Asian American literary journals have historically burned hot but short. Why so few of them have had much in the way of longevity is an open question, and one wonders what their vexed histories have to teach us. What struggles does the Asian American literary journal face today? What struggles does Asian American literature in general face?
From 1992 to 1997, I served as the Artistic Director of the Asian American Renaissance and was involved with its literary publication the Journal of the Asian American Renaissance. For several years both the organization and the journal were quite successful. Among the writers who published in the journal or participated in its events were Ed Bok Lee, Thien-Bao Phi, Juliana Pegues, Sherry Quan Lee, U Sam Ouer and Mai Neng Moua (who founded the Hmong American arts organization and journal Pau Ntaub Voice). But in the early 2000s AAR began to falter, and it eventually ended as an organization around 2006.
The overwhelming reason why the Asian American Renaissance fell into decline was simple: There were less funds coming in the door than going out. And the prime reason for this state? I would say it was a lack of Asian American arts administrators who possessed both a passion for the arts and an ability to manage an arts organization, specifically in the area of financial management. Early on in the organization’s history, our Executive Director Valerie Lee was actually someone who came from the social services area; however, she believed in the conjunction of arts and community, and she demonstrated excellent skills in fiscal management. But it was hard to find a replacement for her who with similar skills. Of course the lack of skills in the fiscal area plagues arts organizations in general, but it’s my personal belief that while you can find Asian Americans who want to be artists, it’s much more difficult to find Asian Americans who want to be arts administrators. And that is one essential reason why we lack sufficient infrastructure in the arts, whether it be literary journals or other artistic organizations.
A second reason why the history of Asian American literary journals is so spotty involves the question of Asian American identity–specifically the various reasons why Asian Americans aren’t always particularly eager to claim that identity. This is a large and complicated issue, and I’ll only go over the broader aspects of this question here. First, unlike African American identity, Asian American identity is not something which most individual Asian Americans grow up with. If Asian Americans acknowledge a difference from the white mainstream identity, they tend to identify first with their own ethnic communities; you see this identification at work on college campuses and in community organizations. At the AAR, if we brought in a Filipino American theater troupe, the Filipino American community would turn out for them. But if we brought in a Hmong hip-hop group, the Filipinos wouldn’t necessarily show up. It takes a certain cultural, political and intellectual context for Asian Americans to understand the concept of Asian American identity, much less decide to adopt it. I recall a panel where a well-known Asian American poet observed that he hadn’t even heard the term till he was in his mid-twenties. He then proclaimed the term has as much relevance to him as his social security number. This seemed to me to ignore the ways the experiences of Asian Americans are shaped by the racial perceptions of others and the ways the society around us affects the way we look at ourselves. It also ignored the ways we are reinforced by the mainstream society to not see race as a factor in our experiences (and frankly it ignored the speaker’s own experiences).
Despite the proclamations of a post-racial Obama America, we still live in a society which practices racial hierarchy, and this is actually more true in the arts than in say science or business. If I discover a drug or produce a better widget, the judgment of that is objective. Certainly the question of my race and ethnicity will not play a significant role in the assessment of my work. But that’s obviously not true with the assessment of cultural products, or with the cultural institutions which make and implement those assessments. (If you don’t think race is a factor in cultural production, just ask Asian American actors or those trying to create specifically Asian American works in the entertainment industry.) Individual Asian American artists sense this bias is at work within the society, and on a conscious and unconscious level, this affects how they identify themselves, how they create their art, and how they choose to interact with the infrastructure of the society, particularly within their own field.
It’s revealing I think to look at how these issues play themselves out in poetry. In recent years I’ve seen more and more Asian American poets from MFA programs who seem to have had all sense of their ethnic or racial background whitewashed out of their poetry. Conversely I would argue that Asian American poets who come out of the spokenword scene tend to identify more openly as Asian Americans and to view their own work within the context of Asian American issues and the Asian American community. I don’t believe it’s by chance that the MFA Asian American poets are more likely to have middle-class or suburban backgrounds (or both) while the spokenword Asian American poets are more likely to come from working class and urban backgrounds. Nor is it by chance the cultural roots of the spokenword genre come out of African American literature while many of the white poets who teach in MFA programs have only a marginal familiarity with that literature. (The African American poet, Patricia Smith, who started out in the spoken word scene, has remarked that she was glad she got her MFA after she had established her own vision and discovered what it was she wanted to write about.)
