Asian Pacific American Heritage Month may be nearing its close, but as we all know, the challenge of representing APA voices on the page is one that continues year round. Lumen No. 3 (the third installment of our email newsletter) is about to drop into inboxes tomorrow, and we’re excited to announce that it will be the first of two newsletters focused on the topic of Asian American literature—not for adults, but for kids! These days, there is so much exciting, diverse work that is being published in the world of children’s books, and the titles that we’ll be talking about are stories that we have loved sharing with the youngsters in our lives and that we wish we had had as kids.
Why, you might ask, do we feel so strongly about this topic—though children are not LR ‘s primary audience? Here’s how Iris explains it in Lumen 3:
“Kids need books that will challenge them to see worlds outside of their own—but they also need books that offer them mirrors in which they can see themselves. And in the nineties [when I was the same age as my sixth graders], there just weren’t many kids’ or teen books that had characters like me or families like mine. . . . In short, I wasn’t only bored with the books in the teen section of the library; I just couldn’t relate to them.”
In this quarter’s newsletter, Iris will be putting on her “teacher hat” to discuss middle-grade and YA titles, focusing on three books that she enjoyed getting to share with her sixth-grade ELA students this past school year, and in Lumen No. 4 (to come in a few months’ time), Mia will be meditating on her thoughts as a parent on finding diverse books to share with younger APA readers.
If you’re already a Lumen subscriber, we hope you’ll enjoy sharing the books we talk about in these next two newsletters with the young people in your life. And if you’re not yet subscribed, there’s still time! Click here to sign upso that you won’t miss out when Lumen No. 3 drops tomorrow.
A very happy and healthy Memorial Day to all of you, and cheers to another wonderful APA Month!
Happy Wednesday! We hope you’re staying warm and cozy this frosty January day, especially those of you who are bracing for winter storms out East this week. It’s been a season full of transition for us here at LR, but we’ve really been enjoying leaning into the seasonal rhythm of writing for our new, quarterly email newsletter, Lumen. And today, we’re super excited to announce that the second installment of Lumen will be hitting our subscribers’ inboxes next Monday!
Lumen No. 1 focused on prompts and exercises for renewing one’s writing practice with the turn of the seasons, but Lumen No. 2 will be dedicated to considering the turn of the year—and specifically, the practice of setting intentions for our writing lives this year.
Just what is an intention? Here is a little sneak peek from the newsletter to explain:
“Different from a goal or a resolution, an intention is more about calling a season into being or simply naming it for what it already is. An intention may be about realigning one’s perspective; refocusing one’s attention with renewed intensity; or even aspiring to sustain a rhythm of growth or rest in one’s day-to-day life. Intentions are not meant to have quantifiable end results—rather, they’re are meant to guide and center us throughout a course of time in one’s life.”
LR editors Mia and Iris will be sharing some of their own intentions as they consider where 2017 took their writing lives and where they hope to go in 2018. We hope that those of you who are already subscribed will join us in thinking about how we can each approach our writing practices with greater purpose and grace this year—and if you’re not already a Lumen subscriber, there’s still time to make sure you don’t miss out! Simply click here or on the image at the top of this post to sign up
A very happy, healthy New Year (and Year of the Dog) to you and yours—and may your writing in 2018 be filled with light, joy, and inspiration.
Hello, LR community! It’s great to be back from DC. The Smithsonian APAC’s Asian American Literature Festival two weekends ago was a truly amazing experience, beautifully tying together multiple literary generations, styles, and sub-communities (from spoken word to critical scholarship) in the best way possible. We loved getting to catch up with old friends and had lots of fun meeting new faces in the literary lounge, where we were overwhelmed by your outpouring of support and enthusiasm. Thank you for making us feel so welcome!
As promised, we have some exciting news to share today. As announced at the festival, Lantern Review is getting a newsletter! There have been a lot of changes for us at LR these last few years, and we’ve been searching for a way to bring both more sustainability and more intimacy to what we do. The blog and the magazine are wonderful, but they require a lot of lead time due to the editorial process, and we’re not always able to deliver content to you with the sort of immediacy we’d like. Hence, we’ve created Lumen, a smaller-scale extension of LR that is sent right to your email inbox.
Lumen is not just your standard newsletter. As a subscriber, you’ll get more than just updates; you’ll have access to exclusive content, including writing prompts, meditations on craft and writing practice, teaching ideas, tips on publishing, reading recommendations, and more. We’d like to envision Lumen as a living-room chat between friends, a catch-up over an afternoon cup of tea or coffee. You can think of it as the blog’slittle sister, with the type of content that we have always provided, but with a more intimate format and feel.
