and Controversies, eds. Lavina Dhingra and Floyd Cheung, 2011). The only major book-length study of South Asian American literature is still Rajini Srikanth’s The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of America (2004). Although individual authors such as Mukherjee and Lahiri demand critical attention worldwide–representing Indian American (although mostly Bengali upper-middle class) immigrant experiences, the latter’s text having been translated into nearly thirty languages–it might be fair to say the scholarly field as a whole has not evolved as rapidly as may have been expected, given the initial spate of publications of diasporic South Asian literary works. Perhaps the second generation of South Asian Americanists will create new literature that will reflect more of their realities as Americans without focusing as much on the problems of immigration.
Audrey Wu Clark
This response will briefly sketch the critical formation of the Asian American literary canon in order to trace the continuities between early (before the Civil Rights era) and late (present-day) Asian American literature. In the 1974 anthology Aiiieeeee!, Frank Chin et al. constructed a separatist, cultural nationalist Asian American literary canon that distinguished “authentic” writers of Asian American “sensibility” from “Americanized Chinese” or Asian writers who were Orientalist “sell-outs” to mainstream, white American culture. Their separatist polemic restored Asian American manhood within the literary imaginary and bludgeoned contemporary feminist and transnational projects such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Despite Chin et al.’s important contribution to the inauguration of the field, many Asian American critics in the following decades seem to have departed from the domestic and masculinist framework of the Aiiieeeee! anthology. Lisa Lowe’s magisterial Immigrant Acts (1996) famously characterized Asian American culture in terms of transnational “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity.” Acknowledging gender difference in her theorization of Asian American critique, Lowe nevertheless argues, like Chin et al., for a separatist framework:
Asian American critique proceeds immanently by inhabiting the historical formation of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in contradiction with the economic and political spheres. Yet this critique extends to more than rearticulating itself as the negative residue of the nonuniversal…Asian American culture is the site of more than critical negation of the U.S. nation; it is a site that shifts and marks alternatives to the national terrain by occupying other spaces, imagining different narratives and critical historiographies, and enacting practices that give rise to new forms of subjectivity and new ways of questioning the government of human life by the national state.
Her notion that Asian American subjectivity emerges from the contradiction between Asian American racial particularity and American universalism–the notion that American democracy is accessible to all and internationally replicable–influenced later critical works on Asian abjection and Asian American subjectless discourse such as David Leiwei Li’s Imagining the Nation (1998) and Kandice Chuh’s imagine otherwise (2003), respectively. The emphasis on racial particularity in recent critical works, however, often disregards the relationship between racial particularity and American universalism.
Critics from the 1990s onward have placed much emphasis on Asian American racial particularity (as abject “residue” or productive subjectivity) to the extent that they seem to have neglected the ways in which Asian American subjectivity dialectically engages with American universalism. However, in a recent article, Susan Koshy recuperates the dialectic of minority cosmopolitanism, or universalism, as a theoretical framework for the field. Borrowing from Homi Bhabha’s notion of the unhomely, she argues that unhomeliness or “diasporic citizenship” in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies represents a minority cosmopolitanism that revises Western hegemonic notions of cosmopolitanism. Koshy’s theorization of minority cosmopolitanism bypasses any specific consideration of the American nation in the critique of U.S. legal and social exclusions of Asians. In the same vein, I am interested in how Asian American cosmopolitanism in literature stems from beliefs in American universalism despite the lasting legal or social exclusions of ethnic Asians from the nation. Thus I am unwilling to altogether dispense with the conceptual unit of the nation.
Early (before the Civil Rights era) and contemporary authors represent the racial particularity of their “Asian American” protagonists as universal. The protagonists’ performances of universalism expose the doubleness of American universalism–that is, the failed universalism that excluded racial minorities and the promised inclusive universalism that is yet to come. Since Americanism was conceived through liberal universalism during the period of Asian exclusion (1882-1943), becoming “Asian American” for early authors such as Sui Sin Far and Carlos Bulosan, and their protagonists, universalized their racial particularity to their predominantly white audiences. Their critiques of Asian American racialization attempt to herald genuine, universal democracy, calling on the U.S. to make good on its democratic promises. However, after what David Leiwei Li calls the period of “Asian abjection” (1943 to the present), the protagonists of contemporary Asian American texts such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Interpreter of Maladies” and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters cynically perform American universalism. These performances distinguish the nation that continues to racialize them from cosmopolitan notions of universalism. And yet here the cosmopolitan placelessness that Koshy describes often takes place in the domestic space of the American nation. Despite the pessimism of their performances, there still seems to be hope in a democratic fulfillment in their cosmopolitan allegiances within and without the nation.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” the eponymous short story of her 1999 collection, the Indian tour guide Mr. Kapasi becomes infatuated with a South Asian American woman named Mrs. Das, who is visiting relatives in India with her husband and children. Dissatisfied with his lackluster vocations and his own submissive and indifferent wife, Mr. Kapasi is enthralled by Mrs. Das’s performance of an emasculating, voluble American beauty. Her robust American appearance–as she wears “a close-fitting blouse styled like a man’s undershirt…[h]er hair, shorn only a little longer than her husband’s”–reminds him of his own emasculation. After Mrs. Das asks him to write down his address on a piece of paper in order to send him photograph prints of their trip, Mr. Kapasi begins his fantasy of their romantic, international exchange in which they would arrive at some sort of mutual, universal understanding of their nations: “He would explain things to her, things about India, and she would explain things to him about America. In its own way this correspondence would fulfill his dream, of serving as an interpreter between nations. He looked at her straw bag, delighted that his address lay nestled among its contents.” As he becomes further acquainted with her and the “common, trivial little secret” of her past marital infidelities, however, he is disenchanted with her and inadvertently insults her when he suggests that her malady is guilt rather than pain. The break in their intimacy is further represented at the end of the story when Mrs. Das is tending to her son Bobby’s injury and the piece of paper bearing his address slips out of her purse and flutters away in the wind. The loss of Mr. Kapasi’s written address illuminates the ephemeral fantasy on which he had built his anticipated relationship with Mrs. Das, signifying the unrealized possibility of a universal “interpreter between nations.”
Reflective of its post-Civil Rights era, postnational moment, “Interpreter of Maladies” demonstrates a disenchantment with American universalism. The overseas interactions between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi illustrate Lowe’s claim that “the Asian American, even as a citizen, continues to be located outside the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation.” The short story concludes with a remaining “picture of the Das family” in India–displaced and frazzled by Bobby’s injuries from an attack by the native monkeys–that “he would preserve forever in his mind.” Rediscovering their cultural roots yet finding themselves out of place in India, the Das family carves out an alternative space that reinvents American universalism and restructures Asian American culture as a space of racial particularity.
The celebration of American universalism in many early Asian American texts, such as Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946), troubles what seem to be contemporary transnational disavowals of American universalism. In fact, the dual critique of American democracy and championing of American universalism in America Is in the Heart, for example, served as fodder for Chin et. al’s cultural national aim to carve out a separatist America that was an alternative to the white, mainstream United States. But it is clear by Bulosan’s conclusion that he is neither celebrating a cultural nationalist America nor a nation-less space of exile but a universally inclusive utopia that is figured in the yet-to-be-realized American nation:
It came to me that no man–no one at all–could destroy my faith in America again…It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers and family in the Philippines–something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contribute something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faith in America that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.
Despite the trenchant racism he experiences throughout the novel, he appears to play the role of the patriotic American in the conclusion. He envisions America as including his multi-ethnic and multinational friends and family, rather than a separatist space of Asian American cultural nationalism. Far from dismissing the nation, Bulosan declares his unabashed devotion to a deferred America in spite of his protagonist’s confrontations with status quo racial discrimination. Early (pre-Civil Rights-era) Asian American literature is rife with seemingly non-ironic, non-imperialistic expressions of American universalism. For example, as a biracial “Eurasian” writing in the United States in 1909, Sui Sin Far imagines herself as a privileged, albeit self-deprecating, “interpreter between nations” in her autobiography: “I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant ‘connecting link.’” Unlike Mr. Kapasi, Mrs. Spring Fragrance–the Chinese American protagonist of Sui Sin Far’s book of short stories–goes on to realize her performance as a cultural interpreter of sorts when she attempts to write a book about “[t]hese mysterious, inscrutable, incomprehensible Americans…” Texts before the Asian American cultural nationalist moment of the 1970s could pledge their allegiance to American democracy and diplomacy despite contemporaneous Asian exclusions and American imperial incursions overseas. And yet Asian American studies seems to repudiate American universalism during and after the cultural nationalist period.
Early and later Asian American texts demonstrate that contemporary literature problematizes but does not completely disregard ideological assumptions about American universalism. For example, although most of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters takes place in the Philippines, the U.S. makes known its hegemonic commercial presence in the postcolonial Philippines throughout the novel. Dogeaters depicts the tyrannical autocracy of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines (1965-1986), which was economically and politically supported by the U.S. Amidst the political corruption and repression in the Philippines, one of the main characters, Rio Gonzaga, associates her coming of age with the telos of becoming American: “I have started menstruating. To celebrate, I cut off all my hair” (to look like the American actress Audrey Hepburn). She also aspires to one day move to Hollywood to become a film director. The self-conscious performances of Americanism suggest that the large-scale performances of American universalism are complicit in the corruption of the Marcos regime. Rio and other characters perceive America as a utopian promised land of democracy: upon visiting her family’s abandoned home, she meets the caretaker Manong, who feels similarly about America. Rio states, “I am relieved finally to be alone, in this desolate house with only Manong for company. He studies me with his bright eyes. ‘You live in America?’ His niece is a nurse in San Francisco, California, he tells me with pride. Someday, he hopes she’ll send for him.” However, the desolation of her parents’ house in the Philippines–the very place in which she had dreamed of America–seems to reflect the impoverished state of inclusionary democracy that she finds in the U.S. When she arrives in the U.S., her performance of American universalism displaces her: “We settle first in New York, then Boston. I convince myself I am not homesick, and try not to bring up my father or brother when I speak.” The U.S. does not become a familial home for Rio. She concludes the novel in a state of cosmopolitan “unhomeliness,” “anxious and restless, at home only in airports.” Instead of offering her a home, America is where she realizes her cosmopolitan homelessness–one that is not altogether devoid of hope for a democratic utopia. She concludes her story with a narration of a theatrical and hopeful dream:
In my recurring dream, my brother and I inhabit the translucent bodies of nocturnal moths with curved, fragile wings. We are pale green, with luminous celadon eyes, fantastic and beautiful. In dream after dream, we are drawn to the same silent tableau: a mysterious light glowing from the window of a deserted, ramshackle house. The house is sometimes perched on a rocky abyss, or on a dangerous cliff overlooking a turbulent sea. The meaning is simple and clear, I think. Raul and I embrace our destiny: we fly around in circles, we swoop and dive in effortless arcs against a barren sky, we flap and beat our wings in our futile attempts to reach what surely must be heaven.
Rio and Raul remain excluded, on the outside of a deserted yet alluring house (perhaps representing the America of her childhood dreams), despite their “futile attempts to reach what surely must be heaven.” The utopian rhetoric in this dream sequence resonates with the aspirations for the “final fulfillment” of America at the end of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (often cited by critics as Dogeaters’ predecessor). And yet the “heaven” referenced at the conclusion of Dogeaters is not specified as a particular nation. Whereas earlier Asian American texts earnestly sought to call upon America to fulfill its democratic promises through their characters’ hopeful if failed performances of American universalism, more cynical performances of American universalism in contemporary texts envision a cosmopolitan democracy that may or may not include the American nation. However, the U.S. serves as a pivotal starting point from which the protagonists of early and later texts anticipate and continually revise their notions of a cosmopolitan democracy.
With regard to this request, I’m very uncertain about how to respond. I have had the opportunity and pleasure of publishing a number of Asian American writers, including writers who arrived on these shores in early and/or mid-life, and those whose grandparents, or even great-grandparents, arrived here long ago. I know what their work is all about, and from their work and from other reading, I have developed a greater context for the books we’ve published, which has increased my appreciation for our authors, and made me a better editor.
But I have not read extensively enough beyond our own list to express an educated opinion on this subject. I have read extensively and can speak very authoritatively about book history, and I have many ideas about the direction books and publishing will go. Asian American letters–all I have is my own experience with some outstanding authors.
And with regard to those authors–I have no generalizations to make. I can say that despite Frank Chin’s reputation as the Angry Man of Asian American Letters, his author/publisher relationship with Coffee House has always been professional. Karen Yamashita has always listened to our input, accepted much of our advice, and gone her own way at times, which is exactly the way an author should respond to an edit. Some of our authors need some hand-holding, while others radiate confidence. That can be said of every ethnicity we have ever represented on our lists, WASPs included.
It was awe-inspiring to work with U Sam Oeur, trying to get a visceral feel for the hell of the Pol Pot years. And even after all these years, there’s far too small a body of work about America’s own version of prison camps for our own legal citizens during World War II. I hope the books we published by Lawson Inada and David Mura will inspire more writers to investigate what did “happen here.”
I can say that among serious white readers, there does persist a rarely spoken assumption that occasionally bubbles to the surface, and that continually pisses me off: the assumption that writers of color are so intent on speaking for and/or to their particular communities, that rather than experiment with the latest literary techniques, they rely on simple story-telling. I hope that the books we’ve published, and the recognition Karen Yamashita received for I Hotel, will contribute to blasting that pernicious idea out of the water.
