Thursday, November 24, 2005

Guest Blogger: Melvin Wong the Cantaloupe

(Editor's Note: Melvin e-mailed me from his Blackberry yesterday and asked if he could respond to my two most recent posts on Ghettoization. I have given him permission to respond here. - Roger)

I would like to thank Roger Pao for giving me the chance to make this post on his blog. While Pao and I did indeed have such a conversation last week at Kroger's, his posts contain a number of glaring mischaracterizations, omissions, and flat-out incorrect assertions, which I would like to correct here.

First, as a minor matter, Although, Although ($14.95, Hirsute Begonias Press) came out in February 1996, not 1995, as Pao indicated in one of his previous posts. Also, my daughter was in the fifth grade, not the third grade, when she played the role of Lavinia in Mr. O'Neill's play.

Second, for the purposes of this post, I will be assuming a priori that I am a cantaloupe, even though I believe that such distinctions are meaningless.

Third, I was indeed penning a sestina -- I was finishing the fifth stanza -- when Pao tapped my rind with his knuckles. Forced to stop my work in the middle of the poem, just as I had finished the brilliant line, "Mastadon masters emasculated the massuesse on Christmas morning," I came out to tell Pao to stop thumping me. Theoretically, I can comprehend the act of thumping vis-a-vis watermelons, but I do not understand why so many customers operate under the illusion that they would learn anything by thumping cantaloupes. We are not united by our differences. All of us are orange inside.

Fourth, I want to discuss the problem of reverse discrimination, which I believe has infiltrated the poetry establishment as well as Pao's last two posts. These posts portrays me as weepy, angry, and emotionally unstable. If I was a member of a "protected" minority group -- a homosexual, African-American, or the like -- I believe that no one would have dared to paint such a blantly officious portrait. Because I am an "Asian-American" and a "cantaloupe," these posts take liberties that might not otherwise have been taken.

Fifth, Pao dunked me in baking soda, not flour. Just to set the record straight: I am neither Taiwanese nor homosexual.

Finally, I may be wrong here, but I think that Emily Dickinson once wrote in one of her letters to Carlos Bulosan, "The category of cantaloupe is an affront to human dignity. When shall we be free of the chains that bind?" Though now appropriated by Adrienne Rich and others in the radical, faux-deconstructionist left, Dickinson was obviously saying that affirmative action hurts the cantaloupes that it tries to help. For example, people ask me all the time -- how do you procreate when you are a sphere and nothing else? Well, if you abolished affirmative action, I would not have to face these ridiculous questions. Indeed, we need to use our imaginations in order to achieve true equality.

-- mwc


Blogger pam said...

Dear Melvin,

I just finished watching the "Affirmative Action" episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the one where Larry David makes a huge error in judgement trying to crack a joke about race relations and winds up having to 'fess up about what he did in front of a roomful of urbane black professionals. A daring episode, and it reminded me of your post, also daring in its own fruitarian way.

I find it interesting that you point to what you perceive as Roger's unfair depiction of you. To wit:

These posts portrays me as weepy, angry, and emotionally unstable. If I was a member of a "protected" minority group -- a homosexual, African-American, or the like -- I believe that no one would have dared to paint such a blantly officious portrait. Because I am an "Asian-American" and a "cantaloupe," these posts take liberties that might not otherwise have been taken.

You have a good point there in that last sentence about “liberties” taken, one worth taking a closer look at. It's true that Asian Americans have to deal with a special set of concerns with respect to race/identity politics and social power. I remember being in the 5th grade or so, studying pre-Civil Rights segregation, and one of the students in class raised his hand and asked, "well what if a Japanese person walked into a park, which drinking fountain would he have to drink from, the white or the black one?", and the teacher paused a little before answering, "Um, probably the white fountain."

