Join Timothy Yu (100 Chinese Silences) and Mike Hauser (Red and White Balloons) on June 2, 2016 at 7 PM for a FREE Book Release Reading at Woodland Pattern. More Information Here.
100 Chinese Silences
Les Figues Press, 2016
I read 100 Chinese Silences out loud.
When I settled in the read Timothy Yu’s first full-length book of poetry, it was raining, I was alone, and I didn’t turn on background music. I read the first ten Chinese silences in, well, silence. Then I realized I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t want to read this particular book in particular that way. So I started over and began reading them aloud, to myself, one by one, in my empty home, surrounded by steely sky.
Because here is a lesson from Yu’s poems: Chinese silence is not silent; it is a history, a people, a story screaming to be heard, howling for ages, only to not be heard, understood, honored, or credited. Yu takes on Orientalism, appropriation, exotification, marginalization, erasure, colonization, and other types of historical and social violence with relentlessness. This is the dedication of a scholar and an artist in one; literary critic and poet taking turns jabbing at the institutions and systems underpinning American poetry, politics, identity, literature, and pop culture. Yet Yu’s various speakers in these poems are infused with authentic voice, whether they are parody, critique, or observations. That is to say, these poems are human and real. That is to say, I happily screamed the lines that were in all caps into my empty home (my favorite: “OMG I AM THINKING AGAIN OF THOSE / ANCIENT CHINESE POETS” from “Chinese Silence No. 48”). I listened to my own voice as it wrapped around Yu’s language and images (which were full–absurdly, I thought at first, and then fittingly–of puppies). I tried out my best shrieking Aiiieeeee’s. I allowed my throat to become scratchy and sore with speaking. That is to say, like Yu’s book, I refused to be silent.
(And #sorrynotsorry Jason “I-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Life” Guriel-types, I write a “confessional” review, because, as a mixed-race Asian/white queer woman mongrel, I must continuously refuse silence, and yes, books like Timothy Yu’s give me strength to do so.)
This is a book that takes risks, unflinching. It is always a risk to write about race, and Yu does so without apology or hesitation, writing on yellow peril, Asian fetish, Chinese foot binding, tiger mothers, penis size, fortune cookies, slanted eyes, plum blossoms, seemingly all the Chinese stereotypes with a brassy bravado I admire. (And really, if we’re not taking risks for poetry, why write it at all?) Case in point: “Chinese Silence No. 31” is a scorching of Tom Clark’s “Sounding Chinese at Inspiration Point,” a poem that basically takes out all articles in order to “sound Chinese,” makes a pun based on Asian accents (“Nor in wrong one will it matter…”), and (bonus!) also mentions ancient Chinese poet Tu Fu. In Yu’s version, he turns the stereotypical accent on full blast while still making puns and doling out scathing criticism: “Me like write poem sound Chinese … Me say two Wongs can make it white … USA poet not so good these days / So learn lesson from ancient Chinese sage / And write poem like slant-eyed Kerouac.” Yu brazenly reveals the (presumably unconscious) biased undertones of Clark’s poem in a line-by-line critique-turned-satire. Yu began this project by responding to Billy Collins’s poem “Grave,” and in this collection he lampoons Collins, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Gary Snyder, and more, unabashedly confronting the western tradition of co-opting, appropriating, and otherwise misrepresenting Chinese and Asian culture.
Because of this device, Yu might be criticized for engaging in call-out culture, tone-policing, “dangerous” political correctness, or (my favorite) violating free speech (or poetic licence, as it were). And yes, I think there is some calling-out here, rightly so. Those critical of call-out culture usually argue that it shuts down opportunity for conversation, that it is about public performance rather than making change, that it is toxic. But here is the thing: Yu’s book, and the speakers in these poems (whether they are parodies of western poets or not), are not interested in entering a dialogue from which Chinese voices have been so sweepingly excluded for so long. No, the dialogue that the book is interested in sparking is an internal one; these poems are meant to make the reader uncomfortable, no matter their social locations and identities. And the challenge is to meet that discomfort, as a reader, and figure out a conversation with yourself.
For me, this happened most potently in “Chinese Silence No. 34.” The poem centers around the prevalence of couples made up of white men and Asian women, which portrays Asian women as fetishizing white men for “the universal preference for ‘taller husband’!” and mentioning how “Our kids will look Hispanic.” As the offspring of such a union (and sometimes mistaken for a Latina), in a marriage with a white man myself, and being a sister to a mixed-race Asian man, I felt myself coming up against a small coiled knot as I vocalized the words of this poem. The poem’s speaker mentions the embarrassment or guilt of an Asian woman, turning her face away, where “all but maybe 2 of them have White husbands.” And I immediately felt the burgeoning guilt in my own face, wanting to turn away from the poem myself. But I kept reading, revisited the poem later, and knew that it was one that I would have to keep turning to face, again and again, to dialogue with myself and my own identities, ones I was born with and ones I chose, and keep choosing. These poems will require this of the reader. It is about thinking with a critical consciousness. It is about entering into a much-needed conversation with yourself.
It is in these moments that Yu’s book found me quieter. Because here is another lesson from Yu’s poems: Chinese silence is also silent. (And yes, both this and my earlier assertion can be true simultaneously.) The silence comes from the internal work that a reader must do, and it comes from the muzzling of voices, art, history, and culture in the name of poetry or art. It comes from the inability of a poet to give advice to young Asian American poets, from a poet Whiting-Out Asian American poems to project his own, from the Silence of the Well-Adjusted Minority, from Newt Gingrich effectively saying minorities just have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The 100 Chinese silences are invented, but the silencing is real. And it is Yu’s work that exposes this truth, mostly just seeking an admission and perhaps some remorse. I am not a writer who believes in only sticking to your own ethnic heritage for art; as a mixed-race person, I sort of have to believe in interculturality (or I wouldn’t exist). However, I don’t think recognition of problematic thought patterns and practices is a lot to ask of the literary community. As stated so accurately in “Chinese Silence No. 52”:
………………We don’t expect to be heard, or read, or acknowledged.
………………We’re not asking for a goddamn prize.
………………We just want to be appropriated
………………………………………………with a little fucking consideration.
Timothy Yu is the author of three chapbooks of poetry: 15 Chinese Silences, Journey to the West (winner of the Vincent Chin Chapbook Prize from Kundiman) and, with Kristy Odelius,Kiss the Stranger. He is also the author of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965, which won the Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies. His work has appeared in Poetry, Cordite Poetry Review, SHAMPOO, Mantis, Lantern Review, and Kartika Review. He is associate professor of English and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He can be found at timpanyu.com.
Sarah Richards Graba is a writer and teacher. Her creative work has been published in Bombay Gin (2016), Semicolon (2013), and The CU Honors Journal (2004, 2005, 2006). Her reviews have appeared in Bombay Gin and Something on Paper, and she has been on numerous publications as a designer, editor, and letterpress printer. An alumna of the Jack Kerouac School, she is currently investigating a poetics of identity through hybridity, memoir/anti-memoir, territory, and body writing. She teaches writing, research, and pedagogy at Naropa University, and works in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion offering training and consulting for faculty.