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* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu - Craig Santos Perez - Ching-In Chen - Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha - Andre Yang - Barbara Jane Reyes As someone who was raised as a man, my gender is an incredibly slippery experience to write about. Attempts to explore the making of my gender through poetry is an ongoing and uneven unraveling of layers. For inspiration, I look to critical race studies and whiteness studies scholars who point out that whiteness is so normalized and taken for granted, white people have a remarkably hard time grasping its deep reach in their own lives. Those who spend the majority of their lives as the norm or ideal have little practice putting it under the microscope. Similarly, for me writing about being a man happens slowly in bits and pieces, with reliance on the work done by feminists and gender outlaws. As a man whose particular alignment of gender and sex has been generally affirmed since birth, my intersection with race and racism is an important and generative space to write from. I’m inspired by the Asian American feminist work of poet and scholar Margaret Rhee (recently featured in the Poetry Foundation’s blog by Barbara Jane Reyes), who in thinking about how Asian American women’s bodies are objectified, forces me to ask the same of mine: “We can think of the body (digital or real) as a field, space, a location where oppression names and constrains and where freedom resides—our vulnerable human bodies. How to remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies?” The Asian American man’s body is a space shaped by many forces. In the popular US imagination, it invokes many ideas and histories that are traceable to Orientalist manifestations of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism. To me, however, there is both constraint and production. To grow a properly socialized man, manhood’s rules have to become so ingrained that its creation story is lost. The basic energy of a human being is constrained (Freud might say sublimated) within the requirements of manhood. If I don’t act the way a man should within this view, my behavior gets discouraged in ways that might range from ridicule to death. A man is produced. At the same time, the Asian American man is often demeaned as an inferior masculinity, as less desirable, as effeminate (mix in a little homophobia), as un-American, etc. While individuals may be able to circumvent or unlearn these, the institutionalization of these constraints produces a cultural, political, and economic reality. Under these circumstances, freedom is an interesting problem. Freedom may not be the typical US understanding of total release from all impingement on the individual, or from responsibility. It might be subversive mimicry, satire, irony, and fragmented theatre. So how to write poetry in this context? Good poetry can explore the sensations of gender and its enmeshment in social forces without being didactic. Juxtapositions, fertile tensions, the entire palette of human feeling–through rhythm, enjambment, punctuation, erasure–all the tools poets have are useful. Yet... Continue reading
Posted May 26, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu - Craig Santos Perez - Ching-In Chen - Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha - Andre Yang When Kenji Liu invited me here to write about APIA poetry communities, I confess, I wanted to rant about the criticisms I have with APIA poetry communities. Liu wrote in his introductory blog post, “The nationalist framework of Asian Pacific American is at times too parochial,” which is something I needed to read another APIA poet write. Community has always felt like a muddle to me, in which too much compromise, too much silencing and distancing of dissenters occurs. I posted on Facebook about this desire to rant about the parochialism of community, i.e. Its aesthetic restrictions, its fear of rocking the mainstream boat by producing work that is too confrontational or feminist/womanist/Pinayist or anti-imperialist, or on the community’s grassroots side, its disdain for the “academic,” the “intellectual,” the “experimental” poet. Lately, what I’ve been experiencing is old boys’ club misogyny, in which we women are expected and oftentimes explicitly instructed to withhold our opinions, to assist, to agree, to accommodate, to smile, to execute the unrecognized and uncredited labor for our male counterparts to garner the public praise. One author posted in response to my Facebook post, “‘Communities supposedly produce a sense of ownership and belonging, but feelings of belonging and ‘ownership’ have their dark sides.” Another author asked, “Are we Filipinos even considered Asian?” Still another author responded that what we have, rather than “community,” are “small, nourishing circles of friends,” in which “friendship produces that important talk that keeps you moving when the lights get cut off.” The only thing I could conclude was that a lot of us have a lot of anxiety and misgiving about this thing called community. My problems with “community” have to do with two sets of questions: (1) How do APIA poets “represent” us to the outside world? Does the community agree with this “representation”? Here, we authors are expected to function as