So what does this mean for LR? Certainly, neither the blog nor the magazine is going away anytime soon. But the distribution of our editorial energy will be shifting a little. You’ll continue to see news and occasional full-length posts on the blog, but whereas we were very focused on the blog in the past, we now want to pour more of our energies into the magazine itself, so we’ll be concentrating on putting out more of our supplementary content via Lumen in the hopes of building toward a next issue sometime in the near future. Because we’re still experimenting with this new format, Lumen will come out quarterly for now, but if we feel that there is enough momentum to produce more installments, we may decide to increase the frequency of publication.
If you came by our table at the AALF, you should already be subscribed (if you haven’t received a welcome email yet, please check your spam or updates folders, or email us at editors [at] lanternreview [dot] com). And if not, getting linked up with Lumen couldn’t be easier. Simply fill out the form below, and you’ll receive a confirmation email in your inbox. Once you’ve confirmed your subscription, you’re all set! As a little thank-you gift for signing up, you’ll get access to a digital Little Poetry Flight created exclusively for Lumen subscribers, featuring work from Sally Wen Mao, Neil Aitken, and R. A. Villanueva. (Please note that even if you were receiving emails from us before as a contributor, you’ll need to sign up for Lumen directly, as it is an entirely different list).
We’re so very grateful for all of your continued support and are excited to build LR out in new directions through Lumen and more.We hope you’ll come along with us for the ride!
Hello, internet! It’s been a while. But here we are, at last, and with an exciting update for you: this week, we are packing our bags and heading out to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian’s inaugural Asian American Literature Festival! We’re so excited to get to participate in this historic event, featuring (among other things) readings and mentoring sessions by Kundiman and the release of Poetry’s new Asian American issue (guest edited by past LR contributors Tarfia Faizullah and Timothy Yu). If you live in the DC area or are planning on traveling in for the festival, we hope you’ll come visit us at our table in the literary lounge (see the schedule for exact locations, as the festival’s venue changes each day). In typical LR fashion, we’ll be offering a special interactive experience to everyone who stops by to say hello: for this event, we’re hosting self-guided poetry “microtastings” that we’re calling “Little Poetry Flights.” If you’re familiar with the concept of a wine flight or a cheese flight, you’ll know immediately what we mean by this, but if not, here’s how they work: Little Poetry Flights are small groupings of poems from our archives that we’ve curated by theme and/or context in order to create unique poetry “tasting” experiences. If you stop by our table at the festival, Iris will chat with you and personally recommend a flight that best suits your interests. You’ll then be able to use your mobile device to read the flight of your choice, either on the spot or later on at your leisure.
We’ll also be debuting a bit of big news about the future of LR at the festival. Our official announcement about this won’t appear on the blog until later in August, so especially if you want to be the first to find out about what’s on the horizon for us, please stop by and say “hello”!
We’ve missed our community of readers and are looking forward to connecting with you in person next weekend. We hope we’ll get to see some of you at our table as well as at some of the many fantastic events that the organizers have planned. And if you’re just hearing about this now and live in the DC area, never fear—it’s not too late! The festival is free and open to the public; you can find out more information below:
Are you planning on going to the Smithsonian AALF? If so, what events are you most excited about? Leave a comment to let other LR community members know which readings and other happenings are at the top of your must-see list.
Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that 2017 is already here. In the past, we’ve made an annual tradition of listing some of our favorite reads of the year before the holidays begin. But this season, as we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a year that promises to hold significant changes for our nation with a mixture of apprehension and resolve, we’ve decided to do things a little differently. And so, rather than a list of holiday reading recommendations, here are a few books by some of LR’s friends and past contributors that inspired us in 2016 and that we hope will inspire you to take heart, to speak up, to fight harder, and to dream and make art with even greater passion in the coming year.
We are so proud to have published an excerpt of the manuscript that eventually became this collection in our sixth issue. In Power Made Us Swoon, Saito uses persona to probe family legacies of trauma, immersing herself in the history of Japanese American internment during WW II. Saito’s speaker is transitory, transcendent in the resolve that propels her to continually return to the artifacts of memory, and to inhabit sites and stories in search of narrative, lyric, image. In a time when more than one public figure has attempted to erase the trauma of internment in service of grotesquely racist and xenophobic rhetoric, this powerful collection seems prescient indeed.
