Signifying "Asian" and Afro-Cultural Poetics: A Conversation with William Luis, Albert Chong, Karen Tei Yamashita, and Alejandro Campos García

Article excerpt

Four years before his passing, the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer pointed out in an interview "You can see from my face I have a little Chinese blood."1 Of Chinese, African, Spanish, and French ancestry, Ferrer was earning change by shining shoes until a combination of happenstances led to his rediscovery and fame at age 69. His signature balladic voice, with the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban All Stars, launched a renewed global romance with Cuban music. Ferrer's story is one of art and redemption, but also, a story of cultural heritage. The debate continues over the merits of traditional versus newer forms of Cuban music. But we can ask another question on cultural heritage. Why did Ferrer mention his Chinese ancestry, and what does it mean that he had "a little Chinese blood?" Should it mean anything? Perhaps a more interesting question is: What could it mean? To us? This is really a question to the reader, the listener, the audience.

The story of Ferrer joins a fabled tapestry of Afro-Asian culture, arts, and politics. As Alicia Castro neatly put it, regarding her own multicultural family, "Our family is an especially rich recipe."2 In her memoir, Queens of Havana, Castro recounts the storied lives of a family brood. Upon the impoverishment of her father, a half-Chinese grocer, Castro and her ten sisters formed the all-girl jazz band, Anacaona. The band goes down in Cuban music history as one of the most wildly popular jazz bands of the 1920s and 30s. Castro points out, "We Cubans are not merely the descendants of white Spaniards and black Africans. We're made up of just as many ingredients as a good ajiaco." She begins her story by describing her father, his Chinese background, and early family life. "His heart belonged to music," she says, and he believed that "art should not be treated as a luxury; it should be treated as the focal point of life."3

Perhaps music, and jazz especially, is the apt metaphor for entering into a conversation about multicultural lives and the tensions between creativity, history, memory, and storytelling. Here, we have conversation with four contemporary writers, artists, and scholars, who recount the twists and turns of their cultural histories that span the Americas. William Luis, for example, reveals the play with cultural identity and the dialogic nature of representation. Eminent professor and literary scholar, he shares a colorful biography of family life that spans Cuba and New York. Albert Chong, the photographer and artist of international renown, gives a revealing account of his Jamaican roots and now diasporic life, peppered with sharp observations of social politics and color. Karen Tei Yamashita, the acclaimed novelist and fiction writer, recounts her creative and familial journey that crisscrosses Brazil, California, and Japan. And Alejandro Campos Garcia, doctoral student of sociology, embarks on a nascent investigation into the Chinese side of his family. All four accounts, surprising and fresh, reveal the complexity of how histories are intimately lived and remembered, or in some cases, forgotten and hidden.

These participants were chosen because they had already demonstrated the keen eye of critique in their own works on coloniality and power, art and cultural identification. Consider William Luis's work on Latino Caribbean literatures, Cuban narratives, and most recently, his book on the slave Juan Francisco Manzano, Autobiografía del esclavo poeta y otros escritos. Or, Albert Chong's deeply evocative series of installations and images, such as Color Stiil Lives. Take also Karen Tei Yamashita's four novels from The Arc of the Rainforest to Circle K Cycles, animated with satire, parody, and cultural conflict. Alejandro Campos Garcia's examinations of racism in socialist Cuba are another example of the same. Why not ask them to turn their creative talents and critical eyes to the biographies of their own lives? Fortunately, they agreed to this preliminary effort, and perhaps, might agree to reconvene and continue the conversation down the road. …