First off, it seems worth pointing out that any notion that we might have of “Asian American literature” is wholly dependent upon what someone at some point deemed worthy of publication. Decisions made by countless editors and publishers have been instrumental in shaping what we can even discuss as Asian American literature. And it’s more than likely that those decisions were made for reasons that had nothing to do with an interest in establishing or developing something called Asian American literature.
That’s because a lot of the books that are considered to be part of the “canon” are published by commercial presses. Commercial presses are, by definition, trying to generate profits–so a book’s projected ability to generate sales is often the default criteria for what makes a book attractive for publication. And for books as for movies, it’s often presumed that the best predictor for sales success is some kind of precedent–i.e., the success of another book that is roughly comparable in terms of narrative arc or style of writing or both. Generating sales is often also seen as being dependent upon how “broadly accessible” a story might be. This in turn means that the books will inevitably be pitched towards some notion of a “typical” reader–which, in a country that has less than five percent Asian American population–is not likely to be Asian American. Of course, within these broad parameters, there is room for impressive, even ground-breaking books. But the fact remains–you’re not likely to find books published by large, commercial presses that are astoundingly innovative or breaking down barriers of one kind or another. There’s a certain inherent conservatism that’s built into the whole process.
Because non-commercial presses and independent presses typically don’t make decisions based primarily on what will sell, they are free to emphasize other criteria they deem important but that might not seem profitable. Poetry, for example, tends to be the domain of non-profit presses. But like the larger, more commercial presses, indie presses are often saddled with explicit or implicit quotas. Even now, it’s not unusual to hear stories about writers being rejected because “we already have one of those”–i.e., because there’s another Asian American already slated for publication. This is of course particularly true for larger, more commercial presses–but I would imagine it would be true of any press looking to have a “balanced” list, regardless of how expansive its politics or progressiveness might be. This means that any author looking to be published by a publisher that isn’t explicitly Asian diasporic in nature can’t avoid being considered, at least in part, in light of her ethnicity.
At Kaya Press, on the other hand, we publish only Asian diasporic writers, which means that we’re never going to think that we have too many of them on our list. Paradoxically, this frees us up to be more broad-minded about the kinds of work we publish than we might otherwise be. Having determined that we are going to work with a well-defined, specific set of authors and experiences–going broad and deep as opposed to broad and shallow–we cease having to think about it. It fades into the level of background noise, against which other, perhaps more meaningful nuances–qualities of humor or unusual perspectives, for example, or aesthetic risks, or experimentations with narrative–begin to stand out. If you’re the only bird in a zoo, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be taken as a prototypical or representative type; if you’re only one amongst a number of different birds, you have a much better chance of being recognized for the quality of your song or that talent for mimicry.
By restricting our range of possible subjects and authors, we’re able to consider the variety of ideas, perspectives, and stories–the multitudes–that actually exist, instead of looking for a self-reinforcing set of standards. Our argument is this: instead of trying to pretend that such quotas don’t exist, that we live somehow in a colorblind world where decisions are made only on the basis of merit, why don’t we acknowledge that particular, inextricable aspect of an author’s identity in order not have to think about it again? Just as importantly, having that broader base of commonality makes it easier to see the variations in approaches to subject matter and technique that exist–the broad range of what’s possible for a writer from an Asian diasporic backgound becomes more apparent. Trends and through-lines begin to stand out, as do genuine innovations.
(And isn’t that the point of having a field called Asian American literature to begin with? The very recognition–though it is, understandably, a contested one in many ways–that Asian American can be considered a category is itself an acknowledgement that something can be gained from grouping certain works together and comparing and contrasting them.)
So while it’s still not unusual for authors to bridle over being categorized as “Asian American”–after all, over-reliance on any single label results in a certain degree of flattening out of nuance and singularity that can be uncomfortable as well as inaccurate–we think of it as an opportunity. Not an unproductive fracturing into narrow interest groups but an attempt to do one thing thoroughly and well. It’s the same principle that they teach in any kind of martial arts: solidify your center of gravity, and you can strike out in any direction. In other words, we’re free to innovate even beyond what our readers might think they want. Like that old chestnut has it: progress happens not from meeting expectations, but from exploding them.
So from the very beginning, Kaya Press has been explicitly diasporic and transnational in focus. Again, instead of instead of trying to perpetuate certain kinds of tropes and storylines, we’re looking for those books and titles that people haven’t even realized that they were missing yet, pushing them to read books that astound and surprise and entertain–that cause readers to dig in and think a little bit more deeply or broadly or thoughtfully than they might otherwise have done. We’ve published the first Samoan female novelist, Sia Figiel, and brought one of Australia’s most acclaimed literary authors, Brian Castro, to the United States for the first time. Migritude, by Shailja Patel, brings the complex personal and political history of South Asians in Kenya to vivid life through a poetry that’s part memoir and part song, while Koon Woon’s poetry about mental illness and homelessness reveals hidden worlds of smoking hog snouts in pots and tenement buildings that exist past the outer limits of the model minority myth.
And we’re just getting started. Our most recent project, Lament in the Night, by Shoson Nagahara, promises to open up a whole new area of Asian American literature–works written in non-English languages about early American immigrant experiences. Originally published in the 1920s by a Japanese-language press based in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, Nagahara never had to worry about issues of representation or how his work would be received by a white audience. And so he writes about hunger and gambling dens and sexuality with the raw, vivid bluntness that you might expect from a writer deeply influenced by Knut Hamsun and Tolstoy.
What other immigrant masterpieces have been excised from American literary history because they weren’t available in English? What other books fell just beyond the light of acceptable taste and were consequently overlooked? Plans for future reclamations include the complete work of H.T. Tsiang, an early 20th century Chinese American who self-published scathingly humorous critiques of capitalist culture in 1930s New York, as well as Song of Arirang, the account of real-life Korean anti-Japanese-colonialist revolutionary Kim San, who ended up fighting in Mao’s Red Army.
In the next couple of seasons, we’re going to be publishing a performance piece about apocalyptic anxiety and abortion by Sam Chanse, poetry by Korean American adoptee Nicky Schildkraut, and prose meditations by Amar Ravva that combine photographs, video stills, and a Hindu pilgrimage and ceremony to explore intersecting cultural paths in Northern California. We’ll be continuing our series of books by influential Asian film directors with a book on Kaneto Shindo, and we’re currently in the process of plotting out a new series about Asian Latin American writers. And that’s just a portion of what we’ve got planned.
But that’s the job of the editor–at least that’s what Kaya Press expects from its editors: not just the ability to recognize what’s out there, but the curiosity and the intrepidness to see what else should be out there if only people were willing to open themselves up to it. If there’s a political imperative behind the work that we do, it stems from our belief that books can still change people’s lives. And that books do this by planting seeds in people’s imaginations–seeds of possibility and movement. The books we try to publish are those that are going to prod other people into motion–to think, There’s no reason why I can’t take my own work into some even more radical, mind-blowing direction.
The best lesson we’ve learned over the years is that this cycle doesn’t take too long to come to fruition. Ishle Yi Park, whose book of poetry and prose, Temperature of This Water, went on to win a PEN Open Books Award, was inspired at least in part by Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual, whose work we had published a few years earlier. Amar Ravva, whose manuscript we will be publishing this spring, recently told me that he decided that it was possible for someone like him to write after reading Rolling the R’s in college.
We’re not the only publisher out there, of course. There have always been and continue to be other amazing presses, the work of which we admire and applaud. (In fact, in the increasingly democratized world brought about by access to technology, there are more and more publishers doing groundbreaking work.) And there are and will continue to be amazing books by Asian diasporic authors that will be published regardless of whether or not Kaya Press continues to exist or not. But we do exist, and we are putting in the work. And that work is still necessary.
Why did we decide upon pick the category of Asian diasporic literature anyways? Why not pick another category? Or go broader? Literature of migration and immigration, for example, or the even headier “literature of displacement”? The fact of the matter is you have to start somewhere, and best to begin with what you know and care about. So identity is a part of it. And the choice of what aspect of that identity to emphasize is a part of it as well. Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of resources. Although we’ve been around for a while, we’re still a tiny, mostly volunteer press, with the limited resources, both monetary and in terms of personnel that that implies. Given these realities, it makes sense to do this one area exhaustively and well. And maybe, if we do a good enough job of accomplishing what we’ve set out for ourselves–we might even inspire other people to publish at the cutting edge of some other area they have chosen to light up with their interest.
If all of this seems a bit too much like self-aggrandizement or elaborate self-justification, it’s probably because it is, to some extent. But when you’re working in the fields, head to the ground, trying to get out books, it’s hard not to get a little bleary-eyed when you raise your head and look back at the long, neatly planted rows behind you. Most of the time, we’re just focused on whatever task is in front of us. Leave the rest to the academics and scholars. We just want to get the next book out.
I spent a lengthy amount of time this past decade, along with Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam, co-editing Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010). Since this book was the first collection of its kind, the process–in relation to the trajectory of Asian American literature–was akin to going through a wormhole.
When we three editors met at The Pied Piper Bar in downtown San Francisco to first discuss compiling a selection of South Asian American poetic voices at the end of 2002, we were reacting to a changed climate for South Asian Americans. The post-9/11 backlash had broken the discourse about the South Asian community out of its neatly contained box. The act of amplifying our community’s voices had a different sense of gravity then, and the idea of collecting them–as inspired by literary publicist and friend Kim McMillon–seemed a way to make some kind of difference. It was almost uncanny that some twenty years after the Asian American literary movement was born, we were feeling a similar impetus to make ourselves heard.
After doing some research into what kinds of collections had already been published, we were very surprised to discover that no anthology of South Asian American poetry existed. This was shocking because South Asian Americans, particularly Indian Americans, had made such a name for themselves in the publishing industry–especially in contemporary fiction, with Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Vikram Chandra, and Jhumpa Lahiri becoming best-selling authors. Suddenly the project took on a different feel, still just as important, but one that had more to do with excavating the aesthetics of South Asian American poetry. Just like the progression of Asian American literature, our project became less about identity and more about craft and process.
In putting together the first-ever South Asian American poetry anthology, we were able to think about the writing in a 21st century context, while considering South Asian American poetry over the past thirty years. Most significant for us is this idea that we express in our introduction to Indivisible: “We would argue that, rather than being relegated to a literary backwater, South Asian American poets are an essential–and indivisible–part of the landscape of American poetry.”
We collapsed what could be considered the “earlier generation” of poets with the “later generation” in one book. For example, one of the South Asian American community’s most senior poets is Agha Shahid Ali, who began publishing his work in the early 1970s with the renowned Calcutta-based independent press, Writer’s Workshop, before publishing his first collection in America, The Half-Inch Himalayas (Wesleyan University Press) in 1987, with many more to follow. Shahid Ali’s work is at once lyrical and formal, and as Amitav Ghosh wrote in a long eulogy after Ali’s death in 2001, “The formalization of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid’s most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry.”
We were thrilled to feature a selection of this esteemed poet’s work in Indivisible, but even more exciting was having his work echo against that of younger poets like Dilruba Ahmed, whose poem “The 18th Century Weavers of Muslin Whose Thumbs Were Chopped” is dedicated to Shahid Ali. She writes, “What you’ve heard / of the weavers is no alchemy, it’s true / they could have woven / you a cloth as fine as pure mist.”
Ahmed’s first collection of poetry Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011) was the winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize in 2010. While Ahmed pays respect to Shahid Ali, she also writes about the realities of being Muslim in an American climate that the elder poet never witnessed. In “Learning,” she writes about a Bangladeshi American couple whose rhythm during ballroom dance lessons is disrupted by thoughts of the racism and xenophobia they face in everyday life.
You see this connection with Shahid Ali again with writer Tanuja Mehrotra, who invented a “Threaded Ghazal” in which she weaves the formal style in and around more experimental writing. Her poem “Song for New Orleans” is a mix of blues writing, refrains, and rhyme that tells the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor along with her own personal recollections of that city. Mehrothra’s fearlessness in writing about America and her place in it finds a strong continuity with the new generation of writers we featured in Indivisible.
Whether it was Sachin Patel’s spoken word poem, “The Blacktop Gospels,” about his self-worth being honed on the basketball court, or Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s innovative persona poem, “The Mascot of Beavercreek High Breaks Her Silence,” the poems in Indivisible locate themselves in exciting and surprising places and do it with verve. It isn’t that South Asian American poetry is signified by the poets not writing or being influenced by identity and their homelands; it’s that the poets incorporate these ideas into a larger canvas of influences.
In the year since Indivisible has been out, I continue to read exciting new poets that add to the conversation we started with our anthology. From spoken word poets like Pushkar Sharma and Sathya Sridharan of Brown Star Revolution, who infuse humor, musicality, and pointed race politics into their performance poetry, to Tarfia Faizullah, whose powerful poetry is based on a series of interviews she conducted with rape survivors from the 1971 Bangaldesh Liberation War, poets are reaching back to the first sparks of the Asian American literary movement, making new space in the canon of contemporary American poetry.
The idea of being “from” a particular place, of being rooted in a cultural and social landscape, is very, very important to me. Because of course the Philippines has given me my childhood, my world view, my identity, everything! I actively identify myself as “Filipina” on every single submission I send out. Lately, I’ve taken to saying, “I’m a writer from the Philippines.”
The whole issue of “generations” of Asian American writers is very interesting to me. I realize that I don’t think of myself in terms of “generations,” I think of myself in terms of a “wave”–and this particular one, the one that I am a part of, is the wave of Filipino graduate students that came to America in the 1980s and 1990s, who enrolled in universities in Boston, Chicago, Stanford, Los Angeles and who ended up parlaying the J-1 or F-1 student visa into a green card and eventual citizenship. Consequently, I don’t have the same take on race as Filipino American writers whose parents or grandparents immigrated here, and who grew up as American citizens.
It wasn’t until after my first book Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila came out that I began to connect with Filipino Americans. In the Stanford Creative Writing Program, I was the only Asian. And being at Stanford isn’t exactly the real world: you’re in an insulated landscape, with mostly nerds! When I began to give readings, that’s when I saw how rich and varied the Filipino American communities were, but I still wasn’t sure I identified completely, because I still considered myself “Filipina.” Even after 30 years of living in America, I still feel that I have a whole different set of experiences from every Filipino American I meet.
Back when I was still in college in Manila, I read Bienvenido Santos because he was assigned, and Carlos Bulosan because my father liked him, especially a piece called “The Laughter of my Father.” My father was born and raised in Bacolod, on the island of Negros Occidental, but he attended the Georgetown School of Law in the early 1950s. He, too, must have experienced some of Bulosan’s wrenching sense of displacement, of sadness.
On the other hand, I felt detached from Bulosan’s world but shared some of the powerful nostalgia that suffused Santos’ stories. It was actually overwhelming to read a Bienvenido Santos story, for most of his characters suffer such loneliness. As a college student in Manila, in a country that was largely one race, I didn’t connect the loneliness to discrimination or marginalization. I couldn’t until after I had lived in America for a while. Now I see the pattern so clearly.
Here are the voices of Filipino American writers that I truly relate to: number one, R. Zamora Linmark. I came to him through Jessica Hagedorn’s Asian American anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead; how much I admired the vignettes–the voice and the emotion. His writing blew me away. Rolling the R’s was written in pidgin patois and so rooted in the landscape of multicultural Hawaii, I could hear the voice in my head long after I finished his book. And now he has three collections of poetry and a new novel. The promise of his early years is being borne out now in spades.
Next, the women poets: Luisa Igloria, Karen Llagas, Maiana Minahal, Barbara Jane Reyes, Sarah Gambito, Jean Vengua Gier, Virginia Cerenio, Angela Narciso Torres. They taught me that it is possible to write as a Filipina, to write as a member of a community. That was truly precious to me.
Finally, there is a group of fiction writers, whom I might describe as “hard-hitting realists”: writers like Jessica Hagedorn, Brian Ascalon Roley, and maybe even Tess Uriza Holthe. Each of these three has brought Filipino characters to the forefront of their fiction, and they have garnered wide (meaning mainstream) American readership. I am grateful for their efforts, for in many ways they opened the doors for myself and for so many other younger writers.
And can I get started on the playwrights? We have so many in San Francisco, Chicago, and of course New York. In San Francisco, the Filipino Americans have found great support in organizations like Bindlestiff, KulArts, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Right now, I’m feeling this pull to return to the Philippines, at least on a more regular basis, like once a year. Right now, I feel more like an “expatriate writer” than a “Filipino American” or even a “Filipino” writer. I don’t know whether other Filipino American writers who immigrated here feel the same way I do.
But I do think it is important to nurture a feeling of connectedness, whether to our community here, or to our home countries.
Writing is really about communication. It’s a way to break out of the “island” of a marginalized identity and to assert oneself as part of the larger world.
More and more lately, I’ve been writing about a wide diversity of topics, and have even written some science fiction, which is my new passion. In science fiction, you don’t have to write: “xxx had left the Philippines two decades earlier…” It’s very liberating, that feeling that you can just write: “Poldo, with two heads, was trying to keep his balance.” Or something like that! My newest stories, the ones I started writing this year, have all gotten placed in magazines that feature speculative or science fiction. Your race doesn’t matter so much when you write in the science fiction field.
And maybe that’s what I really needed. Something to write about, apart from race.
Eddy Gana: My first intro to Asian American poets was when I first heard of Yellow Rage. That was my first time ever seeing a poet up there who wasn’t Black, wasn’t Latino, wasn’t White, and that was how I was exposed to spoken word. The first time I was ever introduced to first-generation APIA poets was at Summit. I didn’t know about Lawson Fusao Inada, I didn’t know about David Mura.
I originally started doing hip hop and rap, and I wanted to move away from relying on a beat and to just focus more on the lyrics. Rappers can rhyme or rap to a tight beat, and the crowd can move with them, but they’re only responding to the beat, they’re not listening to what they’re saying.
Mark Maza: I liked written poetry back in high school. Huge fan of Shakespeare and the sonnets, the plays, as well as other poets. That was my exposure to poetry–the classic, written style. It wasn’t until I was looking for some rap songs and accidentally downloaded some Def Poetry–this was back in the Napster days. Someone ripped it from the TV screen. It wasn’t the prettiest thing to listen to in terms of sound quality, but in terms of what it was…One that stuck out was Shihan’s “Love Like This.” It was a different way of reciting poems, and this guy is saying everything he needs to say about it. The ones I actually still have the files to are Shihan’s, Beau Sia’s poem with [the line] “I think love is the most beautiful thing / in the world”–that one was really awesome. I have Sage Francis’ “Five Fingers” and Saul Williams’ “Amethyst Rock.” Those are the ones I remember, and it’s a different style. There’s not a defined structure, and you can use slang, you can use anything you want. That’s what kind of drew me in.
If you look at spoken word as a new avenue of literature, or subculture, more Asian Americans can delve into it. We discussed this earlier with Eddy; we grew up with hip hop as a main influence. So it’s something familiar to us and what we know–but still can expose us to new things.
EG: Spoken word helped me have a great interest in the page. It was that bridge, the gateway.
Stephanie Sajor: I liked that spoken word was a good mix between the creative and the emotional. It’s not fake. Spoken word is just so raw. It’s not super structured–it’s a reflection of raw emotion in the way it’s expressed, the way it comes out on stage. That’s what connected me to it. And I agree with what Mark and Eddy have already said–how it bridges this gap. Also, it’s a reflection of the way writing evolves–it’s a different style, a different form that’s come out now. That’s spoken word, that’s what we found.
Susan Diep: Like what Steph said, it’s just real, it’s just raw. Not pretentious–although some of it is (just being real). And it just felt comfortable. And I think part of why it felt like an appropriate home is the people you encounter, too. It feels like a community. People have your back and you can freely say what you want to say and they will respect you for it. They may not agree with it, but they’ll respect you.
I started writing because of Def Poetry Jam, and specifically because of this poet named Sarah Kay. She’s about stories–that’s what it’s about for her. Sometimes spoken word feels like that talk story–stories passed down through your family from years ago. I feel like that’s what spoken word is–we’re sharing these stories and passing them down, sometimes we’re writing them down, and it’s documented. As Asian Americans, we’re documenting where we are in this age, in this time, the kind of things we’re going through. It’s kind of crazy doing cultural stuff and you’re in front of a group that’s not really–well, they’re white–and they might not know what you’re talking about. Or it’s crazy when you’re like Vietnamese, and they’re Ethiopian or someone from some other country and they might not understand where you’re coming from, but when you share this thing, and you see the look on their faces, and you see they’re getting it because there are parts they connect to, and they’re getting to understand you a little bit.
It’s also an amazing experience. I feel like I’m still pretty young. Twenty-something, just graduated from college, and I’m still discovering things. I feel like ever since I started doing spoken word and going to APIA Summit, I’ve realized how important history is as a part of moving forward.
SS: This sixty-something-year-old person may know what we twenty-somethings are going through as second-generation Asian Americans–our parents are immigrants and we know what it’s like to be trapped between two cultures.
MM: I would agree. It’s important to know there’s a connection between generations–but sometimes it does feel we’re part of the same struggle.
The fact that we chose to do this–something compels us to be on that stage, whether it’s to prove our courage to ourselves, to share our stories. That’s an important touchstone: the transition from just being a regular person to someone who does poetry and spoken word, spits poems, talks in front of an audience of strangers.
Eddy always talks about giving back to the youth, the community, and doing outreach for them. That’s something I want to do. At least being involved with a youth slam team, to get them to be as passionate about this as I am, as we are. We can expose young minds to this art form along with expanding their literary library–they won’t just be reading stuff their high schools assign them, but can read stuff we tell them to check out that maybe their high schools won’t tell them about.
EG: Just from personal experiences, like when we perform at venues, we’ll be among the few faces that are Asian. We’ll go to venues that are predominantly Black, Latino, or White. Generally, at spoken word venues, at least the ones we’ve been to like Elevated or DPL, Asian Americans or Asians in general are a minority, and as a group, going up, sharing our stories, we show that Asian Americans have stories too.
“It’s a race and I’m running…It’s a race and I’m running…
SS: “But where is that goddamn finish line?” We’re still looking for that finish line. I think it’d be cool to be these torchbearers. They’re passing it down to us, and maybe sometime in the future we’ll pass it down to someone else to continue this legacy of Asian American writers, to be more present in this community.
*forWord is an arts collective that emphasizes spoken word and creative writing. Its four founding members–Susan Diep, Eddy M. Gana Jr., Mark Maza, and Stephanie Sajor–met while students at the University of California, Irvine.
Surprisingly like today’s flashmob, creative people came out of nowhere to meet at various locations when the group we called Talk Story met to talk about literature, pidgin English, and publishing in Hawai’i. At first no one, not even organizers, knew exactly what the subject entailed. By word of mouth, people gathered in a way totally unlike online communications today. They brought in friends, and introductions were made time after time. We had to find even bigger locations after each meeting. But of course we began with mere dozens of writers, not thousands of eager strangers willing to get befriended or socially networked.
Sorting backwards through the past 32 years to the origins of Bamboo Ridge Press, I’m aware that what was planned as a small conference of writers, Hawai’i’s Ethnic American Writers, to be exact, has blossomed into a solid writing community with a reputation for insightful programs, thought-provoking readings, and lots of food sharing. The goals that Stephen Sumida, Arnold Hiura, and I shared back in 1978 to 1979 were about increasing dialogue between writers of our region and Asian American writers from the continent. We wanted to hear the voices of new resident authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston, and the established ones, like Milton Murayama, as well as the Aiiieeeee! editors, among many others. We wanted to promote the largely unread, often ethnically Hawaiian, the unheard older writers of our state. We wanted to celebrate haku mele and song-writing, as well as poetry and chant. We wanted to bring pidgin English writing to light. And very importantly we wanted to see more serious literary publishing done locally.
We weren’t calling out to the authors who promoted a different kind of florid–and although we didn’t use the term then–colonial worldview to sell their limited vision of Hawai’i during the age of war in Vietnam and fashionable flower children. Our audience was made of writers, educators, comedians, musicians, dancers, chanters, artists, and lots of students. The University of Hawai’i was not greatly impressed, but the English Department did loan us use of its copy machine. The bestselling author then was James Michener, who long continued in that role. For the sake of discussion, we asked him to address authors at our conference. He refused immediately. The idea of having Michener speak came from O.A. Bushnell, a writer who acted as a mentor with a long memory of Hawaiian history. Bushnell wanted to point out major mainland writers who, with their powerful publishers, pushed a big agenda of commercial manipulation in their fantasy of Hawai’i as a paradise made for American interests.
Other mentors were Dr. Kazuo Miyamoto, a Nisei who spent the war in a relocation camp and wrote his autobiography, and poet-Hawaiian language teacher Haunani Bernardino. Both mightily encouraged the group to persevere in doing historical research not only on deceased writers but also on the linkage between the Hawaiian language and Hawai’i Creole English. They knew it wouldn’t be easy to raise money with garage sales, sales of huli huli chicken, dried marlin strips, and boiled peanuts to augment the small grants we received from arts groups. We wanted to pay the way for speakers like Ben Santos and N.V.M. Gonzales, who would come from the Midwest, as well as the California contingent that included Wakako Yamauchi, Hisaye Yamamoto De Soto, Toshio Mori, and Jessica Hagedorn, among others. We boldly charged admission to the conference and actually collected enough to pay bills. We held two more conferences, one in Hilo and another for comedy called the Crack Me Up Conference.
But we weren’t done until Darrell Lum and Eric Chock created Bamboo Ridge Press, named for a small ridge that was used by fishermen to prop up their mostly bamboo fishing poles. Later surfers identified where they had entered the water by finding the so-called bamboo grove on the shoreline, thus a marker for the way back. The new magazine offered our state traditional and current local voices in literature, replete with pidgin, and opened the door for entry by writers from a rainbow of cultures and languages. No one was excluded, not even those who wrote in standard English. Some of the writers who early on were printed in Bamboo Ridge Press, then moved on to the national publishing scene, include Cathy Song, Lois Ann Yamanaka, and Nora Okja Keller. Hundreds of others have been published or taken a role in readings through the years. Today the press invites readers to log on to the blogs section and contribute via twitter for bambooridge.com. The 100th issue (hard copy) of Bamboo Ridge Journal will come out this year.
But as our milestone 30th anniversary t-shirts put it, “We not pau yet.” There’s a lot left to do.
