Allen Gee's My Chinese-America: Essays

I found Allen Gee's My Chinese-America: Essays (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2015) at my public library while browsing the shelves. The book is a collection of eleven personal essays in which Gee thinks through Chinese American identity and heterosexual masculinity in the context of a range of experiences, historical events, and literary texts.

my chinese-america book cover

Many of the essays seem to center on mainstream white Americans' perceptions of Asians--those bugbears of perpetual foreignness and emasculation--and Gee counters these stereotypes with assertions of his humanity and strength. For example, Gee narrates his resilience and virility with respect to white authority figures (state trooper in "Profile"), desirable white women ("Osaka"), and white/black/brown boys and men who are various kinds of competitors ("Fraught with Masculinity," "Point Guard," and "By 2042"). And in "Asians in the Library," he offers a reading of the infamous YouTube video in which a white female student at UCLA ranted about Asians in the library, juxtaposing her mobilization of tried-and-true stereotypes and fears of invading Asians with Jimmy Wong's musical parody response to the video.

The most memorable essays for me were the ones in which Gee explored his family's stories ("Is It Safe There?" and "Silences") and his own idiosyncratic place in America ("The Real New South"). In "Is It Safe There?," Gee takes as a starting point an anecdote of how his white friends at a conference location asked him to find them a dim sum place for dinner and then proceeded to ask him if Chicago's Chinatown was a safe place for them to visit. The essay then focuses on his experience of New York City's Chinatown in Manhattan, and he describes it as a racial safe haven for him as a young Chinese American boy whose father had relocated the family to upstate New York. Gee considers the changes that Chinatown has undergone over his lifetime--not for the better--and how disrespectful it is for white Americans to visit Chinatowns as tourists who gawk at the everyday lives of Chinese who often are limited in their ability to find work elsewhere. In "Silences," Gee delves further into his family's past and reveals layers of secrets about his parents and grandparents, ultimately demonstrating the resilience of Chinese Americans over the course of the twentieth century in building and sustaining family life in a hostile, racist society.

Because I lived in North Carolina for six years while in graduate school in English, I have long had an interest in thinking of Asian American experiences in the American South, so Gee's explorations of his decades of life in Houston and then Milledgeville, Georgia, are particularly interesting to me. Many of the essays make at least some passing reference to the southern context of his racialized experience, but it is in "The Real New South" that Gee most directly addresses how his presence as an Asian American in certain regional spaces might constitute a "new south," a term that he explains has been around and resurrected in different contexts since the post-Civil War, Reconstruction Era. Gee describes himself as a racial pioneer--someone who is distanced from his home community and communities of other Chinese Americans in other parts of the country. His work is to normalize the presence of Chinese Americans in the South, to be the first Asian person many Southerns meet.

Two other essays stood out for me for different reasons. In "Point Guard," Gee employs an experimental narrative layout. The essay is really two essays, laid out in two columns that run concurrently down each page. The left column is a personal narrative of Gee's life with basketball. The right column chronicles the rise of Jeremy Lin and Linsanity, focusing on Lin's fame and fandom among Asian Americans. In "Echocardiography," Gee offers perhaps his most vulnerable essay, one in which he focuses less on a heroic narrative of his self but rather on a startling moment of weakness when he discovers that he has atrial fibrillation. Through his experience at the hospital, he realizes his mortality.

The final essay in the collection, "My Chinese-America: A Meditation On Mobility," takes a tour through the fifty states. Structured alphabetically by state name, each section is a brief paragraph detailing either a personal experience of Gee's or some significant Chinese (or Asian) American historical figure in that state. Some of the experiences chronicled in earlier essays reappear briefly in this essay, as in the summary in the section on Kansas of the opening essay's narrative of racial profiling by a state trooper ("Profile"). Other brief paragraphs provide new stories and commentary on the racial landscape of the United States while treading familiar thematic territory such as mentions of fishing (Gee is an ardent leisure sports fisherman), sexual encounters, and emasculating stereotypes of Asian men.
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Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying

Adriane Tomine's Killing and Dying (Drawn and Quarterly, 2015) is a collection of six illustrated stories about different individuals' relationships with various intimates and family members.

killing and dying cover image

As in his previous work, Tomine provides glimpses into interpersonal dynamics that are often unsavory. His characters are seldom heroic but rather petty or otherwise mired in their own sense of martyrdom. The simple, clean drawing style in either monochromatic shading or muted coloring complements the focus on the mundane situations of the stories while contrasting with the sometimes difficult emotional reactions that the characters have.

In "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture,'" a man working as a gardener has aspirations to creating a new art form combining ceramic sculpture and living plant life. His attempts to find buyers and to place his art in a nursery fail, and his frustrations come out with his wife and child. Interestingly, this story ends on a somewhat positive note as he comes to a resolution about his aspirations.

In "Amber Sweet," a young woman is repeatedly addressed in lewd ways when she is out and about, and she discovers that she looks like a famous porn star named Amber Sweet. This resemblance shadows her into her early adulthood and relationships, with some surprising chance encounters, and we eventually discover that she is narrating the story to someone (a significant other?) sometime in the future. Here, the visual narrative offers a lot of interesting information not provided in the voice over narrative or dialogue, such as with the woman's hair length that helps to signal different moments of her life (and how she perceives her resemblance to Amber Sweet).

In "Go Owls," a man and woman meet at a recovery support group and seem to embark on a relationship that seems quite open, honest, and accepting even as it is still troubled and full of cringe-worthy interactions. The man is a small-time drug dealer, but the story eventually reveals that this criminality is just one small part of his shadiness.

Of all of the stories, "Translated, from the Japanese," deals the most directly with Asian/American experiences. There are brief nods to Asian American characters in some of the other stories, but this takes as a narrator a (Japanese?) woman on a return flight to California with her child. The narration is addressed to this child, and the woman describes that flight and how the stewardess mistook the professor sitting next to them as her husband. Upon arrival in California, her husband is there to greet them and to take them to their new apartment where it appears they will live without him. The visuals seem to be largely from the woman's-eye-perspective, so we never really see the characters themselves. This story requires the most reading between the lines, for sure, which is in part what might be suggested by the title's allusion to translation.

The title story, "Killing and Dying," concerns a teenage girl's interest in standup comedy, encouraged by her mother but less so by her father. What is most compelling in the narrative is what happens to the mother--she apparently undergoes chemotherapy and then passes away--all without any explicit commentary in the dialogue. This story shows the mastery of Tomine's storytelling in the graphic narrative medium, where the emotional core of the story is something that appears obliquely in the panels, underlying the (sometimes strange) actions of the characters.

In the final story, "Intruders," a man starts visiting an old apartment of his, slipping in with his old key while the current occupant is out. The story is elliptical, as many of Tomine's stories are, and it's not wholly clear what drives this man to this need to spend a few hours in his old apartment as if he were still living there. We get hints here and there of difficulties in his life that have led to this point when he feels a need to go back.

All in all, these stories are excellent additions to Tomine's body of work. He continues to turn an unflinching eye on everyday characters who struggle with lives that are not quite what they want them to be. He offers careful attention to telling these stories full of unspoken feelings and thoughts.

Reviews of Tomine's other books appeared in earlier posts:
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Amit Majmudar's Dothead

I picked up Amit Majmudar's poetry collection Dothead (Knopf, 2016) from the library's new books display. The cover image is quite provocative, turning the pejorative term "dothead" for wearers of bindis into something new with the laser-like ray either emanating from the bindi on a statue of Shiva or landing the third eye on the statue, like the targeting laser on a gun.

dothead

I found this collection of poems to be wide-ranging in tone, word play, and content. The epigraph from Dr. Seuss, "It is fun to have fun / But you have to know how," suggests how Majmudar is playful with words, but the epigraph's pairing on its verso with a page from a dictionary also suggests a weightier side to word play, marked by histories of colonial contact. The photocopied dictionary page includes the definition and examples of the word KEDGEREE or KITCHERY, referring to a mix of rice and dal. What is fascinating about the photocopied dictionary page is how it highlights the interplay of Hindi and English, traces of colonialism manifest in the words and everyday stuff of Indian life. The definition points out, "The word appears to have been applied metaphorically to mixtures of sundry kinds (see Fryer, below), and also to mixt jargon or lingua franca." The definition then continues to refer to uses of the term in England that are "inaccurate" (in its reference to re-cooked fish for breakfast). The table of contents follows this dictionary page, and it is called "KEDGEREE INGREDIENTS" rather than a table of contents, listing each poem with page number as an ingredient.

The collection front-loads poems that address race explicitly, as in the leading titular poem, "Dothead." That poem takes as a setting a not unfamiliar scene of school children at lunch talking to each other and exposing prejudices and misunderstandings about cultural differences. Another early poem, "T.S.A.," describes the experience of racial profiling at airport security lines, and "To the Hyphenated Poets" playfully enjoins such poets to celebrate hybridity:
Being two beings requires
a rage for rigor,
rewritable memory,
hybrid vigor.
These lines are chock-full of repetition, alliteration, and rhymes in a rhythm that reminds me of Dr. Seuss as well as of some of Wallace Stevens's poems.

The poem, "Immigration and Naturalization," begins with the charged line, "We were that raghead family," and worries over the generational split between father and son, exacerbated through language:
We didn't. Nobody spoke
To us, either, though our tongues
Could parrot, palate the sounds.
And the poem unfolds towards a series of questions about identity ("Can I be my father's son / Without being my father?") and an ending stanza that puts front and center the melancholy of race:
But is it still a family
When the son cannot speak
The mother tongue of the father?


Of all the poems on the collection, the one that caught my attention the most was a long abecedarian about oral sex. Each letter of the alphabet lends itself to a word that heads up a short prose poem. The narrative structure shuttles back and forth between exploring the biblical story of Adam and Even from the perspective of why God did not create Adam to be capable of autofellatio and the speaker's confession of his desire for receiving oral sex and how he had forced his first girlfriend to give him a blow job. There is a bit of uneasiness in the speaker's reflections, suggestions of rape in the way he describes the girlfriend's reluctance in the stanza titled "No." The idea of a biblical loss of innocence and the appearance of snake-formed Lucifer suffuses the speaker's personal narrative, and the idea of the speaker's lack of reciprocity comes full circle in a suggestion that Eve's temptation by the snake was in the promise of oral sex for her in the snake's waving tongue.

Majmudar is also Ohio's Poet Laureate for 2016, and I'm fascinated by poets who are poet laureates because of the educational and celebratory aspect of that role. In general, poet laureates put on programs to engage their communities with poetry (writing, reading, performing....). And it is especially interesting for me to think about Asian American poets who have taken on this role as Ishle Park did in Queens, New York, and Janice Mirikitani in San Francisco, California. The role carries with it a number of interesting qualities--publicness, representation, and pedagogical, for example--that give a particular valence to the poetry celebrated in each poet's selection. I'm also curious how poet laureates get selected--whether appointed by an individual or committee or if there is some kind of open competition with applications--and what kinds of criteria the selectors use.

stephenhongsohn has reviewed Majmudar's previous novels and poetry collections:
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Viet Thanh Nguyen's Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016) Viet Thanh Nguyen considers the cultural work of war memories and develops an argument about the ethics of remembering and forgetting that focuses on recognizing the inhumanity in Self and Other. Nguyen explores a few cultural forms such as novels, films, visual art, video games, memoirs, and memorials as well as the infrastructures that support the production, consumption, and circulation of such forms (MFA programs, museums, etc.). Ultimately, the book is a form of cultural criticism that also weaves in and out of philosophical discussions of ethics, and Nguyen cites and discusses a range of political philosophers on concepts of memory and war.

cover of nothing ever dies

Nguyen is the author of a recent novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), which has won great critical acclaim as well as literary awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. I first encountered Nguyen's work, however, in his earlier scholarly book, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002), which has always stood out to me as an interesting piece of criticism that combines textual and cultural analysis thoughtfully with considerations of the systems that support literary studies, in particular the attention to how Asian American studies as a critical ethnic studies field has tended to privilege or discount particular texts for their politics of resistance to white supremacy or lack thereof.

