Panax Ginseng is a monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring the transgressions of linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those which result in hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the congenital borrowings of the English language, deriving from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” and the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” The troubling image of one’s roots as a panacea will inform the column’s readings of new texts.
When I spoke at the “Speaking in Tongues” panel for AWP in Chicago, organized by Sandra M. Yee, I found myself taking issue with the panel’s description:
In this panel of rising young artists, each writing inside two or more languages and/or cultures, we examine how we see ourselves pushing against literary and cultural traditions. How do we challenge our assimilation into the English language? To whom do we owe our allegiance as writers? Who is our audience? Whether code-switching or speaking in ancestral tongues, how do we act as representatives of our cultures? And in an increasingly globalized society, how do we embrace or shun these roles?
In my talk, I questioned the idea of writing “inside” two or more languages and cultures, because that “inside” presupposes an “outside.” Prepositions in English—at, on, into, through, from—tend to be physical or directional. In the grammar of other languages, such as in Chinese, prepositions are largely nonexistent or based on context. But in English, to write “inside” a tradition is to situate that activity within space, and to define a space is to define its boundaries.Since, despite my complaints, I am still bound to the grammatical strictures of English,) I would prefer to say that rather than writing “inside” languages and traditions, we write “across” them. One example I provided in my talk was a recently published short story by playwright and author Rosebud Ben-Oni, to whom my talk was dedicated. I wish to comment more at length about the story here.
“Ants Eating A Bone” is set within a very particular space. It’s narrated from the close third-person perspective of Li Wanping, a Chinese immigrant in New York. But more than being just Chinese, he’s Fujianese—which is to say that he’s from a province in China where Mandarin (the sanctioned “standard” Chinese) only recently began to be instituted and enforced in schools, and where Min Dong, or Fuzhou Dialect, is the primary language. And more than being just a New Yorker, he was raised specifically in Woodside, Queens. The language of the story, therefore, stretches adeptly across a range.
The range finds its flexibility between the narrator’s voice and Li Wanping’s consciousness. The opening sentence of the story demonstrates such movements of inclusiveness:
After hearing his brother lost everything in China, Li Wanping writes to him from an internet cafe, suggesting he move back to New York; there’s plenty of space in the basement of the Woodside house, on the street with the young trees.
To the left of the semicolon is a standard narratorial stance, an objective relating of facts. After the semicolon, we begin to slip into Li Wanping’s consciousness with the colloquial contraction in “there’s” and with the familiar referent we are expected to recognize in “the Woodside house.” Li Wanping is a character who straddles the languages and geographies of Woodside and Fujian. The narrator, meanwhile, is a translator or codeswitcher who must convey this multiplicity in English.
The linguistic range of the story also includes a nominalist’s use of taglines specific to the setting, such as the torn-down banner reading, “Woodside on the Move.” A corollary to this is the transplantation of words from Chinese, such as “xianjishi” and “tong” in reference to neighborhoods in Fujian. The story also includes aphorisms paraphrased in English, ranging from the bucolic: “To live among ghosts will not keep away demons,” to the modern: “Like skyscrapers going up too fast without the proper foundation…” Direct translations from Chinese,such as that of Mao Zedong’s “Four Pest Campaign,” are unusually precise: the singular “pest” sounds incorrect in English, but closely approximates the grammatical construction in Chinese. And then there’s the still-in-translation space of ironic phrases the narrator calls “Bad Hong Kong Movie Subtitles, such as ‘Jubilant Moon Cloud Affirmations’ as a way of saying hello and good-bye.”
I point to all the above with admiration, and to raise the question of authenticity. Rosebud Ben-Oni’s name in no way suggests an ethnically Chinese background. Eyebrows are not raised by her writing about Woodside, but by her writing from within the perspective of a particular immigrant community to which she does not “belong.” (See how these prepositions, writing “within” and belonging “to,” inherently sequester and bind.) Before “Ants Eating A Bone” was accepted by Escape Into Life, it was rejected generously by a number of editors who loved the story but questioned how readers might receive it. They questioned the appearances of authenticity; they questioned the consequences of appending a Jewish name to a Chinese story.
Writing outside of one’s race is a taboo stemming from the last half-century of identity politics in American literature, and the representation of the marginalized by authors whose names and ethnic communities become a kind of cultural currency. Some obvious figureheads of such literature include, for example: Maxine Hong Kingston (Chinese), Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian), and Junot Diaz (Hispanic). I use the parentheses to point out both sides of the coin: that the works of these authors affirm individual voice, yet also that the works come to be codified within generic categories. One must remember the controversy that surrounded Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in 1975: when audiences discovered that she had modified myths for her fiction, they were upset because they had expected representation and instruction. Then there were the controversies that surrounded white authors writing from the perspective of East Asia: Pearl S. Buck, who wrote The Good Earth though she was never a male Chinese farmer, and Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha though he was never a female Japanese geisha. These latter examples, however, might be justified as research novels; what these two have to say about a bygone China and a bygone Japan is as authentic and debatable as what might be said by any other writer living today. But isn’t this true of any “authentic” writer representing any place or people?
Empathy is a kind of research. In “Ants Eating A Bone,” Ben-Oni has written characters outside of her race, her gender, and her age. But she is writing about what it means to be human: to be bereft, to honor one’s family in the midst of difficult choices. What makes the story not only convincing but admirable is that she doesn’t appropriate stereotypes to tell it. She explores by particularizing, both on the level of language (the story’s aphorisms are not likely to be found on a Chinese Aphorisms website) and on the level of character detail (the story’s history of the Cultural Revolution belongs not to a Chinese people at large, but specifically to the Fujianese family of Li Wanping). The problem of authenticity arises when one is expected to write prescriptively and with finality. Ben-Oni doesn’t claim to do this; no sincere artist would. Writing the individual is a process without end or rules, a process that is mobile within/across shifting spaces.
The panel description for “Speaking in Tongues” mentions “an increasingly globalized society.” In recent times, the word “globalization” refers to exchanges between commerce as well as culture. But we have always been global in the sense of reaching across cultures, have always been speaking in tongues. Five hundred years ago, no one would have ever guessed that English would be so widespread today; five hundred years from now, we might be surprised again. We are always speaking in a number of tongues, are always learning a number of tongues. English only happens to be the most recent lingua franca; this is an old phrase, “language of the Frankish,” referring to the common tongue in eastern Mediterranean trade. To learn from and understand one another, we cannot speak inside our societies—we must speak across them. In Juliana Spahr’s words, “I turn to each other,” meaning that I look at every stranger; I belong in the collective pronoun of every stranger; I am each other.