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Asian American Literature Forum Response by David Mura - Part 1

AALR Spring 2012 Issue

“Are there any continuities,” wonders scholar Min Hyoung Song, “between the earlier generation of writers which first raised the banner of an Asian American literature and a later generation of writers which inherited it?”

This is the question that the Asian American Literary Review’s Spring 2012 issue on “Generations” posed to writers, poets, playwrights, spoken word performers, scholars, and publishers of various generations, regions, and ethnic and artistic communities. What emerged was a vital survey of generational continuities and divergences—not to mention some necessary reevaluation of how “generations,” “Asian American,” and “Asian American literature” might be understood.

The AALR has generously shared several of the forum responses, poetry, and prose with Discover Nikkei from David Mura, Richard Oyama, Velina Hasu Houston, Anna Kazumi Stahl, Amy Uyematsu, and Hiromi Itō (translated by Jeffrey Angles).

Forum Introduction

The notion of an “Asian American” literature emerged at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, when members of a generation just reaching their adulthood began to connect their commitment to left politics with creative expression. A few short decades later, we find ourselves witnessing a flowering of literature by Asian Americans that would have been hard to predict. Are there any continuities between the earlier generation of writers which first raised the banner of an Asian American literature and a later generation of writers which inherited it? Does it even make sense to talk about contemporary American writers of Asian ancestry as comprising a generation, and if so, what are some of their shared commitments?

—Min Hyoung Song, Associate Professor, Boston College, editor of The Journal of Asian American Studies, author of Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (Duke UP, 2005)

Forum Resonse by David Mura

Born roughly between 1945 and 1970, my generation of Asian American writers developed more in isolation than the generations coming after us. We were fewer in number, labeled exceptions in various ways—by other writers, by other Asian Americans, by our families. We had far less institutional support; if we entered an MFA program, as Asian Americans, we were singular and often initial presences. Frequently we felt ourselves embattled, that we had to fight for our presence at the podium or at the table. But we also developed at a time when it was common practice to make connections between poetry and the political movements of the day—whether it was the anti-war movement, Civil Rights and the Black Arts movement, the women’s movement and feminist poetry, environmental issues, etc.

To speak of a generation, you have to generalize. If this were a book, I’d make a number of qualifications to the following observations, which divide the generation after mine into two groups.

This past summer, the Twin Cities hosted the 2011 APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit, where APIA poets and spoken word artists from throughout the country read their work, held classes and panel discussions, ate and drank, danced and sang karaoke. Amid those at the conference, the poets of the next generation, a generation younger than my own, are now in their thirties and early forties. They included such nationally known figures as Beau Sia, Bao Phi, Ishle Park, Ed Bok Lee, Giles Li, Juliana Pegues, and YaliniDream.

As might be expected, these poets came to poetry within or influenced by the twin worlds of spoken word and hip hop. NWA, Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest, and others were part of the atmosphere in which they formed both their sense of language and political consciousness. And they carried these influences into the world of slams and spoken word. More often than not, these poets grew up in urban areas; they’re far more likely to come from working-class, immigrant families than from families of Asian American professionals living in the suburbs. In such an environment, the issues of race and class, and a sense of exclusion from the white American mainstream—whether socially, economically, politically, or in literature—were simply a given. These writers were more likely to be exposed first to poets like Quincy Troupe, Jessica Hagedorn, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Staceyann Chin, and Patricia Smith than Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, John Ashbery, or Fanny Howe. Like the first group of older poets, these Asian American poets view their work within a context of social commitment, community, and a struggle for social justice, as well as within the ongoing dialogue in this country on race. Poetry for them is a search for and an exploration of an Asian American identity.

In contrast to the APIA spoken word artists and poets, the Asian American writers I meet at the AWP conference are generally a different group. They’re more likely to have gotten their MFAs at institutions where, unless they’re unusually lucky, they studied almost entirely under white teachers and writers. For these Asian American writers, poetry is both a passion and a career. They’re more likely to have gotten an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school than from a state university. They’re more likely to have published in “professional” literary journals. They know Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, John Ashbery, and Fanny Howe. They’re less likely to know Quincy Troupe or Baraka, Shange or Staceyann Chin. Given their educational background, these poets come to their writing with a great degree of technical facility; they’re often hyperaware of the aesthetics that backdrop the books published by New York presses and prestigious university presses. If you’re going to find an Asian American poet who might identify with some notion of the post-racial or post-Asian, she or he is more likely to be part of this group. You would also be more likely to find an Asian American poet here who would argue a separation between poetry and politics, between poetry and community (between poetry and narrative, between poetry and content, between poetry and identity, etc.).

