Beyond Lot's Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura
Slowik, Mary, MELUS
When God tells Lot to flee Soddam and Gomorrah, he cautions him not to look back. Lot's wife cannot resist the temptation and, as they rush from the great fire storm erupting behind them, she does look back and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. The fear of looking back and yet the compulsion to look back at the country that one has left behind infuses much cross-cultural writing in the United States today. The experience of immigration is a central fact in the lives of Asian, Hispanic, Mid-Eastern, Slavic, Irish, and Italian families in America. Even when the immigration is several generations removed, cross-cultural writers searching for their roots must in one way or another grapple with the event itself.
For many families, immigration is a traumatic experience. Expelled out of their homelands, immigrants must suffer the treacherous journey to America and then survive in a different and frequently hostile host culture. Families do not easily talk about these experiences. Migrations are frequently shrouded in silence and an unspoken prohibition not to look back. For Asian immigrants in America, the subject of this paper, silence about origins in Japan or China has been a necessary course as they have attempted to assimilate into a dangerous, frequently racist environment. During the era of the Exclusion Acts and the internment camps of World War II, having Asian origins and cultural identity incurred enormous penalties: job and home loss, deportation, even imprisonment and death.
The writers whom I am discussing in this paper, however, suggest that there are even more painful and damaging silences than those required by survival in a hostile environment. There are the silences families demand of their own members, both out of cultural tradition and also out of profound and unexamined ambivalence about cultural identity. Such silence passed on from one generation to the next robs sons and daughters of a knowledge of their own history and origins. It also places families in a void between cultures, where they can feel paralyzed by an inexplicable shame and guilt. It is the failure to look back, these sons and daughters claim, that tums one into a deathly statue. Lot and their own families may have the curse wrong. One has to look back in order to look forward. It is only by looking back that one escapes death.
Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, and Li-Young Lee came of age in the 1960s and 70s and gained literary recognition in the 1980s. One of their central projects, both as poets and as Asian American children of immigrants, is to confront the silence of their families head-on. In doing so, they write an intense and innovative lyric poetry that in complex ways broadens and complicates the first person, meditative poetry of self-examination that dominates American writing today.
Life, these writers insist, does not begin when an immigrant steps on the shore of America. Life does not start with the first sighting of the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge. Rather, immigrants take the history and culture of their country of origin with them and, whether they intend to or not, pass it on to their children who then live in a fragmentary world which speaks always of some other place, some other culture no longer fully realized or acknowledged. "The migrant voice tells us what it is like to feel a stranger and yet at home, to live simultaneously inside and outside one's immediate situation" (King xv).
The dislocation that the children of immigration suffer is not rooted solely in the break-up of personality, examined so fully by American first-person poetry. It also resides in the break-up of history and geography occasioned by abrupt cross-cultural flight. The landscape of immigrant families is strewn not only with personal symbols that are difficult to decipher but also with public symbols wrested out of a larger cultural context that would give them meaning. …