Dis/assembling Identity: From the Margins to the Page

by Muriel Leung

(Note: This paper is a condensed rewrite of an original piece which is currently 60 pages in length)

The emergence of Asian American poetry as a genre is not without its historical grounds. Asian Americans’ contributions to the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s eras introduced performance, song, and poetry as forms of protest against injustices towards Asian Americans during this politically volatile time. The social and political materials which informed Asian American experience were later solidified as a new type of genre by the spirit of 1980s multiculturalism in which Asian American writers as well as other writers of color began to gain mainstream appeal. The dramatic shift in social and political visibility played a valuable role in the transformation of Asian American identity discourse as it grew from grassroots arts and political movements to earning the institutional legitimacy of academic scholarship.

A discussion of Asian American poetry as a genre and “Asian American” as an identity is impossible without recognition of its social and political grounding. While these were formidable years that demonstrated the efforts of countless Asian American activists and artists to concretize their presence in the traditionally exclusionary U.S. historical narrative, contemporary Asian American identity discourse acknowledges that this identity is more prone to fracture than union. This is not to say that the works of previous Asian American scholars and activists have failed in their efforts. Rather, in the face of dramatically shifting political and social terrains, Asian American poets are challenging traditional ideas of identity formation, and ushering in new themes and styles of exploring Asian American identity which welcome fragmentation.

Several outstanding Asian American women poets take on these artistic leaps in their select works, framing identity fragmentation within the volatility of gender and nation formation. One work which exemplifies such leaps is Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity (2008), a collection of poems which navigates the psyche and destabilizes ideas of the material and immaterial. The opening poem which shares the same title, “The History of Anonymity” introduces an unreliable speaker who inhabits only the shape of words on the page. The lines of the poem expand horizontally on the page, producing gaps and spaces in between lines in order to reproduce the very gaps and spaces which exist in personal memories and recollection of history:

(Chang, 2008: 6)

Chang utilizes this sprawl across the page to illustrate the meaning of being rootless, to be absent of reference point. “Weren’t you too/ born of an empty room?” the speaker asks the other voice of the poem, as if knowing this will concretize a sense of sameness or “same difference.” The final utterance of “we are/ gone” suggests that this expansion culminates into an inevitable disappearance. However, even this disappearance is contestable since the voice resurfaces in a new part of the poem. This process of disappearance and reemergence occurs in cyclical form. In this way, the poem references itself through cycles, recalling the external world only to disrupt our memory of it and determine it unstable.

This practice also takes place in Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco (2005), a poetry collection which reads through a process of mixing and remixing. The text seeks to reconstruct the marginalized histories of native countries and peoples impacted by U.S. militaristic transgressions by subverting traditional assignments of power. Disregarding chronological arrangement and nation-state order, Poeta en San Francisco argues that colonial forces are still a pervading presence in countries that they have occupied/occupy as well as in the U.S. Reyes locates these continuing transgressions in language, and appropriates traditional undertakings of defining a word in order to reconstruct marginalized histories. For instance, the section titled “dis∙orient” begins with a series poem defining the word “new” by first opting to use its phonetic spelling as opposed to proper English. This omission provides an opportunity for Reyes to exhibit equal parts English, Baybayin and Tagalog in the telling and translation of these historical narratives. By placing these three languages alongside one another, she allows their various translations to build upon one another in order to generate an increasingly complex rendering of these narratives. In this way, Reyes draws attention to the colonial history which has, through various forms of violence, deeply affected how language communicates in its written form.

The arrangement of English, Baybayin and Tagalog opens up the content of the English form for the English reader. In the definition portion of the poem with the English phonetic heading, “(nū, nyū),” Reyes writes the following:

what suits this era of technological violence.

what genteel traditions of his own unremembered.

what terrible excitement of catastrophic revolutions.

what pound appropriation of the ancient oriental.

what avant garde experiment carves her lover’s flesh.

(Reyes, 2005: 43)

In this excerpt, Reyes directs the reader’s attention to possibilities for resistance within the “era of technological violence” exemplified through the violent mutilations of language. It purports that the process of making “(nū, nyū)” is an attempt to disrupt dominant narratives of history which leave behind only bodily transgressions and ghosts in its passing. With these meager remains, the speaker advocates for an “avant garde experiment,” a cry for the imaginative spirit to carve a space which can liberate it from these repeated violent transgressions.

In contrast, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2007) explores disruptions in identity formation by interweaving the serialized narrative form and prose against the backdrop of a fictionalized global city. Hong dubs this imagined city, “The Desert,” reflecting the jutting characteristics of existing cities shaped by globalization and rapid modernization. Within this city lives the Desert Guide, a figure of a controversial political past who appears to embody the violence and fractures of nationalist movements and conflict. The Desert Guide’s spoken language reflects the Desert’s identity as a globalized city as it is characterized by an amalgam of multiple existing languages both formal and vernacular. In an excerpt from the poem, “Song that breaks the World Record,” the Desert Guide speaks of her mother: “…breat’ she pansori’s breath… lika fire/ breatha accordion, dum spiro, spero…y/ pop me out…” (Hong, 2007: 41). The excerpt reveals traces of Korean influence (“pansori’s breath”), Latin (“dum spiro, spero”), Spanish (“y”), and English vernacular (“breatha” and “pop me out”). The language reflects a wide range of historical and cultural influences, clearly retaining their roots without dilution.

