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.
“Sewing,” “pockets” and “stories” being things that don’t quite exist in the Neverland, Jenny Boully’s not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them sews pockets in and around the mythos of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. Cutting snippets of Barrie’s source text, including Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and events in Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, Boully centralizes Wendy’s experience and sews up bits of her story, stitching the make-believe into the made-quite-real. In her pockets, open ends and open endings fit and hover.
“places in the earth are breaking”
Every page of not merely because is footnoted with a section called “The Home Under Ground,” while the rest of the text wraps itself around. Boully is famous for having written an entire book in footnotes, The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002 and Essay Press, 2007); these footnotes referenced empty pages—a nonexistent text. In notes 1 and 2 of The Body she writes, “…everything that is said is said underneath… / It is not the story I know or the story you tell me that matters; it is what I already know, what I don’t want to hear you say. Let it exist this way, concealed…”
That she chooses to reference the concealed, underground home where Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys lived in her footnotes to not merely because made me think of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Small Arguments (Pedlar Press, 2003). Thammavongsa studies a variety of fruit and insects and reveals, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things in daily life.” Boully’s line “A mushroom head here, a celery stalk there, three new baby bird graves, a fiddlehead here; places in the earth are breaking” echoes Thammavongsa’s poem “The Ground”: “You will not leave / or keep from / this ground, a breaking.” Continue reading “Review: Jenny Boully’s NOT MERELY BECAUSE OF THE UNKNOWN STALKING TOWARD THEM”→
After reading Bao Phi’s remarkable collection of poems, Sông I Sing, I was reminded of an incident that occurred about ten years ago when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. I was attending a panel discussion at UMinn entitled, simply, “Asian American Poetry,” sponsored in large part by Minnesota Poets Society, and was greatly looking forward to listening to two acclaimed Asian American poets speak on the topic. Disappointingly, the only thing the Society members, through their persistent questions about it, seemed interested in was the “poetic process”—and more particularly a process devoid of those nattering issues about race, identity, or politics. Toward the end of the discussion, an elderly white woman, clearly a senior member of the eminent Society, raised her hand and said, “Well, after listening to you both talk about your poetry, I’m wondering why we need to apply the name ‘Asian American’ to your poetry at all.” To my astonishment, at the time, both poets—both award-winning Asian American poets—agreed that the term “Asian American” as it’s applied to their poetry or to them as poets, felt limiting if not downright debilitating.
Such a response has its precedent. It’s reflective of the conundrum of the ethnic writer: how to keep from falling into the binary of either writing to a prescribed aesthetic steeped in a history of political ideology or writing as a fully realized individual shaped by an accumulation of discrete, personal experiences. It ‘s a false binary, of course, as a number of Asian American poetry anthologies have already shown, from The Open Boat: Poems From Asian America, edited by Garrett Hongo, to Premonition:The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, edited by Walter Lew, and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation edited by Victoria Chang. All three anthologies rally around the diversity of themes and poets as opposed to a unifying call to some singular identity and community. Though anchored from a historical perspective to linear coordinates such as identity construction and political ideology, Asian American poetry is not bound to those coordinates. It is a fluid, changing body of work in time and space.
Ligature Strain by Kim Koga and Yellow / Yellow by Margaret Rhee | Tinfish Press 2011 | $3.00
In typography, a ligature is the conjunction of two or more letters into a single glyph.
In typography, an index is a punctuation mark indicating an important part of the text with a pointing hand.
Margaret Rhee’s Yellow/ Yellow and Kim Koga’s Ligature Strain meet in a typographical terrain of conjugation and decomposition, where fists appear in the margins. These texts saturate their pages to such a degree that I wish these words could stain my fingers—pink, brown, yellow.
These works are first chapbooks for both Koga and Rhee, and are #5 and #6 in Tinfish Press‘ yearlong Retro Series. Since April 2011, one chapbook has been released per month, each designed by Eric Butler.
