Thursday, March 06, 2014

On the Poetry Foundation's "Asian American Voices in Poetry"

This letter was originally sent to the Poetry Foundation's web editors in response to their feature "Asian American Voices in Poetry," which includes a list of some 100 Asian American poets.  When originally posted, the list included a "country of heritage" for most of the authors.  In response to this letter and other feedback received by the editors, the "countries of heritage" have since been removed.

Dear Editors,

I want to begin by thanking you for posting "Asian American Voices in Poetry." This is a wonderful and even groundbreaking recognition of the large, vital, growing community of Asian American poets, and I'm delighted to be included alongside so many other great writers. I'm particularly impressed by the work of not just listing these authors but of creating bios for each of them--a tremendously important contribution, given that little information about many of these writers, even the established ones, is available online.

I do want to raise one significant concern about this feature. I find the decision to list the "country of heritage" for each author troubling. I acknowledge the good intentions behind this choice, but I fear, as others have pointed out, that it reinforces the image of the Asian American as perpetual foreigner. I was not born in China, so to see myself listed as "Timothy Yu, China" is a rather alienating experience, one that makes a curious statement about my identity and my work. What does it mean for me to be labeled "China"? Does it mean that I have more in common with others on the list who share the label "China" than with those who have other labels?

There is a significant difference, I would suggest, between labeling me "China" and calling me, say, a Chinese American. Asian Americans in particular have often struggled to be recognized as Americans at all; as several others have pointed out, your feature on Latina/o writers, in contrast, does not list each writer's "country of heritage." The corresponding claim that Asian American writers "emerge out of a broad range of Eastern influences" risks exoticizing Asian American writers, since it assumes that all of us feature some kind of "Eastern" element in our work.

Many authors on this list may simply view themselves as Americans. Others, like myself, may identify more strongly with a community of other Asian Americans--a pan-ethnic, politically defined category that is defined more by links and connections in the present, or by US histories of race and racism, than by evocations of some ancestral past.

I would urge you to strengthen this feature by removing the "countries of heritage" entirely. If you choose not to remove these labels, I respectfully request that my country be changed to "Asian America."

Timothy Yu