However, this language also becomes a backdrop for the Desert’s nationalist “jingo-purist” group which mobilizes its guerilla forces against the city’s rapid political and economic transformations as well as the Desert Guide’s identity as a figure of exile. This imagined language also exists within Hong’s conjuring of a historian whose life converges with that of the Desert Guide. In order to exact these overlapping narratives, Hong designs a plot line which allows the poems to read as part of sociological research. By appropriating this form of study, Hong is able to illustrate the tenuous influences of political violence upon the lives of two very different individuals. For instance, a chronological time line of the Desert Guide’s life from birth to present carefully notes the frequent convergences of life and death. One excerpt reads: “Born in a small town near Kwangju, South Korea./ President Syngman Rhee steps down./ Her mother, a famous Pansori singer, dies” (Hong, 2007: 17). In such excerpts, significant personal events and great political changes in her environment occur simultaneously. Hong charges the use of historical and sociological practices such as this through their appropriation, and subverts the assumed notions of authority behind the telling of history. In this way, this fictionalized terrain informs us of commonly uninvestigated ideas of identity which exist between the cracks of defined lingual and geopolitical spaces.

Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor (2008) continues this dialogue concerning issues of authenticity and writing the “Asian American experience.”  Ardor takes on this creative challenge through the use of a meditative structure in the arrangement of poems in the sequence of Letters, Dreams, and Prayers. This style employs repetition and cyclical enunciations which disallow shape and form to remain constant. In a review of the poetry collection, Barbara Jane Reyes remarks that the text is an “extended monologue” that seeks to create a space for the self. Reyes references Virginia Woolf’s theories on the necessity for women to have spaces dedicated to creative activity (Reyes, 2008). In this case, the various sequences represent movements from internal (introspection) to the external in cyclical fashion. Dreams speak to the self. Prayers speak to God. Letters speak to another body. While not concretized in any set form, the transformative forces of the repetitions constantly establish and reestablish this space, daring to imagine a self in which the external and internal parts are not in natural conflict. Rather, these repetitions forge something like ardor, a spirit comparable to that of great religious fervor.

Ardor also allows for parallels that otherwise may have never taken shape. In one excerpt for example, Lee parallels a man’s flushed cheek with the color of pomegranate:

He turned ten shades of beet red.

Why didn’t he intercept the letter?

They took the pomegranate and burned it.

You mean they burst it open. Ripe.

(Lee, 2008: 11)

This surprising parallel challenges the reader to make correlations between various images which ordinarily may not exist side by side. Within this excerpt alone, the reader relates a man’s embarrassment over an incriminating letter with the even more telling pomegranate which holds so much danger that “they” must burst it. By drawing attention to these images, the reader identifies notions of ardor with the striking image of the bursting pomegranate, the shimmering fruit that glosses the cover of the text. This leads the reader to believe that ardor lies not only between the lines of the poem, but in the connections that they make with the poems’ content. In the context of identity formation, Ardor proposes that identity is not a passive formation which statically occupies the page. Rather, it is a process of making; the conjuring of spirit through memory, recollection, and renewal.

These texts in discussion represent only a margin of outstanding work produced by a new generation of Asian American women poets who dare to examine the dangerous fault lines of Asian American identity. Confronted with backlash from the previous decade’s contributions to Asian American literature, these works (along with many others) represent a critique of not only what formulates an “Asian American” community but also the vital voices which the formulation of genre and community exclude.

It is not a viable solution to remove the idea of community altogether, but rather, our idea of community must be recharged through new, imaginative discourse. These efforts are exemplified by the theoretical and aesthetic risks which the poets in discussion here have taken on by formulating essential spaces for societal critique. These efforts reconfigure the relationship between writer and reader, opening up possibilities for how knowledge can be presented, engaged in, played with, and challenged. The re-imagining of the act of writing and reading also informs future approaches to Asian American identity discourse. It is a discourse that emphasizes the text as a body and its implications for women’s writing that seeks to incorporate discussions of power, authority, and agency, all of which is integral to identity formation. By locating the discourse in these areas of inquiry, the poet can begin to embrace fluid means of generating new terms to describe the self within community. ▢

Muriel Leung is the recipient of the Lori Hertzberg Prize for Creativity and a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she concentrated in postcolonial literature and poetry. Currently, she is working on a poetry manuscript based on her heteronym’s experiences growing up as a Queens native.


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