In the selective memory of America’s pop tart psyche, 9/11 is a day—a montage of proud flag-waving, “God Bless!” and baseball. In this sense, 9/11 is a memorial that never meant anything to me. But a decade ago, before I had formulated my political consciousness as a queer person of color, I knew what it meant to live in fear, to be a “Transsexual Militant,” as Amir Rabiyah writes, in the anxiety-inducing nightmare of airport security, to move through public spaces as suspect. The exclusive “land of the free” 9/11 did not remember people like me.
AALR’s Special Issue attempts to rupture the dominant narrative of 9/11 by examining, as Rajini Srikanth states in the introduction, the not-so-innocent act of remembering. The voices and visual art in this book and the companion DVD—from youth, students, teachers, social workers, lawyers, DJs, community organizers, neuroscientists and poets in the South Asian, Asian, Arab and Muslim American communities—fight America’s obsession with 9/11 as a fixed tragedy, as a single event after which everything changed.
Their remembrances counteract the ways we are being told to frame 9/11 by contextualizing it as a continuation of historical patterns systemic of broader structures of US imperialism. In these crucial and courageous testimonies, essays, interviews and discussions, 9/11 is framed as a non-event, as a decade of war,  as an “American Century,”  as “homeland security” since 1492. Sunaina Maira writes, “9/11 was not a moment of exception but an ongoing state of emergency.”
In this review, I discuss Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press 2008) and Poems of the Black Object (FuturePoem Books 2009). Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection might be more specifically described as prose poetry, as implied by its title. There are really no formal line breaks throughout the collection, so one is forced to consider what makes such a work poetry as opposed to prose. This genre-defying work’s title also clearly derives inspiration from two canonical African American literary texts: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In Wilson’s title, there isn’t any mention of the word “slave,” but the impulse to explore the conditions of subjection and domination are still very much there. Wilson’s work thus seems to enact a neo-slave “poetic” as derived through the queer racial minority’s subjectivity. The reference to the “brown boy” and the “white man” in the title also helps situate what actually occurs in the prose poetry blocks throughout the collection. “Brown boy” suggests that the lyric “I” is a mixed-race subject and likely an adult, but clearly one who does not have much access to economic resources. He is engaged in a homosexual relationship with “White Man,” someone likely older and with clearly far more money than the “Brown Boy.” Racial difference, class difference, and age difference, among other such distinctions, generate the rubrics of power and domination that mark the tension between “white man” and the “brown boy.” Wilson’s work is raw, dense, and does not shy away from difficult topics, as demonstrated by the following excerpt, which is fairly indicative of the stylistic impulses of the collection:
“Go Shower. This command reveals [the brown boy’s] relationship to the white man. He follows his lover’s orders like a slave without anything but the promise of being fed and shown a movie” (64).
The title of Tamiko Beyer’s first chapbook, bough breaks, evokes not just the creepy nursery rhyme, but also plant metaphors and motifs running through the poem-sequence. On the very first page there is “deep moss,” “bloomer,” and the “instinct” that “rises / late” from “whatever field”: whatever it is, this field has conceptual dimensions as well as spatiality. Shortly thereafter, the narrator tells us, “I construct syllabic fields,” suggesting with the simple present tense a habit, a pattern, perhaps something involuntary—and in this field, language itself, like foliage, must be attended to “like watering.”
These language-pastures seem to have once in the past(oral) contained the narrator until this instinct, to be a mother, escapes—pretty much like a protuberance—and causes a being-body to leak through. Queer desire is already a transgression, “chaotic.” By challenging the narrative that queer sexualities are non-reproductive, the maternal instinct turns the queer body excessive over and above its already-excess.
bough breaks seeks to interrogate this protuberance, this leaking, and its limits. It is fuelled by yearning: “will there be / between us a darling?” Yearning pushes through the body of the poem in the form of white space. Forms are invented to strike off authorized definitions of conception (biological as well as artistic), to prefigure the politics of a queer couple raising a child so as to question gender (“we would …. open mother to repetitions”), to consider how options for child-getting are often embedded in contexts of violence and capitalistic greed (and is there really a choice), to destabilize both the “natural” and the “not natural” in “queer” and “motherhood” (and sneaky iterations of everything in between), to circulate even more questions around adoption and embryo adoption (check out that play with “play” and “pay” on page 24!).
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, andformal 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.
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”→
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.