ambassadors, oftentimes with the caveat that we represent only positively, i.e. our “best,” though “best” is subjective. (2) Do APIA poets “represent” us in a way that we recognize ourselves, and (again) deem positive? Here, we are expected to be a singular and positive mirror to wildly diverse sets of communities, an already unfair and impossible task. In practice, I have to try my best to set these expectations aside. I confess, they get the better of me sometimes. I sometimes hear from other Pinays that my work is too “painful” to read, or “too hard” to teach, and I interpret these statements as lines being drawn, the opposite of community. So I refer back to my last post for the Poetry Foundation blog for National Poetry Month: I believe community has everything to do with work ethic, practice, mutual respect and generosity, actual concrete work. My community is not ethnic specific. The folks that make up my community are plugging away, hustling for that... Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu - Craig Santos Perez - Ching-In Chen - Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha A funny thing happened to me today. I walked into a nearly empty café and stood in line behind a woman who’d just finished giving her order to the barista. The two, both of whom were white, continued to have a conversation after the customer’s order was taken. Not wanting to be rude, I waited for them to finish what I thought to be a brief exchange. Shortly after, a young African American man entered the café and the barista immediately looked over to him and smiled (this man was obviously a regular) and began trying to guess his order. At that point I stepped forward and said, “Excuse me, I was here first.” I repeated myself three times before she heard me and looked over with a wide-eyed expression of shock, as if I were a ghost that appeared out of nowhere, and apologized profusely for not having noticed me sooner. There were no other customers in line and I was wearing a bright red T-shirt. How could I not have been noticed? How do I interpret this kind of invisibility? It’s because of situations like this that, when I am introducing myself to anyone, anywhere, I feel I have to introduce myself as being a Hmong American writer. It’s one thing to be an ‘other’ writer whose physical traits are easily distinguishable, but when most people who meet me for the first time just assume that I’m Chinese/Japanese, a group of ‘others’ considered by mainstream America to be the “Model Minority,” I feel obliged to note my other-otherness. What’s doubly problematic about this, for me at least, is that according to Hmong oral history, the Chinese destroyed our written language, and now I’m being lumped in with this group of people who I look like, but have oppressed my people for thousands of years. I have a white American friend who moved to China to teach for a few years who knew the Hmong were called “Miao” there. He asked some of his new Chinese friends if they knew of any Miao, to which he was responded with, in his words, “a confused, disgusted look, as if the Miao were just mythical, disgusting beings.” Yes, I know this is just one person’s reaction, but because one person can react this way I find it easy for others to hold this same view. This does not make it easy for me to think about what little relationship I have with China and its peoples, but my being a part of the Kundiman Fellowship, and having developed warm, real friendships with Chinese American fellows has helped me to believe true peace is possible. Many have told me to just “forget the past and just look at the things the future has to offer,” but it’s hard to do when so much of my people’s future has to do with its... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu - Craig Santos Perez - Ching-In Chen Friday, May 18 marked three years since the official end of Sri Lanka's civil war. I didn't realize this til today–I was in rural Northern California at a writer's residency with no phone or internet service. Once I came home to South Berkeley and recovered from my solo 7-hour drive home from the redwoods, I turned on Facebook and Al Jazeera. I was confronted with both the reality of the anniversary, and the question of what my options are–as a Sri Lankan writer and poet born in the United States, and in the face of the legacy of war, genocide, and forced exile that every Sri Lankan has to figure out what to do with. African American/Caribbean queer poet-warrior June Jordan entitled her last collection of essays, "Some of Us Did Not Die." Her words are an acknowledgment and a challenge to all of us fierce brown queer poets, who are alive when many of our people are not. Some of us did not die, June wrote, and followed it by asking, so what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do with that precious and not-guaranteed life? My story is one Sri Lankan writer's story–the story of a 37-year-old, queer, culturally mixed (Burgher/Tamil dad, Irish/Ukrainian American mom) Sri Lankan writer who believes in writing as a tool for healing, decolonization, and social justice. One of the first and most impassioned places I came to writing through was about being Sri Lankan. To write about a war that had affected everyone Sri Lankan I knew, but that 99% of Western media didn't care about. I wanted to