Saturday, February 05, 2005

Comments on Asian-American Poetry and the Yasusada Hoax

I was just going through my archives and noticed that I missed some very interesting comments from an "Eric H" a while back. I think I know who it is (how many Eric H's know this much about Asian-American poetry?!), but I won't speculate. Anyhow, I'm hoping that he is still reading this blog, since they are thorough, informative, and quite wonderful. I'll post them here and will probably respond in the next post:

"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.

Eric H."

"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.

Eric H."

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