Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 1 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.



First, let’s give pause to these lines from Richard Hamasaki’s “Guerrilla Writers,” from which I take the title of this post:

golden rules of english?
conspiracies of languages?

memories unwanted
works are left unknown

if what’s to be spoken
needs to be written

sabotage the language
ignore the golden rules

guerrilla writer
barbarize the rules

Keep in mind that the capitalization of lines and proper nouns is endemic to the English language’s hierarchical structure, and keep in mind Hamasaki’s argument as I discuss the politics, the rhetoric, and the aesthetic of Hawaiian Pidgin as a metonym for “Asian American” literature and letters.

Here’s a passage from the New Testament, translated in 2000 by Wycliffe Bible Translators. This translation is from Da Jesus Book and the passage is from Matthew Tell Bout Jesus 14:29-31:

Peter climb outa da boat, an walk on top da water fo go by Jesus. But when he see how da wind was, he come scared, an start fo go down inside da water. Den he yell, “Eh, Boss! Get me outa dis!”

Right den an dea Jesus put out his hand an grab him, an say, “How come you trus me ony litto bit? How come you tink you no can do um?”

That’s a heavily accented Hawaiian Pidgin, or Hawaiian Creole English (HCE). New translations or modernizations of the Christian Bible are not infrequent, but there is something unsettling about having the cultural disguise of language so blatantly unveiled. We are not used to so vernacular a Jesus Christ. reviews of this translation are adamant in their reassurance that this use of Pidgin is not a joke or mockery. The University of Hawai’i’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelf’ Night o’ Whateva some years ago comes to mind: I wondered then about the politics of responses to such a performance: were there worries of Pidgin being used as kitsch or as a dumbing-down? Is “translation” inherently an imperial process, the imposition of one culture’s narratives upon the linguistic framework of another? It can sound like the dramatic donning of a persona. The Wycliffe translators seem at least to recognize Hawaiian Pidgin as a language system on a level with Standard English: in their introduction, they note that their translation works from the Greek (though whether Masoretic or Septuagint they don’t say) rather than from other derivative English translations. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Barbarize the Rules (pt. 1 of 2)”

Review: How Do I Begin?

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology | Heyday 2011 | $16.95

The NY Times began the new year with a piece about the Hmong American Writers’ Circle and the cultural context in which it operates. And our most recent issue of the Lantern Review put a spotlight on HAWC in Community Voices. This is only the beginning of much-deserved attention for this unique generation of new writers.

How Do I Begin is an apt title for an anthology of writers whose ethnic identity is doubly marginalized: though the Hmong roots are in southwest China, most emigrated/fled to the US from places like Laos or Vietnam after the Vietnam-American War. Burlee Vang, in his introduction to the book, describes himself as “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” The written language of the Hmong was lost after assimilation in Imperial China long ago; this is not to mention assimilation into Thai and Lao culture, where most Hmong are provided an education only in their host countries’ official languages. The Hmong language has remnants in traditional embroidery but they have become indecipherable. Writers identifying as Hmong American today, therefore, have the tremendous task not only of writing themselves into history and literature, but also of gathering their names and identities from the pieces available. English is their adopted language, and so these writers must weave a warp and woof through multiple traditions.

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Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations

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.



The "Fish House" in Berkeley (via



The China Issue” of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal presents itself with an ambiguous title. It is the journal’s literary issue on China, but it might just as well be ‘the issue of China,’ i.e. the problem of it, a claim to authority and singularity; or simply ‘the issue of representing China,’ the question of it, the difficulty. ‘China’ as a thematic boundary is naturally complex for a journal based in Hong Kong—but virtually, over the internet—and presented in English. Most of this issue’s poems are translations from the Chinese, with the originals preserved; of these, few refer explicitly to or narrow themselves by locality—except where those locations become outside points of reference (i.e. Zang Di’s “History of Daffodils” referencing Fukushima, or Zhai Yongming’s “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth,” which is self-conscious about the literary tradition of hiking on a traditional occasion). Some of the poems written in English, however, announce their ‘Chineseness’ with archetypal localities, such as romanticized pastorals of farmland China, or romance recalled as manufacture in Sumana Roy’s “Love: Made in China,” or the two poems with Beijing in their titles.

Place is fascinating and troubling to define. Is place a city by name, by reference, or by index? Or a collocation of buildings and objects seen as an outsider might see them, or as an insider might? Within the spaces shaped by buildings are cultures and languages—both mainstream and marginal—and the subjectivity of people and their relationships to history and memory.

Appropriately, a few of the poems in this issue deal with houses and architecture. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Poems, Places, Habitations”

Panax Ginseng: Introduction

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.



