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Editors’ Picks: Voices From Southeast Asia

2009 November 28
Voices from Southeast Asia

While browsing the library for new voices in Asian American poetry, I came across the book Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991).  Though the book is not new, it provides historic context for the experiences that have shaped and seeded much of contemporary Southeast Asian American poetry.  The 247-page volume is comprised of a series of oral histories, each of which features the life experience of a Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, or Cambodian refugee to the United States.  Though most of the book is written in prose, there are a few narratives in verse form.  The poem below, for example, was written by a Cambodian woman after her relocation to the Bronx.

URBAN LIFE

They take us and put us in boxes to live.

Each family lives in the same kind of box […]

Our boxes are not all in the same building […]

So we talk on the telephone and imagine

what this person does and

how he lives in his box

and I tell him about life in my box.

This poem, probably one of the earliest instances of Southeast Asian American poetry, captures in simple, unsentimental, and uncomplicated terms the experience of resettlement in the United States by a faceless “they,” a “they” responsible not only for “tak[ing] us” from Cambodia, but “put[ting] us in boxes to live.”  In the speaker’s sense of disconnection, her need to construct an imagined community life, and attempts to communicate across fractured lines, one begins to identify the beginnings of Southeast Asian American poetry.

The accounts in the book are, as US Senator Edward Kennedy puts it, “full of the agony of exile, the disruption of the refugee camps, [and] the challenge of starting over.”  Since 1975, over a million Southeast Asians have settled in the United States, established communities across the country, and begun to shape the voice of contemporary Asian American poetry.  The question for Asian American poets writing today, both those of Southeast Asian descent and other ethnicities, is how to engage the concerns of their history and to move forward.

If, in your own writing, you have struggled to engage historical material (family myth, oral narrative, historical text) in verse, please share your experiences here.  What forms and methods have worked for you?  What dilemmas and/or points of resistance have you encountered?  We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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