Sunday, January 02, 2005

On Authenticity

In this post, I want to explore the idea of non-Asian-American poets writing under Asian-American pseudonyms and revisit the Yasusada hoax. To try to sum it up in one sentence, the Yasusada hoax, a.k.a, the Hiroshima poetry hoax, was a hoax allegedly perpetrated by a non-Asian-American poet named Kent Johnson who wrote many surrealistic poems about the bombing under the pen name of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada, which were published in numerous prestigious publications over a series of years before the hoax was revealed as such in 1997. (If you Google, you'll find a lot more info. Edit: It's come to my attention that Kent Johnson officially still maintains that he was not the author of the poems; I've attempted to edit to reflect this information.)

In the late 1990s. it sparked a series of intense discussions on authenticity, morality in art/poetry, Orientalism, racism, etc., but since then, it has sadly received far less attention. Now that we can stand a little further back from the shock of it all, I have three preliminary observations:

1. Most basically, my characterization of Johnson's alleged authorship as a "hoax" is already a political move. If I had called it a "brilliant act of ventriloquism," then you would might be feeling different about it by now. But I haven't.

2. I haven't, because I myself am making the political move of condemning the act as morally irresponsible. But why? I'm not sure, but I want to critically wrestle with the complexity here. I think that what may do it for me is the portrayal of Yasusada as a "Hiroshima survivor." I think of it as a moral violation. But what do I mean by "moral violation"? If it is a moral violation, don't poets commit moral violations all the time when they assume different voices and skew different events to their own warped visions, or in other words, use their imaginations? I think that the moral violation here most fundamentally lies in the author's portrayal of extreme, collective suffering on his own person without actually having suffered it himself or felt the suffering of those close to him. (Law folks will know that I'm coming close to creating a strict liability rule here.)

3. You'll notice that I omitted yellowface from my characterization of the "hoax" as a "moral violation." So am I cutting out racism altogether?! No. But I'm undecided at this point. Let's say that Johnson just wrote under the name of Yasusada -- without characterizing himself as a Hiroshima survivor. First, how would the reader even know it was a hoax? After all, Yasusada wrote for years without an Asian-American poet or reader of poetry exclaiming aha! Second, assuming that we know it's a hoax, should the yellowface be condemned as racism? This is a harder question. But we must confront the question of whether Asian-American poets have already assumed "whiteface" by writing in English, talking about a white-dominated America, and most critically, as the Next Generation anthology reveals, many Asian-American poets have dropped the consciousness of racial duality from their poetic vocabulary and their poems have essentially assimilated into whiteness. Or have they? And what is "whiteness"? If we are presuming "yellowface" and "Orientalism," shouldn't we also presume "whiteness"?

So if John Chang chooses to write as John Locke, is that an equivalent crime? Should Asian-American poets have the privilege of adopting non-Asian-American pseudonymns, or are cross-racial pseudonymns totally off-base? What about Asian-American poets, like Lee Herrick, who do not have Asian-American last names? Is it just the name of the poet, or are we looking at the person of the poet herself or himself, and why are we even looking at the poet in the first place when we should be focused on the poem? Or should we be focused on the poem? Poet or poem or some combination?

But I'm drifting here. Basically, I'm trying to pinpoint where Kent Johnson went wrong, if he was the author and went wrong at all. In retrospect, after the hoax was revealed as such, Asian-American poets of all stripes identified the poetry as "Other"-ing and racist. But I want to get real here. I've read a few of the poems. They're surrealist and abstract. If you didn't tell me that Kent Johnson was not Araki Yasusada, I would probably not have been able to be certain that this poet was not Asian or Asian-American. I can definitely understand the critiques of the poetry as stereotyping Asians as deferential and otherwise negatively, but it is not inconceivable that an Asian or Asian-American poet would write such poems that perpetuate such stereotypes. Another interesting question would be how we would feel if a Chinese-American poet perpetrated the Yasusada hoax? Or how about a Japanese-American poet who is just "imagining" that she or he lived through Hiroshima? What if the Japanese-American poet had relatives who lived through it, what if he or she didn't? What if the poems were authored by a Japanese poet who had never been to Hiroshima? It's a difficult but fascinating dilemma.

Don't worry, I've got more to say, folks. :) There are many issues here that I haven't touched yet, but I'm trying to keep my New Year's Resolution, and I know my word count is edging upwards. Again, please feel free to e-mail your thoughts or comment here.


Blogger barbara jane said...

hi roger, thank you for blogging on the yasusada hoax. i'm interested in yr questions here, particularly re: whether it would be OK if it were an asian american who'd created the hoax in the 1st place. i've just blogged about this, but am sure i have more to say about doubled flowering, because it does make me think not just of the obvious problematic appropriation and orientalism, but also of what asian am poets do, how we perform ethnicity to affect authenticity ... more on this soon. peace, barbara

4:20 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Barbara, Yes, I think that the Yasusada hoax is just one example of a larger, more important debate over the performance of ethnicity to affect authenticity, as you eloquently put it.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Below is a fascinating and much welcomed response from Kent Johnson, which he graciously asked if I wanted to appear here and also appears on Barbara's blog


Barbara Jane (and Roger),

I've recently read your posts on Doubled Flowering with interest. Both commentaries, I think, are excellent additions to the ongoing
discussion--which by the way, Roger, has actually deepened and actively continued since the initial, more "journalistic" responses. There is a
book of essays in preparation, in fact, which will gather old materials and new ones, and perhaps you'd like to submit something to the
editors. I'll put you in touch if you are interested.

I do think, though (your unproblematic attribution of the work to "Kent Johnson" aside, which has become a "fact" only because of its insistent repetition) that both of you are missing something crucial to any consideration of the work and its larger "effects," and I thought it would be worthwhile to mention what that is: Doubled Flowering, as opposed to standard, "straight" hoaxes, never attempted to hide its fictionality, and the naked clues about its fictional status are everywhere in the work (a number of these have been mentioned by
various critics; numerous other fairly obvious ones are still waiting to be found). In other words, Yasusada openly exposes his nature from the
beginning... what makes Motokiyu's "dissimulation" more novel and
challenging is that his fiction moves out to encompass the paratextual codes readers have grown accustomed to taking for granted--codes that
are ideologically and institutionally loaded with all sorts of interesting stuff. It's this fact, what Brian McHale has called the "mock hoaxness" of Yasusada, that forces the issues involved into
territory that moves beyond the early simplistic charges leveled against the writing. And growing numbers of critical considerations are doing
just that. (One you may wish to check out will be in this months PMLA, should you care to see that. As well, a follow up volume to Yasusada, published this spring by Combo Press, will carry an afterword by aprominent Asian-American critic whose relatives are hibakusha. He recently published two essays on Yasusada in Japan's leading journal of literature and gave a keynote address last August to the National Institute of Literature in Tokyo. I think you will certainly find his remarks of interest.)

In any case, I found your comments thought-provoking and fruitful to the unfolding debate, and I wanted to let you know that.


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