I realize that there are exceptions to what I’ve said here. And I’m not arguing that every Asian American writer must write specifically about Asian American identity. (I am though arguing that I think many Asian Americans, writers or otherwise, underestimate the influence of race on their experiences, particularly in their cultural training.) Still I think my overall point is valid: If Asian American writers, because of their background or because of their training, are encouraged by various forces not to identify as Asian Americans, then there’s less incentive for them to become involved with or associate with Asian American literary journals.
Each year I teach at the VONA (Voices of the Nation Writers Association) writers’ conference, which is for writers of color and taught by writers of color. VONA believes that the dialogue between writers of color allows for perspectives that could not be easily engaged in other settings. I think the same is true for a journal like AALR, and I feel privileged and please to be part of its inaugural issue.
At the same time, given my experience at VONA and the shifting landscape of American and world literature, I also believe that Asian Americans must become conversant with and engage the literature of people of color. This is not a view which is prevalent in many MFA programs, where writers of color are often singular presences or simply absent. Conversely, I would argue that Asian American institutions and journals like AALR intervene in the culture in a way that encourages such dialogue; they presuppose that we share on some level an experience of being “raced” in America and thus undergo experiences which are similar to other people of color.
In an editorial note to the inaugural year anthology of the Kartika Review, Fiction Editor Christine Lee Zilka writes that “there is, happily, no longer a definition for what Asian American literature is — just simply that it is work about Asian America, or written by Asian Americans.” Her words are countered however by the non-fiction editor of the same journal, who states that “the common thread for all of our writers (is) to explore what it means to be ‘Asian’ in a modern and multicultural society.” Therein lies the difficulty for all of us who attempt to forge a basis for discriminating between who belongs within the specific pantheon of our choice — in our case, Asian American — and who falls short. There is a decision to be made about whether we are a group that writes about being Asian-American or whether we, in all our literary activities, are defined simply by our federal classification and/or socio-psychological geographic coordinates. So long as we do not control the definition, however, the framework of the literary enterprise within which we all operate is happy to do it for us and usually to our detriment.
Celeste Ng, in a blog for the Huffington Post titled, ‘Why I don’t want to be the next Amy Tan,’ addresses the business of race-based comparisons between writers. Thus, she argues, she is quite likely to be compared to other Chinese Americans (Maxine Hong Kinston, Amy Tan, Lan Samantha Chang), in the same way that Malaysian-born Preeta Samarasan (Evening is the Whole Day), is compared to others in the brown brigade: Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Zadie Smith, although that list straddles a rather expansive swath of the habitable land mass of the world. The verdict of the industry, then, is that we Asian Americans of every hue and original national origin write interchangeable books, and that of those books, one can be hailed as the standard whereas the rest are imitations. According to this reasoning, Jhumpa Lahiri has “done” the Bengali Indian communities of New England, stamped her doing with a Pulitzer and thereby left the writings of say, Rishi Reddi (Karma and Other Stories), in the corner from which the comparatives are drawn. In such a universe, Ng and a legion of fresh voices cannot have anything fresh to say since their story has been preceded by other stories written by members of their particular minority group.
At the 2007 AWP Conference in NY, I perused a 350 page conference bulletin to find my peers. First, who were they? As An International, I found myself drawn to the panels on Latin Americans writers speaking on immigration, Iranian women poets speaking about the importance of their voices in American literature, Caribbean writers and those speaking about war, and also the panel entitled, fittingly, ‘The Price of the Ticket,’ for writers of color in writing programs. Many of these were during the same time slot, thereby forcing me to choose to elevate my interest in one part of the world over another, a perhaps subconscious choice on the part of the organizers who assumed that for those of us from other places, there would be only one choice to make. There was no panel on South Asian writers. I found myself wondering if I wanted one. Was it my own niche that I needed? Or was I simply fed up with niches altogether? If this is a country of immigrants, a country which is actively pursuing objectives both heinous (mostly on the part of its government) and noble (mostly on the part of its people), in every corner of the globe – with the notable exception of the islands of Andaman and Nicobar whose aborigine tribes, the Jarawas, Onges, Shompens, Sentinelese and the Gread Andamanese have remained safe from input from the rest of us – in such a country, should we not have all such conferences be for international writing where “American” literature is but another form? Should we not move away from simply ogling the writers who are celebrated by the remarkable PEN/World Voices Festival and in fact nest our current permutations into our own conferences of world voices? For, are we not, here and now, the world?
