Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 2 of 2)

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.


Bad Hong Kong Movie Subtitles


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.

Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 2 of 2)”

Becoming Realer: The Spirit of the Sky

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

"The Spirit of the Earth" painting by Kristopher H (via Escape Into Life)

A few days ago, I told Rebecca Eckland that the main difference between us is that she comes from Nevadan dust and dirt, and I come from Michigander cows and cornfields. “One of my favorite teenage descriptions of myself was ‘I’m a skyscraper in a cornfield,’” I said. She laughed and told me that “I’m a star over a basin” was one of hers.

I’m a skyscraper in a cornfield struck me because of its clear imagery, though I consider myself a horrible imagist. My weakness with image is one of the major reasons I didn’t consider my poetry writing very good. When I first started taking poetry classes as an undergraduate, I struggled against, resisted and fought at every turn writing to the image rather than to the idea, as I’m an idea-oriented person. I t took me three years of writing to fully embrace the power of the image. And yet, here is an example of a much earlier self-description that captures my alienation from my environment and insatiable desire to stand out in a larger-than-life way with starkness.

Why this image has come back to me now, I have no idea. My hunch is that all of the memoirs I’ve been reading in the program have put me on my own memory excavation. And, why not? Living in the Bay Area has shown me, even more than living in Nashville, Tennessee, that we cannot escape where we are from. It comes with us.

Maybe it was reading Kristopher H’s artist statement on Escape Into Life. His paintings, like the one above, depict an imaginary place called “Iblard,” based on the work of a Japanese artist, Naohisa Inoue. He says that Iblard is “an imaginative space which everyone possesse[s] and yet [is] trying to run away from. A space about imagination and possibilities.” I wonder if we have to leave a place in order to see its possibilities, or if we create that space from our own imaginations.

Or, maybe it was the LR Blog prompt from November 12th. It asks us to describe an old pair of shoes that symbolizes death without ever saying “death” in order to explore image, metaphor and description. This prompt made me panic a little because I think that were I to attempt it, I would fail. I would write death. I would get lost in abstraction, or meditate upon the concept of death. I would probably leave out the old shoes entirely.

But, no matter what the impetus was, image and description have been on my mind since one of my first workshop meetings with my advisor. She asked what I do with an image when one comes to me.

“I try to write a poem about it, or make it into a metaphor,” I said.

“The other option is to make it into a scene,” she told me.

Scene is what I’ve been trying to work on this past semester because I’m awful at it. I panicked at my advisor’s statement too because it took me three years to grasp the power of an image. How long would it take me to get a scene? Would I ever master it? More realistically, would I ever be decent enough to pretend I’d mastered it?

My hunch is that I won’t. And yet, there was a star over a basin in Lake Tahoe. A skyscraper in the cornfields of Lowell.