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Posts Tagged ‘Asian American Literature’

Last year several prominent politicians, including Donald Trump and Roanoke, Virginia Mayor David Bowers, evoked the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in calls for discrimination against Muslims. Clearly people have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore, the suffering that the internment caused. Furthermore, Islamophobia and the ignorance that it represents must be actively denounced and combated. We should not return to the discriminatory policies of a bygone era. In this spirit, I decided to start off 2016 with a post on one Japanese American family’s experience during World War II.

Recently, I interviewed a friend, Stacie Kageyama, whose family members experienced both the internment during WWII as well as the discrimination that those Japanese Americans outside the camps faced. While more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interned, they were mainly from the West Coast as well as 3,000 from Hawaii. Other Japanese Americans were not put in camps but faced other kinds of discrimination. For example, the part of Stacie’s family in Wyoming found themselves in dire straits when Stacie’s grandfather was summarily fired from his job and suddenly had no way to support his family.

Stacie has a Ph.D. in Forest Science from Oregon State University and a B.A. in Biology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Stacie and I first met as students in Boulder when I was working on a short story about the internment called “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal.” I asked Stacie if I could share her family’s internment story now as a rebuke to politicians who would have us treat Muslim Americans in a similar discriminatory manner.

I’ve put a transcript of the interview below (edited for clarity and length) so that readers can learn about this Japanese American family’s experience during WWII.

Interview with Stacie Kageyama:

MC: Where was your father’s family interned?
SK: My father’s family was interned in Manzanar in eastern California. However, my paternal grandfather, Kumaichi Kageyama, was arrested by the FBI soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Grandpa was born in Japan in 1894 but had been a legal resident of the United for more than thirty years. He was taken initially to a detention center in Lordsburg, New Mexico. They moved him to another detention center in Santa Fe at some point. He spent almost two years there but was never charged with a crime. He was finally allowed to join the my grandmother and their three sons in Manzanar at the end of November 1943.

Kageyama family before WW2

The Kageyama Family before WWII.

MC: How old was your father?
SK: My father, Hideo Kageyama, was six years old when the family was interned. His brother, Akira, was eight and their eldest brother, Hiroshi, was eleven. All three of the boys had been born in Los Angeles, California and were American citizens. None of them had ever been to Japan. Each of the boys enlisted in the US military when they were old enough. My dad enlisted in the Army during the early part of the Vietnam conflict.

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Stacie’s paternal grandmother, Kuniye Ueda Kageyama, is the women in the scarf on the left. Photo by Ansel Adams of the Catholic Chapel in the Manzanar Internment Camp. (Library of Congress)

MC: When did they get out of camp and where did they move afterwards?

SK: The family left Manzanar in October 1945. Internees that had relatives in states that were not on the west coast of the US could leave the camps before the war ended. They could also leave if they chose to return to Japan, found employment (away from the west coast of the US), or joined the US military. My father’s family stayed in Manzanar for as long as they did because they had no place else to go. They didn’t want to return to Japan because their sons were American. After leaving Manzanar, they returned to Southern California but they were essentially refugees. They stayed in a tent city set up by a Christian church until they found a place to live in West Los Angeles. My grandfather started doing gardening for people. My grandparents eventually opened their own nursery in West LA. My cousins are running it now. It’s one of the few family-owned nurseries still in existence in Los Angeles.

MC:  I remember that you had told me about your mother’s father’s experiences in Wyoming. I believe that all the Japanese American workers in WY had to give up their cameras, guns, and was it radios after Pearl Harbor? After your grandfather was fired, how long till he moved? Was he already married?

