Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity

Synopsis

Foreign Accents examines the various transpacific signifying strategies by which poets of Chinese descent in the U.S. have sought to represent cultural tradition in their articulations of an ethnic subjectivity, in Chinese as well as in English. In assessing both the dynamics and the politics of poetic expression by writers engaging with a specific cultural heritage, the study develops a general theory of ethnic literary production that clarifies the significance of "Asian American" literature in relation to both other forms of U.S. "minority discourse," as well as canonical "American" literature more generally. At the same time, it maps an expanded textual arena and a new methodology for Asian American literary studies that can be further explored by scholars of other traditions.

Yao discusses a range of works, including Ezra Pound's Cathay and the Angel Island poems. He examines the careers of four contemporary Chinese/American poets: Ha Jin, Li-young Lee, Marilyn Chin, and John Yau, each of whom bears a distinctive relationship to the linguistic and cultural tradition he or she seeks to represent. Specifically, Yao investigates the range of rhetorical and formal strategies by which these writers have sought to incorporate Chinese culture and, especially, language in their works. Combining such analysis with extensive social contextualization, Foreign Accents delineates an historical poetics of Chinese American verse from the early twentieth century to the present.

Excerpt

The publication in 2002 of Maxine Hong Kingston’s William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University seemingly marked a turning point in the field of Asian American letters. It did so in part because the event suggested the possibility of a seismic shift in the established valuation of different expressive modes within that larger cultural terrain. For in this series of lectures, appearing under the title To Be the Poet, the acknowledged doyenne of Asian American literature gives formalized public announcement of her rather startling intention to write only poetry for the remainder of her career. Turning away from the genres through which she not only achieved her own canonical status but also did arguably the most of any single writer of Asian descent in the United States to make Asian American literature itself a widely recognized (and indeed recognizable) cultural category, Kingston opens her lecture/essay with a vision frankly astonishing for its display of ingenuous hope and longing anticipation: “I have almost finished my longbook. Let my life as Poet begin. I want the life of the Poet. I have labored for over twelve years, one thousand pages of prose. Now, I want the easiness of poetry. The brevity of the poem. Poets are always happy. I want to be always happy” A bit later in her testimonial, Kingston elaborates upon her conception of what this “life of the Poet” entails:

The Poet’s day will be moment upon moment of gladsomeness. Poets do
whatever they like. They take off whenever they please—to the garden or the
shops or the park for strolling or rollerblading. They dine with friends. They

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