(Re)Defining Asian American Literature
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is a Vietnamese-American writer from the Washington, D.C., area. His fiction has appeared in Fiction International and was nominated for a 2005 Pushcart Prize.
Gerald Maa's writings and translations appear or are forthcoming in places such as Chinese Writers on Writing, Common Knowledge, American Poetry Review, and Studies in Romanticism. He has earned fellowships and grants from the Library of Congress Asian Reading Room, the Bread Loaf Conference, and the International Center for Writing and Translation. Having earned an MFA from the University of Maryland, and currently pursuing a PhD at the University of California-Irvine, he is a founding co-editor of The Asian American Literary Review.
Interview by Priyatam Mudivarti
On your website it's mentioned, AALR aims to publish "an expression of our needs … [and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.” Could you expand on that?
Lawrence Minh Bui Davis: For AALR, an organization perched between the literary and the cultural, between arts and history, the place of politics is a delicate matter. We need to signal our imperative to address the political—here by way of the moral—without subsuming or erasing the aesthetic. And there’s the “our” of “our needs” that is also compelling. We want to speak to collective needs, the idea of writing into the circuits of communities, addressing the question of how expansive an “our” might be.
Gerald Maa: The quote comes from one of America's most subtly political poets, Marianne Moore. It comes from her essay appropriately titled "Feeling and Precision." Any gloss of this quote does it injustice. I'd encourage everybody to take a gander at this hidden gem. This quote has all the ingredients: feeling, need, craft, and social consciousness. And she puts them together in the right way; I like how she equates "expression of our needs" with "feeling modified by the writer's moral and technical insights." Feeling unadulterated is not what we seek. We seek a feeling that becomes an expression of necessity after the artist attends to the impulse with equal parts aesthetics and ethics.
I enjoyed reading the forum section (David Mura, Ru Freeman, Alexander Chee) in your September 2010 journal: What struggles does the Asian American Literary journal face today? What struggles does Asian American literature in general face? I'd like to know your thoughts.
LMBD: If you listen to our contributors, like David Mura, for instance—commenting in the issue you mention and in our most recent issue, out this past April—a major struggle facing Asian American lit is the idea of “post-Asian” or “post-race.” Of course there have always been tensions about writers’ responsibilities to communities. Listening overmuch or not enough to communal edicts and the lessons of past generations. I’d add the dangers of looking at Asian American lit in isolation from other literatures, cultural productions, and histories. Balance those against the dangers of not considering the particularities of Asian American lit, cultures, communities, and histories quite enough.
GM: I’ll start with the most quotidian answer first, David Mura’s answer: money. It’s a problem shared by all literary non-profits. I’d like to re-emphasize Lawrence’s point: navigating between a generality that loses all particularities and a ghettoizing of who gets to speak (i.e. only we can speak for ourselves). Asian American literature is also not immune to the danger of having considerations of literary form and considerations of social understandings separate from each other too fully.
What does "a day in an editor's life" at AALR look like, especially around submission dates?
LMBD: Well, here’s yesterday. Nuts and bolts to start, sending out invoices and paying bills. Working through an email backlog. Clarifying ad specs, with me as the befuddled middleman between our designer and the advertiser.
Now the high romance of editing tedium crescendos. I call Gerald—he’s in Irvine, I’m in MD—to discuss a new project we’re cooking up; I miss him. He calls back a minute later and misses me. I call back and miss him. He calls back and I actually manage to answer but learn he only has thirty seconds to talk. We make plans to talk later. We both forget.
Next I have a meeting with the president of the University of Maryland’s MBSA, or Multiracial Biracial Student Association, a vibrant student group profiled in The New York Times series “Race Remixed.” AALR is hoping to work with the group this fall to pioneer a new editing/publishing internship program and community partnership for the development of our 2013 special issue on mixed race. The meeting’s great. End of work day.
I suppose most days are rather like this, some combination of the mundane and the terribly promising. Around submission time things simply get contracted, with more time given over to handling the submission flow, coordinating readers.
Is it fair to say immigrant life, dynamics in family structures, and identity crisis are among the common themes with Asian Literature? What other Asian American themes have intrigued your interest in the recent past, and why?
LMBD: That’s fair to say, yes-—immigration, family, and identity form the thematic foundation Asian American lit has and will continue to explore. New Asian immigrants arrive every day, and as the poet Shailja Patel reminds us, (im)migration is never a discrete moment but a continuous circulation. Other themes? We’ve been particularly interested in the legacies of September 11th for South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab American communities. We have special issues on mixed race and AAPIs in the military coming up, and a special feature on prisons in the works.
GM: I think Asian American literature has the capacity to foreground these themes mostly because, for better and for worse, the literature has been predicated on this triumvirate. I will say, though, that Asian American literature doesn’t necessarily have a privileged space to speak about these themes, nor an obligation to. Each marked community is condemned with its own abnormal sense of family and identity; (im)migration is also a theme that impacts each community in different ways. As Baldwin exhorts time and again, because the daily lives of marked communities are undergirded by a hyper-awareness of society’s oppressive pressures on those marked other, artists from these communities naturally tend to engage with these issues.
I’ll turn back to the Moore quote and underscore the word: modify. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the social consciousness of life as an Asian American needs to manifest itself in AsAm literature, but I would want to clearly see that moral insight modifying the emotive source of the work. As white as it may be,The Great Gatsby is clearly modified by Fitzgerald’s sense of the pitfalls of race, as is the case with Remains of the Day. One of the exciting things about this work is continually stumbling on all the interesting work out there. The most recent saliva-inducing topics include: Asians of the Americas, labor, non-English speaking APIA communities, engagement/interventions with literary traditions, and Asian American sexualities.