document. I wanted to think about how I could strategically use my place as someone privileged by being born in the West–English-speaking and culturally mixed–to speak when many other Lankans who don't have those privileges are not always safe enough to speak, and not always heard when they do. As a woman whose father and family has, in part, chosen to survive by being silent about our past and present, I wanted to choose to speak. To tell stories of my grandmothers and great-aunties, of my father and me, so that they wouldn't be forgotten. To be a Sri Lankan writer in 2012 sometimes means living in an exhale. Three years after our 26-year civil war ended, sometimes even the most conscious and politically motivated of the Sri Lankan writers I know talk about wanting to write and think about something else. We know all the political truths–that writing is a tool to document, a tool of memory against forgetting. Many of our best known writers on island and in the diaspora–Jean Amithrygayam, Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Gunsekera, V.V. Ganeshananthan, D'Lo, Yalini Dream, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Pireeni Sunderlingam, and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, to name just a few–have used poetics and literature to document the realities of living within a civil war resulting in... Continue reading
Posted May 23, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu - Craig Santos Perez I write to you from Milwaukee, Midwest city, most segregated city in the United States. What it means to write and be in conversation with Asian Pacific Islander American poetry here (a mutated broken-city text, a choral rendering of the many iterations of bodies within this space) feels very different from the Southern California desert where I lived right before moving here or in Massachusetts where I grew up. * [Notes to self, locations to map: Grand Avenue: Lee Chung's where Wah Lee had complained of theft in fall of 1885, police detectives found little white girl hiding underneath bed] * These last few months in Milwaukee, I have been making poems about the 1889 anti-Chinese riots in Milwaukee. Admittedly, I was looking for traces of this community beyond the Pacific Produce Market or the American Chinese restaurants scattered throughout the city. There is a correlation between this singular event and x's on the map all along the West coast. * [Third Street: Chen Quen where the laundryman at 203 Third Street had 2 names, Superintendent Whitehead scouring Business District for Chinese laundries and saw at residence and business an adult white woman who was wife of “Jim Young”] * The global body of coolie follows me. Wherever I go, I look for evidences and I try to write about this body. A body next to, laid down beside, amongst, tied to other flesh. A body which points to the ambitions, needs, limits of United States empire. Whatever I write must be relational, must investigate and teach itself the histories and stories and traditions and struggles of other peoples and communities. This is not one body. This body does not exist without other bodies. In-between motion, in-between oceans, in-between mountain blasts, in-between body and body. If I a body of artifact, if I a body of future, if I redevelop cartilage, bone, will you excavate. * [Fifth Street: Hah Ding's laundry where Clara Kitzkow and other girls “visited”] * The evidences regarding an episode of Milwaukee's “forgotten” history, the 1889 anti-Chinese riots. Two middle-aged Chinese men – Hah Ding and Sim Yip Ya – arrested for allegedly taking sexual liberties with white and underaged women. In the census, in the Milwaukee city directory, I ethnically profile by name. I cannot find any like-minded photographs. * [Fourth Street: Ring Shane's laundry (@ State) where windows smashed + Sam Yip Ya's laundry where Clara Kitzkow and other girls “visited”] * Today, at a racial justice gathering for people of color to work through internalized racism, I was startled to see three other APIAs present and to find myself inadvertently in an APIA caucus during a breakout group. The color we are assigned doesn't even register on Milwaukee's segregation map. At lunch, I ask the others who grew up here what it was like. Tightknit or singular. * [Chestnut Street: Joseph Caspari's saloon where effigy of lynched figures + 618... Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
* Previous posts in this series: Kenji C. Liu The first time I read "To 'P' or Not to 'P'? Marking the Territory Between Pacific Islander and Asian American Studies", by Vicente M. Diaz, I really had to "P." Badly. And by "P," I mean I had to "Pacific." I had recently completed an MFA in Poetry (the other stream of "P" in my life), and I was thirsty for Pacific literature. So I applied to a Ph.D. program in Ethnic Studies. I didn't get in. So I applied again the next year and they must have pitied me. As I walked the halls of my department, I realized there was nowhere I could "P." No Pacific faculty, no Pacific courses. I had no choice but to hold my "P" and take other courses. One course was "Asian American Literary Theory," taught by Sau-ling Wong. The creative sophistication of the field inspired me. I wrote my final essay on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's DICTEE because I saw myself