Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Politics of Ethnic Authorship: Li-Young Lee, Emerson, and Whitman at the Banquet Table

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Politics of Ethnic Authorship: Li-Young Lee, Emerson, and Whitman at the Banquet Table

Article excerpt

What is it in me would devour this world to utter it? ... I would eat it all to utter it ...

I would devour this race to sing it ... I would eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his soporific transcendence.

--Li-Young Lee, "The Cleaving" (83)

In one of his longest and best-known poems, "The Cleaving," Li-Young Lee announces his desire to devour Ralph Waldo Emerson like a steamed fish in a Chinese meal. The reader forgives this breach of table etiquette because, as Lee informs us, Emerson said the whole Chinese race was ugly--he deserves to be eaten. But Lee's poem is more sophisticated and more philosophical than this tit-for-tat scenario suggests. In "The Cleaving," eating is assault, but it is also digestion and assimilation.

Lee brings the butcher's shop close to the banquet table by deliberately playing on the two senses of the verb "cleave" to suggest both chopping up and clinging to, and thus the poem vacillates between the act of rejection and the process of assimilation. Eating in this poem may begin with the butcher's chopping block, but it is ultimately about communion.

The dialectics of Lee's poem reveal a blind spot in contemporary critical theory's discussion of the ethnic author. In valorizing the so-called marginal element in ways that reproduce it as "central" to our cultural concerns, contemporary criticism, in spite of itself, insists upon the segregation of the "ethnic writer" from the "mainstream." As such, we are in danger of patronizingly valuing ethnic writing as a "dynamic" and "colorful" literature of outsiders that brings new "life" to America's tired literary traditions. By insisting on marginality for ethnic authors, we also ignore the dialectical relationship that exists between these writers and the various traditions of American literature to which they, like any other American author, belong. Li-Young Lee's dinner/communion with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in "The Cleaving" illustrates what is at stake when we approach a given writer as either "Asian American" or "American." Lee's poem shrewdly questions the either/or between these authorial identities.


We often use the word "marginal" as if it did not undergo its own shifts in meaning, but the shifting relevance of "the marginal" in relation to the larger body of contemporary American literature highlights one of the most remarkable paradoxes of ethnic authorship over the past half century. A broad view of Asian American literary production and consumption over the past fifty years suggests that ethnic writing is no longer marginal, or, to see it another way, that marginality is no longer a negative marker to mainstream literary tastes. Asian American writers such as Diana Chang, Toshio Mori, Carlos Bulosan, John Okada, and Louis Chu published before the 1960s, but their works fell quickly into obscurity. Even in the wake of the civil-rights movement, authors and publishers saw Asian American writing as a risk. One famous example is Knopf's decision to market The Woman Warrior as nonfiction in 1976, perhaps emphasizing its tour guide status to Chinese culture (which sold well at that time) rather than letting it stand on its strengths as a novel. Also in the 1970s, David Wong Louie reports that he decided to remove the Chinese names from his stories in order to improve their marketability, a decision he made in response to rejections from editors who found his stories "too Chinese" (Simpson 67). (2) The marginal status of Asian Americans in the United States was at that time a purely negative factor for publishers. AS a result, most of the Asian American literature published during this period served to satisfy the curiosity of white American readers, and it reinforced the illusion of superiority enjoyed by white culture by presenting Asians as non-threatening and inferior. The Asian American writer was then the tour guide to the literary Chinatown. …

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