SK: My maternal grandparents had also been born in Japan. Two of my grandfather’s older brothers had settled in Wyoming. He joined them in Rock Springs to work in the coal mines when he was seventeen. He returned to Japan in 1924 to marry my grandmother and bring her back to Wyoming. My grandfather [Kikuji Kumagai] was working for the Union Pacific Railroad as a section foreman outside of the town of Medicine Bow when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The sheriff of Carbon County came to the house and confiscated my grandfather’s rifle and Kodak camera soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t remember hearing anything about radios. My grandfather was fired from his job on the railroad in February of 1942, as were all the Union Pacific Railroad workers of Japanese descent. The family lived in railroad housing and were given 48 hours to evacuate their house. One of their neighbors helped the family to find a place to live in Medicine Bow. People in town tried to help the family by giving my grandfather odd jobs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to support a family of six and they ended up moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, where my grandfather’s brother’s family was living. I’m not exactly sure when they moved to Utah. It was some time between February and June of 1942. We have a postcard in the family photo album from one of my mom’s classmates in Medicine Bow. It’s addressed to my mother in Salt Lake City and it’s dated June 12, 1942.Kumagai Family

The Kumagai Family.

MC: Can you tell me again about your maternal grandparents’ experiences during WWII? Did you say that your grandfather tried to get a job as a cook in a hotel but they asked him to make a salad with blue cheese and he spent a lot of time taking the mold out because he thought the cheese had gone bad? What did he end up doing? Also, was your grandmother the pastry chef during this time?

SK: My grandfather found a employment as a cook in the restaurant at The Hotel Utah in downtown Salt Lake City. He was told to make bleu cheese salad dressing but had never seen bleu cheese before. He thought that the cheese had gotten moldy and tried to salvage what he could. In spite of the bleu cheese incident, the management of the restaurant continued to employ my grandfather. I believe that he continued to work there for several years after World War II ended.

My grandmother [Tamai Tsuru Kumagai] also found employment working in a restaurant in Salt Lake City. She worked at Lamb’s Grill until my grandparents moved to California in the 1950s. Yes, she was the pastry chef and learned to make all kinds of pies, cakes, eclairs, etc.

MC: Thanks, Stacie!

***

I hope in 2016 our political leaders and pundits will act more responsibly and not continue to evoke one of the darker periods of discrimination against a minority group in America as anything our country should do again. The internment disrupted lives permanently—one-fifth of all former internees ended up living in poverty after being released from the camps, for example—and it is a blight upon the human rights record of the U.S. The U.S. government officially apologized for the internment in 1988.

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I was honored to learn today that my short story, “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal” will be appearing in a new anthology:  Approaching Literature: Reading, Thinking, and Writing 4/e by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl from Bedford/St. Martin’s/Macmillan.

The anthology will be coming out in September 2016!

“Your Grandmother, the War Criminal” is a story within a story. A grandmother is teaching her granddaughter how to fold origami cranes at the same time that she is telling the story of her own mother and their life together in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. When I was writing this story, I liked the idea of a story about family history being embedded inside a lesson on how to do something. In my experience, this was how women passed down family stories–talking while their hands remained busy.

I remember my own paternal grandmother telling me about her mother in China as she was trying to teach me how to knit.

I had a weird plastic Barbie-brand knitting machine, which was supposed to create a knitted tube dress that would fit any Barbie doll. Nai-nai took one look at it and tsked, and quickly unraveled the hideous multi-colored tube. Instead she whipped two knitting needles and showed me how to cast on then knit a straight row.

“My mother taught me in China,” she said. “Now you try.”

I was able to knit only a few rows before I began dropping stitches. My rows were uneven, looking like hideous crooked teeth in a candy-colored mouth. The kit had come with a small skein of rainbow-colored yarn, which was all the rage in the flower-powered 70s, but not so attractive to think about now. I kept going, however, until I had a long, oddly twisted rainbow with a hole in the middle. I had no idea where the hole had come from.

Nai-nai took the needles from my hands, and rapidly undid my stitches then re-knitted the rows so that they were straight and even, the hole completely gone.

“How did you do that?” I asked. Her fingers had moved too fast for my eyes to follow. “That’s amazing!”

“No, no, no,” she said. “I’m no good. My mother could really knit. Long scarves, sweaters.” She gestured in the air, miming a garment she didn’t know the word for in English. “She could fix anything.”