A finalist for the National Book Award, Sharif’s Look captures the anxieties of our time, illuminating the frightful spectre of language mutated in the mouth of war. The collection recasts terms from the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to perform a kind of documentary acrobatics that shows how language and experience are imbricated in times of war. “I am attempting my own // mythmaking,” Sharif says, in an elegant, urgent argument about how the private and public, the immigrant and emigrant, and the civilian and military are realities that cast shadows, chiaroscuro-like, on each other.
One of the first poets whose work we published, Ocean Vuong has a distinctly masterful voice that sings and flits through this finely-tuned collection. At once delicately intimate and intensely raw, Night Sky with Exit Wounds powerfully stitches together—no, choreographs—feathered fragments of memory and the legacies of war and displacement onto a document of the speaker’s coming-of-age journey, a rich odyssey of survival and self-discovery as seen through the lens of language and text. In the context of the troubling conversations about refugees that have swirled to fever pitch of late, Vuong’s singular voice rises to bear poignant, timely witness.
“I’m that person who can’t stop looking,” Wong writes, and indeed, hers is the writing of an eye—or an “I”—that is attuned and attentive, a poetry startled into mystery, one into which perception floods, impressions overlaid and juxtaposed to encapsulate everything from the cosmic to the kitchen. The language in Overpour is filled with riddles and slips, steeped in undergrowth, and inhabited by mushrooms, carnations, and sweaters. The poems are songs, tasting the strangeness of language, its slippages and shifts in meaning, and embedded music.
* * *
Of course, there are so many others that we could list—starting with the books and chapbooks that we featured on the blog in 2016. Janine Joseph’s Driving Without a License seems especially prescient right now in the context of the fraught conversations about immigration happening in our country, while Sun Yung Shin’s voice in Unbearable Splendor provides critical witness for the Asian American adoptee community in the wake of the unjust deportation of Adam Crapser. Meanwhile, Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences, Jai Arun Ravine’s The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide, and Pat Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian model unique modes of resistance, writing back in satire and song. Nor are they alone in doing so among the titles that we have written about this year. Here is the full list:
Radio Heart(Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow(Tinfish Press, 2011) by Margaret Rhee [Read our dual interview with Rhee and Chen Chen here.]
* * *
We hope that 2017 is a year filled with brighter things for our community, despite all apparent expectation—glimmers of illumination in the midst of struggle, moments of delight that surprise us in the thick of the ever-present work. As you labor on, may these books, and the many others like them (c.f. also Bryan Thao Worra’s extensive roundup of books by API poets published in 2016, and Hyphen magazine’s 2016 poetry favorites), be touchstones to you. Return to them when the work feels weary; keep their words and images pressed to your skin like small talismans kept in a coat pocket, warm and smooth to the touch. May language serve you well this year, and may your own words in turn be infused with strength and truth and beauty, lantern-glow against the ever-quickening dark as we stride into the months ahead.
It’s with great excitement that we announce the publication of Sun Yung Shin’s most recent poetry collection, Unbearable Splendor(Coffee House Press, 2016). Among other books, Shin is the author of Rough, and Savage (Coffee House Press, 2012) and winner of the 2008 Asian American Literary AwardSkirt Full of Black(Coffee House Press, 2007), which Craig Santos Perez reviewed in Lantern Review’s Issue 1. For more on Sun Yung Shin, check out thispost on her poem “Until the Twenty-Second Century,” which appeared in our 2011 Poems for Monday Mornings series.
* * *
In this post, we’re pleased to feature an excerpt from the opening pages of Unbearable Splendor, a collection of poems, essays, and hybrid works characterized by bold, flexible experiments in form. The work draws from a wide range of historical, mythological, and literary sources, including figures like Antigone, Asterion, and Pinocchio, demonstrating a deep concern with matters of origin: the etymology of words, the logic of replication and reproduction, and the ways these processes are interrupted by both natural and uncanny means. Shin examines technologies of artificial reproduction as well, staging them as interventions in her exploration of what it means to reproduce and to be reproduced. From this investigation of cloning, cyborgs, surrogacy, and adoption, Shin weaves a narrative of language and history that represents a striking new way of understanding identity.
An excerpt from “Valley, Uncanny”
Don’t let the name fool you: a black hole is anything but empty space.
—NASA’s website, Astrophysics page, Focus Areas, Black Holes
Where’s the hole’s end?
