Every now and then, an Asian-American student asks me, “Should I write about race? It’s important to me and I want to, but I’m afraid I’ll be pigeonholed.”
I always think it through on the spot, to make sure I still agree with myself. Among my answers: “Poetry is such an obscure genre, it’s not worth doing anything but what means the most to you.” Or: “Robert Frost said a poem begins as a lump in the throat. Without that, your poems will lack urgency, so write about what’s eating at you.” Or: “Look at what’s happening politically, all over the Western world. Open racism is back. Your story needs to be told.”
Until I read Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2014), I never considered what to say about choosing not to write about race. It didn’t occur to me to say, “If race is something you want to write about but you rarely address it outright, and you make a name for yourself as a poet, the apparent absence of race in your work will be used to prove that race doesn’t matter. Your work will be pitted against the work of other poets of color who happen to write about race, to denigrate them.”
Examining five Chinese-American poets and their critical reception – Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu – Wang’s book covers a wide range of aesthetics. The critical trends most prominently addressed are the tendency to reduce lyric poets of Asian descent to their Asian-Americanness (”content”), and to reduce Asian-American avant-garde poets to their style (”form”), their racial interrogations minimized or ignored. Wang includes a compelling endnote explaining why all of the poets featured in this “Asian-American” study are Chinese-American. Among her reasons: the Chinese language and Chinese-American history are in Wang’s area of expertise, Chinese Americans are the oldest and largest group of Asian Americans, and this statement:
“I see no fundamental differences between the issues faced by Chinese American poets and those faced by other Asian American ones. Just as Asian Americans tend to be seen as ‘all looking alike’ in the popular imaginary, Asian American writers are generally viewed as monolithically and homogeneously ‘Asian’ in the academic and literary realms. Understanding the shared and similar history of racial interpellation and mistreatment in the United States and of efforts by those in the Asian American movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to forge strategic alliances and political identities based on these shared histories, I am convinced that my choice of the more general term ‘Asian American’ is apt - even necessary - for the logic and larger implications of my arguments” (323).
This rationale is in itself an argument against the division of “content” from “form.” As long as Asian Americans – whether as poets or as people on the street – are “seen as ‘all looking alike’ in the popular imaginary,” poetry cannot be the “postidentity” art, free of the irritating consideration of race, that some want it to be. Underlying Wang’s literary arguments are some of the darkest moments in Asian-American history, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, labor abuses, anti-miscegenation laws, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the murder of Vincent Chin, along with the continuing perception of Asian Americans as foreign. In one of many tantalizing endnotes, Wang, a professor of American Studies, tells a personal anecdote that will be familiar to any Asian American: “I was once asked by an Ivy League professor of philosophy whether English was my native language, though he had heard my completely American accent and knew I was an English professor; before I could even respond, he answered his own (rhetorical) question: ‘I think not’” (320).
Wang makes the case that the maligned topic of identity is of continuing relevance not just to Asian-American poets and critics of Asian-American poetry, but to everyone who writes and reviews American poetry. To ignore the possibility of race as a factor in an Asian-American poet’s sensibility, even when the poet does not address it directly, is as glib as that person you meet at parties who proclaims, “I don’t see race!” Even when reading white poets, Wang argues, race is worth considering among the elements that shaped the artist. Robert Lowell is brought up more than once as an example: being white and from Massachusetts has an effect on a poet’s use of language. Wang’s point, that everyone has race, should not be controversial, yet it seems to underlie much of the political turmoil the nation (not just its literary critics) finds itself in. To attribute race to every poet, not just the nonwhite ones, is the only way to end the implicit division of literature into “real” versus “ethnic” and give everyone a fair read. Yet, as Wang explains, a number of prominent critics seem to want to believe - despite the racially marked experience any American of color can describe - that no one has race.
“Ethnic” is a problematic word when used to describe people of color exclusively, since the usage is based on the assumption that whiteness is the human norm and therefore unmarked, whereas all other races have this quality called “ethnicity” that makes them something other than just plain human. While Wang uses the term “ethnic” in this way and I find it a little grating, it is done in the service of one day wiping out the assumptions on which it operates. Also, it is still in use in many institutions and there is not yet, to my knowledge, a suitable replacement.