Again these are broad generalizations. In various ways many exceptions do exist—spoken word poets with MFAs, politically committed MFA poets, etc. (It should be noted, though, that the movement from spoken word poets to MFA programs happens far more frequently than a poet starting out in an MFA and then exploring the world of spoken word.) More importantly, the forward movement in Asian American letters will more likely come from writers whose work crosses and cross-fertilizes both of these worlds in terms of aesthetics and vision.

That said, if my above description seems to favor the world of spoken word, I do have my reasons. Those reasons have something to do with the more multiracial and multiethnic character of the spoken word world as opposed to the more monochromatic, white-based traditions of the MFA programs.

I’ve been speaking here of poets, but some of the contrasts I’ve outlined find a similar echo with fiction writers. At a recent AWP conference, one Asian American MFA fiction writer argued to me that she didn’t want or need to designate her characters as Asian American or write about Asian Americans. I told her that I didn’t want to prescribe what she should do as a writer; that was solely up to her. But I did ask, “Have you read DuBois? Have you read Baldwin? Fanon? bell hooks? Said? Homi Bhabha? Morrison’s Playing in the Dark?” She answered, “No.” I said her education and MFA program had given her only one side of the dialogue on race and literature. She’d made up her mind not only without hearing the other side of the argument, but really, for the most part, not knowing the other side existed.

And that, I think, is one condition the current under-forty generation of Asian American writers share. They have come of age as writers at a time when the American dialogue on race has been shunted aside through various arguments about a post-racial America. For many, when it comes to the ways race intersects with literature, their formal education has not provided them with the proper historical and intellectual context to understand the world before their eyes or the arguments people are making about whether race is still a factor in that world. Yet many of these writers possess degrees from prestigious universities and MFA programs.

At the same time, this generation of Asian American writers grew up in a time of transnational identities, when the borders between countries—whether economic, political, cultural, or personal—have grown increasingly fluid. For the Korean or Indian American of 2011, Seoul and Mumbai are far closer than the Tokyo of my grandfather’s time. But in order to understand these global connections one needs a history of how those connections occurred, a history which must include colonialism and empire—and thus race.

This week I’ve been reading John S. Wright’s Shadowing Ralph Ellison, a work which traces Ellison’s intellectual and aesthetic development and attempts to contextualize that development within the history of African American letters and intellectual tradition. This wide-ranging book moves from figures like DuBois, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes to contemporaries like Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Jonathan Edgar Wideman; from the blues to Louis Armstrong to bebop to hip hop; from the Garveyites to the Harlem Renaissance to World War II’s segregated troops to the Civil Rights movement to the Black Arts movement to the present.

Almost none of my formal literary education covered these traditions and history out of which Ellison emerged and wrote within. It was only outside school that I schooled myself in the likes of Baldwin and Fanon, Morrison and bell hooks, Kincaid and Cesaire, as well as African American music and social history. I would argue that knowing such traditions and histories is essential for Asian American writers, for only through such will they understand their own place in the pluralistic, mongrel culture and history of America (as Ellison maintained, American culture could not exist as it is without its African American component). Similarly it is only through an understanding of the postcolonial condition and its literary history that Asian American writers can place their own condition and history within our increasingly interconnected world.

Unfortunately, there are a number of writers of the generation after mine who do not know about, much less subscribe to, the arguments I’m making here. It’s easier in 2011 for Asian Americans to live and write as if our world is post-racial and no longer colonial. Some believe that’s a measure of progress, and in some ways it is. But that isn’t by any means the whole story—just take a look at various racial disparities in income, unemployment, incarceration, education, etc. or the issues surrounding immigration or voter suppression. And that’s what we should be after as writers—the whole story in all its complexity.

Part 2 >>

*This article was first published in The Asian American Literary Review, Spring 2012: Generations. AALR is a not-for-profit literary arts organization. To learn more about it or purchase a subscription to the journal, visit online at, or find them on Facebook.

© 2012 David Mura

Asian Americans authors David Mura literature poetry poets writers
About this series

The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

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About the Author

David Mura is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, critic, playwright and performance artist. His memoir Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of Year. His second book of poetry, The Colors of Desire, won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library. His first, After We Lost Our Way, won the 1989 National Poetry Series Contest. His most recent work is the novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire.

Updated May 2010

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