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Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto, and Mr. Moto: Poetry and Identity
By David Mura
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2002 David Mura
All right reserved.
From Banana to Basho, or How One Japanese American Learned Not to Write like John O'Hara
At the risk of distorting its importance, I will start with the obvious--the way I look. Because of the way I look, some Americans assume, on first meeting me, that I am not an American or that I was not born in America or that I will speak English with an accent. When I teach poetry to schoolchildren in rural Minnesota, the children often ask, "Where do you come from?" or "Where were you born?" They're surprised when I answer, "I was born at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, in Illinois." Then the students and even some teachers ask where I learned English, and I tell them I learned in the same way they did-- at home, in school, and on the streets of my hometown, Chicago. ("I know more Yiddish than I do Japanese," I used to say at one time.) Finally, the students will ask if I know karate, assuming from countless kung fu movies that all Asians know some form of martial arts. Again, I correct them: "No, but I do play jazz piano, and when I was in high school, I played football and basketball."
Several years ago, at the University of Minnesota, I taught a special section of freshman English for Southeast Asian refugees. When my teaching assistant first entered the class, she looked at all the Asian students, then saw my face, and thought, "Oh god, not only am I going to have to teach English to nonnative speakers, but the teacher's also a foreigner." Later, when the whole class went to a restaurant one day, my wife called and asked to speak to the teacher; the waitress promptly handed the telephone to the T.A., the only white person in the group.
Certainly incidents like this are annoying. As a way of getting back at my T.A., I used to joke about her mistakes in grammar, as if to prove my superior command of English. But my need to prove this, even under the guise of jest, is revealing. If you are a writer of color in America, you often grow up feeling that your right to the language is constantly being challenged; you don't quite have the same claim that a white person possesses. I'm reminded of a section in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus, an Irishman, is talking to an English priest. As they converse, Stephen feels that the words "chalice" and "ale" sound less foreign and more natural in the mouth of the English priest. The words were his before they were mine, Stephen thinks. Even now there are times when, confronted by a well-educated white professor or a famous white American poet, I experience similar feelings.
Such an attitude, surprisingly, can be an advantage. One can argue that Joyce's sense of secondary status gave him a greater awareness of language and helped him to produce those monstrous, self-conscious, linguistic masterpieces, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Still, Joyce was a genius, and as the cliche goes, genius will always find a way to succeed. With the ordinary writer, a sense of lateness, a sense that one lacks a natural right to the language, can be terribly problematic.
In American in Disguise (1971), a book about the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans), Daniel Okimoto writes:
it appears unlikely that literary figures of comparable stature to those minorities like the Jews and Blacks will emerge to articulate the Nisei soul. Japanese-Americans will be forced to borrow the voices of James Michener, Jerome Charyn, and other sympathetic novelists to distill their own experience. Even if a Nisei of Bernard Malumud's or James Baldwin's talent did appear, he would no doubt have little to say that John O'Hara hasn't already said.There is much to comment on here. Obviously, if one takes such an attitude, it's virtually impossible to write. You're defeated before you start. More specifically, I wonder how many Japanese American writers, particularly the Nisei, had similar feelings to Okimoto. It may be that we cannot help but feel this way, given the way people have reacted to the presence of Japanese in America. It's telling that Okimoto mentions some rather mediocre writers here; his sense of the literary possibilities open to the Nisei is incredibly narrow, as if he were already unconsciously lowering his standards. Just as importantly, his sense that the lives of the Nisei were no different from those of middle-class whites in John O'Hara's work would seem absurd and hilarious, were it not for the sad fact that this represents a secret, and sometimes not so secret, wish of certain Nisei, including my father--to be whiter than the whites.
So how have I dealt with my latecomer status, with being an interloper in the language, who must constantly strive to prove himself? Well, at first, I ignored it. As a child and a teenager, I grew up with the standard American sports heroes: Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Paul Horning, Bob Cousy. Later, I listened to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Animals, Marvin Gaye. Growing up in a Jewish suburb, I learned more about Jewish culture than about Japanese, and my favorite author as a teenager was Philip Roth. (Even this past year, during Christmas, when I grew homesick during a yearlong stay in Japan, it was the Jewish writers I turned to for solace: Bellow and the streets of Chicago; Roth and his suburban Jews, his wayward, lustful, intellectual, and puzzled Jewish sons.) Until I was seven, we lived in the same building as my relatives, but after we moved out to the suburbs, more and more of my friends were white. I came to consciously shun the stereotype of the quiet, unobtrusive, studious Asian student. Sometimes I played the part of an extroverted clown; wanting to stand out, I tried and failed to get elected as a class leader. I certainly didn't want to be thought of as Japanese American. I was an American, pure and simple. I was proud I didn't know Japanese, that English was my sole tongue.