I drifted through four days inside a writerly uterus teeming with creativity and comparison, cocooned as it was within the larger body of New York, NY, the city of the world in all its sadness and euphoria. And pulsing beside the heartbeat of my fervent participation was that question of unknown horizons: where do I belong?
Where do we belong? It is a question that cannot be answered unless we are able to first answer the question, who are we? There is a complexity to our Asian American experience that needs to be written about, but it takes place within the framework of a world that has a long-established set of cultural complexities that are universal: loss, love, grief, death, regret, greed, lust etc. What is different about an Asian-American writer’s take on those universalities is that it is colored by our cultural specificities which, for better or worse, come diluted to a greater or lesser degree by the epoch in which we find ourselves, an epoch marked by our collective desire to forge intimate connections with people beyond our own families, often beyond our national boundaries.
Beyond that, our respective journeys here, to America, began on separate shores, and so we bring to our stories the heft of those travels, those partings, the things sacrificed, lost, reclaimed, cherished or discarded, the languages and idioms that we tuck away in the recesses of our minds and visit in dreams, or slip into with ease while riding on the subways and planes that zip us back and forth between local worlds that we convince ourselves we navigate by choice.
It seems appropriate to end this note by returning to Kartika to highlight the particular editorial insight of its poetry editor, Sunny Woan. In seeking out work for the journal, Woan looks first for the substance behind the creative marriage of language and writing, seeking philosophers and activists whose poems elevate our collective human consciousness and purpose. I think Woan has it right. Asian American writing, like the writing of any other immigrant group whose parent cultures are so at odds with the host culture in which they reside, is the writing of negotiation and activism. It is writing of many tongues which transform the common English language which unites us, and creates something new about the language itself. It is not a matter of it being a new world but rather of refining – or even bastardizing – but ultimately transforming the tool we use to describe that world and of learning to wield it with a sure and distinctive panache.
I’ve been thinking about this from about three different angles, and I am hoping writing this will make sense of them.
1. I’ve been noticing how often in reaching for diversity, major American literary establishments will reach out to an international writer first before they reach for an American writer of any color.
2. When I was a writing student in college I used to feel like literature was a big food court at the mall, and for being half-white and half-Asian, I wouldn’t be able to work at the Korean restaurant, or at the white people restaurant. What if I can’t work at either restaurant because I don’t belong there, I’d ask myself. And then I noticed how often a work would assert its ethnicity to readers through the food and stopped using that metaphor. But then it came back to me recently.
3. In my twenties, I went to a meeting for gay Asian/Pacific-Islanders. It was the first one I’d ever gone to. I went with a friend who was also mixed–Japanese/Filipino/Mexican–and the leader of the group said, “I’m so glad you chose to identify.”
I raised an eyebrow. “As what?” I asked.
“APA,” he said. As if I could somehow just ignore what I was.
Alienated from our families for being gay, made to feel like we were the mistakes of parents who wouldn’t obey cultural norms, we just wanted to find a place where our sensibility made sense. Riko, my friend with me that day, had gone with me because before we found each other, we hadn’t found anyone else who understood that. We’d gone that day to see if we could find even one other person beyond the two of us.
So, in thinking about these questions, I begin with these three things.
I think what they have in common is that for our community at least, we have followed some flawed models of community organizing. As the editors recently observed in finding the name for this journal, there is no single experience or cultural identity that bonds us, except, I think, being mistaken for each other by people who are not Asian American. This experience creates an “us against them” situation that then begs the question, if we don’t think about “them,” who are we?
