Help me understand something. For the past dozen years or so, many students, particularly undergraduates, and throughout the country, have challenged me for writing in sympathy or portraying the plight of others not myself, particularly Native Hawaiians, Chinese detainees on Angel Island, Arab detainees in Guantanamo, African American blues and jazz artists. What is there in the current zeitgeist that proscribes literary acts of intellectual, imaginative, and emotional sympathy and solidarity? It seems mis-appropriation is a concern, as it is strongly implied in all the questioning I've received. Or, other times, I've heard my work faulted for its concentration on depicting the history of Japanese Americans and NOT taking up portrayals and sympathies with those more overtly oppressed. Is it that concern over a political and territorial area of contestation here has taken primacy over personal claims of compassion? What is up? Wilco-Tango-Foxtrot? -- Garrett Hongo == ttps://www.facebook.com/notes/garrett-hongo/literary-appropriation/491047991450
The paragraph above was a post on Facebook, a few weeks ago by poet Garrett Hongo. My first thought was that this questioning by “young” people of a professor of color, of Japanese descent, was ignorance…I could only guess that the students who challenged poet Hongo were white…of course, he doesn’t say, and I don’t know.
Was the question one of poetics? Does the topic of poems determine their validity, their grace or achievement? Or, as Hongo asks, is the criticism about imaginative and emotional sympathy with others not “like” oneself?
Perhaps students need to read more widely? Take for example Patricia Smith’s poem, Skinhead. Here, a mature poet, African American woman, speaks in the voice of a white, male, Skinhead:
call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty.
It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,
it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious.
I sit in my dim matchbox,
on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell,
slide razors across my hair,
count how many ways
I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin.
These are the duties of the righteous,
the ways of the anointed.
Of course, when writing about “the other” appropriation is a concern. As Felecia Canton Garcia said in answer to Garret’s question, …” many people are (rightly) wary of anything that recalls minstrelsy. The history of appropriating and exploiting for profit is so deeply entrenched, I think that we are right to be aware of the subtlety of its operations as well. The problem seems to come when people fail to account for the extreme messiness and complexity of individual identity and the difference between caricature and character.” (my emphasis).
Certainly, if Hongo’s students read his work, its subtlety and language, its developed “character” they would be assured that “mis-appropriateion” was not a problem.
for example, in The Ledgend:
In Chicago, it is snowing
and a man has just done his wash for the week.
He steps into the twilight of early evening,
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag
full of neatly folded clothes,
and, for a moment, enjoys
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
flannellike against his gloveless hands.
There's a Rembrandt glow on his face,
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek
as a last flash of sunset
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.
He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,
dingy and too large.
Poetry, poetry that moves me, more often than not, is one where yes, the self is examined, but examined in context. Self absorption is one thing; scrutiny and its component part, empathy, another. Craft is the tool we use in order to more closely approximate the poem we see in our mind and imagination. Compassion/passion, at least for me, is a necessary ingredient.
More on this tomorrow.