Wednesday, April 23, 2003

It seems silence might have been more troubling than overblown emotions--David wrote me hoping I would clarify. So, donning my scholar's robes, I will proceed to an explication of silence...

My initial objection was to a line in the review of Gary Sullivan's "How to Proceed in the Arts" that David posted on Monday. In his remarks on the section "70 Lines from the Chinese," David wrote: "The more quiet, modest modes of Asian poetry appeal as an alternative to our overblown emotions." My immediate response was that this assertion perpetuates a common stereotype of Asian reserve, modesty, and deference, one that while seemingly innocent enough, can have repressive implications, suggesting that the East is less capable of speaking for itself than the West. (I think in this regard of an anecdote Frank Chin tells about an American film in which Chinese laborers were portrayed in a conflict with railroad bosses. When the extras began advancing menacingly on the bosses with their pickaxes, the director stopped them, telling them that this was not believable; instead, they should lay down their tools and stand politely with their hands at their sides.) I should say that this reaction is not a literary judgment based on my familiarity with Chinese poetry, of which I know very little; rather, it was a reaction against an orientalist stereotype that has real implications for how Asians are perceived in America.

I initially chose silence because I really wasn't interested in bashing David for his statement, only in drawing attention to it, and in showing how such ideas can sneak in when we least expect them--as one line in a long and intelligent review. It's much the same feeling I had the other day in my response to Ron Silliman's post last Wednesday on Asian American poetry. I have no interest in being the Asian American thought police, and I think the worst possible result of such critiques would be if people feel that they can't talk about such issues at all without being called out. But I also realize that I'm conscious of these things in a way that others (however well-intentioned) might not be. I actually thought David was quite astute to question whether the "lines from the Chinese" were translation or parody--something a poet like John Yau also plays with.

I appreciate David posting his own response to the matter today, raising the question of whether he's "perpetuating this stereotype or merely making reference to it." A good question--and I do think there is a difference, and ways to mark that difference. There has to be some kind of critical distance, a position a reader can take that allows the awareness that a stereotype is being used--a self-consciousness I guess I wasn't seeing in what was admittedly one isolated sentence. And it's certainly not only non-Asian writers who get in trouble for this; Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka got in a world of trouble a few years back for her allegedly stereotypical depictions of Filipinos in her work.

In my email to David, I brought up my own discomfort with the role Asian culture and poetry seem to play in contemporary experimental writing, a legacy that goes back to modernism (Pound, etc.) and beyond. The turn to "Asia" has been extraordinarily generative, but can also rely on stereotype and on refusing to listen the actual voices of Asian writers, especially modern ones. It's doubly complicated now, when you've got Asian American writers to deal with as well, while at the same time many white writers continue their romance with Asia. I was at Naropa last summer and attended a well-meaning but somewhat surreal discussion on "diversity" at Naropa--i.e., why isn't there any? (Okay, my interpretation, not theirs.) Several speakers noted that Naropa had to do more to reach out to students of color because, frankly, the tradition Naropa is grounded in (Beat writing, Buddhism, etc.) has historically been the province of white men. But I was stunned to hear some of the same speakers argue that the problem was not as pronounced for Asian American students--Naropa ought naturally to attract them, since after all, it was a Buddhist school. Never mind that I could count the number of Asian Americans I saw there the whole time on one hand, or that many Asian Americans are not Buddhists. There was simply an assumption there that there was a natural, essential connection.

Things like that lead me to question what Asia and Asian culture really mean to American writers. Are they merely an attractive set of philosophies and elegant cultural traits, available to be appropriated at will? And what happens when those absorbed assumptions come face to face with flesh-and-blood Asians and Asian Americans, some of whom might, alarmingly enough, write too?

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