Nothing Ever Dies continues in the vein of Race and Resistance by paying attention not just to cultural forms and the ways they circulate in the world but also to the critical conversations that enable the production, consumption, and circulation of such forms in the first place. Similarly, Nothing Ever Dies also refuses the conversation about good or bad texts (ones that either support a critical/revolutionary perspective or not). One of the most powerful claims in Race and Resistance was that Asian Americanist scholars need to be attentive to their critical lens, developed through the habits and canons of the field, that end up blinding them to the complexity of literary texts they study as well as to the plentiful examples of Asian Americans outside the academy who think very differently about politics (such as with anti-communist Vietnamese American communities and politicians). In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen frames this perspective as the need to recognize the inhumanity of both the Self and the Other. Against most discussions of ethics in war that try to reclaim the humanity of the decried Other (the enemey), Nguyen argues that simply recognizing the victims as humans is an incomplete form of ethical engagement because there is no confrontation with one's own inhumanity (as the aggressor/winner/etc.) or the actual inhumanity of the Other. Putting undue emphasis on victimization is an issue that has come under much discussion, particularly in the idea of identity politics, and Nguyen's argument is not to fully embrace either those who argue for the importance of identitarian-based political struggles or those who say that identity politics are merely a distraction from the true class struggle (based in socioeconomic factors) but rather to suggest that such a framing is problematic in itself and that there needs to be a dissolution of the organizing logic of victim and abuser.

The first part of the book focuses on developing the ethical argument about remembering--whom do we remember and how. Nguyen touches on theories of trauma to discuss the importance of remembering the victims of war but then proceeds to push on how claiming victimhood because the free-floating approach available to everyone to center their perspectives at the expense of others. Furthermore, anti-war activists who advocate for seeing the enemy as victims might succeed in reclaiming the humanity of particular enemies, but the mechanism of claiming humanity does not in itself solve the problem of war since another inhuman enemy has easily and continually arisen as America's new antagonist in the past century. The central claim of Nguyen's ethics of memory is in what he thinks of as the inhumanities--the need to study and think and understand the inhumanity that underlies all wars, even on the part of ourselves and of the good guys.

The second part of the book focuses on industries that support memory work. Here, Nguyen's emphasis is on the fact that the way we remember the war is a constantly produced project--propaganda and soft power--and that there are differences in what kinds of cultural forms of memory circulate widely versus those that do not. He also emphasizes the asymmetrical power and circulation of memory between the United States and Vietnam, between the visual powerhouses of Hollywood and the less sophisticated cinema of Vietnam.

The final part of the book considers aesthetics more centrally, and the chapter "On Victims and Voices" stood out to me as the one that might end up garnering the most attention from other scholars in the field. In this chapter, Nguyen takes on the familiar issue of ethnic writers' assuming of a voice for their communities. Although he does not seem to settle on a very solid claim about what counts as a representative voice or not (perhaps that is his point), he does raise a number of issues about ethnic writing in the United States such as how the mainstream writing establishment (through MFA programs, editorial selection at major publishers, the book review industry, etc.) chooses what kinds of stories ethnic writers are allowed to publish and be lauded for. As a result, he states that those Vietnamese American writers who have become widely known in the past couple of decades are complicit in the telling of war stories about Vietnam that support a particularly American understanding of the war and the people.

Overall, I found Nothing Ever Dies to be a thoughtful consideration of the ethics of memory and the issues of ethnic writing in the United States. I'm curious to see how scholars in Asian American literature take up this book of criticism but also how the general public and the industry of book reviews takes it up. It extends the arguments of his earlier work in Race and Resistance and also takes as touchstones many critical issues in the academic field of Asian American literary studies, so I wonder how much traction it might have with people who are unfamiliar with the lay of the land.
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