—김혜순 Kim Hyesoon, “A Hole”
A valley makes a kind of hole. A hole open on two sides. Korea—an island on three sides. South Korea—an island: water, water, water, DMZ. North Korea—water, water, DMZ, the People’s Republic of China.
I was a hole and I brought it, myself, to 미국 mi guk “beautiful country,” America, the United States. I carried a train of holes—holes of smoke, holes of sky. Holes of water, holes of rice milk. I was an uncanny guest. Two years old. A week after arrival from Korea, a brother, born in America, asked, “When is she going back?” Like the heavenly maiden with too many children to carry, to many holes to go back t(w)here.
There is a limit to canniness, but not to being uncanny—it is infinite, 무한, mu han.
Happy Friday, APA poetry lovers! We have an exciting bit of news to share with you this morning: in exactly a week, we’ll be heading up to San Francisco to be a part of one of the biggest APA arts events in the Bay. This year, Lantern Review is delighted to have the opportunity to copresent the literary arts showcase for Kearny Street Workshop‘s annual APAture festival, featuring poet Jade Cho, author of In the Tongue of Ghosts (First Word Press, 2016).
Now in its fifteenth season, APAture, whose name plays on the photography term “aperture,” takes as its mission the goal of amplifying APA artists and giving them a stage on which to provide focus and context to their work. Fittingly, this year’s theme, “Here,” was chosen to emphasize, among other things, “the importance of APA space and community” (in the organizers’ words), even as the festival itself provides a space for investigation and celebration of the intersection of arts and social justice, innovation and disruption.
For us at LR, as we continue to ease into this new, Bay Area based season of our existence, the word “here” has never felt more relevant. Before our relaunch this past spring, “here” for us quite literally meant nowhere. Mia lived on one coast, while I (Iris) bounced around from the Midwest to the East Coast to the South, and our contributing staff writers lived everywhere in between. We often used to tell people who asked that we were “based on the internet.” But when we restarted LR early this year after a cross-country move that serendipitously brought us together in the Bay Area, “here,” for the first time, became somewhere. And in the months that have followed, the experience of getting to dwell within the space of a real, physical “here” has been wonderful. From getting to host our first physical NPM collaboration in SF, where we witnessed the words and voices of six local APA poets filling up the space of the American Bookbinders Museum; to finally having the ability to sit down face to face with local LR community members for casual meals and creative exchange on a regular basis—the moments of focus provided for us in this last year by receiving from existing local community spaces and building up new ones have been havens; little islands of light dotting the everyday shoals of the necessary things we do in order to keep the lights on. “Here,” for so many years, was whatever we made of it. But at least for this small, precious sliver of current time, having a “here”—a home base, a place in which to let LR dwell and take root—has been invaluable.
Throughout our history at LR, place and awareness of the liminality of “home space” for APA writers has been of utmost concern to us—it’s why we founded LR in the first place. And so, we’re beyond honored to partner with KSW, a storied organization that has been a crucial part of our new “here” and that has worked for years to build and facilitate “home space” for APA arts community in the Bay, to copresent the literary arts showcase at APAture 2016: Here.
A multi-day festival featuring more than sixty up-and-coming Asian Pacific American artists in fields such as comics and illustration, film, literary arts, music, performing arts, and visual arts, APAture will take place from September 30th through October 15th at various locations throughout San Francisco. We encourage you to check out as many of the showcases and performances as you can, but in particular, we hope you’ll come join LR next Friday at the literary showcase, where Oakland-based featured poet Jade Cho will mesmerize with powerful work that explores diaspora, race, gender, ghosts, and the intersections of power and privilege. It will definitely be a can’t-miss event, and we are beyond excited to get to be there, saying a few words about LR and community and hanging out at our little table.
More information about the festival can be found here. Tickets can be purchased here.
Even if you can’t make the festival, we hope you’ll check out the KSW website for more information about its programs and outreach throughout the year, or that you might even consider helping to financially support APAture via its current IndieGoGo campaign. KSW and APAture are vital pillars of the APA arts scene in the Bay Area, and their tireless work has been integral in making the notion of a home space for APA artists in the Bay possible since 1972.
So how about it: Will you come be a part of our “here” by joining us at the APAture literary arts showcase next Friday? We certainly hope that your answer will be “yes”!
* * *
This post was produced in partnership with Kearny Street Workshop. For more information about the APAture festival or about KSW itself, we invite you to check out their website at www.kearnystreet.org. For information about next Friday’s featured performer, Jade Cho, please visit her online at jadecho.tumblr.com.
