Now You See Me: Three Asian-American Poets on Visibility

In the 7 May 2018 issue of the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson reviewed Jenny Xie’s debut poetry collection Eye Level, winner of the 2017 Walt Whitman award. Of her collection he writes with enthusiasm, “Xie’s swallowed commands, shorn of their predicates, suggest that the rules of her art cannot be codified. Xie knows the truth of what Wallace Stevens said about the power of poems: supplementing the manifest world with innuendo and nuance, supplying sound to spectacle, they make ‘the visible / a little hard to see.’ ”

The problem lay not with the text of the review but with the author illustration accompanying it, a headshot in washes of pink and purple, as if painted in watercolors—the image was of the wrong Jenny Xie. This Jenny Xie was a fiction writer and magazine editor based in Oakland who unexpectedly found her likeness sprawling across the page of a much-renowned magazine that has, for nearly a century, reviewed books by some of the greatest writers in the world. Upon Xie’s startling discovery, she tweeted a photo of the page and wrote, tfw your face is in the new yorker because someone is a lazy googler.

Fifty-four people replied to Xie’s tweet about the error. The poet Jennifer Cheng wrote one of them: Whoa. Sigh. Jenny Xu (the editor) and I once joked that we should have a panel with all the literary Jennys/Jennifers (Xie, Xie, Xu, Cheng, Chang, Tseng) so ppl can see once and for all we are distinctive humans with distinctive bodies of work.

Because I have my own long, sordid history of being mistaken for dozens of other South Asian writers over the years, none of whom I resemble physically or professionally, I couldn’t help but add: I’m sorry this happened to you. Sadly, this pretty much summarizes everything about how Asian American writers are seen in the world. When the magazine realized its error, it tweeted an apology to both Xies, issued a correction online, and stated it would issue an additional correction in the next print issue. Chiasson, the reviewer, also tweeted an apology. The online illustration of the fiction-writer Xie was promptly replaced with a photograph of the poet Xie. Certainly, mistakes happen, though mere laziness is not the only culprit here. It’s highly unlikely two writers named John Williams would have been mistaken for each other in a publication known for its rigorous fact-checking. Writers of color are commonly mistaken for one another. Thus, the presumption that two writers named Jenny Xie could not possibly exist in the United States at the exact same time is not surprising. A cruder, though no less accurate way of putting it—if you’ve seen one Asian woman writer, you’ve seen them all. 

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Colonialism, capitalism, and cultural appropriation are the white lenses through which Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States are primarily viewed. In books, film, or other forms of mostly-white-produced, created, or disseminated media, the world’s largest continent (both in terms of land area and population) is often portrayed as a monolith, with the sum of its billions of inhabitants and its diaspora reduced to mythology, perverse stereotypes, and the butts of jokes about hygiene or fertility. In a troubling report released in September 2017, “Tokens on the Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television,” researchers studied representation of AAPIs on broadcast television, cable television, and digital platform shows during the 2015–16 season. They found AAPI representation to be poor: “The television landscape continues to be littered with problematic racial stereotypes, including forever foreigner, yellow peril, model minority, emasculated men, exoticized women, sidekicks to White characters, whitewashed characters, and White experts.”

Moreover, the practice of “yellow face,” whereby white artists assume the roles of AAPIs in entertainment, has a long, sordid history in the U.S. In 1951, the Russian-American actor Yul Brynner played the King Mongkut in the Broadway hit The King and I (and subsequently in the 1956 film adaptation). More recently, Tilda Swinton portrayed a Buddhist monk in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson portrayed a Japanese manga character in Ghost in the Shell. In the longest-running television series of all time, The Simpsons, Hank Azaria continues to embody the absurdly accented Indian convenience store owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The message is clear: AAPIs cannot and should not represent themselves in narratives about their lives. 