We still prefer literature about Hawai’i written by people who know something about our area so that they may tell the story that also makes others care. We want to protect the views of the people who live here, even if the different voices come from a spectrum of viewpoints. We are still about celebrating the original Hawaiian energy and Hawaiian language that keeps it real. The need remains. There seems to be a true desire to keep the contextual impetus working since people continue to support the effort. The word got out, not so fast, but from the heart. It’s still local and in many fleeting ways, yes, universal.
Anna Kazumi Stahl
Given that I was born to a mixed race couple (Japanese and German) in the Deep South in 1963, I grew up in a context of rock-throwing, name-calling racism, explicit and publicly allowed. Of course, these attitudes were even then abhorred and being powerfully combated; soon enough they would be outlawed. But at the time, the narrow universe of the three blocks between my house and the schoolyard was a battle zone. Neither law nor social decency were on my side then. Indeed, as I came to know while researching Louisiana law for aspects of my first novel, Flores de un solo dÃa (Flowers of a Single Day), the statutes were against our very existence as a family: my parents’ marriage had taken place in Japan and had been registered by the U.S. Consul General there as binding in the USA. However, the fact of 1963 was that such a marriage between persons of different races was not recognized as legal in the State of Louisiana (the “sportsman’s paradise” as the license plates read). It was illegal until the Civil Rights legislation passed into federal law as binding in all states–in 1968. This meant that, had my Japanese mother been divorced or widowed before then, she would not have been entitled to custody of her children or to any monetary support (inheritance or alimony), and what was more, she would have been deported as an illegal, trespassing alien.
It wasn’t until I went to university in 1980–which also meant a move from the Deep South to New England–that I became apprised of efforts that supplied concrete, even jurisprudential responses to the racism I’d experienced growing up. Indeed, I began an accelerated phase of familiarization with “Affirmative Action thinking”: I had taken out loans to make my tuition payments, but later found out there were special scholarships available to “non-white minority” students. Senator Daniel Inouye had introduced a proposal the year before I entered college that led directly to the establishment of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was to radically alter my generation’s knowledge of our own personal, family histories. We had no idea many members of our community had been forcibly relocated and interned.
In 1983, the year I went on my Junior Year Abroad to Europe (no such programs were readily made available to us for sojourns in non-European countries), that congressional Commission determined that the WWII internment of Japanese Americans had been unjust, and in 1988 (the year I got that fluke of a grant to interview ten “deterritorialized” intellectuals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a fluke that was to open the floodgates to the felicitous though unforeseeable, unlikely course my future was to take) the United States President formalized the apology and made reparations to the Japanese Americans who’d been interned. “As if human matters could be resolved with just money”–so complained many older Japanese Americans we knew–the reparations came in the form of $20,000 checks.
So even as my life followed a course along the lines of white Occidental custom, assimilating me (the “other” parts of me), the “sidestepped” elements of truth in a collective history I shared were gradually coming to light.
This I presume is the work of the generation that Professor Min Hyoung Song cites above. In this autobiographical text, I only bear witness to how key that initial politicized generation’s bid was for all of us who would become adults–and some of us, artists and writers–as they used blunt, direct rhetoric to “raise the banner of Asian American identity” and, to be specific, imparted knowledge that had been concealed and that was essential if we were to understand fully who we were and in what contexts our sense of ourselves had been determined.
It is a mightily strange (and estranging) sensation to discover a historical chapter of such magnitude that has left a formal physical impact on one’s life and yet have never heard tell of it at all. My friends and I–entering college in 1980 and 1981 from the tiny Japanese American community in New Orleans (only about 100 families)–lurched painfully into the hard fact that most of us would never have been in New Orleans at all had it not been for the forced internment of Japanese Americans and later government “recommendation” that the newly released not re-concentrate on the West Coast. It was for that reason and no other that the families we grew up among had ended up taking root in southern Louisiana–it was by accident, by catastrophe; it was not unlike the happenstance destinies that suffer species of pollen or bees. Our parents, our friends’ parents, those aunts and uncles of affection, the ojisans and obachans we all shared, they had had lives as feckless and hijacked as microbes relocated in a breeze, or like birds thrown off their natural course by a volcano’s ash or salmon blocked and made barren at the blunt intervention of a concrete dam.
My best friends’ parents had been interned. And we’d never even sensed such a past.
In Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, the older generation veils what they have experienced to protect the children, to allow them to enter the world without such a sense of anti-privilege; they decide not to impart the information so that their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews will not have one more hang-up weakening them as they seek to grow and evolve into working, loving, creating adults.
Hence, much of the work we did depended on outside information sources. Feeling numb before distressed or enraged, we took in what the national news had to say about our elders’ formative years; in stunned silence we absorbed the analysis delivered by professors in Political Science courses. Then in private we tried to find words for our consternation and make some sort of headway into the now necessary revising of our childhoods. And we did it, in letters and phone calls exchanged across the distances in our own personal (now obviously mild) diasporas–two of us were at different colleges in Boston, another in DC, and the rest still back in New Orleans or a stone’s throw from home at LSU in Baton Rouge. Bit by bit, we reassembled the fragments of genealogy and began fitting puzzle pieces together.
One that struck me most was the case of Mr. Y–, who was everybody’s favorite ojisan or “uncle” in the community. He was the delightful sort of grownup that we kids fawned over: he always wore clownish hats for the Boys’ Day picnics and comical earmuffs at the staid New Year’s banquet. But we discovered that he had finished high school behind barbed wire and then had gotten drafted and sent to fight in Italy. He had earned a Purple Heart and a Medal of Honor–all while his family was behind barbed wire in the scorched, dusty Poston, Arizona detention center. And we had had no idea. It seemed unbelievable.
During those years as an undergraduate, I read No-No Boy and Farewell to Manzanar and was angry. Yet when I read the works of the newer generation of Japanese American writers, I found myself electrified by the stylistic innovations. I felt not only motivated to re-think the past but also jolted by the aesthetic risks and gains their work evinced. So from my point of view, it did seem that in the 80s and 90s a different intensity was emerging in the kind of literature that Asian Americans were producing; this work was still rooted in issues of ethnic and national-cultural identity but it reached well beyond testimonial writing’s structures to touch, tackle, and tickle readers via braver aesthetic sensibilities, with creative surprise and visceral impact. Indeed, even as I affirm the idea of generational divide between an earlier, more overtly political and testimonial kind of Asian American writing and a later, more aesthetically and artistically driven while still deeply Asian American writing, I must say that the formula is only a convenience, instrumental in organizing our thoughts on the historical currents we have lived: I say this because there remains a testimonial vein in some young writers’ publications, and that previous generation did in fact deliver us a kind of writing that manifests a deeply inventive, radically artistic flow (I think, for example, of Hisaye Yamamoto’s short stories).
To get back to the prompt this forum is based on, I answer that I do see a parallelism between those expansions in an Asian American literature’s aesthetic/stylistic reach and that 1980s Presidential apology to Japanese Americans (although those $20,000 checks remain a bit of a thorn, and most pooled the money for monuments and programs that would keep the memory of those ten internment camps alive for future generations).
Those were the kinds of things that happened in my generation’s early adulthood.
Certainly, they were momentous revelations. But to me, on a more individual level now, an even more consequential shift came with comparatively little public fanfare the year 2000’s national census form had, for the first time, a possibility for persons of “mixed race” to check more than one box in defining themselves. So at last, at nearly thirty years of age, I could finally affirm before the government, before the law, that my identity contains more than one ethno-cultural root.
For atypical personal reasons, I had stumbled upon an earlier opportunity to rethink some of those identity categories and certainly cast healthy doubt on the mindset that inculcated such narrow, linear categories. This shifting of the terrain in my thinking was an indirect consequence, a sort of side effect, of my leaving the USA for an extended stay–to carry out academic work–in a South American city (first in 1988, then 1991, and again from 1992-94; I ultimately settled here in 1995 and have been living, teaching, and writing here since then).
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigration had been remarkably similar to the U.S. experience, but one senses that the modes of encounter in these new heterogeneities were quite different. Admittedly, neither scenario reflects the discursively touted “melting pot” ideal, but the Buenos Aires context seemed somehow to have been able to foster a viable co-habitation of multiple, convergent diversities that I was actually quite astonished by and, indeed, had probably yearned for in my home country. To be sure, I do not mean to imply that this place does not also show symptoms of discrimination, racism, classism, sexism, etc. It does, in accord with the historical factors that inform power relations here. What I mean to point out–as part of the narrow, autobiographical point of view in this text–is that the patterns for encountering difference, even if antagonistic, were so radically different here from what I’d known at home that I was instantly (and with no little disorientation) liberated from the thought patterns I’d been steeped in since infancy. I recall moments when it felt like I’d entered some sort of personal utopia. It was possible for anyone to ask “What are you?” with no sensation of threat or disdain or invasiveness of any kind. And everyone received the mouthful of an answer I had to give: “Oh, me? Well, I’m North American but raised in the distinctly non-anglo city of New Orleans, plus I’m Japanese on one side and German on the other side, though part of that stems from the Catholic minority and the other part ostensibly from an even smaller minority of Jews who’d converted to Lutheranism out of fear of anti-Semitism…so, um, that’s me, in a (mammoth) nutshell…”
Above and beyond the kind of positive reception my complex identity received, I quickly observed that, in the capital city of Buenos Aires at least, there was a remarkable ease with which people took their own heterogeneous identities. Indeed, everyone was comfortably (even eagerly) more than one ethnicity: Polish-Galician-Argentine, Basque-French-Indigenous-Argentine, Indigenous-Spanish-Argentine, Japanese-Argentine, Syrian-Argentine, Armenian-Argentine…Argentines, especially those from the large port that is the country’s capital, snickered with good cheer about being descended from no specific gene pool but rather from boats–a joke that clearly reflects the influence of great global migrations on their population’s ethno-cultural makeup. Even elected functionaries openly and willfully identified with both European and non-European roots. (That said, I did note more discrimination against the indigenous peoples, more so than against religious minorities, for example. Likewise, I observed more of a bias against those from neighboring Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and Paraguay, than against foreigners hailing from even distant and unfamiliar places like Nigeria or Ukraine or Malaysia.)
Overall, though, I was so positively struck by this unexpected expressiveness about ethnic heterogeneity that I sought to explore it more deeply, which I did both in my dissertation and in my fiction writing. In my first novel I purposefully constructed the principal characters with layered cultural backgrounds, in part to experiment with the resonances this might generate over the course of the narrative’s arc: they were born of “new world” countries but also marked by the codes inherent to Irish emigrants, French wanderers, or an accidentally displaced Japanese…And of course there was the tension surrounding what the term “American” could/should encompass as characters’ identities split (but never disintegrated) along a North-South divide.
When that book came out in Argentina, critics wrote readily about its treatment of multi-cultural identity as a central aspect, on both aesthetic and thematic levels. The focus was different in Spain, where the novel was released some six months later. There most seemed intrigued by the representation of mixed marriage in several characters’ lives. In an interview for a prominent Spanish newspaper, the journalist–whose sincere smile clearly showed she meant the question in a most positive way–wondered if I’d felt so free writing about interracial couples because I myself am the product of one. I was a bit puzzled, but chose to answer affirmatively, whereupon she congratulated me on my positive attitude and asked me–with all due respect and purely out of curiosity, she said–what it felt like to have an identity that was so “marvelously full of holes”? And in that moment, I had a flash realization that the Americas–all of them, North to South–no matter how much discrimination and racism we still have to eradicate, comprise a much more evolved environment for handling multi-cultural experience and pluralist societies. I was instantly appreciative that I had grown up in a place like New Orleans, where all the identities got their time sooner or later on the dancefloor. There was always that inequitable public eye-time for being white and French, but everyone knew what it had meant in New Orleans to be black. Against that dark backdrop of a memory never hidden from view, we also had jazz and blues and even zydeco that manifested the strong, positive side of African American ways, and then Mardi Gras showcased Indian heritage too, with the Choctaw Indian heritage celebrated and memorialized, not to mention the tiny Japanese American community’s throwing its Boys’ Day picnics in City Park under the Dueling Oaks of slave-owning days. These prickly juxtapositions of course acquired even greater significance once we’d found out about the WWII internment camps and the government “recommendation” to Japanese Americans not to re-concentrate on the West Coast. The point is, thanks to the environment and vibrant diversity of New Orleanian communities, each with its chances now and again to take a spin at center stage, I had already experienced viscerally (and in spite of dominant discourse to the contrary) a way of thinking that knew how to accommodate multi-faceted communities and do that continual inner negotiating that responsible multi-culturality demands.
Now, to return to the issue posed in this forum’s prompt: in my case, I must try to find an instance in which both a generational difference and a national-cultural one revealed their criteria and influence. And there was a specific instance, an event I participated in several years ago, in 2004, for the “Japan Theme Day” at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. I was invited together with an Argentine Nisei, Maximiliano Matayoshi, a talented young novelist who was then just over twenty. By this I mean to indicate that Maximiliano Matayoshi would pertain to the generation after mine. And on the national-cultural level, he is of course Argentine, one of those who have descended from the boats, as opposed to me, who only at the ripe old age of thirty-six could account for my “whole” identity on a national census form that finally allowed for multi-cultural individuals.
As part of our presentation, Maximiliano and I had a segment in which we asked each other about our identity–specifically about how much or little we felt that “being Japanese” was part of who we were.
