Saturday, January 08, 2005

My Response to the Yasusada Hoax

In this post, I'll be addressing Kent Johnson's response, which I've just cut and pasted below, one post before this one. First, quickly I'd just like to emphasize again that I should not have ascribed authorship to "Kent Johnson," because that is still a matter of debate. I'm also really glad that Kent has decided to take part in this discussion with me.

Basically, I think that Kent Johnson and his critics are talking past each other on the question of yellowface, though their critiques are parallel in a sense. The Asian-American position critiques, among other things, the invisibility of the complexity of Asian-American poets and poetry in anthologies and other publications of power. Kent, on the other hand and among other things, critiques the conflation of poet and poetry as well as stereotypes of Japanese experiences by exposing the ease with which anthologies and other publications of power accept and publish stereotyped fictionalities.

I feel that the issue is much larger than Kent Johnson and the Yasusada hoax. The Asian-American critique basically asks the question of why so many non-Asian-American professors and scholars of poetry are interested in the exotic simplicities of "Asianness" but show almost no interest in Asian-American poets and poetry. (I want to emphasize again that there has NEVER been a book of third-person criticism done on Asian-American poets or poetry, which I find appalling. But I also want to emphasize again that I feel that Asian-American poets should reach out to these non-Asian-Americans and not demonize such scholars for racism in the hopes that it will facilitate communication and produce more complete scholarship.)

Kent actually poses the same question through his consideration of the Yasusada hoax, except that he condones the paralleling of this exotification to prove his point, which raised the ire of many critics. (It's the same, old question of whether the ends justify the means, and I've identified specifically what I believe to be a "moral violation" in an earlier post.) But putting that question aside, I would like to invite Kent, all non-Asian-American poets/readers, and all Asian-American poets/readers to more seriously consider questions of Asian-American poetry.

As Kent realizes, it is not just the issue of "Kent Johnson's" authorship. There are many fascinating issues swirling around here, issues that I probably haven't touched with this post. I am suggesting that the absence of scholarship on Asian-Americans is a much more of a racism than the Yasusada hoax.


Blogger Andrew said...

If I wasn't sure you'd done your research and can't think of any reason for you to say otherwise, I think I would have a hard time believing that no such critique/review exists.

Then I stop and think about the raving for the "exotic" that seems so persistent in American culture, and I realize that it doesn't seem all that unbelievable. If I was an acknowledged scholar, reading this post would be enough to make me do the research and write the book. As I'm not anything of the sort, it at least encourages me to do the reading. If (God forbid) in 15 years there still is no such book, perhaps I can provide. ;) But better by far if some professor somewhere reads this and is convicted in his beady little literary heart.

I wonder, Roger, if you would mind providing a Who's Who in Asian-American poetry, a kind of primer for the inexperienced. If for no other fictional reader, then at least for me. I'd like to be better read in this area, and I need to know where to start.

That's a tough question I know, but it would be a worthy cause.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew, yeah, I was surprised as well. When I was writing my undergrad thesis, I searched for about a year everywhere that came to mind and found isolated anthology intros and articles (as well as Eileen Tabios's "Black Lightning," which features Asian-American poets critiquing their own poems) but no books of third-person analysis/criticism. I blogged about it earlier under the post, "Good, Critical Readers of Asian American Poetry," and asked if anyone out there knew of any such books in case I'd missed any out there. People gave great suggestions, but the general consensus seems to be that NO book of third person critique/review of Asian-American poets or poetry have been ever been published. When you think of all the books in libraries, it's stunning, ain't it!

It'd be great if you wrote such a book. I'd certainly read it! :)

12:36 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Also, this may also be the subject of a future blog post, but long story short, I have compiled a database of about 150+ books of poetry by Asian-American poets.

I haven't quite figured out how to blog about it, though, in part because it's incomplete in two senses: (1) I compiled it when I was writing my thesis and I haven't updated, so no book published after 2002 is included, and (2) It's a list of every book of poetry that Duke Libraries DOES NOT have. So a few essential books of Asian-American poetry may be left off the list. And contrary to what this blog suggests -- I do have to make room in my life for stuff other than Asian American poetry. :) But, seriously, I'll definitely give it more thought and hopefully be able to come up with some sort of primer soon.

12:47 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

If you consider that the project to present the actual works out there of "Asian American" poets is relatively recent, it would be logical that no comprehensive compilation of third-party criticism of AA poetry would exist. Despite all the work that's been done by Asian American literary activists, certain people still spell the name of the poet with back cover photo mojo as "Lee Young Lee."

And to "crit" something implies first identifying that something. Do we all agree on what "Asian American poetry" is?

Which is not to say that such a project shouldn't be done, of course.

By the way, since I'm on, let me just wonder to you whether anyone is traveling to the site of the tsunami in order to write poems. Would that be immoral? Does that answer depend on how "good" the resulting poems are, or how valid the theoretical underpinning to such a project?