Similar issues plague the literary sphere. White authors continue to write and publish books with deeply problematic depictions of AAPI characters, countries, or customs, including Paul Maisano’s Bindi and Jenny Feldon’s Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo. White savior narratives, wherein white characters rescue brown or black characters from their suffering, continue to thrive in publishing, despite online movements like #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which pressure publishers to include authors who write about their own communities. Many AAPI writers, among them graphic memoirist Mari Naomi, have written primers about how white writers can better write AAPIs in their own work. [See Naomi’s excellent “Writing People of Color (if you happen to be a person of another color),” which collects responses from several artists.] Still, the problem in literature persists. Over the years, AAPI writers have founded and forged organizations to push against the traditionally white literary canon and center the stories of AAPI writers. Two such stalwart nonprofits that do this work are the Asian American Writers Workshop, which has supported and highlighted the creative work of AAPIs since 1991, and Kundiman, a retreat for AAPI writers that has offered the gift of fellowship and community since 2004.

Kundiman has helped launch the careers of dozens of AAPI award-winning and critically acclaimed poets, including Fatimah Asghar, Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, and Rajiv Mohibar, to name just a few.It should come as no surprise that this year Jenny Xie (the poet) is a Kundiman fellow, as were two other AAPI poets who, like Xie, also won major awards for their debut poetry collections: Duy Doan, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets for We Play a Game and Amy Meng, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry for Bridled.

But the parallels among Xie, Doan, and Meng’s collections go far beyond their racial identities, their Kundiman connection, and their accolades. These poets engage in scrupulous and incisive studies of visibility, of seeing and being seen, and of the tension between these two congruent and opposing forces. They challenge, disrupt, and cross-examine the identity of the seer. They hold mirrors to truths that, once reflected, shine light on other realities—those more raw, unfiltered, uncomfortable, and ultimately more enriching. 

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Many publications use italics for non-English words in English texts, but over the past few decades, writers and linguists have loudly challenged this practice; notable recent examples include essays by Thu-Huong Ha in Quartzy and Jennifer De Leon in Ploughshares. Defenders argue that italicizing indicates to the reader that the use of the word is intentional, as opposed to, say, a misspelling of an English word. 

The primary argument against italics for non-English words is a persuasive one. It others or marginalizes the language and the people who speak it and deems the English language the norm, the standard for verbal expression, while suggesting that foreign, italicized words are an aberration. Critics of the use of italics for foreign words maintain that any close reader can deduce the meanings of words given the context and placement in the sentence. Italicizing, in and of itself, does nothing to aid comprehension.

A few years ago, young adult author Daniel José Older recorded a humorous video of himself speaking with italicized Spanish words within an English passage, where he pauses dramatically before and after speaking the Spanish word. For Older, italics unnaturally slow down speech. He does make one exception to this rule: “You know when you should italicize another language? When there’s emphasis on it, just like with any other word that you would italicize.” The italicized Vietnamese words in Duy Doan’s We Play a Game reflect Older’s philosophy of emphasis. They stress the fact that sounds in the Vietnamese language, specifically vowel sounds, enjoy a versatility and diversity that English vowels don’t have, and as a result, are more fluid and artful in presentation of thoughts and ideas. In an almost whimsical tone, Doan gently teases the reader about the fact that Vietnamese has a greater range of functionality than English; his use of italics is imperative and drives the narrative forward. 

In Doan’s first poem, “We Play a Game Using Tomatoes,” he introduces four italicized words that seem similar on the surface but have entirely different meanings. This poem almost serves as a brief lesson in Vietnamese:

 

Whoever steps on the seeds

 

 ca

loves to sing on penis,

 

 chua

and will patiently endure his

 

 chua

future wife’s nagging.

In the notes at the end of the book, Doan informs us that means tomatoes, ca means sing, and chua means sour. With these words, he constructs a narrative that cleverly plays with their definitions, and in some sense shows English-only speakers what they’re missing out on by not knowing Vietnamese. 

For many of the non-native narrators in We Play a Game, there is a partial language barrier. They miss or misunderstand parts of stories told by their more fluent elders. Here, the italics ingeniously represent the narrators’ experiences of disorientation while engaging in the pursuit of their ancestors’ first language. This theme is best illustrated in the second verse of “History Lesson from Anh Hai,” a stirring pantoum whereby the narrator studies dialectical marks to understand a decades-old trauma. 