Recently, a colleague explained to me the ubiquity of the subjunctive tense in Spanish, which lends itself well to the magical realism of what-ifs and should-haves inhabited by the speaker. I countered that Chinese has, effectively, no subjunctive tense. I taught bilingual children in Hong Kong some years ago and they would write, for instance: “I wish this poem is good,” and, “If I am a seabird I can enter every apartment window in Hong Kong.” These clauses’ constructions signal no suspension of disbelief. The wish is conjured and, in the next instant, becomes grammatically true. When this nine-year-old imagines herself as a seabird, it is not that she could enter through windows—she already can.

Another of my favorite examples is from a worksheet I gave to a five-year-old. She was directed to draw a picture of herself and use an adjective to describe her mood. She drew herself open-mouthed under the sun and wrote, “Im so shine.” Verbs and adjectives consist of the same words in Chinese and are distinguished only by context or signifiers. That five-year-old’s shiny mood is something which she enacts, rather than something which qualifies her. Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: Introduction”

Review: AALR, VOL. 2, ISSUE 1

The Asian American Literary Review | Volume 2, Issue 1 | Winter/Spring 2011

In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.

This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, and formal considerations. Reddy writes:

To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.

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Review: Esther Lee’s SPIT

Spit by Esther Lee | Elixir Press 2010 | $16

What is spit, taken as the title of Esther Lee’s first book of poetry? It can be derogatory, can be DNA and genealogy, can be sustenance and suckling, can be used to form or deform the sounds we make when speaking. The poems in this collection are preoccupied with the mouth, which functions as a site of stagnation just as much as change. The book begins, “When asked if I believe in absolute truths, I cite the lie.” And a few lines down: “Our mouths were stretched to the floor as punishment . . .” In another poem, the mouth is a “rusted hollow,” an irreparably broken car muffler. Later, in “The Real World Is Like This,” the sound of a mother’s “bird-throat” suggests flight, then suggests the clicking sounds of the speaker’s tap shoes driving a rift between her and her sister and, she says, “what my mouth can’t afford.”

Astonishing for a first book, Lee’s signature style is instantly recognizable by the accent she creates visually on the page. The front dedication to her family reads: “I kiss one hundred time[ ].” Generally brackets tell of absence, which can mean revision, loss, or a truncated excess—and in these poems refer to text as much as to personal experience. In the dedication, it is a nod to her parents’ accent. In the “Interview with My [C]orean Father” poems, the bracketed “C” reclaims and reshapes an ethnic label. It also points out how arbitrary are such naming practices, since Corean and Korean sound identical. In “We Are the Happiest Children in the World” and “Ivan / Ivan,” brackets proliferate lines to evoke at once caesura and transition, as we see in:

I tell you I am here mingled [ ] with snow
yellow-white as the page [ ] I suckled from
my grandmother—strange mother—and I [ ] grew

These brackets have a distinct flavor from backslashes, m-dashes, and ellipses; they are a ligature of grammatical pedantry (showing Lee in command of the language) and ungrammatical familiarity (an intuitive, poetic experimentation). They are a punctuation that Lee has made uniquely her own in these poems. Continue reading “Review: Esther Lee’s SPIT”


Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology edited by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma | New Press 2009 | $21.95


In September 2001, The Amazing Spider-Man published issue #477 which has been called, for its emotively blank cover, the “Black Issue.” It opens with a two-page spread of Spider-Man covering his ears in shock over the excruciating collapse of the Twin Towers. What follows is a trauma narrative as New York picks up the pieces, searches for survivors and parents and loved ones. Our pantheon of Marvel Comics gods is down at Ground Zero helping as they can, each one suddenly rendered as miniscule as the citizens: Captain America in silent grief, having seen enough world wars; Doc Doom and Magneto combining their efforts and labor without rancor; Spidey pulling his mask up halfway to drink bottled water with firefighters in the rubble.

I read a blurb once that claimed the three most recognizable characters in the world were: Hamlet, Mickey Mouse, and Superman. The effect of this Marvel shadow history of 9/11, given both the scale of the event as well as these comic book icons, is not unlike that of Ovid using Phaethon’s sun-chariot fiasco to explain desert formations, or Moses using Nimrod’s Tower of Babel to explain foreign languages. Humanity has always written itself into larger, mythical narratives in which we all cohere, in an attempt to familiarize the cosmos. The only difference is that we don’t actually believe Peter Parker and Steve Rogers exist. Yet, reading the Black Issue and getting swept up in its reverent catharsis, I do believe. For that is how literature works. That is how we construct reality in our emotional imaginations. Moreover, that is how we codify our assumptions and stereotypes—what we choose to be believable in these realities we make.