4:42 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Eileen, great questions! I'll answer the one about the tsunami in a separate blog post.

I think that the attempt at a creation of an "Asian-American" literature is at least 30 years old, if we consider Frank Chin et al.'s "Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers" (1974) to be the seminal work. (Of course, Asian Americans wrote poems as early as the 1880s and possibly before.) And I think that the first anthology of "Asian-American" poetry is Greenfield Review Press's "Breaking Silence: an Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Poets" (1983), which is over 20 years old. So I'm saying that it's about time! :)

I'd agree that we all certainly don't agree what "Asian American poetry" is. Then again, we all don't agree what is "good" or "bad" poetry, and that hasn't stopped anthologies from coming out.

I think that a book of Asian-American poetry criticism should wrestle with the question what is an "Asian-American," provide a definition of it, and then justify that definition. (Personally, I'm aiming for the most inclusive-possible definition at this point, but I can be persuaded otherwise.) Critics of the criticism may disagree with the definition, and respond/justify with their own definition, but that is fine: we could get a discussion going.

I should add, though, that I don't know of any "Asian-American literature" volume/anthology/collection that has attempted a move beyond the definition "literature written by Asian-Americans." That is not to say that things can't/won't/shouldn't change -- the move towards acceptance of HAPAs into the category of "Asian-American" is one such recent shift. I find it to be very interesting stuff.

7:14 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

I don't consider 30 years "long" but I suppose what's a "long" time is subjective.

Plus, to the extent there are problems with early AA anthologies, attempts to redress thus become even "young"-er.

There also is a diff between trying to say what "Asian American poetry" is vs what's good or bad poetry.

But enough from me on this,

11:01 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Eileen, hee hee, yeah, I suppose there's no way to settle a debate over whether 30 years is long or not.

You're right in suggesting that I was unclear about the Asian-American poetry/good vs. bad poetry analogy. It was a minor point. I just meant that even if all of us don't agree on a single definition of "Asian-American poetry," "good poetry," etc., we can still make an effort to define it, discuss it, and perhaps revise our definitions in light of discussion.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Roger,

This isn't exactly a response to this post in particular, though I suppose it's the one that pushed me over the edge from reading to writing. I find blog commenting impossible, though, so what follows is likely to be a ridiculous mess. In any case:

1) Why isn't there a work of lit crit on A-A poetry? I can think of a few variables in play here:

First, the academic book publishing market has undergone a major collapse in the past 5 years. Literally hundreds of books will never see the light of day because of cuts in university press budgets (Michigan, for instance, canceled its entire Asian Studies/Asian-American line; SUNY Press has gone from publishing 100 books a year to 60, which means that 40 books a year simply never appear). These cuts have been accompanied by an increased emphasis on producing academic books that sell; some university presses barely publish books on literature anymore. Biographies of Shakespeare sell well, of course, but books of criticism on authors for whom there isn't an established constituency have a hard time selling. If I write about Ezra Pound, well, there are a few hundred or more EP scholars out there who might buy the book, plus thousands of scholars of modernism who will think about it. Until there are enough Asian-American scholars (not to mention A-A poetry scholars, but that's another problem) to create a constituency for academic work books in the field will have a hard time getting published unless they take an Ethnic Studies or Postcolonial Studies approach, or focus on narrative authors that people have heard of (Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, etc). Only authors who are already well known (Lisa Lowe, for instance) can sell a book that deals with relatively marginal narrative authors or texts (Lowe's Immigrant Acts has a lot of stuff on Dictee, for instance).

Building a community of scholars/readers for book-length work will take longer than 30 years (or 125, if you're counting from 1880).

That said, there are hundreds of academic articles on Asian-American poetry. Steve Yao (Hamilton College), a friend of mine (some of my best friends are Asian-American!!), writes really good stuff.

2) Poetry is less important now in academic literary work than it has been for probably 600 years. Not just Asian-American poetry; all poetry. We're at the tail end of the prose narrative dominance of aesthetic work that really began sometime around the development of the novel... I say "tail end" because we have no idea how long this period will last, but of course it could be that 1000 years from now they'll be saying that we were right in the "middle period" of narrative prose. Who knows. In any case I would guess that 90 percent of the undergrad curriculum in English at most universities is devoted to prose, drama, or film, and most of that is to prose fiction (whereas 100 years ago prose fiction was just stuff you read for fun outside class).

In any case it's hard enough getting a book published these days; to get it published on poetry is damn near impossible unless you're a name, and to do it about poets (contemporary or dead) that most people haven't heard of is really outside the bounds of the imaginable. Perhaps the best solution is for a relatively famous scholar to write such a book, since s/he would be able to get it published and that might convince other publishers that such a thing was worth doing.