I answered with irony. I stated that my name itself was proof of how hard–if not impossible–it was to move about “contemporary” (and here is where the generational pertinence acquires relevance) society with other cultures included in one’s identity. There was “Anna,” with its oddly multilingual and transnational quality; “Kazumi,” which sounds of course clearly Japanese but was often mistaken in the West as a surname; and then “Stahl,” with its unmistakable guttural German tone that contrasted bewilderingly with my Asian facial features. I recounted times when people–office receptionists, college professors, shopkeepers, postal workers, cashiers, government functionaries, etc.–had manifested their troubles trying to connect any combination of those names to my person. There was always a problem with at least one element, and people’s gazes would begin to flit back and forth between the identification document and my face, shadowy doubt visibly rising behind their neutral countenances. Innumerable times, I had been asked how I got those names–the assumption clearly being that I’d come by them in some inauthentic way (as regards the purposes of naming and identification)–and what therefore my real name was supposed to be. It was as if a mix of cultures as evidenced in Anna Kazumi Stahl simply could not be–“authentically”–a single individual’s birth-name.
To the Book Fair audience in Buenos Aires, I exhorted listeners to please remember that I was relating experiences that had occurred in what are customarily called the “advanced” nations: the USA, Japan, Germany, France, Switzerland, England…
In conclusion I mused that my identity could only be summed up as a site of conflict and confusion. Hence, as a person and as a writer, I abided, awaiting (impatiently) a time and a cultural conscientiousness whereby I and others like me would no longer be seen–whether at international borders or at simple shop counters–as persons so “marvelously full of holes” or as “inauthentically named”…
So the answer I gave to the question of my identity as a Nikkei contained that kind of tongue-in-cheek, barely veiled animosity about our current age’s mentality.
My co-presenter, on the other hand–and this is where the generational and the national differences make themselves palpable, relevant, and even revelatory–answered with no such aggravated yet still subdued critical maneuvering. Instead, he gave a simple list. Number one, he said, I am just me, in my most quotidian self, usually called by the nickname “Maxi.” Number two: I am a certain girl’s boyfriend, and that identity happens to be very important to me just now. Number three: I’m my parent’s son, a member of my family. Number four: I’m from the Caballito neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Number five: I’m a River fan (referring to the River-versus-Boca soccer rivalry that literally divides the city of Buenos Aires). Number six: I’m a writer; I tend to spend a lot of my time doing that, so I include it here in my identity. Number seven: I’m a student in the translators’ certification course. And here, around number eight or so, is where I’d place the reason I’m sitting here today speaking to this audience, yes, number 8: I’m Nikkei, meaning a person of Japanese descent. And being Argentine is even further down the list, for me really quite far towards the bottom. Because: how often do I think of myself in that specific sense? When I vote. And that’s not at all often…
As I listened to Maxi’s response to the question of his identity, I realized that it had not even occurred to him to consider the issue of a dominant hegemony of single identifying categories or any other such external logic. He was free in himself to give his own definition, willy-nilly. I was stunned and chagrined to see so visibly that I’d remained ensnared in a logic that I clearly did not consciously agree with, and yet that I continued to tango along with tightly as if there were no other tune, no other moves or steps to take. What a mishap!
Let me try to give another example of how enlightening it has been at times to live here in Buenos Aires and think about being Asian American. I know many Nikkei here in Argentina find themselves having to repeat over and over, “But I’m not Japanese.” Something similar used to happen not that long ago and all too often in the USA too: people would see certain ethnic features and blurt out, “What good English you speak,” as if unable to accommodate the idea of someone with an Asian appearance being a homespun native speaker of North American English.
What is interestingly different to me in the Argentine anecdote is that the exchange usually ends with “I’m not Japanese,” whereas the U.S. version usually closes with the emphatic retort: “I’m American.” It may be stretching things, but I’d like to allow myself the whim: I’ll venture that there is something worthy behind the idea that one would indicate the error, but not feel the impulsive reflex-reaction to have to offer an alternate yet equally totalizing identity formulation. One only senses a need to say “I am this” or “I am that” because one thinks one has to. Otherwise, and thinking more clearly now, there is no need to go in that direction and fit oneself into such small spaces. Because identity “outside the box” is not really contingent upon such narrow and fixed maneuvers. Hence, the artist working against the ideology of the single and immutable identity form has to find more complex forms of elaboration and expression.
How to think polysemically without carelessness. How to be aware of multiple facets, even mutually exclusive but simultaneously engaged facets, without frivolity and without a sense of tragic paralysis. Some of that paralysis hit me broadside when I was younger and first came across the writings of Carlos Bulosan or John Okada. Even the rage seemed to spurn and spin, only then to leave in its wake a paralyzing sort of stasis somehow. So too the mournfulness of Farewell to Manzanar. The work that kept coming back to me phase after phase of my development, my thought process about bi-cultural/multi-cultural identity formation, was Hisaye Yamamoto’s work; though the collection came out in the 1980s–and felt in tune with that generation’s less “Manichean” formulations–I have always been struck by the fact that many of the stories I found the most invigorating, the most mobilizing and enabling, were written decades earlier, shortly after WWII. I found in texts like “Yoneko’s Earthquake” and “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” a certain kind of nimble, clear-sighted layering of divergent systems of meaning, all informing the narrative thread simultaneously (or each in its own time), and this kind of multi-layered thinking is, I intuit, the multi-cultural mind’s most fertile characteristic.
Of course the early published works’ documenting of a previously untold and occluded history of a subaltern segment is an irreplaceable effort and achievement. But the creative thinking, the innovation of forms that can encompass more than one cultural mindset at a time, was more nourishing and “productively provocative” for my young Asian American creativity.
Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World struck me as quick and committed in this same respect. The writing style itself, the aesthetic forms chosen, seemed to evince already a healthy renouncing of the easy and deceptive courses of identity formation even when they are meant to redress injustice. I recall an ongoing motif of traveling, of being in transit, and therefore of always having to stay engaged and able to register diverse resonances precisely because one had been displaced or even dismissed and had not yet found a new mooring or foothold yet. It seemed to go beyond the tragedy of injustice and, in weathering certain impasses, fashion a new way of telling, less “rooted” and yet more agile.
To me this kind of multi-layering and polysemically enabled capacity is a key not only to taking more aesthetic and formal risks but also to a certain mental training we must all undergo in order to further foster an evolving and newly flexible identity formulation (such as shown in the year 2000 census form). The historicity, the conscious inclusion of landscapes that speak historical memory, is paramount to my mind–Olivia Ann travels the roads of Arkansas, where her elders were interned; Miss Sasagawara has been taken to be mad but her poetry proves the awesome lucidity in her state. What I sense must be emphasized is that there is no mutual exclusivity in this thinking, in this writing–she is mad and she is lucid, they travel traumatized landscapes and they travel across a blank page, it is poignantly paralyzing and it is electrifying.
It strikes me that the best–the most clearly illustrative metaphor–is that of the pun. What is a pun? The very same letters in the very same order mean one thing, and they also simultaneously and with no repressing or neutralizing of the other significance mean another. (This type of language operation often elicits both rational and visceral responses, in that we react to puns and plays on words with a sense of righteously rational linearity, while at the same time we find ourselves opened to and engaging in another way of thinking, one based on the existence and excitement of irrational connections, subconscious associations, and even the unexpected appearance of prohibited or side-stepped elements of our lives. And is this not the very stuff of creativity at work? Not the logical sequence, but the unexpected combinations of anomalous, multifarious elements, which of course we recognize as incongruent, but which we also instantly sense as concretely able to coexist in our minds and lives.) The pun means both one thing and another thing, and indeed it also means that both can exist simultaneously, which may well be the more radical venture. And by inserting this as a metaphor here, I mean to say that multi-culturality is indeed not “marvelously full of holes” but rather marvelously full of wholes.
And I must add to that the dimension of an ethic that I most firmly believe in and depend upon: that of historicity, of responsibility to history.
In my writing and also in my teaching, I seek to remember history always, which is not to say that I’d preach any version of it. I hold to the conviction that by simply assuring there are spaces for the acknowledgment of historical events that have taken place–such as the stark quiet of those our parents and grandparents who sat in kitchens in Louisiana staring at checks signed by the President in the early 1980s–then history’s truths will persist and inform us and their consequential benefits be rendered unto us, for the better good, indeed–so I trust–for the general, collective good.
One is marked, and, to varying degrees, that’s that. Here in Canada, racialized discourses (as opposed to “ethnic”) only became available towards the end of the 70s, after Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan was published and the Japanese-Canadian redress issue gained prominence. Parallel to the U.S. activity over the past forty years, Asian-Canadian writing has shifted through a similar range of flowering and exposure. There have been the familiar stories of racial and cultural history and witness, the negotiation of complicity with both mainstream and radical forms of writing, and the concurrent detonations of theoretical and academic argument and research.
But as to continuity between generations, I think whatever that might be has become part of individual toolboxes that for many extend beyond an essentialized racial subjectivity into broader conversations. In other ways the generational relationships seem re-imaginings juxtaposed within, simply, making art.
For myself, Walter Lew’s anthology Premonitions (1995) signaled an “opening of the field” for writing by Asian North Americans. The collection not only gives a nod to a few pre-70s writers but, more importantly, extends the “Asianicity” of our writing into a frame of “multiplying perspectives” full of “echoes and emergences.” Since that anthology, the range of articulation by these “marked” voices has jumped the fence around organized culture to navigate in the hybridized spaces of diasporic imagination and neoliberal globalism.
In fact, if there are any “shared commitments” among the current generation of North American writers of Asian ancestry, they seem to reflect not so much “ancestry” as the mixed and heightened awareness informed by a history of difference and code-switching, by an acquired adeptness at working interstitially, between.
Perhaps, to some, their obvious similarity might be the Asian marker, but writers here in Vancouver like Rita Wong, Larissa Lai, and Ray Hsu demonstrate singular and important imaginations. Rita’s environmental activism is backed up by her agility at working within an embedded position. Larissa’s spatially and critically informed novels and poetry are always sustained by her ability to juggle a fragmented cultural landscape. Ray’s acute awareness of “mimesis and alterity” underlays his intelligent and acute sense of performance and form. On the other side of the continent, and across the border, is the migratory Paolo Javier, the Poet Laureate of Queens, finely attuned to the edges of social praxis and radical poetics.
So of course, there is a history of racialized awareness and generational continuity, still marked as “Asian North American” but continuing to locate and extend beyond that marker to the new, as if the future’s what matters.
Katie Hae Leo
Just this past weekend, I attended a family reunion. Not your typical kind with the usual crazy uncles, hoodlum cousins, etc. I’m talking about the family of Asian American writers here in the Twin Cities. The occasion was the official launch reading for Ed Bok Lee’s and Bao Phi’s new books of poetry, titled Whorled and SÃ´ng I Sing, respectively. Over 400 of us crowded into an auditorium at Minneapolis’ Central Library downtown, so many that we filled not one, but two overflow rooms. I was lucky enough to sit in the front section; and, as I looked around the room, I truly felt like I’d come home.
See, we Asian Americans here in Minnesota are an unusually tight-knit bunch. Many of us grew up a bit isolated, what with all the cornfields and shopping malls between us. Maybe that’s why, when one of us publishes a book, hosts a reading, or produces a play, we turn out in droves for each other.
I for one was adopted from Korea and raised in a conservative Catholic, all-white family in Indianapolis, Indiana (and yes, surrounded by corn fields). I awakened politically in undergrad while studying the Civil Rights movement. Through learning about the struggles and solidarity of African Americans, I began to understand myself as a person of color with my own people, my own story to tell. But, I still knew next to nothing about Asian American history or literature. After all, I’d been raised to think of myself as white, with all the privilege and contradictions that that created for me.
When I first moved to Minneapolis, I had no idea that Minnesota was home to the largest number of Korean adoptees in the world. I just knew it was where my girlfriends wanted to go. Lucky for me, Minneapolis in the early 90s was experiencing a renaissance, both figurative and literal. And two organizations loomed large in my development.
Asian American Renaissance (AAR) was founded by Valerie Lee and David Mura in St. Paul as a multi-arts organization dedicated to bringing the community together through art. I remember going to one of the cabarets that AAR hosted and seeing an Asian American woman onstage for the first time; I remember eating at one of the AAR community dinners and art “happenings” at a local Chinese restaurant; I remember going for drinks with an artist from California whom AAR had brought in for one of its “fire-side chats.” I remember thinking that Asian Americans were the coolest people in the world.
Theater Mu was founded in Minneapolis by Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, Diane Espaldon, and Dong-il Lee as an Asian American company dedicated to giving voice to our experiences on stage. I remember taking a monologue class with a bunch of other totally inexperienced actors at a renovated church; I remember being part of one of the first New Eyes Festivals, along with playwright Ed Bok Lee and director Dipanker Mukherjee (now of Pangea World Theater); I remember acting in a show about Korean adoptees and thinking, “Wow, a show about us!” I remember realizing that I could make a living at this stuff.
In thinking about Asian American literature as a movement, it’s important to consider how immigration patterns and demographics play out in the Midwest. The dominant groups in Minnesota’s Asian American population are Southeast Asian, South Asian, and, to a lesser extent, Korean adoptee. All of these groups immigrated to the U.S. well after the first waves of Asians populated the coasts. So, those of us emerging as artists today may be of the second or third literary wave nationally, but here in Minnesota, we’re the first wave to come to adulthood en masse. We don’t have a deep local Asian American artistic heritage to look back on. I can count the prominent Asian American writers from Minnesota in the generation before me on one hand. AAR and Theater Mu provided an artistic home for a number of us that was both necessary and formative to our political and social consciousness.