Fifty years since they ’d last spoken; mom said they cried. 

The night dad disappeared into a jungle, Bà Nội also cried. 

The difference between tu and is one mark.

Once I heard about a monk who died setting himself on fire.

Tu means convent or seminary. means prison. An accent drastically transforms a place of safety into a place of danger and suffering. Here, Doan illuminates the fact that sometimes the smallest visible difference in language most acutely affects its meaning. 

Common nouns of the family—aunt, uncle, brother, sister—oftentimes shape the relationships that spring from them. But family nouns in Vietnamese are far more specific, and describe relationships that don’t exist in the English language. Take Doan’s “First-Person Plural”:

Mẹ told me about

each of Thím’s

relapses over the phone; she could make 

it one week before telling any of us. Bố

neither confirmed nor denied any of this. 

Mẹ is mother and Bố is father—these are perfect linguistic equivalents. But Thím means wife of paternal uncle. , a word used later in the poem, means younger sister of the father. In English, whether through blood or marriage, uncles and aunts are treated as equals—a linguistic difference that raises questions: Does the greater specificity of a family noun convey a different kind of relationship? What might be lost in English when an aunt is simply an aunt?

“Romanticizing Vietnam” is a somber meditation on memory—its elasticity and permanence, the way it expands and contracts over time, how vivid images bubble up to the surface and come to symbolize entire histories of a people uprooted, and of a complicated country and its past. The poem is a comment on how trauma fades from memory, becomes less visible over time, so that what is relayed to later generations is only a half-truth, one that glosses over, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the horrors of the past. 

In the pink light, I’m drunk

with the moon, chock-full of poems

 

to a dead brother. I sing into a paper lantern.

Its panes rattle, framing

 

against the wall my slow 

dance. I fail to see 

 

meaning in the white lotus

blossoming in the swamp.

The lotus symbolizes mental purity in Buddhism, the predominant religion in Vietnam, but in this poem it symbolizes a beautiful distraction, and the narrator is not interested in it. The elder generations’ nostalgia thwarts the narrator’s mission: to exhume, uncover, and more closely examine exile, a crumbling democracy, starvation, and imprisonment during and after what the Vietnamese in Vietnam call the American War. Recollections of peace and ease ring fake. “Romanticizing Vietnam” is a poem as much about what is unseen and unspoken as it is about what is seen and acknowledged.

“Spelling Out My Name, or Proof of the Military Industrial Complex,” is a potent nine-word proclamation on names as markers of visibility. At its most elemental level, the poem serves as a searing critique of the common practice of whitewashing authentically AAPI names to make them more palatable and pronounceable for Anglo aesthetics. Here it is in its entirety:

delta uniform yankee

bravo alfa

delta oscar alfa november

Korean-American writer Matthew Salesses says in his riveting essay “The Rules of an Asian Body in America” that “The story of the Asian body in America is a story about rules, money, race, and imperialism.” Doan’s poem is a clever statement about Asian bodies and imperialism. In “Spelling Out My Name,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) code words from the phonetic alphabet represent the first letters of Doan’s first, middle, and last names. The Korean War was deemed a “turning point” for NATO, whose purpose, power, and organization solidified during the war. It began with the U.S.S.R.’s occupation of what is now North Korea, and the U.S.’s occupation of South Korea. Twenty percent of North Korean civilians perished during the war. In so few words, Doan’s poem achieves so much, evincing the way renaming, occupation, and war erase Asian existence. 

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In September 2016, news broke that NBC had planned to air a new thirty-minute sitcom, Mail Order Family—based on the real-life story of Jackie Clarke—wherein a widowed single father orders a woman from the Philippines to help take care of his two young daughters. AAPI activists and advocates were outraged that network television would consider the subject of human trafficking a viable theme for a family-friendly comedy series. 

Outraged, but not at all surprised. 