I wonder how many literary critical books have been published on Chicano/a/Latino/a Poetry? On African-American poetry? Probably not that many.

3) But this gets me to my next point: part of this is particular to the Asian-American situation, and it has to do w/ the interesting/strange status of Asian-Americans in the American imagination (especially East Asians). This next bit is totally foreshortened and not nuanced enough but here's part of why that is: I think that it's easier for most Americans (not just white Americans, most Americans of all races) and indeed most Westerners to become interested in things (literature among them) that seem to them to be directly or indirectly connected to notions of the Western self (or: most people are interested themselves). And that "self," I think, is constituted in the current imaginary not only by the "home" culture (Euro-America, whatever), but also by those nations/cultures/ethnicities that have been explicit subjects of Euro-American domination through colonialism/imperialism: Africa (and African Americans), south Asia (given the British history), southeast Asia (but less so, b/c mainly the Dutch and French had colonies there, and I'm talking about the Anglo-American context), and Latin America (b/c there was the exploitation/genocide of native people, plus the standard imperialist history of revolution, etc, not to mention immigration to the US).

And EVEN THOUGH many of these things are true of East Asia (that is, Western imperialism happened in East Asia, militarily and economically, plus there's the exploitation of Asian labor in the history of the US, immigrant acts, internment camps, etc) in all kinds of ways something about East Asia keeps most Westerners from exactly recognizing "them" as part of "us"; for reasons that I spend a lot of time writing about but can't be sure I totally understand, East Asians somehow are understood to be extraneous to a complete self-understanding of the West by the West.

I'm getting tired. That last paragraph doesn't really even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Let me try one more time: It makes sense to most Americans (of all races) to read about African-Americans b/c they recognize a (political, economic) complicity between their own identities and those of African-Americans, between their narratives and those of African-Americans (and when I say "their" I include African-Americans there: that is, that it also makes sense to most African-Americans to think of themselves as African-Americans and to be interested in literary works that speak to African-American experiences). But in the case of Asian-Americans, especially East Asians, that same connection isn't made. Because that form of racism occasionally "benefits" Asian-Americans (who get to, for instance, be treated as though they have no visible race, which is to say they get to be treated as "white"), it doesn't register in the same way that racism directed against African-Americans does. But of course it's just as racist. And trickier, b/c it's harder to see.

Anyway--all that above as a way of explaining why I think that there's no literary critical book on Asian American poetry.

OK, last thing, about Yasusada: There's more to _Doubled Flowering_ than the fact of the hoax; as Kent points out, it was clearly designed to be discovered as a fiction. But the fact of the hoax is so distracting that it keeps people from reading the poetry. This is an ironic reversal of what Rey Chow calls "coercive mimeticism," which is her term for the way in which ethnic writers (all ethnic writers) are forced by the current world-system to consistently give voice to their own ethnic identity (so that African Americans must always speak *as* African Americans, etc). With Yasusada, what the book ends up "mimicking" is the fact of the hoax itself. But just as insisting that Anchee Min's novels teach us about the reality of the "Chinese immigrant experience" invovles a certain kind of NOT reading Anchee Min's actual words (because it closes off the right of the text to speak to something other than the ethnic origin of its author), the insistence on Yasusada as hoax is a convenient way for most people who talk about the project (and calling it "Yasusada" is part of the problem, since the hoax author's last name is Araki in any case) to actually not have to read or deal seriously with the poetry. You can't read the poetry without thinking of the hoax, of course, but the hoax is not the alpha and omega of the text; otherwise, why should there be a text at all?

This has gone on forever. Sorry for taking up all your time, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to think through these ideas.

Best regards,

Eric H

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One last p.s.:

Yunte Huang's _Transpacific Displacement_ has, I think, two chapters on Asian-American poetry (one on English translations of Chinese poetry, and one or two on the Pound/Fenollosa/Lowell triangle), which is better, I suppose, than nothing. And I hear that his next book has a chapter on Araki Yasusada...

Also, I'm fairly sure there's a book in the works that collects essays on Araki Yasusada... leading to the possibly astonishing irony that the first book devoted fully to "Asian-American" poetry will be on an author whose status as Asian-American is completely up in the air. That fact would allegorize in a fairly devastating way the drama of Asian-American racial invisibility.

-- EH

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Blogger Dave said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah... Would it be safe to condense the matter to the problem of publishers'/editors' failure to grasp non-Euro-American sensibilities and, instead, looking for a form of "exotic" that is akin to what Edward Said spoke of as "Orientalism"? Meanwhile, Asian-Americans (except for the brave, though generally MIA, few) view the whole endeavor as a zero-sum gain: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's kind of like why no one sees Asian-Americans in Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, my hopes lie with the Buddha Bandits, who will be recognized for their quiet work--a work as quiet as the Zen monks' spreading of literacy under the nose of the shoguns.

11:37 PM  

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