Furthermore, our lack of a large, centralized seat of population like a Chinatown or Koreatown has led us to build community across perceived barriers like ethnicity and race. I think of David Mura’s early performance piece with African American author Alexs Pate; my own work with MaMa mOsAiC, a women-of-color theater collective; and the audience for Ed and Bao’s reading, which cut across racial and ethnic lines, not to mention gender and sexuality. As artists of color, we know we are greater and more powerful together than apart, and this coming together has shed light on commonalities of experience that may have stayed hidden had we hunkered down in segregated communities. Also, our relatively small numbers in relation to the dominant white population make us that much more aware of our marginalization. As a result, we feel that much more committed to telling our story.
Making sense of the Korean adopted experience is vitally important to my work, both on a personal and political level. The Korean adopted story has been largely missing from the broader Asian American narrative, or else it’s been dominated by adoptive parents and adoption agencies. In some ways, Korean adoptees are still fighting for recognition within the Asian American canon. Yet our story touches upon crucial issues such as U.S. militarism and paternalism, commodification of children, race, religion, and women’s reproductive rights, just to name a few. Further, our experience as transracial adoptees makes us particularly attuned to the very real ways in which race pervades and influences American culture. Growing up in a racialized body within a white family will do that to you. Thus the Korean adopted story should matter to everyone, not just adoptees and not just Asian Americans. So I write.
This doesn’t mean I’m interested in writing that claims to represent all adoptees or tries to wrap up my identity with a neat bow. Rather, I don’t shy away from my point of view as a Korean adopted woman, whether I’m writing about race or flowers. But I hesitate to dictate this kind of responsibility to others. As a writer, I think it’s hard enough to get up every day and put something on paper. At the end of the day, a writer’s only commitment should be to her work. What she chooses to do with it is her choice.
I took part in another family reunion of sorts over the summer, the National APIA Spoken Word & Poetry Summit, which blazed its way through the Twin Cities in August. Though on the organizing committee, I was new to the Summit, which has been going strong for a decade now. Over four days, participants came together, shared work, strategized, and bonded in an exclusively Asian American space that emphasized both writing and activism. The unity and support I experienced at the Summit inspired me. I came away from it with a renewed commitment to working within Asian American communities where I can, using what skills I have, to help them meet their needs; to supporting and fostering young Asian American artists whenever possible; and to supporting my fellow Asian American artistic peers.
As a younger man, I devoured as much Asian American writing as I could, including novels, nonfiction, poems, plays, magazine articles–whatever I could get my hands on from my school’s library. I absorbed Kingston and Chin with equal enthusiasm, and searched the work of everyone from Bulosan to Ali to Hwang for guidelines on how to live my life.
I wanted to be taken seriously. I never felt I needed acceptance from any person or group of people; Reject me all you want, I’d silently say to the world, just don’t take me for a joke. Being able to wrap my fingers around their books, I had tacit approval from all the writers I admired. I carried them around campus, and from inside the back cover, they would assure me I was a force. I was not to be messed with.
But what I didn’t see was the human side of any of my favorite authors. In the same way I had been taught in high school to think of Shakespeare or Faulkner primarily as bodies of work, I thought all published books by Asian Americans represented some sort of Asian American canon, and I had a hard time appreciating each of the authors’ moments in time, each of their places in their worlds.
By the time I “discovered” the world of Asian American literature, I had no understanding of the contexts in which those works were created. So I took all of it at face value–to me, Woman Warrior and Aiiieeeee! had always existed, the camps had always been worthy of literary examination, and Asian American literature always leaned left. It never occurred to me that the writers who endured managed to do so because they had the moral support of broad democratic, populist, or radical movements.
I fell in love with Asian American literature that came out of pivotal moments in Asian American history: labor struggles, internment camps, anti-war protests, and the collective move toward the reclamation of our Third World identity. But I didn’t read any of it that way; I thought each of my favorite authors had defined her own space, and their worlds connected just conveniently enough for me to draw the lines between them. I looked at the canon of Asian American works as a great collection of individual voices, and it was the individual voices that I came to appreciate before I ever conceptualized that Asian American literature was in fact a field unto itself.
And when I started to build my own definition of myself as a writer, this is what I was building from: a love–maybe a fetish?–for the outspoken individual.
That’s why I was drawn to spoken word poetry, where there is no room to be anything but aggressively individual. It wasn’t just me; I know this because it was a new century, and Asian American spoken word was suddenly a “thing.” I am speaking of 2000, and we were building on the backs of predecessors like Regie Cabico, Ava Chin, and Justin Chin; we took our ego-driven artform everywhere we could. Living in Washington, DC, I memorized the corridor back and forth to New York, where I was a regular at open mics, bars, and Brooklyn apartments, just trying to meet the next self-loathing, literature-loving narcissist who might have come of age in the library like I did.
And I was not disappointed; I met everyone I would have wanted to meet and then some.
In the summer of 2001, four Asian American spoken word performers–Jojo Gaon, Maya Santos, Marlon Unas Esguerra, and Anida Yoeu Ali–sparked an idea to collect this growing scene of Asian American performance poets in Seattle to share our stories, learn from each other, and finally give permission to stop searching for ourselves in the library. The [APIA Spoken Word & Poetry] Summit that was born in 2001 has traveled to a new city with a new set of outrageously dedicated volunteer organizers every two years since then: Chicago, then Boston, New York, San Francisco, and most recently Minneapolis. And in the past decade-plus, the friendships and rivalries that have developed probably look a lot like UC Berkeley in the early 1960s.
But through all of it, something unexpected happened. The assorted personalities who all claimed to love the lone microphone and spotlight formed a community. Literature cannot survive without a community to support it, and in turn, a community cannot thrive without literature to explain, reflect, and dissect it.
Those of us who needed it the most stayed involved and helped each other become adults. Now that we are in our thirties and forties, I can attest to the idea that our shared commitment is to one another’s personal growth. Along the way, we grew artistically and professionally, but also personally.
I am not so naÃ¯ve as to assume that a majority of Asian American studies professors consider spoken word to be literature at all, but I believe the words of Sia, Tsai, Phi, and the like will endure into the next generation–maybe lighting the way for a teenager who finally finds Asian American literature when he needs it most, like I did.
I’ve always been slightly circumspect about the notion of hyphenated identity because the concatenations seem endless: race-class-sexuality-regionalism-ethnicity-gender-ad infinitium. In a way the hyphen seems to demarcate individualism, and who among us is not differentiated in just such specific ways? So I’m actually relieved to see that “Asian American” has become hyphen-less, which makes it more inclusive and less prescriptive. That move has broadened the very connotation of the definition, since initially the term constituted primarily East Asians, those of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Filipino heritage, and only more recently has the tent been broadened to include South Asians and–I’m hoping–Central Asians. As Amy Ling, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes, “Asia, as the world’s largest continent, stretches from what used to be the U.S.S.R, west of the Ural Mountains, as far east as the Bering Strait, and as far south as the Indian Ocean; it is separated from Africa by the Suez Canal, includes all of the Middle East as well as the islands of the South Pacific.”
In a geographic sense, then, Asian Americans are more multiple and diversified than can be easily imagined or encapsulated in any narrow taxonomic category, which begs the question of whether the term is elastic enough to include someone like Filipino American Jessica Hagedorn, whose idiom is refracted through the hybridity of popular culture, non-normative sexualities, and multiple genres, as well as someone like blind Indian American and primarily autobiographical writer Ved Mehta. If I were asked about the continuities between the different Asian immigrant populations in America ten years ago, I might have scoffed, calling the notion of an “Asian American” literature exclusionary, the construction of a publishing industry that wants to create literary ghettos in order to better market its authors. But today, after 9/11, after having visited China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Philippines, after seeing and participating firsthand in various Asian American communities on the East and West Coast, I’m much less glib. I believe there is a primal and essential way in which certain marginalized groups share particularized concerns and in fact the emergence of Asian Americans into the arts and literary world represents a rupture in the very social fabric of the culture of assimilation, otherness, and most importantly, silence, in which many first-generation Asian Americans lived. I personally feel I owe a great debt to the South Asian American writers who came before me, people like Meena Alexander, Agha Shahid Ali, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Vijay Seshadri, even while my own poetic impulse might be to out-aurora Wallace Stevens.
In helping put together Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) with poets Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, I found that while culturally and ethnically distinct, and certainly less unified than an earlier generation might have been, many of the poets still had certain shared concerns, particularly with respect to their uneasiness with American imperialism, the model minority myth, the narrowness of the Western canon, and what we began calling the “curry and chopstick” school of aesthetics–that is to say poems about their “native lands” which exceedingly were the ones that publishers seemed to be interested in, even when they themselves were fourth or fifth generation Americans. Many of them resisted the stereotyped and shorthand ways in which their communities were rendered as threat, exoticized into zones of pleasure (Ã la Madame Butterfly), or reified into the superficially spiritual (Ã la the depiction of India in Eat, Pray, Love).
Quite a number also expressed ambiguousness about the very feeling being included in an “Asian” anthology engendered–there was on the one hand a certain kinship and excitement they felt to be included alongside other Asian American and Arab American as well as Asian and Middle Eastern poets, but there was also a sense of frustration at how the reception of their work would be colored by the lens of their ethnicity, which might not be very important to them at all as artists or as humans. What was fascinating was that in asking each of the poets to identify herself, we came upon a diversity of responses. Some poets wanted to be listed under their countries of heritage with their American identity in parentheses; others wanted to be listed as American with their countries of heritage in parentheses; still others identified most strongly with their languages or dialects as cultural markers and these were what they wanted to help identify themselves; and finally there were those who wanted to just be American with no ethnic identification at all. In some ways, then, the Asian American literary community is more fragmented than it used to be, but in other ways, especially seen in the light of the vitality of organizations like the Asian American Writers Workshop, the Kearney Street Workshop, and Kundiman, there is more solidarity and encouragement than ever before.
I do feel that some of the issues raised by that earlier generation are less trenchant now; for example, the tension between authenticity and fabrication most notoriously articulated by Frank Chin excoriating someone like “Maxine Hong Kingston [who] has defended her revision of Chinese history, culture, and childhood literature and myth by restating a white racist stereotype,” seems less relevant now. And when a paan wallah in Bombay also sells DVDs of the latest American blockbusters, the notion of whether any purity of representation is even possible becomes a moot point. Also, the seminal ideas of Edward Said in Orientalism that seemed to fuel so many literary and critical debates have either been accepted as truisms or dismissed as ideologically irrelevant. Finally, I think there’s less pressure–and this loops back to the notion of authenticity–for this current generation of Asian American writers to be the mouthpiece for a generation of quite disparate individuals from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. There’s also less pressure to represent one’s country to the mainstream, and we’re finally arriving at a time when someone like Tao Lin can be described by literary gossip website Gawker as “maybe perhaps the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with” and no mention of his ethnicity is included! That sort of thing smells of small victory, a sweeter smell to me than–much as I love it–all the roasting cumin seeds in the world.
At a 2009 presentation panel entitled “VietKor(ps): Shared Histories and Transnational Arts Practices” for the annual conference of the Association for Asian American Studies in Honolulu, I asked our discussant, a founding matriarch of Asian American literary studies, Professor Elaine H. Kim, why it appears to have taken us so long to finally get to this moment in which we–as a generation of Asian American literary, arts, and cultural practitioners–are engaging earnestly, in more penetrating and provocative ways, with globalization and transnational cultural circulation. Did all those years of “claiming America” delay our larger global social justice dreams and realities?
I had my own demons and reasons for the question, of course. Given my “specialization” in Southeast Asian American and diasporic literature and culture, it has been a labor of love and patience to see the field through decades of being treated as purely sociological analysis of refugee migration experiences, through decades of double Asian American minoritization, with classed and racialized marginalization practices “from within,” so to speak. Secretly, too, I relished the moment as an opportunity to mine tips from our more successful Korean American cultural producers–with their earlier anthological inclusions, Kaya anthologies, Theresa Chas, Greg Paks, and Myung Mi Kims–on how they were able to translate a more cosmopolitan global gravitas for Korean American arts and letters, something I felt Southeast Asian American literature had yet to do.
Gracious and astute as always, Elaine historicized the indeed very global origins of ethnic studies formation, coming when it did in the midst of Vietnam War protests and Cold War rhetoric, civil rights movements and gender struggles across the world. She suggested that part of the project of claiming America meant negotiations with institutional politics and academic disciplinary tactics that in turn left the field in even murkier waters. That struggle may have contributed to a more domestically focused, inward turn in terms of the way our field related to later global processes. Now–with more historiographical lineage behind us and the transparency of disciplinarity confronting us at every turn–may perhaps be an opportune moment for a different kind of coalitional politics between shared global activist projects.
It was a heartening response, not incompatible with Min Song’s optimistic metaphorical notion of a current “flowering” of Asian American literature. There have been long awaited and welcomed additions to our anti-canonical little Southeast Asian American canons. T.C. Huo’s A Thousand Wings (1998), about a gay Lao immigrant who arrives and settles in San Francisco by way of Thailand, and his Land of Smiles (1999), which follows a young Laotian American boy through our urban ethnic ghettos pushed open a bit wider the gates to our new Asian American millennial narratives. Set on the East Coast for a change, across Florida and Pennsylvania, Khmer fiction writer Many Ly’s Home is East (2005) and Roots and Wings (2008) examine the transnational ties and pressures on Cambodian American families. Kao Kalia Yang’s Hmong family memoir, The Latehomecomer (2008), and Chinese Vietnamese Los Angeleno-San Diegan memoirist Lac Su’s I Love Yous Are for White People (2009) round out the usual suspects of “Southeast Asia” in our Asian Pacific American consciousness. This consciousness is not without its U.S.-centric Cold War baggage with regard to coverage of only three national contexts–Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos–out of what would otherwise include over ten different countries under the cartographic designation “Southeast Asia.”