In honor of Banned Books Week 2016, the Lantern Review Blog has solicited a list of recommended reading from its friends, former staff, and past contributors. These are titles that our community has identified as works too important not to be read; that is, books that ought to be defended, rather than challenged and/or removed from bookstores, libraries, and classrooms. Join us and the rest of the book community as we celebrate the right to express and to seek ideas through literature. And don’t forget to leave a comment below, if you’d like to contribute to this list of books that you believe we deserve the freedom to read!
* * *
Corona by Bushra Rehman (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013)
“Corona is a dark comedy featuring Razia Mirza, a young Pakistani woman from Queens, NYC. When a rebellious streak leads to her excommunication from her Muslim community, she decides to go on the road, but it doesn’t take her long to realize traveling as a Muslim woman is quite different than traveling as Jack Kerouac.” —Bushra Rehman
culebra by Roberto Harrison (Green Lantern Press, 2016) “Roberto Harrison’s tercets investigate, uncover, the ways in which a landscape, a history can embody the mythos of an animal. In this case, the snake: ‘The Kuna Indians of Panama make their molas in pairs. According to this tradition, things arrive in the world in pairs, so as to create a third from the union. As we are limited in our binary thinking, the snake points away toward the integral through a triad, toward a more whole understanding of the world. It knows the silence of death in the ground of the living. It heals as it sees with his tongue and symbolizes an alternative way of knowing.’ ” —Mg Roberts
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (Bantam Books, 1984) “Set in the aftermath of World War I, Johnny Got His Gun is a scathing commentary on the realities of war and raises troubling questions about taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when someone does not wish to live. The main character, Joe Bonham, lives as a prisoner in his own body, having lost his arms, legs, and all of his face after being caught in the blast of an artillery shell.” —Kathleen Hellen
Lettres philosophiques (1734) by Voltaire (University of Oxford, 2017) “This book of twenty-five letters by Voltaire has been translated as Letters on England (Penguin Classics) and Letters Concerning the English Nation (Oxford World’s Classics), among other editions. My favorite letters are the ones about Newton and Descartes, British tragedy, and Pascal’s Pensées.” —Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino (Cleis Press, 2008) “Opening Up is an excellent introduction to polyamory, the practice of having multiple romantic relationships at the same time with the knowledge and consent of all involved. The percentage of people who practice some form of ethical non-monogamy has been growing rapidly in recent years and polyamory has been called a lifestyle choice, a sexual orientation, and a relationship orientation.” —Clara Changxin Fang
Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American PoeticsEdited by Nick Carbo (Meritage Press, 2004) “Pinoy Poetics was long overdue when it was released in 2004. A collection of autobiographical poetics by Filipino and Filipino American authors, it remains fresh today. Even as many of the book’s poets since has received major awards, Pinoy Poetics remains unique in representing the concerns and interests of Filipin@ poets, which are often reduced or elided in categories like ‘Asian American,’ ‘poets of color,’ et al.” —Eileen R. Tabios
The Argonautsby Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press, 2015) “I wish I’d had a wise aunt like Maggie Nelson to talk to when I was growing up, or this book. I’ve read few better meditations on love: and death, and pregnancy, friendship, motherhood, birth, family, gender, the pain of losing love, loving a parent who’s dying, love and sex, loving anal sex… The first paragraph will make people want to ban this book. And it gets better after that so we need to protect it.” —JoAnn Balingit
The Butcher’s Wife by Li Ang (Peter Owen Publishers, 2002) “Set in a Taiwanese village in the 1930’s, this is a harrowing morality tale of violence and patriarchy. It’s the most frightening, gory book on the oppression of women I’ve ever read.” —Joseph O. Legaspi
When the Chant Comes by Kay Ulanday Barrett (Topside Press, 2016) “When the Chant Comes is a love song for all the ‘queer hungry parched kids,’ for those who gather in many tongues, for those whose bodies hold memory across ocean and scar, for those who desire and deserve rest and dream.” —Ching-In Chen
This month, we had the pleasure of talking with writer, dancer, and designer Jai Arun Ravine, who recently published The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide(Timeless, Infinite Light, 2016). Join us as Jai shares about the wormholes and winding side streets that led to the creation of their remarkable new book, which takes the pervasive specter of Orientalism in Western tourist writing head on. Read more of Jai’s book reviews here on the Lantern Review Blog.
* * *
LANTERN REVIEW:The Romance of Siam is so many things: travel guide, satire, cultural artifact, poetry, critical theory. In more ways than one, itsays everything I’ve ever wanted to say about the ways the Western imagination constructs “Thailand” for itself—and, as you say, how Thai tourism perpetuates this fantasy for its own profit. So thank you for this vital, truth-telling work! The funny thing is, though, that in telling this truth, you tell very little actual truth—most of the pieces are fabricated, parodic, and relentlessly satirical. Tone is a notoriously difficult thing to manage in satire. How did you manage to keep it light, and yet, not pull your punches when it counted? Was it ever hard to keep playing the part, so to speak?
JAI ARUN RAVINE: In my research, I was constantly struck by the absurdity of everything in my path. I stumbled upon uncanny parallel traces, and hilarity abounded as soon as these seemingly disparate elements began to collide. Because I took myself, as a physical presence, “out” of the work for the most part, I began to choreograph these landscapes where actors and characters became my pawns. Something about having this kind of power over the board helped me stay “light,” I think. It allowed for my chess pieces to perform “the absurd” for me, and every time I moved them, they would inadvertently expose the stains of Orientalism that lay underneath it all.
LR: Beginning with the opening “Hints to Walkers” and continuing through the rest of the collection, your book is also profoundly intertextual, a ferocious, chimeric beast that begs, borrows, and steals voices from an impossibly wide range of cultural artifacts: screenplays, song lyrics, travel guides, promotional materials from the Tourism of Authority of Thailand, newspaper articles, early 20th-century novels, etc. How did you discover the sheer scope of the book? Did the subjects emerge as you proceeded through the project, or did you already know that there was a particular “canon” of relevant films, songs, and historical figures that you wanted to address?
JAR: When I began researching and writing for the book, I had a Fodor’s map of Bangkok marked with sticky notes for a few people, artifacts, and conceptual frameworks that I knew I wanted to explore further. But so many things emerged as I began to dig, and all the side streets began to wind and run into other side streets. I fell down a wormhole of “white elephants” and looked up everything in the library that had “Siam” or “Siamese” in the title. The song “One Night in Bangkok” led to The Oriental Hotel led to W. Somerset Maugham, in the same way that Anthony Bourdain led to Jerry Hopkins, and Jim Thompson led to Pat Noone. At a certain point, I had to make myself stop, because I realized there really was no end to the Orientalist and tourist archive; it constantly replicates itself. The final scope of the book arranges itself around theme and sequence, as well as destination and landscape.
LR: I’m fascinated by the ways in which you, as the author, exist as a felt present throughout the book, primarily via the “Information” and “Did You Know?” notes at the bottom of each page, where you comment, offer factoids and footnotes, and express interest in various critical features of the project. I was also struck by the moments when “you” enter the poems: you watch your mom talking to Tiger Woods’ mom; you play Anna in Jim Thompson’s low-budget film, The Silk King and I. What did it mean to you to introduce your own subjectivity—mediated, at times, by complex layers of form, fictionalized encounters, and performed identities—into the text? Was this always the plan?
JAR: In contrast to my first book, แล้ว and then entwine, where the writing came from a very personal need to define my relationship to ancestral histories and inherited silences, it was incredibly freeing (and a relief!) to take my ego out of the work. I imagined landscapes in which characters and actors from movies and plays could mash up and interact with each other. I could move through these icons as a kind of ghosted, energetic, electrical presence, and perhaps even hint at that nostalgic, “authentic” Thai essence that exists now as a work of fiction or as fusion cuisine.
Of course I couldn’t take myself out of the writing entirely, though, and especially in “White Love” and “Backpackers,” I make my anger toward white supremacy clearly known. But I think it was an important challenge for me to write a work in which the balance weighed more heavily on the other side of the scale. I did get completely caught up in directing my own theater, however, and at a certain point, it became too confusing for the reader—too many references, too crowded, too inaccessible. At that point in the draft manuscript, I circled back into the work, and with the guidance of writer and friend Marissa Perel, I realized that the moments when I inserted myself back into the text (when I stand side-by-side with Yul Brynner or Anthony Bourdain, for instance) were even more powerful than providing an anger-driven commentary on Orientalism’s devastating wake, or choreographing an intricate puppet show. I made a conscious choice in “The Silk King and I” to cut and paste “myself” into the scene, which I think made it stronger.
LR: You appear to speak most transparently in the opening “Hints to Walkers,” where you preface your project with the comment, “As a mixed race person of Thai and White descent, my attempts to connect with Thailand as ‘place’ and ‘cultural identity’ are colonized by tourism and White desire. […] This projects attempts decolonization in the face of such an erasure.” How did you make the decision to include this statement, along with the other prefatory remarks in “Hints to Walkers” at the opening of the book?
JAR: I have always found context extremely helpful. When an artist provides context for viewing their work, it gives the viewer a framework and a way into the experience. A lot of times, I read the work of a poet or see a choreographer’s dance performance, and if I’m not already familiar with the project, I’m distracted by the burning desire to know: What are the major concepts you are grappling with in this work? What is your relationship to the subject? How do you hope this object or performance will function in the world? I felt that stating these kinds of things at the beginning of my book (and during it) was crucial to its reception.I also outline some version of this before every reading I give. “Hints to Walkers” functions as a trail map, which lets people know what to expect on the journey. I see the “Information” and “Did You Know?” sections as other important trail markers that offer the reader both context and guidance.
LR: The Romance of Siam is, in so many ways, an unprecedented work of poetry, cultural resistance, and history. At the same time, I’m aware that even the most unprecedented work, no matter how wildly it reinvents genre, has its precedents. Who were the writers and thinkers who broke ground for you? What did you read, and to whom did you look for inspiration in the writing of this book?
JAR: I generated most of the initial material for The Romance of Siam during a residency at Djerassi in 2011, and one of the books I took with me was Jo Ann Wasserman’s The Escape. I read this book during Akilah Oliver’s course “Eros in Loss in Poetic Construction” at Naropa University in 2005. While I had never written much in classical forms, when writing The Romance of Siam, I remembered Wasserman’s book and the way she used the form of the sestina to work through her grief around her mother’s death. The sestina felt incredibly obsessive, but also somehow incomplete. The thing that one was grasping for could never be reached; it was a culmination without release. That feature of Wasserman’s work led me to writing a bunch of my own sestinas. Once I started, I couldn’t stop; the form just seemed to fit perfectly with my material (the Orientalist/tourist fantasy) and my relationship to it.
Even though I began reading the book after much of the material had already been generated, I am also indebted to Edward Said’s Orientalism, because he helped me identify a larger historical context for the project.
LR: There’s a fabulous moment at the end of The Romance of Siam when Jim Thompson’s character says that he wants to “purchase all the novels White man has written on Thailand and found a rare books annex” in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel—which I suspect exists, if perhaps only in spirit, as The Romance of Siam. This venture is described as a kind of “theatre within which [Thompson] has engaged much of his strange expertise and cultural knowledge,” a notion I find fascinating, given the particular prominence of theatre and performativity in your book. I was wondering if you could speak to the role of performance in your own life as an artist—or even as an individual, especially because I know you’re just as much a performance artist as you are a writer.
JAR: Performance is such a strong concept in The Romance of Siam because Orientalism itself is truly a performance that has been culled and animated from texts since the 1800s. Most of the West’s engagement with the Orient during the 1900s was via movies, film, and theater plays, and the stage is where its ideas and representations of Orientals (played by white actors in yellowface) are performed, solidified, and made legend. The way Yul Brynner performed the King of Siam, and royal Thai masculinity is forever burned on the collective psyche of contemporary culture. Theater is also a space where fact and fiction become blurred, a blurring I found again and again in Orientalist writings and tourist texts; Thailand was always more of a work of fiction, more like something from a book, than a real place, which is, in fact, where Orientalism’s true power lies.
In relation to my artistic practice, I trained in ballet from a young age and modern dance since college, and as a writer, I have always been drawn to the making of work that bridges text and body, which has led me to spoken word, video, and performance art. So creating a stage where I try to perform as Yul Brynner or Anthony Bourdain or Jim Thompson in this book sort of unmasks the constructions of race, gender, and the Orient and the Occident that I find so necessary.
LR: I have to ask, has there been much of a response to The Romance of Siam from Thai readers? Do you have any plans to work on a translation of the book? As many of us know, Thailand—like many other countries—fiercely policies foreign portrayals of its nation and subjects, and many of the films mentioned in your book (The Beach, The King and I, etc.) have been banned by its government. How do you think a Thai audience would receive The Romance of Siam, a depiction of the depictions deemed unfit for Thai consumption?
