Quiet Fire

English's Chang compiles poetry anthology reflecting the Asian experience in America

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Compiling her recent anthology of early Asian-American poetry, Asst. Prof. Juliana Chang (English) turned up many widely overlooked works - some poignant, some stridently political, some experimental - that reflect the alienation and frustration many Asian immigrants experienced, feelings with which Chang herself can identify.

"I was happy to find many kinds of voices, many different styles," said Chang, whose collection includes works by writers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Filipino descent.

Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry, 1892-1970 , includes labor chants, 1920s leftist polemics and the haunting reflections of a Japanese-American poet confined to an internment camp during World War II. If there is a common theme to the poems, Chang said, it is "a sense of loss," particularly evident in works by first- and second-generation Asian-Americans.

Asst. Prof. Juliana Chang (English)--"A sense of loss" is a common theme in the poetry. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The eclectic range of writers she has anthologized, Chang said, points up the difficulty of defining a unique "Asian-American" voice or perspective in poetry.

"I'm walking a fine line here," she said. "I would like to read them in terms of racial identity, but I don't want to define Asian-American poetry as being only those kinds of poems."

Quiet Fire offers prisms through which to view the Asian-American experience in the United States, Chang said. A turn-of-the-century work song sung by Japanese sugar plantation laborers in Hawaii describes how the laborers end up literally putting in roots, physically becoming part of the land on which they work:

Those who came on the First and Second ships
And still don't go back home to Japan,
Will become fertilizer at the end
For the poi plants.

Despite this physical mingling with the land, Chang observes, Asian-Americans have been regarded as inherently foreign to the United States. This tension is evident in H.T. Tsiang's 1928 poem "Chinaman, Laundryman," she said, describing the racialized labor system facing 1920s Chinese immigrants, and lending an Asian-American perspective to an otherwise typically strident Marxist polemic:

Dry! Dry!
Why do clothes dry,
But not my tears?
I work
Twelve hours a day,
He pays
Fifteen dollars a week.
My boss says,
Go back to China

If you don't feel satisfied!
Unlimited hours of toil:
Two silver dollars a week,
You can find a job.'
'Thank you, Boss!
For you remind me.
I know
Bosses are robbers

By contrast, Chang said, the poems of Toyo Suyemoto are works of subtle beauty, which become powerfully poignant when the reader considers their place of authorship: a barren internment camp in the West where she and other Japanese-Americans were confined. Her 1943 poem "In Topaz" contains this passage:

Can this hard earth break wide
The stiff stillness of snow
And yield me promise that
This is not always so?
Surely, the warmth of sun
Can pierce the earth ice-bound,
Until grass comes to life
Outwitting barren ground!

Nothing is explicit in Suyemoto's "nice quatrains about geese" and other poems, said Chang. "Some read them as metaphors for a barren lifestyle and hope for a fruitful spring," she said, while others see in them allusions to Japanese-American agrarianism and its attempts to transform desert wastelands in the internment camps.

"It raises a question of how much historical context you need to know to understand the poems," Chang said.

In attempting to chronicle the unique Asian-American experience through poetry, Chang acknowledges she has also set out to find herself. The daughter of a Taiwanese physician and his Shanghai-born wife who emigrated to the US, Chang was raised on Guam and attended high school in Hawaii. Her childhood spent thousands of miles from the American mainland, Chang said she felt similarly removed from the Chinese heritage of her parents.

"Just as American history seemed to occur on another world, it was as if my parents came from another planet," said Chang. After earning her undergraduate degree in 1988, Chang spent a year living outside Shanghai, "to get to know my mother better."

Her research into Asian-American poems has been a similar effort at finding her own roots, said Chang. "I feel there's something very filial in my academic work - there's something I'm trying to recover," she said.

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