Friday, June 8, 2012

My contribution to the Asian American Literary Review

Last January I got the following invitation:
inquiry from The Asian American Literary Review
Dear Ms. Schultz:

Hello, my name is Lawrence-Minh Davis; I'm the editor of The Asian American Literary Review. For our upcoming third issue, we're putting together a forum based on the question below, and I'd really like it to include some perspective on writing by Pacific Islanders, Hawaiians, and Asian Americans in Hawaii, something I thought you'd be ideally positioned to provide, given your tenure with UH and Tinfish. The response could be relatively short, as short as 400 words, though longer would be fine as well, and you could feel free to stray from the prompt as you see fit. The deadline is late spring, maybe early summer 2011. I hope you'll be interested.

I look forward to hearing back from you. Happy new year!

Thanks, and best,

Editor, AALR

The issue is now out, so I'm putting on-line the contents of my response.  But really, buy one; there are a lot of fascinating responses, including one by my colleague, Gary Pak.

I've done tiny edits because I must, and added a few links to this and that.

Susan M. Schultz

[The opening quotation came with the invitation to participate.]

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, author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (Duke UP, 2005)

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 ofLooking at TheBus takes several angles of approach. Gajelonia rewrites famous American poems, including Wallace Stevens's 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), and then entwine. 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 book 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.

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