Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What Is Asian-American Poetry?

What is Asian-American poetry? Is it an acorn, a unicorn, a kumquat, an ostrich, an orangutan, a pizza roll, etc.? Perhaps...I titled this blog "Asian-American Poetry," but I really have no idea what that means, or rather, I have many different ideas that toss around in my head whenever I take a shower, do my laundry, or buy croissants at the local dougnut shop.

I think that the conventional definition of Asian-American poetry is "poetry written by Asian-American poets." IMHO, this definition, if we are to accept it, solves very little. For who are we including here in the category of "Asian-American" -- Asian-Americans born in the US? American citizens of Asian descent? Asian people who live in America? HAPAs? Asian-American quadroons and octoroons? Asian-American citizen-dissidents in Asia? Asian-American citizen-dissidents across the world? Asian-Americans adopted by non-Asian-American couples? the adoptive parents of an Asian-American child? people with Asian-American names? self-hating Asian-Americans?

The list could go on, at least for a little while longer. But basically, the term "Asian-American," as usually applied, is a racial/ethnic category that excludes people who lack Asian blood. Or is it? It could also be a political category with some basis in real life. I've read my fair share of Vincent Chin poems and narratives to know that he was not murdered for being Latino.

I propose a competing definition, though I'm not sure whether it is better or worse: Asian-American poetry is "poetry about Asian-Americans." This definition, if we are to accept it, has its own issues. For one thing, it excludes a lot of poetry. Asian-American poets would not necessarily be writing Asian-American poetry. The poems would have to be "about Asian-Americans."

A related issue is that the term "about Asian-Americans" has its own ambiguities. Here we would be forced to distinguish poems being about Asian-Americans from poems NOT being about Asian-Americans. Are immigration, assimilation, racism, food, generation gaps, etc. the only Asian-American issues? Are we even talking about Asian-American issues at all, or are we talking about Asian-Americans narrators and characters in the poetry? What is an Asian-American "issue"? The question of who is an Asian-American would re-emerge in the form of questioning the identities of the narrators and characters of the poetry.

Plus, we haven't even reached the question of ethnicities within the category of "Asian-American." Is there even a category of "Asian-American" poetry as opposed to there merely being discrete categories of Asian ethnic poetry -- Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese, etc.? Actually, I know of very few poems about more than one Asian ethnicity at once, which makes me wonder whether the acceptance of the category of "Asian-American" poetry might just be a political move for inclusiveness and power and for greater legitimacy in the Census-ish categories formed by non-Asian-Americans.

I do not think that there are easy answers, and I'm sure that there are more defintions out there. But I think these questions are important ones that are not often asked enough, especially in editors' introductions of Asian-American poetry anthologies, where one would imagine that they would receive more attention.


Blogger barbara jane said...

hi roger, i just found yr blog via shin yu pai's. so i am interested in what you have written here:

"which makes me wonder whether the acceptance of the category of "Asian-American" poetry might just be a political move for inclusiveness and power and for greater legitimacy in the Census-ish categories formed by non-Asian-Americans."

i think at this point i tend to agree with you and am starting to wonder whether trying to pin down a definition is even a productive or helpful thing to do and that pinning it down would really only lock it into a static state. i feel this has and is already occurring in the academic and publishing worlds, to the detriment of all, writers and readers and "community" alike.

i think i might blog about this further since what i've just written feels totally incomplete ... and i'll definitely link your blog to mine. peace, barbara jane reyes

12:30 PM  
Blogger Grace Wing-Yuan Toy said...


I find your blog via Shin Yu Pai, and am highly interested in what you have to say. I'm a second/third generation Chinese American poet based in New Jersey.

One thing, that deeeply troubles me however is when you refer to "Asian-American quadroons and octoroons" in the second paragraph. Surely, you know the history of those words in originally pertaining to African Americans, and more limited means, to other people of mixed descent...? I hope you meant to put that in quotes...

9:23 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, thanks for visiting and posting! I think that the use of the term, "Asian-American poetry," definitely has its positives and negatives. (It is a big issue, so I'll just address the need for "Asian-American poetry" in colleges/universities in this response.)

IMHO, I think that the category is still needed to advance Asian-American studies at many different universities. For example, at Duke, despite Asian-Americans being the largest minority at 17.0% (Class of 2008), there is still NO Asian-American studies program. Outside of NY, CA, and a few other places, I think that the lack of Asian-American studies programs is not an unusual phenomenon.

It's not just a lack of Asian-American studies, but a lack of classes on Asian-American authors and a lack of professors with an expertise in Asian-American literature/poetry. This lack of professors well-versed in Asian-American poetry is personal to me, because when I was an undergrad, I had no to turn to when I was writing my thesis or when I wanted to pursue this field in-depth. While a lot of professors were nice and helpful to me, and I still consider some of them good friends, none of them knew much about Asian-American literature/poetry. (After I graduated, the Duke English Department has since hired Sean Metzger, who teaches classes in Asian-American lierature and drama.)

Sorry, I'm starting to ramble here :), so I'll wrap up. I think that, if we have "Chinese-American poetry," "Korean-American poetry," "Filipino-American poetry," etc. as opposed to "Asian-American poetry," then we risk excluding other ethnicities. Plus, even these categories are artifacts, to a certain extent, because there are ethnic, geographical, and linguistic diversities within many of these ethnicities.

I think I've said this before, but I want to say that it is not an easy issue :), but I find it fascinating and worth further discussion.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Grace Wing-Yuan Toy said...

I meant, surely you meant to put that into quotations?

10:56 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Grace, thanks for your comment as well. Yes, I meant it to be tongue-in-cheek, so "quadroons and octoroons" would probably have worked better in quotes.

More importantly, your question makes me wonder, what do we call people who are 1/4 or 1/8 Asian-American? Hapa, coming from the Hawaiian word for half, seems an imprecise designation to me. Then again, quadroon and octoroon were never biologically precise terms either but had more to do with skin color.

I think that scholars in Asian-American studies could do more in terms of looking at the construction of biracialism, multiracialism, and skin color among Asian-Americans, as scholars in African-American studies have done. It's just a guess here, but I think that Asian-American narratives will "look different from" (no pun intended) African-American narratives in this respect.

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