Friday, May 02, 2003

Spent some time working this afternoon in the Emory Lee papers, a great collection of Asian American materials from the past 30 years donated to the Stanford library by an alum. Lee seems to have collected copies of every ephemeral journal, report, flyer, and newsletter published by Asian Americans since 1970. The materials haven't been fully cataloged and so are lying around in huge boxes relatively unsorted, so going through them is a bit of a treasure hunt.

I'm basically opening up journals and newspapers from the 1970s and scouring them for poems, trying to get a better sense of what Asian American poetry looked like in the earliest days of the Asian American movement. While that category may have ossified somewhat today, things were a lot more fluid in the 1970s; very few of the Asian American poets we read today were writing then, and the poets who were writing are pretty much unknown today (Janice Mirikitani and Lawson Fusao Inada are among the few exceptions).

It's a lot of drudgery, but the occasional gems make it worth it. I found a remarkable, anonymous poem in a 1978 anthology from a Chinatown youth program, which seems to have drawn heavily on interviews with older Chinese Americans. Here's an excerpt:

my mother told me dragon
is Chinese spirits and dragon is
gold and every New Year they have
a big long gold dragon
dancing on the streets of Chinatown
and the dragon is running around at
the street and I like to watch
when the dragon is dancing on the
street and they have a lot of
people under the dragon
to make the dragon dancing so
the dragon don’t stop on the
street and they have some stick under
the dragon and make the dragon
dancing and only Chinese New Year
they have dragon dancing so the
dragon belong to the Chinese and every
New Year Chinese have a new spirits
to every Chinese people because
the dragon is belong to our Chinese
people dragon is like Chinese they
have spirits to the people

It's hard to say why this really gets to me; if it weren't a poem, it might well be a relatively undistinguished snippet of oral history. But broken up the way it is, it's close enough to reported speech to have the vitality of a genuine voice, while just far enough from speech to be estranging and weird. It's a great approach to one problem of writing about Asian Americans, which is how to portray the distinctive speech patterns of, say, a Chinese immigrant without parody or condescension. The speech seems to be given pretty much straight--and without comic exaggeration, as even Asian American writers are wont to do--and the grammatical structures are consistent throughout. And the limited, repeated material isn't really repeated at all--there's subtle shifting going on, as from "the dragon belong to the Chinese" to "the dragon belong to *our* Chinese," which is a tremendously simple but powerful localizing of identity.

But the line breaks may be the best--they are so unnatural, so counter to the rhythms of speech, that they force our attention to the language, how crafted and brilliant it is in its divergence from "correct" English grammar; what might have seemed naive becomes utterly lived and knowing.

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