“If my freedom were not in the book, where would it be?
If my book were not my freedom, what would it be?
Truth cannot but be violent. There is no peaceable truth.
The violence of the book is turned against the book: battle without mercy.”from The Book of Margins, Edmond Jabes
I believe it is useful to think about Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) poetry in this way. In my view, many APIA poets cross lines and challenge truths about what is American, Asian, and Pacific Islander. I believe many of us, consciously or not, have to confront at some point the idea that we are not fully any of these things, because the default position of each, the Truth, has no room for those who exceed the categories.
Recently, Barbara Jane Reyes posted on her blog in "Writing Culture in Diwata (y Poeta)" about an incident where a colleague questioned her use of non-English words in her poetry–“There has to be a reason for it.” I think the same must be said of English. Yes, we are in the United States. But why should everyone write in English? There are plenty of historical and political reasons–racialization, sexual violence, homophobia, nationalism, and more, that have made English the unquestioned default and relegate millions to monolingualism. Once we ask why, once we question the (English) book, we raise the specter of the Truth and how it got to be that way. I think of the APIA activist slogan in response to the racism of “go back to where you came from” – “We’re here because you were there.”
APIA poets have always written in many native languages–English, Creole, Pidgin, the multitudes of languages and dialects that somehow fit under the designation of Asian and Pacific Islander, and some that don’t. (See for example, Rajiv Mohabir’s poem examined in my first post in this series.) Personally, I find inspiration in Adrienne Rich when she writes in the context of patriarchy, “This is the oppressor's language // yet I need it to talk to you”. One’s “natural” relationship to a language should not be taken for granted, especially if it’s the dominant language.
A poem forthcoming in Issue 9 of Kartika Review is “Everything Glows in Tsukuba” by Gina Barnard: "Celebrities scream words in punctuated / colors as a man living in a bubble on the beach spears a baby octopus—purpled and / heavy: yatta! Sushi-grade tuna—lucent—teases me to poke its glimmer through / cellophane, to become the obaachan in Tampopo, squeezing fruit flesh throughout the / supermarket. Short shelves, small carts. The clerks, robots, nod without meeting my / eyes—recite over and over, irashaimase~ irashaimase~"
APIA poets also use a plethora of poetic languages–forms learned, borrowed, invented, reclaimed and customized. Take for example the poem “Nectarines” by Margaret Rhee, written in a modified ghazal form, forthcoming in Issue 9 of Kartika Review: "Julia learned in her freshman year of college, nectarines were created by two Korean brothers. / 'The Kim brothers.' 'It’s like a peach and a plum, together,' she said, 'the nectarine.' // In the article 'The Yellow Peril' Jack London wrote, 'the Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency—of / utter worthlessness' and 'tested thus, the Korean fails.' He probably didn’t know about the nectarines!"
Rhee takes a Middle Eastern form usually used to express love and longing due to separation, and turns it toward playful social commentary, highlighting the invention of a fruit that would not exist if it were not for Korean Americans. At times the poem illustrates what DuBois would call “double-consciousness”–the result of the contradiction between liberal social values and lived reality in which “The Yellow Peril” is alive and well.
Look for "Everything Glows in Tsukuba" by Gina Barnard and "Nectarines" by Margaret Rhee in the next issue of Kartika Review, due out later this month.