That same year marked the sixth and final season of the CBS sitcom Two Broke Girls, in which a pair of racist white women characters relentlessly teased a Korean-American named Han Le about his lack of sex appeal. Both shows, one a long-running success, the other a failure-to-launch, summarize how many members of the non-Asian world see Asian sex and sexuality—as fetishized, emasculated, horny, or demure. Amy Meng’s Bridled does much to undermine these perverse stereotypes, while acknowledging in “A Theory” a universal truth: “When you’re beautiful / they treat you like you’re visible.” Passion and sex in Bridled are ferocious, fierce, layered, and unbridled. The collection drips with sensuality: lovesick narrators long to be seen by their lovers and partners as whole and perfect beings, yet hide from the increasingly obvious fractures in their affairs. Meng is a scientist of the heart, parsing and prodding the “vague formula of marriage,” breaking it down to its most basic elements of domesticity. Love lies among “grains in the pantry, discs of / blue toilet cleaner,” and “lane birches . . . notched with public initials.” In Bridled, love is a series of arresting visual clues, and heartache is palpable and perpetual. In “Routine,” harmonious domesticity indicates the functionality of mutual love: the chopping of parsley, and beers that “ringed our shelves,” bring measurable comfort; a pantry is a doorway to order, a sign of a healthy relationship. But objects that indicate security and stability can also reveal an impending dissolution:

saxophone in its clean case

  you never played for me, 

sink coated in oil, ring 

  around the tub I couldn’t scrub out;

burner’s weak wrist

  of flame, avocados molding

in a bowl; floorboards rotten enough

  to hear neighbors’ whispers . . . 

Meng is a fearless interrogator and trusty guide of the merciless aftermath of uncoupling. She examines these moments of implosion through a microscope and, improbably, without patronizing or shaming her narrators. There are glimpses of bravery and grace even in ugly tears, as when in “Motion, Moved” she writes: 

He says:

I think you should move out.

 

My deed wiped away like light

snow from the car window.

 

The last time we touched

was an accident in sleep.

 

I think of the shout

of a shot in hunting season

 

and stay down

in the leaves of bed.

 

The lens of a camera is the kind of eye that offers a fresh perspective. In “Walking through the park,” Meng elicits the truth of love through a photograph:

I find a set of bones. They seem

like bat wings becoming

whale fins becoming a blurred human

hand, waving in a photo.

 

The photo is of me. I’m naked in bed

and saying Hi through the lens, where your eye

crinkles as you snap the shot. 

“So it’s over, you said” follows suit, but here the narrator dishes out blame and calls attention to the oftentimes cruel end of relationships: 

I studied you with a camera’s dead-on 

closing shot 

 

as you severed with singular effort:

 

a fisherman flinging back his weighted line.

A soldier’s brusque and violent mercy.

“Adaptation,” provides one of the few glimmers of hope of what’s to come—a future, perhaps, of peace and mending:

Soon I will be unafraid,

 

even of the sun

following me through the years. 

For the most part, though, Meng steers clear of healing in Bridled. This is a collection for the gut with little room for redemption or Hallmark happy endings. The state of being broken, of frenzied infatuation and loathing, takes center stage—and thank goodness for that. In Meng’s skillful hands, this kind of blatant rejection and the agony that follows are things of beauty.

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In March 2018, prior to the release of National Geographic’s April issue, editor Susan Goldberg published a piece that acknowledged the magazine’s history of racism and xenophobia. “It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past. But when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.” Goldberg’s dive into the magazine’s archives revealed the extreme exoticism of brown and black people from “strange” lands. “[U]ntil the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers,” Goldberg wrote. “Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.” 

Indeed, National Geographic, especially before the internet, was the window to the world for many in the United States. But it was a fallible, false window that employed a xenophobic lens: the photographs that lined its pages, especially people of the “third world,” paraded brown and black people as if they were circus acts.

Travel writing has been a dusty and tired old trope, and though National Geographic may have been one of the biggest offenders, it certainly isn’t the only one. Travel writers have an indelible history of working to serve and satisfy the white capitalist imagination, to make the “civilized” traveler seem superior, educated, and enlightened by the poorer, less industrialized masses. Indeed, much of tourism is the greedy love child of capitalism and colonialism. Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid’s scorching treatise A Small Place scrutinizes this offspring: “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day.”