How do we talk about Laotian American or Hmong movements without mention of adjacent Thai histories, Burmese drug triangles and guerilla revolutionaries, and American military strategies? The rubrics with which we have traditionally perceived, received, and judged Southeast Asian American literature need to expand for any blossoming of the field. The deceptively quiet story collection Sightseeing (2005) by Thai American Rattawut Lapcharoensap and the gripping biographical fiction BurmAmerica (2012) by Charmaine Craig do wonders in forcing literary scholars and voracious readers alike to “imagine otherwise,” to borrow the words of Kandice Chuh.
And what of our fascinating Pinay/Pinoy/Pin@y writers like the profoundly prophetic poet Karen Llagas, triple coastal novelist R. Zamora Linmark, or Chinese Filipino slam poet Beau Sia? Traditional Asian American studies would analyze these writers in a subgenre separate from Southeast Asian American letters, attending only to Spanish colonial and U.S. imperial histories and discrepant identity formation politics in the U.S. But the field of Southeast Asian studies as it is practiced in the rest of the world, particularly in Asia, does include literature and culture of the Philippines and its diaspora under the auspices of Southeast Asia. Why would we continue to self-segregate and carve ourselves out of the proverbial world map?
Along with the possible ethnic expansiveness of the field, language and genre diversity are also more prevalent now, with greater attention paid to Asian American writing in heritage languages, as in Vietnamese works by Ngoc Ngan Nguyen and Nhien Hao Phan, and to nontraditional genres, as in Bao Phi’s spoken word collection SÃ´ng I Sing (2011) and GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey (2011). For those still enamored with the convenience of McEnglish but craving some foreign travel, Vietnamese Australian short story writer Nam Le’s The Boat (2008) makes a splash for diasporic Vietnamese cultural producers on different shoreings.
Nam Le’s collection stands as a unique product of the professionalization of Southeast Asian American literature. In his writing, Le is masterful in simultaneously spoofing and teasing the workings of MFA programs in Creative Writing and their ethnic flavor requirements even as he embeds within the same stories all the items on their wish list. Is this an example of performative professionalization? Whatever it is, it has worked to The Boat’s advantage.
Meanwhile, prolific Vietnamese American poets Truong Tran and Mong Lan are into their fourth and fifth collections, respectively, and we find exciting second installments by fiction writer Dao Strom (The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, 2006) and essayist Andrew Lam (East East West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, 2010), novelist Monique Truong (Bitter in the Mouth, 2011), and fiction writer Aimee Phan (The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, 2012). Clearly, the Vietnamese American generation of professional writers has arrived.
The professionalization of this subgroup has owed much of its promotion and visibility to nonprofit organizations such as the literary e-journal Damau, the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA), and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). This creation of ethnic media and arts activism sites might also be deployed for the other Southeast Asian ethnic literary communities, but better still, might we not consider the larger rubric, with a site dedicated more comprehensively and inclusively to Southeast Asian American literature and art?
Indeed, it is this incessant nuclearization by ethnicity that renders our field ever more myopic. At a small dinner earlier this year, Andrew Lam, Isabelle Pelaud, and I commiserated briefly over what felt like a very short memory span in Vietnamese American literature. We waxed rather nostalgically about our early years in Asian American literature and how we consumed everything we could get our hands on, reading widely across Asian American literature and comparing assimilation and acculturation stories across ethnic times and places. We found ourselves a bit bewildered by the lack of that sense of pan-Asian American literary solidarity and the strange lack of any referential knowledge by some of our newer authors to all the literature that came before, most of which had already traversed the same terrains in which they are now basking. Why the compulsion to be a first? The firsts had it pretty rough. At this point, aren’t we just feigning first?
So we picked our chins off the dinner table and tried hard to identify the continuities between the early writers who championed the rubric and the current generation of Southeast Asian American writers who inherited it, whether they know it or not. Closely aligned with Elaine Kim’s conceptualization of the field of Asian American literary scholarship, Southeast Asian American literature is in a new moment of evolution, and it needs new tactics for continued activism. The professionalization of our writers can be a double-edged sword, just as it has been for our academic field. Our generation of shared commitments finds itself in a moment rife with accidental Asians, tiger mother battle hymns, and ever self-exoticizing Asian erotics. Perhaps our writers must also be extra cautious and vigilant about the continuities of professionalization and self-commoditization, recalling more fiercely the larger global social justice dreams of our early writers.
In 1974 I first went to Basement Workshop (BW), an Asian American arts organization in New York’s Chinatown. Though I’d taken creative writing classes at The City College of New York, I longed to share my work with kindred spirits. That year brought a sort of national exhaustion: Nixon’s resignation, the drawn-out Vietnam War, violent factionalism on the left.
The experience at Basement was formative; it’s where I formed lifelong friendships with poet Fay Chiang, BW’s former executive director, avant-garde violinist Jason Hwang, and poet Teru Kanazawa. Frances Chung and Henry Chang were also notable BW alums. Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), Chung’s posthumous poetry collection, was edited by Walter Lew. Soho Press has published Chang’s three knowing novels of Chinatown noir. 7 Continents 9 Lives (Bowery Books, 2010) assembled Chiang’s selected and new poems. The Country They Know (Neuma Books, 2005) was my first collection of poems.
While the punk/no-wave scene has been much documented, one of the overlooked aspects of New York cultural history in the 70s was the flowering of a multiethnic literary scene with BW, Nuyorican CafÃ©, and Studio Museum of Harlem among its hot foci. Bob Holman and Sarah Miles’ Poetry Calendar hosted carnivalesque sideshows, a noisy prologue to the spoken word movement as Southern midnight rambles were the ancestors of rock ‘n’ roll. Established poets like June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and David Ignatow were nurturing of younger writers such as Patricia Spears Jones, Sandra Maria Esteves, Chiang, myself, and others.
For us, John Okada, Louis Chu, Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, Bienvenido Santos, and Toshio Mori were pioneers. Poets Lawson Inada and Mei Mei Berssenbrugge and playwright Frank Chin were our youthful mentors. I prefer to think our example–whether acknowledged or not–paved the way for contemporary writers of Asian heritage such as Susan Choi, Li-Young Lee, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-rae Lee, Marilyn Chin, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Wong Louie, and Ken Chen, among others, to produce an enduring body of work that will take its place in American literature without need of hyphenation or modifier.
In 1979 my involvement with BW ended when I was accepted into San Francisco State University’s Master’s program in Creative Writing to focus more intently on my craft.
To some degree, I resist the terms of the prompt. Susan Sontag said our inclination to see history in generational terms is ideological. I don’t accept the designation “boomer” because it’s too limiting of my plural selves and the historical imagination. Nor do I accept the equation of writing and “left politics.” Carolyn Forche said this:
I have felt that [activism] is one particular work and my poetry is another work, so rather than referring to myself as an activist poet, I might perhaps accept the idea of being an activist and a poet. The point at which they intersect is something artistically circumstantial…Poetry can’t be placed in the service of anything other than itself.
My essay in this issue has less to do with race, ethnicity, and identity than with depression and anxiety. In the end, our desire to create an “Asian American” literature granted us the amplitude to become ourselves.
Born roughly between 1945 and 1970, my generation of Asian American writers developed more in isolation than the generations coming after us. We were fewer in number, labeled exceptions in various ways–by other writers, by other Asian Americans, by our families. We had far less institutional support; if we entered an MFA program, as Asian Americans, we were singular and often initial presences. Frequently we felt ourselves embattled, that we had to fight for our presence at the podium or at the table. But we also developed at a time when it was common practice to make connections between poetry and the political movements of the day–whether it was the anti-war movement, Civil Rights and the Black Arts movement, the women’s movement and feminist poetry, environmental issues, etc.
To speak of a generation, you have to generalize. If this were a book, I’d make a number of qualifications to the following observations, which divide the generation after mine into two groups.
This past summer, the Twin Cities hosted the 2011 APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit, where APIA poets and spoken word artists from throughout the country read their work, held classes and panel discussions, ate and drank, danced and sang karaoke. Amid those at the conference, the poets of the next generation, a generation younger than my own, are now in their thirties and early forties. They included such nationally known figures as Beau Sia, Bao Phi, Ishle Park, Ed Bok Lee, Giles Li, Juliana Pegues, and YaliniDream.
As might be expected, these poets came to poetry within or influenced by the twin worlds of spoken word and hip hop. NWA, Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest, and others were part of the atmosphere in which they formed both their sense of language and political consciousness. And they carried these influences into the world of slams and spoken word. More often than not, these poets grew up in urban areas; they’re far more likely to come from working-class, immigrant families than from families of Asian American professionals living in the suburbs. In such an environment, the issues of race and class, and a sense of exclusion from the white American mainstream–whether socially, economically, politically, or in literature–were simply a given. These writers were more likely to be exposed first to poets like Quincy Troupe, Jessica Hagedorn, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Staceyann Chin, and Patricia Smith than Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, John Ashbery, or Fanny Howe. Like the first group of older poets, these Asian American poets view their work within a context of social commitment, community, and a struggle for social justice, as well as within the ongoing dialogue in this country on race. Poetry for them is a search for and an exploration of an Asian American identity.
In contrast to the APIA spoken word artists and poets, the Asian American writers I meet at the AWP conference are generally a different group. They’re more likely to have gotten their MFAs at institutions where, unless they’re unusually lucky, they studied almost entirely under white teachers and writers. For these Asian American writers, poetry is both a passion and a career. They’re more likely to have gotten an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school than from a state university. They’re more likely to have published in “professional” literary journals. They know Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, John Ashbery, and Fanny Howe. They’re less likely to know Quincy Troupe or Baraka, Shange or Staceyann Chin. Given their educational background, these poets come to their writing with a great degree of technical facility; they’re often hyperaware of the aesthetics that backdrop the books published by New York presses and prestigious university presses. If you’re going to find an Asian American poet who might identify with some notion of the post-racial or post-Asian, she or he is more likely to be part of this group. You would also be more likely to find an Asian American poet here who would argue a separation between poetry and politics, between poetry and community (between poetry and narrative, between poetry and content, between poetry and identity, etc.).
Again these are broad generalizations. In various ways many exceptions do exist–spoken word poets with MFAs, politically committed MFA poets, etc. (It should be noted, though, that the movement from spoken word poets to MFA programs happens far more frequently than a poet starting out in an MFA and then exploring the world of spoken word.) More importantly, the forward movement in Asian American letters will more likely come from writers whose work crosses and cross-fertilizes both of these worlds in terms of aesthetics and vision.
That said, if my above description seems to favor the world of spoken word, I do have my reasons. Those reasons have something to do with the more multiracial and multiethnic character of the spoken word world as opposed to the more monochromatic, white-based traditions of the MFA programs.
I’ve been speaking here of poets, but some of the contrasts I’ve outlined find a similar echo with fiction writers. At a recent AWP conference, one Asian American MFA fiction writer argued to me that she didn’t want or need to designate her characters as Asian American or write about Asian Americans. I told her that I didn’t want to prescribe what she should do as a writer; that was solely up to her. But I did ask, “Have you read DuBois? Have you read Baldwin? Fanon? bell hooks? Said? Homi Bhabha? Morrison’s Playing in the Dark?” She answered, “No.” I said her education and MFA program had given her only one side of the dialogue on race and literature. She’d made up her mind not only without hearing the other side of the argument, but really, for the most part, not knowing the other side existed.
And that, I think, is one condition the current under-forty generation of Asian American writers share. They have come of age as writers at a time when the American dialogue on race has been shunted aside through various arguments about a post-racial America. For many, when it comes to the ways race intersects with literature, their formal education has not provided them with the proper historical and intellectual context to understand the world before their eyes or the arguments people are making about whether race is still a factor in that world. Yet many of these writers possess degrees from prestigious universities and MFA programs.
At the same time, this generation of Asian American writers grew up in a time of transnational identities, when the borders between countries–whether economic, political, cultural, or personal–have grown increasingly fluid. For the Korean or Indian American of 2011, Seoul and Mumbai are far closer than the Tokyo of my grandfather’s time. But in order to understand these global connections one needs a history of how those connections occurred, a history which must include colonialism and empire–and thus race.
This week I’ve been reading John S. Wright’s Shadowing Ralph Ellison, a work which traces Ellison’s intellectual and aesthetic development and attempts to contextualize that development within the history of African American letters and intellectual tradition. This wide-ranging book moves from figures like DuBois, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes to contemporaries like Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Jonathan Edgar Wideman; from the blues to Louis Armstrong to bebop to hip hop; from the Garveyites to the Harlem Renaissance to World War II’s segregated troops to the Civil Rights movement to the Black Arts movement to the present.