in Cha's words: From another epic another history. From the missing narrative From the multitude of narratives. Missing. From the chronicles. For another telling another recitation. Those lines became an epigraph in my first book as I hoped to weave my "from" to Cha's "from." We both speak from within the same missing narratives of Asian and American empires. In 2004, the Journal of Asian American Studies published a special issue on Pacific Islander studies. Guest editor, Davianna McGregor, wrote in her preface, "Weaving Together Strands of Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Interactions": "There are many strands of historic interactions between Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Americans on Pacific Islands and on the American continent that can be woven together to enrich the tapestry of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies." In 2008, the critical anthology Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai'i (edited by Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura) untangles the strands of the sometimes violent and unequal colonial relationship between Asians and Pacific Islanders. The Amerasia Journal, just last year, published its own special issue: "Transoceanic Flows: Pacific Islander Interventions across the American Empire," guest edited by Keith Camacho. The regular editors of Amerasia, David K. Yoo and Arnold Pan, note: "While such terms such as 'Asian Pacific American' and 'Asian American Pacific Islander Studies' are inclusionary in their nature, they also point to the complications and complexities of creating coalitions, communities, and disciplines that bring together diverse groups of people with different and even divergent interests, experiences, and social positions." Lastly, I turn to Paul Lyons' "Wayne Kaumualii Westlake, Richard Hamasaki, and the Afterlives of (Native/non-native) Collaboration against Empire in Hawai'i" (2010). In this essay, Lyons examines the personal and literary friendship between two of my favorite writers: "Within such a project the friendship and dissident artistic projects of Hamasaki (who always foregrounds his own position as Japanese-American) and Westlake (who writes as an Hawaiian) figure one example of a mode and space of... Continue reading
Posted May 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
I have the pleasure and honor to once again guest curate a week of blog posts here for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). Thank you very much to Best American Poetry for offering this space for thinking and writing. I consider myself active in Asian Pacific American (APA) arts and culture, but my allegiance isn’t to the identity–it’s to issues, histories, and lineages. The truth is, a lot of contemporary APA poetry is less an inspiration for me than is poetry and writing from other communities, past and present. Those who help me find new ways to think and write about our world, like Michel Foucault, Cherríe Moraga, Jacques Derrida, Edmond Jabes, and others, are those I consider my lineage and poetic community. Derrida has written: “By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form… Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible.” One of the challenges of identity politics, which it inherits from classical European philosophy, is its underlying teleology. At some point it needs to call on essentialist thinking–a centre where we can safely rely on a pre-definition of the identity–in order to act. If one steps outside of this centre, sometimes there can be backlash. This is true not only for racial identity, but also gender, sexual identity, nationality, and more. For example, just look at how transgendered people are attacked for not restraining themselves to the conventional gender binary. While it may be a bit odd for me to say so as the poetry editor of Kartika Review, an APA literary journal, APA identity is not the beginning and the end of writing for me. It’s important to note that I’m not encouraging sleight-of-hand color blindness or the mental bypass of pretending that race has nothing to do with life, how one views things, and how one writes. I’m simply seeking to include more. As a poet, I’m not just interested in writing about or from within racial identity, but more how its functioning tells me something about history, gender, colonialism, and capitalism. The same goes for the poetry I like to read, and the writerly communities I feel a kinship with. I have to admit that in some ways I joined Kartika Review to search for evidence that APA poetry isn't overly constricted by essentialism. The fact that I grew up lower-middle class in a former US colony, the only son of an eldest son born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, who later married a Japanese woman–these are of great interest to me in my writing, and I look for a sense of multidimensionality or difference in the poetry of others. The commonality among my influences is that they inspire me to excavate hidden histories, explore the multi-layered social, political, and cultural subtleties that most might overlook, accidentally or not. They also help me take a step back from “Asian Pacific American” to see... Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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May 17, 2012