And then, remembering, Nai-nai began to cry and she stopped knitting to wipe her eyes.

Thinking about her mother, who had died long ago, always made my grandmother cry.

I never really learned to knit well, I had neither the knack nor the patience, but I never forgot this moment, the way the story was knitted into the scarf.

Origami-crane

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This fall I decided to take advantage of the fact that I’m living in San Francisco and take an Asian American Studies class at San Francisco State University. Most universities and colleges don’t offer Asian Asian Studies courses or have such a department. My undergraduate institution did not. The schools where I’ve taught did not. In fact, SFSU is the birthplace of the academic discipline of AAS. Back in 1968, students demonstrated, occupied buildings on campus, and demanded new fields be introduced into the canon…including the inclusion of Asian Americans. Hence for the first time in the United States, a university offered classes about both the history and present-day concerns of Asian Americans in the fall of 1969 at SFSU. Naturally, I felt very excited to be able to take an AAS class at the very university where the field began.

So thanks to Professor Isabelle Pelaud, I was able to attend her amazing class on “Asian American Women Literature and Arts.” I don’t think I’ve ever been at a school that specifically looked at Asian American women artists before! I’ll blog more about the incredible artists I’ve now met because of this course, but today I wanted to look at the literature side of the equation. In addition to various critical works, we read three novels: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which was published in 1975 and was the first real break-out hit for an Asian American writer; Fae Myenne Ng’s beautiful Bone, about a Chinese American family from Chinatown who are trying to cope with the suicide of the middle daughter; and lê thi diem thúy’s poetic novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, which explores a Vietnamese refugee family’s sense of loss as they try to adapt to life in San Diego.

One of the questions that came up in class was whether these works (two of which are considered canonical in Asian American literature) are relevant to today’s Asian American students. Can young people today still relate to the struggles of a Chinese American daughter trying and failing to meet her mother’s expectations? Or to the travails of a very poor family in Chinatown? Or to the story of the so-called “boat people”? I know that there’s a feeling amongst some editors in the publishing industry that these kind of “ethnic” stories are harder to sell these days, that we’re living in a “post-racial” era and young people today just don’t relate to these issues and don’t need stories that specifically show anyone’s ethnic background or experiences. There’s certainly a feeling in Hollywood that generic sells better.
From my experience in class, I can say students today DO relate to these stories and they wonder why these vivid portraits don’t seem to penetrate into other areas of the media–like TV shows or movies! Yes, I wonder that, too.

In our last week of classes, I asked students if they’d be willing to state publicly on my blog why they related to any one of the books that we studied in class. Many of the students had great responses and I’m now going to post them below so everyone can read them, too.

“The sentiment that literature produced by Asian American women has never been or no longer is relevant speaks not only to an unfounded lie but also to a dangerous one. For a long time now, the voices of Asian American women have been silenced by a mainstream that refuses to acknowledge their presence in society. The justifications are largely racist, sexist, or both, but remain nonetheless accepted or infrequently questioned, such is the way we have been conditioned to viewing Asian Americans as ‘others’ and women as inferior. More than ever, there exists the need for that silence to be broken, that lie to be challenged, and that cycle of exclusion to end; to cast aside literature written by Asian American women is to deny the expression and perspectives of those who only enrich our sense of culture as a whole and allow us to see what is familiar to us in a new light.”—Christine Lee

“Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior was a controversial book during the 80’s, yet it is still important today. Children of immigrant parents and their experiences are still relevant. Expectations of what parents want and what children want for themselves are what I can relate to. Balancing two different generations and two nationalities are what young Asian Americans have to confront today as they did when this book was first published.”—Terry Nguyen

“I live in a paradox where my parents, especially my mother, think that I should act a certain way or do certain things. I feel like no matter what I accomplish, it will never be good enough for my mother. Similarly, I felt that sense while reading Woman Warrior as she felt like her life has been a disappointment to her mother because she hadn’t achieved the accomplishments that she [the mother] had, such as getting a medical degree. It was nice being able to read and relate to someone about this because although my Asian American friends are supportive we rarely talk about our feelings of inadequacy.” J. [name withheld by request]