Thinking Its Presence covers not only poets of various aesthetics but also poets who are have different reputations concerning politics. Marilyn Chin is seen (and self-described) as political, while John Yau is generally perceived as minimally political or even apolitical. Yau’s career illustrates the struggles of a poet whose work defies most categorization to navigate critical expectations, with the added complication of belonging to a minority race: “For decades, Yau never quite fit any poetic category – Language, avant-garde, cultural nationalist, ethnic, postmodernist, conceptual, among others – and, to some extent, still does not.” Associated with the mainly white New York School, Yau said in an interview that “I don’t feel a part of it” (167), and that early in his career, other Asian-American poets viewed his work as “not Asian enough” (167). The frequent absence of an explicit self in Yau’s poems is largely read as “a generic postmodern move” (181), but both Wang’s analysis and Yau’s interview statements make clear that the literary effacement of the self can express a value common to Chinese-American families: the non-primacy of the individual. A Chinese-American poet might well write from a point of view other than “I” for reasons of upbringing, without labeling that perspective as Chinese-American. A thoughtful reader will neither force that interpretation on every Chinese-American poet nor dismiss the possibility wholesale, but examine the work with an informed and open mind.
Another mystery concerning Yau’s image as non-political is that Yau famously took critic and translator Eliot Weinberger to task in 1994 for largely excluding poets of color from the 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders. In a vicious exchange that unfolded in American Poetry Review, Yau’s activism was denounced as mercenary because his previous body of work did not explicitly champion the same causes. He was even criticized for not speaking Chinese, as if that undermined his authority as an Asian American.
In fact, beginning with Radiant Silhouette (including, of course, poems written before the book’s publication in 1989), Yau was interrogating stereotypes of Asian American men by creating a fictional character, Genghis Chan, who combines elements of two figures from popular culture, Charlie Chan and Genghis Khan, “the ‘good,’ submissive Oriental (Charlie Chan, the houseboy) and the ‘evil’ Oriental, represented by the barbaric invader (Genghis Khan) or the devious despot (Fu Manchu) or a combination of the two (Ming the Merciless)” (219-20). The Genghis Chan poems continue over several subsequent books. Wang devotes an entire chapter to Genghis Chan and notes that “…many white experimental poets and poetry critics, while embracing Yau’s style, tend to ignore discussing poems such as those in the Genghis Chan series” (232). These points are valuable. They have the potential not only to encourage experimental poets and critics to more fully acknowledge race in literary works, but also to help more nonwhite readers and writers find relevance in experimental poetry.
Meanwhile, Marilyn Chin’s more straightforward politics do not seem to get her into trouble when they appear in poems; it’s only when Chin ventures to make a statement in (unambiguously nonfiction) prose that she runs into open hostility. Perhaps, Wang writes, the genre of poetry gives the reader enough leeway to dismiss a political position as not quite meaning what it says, or as not applying to this particular reader. Wang recounts a heated exchange that appeared in the Letters section of Poetry magazine in 2008, over Chin’s translation of a poem by Ho Xuan Huong, a Vietnamese woman poet of the eighteenth century. Wang’s analysis of the letters, Chin’s response, and further responses to Chin show that words do not function in the same way for everyone; a reader or writer must weigh the complexities of who is saying and receiving them, to determine whether they have racial implications. I can see why some of the letter writers whose words offended Chin thought their remarks were free of racism. I can also see the racial (and unintentional) undertones Chin saw. Most Americans already know from daily life that the same spoken remark can have different implications when said by a white person to a person of color, by a white person to another white person, by a person of color to a white person, between two people of color of the same race, between two people of color of different races, and so on, and adjust their speech accordingly. Ironically, the printed word sometimes appears bulletproof where the spoken is intuited not to be. By examining the Poetry exchange in-depth, Thinking Its Presence can help the well-intentioned improve.
