Forms of Asian Americanness in Contemporary Poetry
My review of Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry is in the latest issue of Contemporary Literature.
This is from the beginning:
There is a curious scene in Scott Derrickson’s 2008 remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still in which issues of race, foreignness, linguistic difference, and the extraterrestrial entangle. The newly arrived alien Klaatu (played by Keanu Reeves) visits a McDonald’s restaurant in human guise to meet alien sleeper agent Mr. Wu (played by James Hong).The conversation begins in Mandarin as the aliens discuss humans’ destructive and stubborn nature; they decide that their mission to save the planet by exterminating humanity should proceed. “Any attempt to intercede would be futile,” says Wu, who has been living on Earth for seventy years; “they won’t change.” The dialogue shifts into English as Wu announces—against Klaatu’s protestation—that he prefers to remain on Earth and die, as he has come to love humanity despite its shortcomings. The racial and linguistic coding of the scene is unmistakable: for Wu and Klaatu, who are phenotypically legible as Asian and Eurasian, Chinese is the uncompromising and bellicose language of alterity, while English, as a discursive medium for reflective, even poetic, sensitivity, humanizes them. “Human life is difficult. But as this life is coming to an end, I consider myself lucky to have lived it,” says Wu in his final lines of the scene.
Derrickson’s film underscores the fact that Asianness in America, whether manifested racially or linguistically, has been, and still is, associated with the threatening, radically distant, or duplicitous, a point that recurs throughout Dorothy J. Wang’s important book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry…