Monday, January 24, 2005

The Arab-American Question

When "we" say Asian-American poets, "we" are clearly NOT referring to Arab-American poets. By "we," I am referring to myself, anyone who has ever edited an Asian-American poetry anthology, and anyone who has ever talked about Asian-American poetry (to the best of my knowledge). No one ever says flat-out that Arab-Americans are NOT Asian-Americans, but the exclusion of the former from the discussion implictly makes this claim.

But, of course, "we" may very well be wrong. Why are Arab-American poets NOT Asian-American poets? Why are Jewish-American poets NOT Asian-American poets?

Maybe it has something to do with race. But South Asian American poets and Asian Pacific American poets clearly differ in skin color, and yet "we" typically view both as Asian American poets.

Maybe it has something to do with world geography. The Middle East is much closer to Europe than say, India or China. If it is geography, one might ask where to draw the line between Asia and not-Asia to determine the line between Asian America and not-Asian America as well as Asian American poetry and not-Asian American poetry.

Should poets of Middle East descent be considered as Asian-American poets, say, when an editor puts together an anthology on Asian American poetry, or when a magazine decides to do a special issue on "Asian-American poetry"? Maybe there aren't a lot of Arab-American poets being published, but there certainly are a lot of Asian-American poets? But do Asian-American poetry anthologies amount to a sort of affirmative action for Asian-American poets, or is there something else at stake? Difficult questions.


Blogger A.R.B. said...

Dear Roger,

You raise good issues about group-mindedness. What defines a group? The immediacy of blogging—part of its beauty—is that it doesn’t allow for pedantic-researched questions and answers, but rather immediate discussible ideas. Trying to encompass “Asians” as a group is in my mind—most respectfully—absurd. In fact, I think it leads to a contrary effect / result. Is having slanted eyes what identifies you as Asian? That may be true for the ignorant. But what does a Filipino have in common with the Chinese? What does a Romanian have in common with a Spaniard? What makes people and culture great is people’s differences, their uniqueness. “Peoples”, not Asians or Europeans or Africans. In fact, and this would take some thinking through, what probably defines a people over everything else is their common language. It is language. The mother tongue. What do conquerors do when they conquer? They instill their language and try to eliminate the mother tongue. It is the power of the word that unites; human feeling is expressed in words, in language. It is our greatest asset. What separates us from the beats. When I was a child growing up in totalitarian Spain I used to be hit in school for speaking in Galician, my mother tongue, because the government policy was to force all to speak the same language, under the guise of creating a greater, national patriotic unity, beyond regional feeling, concerns, and the mother tongue. When they succeed, they simply take over.

Grouping Asian Americans as a whole may have many benefits: Piaget categorization: this is a square and so it must be a box; this is a circle, so it must be a ball. Human characteristics are much more complex and thankfully a lot richer. Grouping does a lot of things—many needed and required—but in poetry I think it furthers little. And, yes, it may serve as poetic affirmative action. And that worries me.


3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had when teaching English in Japan (I'm neither Asian nor American, btw). The word 'Asian' came up in the lesson, and I casually mentioned that, if you see the word used to describe someone in the UK press, it's usually understood to mean Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi - just for demographic reasons - whereas if I saw it in a US paper, I would tend to assume it meant Chinese/Japanese/Korean. He looked a bit startled, and told me that, in Japan, 'Asian' would not include Indians; just the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.

If you put together an anthology of 'Asian-American' poets, you are presumably asserting that there is something sufficiently different about Asian-American poetry that it serves as a reason for presenting it separately. One problem, in that case, is that 'Arab' is not exclusively (or even predominantly?) an Asian identity - as the people of Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and Zanzibar could all tell you.

And do Arabs regard themselves as 'Asian'? I don't know. The problem is that cultural blocs don't necessarily overlap with geographical entities. Would a Moroccan-American get his poems into an anthology of African-American poetry? That's an honest question, btw, to which I don't know the answer, as anthologies of African-American poetry aren't big sellers in British bookshops.

Harry R
The Poetry Place

3:53 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Alberto, yes, I share your concerns, which is partly why I proposed an alternative definition in my "What is Asian-American Poetry?" series of posts which defines Asian-American poetry as "poetry about Asian-Americans." Just a possibility to consider.

I called it a "radical definition," because no editor of any "Asian-American" poetry anthology, to the best of my knowledge, used this definition. The Asian American Poetry: Next Generation anthology adopts almost the opposite approach -- all the poems in this anthology are written by Asian-American poets, but many of the poems have nothing to do with "Asian-American issues."

Of course, I also noted, and still believe that it's important, that neither "poetry written by Asian-Americans" nor "poetry about Asian Americans" are simple definitions.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by the power of the word uniting. Are you saying that it's good or bad that you were hit for speaking Galican in school? I would answer bad, and I would agree with you that conquerors try to eliminate the mother tongue.

I don't think that language necessarily unites. There are so many different languages in the world. Even in the same language, there are many different dialects. In the same dialect, there are different accents. Class often plays a role in influencing speech and people's way of speaking, some would argue so does race, geography, and gender. But I think it's ok that language doesn't unite, because diversity helps make the world exciting.

And yes, I think that the medium of the blog is wonderful for these types of discussions!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Harry, thanks a lot for posting! Some nice observations. Yes, I've studied some British politics, and I know what you're talking about there with the idea of "Asian" in the US vs. "Asian" in Great Britain.

As I speculated in an earlier post, I do wonder where Asia begins/ends as well as where Europe begins/ends and where Africa begins/ends. You're right to suggest that "Arab-American" like "Asian-American" is a very complicated term that encompasses many different ethnicities and even races, and I agree with you that cultural blocs do not necessarily overlap with geographical blocs.

I should note here that one thing that would be interesting, for me at least, would be to read an African-American, a Latino-American, a feminist poetry blog, etc. analogous to this Asian-American blog. I think that the issues discusses here are separate but perhaps overlapping, though that's just speculation on my part at this point.

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7:47 PM  

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