Wednesday, April 16, 2003

I'm pleased to see Ron Silliman today talking about Asian American writing, mentioning the anthology Premonitions and Tibetan American poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. But I'm a little worried by some of the ways he frames his discussion, which touch on some of the problems that recur in many discussions of Asian American writing.

Silliman praises Premonitions as evidence of the "influx of influences from non-European cultures" on American literature. But as Asian American critics and writers have suggested for decades, the idea that Asian Americans are "non-European" in their outlook and culture can be a repressive one when used uncritically. Premonitions does not, so far as I know, include extensive sections of work not written in English, or by poets who do not live and work in North America. Asian Americans here are made to serve a representative function, as a channel of Asian culture into the West--a role many of them do not care to accept.

In fact, the slippage around this problem is evident in the rest of Silliman's post. Although Dhompa is, presumably, being cited as bearing the influence of non-European culture, Silliman's reading of her work focuses on its linguistic precision and (in a previous post) on the influence of Creeley and other American writers. So where is the "Asian" element of the work? Ultimately, it seems, not much of anywhere.

Silliman writes: "Not unlike, say, Larry Eigner, who could be called a poet of disability but who was actually more simply a great poet who happened to be physically challenged, Dhompa is a good poet first who happens to have been born on a train in India in 1969 & raised in the Tibetan exile communities of Dharamsala, India & Kathmandu, Nepal before coming to the U.S."

"A good poet first"--certainly how most poets would like to think of themselves. But then what is the role of race, nationality, disability--that which follows the "who happened to be..."? The phrasing suggests it's incidental; the earlier framing suggested it was fundamental. I'm not sure we can have it both ways: if you want to make "Asian" culture a marker of value for an Asian American writer, you can't then turn around and say race doesn't matter.

I don't fault Silliman for walking into this trap--indeed, I see critics, both Asian American and not, doing it all the time. Ultimately, we're still not sure what we expect out of an Asian American writer--to enrich "American" (i.e., European) culture with "Asian" spice? To simply be "a good poet first"? Or is the Asian American experience some much more complex thing, one not reducible to the inheritance of Asian culture, yet troubling any steady notion of the "good poet"?

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