Of course, that answer is up for debate, and would certainly depend on a host of secondary but crucial factors-- what features does this Japanese guy have? is he light or dark-skinned? how is he dressed, what kind of mannerisms does he exhibit? what if he were Bangladeshi instead of Japanese? But the point is that the answer is up for debate. There’s always a sliding question of whether Asian Americans, as individuals or as a group, should be considered more “white” or more “black”-- where “white” as a broad metaphorical term denotes a position of economic, social, or institutional privilege, and “black” denotes a lack of that privilege, an awareness and legacy of being discriminated against or exploited, and an “Other-based” politics that almost unanimously positions itself against the status quo “system” that appears to perpetuate injustice along racial, economic, gender, and sexual orientation lines.

In this sense, when you speak of people like Roger taking “liberties” in their criticisms of you because you are “Asian-American,” it seems that you refer to “Asian-American” being perceived as more on the “white” end of the American spectrum, more privileged, and therefore a fair target for attack. I can definitely see where you’re coming from. The association of “Asian American” with “whiteness” can actually leave Asian Americans in the lurch both ways—in that “white” Asian Americans don’t have the “right” to enjoy their flashy cars and bank accounts because that represents a kind of disloyalty to and even complicit oppression of their fellow third-world people of color, but they also don’t have the “right” to hold up their Asian Americaness as a “black”-spectrum minority identity because their socioeconomic position, statistically speaking, looks too damn “white.”

You also call attention to the binary interdependencies of “black” and “white,” when you refer to “protected” minorities like African Americans and homosexuals. If I correctly understand your implication, you are saying that you, as a straight Asian American male, fall short of minority status when compared with African Americans and homosexuals. In other words, your “whiteness” in this instance is chiefly defined by a lack of “black” qualities. If you were indeed a gay Taiwanese-American donut hole, who quoted Aijaz Ahmad and brandished his Blackberry a little less conspicuously, would that make you more “black”? Um, probably yeah. You’d be exhibiting more visible “proof” in that case.

And if you’d taken a different turn philosophically and politically in your formative years, and claimed the term “Asian-American poet” for yourself, would that give you more of a “black” label of authenticity? (I don’t mean Johnnie Walker here, though I could probably use a drink of it by the time I get to the end of this comment.) But the truth is that you seem skeptical of the “black” agenda. You seem to question the goals of an anti-status quo movement that has in effect created its own status quo. I’m all in favor of thoughtfully reexamining the terms and assumptions of radical movements, be they activist, artistic, or a bit of both, but I wish such critiques could be more effectively issued from the inside, rather than from the perspective of problematic oppositional figures who are quickly slapped with the labels of “traitor” and “neocon.”

But it seems that you’re not just questioning the legitimacy of “blackness,” you’re questioning the legitimacy of “blackness” and “whiteness” as distinguishable terms to begin with. Abolish the imperative of categories, abolish “affirmative action,” analyses and identities that take into account race, and the world will be a more fruitful, fun, and fruit-filled, place. I don’t remember “my” Emily D. saying exactly that, but I do recall a scrawled couplet from another late fascicle poem of hers, which Susan Howe passed out as souvenir bumper stickers when she guest-lectured in my college Lit class: “Others who may Surrender/ To distant Difference Saved.”

In other words, your call for the abolition of black/white categorization winds up championing so-called “whiteness” after all, in the sense of “whiteness” = “transparency,” i.e., the transparency (or erasure) of identity when society moves fully “beyond” race. It’s the “erasure” part of this proposal that gets me worried. Because it seems like a passive-aggressive move against the rich perspectives of writing that comes out of the margin, that emerges from, as Bryan said in an earlier comment, “those who have seen society from its ungainliest angles.” It’ll be a sad day indeed when art is deprived of the thing that gives it the most bite and substance: difference.

I’m experiencing some bugs with my wireless inbox right now—my well-mannered, grade-grubbing homies snatched my PDA on the way to their Transgendered Go-Go Dancers Anonymous board meeting—but I surf these blog swells regularly, so hope to see you around.

Yours truly,

12:08 PM  

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