This post was originally published on kundiman.org as part of Poetry & Democracy, a collaboration with The Poetry Coalition.
“[T]he supreme crisis of the ages…. The White race and with it a million years of human evolution might soon be irretrievably lost, swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will obliterate the white man by elimination or absorption”
— Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color (1920)
I grew up in Queens, New York, where immigrants speak 800+ languages, including Garifuna, an Arawakan language nearly extinguished by the British in the late 1700s. Some of my neighbors are from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — places from which thousands have fled for safety and been met instead with brutality. Beyond triumphant diversity narratives, language and migration reveal the connection between past and present, here and there, us and them. Poetry, like all diasporic languages, is a singular record of human hybridity, migration and war of Gramscian accuracy, capturing not only a language, but all its interstices and flyways. It is in this language that Asian American poetry speaks.
Our favorite stories paint America as a land of immigrants, though immigration policy was from its inception, like slavery, banking, education, etc., designed to benefit those considered White by contemporary standards. Nearly all immigration mechanisms–border patrol, greencards, “Muslim bans” and quotas–can be traced to the Asian Exclusion era since which the U.S. continues to define White and American while vying for global hegemony. Whitman and Emerson helped forge these identities, refashioning American values from unabashedly appropriated historic Asian texts and thought. Whitman was loved by White nationalists, economic nativists, and settler colonialists with poems like Pioneer! O Pioneer! and passionate diatribes against the world’s majority. As settlers expanded the southwestern border atop Native land and blood, Whitman helped stoke anti-Asian hate, expressed through mass lynchings, mutilation, arson and mob violence under the slogan of the day: “The Chinese must go…[e]ven the soldiers themselves curse the duty which compels them to sustain the Alien against the American.” For a land of immigrants, the Whitman contradiction is as American as apple pie.
“Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.”
— Barbara Jane Reyes
Asians arrived in the Americas as miners, railroad workers; as coolies, sailors or slaves on 16th century Spanish ships; as visa overstays or part of the “brain drain.” Some became as part of a booming wartime adoption industry; as camptown “war brides,” refugees, sex workers or domestic workers from over half a century of U.S. bombings that leveled the Asia Pacific. In lockstep with trade and military interests, whether laborer, Celestial, Mongoloid, Malay, or Oriental, race for Asian Americans continues to be a work-in-progress. As Southeast Asian American poet Bao Phi writes, “Rough immigrant, or/ free refugee–/ floating flagless,/ fading border,/ stamped with words but not your name.”
Barbara Jane Reyes writes of the converging bondage of colonialism, global capitalism, racism and misogyny — and the indefatigable resistance of Pinay and other Asian Pacific Islander American women: “Praise the trafficked body, the one that is excised. On smartphones, with hashtags, we lament the phantom part.” Perhaps it was Lee Puey You, deported after 20 months of detention, “embarrassing and shameful” sexual examination and interrogation, who etched the question into Angel Island’s walls: “Will I always be a secret?” Morality and sexual deviance were codified as criteria for Chinese women immigrants since before the Page Act 1875, banning them for almost a decade prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Rajiv Mohabir tells another defiant tale of the “despised minority” hidden along trade routes: “I was born a crab-dog devotee of the silent/ god, the jungle god, the god crosser-of-seas…. Now/ Stateside, Americans erase my slave story;/ call me Indian. Can’t they hear kalapani/ in my voice, my breath’s marine layer when I say?” Slave codes were updated with the word “coolie,” and hundreds of thousands of Indian and Chinese men arrived on the same or updated slave ships to Trinidad, Guayana, Canada, Peru, Cuba, and California. These would be sites of expulsion, violence against Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Hmong, Korean and others identified as Asian, including an interhemispheric roundup that incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese of the Americas during World War II and an ongoing century of invasion, carnage, militarization, colonialism, exploitation and erasure from North Africa to West Asia.
“What’s/ the difference between memory told and memory burned?” Tiana Nobile asks us this fundamental question as we continue to refashion and reiterate who is the other to our us and the great myths that bind us. But whether spurred by imagination, violence, longing or resistance, ask we must. To borrow from Sahar Muradi and Zohra Saed: ”And the whisper started, the itch spread, and grew and ballooned, and before I knew it — I leapt in — with everything on and with all abandon.”
- Teow Lim Goh — “City Hall,” “The Walls Speak”
- Rajiv Mohabir — “Coolie”
- Sahar Muradi & Zohra Saed — A Secret Life in Misspelled Cities & “The Misspelled Cities”
- Tiana Nobile — “Revisionist History”
- Bao Phi — “Adrift”
- Barbara Jane Reyes — “Psalm for Mary Jane Veloso,” “To Love as Aswang”
Prompt 1: Write 10 lines that begin with “I am from.” On another page, write 10 lines that begin with “Because of this I am.” See what poetic combinations emerge. Bonus Prompt: Use a combination as the first line of a new poem.
Prompt 2: At your next friends or family gathering, do an exquisite corpse of sayings. Pass around a piece of paper. Each person writes a saying they remember from their youth and folds it over before passing it to the next person. Read all the sayings as a group poem, see what collective beliefs emerge.
- Take action against the record deportations to Southeast Asian Americans and end continued U.S. state violence against people of color — stand in power with communities of color and stop the next deportation flight! Follow posts on this Facebook Page..
- Support organizations who are led by people who live and fight for social justice for our communities — give to Asian American leadership organizations like Kundiman, Mekong NYC and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.
- Consider what it means to give in solidarity. Support arts and culture and community-led philanthropy — give local community funds where your gift will go directly to people who are changing the world from the ground up.