JAR: Ever since I created my short film Tom / Trans / Thai in Thailand and screened it at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre, Payap University, and the Alliance Française in Chiang Mai, I’ve come to understand that my work arises from its own specific context, which I very much define as of and related to the American QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) experience. The reception to my film in Thailand was not as meaningful for me as it was when I screened the project for QTPOC audiences in the States. So I suppose I’m feeling hesitant as to whether the book has relevance or solvency for Thai audiences. However, I have received some responses from queer Thai American friends, who I think can understand feeling both “inside” and “outside” with regards to Thai identity, being absurdly “mashed” with regards to race and representation, and being a tourist to oneself.
LR: Finally, what are you working on now?
JAR: I’m collaborating with writer Coda Wei on an experimental drama of text, comics and .gifs called Ambient Asian Space. We’ve been writing together since September 2015 and have recently started to release selected episodes here. I’m also working with choreographer iele paloumpis on a new dance work as part of the Oceanic End project, which we’ll be performing at a Draftwork showing at Danspace in New York City on December 10.
* * *
Jai Arun Ravine is writer, dancer, and graphic designer. As a mixed race, mixed gender and mixed genre artist, their work arises from the simultaneity of text and body and takes the form of video, performance, comics, and handmade books. The Romance of Siam is their second book. For more information, visit their website: jaiarunravine.com
It may still officially be summertime, but for those of us who balance our writing lives with scholarship and/or teaching, it’s already time to hang up the vacation gear and dust off the books in preparation for a new academic year. Thus far in this summer’s series of reading recommendations, we’ve brought you a couple of short critical reflections that have teased out thematic similarities between some recent collections by #ActualAsianPoets, but this month, in honor of back to school, we’re highlighting a three recent anthology titles (or to be technical, two anthologies and one edited collection of critical prose) that feature #ActualAsianPoets and that we think would be wonderful editions to the classroom this semester.
Weaving together poetry, prose, and visual art, Kuwento, whose title means “story” in Tagalog, explores the notion of myth as told and retold by voices from the Philippine diaspora. Writes coeditor Melissa R. Sipin in a blog post on Kweli, “It is with this book we hope the invocation of the past is somehow answered, somehow quelled, somehow excavated, and thus reborn—reborn in our own terms, in our own myths, in our own kuwentos.” Containing selections by M. Evelina Galang, Oliver de la Paz, Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, Barbara Jane Reyes, Brian Ascalon Roley, Aimee Suzara, Eileen Tabios, Nick Carbó, and others, Kuwento appears to be both thoughtfully curated and expansive in its scope. We’d be eager to see it added to syllabuses for Asian American or Filipino Literature courses and workshops on the undergraduate or graduate levels. As with other groundbreaking anthologies such as How Do I Begin? (the seminal Hmong American anthology that we reviewed a few years ago) or Indivisible(the first anthology of South Asian American poetry, which we reviewed here and here), Kuwento could also likely work well in a community workshop context and perhaps even (in excerpted form) for younger students.
In this slim but mighty volume, Timothy Yu brings together four critical essays by female Asian American literary scholars, each of which focuses on a different pioneering Asian American women poet. Exploring the life and work of Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil, Nests and Strangers draws together thoughts on both the biographies and aesthetic impulses of each poet in order to better understand the import (and impact) of each of their poetry. It would be a wonderful resource for an advanced undergraduate seminar, especially for one focused on feminist poetics or Asian American literature.
Though not specifically an Asian American literature-focused anthology, Family Resemblance encompasses a diverse selection of literary voices, including a number of notable Asian American and Pacific Islander ones (e.g., Kazim Ali, Jenny Boully, Craig Santos Perez). The notion of hybridity is, of course, one that we explored in some depth in our fifth issue, and especially when contextualized with the metaphor of inheritance, as in this anthology, formal hybridity has unmistakable thematic resonances for scholars and students of ethnic studies and postcolonial studies. Personally recommended by our associate editor, Mia, Family Resemblance would fit well into almost any workshop setting (especially one exploring experimental or nontraditional forms) and would also be a wonderful means by which to diversify a syllabus and open doors for deeper consideration of issues of race, class, and gender in the university classroom.
* * *
For those of you who are teachers, what diverse books are you including on your syllabuses this term, and what are some APIA-focused anthologies or critical collections you’ve taught that you’ve found to be especially successful? And if you’re a student, what are your dream APIA lit reading assignments for an inclusive workshop or literature course experience? We’d love to hear from you! Please tell us in the comments or chat with us about it on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).
Happy August to all of our readers, and to everyone who’s headed back to school soon, we wish you a smooth transition and a fulfilling academic year!