Timothy Yu Reviews Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

1 December 2013

It’s striking, then, that Contemporary Asian Australian Poets has not one, but three introductions, one written by each editor. Such a division quickly suggests that this anthology will not advance a single vision of what Asian-Australian poetry might be. Indeed, the themes pursued by the three introductions are notably different. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration, emphasising the writing of first-generation immigrants and their ‘comparative or bifocal vision’ (20). Michelle Cahill examines the work of women poets in the anthology and their experience of ‘double exile’ and marginalisation. Neither attempts a more comprehensive definition of Asian-Australian poetry; that task is left to Adam Aitken, who opens his introduction by asking: ‘What does ‘Asian-Australian’ sound like, and what does that sound say about ethnicity and identity in Australia today?’ (15) Rather than proposing a single answer, Aitken offers an intriguing binary: Asian-Australian poets may choose ‘to speak as a member of a minority culture and to be strategically essentialist, or to use the resources to speak doubly, to hybridise oneself, to reveal or to hide, to wear disguise, to ironise and parody oneself and others’ (15).

It’s worth stepping back for a moment to understand the choices Aitken is presenting. The first choice is what’s generally called (usually by its detractors) ‘identity politics,’ which is ostensibly grounded in the ‘authentic’ self-expression of a particular racial or ethnic group – in this case, writing ‘as an Asian’ about Asian topics. In Asian-American contexts, it’s generally associated with the ‘cultural nationalism’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Later critics have critiqued the essentialist and monolithic qualities of such conceptions of identity, arguing for more fluid and hybrid categories. So in the U.S. context, these two modes represent two different historical phases of Asian-American writing. What Aitken suggests is that for Australian writers, these two phases present themselves as simultaneous – two different modes from which poets can choose.

It’s not too hard to see where Aitken’s own inclinations lie, both in his introduction and in his own poetry. Although he gives due respect to ‘confessionary’ and activist writing, he seems more inclined to celebrate the ‘post-identitarian’ mode: to highlight ‘antagonistic or ambivalent feelings,’ to assert that ‘uncertainty is creative.’ Indeed, the very notion of the Asian-Australian poet as a poet choosing between different modes suggests a freedom from the limitations of identity politics: ‘Asian-Australians are chameleons or ventriloquists and take on a diversity of positions, or engage a striking range of moods, attitudes and modalities’ (15).

Turning from the introductions to the poems confirms this claim of diversity. As Kim Cheng Boey’s introductory remarks suggest, there is a strong presence of exilic or diasporic experience, with numerous poems that ‘look back’ toward a (generally lost) homeland. Sudesh Mishra’s elegy for fellow poet Ee Tiang Hong writes of ‘The wisdom begotten of high injury / And exile. It broke my life, he once said’ (159). Boey’s own poems mourn a lost cultural heritage: ‘In a few years my daughter will press / for her family history and tree / and I will have nothing more to show / than the withered branch that is / her dead grandfather. So much / buried, irretrievable’ (69). The formal, elevated styles of many of these exilic poems, steeped in the English literary tradition, suggests their authors’ movement among Anglophone postcolonial spaces: Malaysia, Singapore, India, Australia.

Other poems seem to reflect more directly on the Australian experience, raising issues of racism, assimilation, and generational conflict. Christine Ratnasingham’s poem ‘Dark skin’ recalls a ‘childhood / when nearly every student felt they needed / to remind me that I was not of their whiteness’ (210). Shen writes of his mother’s remark ‘Eating noodles…the only thing Chinese about you,’ and responds sardonically with ‘an inscrutable smile / and a filial, obedient nod’ (223). (‘I’m so tired,’ he adds in a subsequent poem, ‘of writing about / being Chinese as if it were / a loss’ [224]). The travels of the speaker of James Stuart’s ‘the white horse’ teach him that ‘I am from Australia, that I am an Australian’ – a person ‘whose marketable skills / include pressing the eject button on history’ (228). The title of one of Paul Dawson’s poems makes no bones about the political triggers for such writing: ‘Thanks for the Poems, Pauline Hanson.’

Still other poets adopt a more pointedly experimental style. Andrew Carruthers sprinkles musical notation into his lines and offers a madcap children’s tale of ‘reading Mao in the future.’ The prose poem is a favored form: Misbah Khokhar offers fantastical episodes that walk the line between family anecdote and myth. Bella Li’s poems seem to come to us from archives full of gaps (‘Two children are threatened by a              , 1924’), presenting a shifting ‘I’ that traverses allegorical terrains marked by colonialism and orientalism.

If this anthology does offer anything approaching a characteristic style for Asian-Australian poetry, it’s probably best described as a self-conscious, ironic approach to identity, ranging from the mildly humorous to the actively skeptical. Editors Aitken and Cahill themselves probably best exemplify this style. Aitken specialises in witty understatement, tracking global travel with a keen but detached intelligence: ‘Now I have visited China. / No more breaking ‘the insteps / of wellborn Chinese girls’ to decorate escape memoirs. / Just a bang on the door at 6’ (36). In Aitken’s hands, the Asian-Australian perspective becomes a cosmopolitan one, rooted in no single place but sharply aware of the layers of history, race, and colonialism that lie beneath touristic surfaces. While Aitken evades or undermines stereotypes, Cahill confronts them head-on. Her piquant ‘Kali from Abroad’ forces Eastern and Western popular cultures up against one another, imagining the Hindu deity as a ‘poster-goddess, sticking out your black / tongue, like Gene Simmons from Kiss’ (74). Cahill’s cultural hybridisations are playfully erotic and incisively feminist; ‘Parvati in Darlinghurst’ portrays the titular goddess as a dominatrix ‘flouting legend / with a preference for Estée Lauder’ (75).

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About Timothy Yu

Timothy Yu is the author of two chapbooks, 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish) and Journey to the West (Barrow Street), winner of the Vincent Chin Chapbook Prize from Kundiman. His scholarly book, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford University Press), won the Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies. Other selections from his ongoing project, 100 Chinese Silences, have appeared or are forthcoming in SHAMPOO, Mantis, Kartika Review and Lantern Review. He is an associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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