Timothy Yu Reviews Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

1 December 2013

Among this range of voices, it’s interesting to consider how the work of Ouyang Yu, one of the best-known Asian-Australian writers, stands out – in perhaps an unexpected way. Ouyang’s reputation as a blunt critic of Australian nationalism and the Australian literary establishment might lead us to imagine him as a poet of political protest; framed in this context, however, he appears more as a poet of refusal, saying ‘no’ both to Australia and to China: ‘i don’t like australia / i don’t like china either’ (183). Ouyang’s ‘doubleness’ leads him neither to cultural nostalgia nor to cosmopolitanism, but to a biting (and often hilarious) misanthropy; his sardonic ‘My Identity CV’ describes him as ‘a stateless and statusless poet,’ a ‘cross-cultural fucker,’ ‘someone australia will regret to have’ – but perhaps above all, ‘preferring to be left alone’ (189).

I can hardly fail to mention Ken Chau’s poems, which are imitations of my own ‘Chinese Silence’ poems, which in turn are parodies of poems by Billy Collins that mention China in some way. All I’ll say about these pieces is that they’re a good example of linkages between ‘Asian’ writing in Australia and the U.S., and a suggestion that the kinds of issues that drive Asian-American poetry may be relevant to Asian-Australian writing as well.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets offers a dizzying array of Asian-Australian poetics – exilic to identitarian, earnest to ironic, formalist to experimental, cosmopolitan and feminist. Rather than presenting these as different phases in the development of Asian-Australian writing, or privileging one mode over another, it insists that all are simultaneously available to the Asian-Australian poet. This openness makes Asian-Australian poetry vital and exhilarating, but it may also prove to be the biggest hurdle to be overcome if the category is to cohere and prosper. Racial and ethnic modes of writing flourish not because individual practitioners independently agree on a particular aesthetic, but because such writers come together in a communal effort to establish such a mode. This anthology demonstrates beyond question that there are astonishingly accomplished poets of Asian descent writing in Australia, and makes a strong case that those poets should be better known by Australian readers. What it does not yet show is a self-aware community of Asian-Australian poets acknowledging each other and constructing a shared history. Beyond several testaments to individual friendships, there are few poems that speak to shared or collective experiences of Asians in Australia, particularly those that might cross ethnic lines.

It remains to be seen, then, whether the Asian-Australian poet-as-ironist, as artist free to choose among limitless styles for her palette, can find in that range of styles the basis for a more lasting sense of Asian-Australian literary identity – or whether she even wants to. Anthologies such as this one, journals such as Peril or Mascara, all represent major institutional steps toward forming a collective consciousness among Asian-Australian writers, and a collective awareness of such writers by Australian and international readers. In short, this collection has laid down a cornerstone. Whether the writers included in this anthology, and their peers, will find the category of Asian-Australian poetry a vital and enduring one, or whether they will move on to other identifications, all depends on the work of building that is done from here.

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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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