And the answer is, we are a heterogeneous polyglot, shifting all the time. We are a shapeshifting community, in other words. We don’t know what each other knows about each other. We don’t know what we can expect the other person will say. But that, to my mind, is where it gets exciting. And this is too often where we fail–the thing we let down.
Too often my expectation when I reach for a journal of Asian American literary work is I expect to be excluded. I expect to be treated as someone who can pass if he wants to, like in that meeting. Because this has happened a great deal.
Biracials for a long time have been ostracized from community organizing around ethnicity just as bisexuals were once by the gay and lesbian communities–and what I see in the experience of my friend Riko and I that day is that we are an emergent aspect of this community–people of mixed heritage. I refuse to take any responsibility for what people project onto me, in their attempts to turn me as a symbol for what they fear is happening to themselves–that they aren’t “Asian enough.”
It is just as rude to expect someone of Chinese descent to speak Chinese as it is to expect them not to, and what I love in that paradox is that it makes room for us to drop out of either of those expectations and move into artistic freedom. We are not colonies of our respective ancestral cultures, located in this far-flung place, expected to stoically keep these traditions and languages and to always be ready to return to that so-called “native land.” We’re really not all the same, in other words. And in fact, that is what I love about the idea of an issue of the AALR–I don’t know what to expect.
I think nothing is more annihilating to a writer than to be celebrated for what he or she is and not for what he or she wrote. It makes you feel like you and your work together are just the letter I, I, I, typed over and over again. And there’s a lot that sets us up for that. We know the tropes at this point, don’t we? Our work as writers exists in an interesting double-bind right now. We move between commercial expectations in publishing that ask us for a repeat of the commercial successes of the past, and critical expectations that we perform a literature that acknowledges ideological concerns regarding identity. And there can be tremendous temporary commercial and critical rewards for meeting these spoken and unspoken expectations. But the cost of that is that you’ve turned yourself into something more like a senator and less like a writer, in either case.
This is not exciting to readers. And so they do not come to see that show. And as a result, we have the irony of Haruki Murakami, reigning as a star in the literary establishment while too many Asian American writers are ignored. And the reason for that is this: Murakami does not care about our tropes or our rebellion against or conformity to those tropes. Murakami is ideologically unfettered. His readers are not expecting him to make work that reinscribes some of the well-known crimes against the people in our communities here in the US, or fit an idea of the immigrant’s narrative. His readers in America (and I count myself as one) love reading him because he is free. None of those readers think of him as an alien in the same way they do of a writer who is Asian American. None of those readers reject him as being unable to speak to their lives.
For at least the last 20 years, I do think we’ve allowed ourselves, as Asian American writers, and as writers of color in general, to be made into the culture’s referees, performing our ethnicity in a literary Epcot center, and given a voice usually when the white culture wants to know if they’ve been prejudiced in X matter or not. Yes, we say, as we appear on stage, or, No, depending. But that is what our role has become. And we adjudicate more than we write, we are seduced into performing that role, and…then we are tired of it, and so we need a different kind of liberation, an artistic one.
So I say, let’s stop. Let’s move back to that place where we don’t know what we’ll find inside. Let’s stop being the referees. If someone asks you to be the expert on a matter of prejudice, just say, “Well, what do you think?” Or, make a joke, maybe even an inappropriate one. Don’t take the senatorial bait, though. Yes, there will be battles worth fighting, but what I do think will make this journal live and thrive is to make a place for people to connect with a sensibility–to find writing and criticism that engages with the way our lives and our world are changing, surprising and challenging us in the process. It is not our job to fix the world, though we can if we want. It is not our job to educate whites or other communities for that matter on issues of prejudice, though we can if we want. Our job as artists is to be free. I think that’s the only job that matters.
Although the prompt seemed to me about Asian American literary journals, I’m struck by how my fellow panel members focused more on the role of the Asian American writer. I think this is partly due to the complexities and contradictions of our position in this society.
From a political standpoint, I’m probably more in agreement with Ru Freeman’s prescription of activism since the activist approach encourages the infrastructure needed to support Asian American writers–journals, publishing houses, arts organizations, reading series, writers’ groups, theaters. The more Asian Americans who do this sort of work the better. And the more people helping out the more time and opportunities all of us will have to pursue our own artistic work and visions, the pursuit which Alexander Chee stresses in his response.
But activism also involves advocacy and interventions. Chee advises Asian American writers not to take the “bait” to speak on an issue regarding racial prejudice or presumably other issues concerning race: “It is not our job to educate whites or other communities on the issues of prejudice.” Certainly people of color are often asked to speak for their perceived group in ways which reinforce existing racist assumptions or misperceptions. This week an Egyptian American friend showed me a piece he’d written about the Muslim American’s “burden” to explain the actions of Maj. Nidal Hasan. The assumption is that by virtue of being Muslim my friend somehow had secret privy to the thoughts and feelings of the more than billion Muslims all over the globe. Obviously such assumptions are nonsense. Yet my friend also chose to write an editorial on Hasan. Our society’s portraits of Arab Americans are so rife with stereotypes and inaccuracies, he felt he could not be silent and allow these falsehoods to remain unchallenged.
Chee states that Asian American writers can comment on such matters, but that their only job is “to be free.” But what does it mean “to be free”? Certainly each writer possesses a unique vision and voice and struggles to express these. But that struggle does not take place in a vacuum. In their responses, both Freeman and Chee list examples where the Asian American writer finds her or his self boxed in by political, cultural and commercial expectations.
As a possible counter example, Chee goes on to cite Haruki Murakami and argues that Murakami is “ideologically unfettered.” But I find Chee’s assertions about Murakami problematic for several reasons. First, there is no such thing, I believe, as an “ideologically unfettered” writer. For certain writers, their ideological assumptions just go unnoticed because they’re part of the reigning ideology.
Second, putting aside a lengthy analysis of Murakami’s ideology, let’s examine how Murakami’s position differs from that of an Asian American writer. Murakami does not write in a society where his vantage point as a Japanese male is marginalized. Nor does he live within a hierarchy where a white majority and its cultural productions determine not simply the norms of the society but how the society views itself. His position in Japanese society is more akin to a Paul Auster or David Foster Wallace than a Jonathan Edgar Wideman or Sherman Alexie or Don Lee. (Or in another revealing comparison, Murakami is more like a Salman Rushdie–an Indian writer–than a V.S. Naipaul–an ethnically Indian writer from Trinidad.) Thus, Murakami’s portraits of individual characters come out of a culture with myriad portraits of Japanese individuals. In our society there are comparatively few three dimensional portraits of Asian Americans; for the majority of our reading public their view of Asian Americans has been shaped by a white majority viewpoint and crude stereotypes.
The implications of this condition are many and complex. For one thing, it means that when dealing with our Asian American identity, many readers may lack the context to comprehend and evaluate our work. When I published Turning Japanese, my memoir about my year in Japan, certain white reviewers viewed my descriptions of Japan as universal and central, while questions about my Japanese American identity were deemed personal and minor. In contrast all the Asian American reviewers assumed my identity was a central focus of the book and no less a viable subject than Japan. Our work, by its very existence, involves us in a political/cultural struggle which a writer like Murakami does not face. A Japanese writing as a Japanese doesn’t challenge conscious and unconscious racist assumptions about who is American; a Japanese American does.
But there’s another level to this which might not be as obvious. The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has pointed out that the modernist text is read against or through the palimpsest of an imaginary realist text. We read, for instance, Metamorphosis in relationship to an imagined realistic portrayal of a middle-class family (or through an actual work like The Death of Ivan Illych). I would submit that Murakami’s frequent use of surrealism/fantasy assumes the existence of a realistic portrait of contemporary life in Japanese society; this portrait is created not just through literature but also through other cultural productions in Japanese society. In contrast, such a realist portrait does not exist for the life of Asian Americans.
The absence of an adequate context helps explain why so many writers and ethnic studies departments feel compelled to focus on realistic portraits. Similarly it’s one thing say for white postmodernist writers to assert that narrative is dead, when narratives of characters like themselves have been created numerous times over. But what if your own narrative or those of your community (e.g., its history) have not been sufficiently voiced? As writers we cannot necessarily assume that our readers possess even a basic knowledge about our experience and background. This creates an artistic dilemma that most white writers do not have to face. Thus, Garrett Hongo has asserted that “show don’t tell” is a white guy’s aesthetic; by saying this, he’s implying that we have all been taught to read white male stories and experience, whether we’re white or not. The difficult question is how do we as Asian Americans learn to read our own experiences and create work within these conditions (which again do have a political basis).