This review of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology is going to be a geeky review of a geeky book, so some critical bolstering may be called for. Continue reading “Review: SECRET IDENTITIES: THE ASIAN AMERICAN SUPERHERO ANTHOLOGY”

A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry with Stacey Lynn Brown, and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. A recipient of grants from NYFA and the Artists’ Trust, his recent work has appeared in the New England Review, Sentence, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Western Washington University.

* * *

LR: Who were your earliest influences as a young poet? Was there a momentous decision to pursue this career?

OP: I’ve got a lot of early influences so I’ll name a number of firsts. My very first poetry book was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. When my parents first arrived in the U.S. they became subscribers to Readers’ Digest and part of the subscription deal was to receive three gift books with their subscription. One of the gift books was Robert Penn Warren’s book. So apart from my mother’s medical texts, I was pouring over Robert Penn Warren’s poems, not really understanding what was happening in them, but having a profound curiosity over the work.

The first poetry books that I ever purchased for myself were for a poetry class in college. I bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares and Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World. The poetry collection that really opened my eyes to the sonic qualities a poem could have was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I still have the first two tercets memorized: “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./ The fat/ Sacrifices its opacity . . . ”

The first poetic influence that affirmed I could be a poet was Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose. I was deciding between continuing a career in the sciences, or pursuing poetry. At the time, I was a care provider in a supported living home for the developmentally disabled and an EMT. I had a lot of time to read because the main client I worked with slept a lot due to the meds. So I read long into my shift. I imagine that was when I decided to pursue the life of letters. I wasn’t really excited about the lab work or the medical work I was doing, and I was feeling quite invigorated by all the poetry I was reading.

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Review: Lisa Chen’s MOUTH

Mouth by Lisa Chen | Kaya Press 2007 | $13.95

The cover image of this square-shaped book previews the poems well. It’s a photo of a brick tenement bombed with graffiti wildstyles in suburban browns and blues. One letter’s tail stretches generously through a sill in the wall to become a finger flipping us off. Someone has abandoned a road bike in front of the wall and a plain plank laid out like a welcome mat. Reading these poems is an experience of urban ekstasis, an out-of-body splash of sight that stops the pedestrian reader. Lisa Chen sprays up the walls of poetry to show where our grammar and vision have gone dry.

What a wonder it is to see the world through Chen’s language! We see a “face filling the night like a bare back / Turned away from you in sleep.” The look on another’s “as I leave is a porch light left burning at dawn.” And a woman whose “English isn’t so good. Slang, her mouth the color of turned salmon.” Chen writes in “Translators’ Apologia,” “I have tried to approximate a sea with a stream of piss” and that approximation itself opens an astonishingly vivid world. Her phrases seize with naked incisions.

The collection’s tone is set in the opening title poem, “Mouth.” The speaker is in a situation, literally and figuratively, “where [she doesn’t] speak the language.” The spoken word is stifled yet emergent, gritty and gnarled, as we see variously in lines like: “cocktail boozer slurring the voila delirious,” “the shill slag of bad guitar and motel ashtrays,” and “the sloe-eyed, two-fisted mouth” among others. The speaker resorts to body language, “hands thrust in the air / in grim universal gestures” which translates here to bartering at the market, a game of demonstrating desire and the ability to walk away.
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Review: KARTIKA REVIEW, Issue 8

Kartika Review | Issue 8 | Winter 2010

In this emotive issue of Kartika, the primacy of the first person is immediately apparent, and the “I” spotlights the issue’s family theme. Except for one second-person narrated story (which perhaps entreats the reader’s I), all the pieces here are borne from their speakers’ personal narratives. Fiction editor Christina Lee Zilka says her goodbye to the journal by telling a memory of goodbye. Matthew Salesses in “Slowed Time, Normal Time” develops a first-person fiction so deft and sincere it reads like memoir. David Mura’s memoir piece, “My Daughter At 18: Leaving Home,” uses first-person texts as a set of resonances: Mura narrates, and quotes from his daughter’s personal statement for college, in which she quotes not just her past self from a journal but also Mura’s description of her from thirteen years ago—all the I’s of which give an illusory choral effect. Like when you strike a guitar’s middle E and the other E strings hum sympathetically. The issue ends on an email interview with Sumeir Hammad (Woan was right in her editorial to guess, “Like me, you will probably turn to read her interview first”), and Hammad’s insights are given us by a characteristically uncapitalized i.

The two poems of this issue are also told from the first-person, and both pieces are occasions of identity. Rajiv Mohabir’s “holi lovesport stains (krishna-lila)” takes its stylistic theme from the Holi festival tradition of throwing colored powder at one another. From the first, syntactically blurred stanza, disparate bodies are conjoined and selves are multiplied:

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