Another achievement of the book is its connecting of poets who seem to have nothing – aside from Chinese Americanness – in common. Aesthetically, Li-Young Lee, whose work is often called Romantic and who has gained perhaps the most popular acceptance of all the poets examined in the book, could not be farther, formally, from Pamela Lu and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. But one thing Lee shares with these poets is often being assumed to abstain – mostly – from “identity politics,” while allegedly lesser Asian-American poets are dismissed as nursing grievances.
Yet, in parsing Lee’s famous long poem “The Cleaving,” in which the speaker observes a Chinese butcher at a meat counter, Wang demonstrates meaningful engagement with questions of identity – engagement that should be self-evident but has sometimes been deliberately overlooked. Here is one of several passages Wang cites, from among the many associations the speaker brings to his reflections on the butcher (Wang 86):
and the standing deaths
at the counters, in the aisles,
the walking deaths in the streets,
the death-far-from-home, the death-
in-a-strange-land, these Chinatown
deaths, these American deaths.
Wang also reminds us that this poem cites racist writings about Asians by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that another well-known Lee poem, “Persimmons,” portrays an apparently autobiographical incident, in which a white American teacher physically punishes a Chinese immigrant child for confusing the words persimmon and precision. In addition, by analyzing Lee’s evolving use of metaphor, Wang refutes both the judgment that Lee’s poems are not political – his own intentions notwithstanding – and another reductive notion, that he is interested only in “content” and not in “form.”
Meanwhile, in a chapter on Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, whose work often appears in avant-garde poetry anthologies, Wang makes the case that even in poems that eschew logical narrative – using pronouns without antecedents, for instance, or deliberately misnaming a place – and lack explicit references to race, the poet’s situation in life should not be willfully ignored in understanding the poem. Surely a poet who was forced to switch languages because of migration would have special insight into the inadequacies of language to represent experience; Wang demonstrates this with several poems and adds emphasis with a statement from the poet. Yet Berssenbrugge’s work is often praised in avant-garde circles for its omission of references to race or identity; such references might pollute “form” with “content.” Wang points out that the avant-garde poetry world is overwhelmingly white. She also makes the somewhat heartbreaking observation that by almost always making Berssenbrugge and Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim (whose work also tends to leave out racial markers) the Asian-American poets in avant-garde anthologies, editors are able to have it both ways – to “pat themselves on the back for being open-minded enough to include people of color in their anthologies and readings” (247) – and to continue to avoid race.
Wang further solidifies her point by discussing Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel (1998), which is not a novel in any conventional sense, nor is it conventional as poetry or any other genre. Avoiding plot, dialogue, and character development, it depicts without specifically describing the lives of several young adults, whom the reader does and does not get to know. Like the poems of Berssenbrugge, Pamela: A Novel makes few overt references to race and has been called “avant-garde, post-racial, and post-identity” (297). Yet it is suffused with the consciousness of one who does not belong to the dominant group. Here is one example of several Wang quotes:
“Often we felt tempted to page each other over the airport intercom system or to pick up the nearest White Courtesy Phone in response to any number of the muffled, unintelligible announcements that traveled over the airwaves of the intercom system, though R later pointed out, as soon as we were all reunited, that what we needed was not the White Courtesy Phone but rather the Other Courtesy Phone, a nonexistent piece of technology that would cater to the demands of our marginalized discourse and bring us together against the dominant paradigm of airport static and confusion” (Lu 24-25).
At the same time, Pamela: A Novel questions the reality of perceived reality, the reality of the self, and the meaning and usefulness of representations such as maps and language. It explicitly calls out “those politicized art-forms that repeated clichés of ‘displacement’ and ‘diaspora’” (Lu 18). But Wang points out that Lu’s book does not posit that writing about racial identity is in itself a cliché. Rather, it suggests that all works about race are not the same. Some resort to tired formulae. Others are original, incisive, and necessary. Surely this is true of all books that share a theme or approach. Both Wang and Lu demonstrate that not all Asian-American literary works that tangle with identity are the same, they are not categorically “bad,” and there are many ways to approach the material.
This is the broadest and most oversimplified generalization one can take from Thinking Its Presence. It’s unfortunate that such a statement needs such an extensive defense, but such is the world we live in. It is done rigorously here, with the potential to open doors to different poets and schools of poetry, for readers of all persuasions.