When I read English translations of Murakami or Roberto Bolano or classic Indian Literature (Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand) I often wonder, has the author’s intent of emotion been lost in translation? Asian families -- and I'm sure most immigrant families -- conduct family matters and display sentiments different than American families. A conversation among a father and son or a brother and sister often convey a range of emotions that can be subtle yet come across as "too sentimental" for an American reader if not translated well. As an editor how do you assess the emotional contract of a translated poem or prose?
LMBD: In 2011 I attended a reading by the poet Hiromi Ito, a relatively recent transplant to the US who still writes only in Japanese; by reading’s end, I turned around and my mother was crying. That was one register--nothing lost in translation, in fact something gained by the frisson of translation, thanks to the dynamic pairing between Ito and her wonderful translator, Jeffrey Angles, who made translation part of the performance. Translation has that opportunity to not only portage “emotion” across boundaries but to engage the idea of migration itself, to express in form and process the joys and difficulties of translated lives.
As you suggest, many Asian American families “live” in languages other than English, or are bi- or multilingual. This is a reality AALR wants to celebrate and grapple with at once, and running work in translation is a way to do that. Approaching the matter that way, as opposed to approaching it in terms of an emotional contract, is necessary, I think. So not “how is it coming across or not coming across appropriately?” but “it’s vital that we run work multilingually.”
GM: It’s interesting to extend inherent pitfalls of linguistic translation to cultural/familial translation. I'd like to modify it a bit, perhaps with an anecdote as well, this one about my grandmother. So I too walked along that path well travelled by heritage speakers of my generation. English is not my mother tongue. All things puberty catalyzed a “who am I?” era built partly upon my equally inadequate English and Chinese. Part of my self-reinvention in undergrad was taking Chinese class, and in freshman year I was part of an “accelerated beginning Chinese” track. After a couple of years, I finally worked up the nerve to test my Chinese out on my grandmother. It was a rush—-that mindless zone of which athletes speak. But five minutes into to the conversation, Grandma hit the table, pointed at my face, cackled, and said, “Your Chinese is as bad as mine.” Puzzled, I bailed on the conversation within minutes. Later I asked my mom what grandma meant. Apparently she was raised in Japanese occupied Taiwan, which means she’s fluent in Taiwanese and Japanese, but her Mandarin is at a middle-schooler’s level.
To this day we communicate in our less-than-fluent Chinese—hers admittedly better than mine, still—on my regular visits to her place in Little Tokyo.
In what circumstance would you select an unpublished author over, say, Alice Munro?
GM: I revere Alice Munro's work. Often I think of her as one of contemporary Anglo-American literature's five best writers when it comes to literary chops. The response off the top of my head is the most rudimentary one: although we're committed to diversifying the participants in the conversations gathered by our issues, we're equally committed to making sure that they contribute to conversations around Asian American literature. Basically, our mission statement is our litmus test: "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." For evidence, I'd point you to writers such as Afaa Michael Weaver, Joshua Rivkin, and Allan Kornblum. So, even though I'm sure Ms. Munro believes in our mission statement in spirit, I've yet to see that spirit manifest in a story; this is a wordy way to say the most basic thing. (But, Ms Munro, if there's something that fits--whether it's a pentagonal block for this pentagonal hole, or a circular one that can be wiggled through--please send it our way!)
We at AALR enjoy placing well-published authors side by side with ones at the beginning stages of their publishing careers. We're proud of work from people like John Deary, April Naoko Heck, and Sangeeta Ray in our past issues, and we're excited to showcase long poems by Christopher Santiago and Misha Chowdhury--both first publications--as well as short stories by Varun Gauri and Alex Vallejo in upcoming issues. AALR likes creating continuity and conversations between generations of authors.
How does AALR support and nurture emerging writers after they publish through your journal?
LMBD: Our annual literary symposium-cum-festival features writers we’ve published or will publish, and always includes some “emerging” writer or writers: in 2010, the poet April Naoko Heck; in 2011, the writer Reese Okyong Kwon; and this year, the writer Anna Kazumi Stahl—who, I should mention, has published two books and is extremely laurelled but largely new to North American audiences, as she’s published almost exclusively in Spanish with only a few translations into English to date. This will change. For now, we can do our part via our lit festival to pioneer these and other writers by giving them performance space and exposure to new audiences.
GM: Right now we’re actually formalizing our commitment to nurture emerging writers by building our next symposium upon the idea of literary mentorship. This event extends from one of our current projects, an anthology about APIA literary-activist culture in 1990s New York City (due out in spring 2013). While chatting on the phone months ago, we saw the opportunity to highlight the importance of influence across generations and came up with the seed for a new project we call the A Lettre Initiative: Writing Across Cultures & Generations. We asked friends, writers, scholars, and community folks to nominate young APIA authors based in New York City yet to publish a book. After two difficult rounds of deliberation, we have our four writers (but we’re still keeping the cats in the bag). We’re going to pair each of the writers with a more established writer from the anthology, and each pair will have communication and mentorship for months. Some time next spring we’ll have a day’s worth of readings to celebrate the eight writers and the cross-generational relationships.
Priyatam Mudivarti writes fiction at late nights, writes complex software code during the day as a freelance software engineer, and documents people's lives taking time-off as a traveling documentary photographer. He has earned his bachelors in Computer Science Engineering and is currently pursuing an MFA from Pacific University. He is working on a collection of interlinked short stories and a novella, Yuti, set in India. He lives in Cambridge.