And yet we’re in a moment of cultural transformation where many writers of color now sense that the trope of realism may have its limitations. At the same time, these writers seem to assume in the reader’s mind the existence of a realistic three dimensional portrait of people of color (thus, they assume a significant multicultural readership). I’m thinking of books like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous History of Oscar Wao or Victor Lavelle’s Big Machine or Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution.
As more and more Asian American writers and artists create a more multilayered and three-dimensional portrait of Asian American life, it will become easier for each individual writer to create their own particular vision. (To cite a crude example, Maxine Hong Kingston stated that she put a list of immigration laws in China Men because then no Asian American writer would have to provide such a list again.) Still, to return to the prompt, all this will take place more rapidly if more writers commit to helping to support artistic infrastructure for our communities.
The matter of identifying and supporting Asian American arts administrators is indeed a valid concern. I do think, though, that it is not impossible to address that concern if only we are able to unshackle our minds from our tendency to segregate ourselves into our sub-divisions, in deed, if not in word (as I argue below, I am determinedly South-Asian American in my writing), which habit leaves the overarching fact of our similarities to rot through our inattention. The challenge is to create cross-over partnerships in order to address that primary problem.
We could borrow some ideas from South Asian Americans and I will share my experience with regard to the Network of South Asian Professionals (NETSAP). Five years ago, NETSAP decided to showcase artists from the South Asian diaspora by establishing the South Asian Literary & Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF), in which I had the distinct honor of participating this year. The festival receives outstanding publicity and support thanks to the connection that NETSAP established with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. Neither one of these groups could have put on the festival without the support of the other, but the fact that underlies its overall success is that NETSAP decided that supporting the arts was a vital part of its function in this country. It has not been quite as easy for the larger group of us Asian American writers to find that same sort of support from our Asian American brothers and sisters, or the professional organizations to which they belong, who have the requisite technical expertise and political connections–in terms of in-kind assistance but also in terms of mentoring arts administrators as well as demonstrating by such support, the overall worth of literature–and yet without it, we are, sadly, fighting a harder battle.
The unfortunate impact of all/mostly-White writing programs–whether intentional or not–in erasing our Asian Americanness is only matched by the effort to pigeonhole an ‘ethnic’ writer as being unable or ill-equipped to write about anything but their ethnic identity. I still recall the director of a respected writing program crossing out a large section of a short-story of mine with the advice: “This we can get from a white writer. The other stuff is what only you can talk about.” And I believe he meant well. It is not so much a business of what is expected of us but rather what we feel competent to expect of ourselves, and if a writing program is able to squash the confidence out of us and replace it with self-doubt, then let us first take a look in our own mirror before holding it up to the face of our well-meaning but sometimes lethal benefactors at mainstream writing programs. Let us also become comfortable with not being able to access the prestige, prizes and accolades that come by association with those programs, but rather resolve to set up a form of self-validation that is based upon a more comprehensive recognition of ourselves not only as Asian American writers, but as writers of color, VONA being a great example of what once was an idea and has now become possible.
I agree with David that the issue of self-identification is at the heart of this debate, but I am not convinced that it explains our resistance to supporting each other. If Asian American poets coming from MFA programs are more likely to be middle class and suburban, whereas the spoken word poets are working class or urban, and if these distinctions are strong indicators of self-identification as Asian American, then it stands to reason that the world we inhabit among literary journals is bound to suffer both by the marked absence of writers who identify with being Asian American and, therefore, the dearth of Asian Americans arts administrators who are, presumably, drawn from that same pool. The root of the problem in this case lies in class, not race. We need to figure out the means by which we may draw a more inclusive circle in order to create the political context that is most conducive to changing how each of these groups might participate in dialogue that can bridge those differences of class and where self-identification as being Asian American is not seen as circumscribing ones relevance to a wider reading public.
The term ‘Asian American’ is one which can be used to describe many writers, but it is most relevant to the person making that observation. The writer herself might choose to use ‘Asian American’ as a catch-all umbrella of sorts, but feel firmly that it is not the umbrella itself but the colors and patterns made upon it (in our case, by our respective ethnic communities) that truly describe them. The simple Asian American classification of myself is one I fight, even when I am merely filling out one of those forms where we have to pick our points of reference. I steadfastly write in ‘Other’ and I steadfastly classify myself as South-Asian American, claiming the sub-text as being just as valid as the main story. Contrary to what Alex says, then, I do believe that I am a colony of my ancestral culture, and that I have a duty to keep those traditions and languages alive and, in fact, that the native land that I can describe with my foreign tongue (English) is exactly where I want to plant my literary feet and where I find what Alex describes as my “artistic freedom.” To claim that space is not a constraint but rather a vantage from which I can make sense of what I see and experience here in the United States as one of its, at last count, 37.5 million modern-day immigrants. In these terms at least, the director of that creative writing program was not out of line; my lens is unique, as he points out, but it is not uniquely turned only upon the things that interest me as an immigrant, but also on the things that interest me as an American, and that latter set of interests has no color.
We are what we write. It is not a political description, but rather a psychological marker of what preoccupies us. Yes, our work ought to be celebrated for its intrinsic beauty/relevance, but the particularity of its consequence is rooted firmly in our individual psyche. I cannot write Alex’ books, nor can he write mine, and that has to do not merely with our respective quota of talent–of which I wholeheartedly concede a greater portion to Alex–but with the fact that we approach our words from within our respective set of circumstances of which our cultural history is a significant and necessary prompt. In blogging for the National Book Award series on past winners, I wrote the following about Ha Jin’s book, Waiting:
Above all, what (Jin) accomplishes in the book is to place the story amid the politics without the latter being given any undue significance or credence. As in most ordinary lives, even those lived in extraordinary times, political upheaval is but another condition to be surmounted, circumnavigated, forged or ignored. A lesser writer would have taken the usual route, politicizing the personal, overwhelming the larger matters of the human heart, especially the most ordinary of human hearts, with the smaller explosions of mob activity. But not Jin.
As an immigrant, and one from a country full of the same kinds of social and political complexities, a fellow writer, and dreaming-in-tongues, once-upon-a-time TOEFL taker, Waiting was, simply, the affirmation of a small story with enormous and universal reach, beautifully spun by a writer who understands that a home can be created out of words just as surely as it can out of bricks and mortar.
That home is the goal toward which we write. And it is a journey that, as David points out, we Asian Americans share with all people of color, certainly as defined in this American landscape. I had occasion to read Jennine Capo Crucet’s debut collection, How to Leave Hialeah (Iowa Short Fiction Award, Iowa University Press, 2009), recently, and what struck me was not the singular particularities of her Cuban-American experience, but rather the universals of all our ‘other-wise’ circumstances, where negotiations of our place in this country, our towns, our families, our schools, are relentlessly fraught. It would be a mistake to deny those similarities in order to affirm our particular subset of realities or to approach our collective literature as being a zero-sum game where some other group’s gain is our group’s loss.
I cannot agree with Alex, though, that our freedom as artists must come at the cost of the job of educating. Literature allows us the privilege of making a point without having to give a sermon or deliver a speech on the floor of the senate, and most of us are able to resist the temptation to do the latter. Novels, perhaps, do this better–witness the work of Ha Jin or Haruki Marukami–though short-stories form, often, the bulk of what is published in a literary journal due to obvious reasons of length, etc., excerpts of novels being much harder to place. And yet, only the best of short stories allow a reader enough emotional time (and I do not mean length of story but rather depth of subject matter), to dwell with a set of circumstances that are outside our own experience; perhaps something the editors of AALR could take into consideration during the editorial process.
