shadowy duck (pylduck) wrote in asianamlitfans,
shadowy duck

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Craig Santos Perez's From Unincorporated Territory

sa_am had mentioned Tinfish Press to me awhile back, and this past Friday, I had the unexpected pleasure of hearing one of the Press's authors--Craig Santos Perez--read at an indigenous poets evening at The Loft Literary Center. The reading piggybacked off the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference in town, drawing a full audience from the conference reception just preceding it down the street. After the reading, I picked up Perez's from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY (Tinfish, 2008) because it dovetails wonderfully with two topics I have been thinking about lately--(1) the place of "Pacific Islander" in "Asian Pacific Islander" as a panethnic, coalitional formation that has political and critical purchase in the continental United States as well as (2) the often-unacknowledged territories of the US that are not states (Guam, Puerto Rico, Marshall Islands, US Virgin Islands, etc.), mainly obtained from the Spanish Empire in 1898.

(Warning: This post rambles on without much of a point besides, oooo, this book is so interesting! Read it!)

Perez's work identifies the multiple layers of colonization--Spanish, Catholic, Japanese, American--on Guam and considers the presence of indigenous Chamoru. Like other TinFish Press work, Perez's is "experimental," and in particular this means a blend of critical, historical narrative and a highly self-conscious engagement with language where English in particular seems held at arm's length and watched with a bit of suspicion and where the Chamorro language irrupts into the English text. As Perez notes in the preface, "These poems are an attempt to begin re-territorializing the Chamorro language in relation to my own body, by way of the page" (12). Perez's use of the (Deleuzian?) concept of "re-territorialization," in my understanding, really foregrounds an interest in the messiness of partial claims rather than a politics of authenticity and originary purity. In other words, his use of Chamorro language, while yearning for a space of thought and expression free of colonization, acknowledges the long histories of contact that have affected Chamorro peoples and languages, not least of which has been the enforced suppression of non-colonial languages in the school system.

This community has explored a number of ways in which the concept "Asian American" can be pushed and problematized. We have considered non-Asian American writers who write stories about Asian American characters and experiences; Asian Canadian writers as a way to expand the national and geographic reach of the "American" portion of the term; and texts by Asian American writers that are not about Asian American history or experience directly. While we have noted the critical turn to issues of transnationalism as well, we have yet to tackle the vexed space of the Pacific Islands in conceptions of "Asian Pacific America." Much work on the continent has been about celebrating histories of Asian settlement and plantation labor in Hawai'i (the state with the highest percentage of Asian Americans, after all), but that same work has met with quite a bit of resistance and controversy for evacuating the Hawaiian space of indigenous peoples. (Though spurred by a slightly different politics of inter-ethnic Asian stereotyping and violence, the controversy over the Association for Asian American Studies' awarding of Lois-Ann Yamanaka's novel Blu's Hanging with its fiction award and subsequent rescinding of that award marks the intense difficulties of imagining panethnic alliances in especially stratified social locations like Hawai'i...)

I know that there is scholarly work on Pacific Islander and Hawaiian literatures, but what I find rather frustrating is reading countless articles within Asian American literary studies that merely lament the absence of more sustained discussions of "Pacific" literatures within the field broadly and of Hawai'i in particular. After reading these articles, I'm always left wondering, who are some Pacific Islander authors and why aren't Asian (Pacific) Americanists reading them? This endeavor is of course going to be different from reading Pacific Island literatures as its own formation, but especially with the confluence of Pacific Islanders with Asian Americans and the high concentration/migration of many Pacific Islanders to California, it seems appropriate to explore more fully the implications of an Asian Pacific American literary body.

Okay. At this point, if anyone is still reading, you're probably wondering what the hell I have to say about Perez's poetry itself! I'm still puzzling through it, frankly, but in a good way. I feel like much of this collection is meant to function in the manner of puzzles, where the reader dwells on how words are placed on the page, and where relevant, how Chamorro words in brackets with English definitions appended re-territorialize the space of poetic language and meaning.

The preface by Perez offers a narrative history of Guam--its geography, geology, colonial encounters, and legal limbo status as "unincorporated, unorganized territory" of the United States. In the preface, Perez also does a brief reading of the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early twentieth century that grappled with the problem of these newly acquired, foreign territories outside the contiguous/continental United States. Does the Constitution apply to these lands and peoples? Should they be treated as equals to American citizens? Effectively what the Insular Cases decided was both yes and no--a precedent that has led to many more dangerous situations such as the maintenance of special prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Side note: I was reading up on these cases a few weeks ago.... Some of the language in these cases is especially troubling yet poetic, declaring for example of Puerto Rico that it is "foreign to the United States in a domestic sense" or in a dissenting opinion to Downes v. Bidwell, that these new spaces are "like a disembodied shade in an intermediate state of ambiguous existence for an indefinite period.")

What I find immediately interesting in Perez's book is his tracing of some foreign plants and animals that have become part of Guam's ecological space in both productive and destructive ways. At the evening poetry event I attended, Perez read "from ACHIOTE," a poem that traces the geographical and cultural movement of the achiote plant, "indigenous to central and south america and the caribbean" (17) but brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish Empire. The achiote plant, important in Aztec culture, becomes an important presence in Chamoru culture as well. In contrast, the closing poem sequence "from DESCENDING PLUMERIA" references the importation of brown tree snakes in the WWII moment that, in a half century, has decimated bird populations and drastically transformed the natural balance of animal life on the island.

There are six numbered sections in the book. Each begins with a set of epigraphs, ranging from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Oswald de Andrade to Paul Celan and Gertrude Stein to Aimé Ce´saire. The breadth of influence and engagements (literary, historical, anthropological) certainly offers testimony of Perez's intellectual and creative reach.

The text offers a series of maps on pages 28, 29, and 30, exploring the routes connecting various islands at the scale of Spanish colonialism, the War (World War II), and the Asia-Pacific (via airports around the Pacific Rim). The maps indicate the centrality of Guam, despite its small geographical reach, in these larger circuits of imperial and transnational movement.

I'm thinking about how the poems are organized in the collection, In section III, for example, the pages alternate between "from TIDELANDS" and "from AERIAL ROOTS," interweaving the poems in the two series or creating a poem comprised of these two strands. Sections of "from TIDELANDS," however, also expand into the other parts of the book, suggesting a lack of clear boundaries for that poem.

It is difficult to discuss the poems in this forum because the appearance of words on the page seem so deliberately placed that merely considering their sequence or even line breaks seems inadequate. I'm looking at "from LISIENSAN GA'LAGO" on pages 34 and 35, for example, where there are italicized words, spaces, and a box drawn around some words on the left page that is somewhat mirrored with words and an empty box on the right page.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion! Please read the book and add your thoughts in this community! :D

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