“How do you know where your soul comes from if no one ever told you? In Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior she brings to life part of your soul in her short stories. Even though her work was published generations before my time, the interpretation of her stories opened up my soul in acknowledging the meaning behind each story. Not only did I get a better understanding of myself, I also became aware of many struggles and explanations behind Asian American women stereotypes.” –Andrew Shotiveyaratana

“In The Woman Warrior I was stunned by how strongly the idea of silence was demonstrated throughout the book. Speaking as a male Asian American in the 21st century, [I find it] hard to imagine the struggles that many women (especially Asian) had to go through. Even today we continue to struggle for our voices to be heard especially as Asian Americans. I believe that the only way for us to break the silence altogether is if men and women join together for our voices to be heard.”—Jesson Ballesteros

“I can definitely relate to Maxine Hong Kingston’s book, The Woman Warrior. Also coming from an Asian family, the feelings of inadequacy and pressure that the narrator feels are applicable to my life growing up. I got good grades in school, constantly on the honor roll and extremely obedient. To other parents, I would seem like the ‘perfect daughter.’ But the truth is, whatever I did, my parents usually never saw the glass as half full with my excelling grades or my compliant behavior, but only half empty and constantly wanting more. I wanted to be an artist, and they would tell me, ‘Artists don’t make money, you should be a doctor.’ That’s confusing when you’re a young girl. It left me thinking whether I should do what I want or if I should listen to my parents and be what they want me to be, even if it’s what I don’t want for myself. Like the narrator in The Woman Warrior, her mother wanted her to be a doctor but she refuted and expressed that she desired to be a ‘lumberjack or a news reporter.’ Reading passages like this from the book made me feel sympathetic towards the main character, considering I fully knew how she felt. –Kris Bondoc

“In reading The Woman Warrior this semester, [students] could clearly relate their own life to the reading. Coming from an immigrant family myself, [I know that] adjusting to life in America is not always easy to accomplish. Although witnessing and having pain within herself and her family, a family’s bond can be able to withstand any obstacles that come forth. [That’s] something that is timeless and everyone could relate to.”—Luis Cruz

“As an Asian American, I’ve noticed that my Asian culture does not receive as much attention as it should. It wasn’t until after reading Maxine Kingston’s The Woman Warrior that I could find [something to relate to]. In Kingston’s novel, it was evident that storytelling was an important aspect in her life and I can also relate and say storytelling is important in my life as well….The Woman Warrior presented so many stories that it almost felt like reading a book of life lessons, one after another, and it is this format and presentation that really caught my eye, connecting the mind, body, and heart with my Asian American culture. If more novels like these were published and made accessible to the public, more audiences like myself would be able to receive the same experience.”—Lauren Lew

“After I read the book Bone, I knew something that I never knew before. It is very interesting. I think I would recommend it to someone who had never read it before. Also if we want to know more about Asian culture and stories, we should support Asian writers.”—Jianhui Zhou

“[In] the book named Bone, written by Fae Myenne Ng, the author describes the relationship between daughter and parents. I like the way of the [narrator], as the daughter cares about the family and has the responsibility of her family. I like this novel because she makes me feel that I have a similar situation, like being a good daughter and taking care of the family.” –Yen Trieu

“After reading Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone, I found that I could relate to the daughters. As an Asian American young woman, I come from a family of five. I have a younger brother and older sister, and my two parents. I am not so close to my older sister as Leila was not close to Nina. However through distance, when Nina moved to New York, they built a stronger bond. When my sister left for college two years ago, I felt that the distance strengthened our bond as well. Also as siblings I could relate to the [parents’ idea] that one sibling’s wrongdoings could be prevented by another sibling’s influence. When Ona ended her life through suicide, Leila couldn’t help but wonder ‘what if.’ What if she had spoken to her sister? Could her suicide have been prevented? With my family, my brother was failing pre-calculus. My father blamed me for not stepping up to prevent that earlier. I also couldn’t help but feel a little bit responsible. Fae Myenne Ng’s book, and Asian American literature in general, is important to me and to many others. I can definitely relate to most situations. Therefore, we must encourage more of these writings and publish more Asian American literature.” – Corinna Tsieh

“[I really related to] the book Bone by Fae Myenne Ng because I grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and her story was similar to mine. Leon the stepfather really reminded me of my father. The old man going to the park gambling with other old people and the relationship between her mother and Leon. Even though my parents weren’t separated sometimes I feel they shouldn’t live together because it was better off that way. No one has to yell and scream at each other. And how her mother sneaks money to Leon. Even though she says she doesn’t care about him, she really does, just like my parents. They would never say they love each other or they care for each other. Although it is the 21st century now and things might seem like [they’ve] changed, it is still very relevant to every 1.5 generation, 2nd generation, and 3rd generation and so on.”—Carol Wong

“As an Asian American woman, I grew up in a large household of 4 sisters and two brothers. My mom was a very strict and strong woman who sacrificed long hours and work shifts to live in America. My dad was an accountant who lived in the Philippines, but transferred money to my mom monthly. Since I’m the youngest out of my siblings, it was always hard for me to speak up and have my voice heard. As the youngest, I was always picked on, made fun of, and never really had a voice. I relate to the book The Woman Warrior as I am trying to find my identity of a strong Asian American woman and having a voice to speak up with my opinions. I think it is always important to say what you want or believe in because it defines who you are as an individual. Voice is a weapon and it’s used to help and individual with the choices and actions they make. Still today, I am learning and working on having my own opinions and saying what I want to say. Breaking the silence is taking a risk, having self-confidence, and courage to break the fears of Asian American women being [seen as] passive and not expressive.” –Fergie Sabado.

“I can still relate to this [The Woman Warrior]. Women are still being looked down upon. In the Vietnamese culture, I feel that if a woman was pregnant without being married or pregnant with someone else’s kid [not her husband’s], they are known to have shame. When I am around people, I can still hear gossip, mean comments about these pregnant women. … I can also related to the way Maxine Hong Kingston explains in her book, women are always expected to do certain things. Everything that I do, my mother always reminds me to think of the family and don’t do anything that would cause the family to look bad. This [book’s issues] still exist today. Asian women are still facing the same problems.” –Tina Truong

“In the book The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thi diem thúy is something that is still relevant. Domestic violence is a big problem everywhere in the world and there are still a lot of women dealing with this type of situation. We don’t often hear a lot of Asians when it comes to domestic violence because they don’t really speak about it to other people. One of the reasons is they don’t want their kids to have no father figure in the house or they just want their family to be complete. Being a divorced Asian woman is bad to their profile, it is something that Asians make a big deal about. So this book is still relevant because not a lot of Asian women speak up about the abuse that happened to them at home.”—Honely Hinaniban

“The books Ingratitude and The Gangster We Are All Looking For are books that are still very relevant to us young Asian American readers today. Having to read this for class helps the readers deal with the hardships that they are facing in their own lives. Not only can these books be relevant to Asian Americans but anyone from any race can relate to it too since not only Asian Americans go through what the characters go through in these books.” –Olivia Peshev

The Gangster We Are All Looking For holds a certain meaning for me since the main character is Southeast Asian. As a person who is Southeast Asian I am able to relate. Oftentimes there isn’t much media representation for this group of people so it’s refreshing to read. More importantly reading this novel makes me realize that it’s okay to not fit certain images of Asian America that is perpetuated in the media.” –Mey Saechao

The Gangster We Are All Looking For is an inspirational epic…that closely relates to my life. …The novel has allowed me to take a step into the lives of a dysfunctional gangster’s home through the eyes of a young daughter. The novel helps me understand why some of the friends I have may turn to this lifestyle. Whether they are male or female, the unstable household pushes the children away making them want to seek a new home where people will accept and care for them. Some children commit crimes to go to jail so there is a safe place to stay with food and water.”—Nicholas Lew

“I can relate myself to the main girl from the novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For. In the book, the girl is not able to express herself because she does not know English. When I first moved to America, I only knew a little bit of English. It was hard to make friends because I could not communicate with them very well. I understand how she feels when she cannot tell others what she thinks and how frustrating it is to not be able to fit into the community because of her poor English skills.”—Karina DeFazio

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I was very happy to learn that a class of students at San Francisco State University were reading my book, Hapa Girl, this semester. English Department instructor Sheryl Fairchild invited me to her class this week to meet with her students and discuss the book.

The students had prepared great questions and observations about Hapa Girl, and we discussed the impact of fear mongering in the media on communities and individual lives, ongoing fear of interracial marriage (including the case of the Kentucky church that recently voted to ban interracial couples!), the current atmosphere of hostility against Muslims and Mexican immigrants compared with the anti-Japanese fears of the 1980s, and the need to speak up in the face of injustice.

I was impressed with all the students’ intelligent comments, questions, and conversation. Whenever I meet a great class, I know I’m also witnessing the work of a great teacher who has taken a lot of time and thought to put together her curriculum (in this case students read literature on social justice themes), and then teaches it well. Brava to Sheryl Fairchild!

(You can see Sheryl in this photo–she’s second from the right, leaning forward:)

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 (My publisher Trish O’Hare at GemmaMedia  just sent me a link to this review of Dragon Chica by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of the novel Gringolandia about life in Chile under Pinochet. This review just made my day! Writing can be a lonely affair, as writers never know if our works will be meaningful to other people. When I hear back from readers that the story resonates with them, I am cheered immensely!–May-lee)

Crossover Dreams: A Review of Dragon Chica

July 4, 2011

By

Reading Ann Angel’s review of Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami—and then reading the book itself—got me thinking about the crossover genre, books originally published for adults that have found a wide audience of teens, or books published for teens or younger children that have become adult favorites. My own Gringolandia first came out as a YA novel but is now showing up in college classes and on bookstore shelves in the adult section. In various stops on my blog tours several years ago, I participated in thoughtful discussions on why the novel was published as young adult rather than adult, as its teen protagonists moved almost exclusively in an adult world, with the high stakes reflected in this exchange between Daniel and his girlfriend after they’ve entered a brutal dictatorship (Chile under Pinochet) with forged documents:

With her finger, Courtney traces the map in the guidebook. “We have to be back before curfew.” She flips to the previous page and says, “It’s kind of like the government is our mother.”

“Yeah. Except she doesn’t ground you when you miss it. She shoots you.” (208)

The same high stakes characterize May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica, published by indie press GemmaMedia as an adult novel but of interest to teen readers who appreciated An Na’s award-winning YA novel A Step from Heaven. Like A Step from Heaven, Dragon Chica is told in chronological vignettes that end with the Asian-American protagonist about to leave for college after a series of crises that threaten to divide her family forever.

Dragon Chica doesn’t begin in the old country, however, but in Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s, where then-12-year-old Nea’s mother has abruptly taken the family and from where they will leave just as abruptly. Nea’s mother is accustomed to fleeing under cover of night. The family—including Nea, her older sister, her younger brother, and younger twin sisters—have escaped Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge for asylum in the United States following the death of the children’s father in the camps. Leaving Dallas, the family arrives in Nebraska, where Nea’s aunt and uncle own a struggling Chinese restaurant. Once prosperous, Aunt and Uncle have found few customers and much prejudice in their small town. Ultimately, Uncle will sell both the restaurant and Nea’s older sister’s hand in marriage to a wealthy and somewhat sketchy former business associate who is establishing a chain of Chinese restaurants in the Midwest.

In contrast to her submissive older sister, Nea quickly embraces the ways of the United States and of every place she has lived—hence the tough “Dragon Chica” image (and Spanish accent) she has adopted from her months in Dallas. She chafes against a family that sees her only for the labor she can provide and a community that refuses to accept her as an equal. She wonders why her mother, aunt, and uncle don’t treat her the same way that they treat her siblings, but her memories of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and her life before are dim and reflect the trauma of having survived the genocide.

Dragon Chica is a powerful and gripping story that offers a model of strength and survival to young people going through difficult times. Nea is far from a stereotypical “good girl” and her toughness and willingness to stand up to injustice add to her appeal. Although published as an adult title—and certainly of interest to adult readers—Dragon Chica belongs in teen collections. It is a story that transcends age, ethnicity, and immigration experience to cast light on all of us struggling against the forces that constrain our lives.

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Had a wonderful opportunity this weekend to attend a reading by my friend, the poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee, in San Francisco at the California College of the Arts, sponsored by Small Press Traffic.

With Juliette in Berkeley earlier in the week

Juliette read selections from poems from her books,That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Press),  Underground National (Factory School, 2010) and

Mental Comittment Robots (published by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2007)).

Juliette’s reading was wonderful and inspiring in her use of language, choice of metaphor, and provocative take on her subjects. She first read poems from That Gorgeous Feeling, which examine (in part) how Asian Americans are represented in the media. Opening stanza of her poem dedicated to Margaret Cho:

korea may be gay but I do not believe that you are./

korea is  a peninsula. You and I are people meaning that/

we have hair we comb and things to look at. our lips/

pout and take on the fullness of an adopted meaning.

In her poem/ode to Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Juliette takes a similarly playful tone:

Go, Mike, Go

“When you dash past, it could be I lose color./ Take this cup from me, I insist.”

And in her poem to Daniel Dae Kim, she describes him as:

a perfect symmetry

of both parts animal, feline and quizzical, and man

Underground National is more overtly political, examining the way nations are formed and deformed (in the case of North Korea) by geopolitical forces. Juliette juxtaposed various maps of Korea—-high-tech, ancient, satellite images, etc.—-as she read her poems, which often took as their point of departure actual news articles, briefing papers about North Korea, academic textbooks, and even dictionary entries. But the way that Juliette incorporates these found texts to subvert their original meanings and explore the way “history collides with human memory” (as her publisher’s website describes the book) is uniquely her own.

Finally she read one excerpt from her chapbook Mental Commitment Robots, in which she says she wanted to examine alternate states of consciousness. For example she said her poem, entitled “I am a hammerhead shark. I make no sound,” is a metaphorical way of examining how race is constructed in society: sharklike, always moving, carnivorous.

As a video of swimming sharks played on a giant screen in the background, Juliette read:

An alternative to an agreement is squeeze, applying accupressure to cartilaginoid joints that give under semantic duress. Pursue me across numerous divides, over chasms of understatement now clothed in subtextual, “common sense” racination. First I am blue and then a movement, a future in a song remanded to the stomach, a pair of milky eyes that refuse to triangulate, a stereoscopic ocean floor.”

Juliette is one of my favorite contemporary poets. As poet Tim Yu has written about her work, “Her poems move effortlessly from lyric solemnity to giddy play, resonating with the influences of Gertrude Stein, John Yau, and kung-fu movies.” I would add Korean American poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to that list of influences although Juliette is clearly her own voice and her own person, imitative of no one.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read more of Juliette’s work, I highly recommend all three books!

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New Mexico peeps! If you’re going to be in Albuquerque this Friday April 30, 2010, my reading at the University of New Mexico, Humanities 108 at 7pm is open to the public. And best of all, it’s free!

Flier_-_May-lee_Chai_Reading_-_2010.04.30

I will be reading from my work and talking about the writing process and my forthcoming novel, Dragon Chica.

See you in New Mexico!

Hapa Girl: A Memoir

Glamorous Asians

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