While there is certainly a tremendous amount of commercial expectation written into the agreement to publish a book–and, therefore, into the type of story selected for publication–there is, also, the offer of a platform from which we can speak about a host of other issues that are relevant to our Asian American lives. My first novel, A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, July 2009), set in Sri Lanka, has given me, by its mere existence, more opportunities to discuss the political issues that I grapple with in my non-writing life, even when those issues aren’t the subject of my book. The ability to say, for instance, “here are these people who live in this foreign world and who live under circumstances that are foreign to you, but whose impulses and desires you have felt and understand,” is powerful in itself, and that is only the start of a conversation that might lead from over there to right here where we compare our respective takes on the myths and legends in whose light we conduct our present-day lives in the U.S.
International writers such as Haruki Murakami make this same point through their fiction. American readers don’t respond to him differently only because he is foreign and free of our tropes, but rather because his fiction subsumes the differences that too many of us highlight when we write our stories, making them, and not the eternal veritÃ©s of human existence anywhere, the focus of our narratives.
The holy grail, as I see it, is to be artistically ‘free’ in the sense implied by Alex–though we may each choose the texture of that freedom–and also be fettered to the larger common purpose of Asian American literature and the even more inclusive context of ourselves as writers of color, as David points out we should be. That means that we are both able to identify with our own particular ethnic tributary while keeping the matter of the larger river into which we must flow in sight. It is to find solid ground for our feet but be willing to travel. And while doing so, to be mindful of our fellow-travelers.
I recently took a taxi in Los Angeles, driven by a young Pakistani immigrant driver who spoke to me at length about how he was considering taking his child out of school and moving back to Pakistan. “He’s getting a terrible education,” the man said to me.
I nodded. I’ve had my education contrasted with that of my Korean cousins all my life, and had it judges as inferior. I come from a family that speaks at least five languages each, for example. I speak just three.
But I also thought, where is the writer who will write the novel about this man and his son?
On that same visit, my hedge fund banker brother told me, “The next 40 years belong to India and China.” Major international investment banks have fewer offices here than there, and are committing fewer resources here. Whether or not it is true, we are widely seen as in a decline we won’t emerge from for some time.
And yet we’re still looking for the moment when American culture can accept the idea that someone who isn’t a white male can speak to the culture at large about the culture at large in the form of a novel. Or, as it turns out, many other forms: I’m writing this after a National Book Awards ceremony that awarded prizes in every category–fiction, poetry, nonfiction, young adult fiction–to white men, and what’s more, a Publisher’s Weekly top 10 list that featured…just white men. It struck me at the time as a kind of collective, cultural nostalgic last blast, harkening back to a time before we even thought about the possibilities of a black president. Much less a multicultural literature. Or a novel about a Pakistani immigrant that could be the “next great American novel”.
Lately I’ve been in mind of the late Guy Davenport writing about Ezra Pound’s vision of an American intelligence–a polyglot mind, informed by many cultures, an imagination that would be a free-for-all of cultural information, mythologies and languages. Hip-hop, I think, to be honest. I thought of it reading over David Mura’s and Ru Freeman’s responses. Pound’s idea was an exciting one to me when I first came across it, and it remains disappointing to see, firmly in place, here in America, a culture that rewards its idea of itself as a melting pot, but only by implicitly asking that the contents of that pot melt to one color: white. Or its culturally neutered equivalent.
In the meantime, as Ru observed, we are becoming a more global culture, and as we move towards the idea of an international literature, we need to consider the possibility of re-imagining our place in our culture, and our work–we, as Asian Americans, have unique opportunities to write across these differences and divides, to be people creating a more international literature here at home. I disdain the idea of myself as an item in a cultural fondue pot–I am now more interested, for example, in the US as one of the intersections of the financial economies of China, Korea, India and Japan, and their cultural and political economies as well. America has changed dramatically in the last ten years, and the relationship most, if not all of us have, of being the children of people who moved here for a better future than they could find at home, well, we now find that idea contrasted with how many young Americans seek work in Asia that they can’t find here–and many immigrants consider a reverse migration. Pound’s vision may find the life it deserves in the world, rather than in America. We’re poised, whether we want to be or not, to be the writers who watch this change happen, and make work about it. And so in some important ways, contrasted to the journals that have come before us, we have a very different opportunity–to create a forum for a whole series of new conversations, aesthetically, culturally and politically. And that, to me, is exciting.