Jenny Xie’s Eye Level is a nod to Kincaid’s book, and in the second poem, “Unspoiled Fictions,” Xie begins with a compelling quote from A Small Place: “When the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom . . .” And in the body of the poem, Xie reckons with the moral dilemmas inherent in her own travels:

Smell of my lateral gazing

Reach of the outsider’s extravagant need

 

While I listened for the dialects

While I hunted down the night markets’ chewed lips

 

Authentic encounters executed            just so

Extractions of color and details in the needed size

The italicized “just so” is the essence here. It condemns the tourists’ ability to ignore a native person’s reality in order to create another, more blissful, fictionalized version meant only to please themselves. Authenticity, and who defines it, is a broad theme that Xie rigorously investigates here and throughout Eye Level. Unlike the natives, the tourists have the agency to cherry pick what they see and discard all the rest. Xie’s is a critique similar to one offered by renowned chef Anthony Bourdain, who died earlier this year from suicide: “Americans love Mexican food. . . . We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films. So, why don’t we love Mexico?”

Complicity in travel is a theme deftly explored in Eye Level, and even Xie’s humble narrators acknowledge their role, however well-intentioned, in dividing and conquering. In “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” (Xie spent time living in Cambodia), the narrator evaluates what it means to be a foreigner in another land:

Desire makes beggars out of each and every one of us.

 

Cavity that cannot close.

That cracks open more distances

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wanting falls around me. Heavy garment.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Still, here in this country, something I can never enter.

Later in the poem, the narrator exposes the scheduled, disciplined itinerary of the enthusiastic tourist, who, in pursuit of nostalgia or spiritual awakening, fits entire eras and kingdoms into a checklist or a travel app in a way that further antagonizes the relationship between tourist and native:

The tourists curate vacation stories,

days summed up in a few lines.

 

Killing Fields tour, Sambo the elephant

in clotted street traffic,

dusky-complexioned children hesitant in their approach.

 

How the viewfinder slices the horizon—

 

Their pleasure is shrill, I agree.

It knows little of how banality 

accrues with no visible evidence.

Perhaps the fact that Xie is an immigrant (she came to the U.S. with her family from China when she was a young child) makes her more keenly aware of the duality of insider and outsider status, and lends her more insight into the fallacies inherent in travel. In “Exile,” the narrator grapples with these dizzying forces:

Here’s to this new country:

Bald and without center.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Here’s to the north and south 

of this lack and its mud.

I feel my way around. 

 

To new nouns.

In “Visual Orders,” Xie dissects the anatomy of visibility, the science of seeing. The poem is broken down into fourteen sections, with section twelve the most revelatory: 

Sight is bounded by the eyes,

making seeing a steady loss.

 

The presence of the unseen is vaster

than that which is exhausted by vision.

 

We inhabit this incoherence. 

Sight, an inherently limited sense, is in the eye of the beholder, Xie reminds us: it conjures only a tiny slice of a landscape. What we notice represents bits and pieces of a life here and there, like a shifting kaleidoscope. This message is one Xie exquisitely enumerates in Eye Level, and one that any traveler or wanderer should take to heart. 

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Visibility shapes consciousness, and Doan’s, Meng’s and Xie’s lucid collections endeavor to prove this sublime thesis. Their poems elucidate those robust moments when the light bulb goes on, the unseen is suddenly seen, and one’s surroundings evoke something a little more genuine and honest and true—a process nimbly described in the second of three Meng poems entitled “After Maine”: 

A sound drops through

the slot of understanding

 

and everything comes 

 

into sharp focus.

 

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*An essay-review of:
We Play a Game. By Duy Doan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 104 pp. $20.00, paper.
Bridled. By Amy Meng. Warrensburg, MO: Pleiades Press, 2018. 66 pp. $17.95, paper.
Eye Level. By Jenny Xie. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2018. 80 pp. $16.00, paper.

 

Anjali Enjeti serves as vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has most recently appeared in Newsday, The Nation, the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Reinhardt University, and her own debut book, a collection of essays about identity, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press.