Thursday, January 27, 2005

Asian American Poets of Mixed Race - Hapas

In the introduction to Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, editor Victoria Chang points out that many poets in the anthology are of mixed race: Brenda Shaughnessy, Pimone Triplett, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Brian Komei Dempster, Paisley Rekdal, Monica Rekdal, Monica Ferrell, and C. Dale Young. From the older generation, one might add Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, John Yau, and others that escape my mind at the moment.

Chang poses the question: "What percentage of Asian ethnicity qualifies a poet as Asian-American?" (This is a challenging and interesting question.) And she answers it by asserting, "Self-identification has become the rule, rather than any arbitrary designation of a minimum percentage."

I think it is an excellent question, even if I'm skeptical of the answer. First, we must give props to Chang for raising the question in the first place: I've never come across any piece on Asian-American poetry that deals with the issue of mixed race Asian-American poets. For some reason, it has always been sort of a taboo for anyone to point out that Asian-American poets of mixed race are of mixed race.

Second, Chang's answer is problematic, because, I believe, self-identification has always been the rule in counting a poet as Asian-American. The answer implies that there has been some "arbitrary designation of a minimum percentage" by people in general (and perhaps by editors of Asian-American poetry anthologies) in the past, which is not the case, to the best of my knowledge. I've never read any scholarly works showing that the leaders of the Asian-American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s argued that Asian-Americans of mixed race aren't Asian-American and blatantly tried to exclude Asian-Americans of mixed race who wanted to self-identify as Asian-American. So if a claim that there has been an evolution towards self-designation is to be made, there needs to be some showing that self-designation was not acceptable in the past.

Of course, the larger issue is whether we want self-identification to be the rule. It is not that "self-identification has become the rule," but whether we want it to be the rule. Here I definitely agree with Chang that self-designation should be the rule. But why? Why do we believe so? We could theoretically have come up with a rule that excludes Asian-American poets of mixed race. We could call them white, if they are part-white. Plus, there are some poets of Asian-American mixed race, like Ai, who do not choose to self-identify as Asian-American. But I think that exclusion is the wrong way to go for many reasons, which may overlap:

(1) I believe in maximizing inclusivity in the classification of "Asian-American poetry," (2) I view exclusion on the basis of race with some skepticism even if it may be necessary in some contexts, (3) excluding Asian-American poets of mixed race would foreclose some wonderful possibilities for "Asian-American poetry," (4) it would be unduly harsh, arbitrary, and unfriendly to exclude Asian-American poets of mixed race, (5) inclusion of Asian-American poets of mixed race would help enrich the defining and negotiating of "Asian-American poetry."

Still, whether self-identification should be the rule is open to debate -- if self-identification is the rule, would there be any reason to stop the Yasusada hoax, for example? In other words, would there be any reason to exclude a non-Asian-American poet from "falsely" adopting an Asian-American pseudonym and/or persona and submitting to, say, the Asian Pacific American Journal for publication under that name? As readers of this blog know, methinks that is a difficult question.

I wonder if Asian American poets of mixed race encounter separate perils and privileges and how that translates into the poetry. There has been more work done on light-skinned blacks vs. dark-skinned blacks and the perils and privileges of biracalism in the African-American context, though probably not enough work there as well. But I expect the narratives to be different for Asian-Americans, if only because Asian-Americans have had a different history from African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups. The subject of Asian American poets of mixed race seems like it would make for an interesting masters thesis.


Blogger asianpepino said...

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10:33 AM  
Blogger Neil Aitken said...

This issue speaks right to me -- as a writer of mixed race I've gone through times when I've identified myself as Asian-American and other times when I have not. At the present time I choose not to claim the designation for myself -- I am more concerned about how and what I am writing than I am with where I might be located on the socio-political arena of race and ethnicity.

Do I write Asian-American poetry? Not consciously. I'm well aware of the influence that the Chinese culture and language has had on me -- but these are simply influences and not the end result. There also many Canadian, American, and European influences present in my life.

Much like a bowl of fried rice, there are many individual and distinct elements which make up my identity, but they do not define me. If anything, it is the mixing of them that defines me -- much like the way we recognize a bowl of fried rice not by its ingredients but by the fact of its mixture.

I have wondered sometimes how many mixed Asians might be missed in any potential anthology of Asian-American poetry simply by virtue of having a non-Asian sounding name. Case in point, my name is Neil Aitken -- there's not a shred of evidence in the name to suggest that I am part-Chinese. Unless there is a third party who knows and can identify that person as being of part Asian descent, what use is there in relying on name as signifier?

I also wonder if other mixed Asian writers are dealing with identity and race in a similiar fashion as me: namely in recognizing that the integration of Asian and American identities must happen not only in some larger political and racial arena, but also on a cellular level. That it is no longer possible to separate one from the other, they are so fused that there it is difficult to consciously see the pieces.

Like light sometimes manifests as a wave and sometimes as a particle -- ultimately it is the act of measurement which determines the result. If you are looking at me as an Asian-American, no doubt you will find evidence of that in my writing. If you are looking at me as white/European/American then there is also evidence of that in my work. Both simultaneous exist. There isn't a clear answer. I am defined by the indeterminancy -- by that in-betweenness.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Neil, thanks a lot for your thoughts! Yes, I actually thought of you and the poet Lee Herrick as I was completing my post.

You raise an excellent point about how an editor of Asian-American poetry, or even just a regular reader, may not identify North American Asians of mixed race as "Asian-Americans" or "Asian-Canadians" simply by virtue of their last name. On the other hand, HAPAs with Asian-sounding last names tend to be identified as such.

I think I have much more to say about this interesting topic, so I'm going to continue my thoughts in another post now...

10:54 PM  
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