Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barbara Jane Reyes and What's At Stake?

Barbara Jane Reyes is asking the great question of "What's At Stake?" on her blog.

Yes, again.

One of the passages that's been resonating with me as I consider the journey of Lao artists is:
So many Pinay writers I know are so preoccupied with the autobiographical “I.” Preoccupied, and then painfully self-conscious that they are so preoccupied with that autobiographical “I.” This is not a criticism as much as it is an observation. I get it. We grow up in this country, never encountering people like ourselves in books, on TV, in movies. We think we are invisible. We need to write in order to make ourselves visible, but then become so self-conscious of our visibility, and our attempts to be visible, and then dismissive of our own attempts to be visible.

I see what she's seeing. I still wonder about a number of reports of Lao Americans who started an MFA program than dropped out, and somehow feel like they shouldn't still try to get their voices out there.

To me, if I wasn't validated by a former colonial/imperial power's literary program, it wouldn't stop me from writing or trying to express myself. But given my background as a trasncultural adoptee, I wonder if that's an artifact from a certain zone of privilege I was raised with that many others did not have as they struggled to fit in.

I lost count of how many Lao American refugees have thought the answer was to fit in, to not be a nerd, to not be 'stupid' which to me would be: exercising your individuality, to be able to think beyond lockstep conformity. God, I hate that shit. Under normal circumstances, it isn't normally a part of Lao behavior. But someone told them a lie that to succeed and thrive, you have to keep your head down and not make waves or peep about your dreams, your memories, your experiences. That somehow, it would hold you back.

There are a lot of moments where I hate the fact that most of our most amazing artists and community builders are changing the world in spite of our community, not because of it. That we've made such a hot crucible of dysfunction barely any expressive voices have come forward from our community after 40+ years in the US. It kills me every time I see an emerging Lao writer giving up or selling out because of some shitty writers workshop or MFA program. That so few of us can't take criticism or stand our ground and stand by our words, even when they're a personal distillation of our experience.

I don't want to sound hostile to MFA programs, but they're seriously bumping off Lao literati or neutering a bunch as far as I can see. Only a handful of us are escaping decent writers, although I haven't seen many books from them yet. And as my annual reminder to my students: You don't need an MFA to get published or to win awards. You need to be GOOD.

I took plenty of heat in the late 90s and early 2000s when I started sharing more and more of my work. Which, as I look back on it, went through a strange evolution.

Between 1990 to 1997 most of my work was what could be characterized as speculative poetry, and hardly anything autobiographical or cultural. From about 1997 to 2003, my poetry often flew in the face of Hmong and Asian American writers, especially in Minnesota. I felt pretty weird taking on subjects no one else was taking on. For one journal, I also notoriously submitted work that was almost always an offbeat take on their lofty theme. I got criticized a lot for being 'off-message' and not singing "Kumbayah" with everyone most of the time. I just wanted to write about things. All sorts of things. Big things, little things, new ideas, funny things, sad things, old ideas, scary things, fantastic things, family things. Whatever. Maybe not as extreme as Cheech Marin's speech in From Dusk til Dawn, but close. And I didn't give a shit if it didn't sound the same as my fellow performers' work. That was never the point of the art to me. I wasn't going to stop presenting my work because someone told me the word "No." Because that's not true art if you back down at the slightest resistance.

And now, 2007 on, I've gone back to speculative poetry, although more culture is infused within it.

I guess it's like being a version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer who liked the other reindeer but was perfectly fine going my own. Solidarity is nice once in a while but I didn't see it as a raison d'etre.

It's not like I was an English Major or an MFA, but I knew what I wanted to write and I was committed to being rigorous about it. The results of my arc speaks for itself. But it gets pretty disheartening seeing all of the Lao voices we lost on the way who stopped because they thought they couldn't cut it.

Writing it all out, I find myself once again turning back to the words of Langston Hughes, who said in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,":
"We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

It's a powerful essay from 1926 when expressing such a sentiment was more dangerous than most of us can appreciate today. I find myself seeing a parallel with my conversations with other Lao poets when Hughes says: So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

Barbara Jane Reyes goes on about how others have seen her work as foundational to them and she says:  I am deeply touched by this, but if I didn’t have my head on straight or develop nerves of steel, that would either turn me into a raging egomaniac, or paralyze me, or freak me the hell out, and also cause me to recoil.

I'm glad she has her head on straight (most of the time).

But anyway, like a good Kubrik movie, this is just an interrogative post, not a declarative. Think over some of what she's said, and see what else resonates with you:

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