I stand up with my teacher David Mura and so many to criticize Sherman Alexie’s decision to publish a poem by a white man written under a deliberately chosen Chinese pseudonym in Best American Poetry. (What many have rightly called “literary Yellowface.”)
This isn’t just about poetry. It’s an echo of what we see everyday in American society.
Sherman Alexie writes: “And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.” I worked as an affirmative action activist through my twenties, and Alexie sustained me through many of the hardest years. His words above broke my heart because I worked to build coalitions and to educate that an injustice against any group of color was part of systemic racism and must not be overlooked.
California – pre and post proposition 209 — are we willing to forget? Remember how White people have a history of fetishizing and “Orientalizing” Asians? They love our culture, our art, our religions, and they love to make money from us. They especially love to compare us to other people of color.
Using the stereotypes of well-behaved and smart, they love to compare us to other people of color to try and end affirmative action. We’re one mass to them — not Vietnamese, not Korean, not Filipino, not Chinese, not Malaysian, not Singaporean, not Japanese, certainly not Indian, South Asian, not Bangladeshi or Fijian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan, or Polynesian or Cambodian. We were one group that had “merit” when it came time to argue affirmative action was dangerous for us.
They, of course, also complain that too many Asians attend the UC system, and they want to go to schools that aren’t peopled by Asian robots. Schools that value football more, or the “American way of life.” I never forgot — these were the same people who made us fear for our lives as they pasted a red sun on the cover of magazines and said Japan was taking our automative jobs. These are the same people that talk about our elegant and submissive women, our massage parlors, and the small dicks of our men, our slanty eyes. In their hands, our martial arts are used for good. In our hands, we’re the sneaky enemy on the battlefield or assassins.
Who are we to them?
By assuming our names in publishing contexts (and you should see the fucked up shit they do to our bodies and our culture when they write about us in science fiction/fantasy using their own names), white supremacists elide our great poets and their content; they elide our character; they elide us. We, they say, get published more because of our racial identity.
Didn’t we advance in society not because of our identity, but because of our merit, our hard work? Or, wait, but are we advancing in writing only because of our identity? Anybody with an Asian name can get ahead? I don’t know, seems confusing. Smells like White power.
If we aren’t vigilant about our relationship as a group within the non-Black people of color disapora — and with white supremacists, they will wear us like a glove and wield us like a hammer against all people of color, and always, against ourselves.
Because white supremacy is not a classroom issue or a poetics issue alone. It is a real system in which people dictate that equality for people of color amounts to “special treatment” and “tokenism” and “reverse racism.” The Asian mantle will be used strategically and deliberately in whichever way the racist wind dictates.
But get it clear peeps: We’re not your bridge group among non-Black POC. We’re not fooled. This shit won’t be on our backs.
We see what you’re doing.
It happens in daily life, in politics, in education, in so many styles of cultural appropriation, so of course it’s happening in poetry. Let’s read some great Asian Am poets like Hoa Nguyen, Ching-In Chen, David Mura, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Timothy Yu, Jenny Zhang, Franny Choi, Jane Wong, Bao Phi, Minal Hajrtwala, Ginger Ko, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Kazim Ali, and so many more for a little refreshment amongst these tired old antics.
Here’s David blog if you want to read a great critique – one that re-centers what being Asian Am has to do with writing Asian Am poetry: