Imitation as Analysis: Quoting Our Families and Seeing Ourselves
In the spring of 2016, in the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College, I taught ASIAN 32001, “Nation, Self & Asian Identity,” which has been offered by the program on a regular basis since the early 2000s. The course was originally intended, I believe, to be an examination of literary texts by Asian diaspora writers from across the globe. When I started teaching this course, around 2008, I chose to instead center it around literary representations of legal and cultural citizenship in API literature. My teaching of it has been inspired in large part by readings of Karen Shimakawa’s National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Duke UP, 2002), Sunaina Maira’s Missing: Youth, Citizenship and Empire After 9/11 (Duke UP, 2009), and Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin, 2009).
I have now taught this course five or six times – I’ve lost count and my folder of syllabi is an archival disaster – but since who belongs in the U.S. is continuously being contested and redefined, our work in the class always feels like it is in dialogue with the present, even while we are reading a text about Japanese American mass incarceration or Angel Island detentions. I really love teaching this class for the simple reason that our texts and discussions center literature as a political project intent on articulating different writers’ understandings of Asian American national belonging and/or exclusion. When we as a group explore concepts pertaining to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities or Julia Kristeva’s articulation of abjection, and then apply those concepts to how U.S. national identity is imagined, lightbulbs frequently go off when students see how they, via the texts we are reading, are essential to the national project of making and re-making America while also being considered expendable, marginal, invisible, deplorable and deportable.
Somewhat relatedly, I am a poet by training and now practice that aspect of my creative scholarship as a translator of contemporary Swedish poetry. I am increasingly trying to work predominantly with Swedish writers of color, and in 2015 I completed the translation of a book-length poem by an Iranian-Swedish poet, Athena Farrokhzad. The book, White Blight, was published in the U.S. that same year, and for the first, perhaps only, time ever I saw reason to teach a book I had worked on in one of my classes. Due to renewed global attention to resurgent European ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, I thought it appropriate to shift “Nation, Self…” to yet again include Asian diaspora writers, in this instance Athena Farrokhzad, which would also allow for a kind of comparative framework I hadn’t previously fully explored in the context of my classes.
As you can see from the syllabus here, I emphasize the fact that artistic practice is a form of critical analysis; therefore, I encourage, even require, my students to engage in some kind of creative undertaking as a requirement for the class. Last spring, I was especially ambitious, and you can see that the way I structured the assignments meant that not everyone was working on the same kind of assignment at the same time. To be frank, I just couldn’t handle reading more 6-to-8-page essays, nor did I want to read everyone’s poetry at the same time, so the assignment structure was in part based on my own need for variety. However, once we reached the point in the semester when we read Farrokhzad’s White Blight, it became evident that everyone in the class wanted to respond to the text: it clearly moved many students to consider (or perhaps reconsider) lines they had heard their entire lives from friends or family. Many students in the class chose White Blight as the basis for their own creative writing assignments, and some also chose it as a text to work off for their audio/video projects. One student shot video footage from her home and paired it with an eery automated voice recording reading an excerpt from White Blight. Another student constructed a kite, wrote lines from White Blight across the surface of the kite, and then attempted to fly the kite by running down her street in Queens. The entire kite project was documented on video by the student-artist’s younger brother. The kite did, in fact, become airborn.
As you can see in the syllabus, the creative writing assignment allows students to borrow the form of their project from any literary work in the class, and at the same time, the themes of the work must be reflective of the student’s own analyses and relevant to the subject of the class, i.e., representations of API legal and cultural citizenship. One of the ideas that students seemed to really gravitate towards, understandably, was the notion that families can be understood as nations with their own regimes (some more oppressive than others) as well as spoken and unspoken laws. When students understood themselves as disciplined subjects not only in relation to U.S. society at large, but also within their more intimate spheres of “family” – and then especially in relation to White Blight – poetic floodgates seemed to open. The book’s emphasis on how revolution, trauma, displacement, and racism are passed down from generation to generation sparked students to consider the narratives within their own families and how they are (or aren’t) passed down through instruction and observation.
What I’m including here is not actually a formal assignment in the class, but something we produced on a whim after a particularly intense discussion of the book. We took five minutes for a brief in-class freewrite, where each student chose a “character” from their family (e.g., “my mother” or “my father” or “my aunt,” etc.) and then composed a line for them – so something the student had been told by this person, something instructive, cautionary, an observation about U.S. society, gender, power, and so on. We sat in a circle, and at the conclusion of the five minutes of freewriting, we went around the room and each student read their line so that the end result was this group poem. Students had been warned beforehand that they would be asked to read aloud, so no one was put on the spot to read something more personal than what they felt comfortable sharing. To me, the end result truly embodies the complexities of our students’ lives while also illustrating how art allows them to be critical observers of their own experiences in relation to broader social and political analyses.
I offer this example perhaps in the hope that you will do something similar, since I believe that imitation can free students up to engage in extraordinary analysis: I think this holds especially true for students who may not be especially confident as writers or speakers of English, or for those who have hesitation or even fear when it comes to analyzing literature, and then especially poetry. Given permission to simply imitate, and therefore inhabit, a poem, some of my most poetry-phobic students have understood that poetry is a way to observe and reflect; and, when asked to observe and reflect on what it meant to be young people in their families, they produced this fantastic poem.
Poem collectively composed by students in ASIAN 32001, “Nation, Self & Asian Identity,” inspired by White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad
My father said: Bahala ka na.
My grandmother said: You are Chinese; you are not American. You must speak Chinese at home. When you are outside, at school, you can speak English.
My brother said: Every person who lives here has to work.
My mother said: History is discussed so it does not have to be repeated.
My sister said: Our father is sick.
My aunt said: Women should not build their lives around their husbands but instead build a life together.
My mother said: We found you in a bamboo grove. You don’t look like either of us.
My aunt said: Wait until you are older. It is only because you are young that you care about others. You will learn that you must fight for yourself.
My mother said: Just marry rich. All your problems will be gone.
My sister said: You don’t have to listen to what they say.
My mom said: Lumalaki chan no.
My lola said: ‘di ka pa kumain? Bakit?
My mother said: If a person mistreats me it is because they are an anti-semite.
My father said: If you read in public, hide the cover.
My grandma said: Something that is too good is never true.
My father said: You’re damn lucky to be an American.
My father said: I thought you would never amount to anything.
My mother said: How can you take care of her when you can’t even take care of yourself?