Monday, May 29, 2006

Reviews, Resurrected (II)

Thanks to Ron Silliman for pointing to my review of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation--although it is a bit disturbing to think that this is the best available picture of me.

It's always illuminating to hear someone else summarizing your argument, which often brings out things that you may not have noticed yourself. Silliman's pithy precis defines the three "generations" of Asian American poets quite nicely along the lines of politics. I had also hoped to emphasize that I saw some degree of continuity between the "politicized & populist" poets of the 1970s and younger "post-avant" writers (with the implication that it was the "lyric" turn of the 1980s that could be viewed as anomalous in the history of Asian American poetry). But that's certainly a debatable point.

Thanks also to csperez for pointing (in Silliman's comment box) to the discussion that's been going on here and elsewhere. I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to respond more fully to the thoughtful comments by him and by Pam Lu, in part because I've been away the past few days (on which more to come). But I'll try a quick stab at answering now.

Both commenters raise the question of whether perhaps the anthology does represent some sociological "truth" about Asian Americans: as Pam puts it, maybe the anthology's "dehistoricized, deculturalized, uncritically-examined perspectives do actually reflect the perspectives of a (growing) sector of the population."

It's difficult for me to assess this as a sociological claim. It's certainly true that one hears Asian American activists complaining all the time about the problems of politicizing Asian Americans, and perhaps some might see this as a decline from the activist days of the 1970s. But is the Asian American population in general less politically engaged and less historically aware than it was three decades ago? My guess would be no: a generation of students has gone through American colleges with at least the opportunity to study Asian American history, literature, and politics, and Asian American student organizations remain robust (if rarely politically radical).

But I think Pam may be right in another sense, in that there are now a multitude of models for how one might be an "Asian American writer." To claim that label in the 1970s meant a rather particular thing, both politically and aesthetically--which also rather excluded one from "mainstream" acceptance. But the "breakthrough" success in the late '70s and 1980s of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Cathy Song made it quite possible to be both an Asian American writer and a "mainstream" one--or, better yet, to be a writer who "just happens to be" Asian American.

For me, The Open Boat plays out the political and aesthetic logic of this moment. But what I don't think I'd realized in my past readings of Garrett Hongo's anthology was how pointed Hongo's dissent from the aesthetic/political conjunction of the 1970s was. To take up Silliman's characterization, Hongo's stance is probably not apolitical but purposefully anti-political, a reaction against "ethnic consciousness" dogma. But that resistance, at least, was still a kind of engagement, a conscious departure from a certain norm; an ironic awareness of ethnic politics is still a form of awareness.

But what happens when one places into the category of "Asian American writer" those who do not see their work in those terms at all? What Chang's anthology seems to argue is that it is now possible not to allude to the tradition of Asian American writing in form, content, or intention, and yet still to be called an Asian American writer. In short, that there is now a completely dehistoricized and decontextualized way of being an "Asian American poet," and indeed to be a highly successful one. To make this point even more contentiously: it may be precisely that success itself (measured in terms of fellowships, publications, and teaching positions) is the gold standard of acceptance into the category of Asian American poet. The Asian American poet thus becomes the model minority.

Finally, the question has been raised of what an ideal anthology of Asian American poetry really would look like. It's interesting that Silliman read me to be saying that such an anthology would essentially be Premonitions redux. That's perhaps what I would like to have said, or perhaps should have said were I a more loyal post-avanter. What I actually said was
The new, truly comprehensive anthology of Asian American poetry that is needed now would draw generously from both the 1980s lyric represented in Hongo’s Open Boat and the avant-garde work of the 1970s and 1990s featured in Premonitions, offering notes and introductions that place both aesthetics in historical and literary context. But it would also offer a much longer historical perspective on Asian American poetry...It would place this work alongside poems by younger writers who represent some of the newest Asian American immigrant groups, while using three decades of experience by teachers of Asian American writing to help measure what poems have been most useful in the classroom. Such an anthology--ideally a collaboration between critics and poets--would provide an invaluable introduction to Asian American poetry for general readers, while providing the depth students, scholars, and writers need.
That's the anthology that, to me, would seem the most useful--one I could use in my own classroom, but that I'd also love to read.


Jen said...

What a fantastic vision of the Ideal Anthology!

I wonder though, if the assemblage of an "anthology" can become less an act of documentation (i.e., let's plunder & select from existing materials), but rather, more of a stimulus to create a community that promotes new writing -- especially, among Asian Americans far from the pretty skirts of "model minority". It's active outreach -- empowering people to write, rather than a creating a museum piece.

In addition, this "anthology-as-a process-of-writing" could serve as a knowledge base for future writing in the anthology. Thus, we'd create a space where intentional, palpable dialogue can occur between the pages -- a conscious continuity between the historical and the present. If there really is any prevailing deculturalization and dehistorization among Asian Americans -- it can be easily detected, critically examined and creatively addressed.

[An aside: I marvel at POM^2( ) as a dynamic ecosystem, where reading previous work is imperative to writing new pieces. It not only sustains itself, but also expands and diversifies automatically. Could this model be incorporated somehow?]

I'm not a poet, so of course, I love it if the "Ideal Anthology Project" could be open to Asian American artists in a variety of fields. If we're creating a utopia, why compromise?

Thank you Tim and Pam and everyone, for inciting this provocative discussion.


Jen said...

Sorry if I'm running amok with your idea, but I'm trying to figure out how to break the syllogism of "Successful and Asian American, therefore Model Minority"....

How do we develop the un-Model Asian American Anthology?

Perhaps it is an Anthology of multiple languages. The target audience is pan-generational Asian Americans. If any language is to be objectified, perhaps it is not as much the Asian languages, but the English language itself. Translations of each piece of writing will be in multiple languages. This way, perhaps we circumvent any whiff of linguistic superiority or imperialism. How wonderful it would be for say, an old Chinese American grandparent to read something by a young Korean American! Or for an Indian American to read something in Tagalog! I believe writers CAN adjust to audience -- it's a matter of facilitating the connection.

It's sort of a chicken-egg thing. If it's the classrooms that need anthologies, then anthologies are made for classrooms. We hope that writers aren't writing for classrooms, and that writing can be created without an eye on the White Man. But for the next couple of years, the "Model Minority Asian Americans" will probably still predominate, and English will probably be the default accepted language of Asian Americans -- unless serious grassroots action and field research occurs.

I don't know if anyone can de-program oneself to NOT achieve or succeed. The best we can do is to allow others to achieve too, so that we can spread the burden of representation.

Is it possible for an Asian American to NOT be a Model Minority? If so, how? Where is the brink of total assimilation? Where does the "Asian American" cease and the "non-Asian American" or "American" begin? How do mixed-race people respond? And mixed-generational? Is it really a matter of ethnicity? I am also very intrigued by your idea of "The Last Generation".

And, I wonder: how does the Asian American working in a postmodern context relate to these questions? Is it an active rejection of being "Asian American", or a more specific exploration of the Asian American? In 2006, is it assimilation, or rebellion? Do questions like these remain academic, or can they propel artists to forage among new grounds?

Obviously, I am still overflowing with question marks....

But thanks again for stimulating the discussion.