Almost none of my formal literary education covered these traditions and history out of which Ellison emerged and wrote within. It was only outside school that I schooled myself in the likes of Baldwin and Fanon, Morrison and bell hooks, Kincaid and Cesaire, as well as African American music and social history. I would argue that knowing such traditions and histories is essential for Asian American writers, for only through such will they understand their own place in the pluralistic, mongrel culture and history of America (as Ellison maintained, American culture could not exist as it is without its African American component). Similarly it is only through an understanding of the postcolonial condition and its literary history that Asian American writers can place their own condition and history within our increasingly interconnected world.
Unfortunately, there are a number of writers of the generation after mine who do not know about, much less subscribe to, the arguments I’m making here. It’s easier in 2011 for Asian Americans to live and write as if our world is post-racial and no longer colonial. Some believe that’s a measure of progress, and in some ways it is. But that isn’t by any means the whole story–just take a look at various racial disparities in income, unemployment, incarceration, education, etc. or the issues surrounding immigration or voter suppression. And that’s what we should be after as writers–the whole story in all its complexity.
Recently, in Minneapolis, Pangea World Theater presented Lebanese American writer Kathy Haddad’s Zafira: The Olive Oil Warrior, a work which imagines Arab and Muslim Americans being rounded up and interned in a manner similar to Japanese Americans in World War II. The play even employed a quotation from a 1942 LA Times editorial calling for the internment of Japanese Americans and merely substituted the term Arab Americans. I was one of the few audience members who recognized the quotation that so accurately mimicked the conditions today. (Since 9/11, 85,000 Arab and Muslim Americans have been arrested.)
In 1991, along with other Twin Cities Asian Americans, I helped form the Asian American Renaissance, an Asian American arts organization. Members of the Arab American community asked if they could be part of the organization, and we readily agreed. Whether one accepts or not the extension of Asian American to the Middle East and not just the Far East and South Asia, it’s hard to deny the connections and parallels between our histories and conditions.
The connections and merging of Arab and Muslim Americans, who of course include South Asian Muslims, with Asian America is just one facet of the increased diversity of the Asian American population. For many Asian Americans, the multiplicity of their interracial and interethnic encounters is unprecedented in our history (though we know the encounters of previous generations were far more diverse than is often acknowledged).
Of course I am aware that there are places like Edison, New Jersey, or Monterey Park, California, where Asian Americans can live their lives solely within an ethnic enclave, socializing and working only with those of their own ethnicity. But elsewhere in the country the experience of Asian Americans is just the opposite. For example, my children’s Minneapolis high school is one-fifth Native American, one-fifth Latino, one-fifth black (including West Africans), one-tenth Asian, and three-tenths European Americans. My children’s friends have been black, white, mixed race, Tibetan, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Bosnian, Chicano, Tunisian, Native, Hmong, Thai, and Chinese. Their girlfriends and boyfriends have been white, Korean adoptees, Thai, Puerto Rican, Somali, Ethiopian. This diversity of race and ethnicity has shaped who my children are and who their friends are in ways that represent a new generation of Asian Americans. It’s not a post-racial America they’re living in but a multiracial America. And this is Minnesota, people, not New York or London.
Though I’m Japanese American, I grew up mainly thinking of race as a dialogue between whites and America-born blacks. In recent years, in part due to my children’s experiences, I’ve found myself expanding and complicating my conceptions of racial dialogues. I now see such dialogues as including other racial and immigrant populations and their connections to a global vision. This process has been accelerated by ten years teaching at VONA, a writer’s conference for writers of color. The ethnic/racial background of the VONA faculty is amazingly diverse, with writers like Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer, Chris Abani, Suheir Hammad, Cristina Garcia, Elmaz Abinader, Willie Perdomo, Ruth Foreman, Staceyann Chin, Faith Adiele, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Thomas Glave, Victor Lavelle, Martin Espada, Saul Williams, Cherie Moraga, Andrew Pham, Walter Mosley, Danzy Senna, Matt Johnson, Quincy Troupe, Evelina Galang, and Chitra Divakaruni. My dialogues with such colleagues have enabled and caused me to learn more about their various cultures and histories. This has also been the case with the younger writers–including Asian American writers like Ishle Park, Katie Vang, Mai Lee, Ching-In Chen, Allison Towata, Parissa Ebrahimzadeh, Sharline Chiang–who have studied at VONA. Some of these younger writers are refugees from white-dominated MFA programs where their instructors and classes don’t even acknowledge such diversity exists, much less its significance.
To understand the tradition and context out of which writers like Junot Diaz, Suheir Hammad, or Chris Abani write, you need to be aware of the likes of Said and Fanon, of Patrick Chamoiseau and Chinua Achebe, of Mahmoud Darwish and Derek Walcott. In studying how Palestinian Americans like Suheir Hammad view Palestinian history–something you will never get from the American media–Said is essential. And if you read Said on Palestine–or on Orientalism or his investigation into the ways imperialism informs British literature–that will lead you to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. The latter then provides a necessary gloss on Diaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or a Halfie” and the hierarchy of color that exists in the Dominican Republic of Oscar Wao. But it’s not just writers of color who must be read in a context beyond the white Anglo-American tradition. With the addition of these post-colonial writers, we must also transform our view of the Anglo-American tradition. Yeats becomes a poet of decolonization as opposed to a major British poet (which is how I was first introduced to Yeats). Given his problematic explorations of colonialism and empire, Conrad becomes a pivotal figure for Said in Culture and Imperialism and his work a telling contrast with Austen’s Mansfield Park, where the colonial source of wealth is kept conveniently offstage; for Chinua Achebe, it’s the egregious aspects of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which trigger the birth of his groundbreaking novel, Things Fall Apart; for Diaz, Conrad has been instrumental in understanding certain questions of narration (take a look at the similarities between the ways Junior and Marlowe function as narrators).
The Asian American writers today who wish to join the ranks of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Nicole Krauss, Lydia Davis, or Alice Monroe can continue their work without the references I’ve listed above. But those Asian American writers who want to join the ranks of a Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul or Edwidge Danticat, a Nurrudin Farah, Jamaica Kincaid or Junot Diaz? They’re headed in a different direction. They will have to educate themselves in a world and a literature that’s generally not available in the academy’s MFA programs. They will have to enter the America that exists today outside the white suburbs or the mono-ethnic enclaves. They will have to shift and transform their own identities in order to make themselves adequate to this brave new world.
In my own exploration of Asian American identity two key quotations charted the type of exploration I am urging Asian American writers of the next generation to make. The first is from Frantz Fanon’s psychological study of race and colonialism, Black Skin, White Masks:
In the Antilles…in the magazines, the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”…The black school boy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about “our ancestors, the Gauls,” identifies himself with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to savages–an all-white truth. There is identification–that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man’s attitude. He invests the hero, who is white, with all his own aggression–at that age closely linked to sacrificial dedication, a sacrificial dedication permeated with sadism.
Fanon’s argument here is clear: in the French colonial education system, what the young black school boy learns is self-alienation, self-hatred, and an identification with his white colonial rulers. At the time I encountered Fanon, I was someone who had gone through an English Ph.D. program where I had been taught no writers of color except for a handful of Baraka poems. And I said to myself, Oh, I’m that black school boy. All I’ve been learning is the “all-white truth.” Now I do understand that today’s younger Asian American writers receive a training that is at least slightly more diverse than mine, but they should also remember that many of their teachers–the writers of my generation–white or of color, received mainly a monoracial, monocultural formal education, an education that did not include the issues of post-coloniality.
A second essential guide for a young Asian American writer would be the following quotation from James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work:
The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic–a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day–it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.
America has always been a place where a stranger encounters a stranger, but it is so much more so today. That is the America–and the world–that Asian American writers under forty are a part of. Whether they acknowledge this in their writing? Well, that’s up to them.
 Originally published by Harcourt in 1943.
 Kenneth Warren, “Does African-American Literature Exist?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 Feb 2011. http://chronicle.com/article/Does-African-American/126483/#. For a riposte to Warren’s article, see Gene Andrew Jarrett’s “Africa-American Literature Lives On, Even as Black Politics Expire,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Mar 2011. http://chronicle.com/article/African-American-Literature/126867/#comment-175135740?
 Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women. Ed. Roberta Uno. U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 5.
 Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (New York: Mentor, 1974) xiv-xv.
 Chin et al. write, “The white stereotype of the acceptable and unacceptable Asian is utterly without manhood. Good or bad, the stereotypical Asian is nothing as man. At worst, the Asian American is contemptible because he is womanly, effeminate, devoid of all the traditionally masculine qualities of originality, daring, physical courage, and creativity” (14-15).
 In their second anthology The Big Aiiieeeee! (New York: Meridian, 1991), Chin et al. label The Woman Warrior as an “inauthentic” fairy tale of Chinese civilization in which “Fa Mulan…[is framed as] a champion of Chinese feminism and an inspiration to Chinese American girls to dump the Chinese race and make for white universality” (27).
 Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham and London: Duke UP, 1996) 66. Lowe defines Asian American hybridity as “the formation of cultural objects and practices that are produced by the histories of uneven and unsynthetic power relations; for example, the racial and linguistic mixings in the Philippines and among Filipinos in the United States are the material trace of the history of Spanish colonialism, U.S. colonization, and U.S. neocolonialism. Hybridity, in this sense, does not suggest the assimilation of Asian or immigrant practices to dominant forms but instead marks the history of survival within relationships of unequal power and domination” (67).
 Lowe, 26.
 Ibid, 29, my emphases.
 In “Minority Cosmopolitanism,” PMLA 126:3 (May 2011), Susan Koshy argues, “As my analysis will show, minority cosmopolitanism can break down the opposition between the ethnic and the cosmopolitan by highlighting (1) that minority narratives often carry non-Western modes of cosmopolitanism that offer alternative vision of cross-cultural exchange and transnational affiliation, (2) that the relational definition of the minority against the majority contains an implicit comparative cultural perspective that lends itself to cosmopolitan articulations, and (3) that a vertical hierarchy of scales that relegates the minority to the subnational missed the dynamic, ‘scale-jumping’ properties of the minority in globality” (594). Her theorization provides one answer to the question that she posed about theorizing the “fiction” of Asian American literature in 1996. See Susan Koshy’s “The Fiction of Asian American Literature,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 9:2 (1996).
 Koshy, 597, 599.
 See Sau-Ling Wong’s “Denationalization Reconsidered,” Amerasia Journal 21.1 and 2 (1995): 1-27.
 In “Restaging the Universal,” Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, Eds. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek (London and New York: Verso, 2000), theorist Judith Butler revises her earlier, deconstructive concept of performativity from Gender Trouble (1990): “The assertion of universality by those who have conventionally been excluded by the term often produces a performative contradiction of a certain sort. But this contradiction, in Hegelian fashion, is not self-cancelling, but exposes the spectral doubling of the concept itself. And it prompts a set of antagonistic speculations on what the proper venue for the claim of universality ought to be” (38). In early and contemporary Asian American literature, the protagonists perform American universality as it “ought to be.” As subjects who have indeed been “excluded by the term,” their very performances of universality expose the dialectical speculations about the form democratic universalism should take.
 Jhumpa Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies,” Interpreter of Maladies (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 46.
 Ibid, 59.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ibid, 69.
 Lowe, 6.
 Lahiri, 69.
 Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart (Seattle and London: U of Washington P, 2002), 326-7.
 Sui Sin Far, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” Independent (21 January 1909), Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1995), 230.
 Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1995), 33.
 Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 236.
 Ibid, 237.
 Ibid, 245-6.
 Ibid, 244.
 Ibid, 247.
 Ibid, 247.
 Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghat of the World,” The Nation, 11 Feb. 2002.
 Describing the way she wrote her novel Dogeaters, Hagedorn has written,“Manila is a collage, from the very high to the very low, from the very pious to the incredibly depraved. It’s this wonderful tropical city that can’t be easily described or defined. So why should the novel be linear and regimented? It couldn’t, if I was to properly capture what I was trying to capture.”
 Ved Mehta, on the other hand, writes prose that is more transparently narrative, as different from collage as tea is from beer: “Mamaji didn’t understand about the optic nerves. She pictured blindness as a filmlike curtain descending in front of the eyes and shutting out the light. At the beginning of my illness, my eyes had become red, but toward the end they had regained their normal appearance. No one looking into my eyes would have imagined that I couldn’t see. In the last few days of my illness, she had often folded back my eyelids and looked into my eyes. They looked nearly clear. She didn’t see much of a shadow in them.” Whatever brings Hagedorn and Mehta together is clearly external to both of their identities and forms of aesthetic engagement.
 Though Ngoc Ngan Nguyen and Nhien Hao Phan have also published the English language works The Will of Heaven (1982) and Night, Fish & Charlie Parker (2005), respectively.
 One sticking point for so many writers of color, particularly fiction writers, is the economy of explanation: which of those details the white mainstream reader might not understand do you explain? In the Marlowe novels, Conrad has used the genre of the men’s club novel, where one of the club members tells a tale to the other members. Similarly Diaz’s Junior tells Oscar’s tale to an audience of urban, educated second or one-and-a-half generation Dominicans, who grew up on hip hop and American pop culture as well as the immigrant Dominican culture; this audience then determines his economy of explanation.
 Much of this increased diversity is due to the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened up immigration from non-European nations and therefore allowed the parents of the Asian American generation under forty to immigrate here. Thus, the very presence of these Asian Americans must be seen in the context of the Civil Rights movement and the fight against racial discrimination. The other factor contributing to that generation is, of course, the Vietnam War, a war that cannot be understood without the context of colonialism and empire.