Diasporic Poetics: Asian Writing in the United States, Canada, and Australia

Gargi Binju

This book aims to question and broaden the category of “Asian-American” using contemporary scholarship in American and global perspectives. The category of Asian-American has been, according to the author, caught up in an “essentialist and binary trap" (p. 14) its exclusive focus on the place of origin and ethnic-specific frameworks. To counter this stream of criticism, Timothy Yu, Martha Meier Renk-Bascom Professor of Poetry at University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes to broaden the category to include voices usually ignored. Yu begins the book by delineating recent scholarship in Global South studies and African American studies, which, in his opinion, should serve as a model for Asian-American studies. Referring to the well-known scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Paul Gilroy, and Brent Hayes Edward he emphasizes the need to lay stress on “the processes of racialization and coalition” (p. 17) for scholars of Asian-American studies. Further, while the beginnings of the transgressive and coalitional category – and thus the term “Asian-American” – lie in the United States, this notion could be argued to have extended to other former British white-settler colonies such as Canada and Australia, to refer to their Asian populations. Put concretely, terms such as Asian-Canadian or Asian-Australian take directly from Asian-American tradition (p. 21). This is because the political apparatus left behind by the Empire implied similar racialization of Asians in these erstwhile colonies. (This is in contrast to Asians in Britain, who are usually understood as South Asians and not Japanese, Korean, or Chinese diaspora, which are the countries of interest to the author.) These twin aims of the book (to broaden the category of Asian-American to include works in other white-settler colonies and to analyze Asian-American as a coalitional category) serve the author to argue in favor of a “pan-ethnic racial category” (p. 46) that is political and transgressive in nature.

To achieve his aims, Yu establishes that the category of Asian-American was originally constituted as an attempt to bring together diasporic communities that faced a common experience of being racialized as Asian-American in the United States, rather than connoting the ethnic differences stemming from their places of origin. The author points out that the category of Asian-Americans was born at the same time as the U.S. civil rights movement. The subject matter of the book is the study of poetry. In the three countries under examination, an exploration of such poetry “has something to say about the distinctive forms that diaspora has taken” (p. 23).

Having established his project, the author begins with an analysis of the poetry of Janice Miritikani, who wrote in the 1970s. The motivation behind reading her work is to highlight the larger wave of Third-World consciousness in her writing. Through a meticulous analysis of her work, the author convincingly argues that at the roots of Asian-American identity lies the consciousness of a transnational context and an attempt to construct Third-World solidarity across racial and national borders. In Miritikani’s poetry, solidarities are built through the juxtaposition of images that underline the shared struggle under imperialism. Through this chapter, the author also demonstrates that the racism in the United States and the struggle against racialization is part of a larger struggle by people of color against colonization, which extends as far as Vietnam and Latin America. The author further justifies how this aspect is often ignored in Asian-American studies in favor of a narrow view of politics that stresses ethnic and cultural differences.

The second chapter of the book is on the Canadian poet Fred Wah, who highlights cross-national influences and exchanges of ideas between Asian poets of the United States, Britain, and Canada. Wah, generally not read as a Canadian poet, is highlighted in this book to precisely show the contrary. Yu draws the reader’s attention to the later phase of the poet’s work. The aim of this exercise is to demonstrate how despite the varied connections and inspirations of the poet, it would be incorrect to undervalue the Canadianness of the poet. The Canadian landscape has been a prominent feature of his later poetry, which was written outside of the group Black Mountain Poets. This substantiates the political value of the poet’s personal history and the landscape of Saskatchewan, which forms the significant background in the poet’s oeuvre. This body of work also helps Yu argue for a more complex reading of Asian poetry because Wah took inspiration from varied Asian traditions (e.g., the Japanese haiku) rather than fixating on his origins. For the author, Wah embodies an Asian Canada that is “a process of transnational convergence, a dialogic space that is always being rewritten across national borders” (p. 69).

The last chapter is an outlier in the book, as the focus is a Chinese poet Ouyang Yu, a bilingual author often read as a diasporic writer. Ouyang Yu often writes about the impossibility of assimilation in Australia and his inability to detach from an adopted country he finds difficult to live in. In his book Kingsbury Tales, the poet seeks to consistently disclaim Australia. Like Janice Miritikani, Ouyang Yu traces the origins of his racialized self, an identity at odds with a country that until recent history refused to accept racialized peoples. This chapter is an outlier in this book, as it does not seek to demonstrate how the category of “Asian” is historically constructed. Yu, based on his current experiences, emphasizes the impossibility of his assimilation in Australia. Thus,  this chapter exemplifies how the category continues to be constituted in imaginative narration to counter the contemporary experience of being racialized as Asian in Australia.

The strength of this book is in the leaps it takes to analogize and approximate the political and poetic endeavors of poets generally not studied together. In that, it breaks new ground. This book can serve as a theoretical groundwork for interested researchers and graduate students who wish to take on the project of linking cultural identity to transgressive politics and poetic works.