Thursday, April 22, 2010

The dangers of the dangers of appropriation & etc.: teaching _Remember to Wave_ by Kaia Sand

Sins of commission and omission stain the literary history of Hawai`i. When Hawai`i became a state in 1959, James Michener had the novel to seal the deal; he also introduced A. Grove Day's anthology, A Hawaiian Reader, still available in bookstores and (most tellingly) at the airport. This anthology divided Hawai`i's literature into modern and "Ancient" works, moving from Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London into the afterthought of the creation chant, the Kumulipo. If not, strictly speaking, an omission of Hawaiian orature, this certain qualifies as a back of the bus move, one that has not been remedied by Mutual Publishing in the 50 years since.

Each generation has its renaissance, a rebirth out of the omissions (or commissions) of the generations before. Thus Bamboo Ridge was formed in the early 1980s to assert the presence of local literature, or poetry and fiction written mainly by Asian writers (though early on they published more Hawaiian material than is popularly acknowledged). By the mid-1990s, the need for venues for native Hawaiian literature drove the founding of `oiwi.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but fails to do justice to the narrative I've just compressed into the size of a literary historical haiku. Suffice it to say for now that there are hot spots in discussions of literature here, and that these hot spots have histories. Yesterday I met with a hot spot where I did not expect one, namely in teaching Kaia Sand's Tinfish Press book, Remember to Wave, which I've blogged about elsewhere and whose description you can find on our site, here. Kaia's project was to walk Portland, a city she's lived in most of her life, and to find its secret histories. As she sits at the Expo Center watching a Roller Derby match, she realizes that this is the place where Japanese Americans were rounded up to be interned. Then she discovers that, at nearly the same time, a part of Portland located in a floodplain was bought by Henry Kaiser; this is where post-World War II African American migrants were shunted after migrating to Portland for work.

Most of my students responded positively to the book, its documentary process, the poet's evidently liberal politics. But a few did not. In responses to the book on our google group, some complained that there was no reason Kaia should care about internment, for example, because she does not have Japanese American ancestors. That her ancestors were Norwegian (a couple thought that Kaia herself was Norwegian) came in for negative scrutiny. Why the emotional link? they wondered, if she were not herself either a part of the event (like Lawson Inada, whose Legends from Camp we read earlier) or if she did not have family who were? Was she not appropriating others' stories, cultures, in the way that some writers here who are not Hawaiian appropriate Hawaiianness? they wondered.

I wrote some key words on the board, making links between categories like ethnicity and emotion; asking students to think about the history of Norway (!); asking them to flesh out the book's plot. I mentioned that the answers could easily be found in the book's introduction, which it turned out some of the students hadn't read (it's that time in the semester, among other problems). Most importantly, we talked about where we find Sand's POV in the book. Is she claiming Japanese ancestry? Is she telling other people's stories? How is she positioning herself? How is her position different from Inada's?

I couldn't resist talking about other issues with story-telling, the book First They Killed My Father, which was criticized because the author had written in such detail about her experiences as a small child. Or the problem of any history of a time before the author was born. The past is foreign to us in the way that other people sometimes are, isn't it? And how could Inada write stories about his own early childhood? Wasn't he actually telling other people's stories? Several students thought that the personal investment was enough; Lawson Inada had been there, and he's Japanese American. Why should Kaia Sand even care?

This, more than most of what went on in class, was a question I took personally. Taking things personally is a danger to a professor, as any of us who teach knows. It's the moment where dispassion meets passion and knees begin to jerk and words fly off one's imagined cuffs. So I said that this book takes the writer's subject position (in this case, white woman) and uses its strengths and weaknesses. Sand cannot write as direct witness without falling into the fake Holocaust memoir trap. But she can write/compose the book using the walk as her real and literary form, and she can present the past to us via documents, the language that is already there for us to re-read (re-reading is so much more powerful than reading, in this case). This course presents an invitation to take such walks and to wonder about the places you are passing over.

Thinking about appropriation has been a necessary part of becoming a citizen of this place. Asking students to think about who speaks about and for whom is a crucial part of our practice as teachers here. But inducing allergic reactions to works that might potentially appropriate is counter-productive. One of my students asserted that Sand's book is "controversial." I had no idea that it was. But if it is to her, then perhaps it's done good some pedagogical work. Do not assign labels easily. Read the introduction before you attack. Allow that empathic imagining is the poet's work, that her methods and techniques are crucial tools in getting her there. Take the risk of crossing a boundary, lest it grow too firm.

Here is Kaia Sand's response to my class, which I asked her to send:

Here are some thoughts... Let me know if I should add more--

I choose a responsibility to think about historical and present-day injustice. I believe it is dangerous to cordon off conditions about which I think according to shared ethnicity, gender, race, class, that it is dangerous to be fortified only by the familiar, the similar, the like (which is one way power replicates itself)

In his poem Legends from Camp, Lawson Inada describes internment as an "American experience," highlighting how important it is not to distance ourselves (whatever our relationship) from the fact of internment, but, rather, to see this as a part of national identity. I took seriously that internment history is part of what USAmericans inherit, that one reason to think about such history is a determination not to inflict such damage again and again. . .

I do challenge myself to continually think about my relationship to the "material" of this book, and to make sure that I do not try to "own" other people's experiences, that I try to account for my vantage point. This is part of why I emphasize the "inexpert" stance--that "what is left open/is left open"--that my responsibility toward thinking about histories of injustice (and current conditions) is inexhaustible, and that I am never "authority"--only committed.

All best,

Kaia's skepticism about authority can be seen in the way her book is not so much "authored" as collaged together. Her "I" is hardly anywhere to be seen. But the eye that she casts around her home town does carry its own weight, and that's a kind of unappropriating authority that we should all assume.


Jonathan Morse said...

Tell your students to watch Curb your Enthusiasm, season 4, episode 8: the one starring Russell Means of the American Indian Movement as the ultimate possessor of inappropriable native wisdom.

mongibeddu said...

My father's late wife, Sybil Milton, was a holocaust historian, and she did some significant work on groups marginalized in that context: Gypsies (Sinti and Roma), Jehovah's Witnesses. It was interesting, packing up the apartment last summer, finding traces of her relationships with those groups ... letters, dedications in books, things like that. She was an advocate, making sure that those groups were represented in the discourse. And since, for some historians, equating any other group's experience with that of the Jews is polemical, she often got embroiled in contentious disputes. I think she thrived on that.

Sybil was Jewish herself, but I don't know what role that might have played in her choice of fights, or allegiances. I do know, with my father, who is Jewish and a survivor, that he feels more kinship with other survivors than he does with Jews who didn't shared that experience. In fact, he at one time rejected the word survivor altogether, precisely because it misrepresents his feeling of group identity -- placing him in kinship with the living instead of the dead.

In some ways, I think, my father would sympathize with your students, their suspicion of an outsider's interest in someone else's suffering. But he would also, I think, question their complacent sense that they can distinguish insiders from outsiders so easily. As if ethnicity or ancestry could be a safeguard against appropriation! As if the guarding of memory could do without friends altogether...

Anyway, a very interesting post. I don't envy you having to sort all that out in the classroom. These things are hard enough to sort out in one's head.

Ben F.

Adam Aitken said...

This quote from Kaia sums up how I deal with the anxiety of appropriation in my own writing:

"I do challenge myself to continually think about my relationship to the "material" of this book, and to make sure that I do not try to "own" other people's experiences, that I try to account for my vantage point. This is part of why I emphasize the "inexpert" stance--that "what is left open/is left open"--that my responsibility toward thinking about histories of injustice (and current conditions) is inexhaustible, and that I am never "authority"--only committed.

mongibeddu said...

I wish I hadn't qualified that penultimate paragraph with "in some ways." My father, always suspicious of other people's motives, would definitely appreciate your students' wariness of Kaia Sand's interest in, say, WWII internment on the west coast, but not because of her ethnicity. Her being Japanese-American wouldn't change that. Is she an "idiot"? (One of his favorite words.) Self-aggrandizing? Those would be the issues for him. Proper use, not property rights.

Here's an example of his thinking in this vein:


susan said...

What I most appreciate about Kaia's book is its openness to the past. The walk form allows her mostly to stay out of the narrative. One of the few narratives available to white poets who write about histories of Hawai`i or Portland, for that matter, is that of guilt, which puts the attention back on the poet herself. By altering the narrative, she puts our focus back on the events. Or that is how I read it.