Still, I also studied hard and was conscious of wanting to go to a good college; in this, I had probably absorbed a certain Japanese attitude towards education and getting ahead. Yet, my parents never labeled this attitude as Japanese. Instead, they made a conscious effort not to point out any aspect of Japanese culture in our home, and though they never directly taught me that being Japanese American was a source of shame or inferiority, I know I felt that. Gradually, as I grew older, I came to think of it as a compliment when my white friends would say, "I think of you, David, just like a white person."
I see now that my parents' sense of racial identity came in part from their experience in the internment camps, as well as from their own particular personalities. According to my father, a white teacher at the camp once told him, "Your being in prison now is not your fault. It's a result of the war, and after the war, things will change. You will be accepted again into American society. But for your own sakes, it would be easier if you try to be not just 100 percent American, but 200 percent American." Rather than becoming angry or bitter about the internment camps, many Nisei set out to prove to other Americans that the camps had been a mistake, and to show that they, the Nisei, could perform as well as whites at school, in jobs, and as citizens. Some Nisei also felt that rather than stir up trouble, it was best to leave the past behind. "Shoo ga nai" (It can't be helped), they said, ironically using a Japanese expression to explain their wanting to forget their internment and put a further distance between themselves and the Japanese culture of their parents.
My father or mother rarely talked to me about the camps. Instead, my father's favorite line was that, when he was a kid in L.A., he had to work in my grandfather's nursery, but in the camps, all my father had to do after school was play baseball. "In a way," said my father, "I was better off after the camps. Instead of going back to the coast, I went to college. I lived in the home of one of my professors. I had opportunities I would never have had otherwise." Part of what my father learned at his professor's house was how the whites--hakujin--lived; my father converted from Buddhism to Christianity, becoming Episcopalian, the most Waspish of Protestant religions. As his children grew up, he wanted them to be conscious of themselves as individuals first, and as Americans second, and he wanted their Japanese background to be kept in the background. And despite certain evidence to the contrary, I was a good son. I learned what he taught me.
At the time I entered college, I wanted to become a lawyer, a choice approved of by my father. But by the time I graduated, I had decided to become a poet, and I wanted to go to English graduate school. My father and I had several arguments about my choice, arguments exacerbated by the times, when the Vietnam War and the intergenerational fighting of the 1960s intensified our disagreements. It was a classic, almost stereotypical battle: My father reasoned that being a lawyer would make me better able to support myself, would give me greater options. I thought working in a law office would destroy something vital in myself, would decrease, not increase, my freedom.
Ironically, my father himself had wanted to be a writer. In a briefcase in the basement, he had even kept stories, poems, and a diary, along with rejection slips from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. When, at twenty-three, I found these papers, I wondered about his opposition to my becoming a writer. Perhaps he felt he had given up his dream; he had started a family and been forced to seek other work, and he wanted to save me the same disappointment. He could not conceive that my life or my talents might be different. Or that I would grow up in a different cultural and literary climate.
At grad school at the University of Minnesota, I intended to get my Ph.D. and become a scholar-poet; later, in a university or small college, I would teach courses on modern and contemporary poetry, as well as creative writing. The Minnesota English department then was ruled by New Critical methods, and I spent several years taking required courses in the different periods of English literature, partially in preparation for my Ph.D. prelims (in their prelims students were required to identify, by period and sometimes author, selected passages from anywhere in English literature). Despite my lack of a scholarly inclination, I am still glad for the knowledge I gained in grad school. For one thing, I don't feel woefully ignorant about English literature and poetic forms; grad school was a way of combating my feelings of secondary status.
At first, my literary models in grad school came primarily from the generation of Lowell, Roethke, Berryman, Jarrell, Wilbur, and Delmore Schwartz. All these poets saw themselves as firmly within the English tradition of poetry; many possessed a scholar's grasp of such areas as Elizabethan plays or metaphysical poetry; most wrote criticism heavily influenced by the New Critics. Later on in grad school, I began reading more and more of the poets born between 1920 and 1935, the generation whose members are currently the established poets in America. In a number of ways this generation rebelled against the poetry of Lowell's generation, and the history of this reaction is a fairly well-documented though complex one, which I will not go into now. Suffice it to say that these poets, such as Bly, Wright, Kinnell, Levine, Snyder, Rich, Sexton, Ginsberg, Ashbery, and O'Hara, all in different ways consciously diverged from the English literary tradition and were influenced by a wide range of foreign poets from Neruda to Rilke to Follain to Akhmatova. They were also, with some exceptions, much more politically minded than the preceding generation, and came to the forefront during the Vietnam War, the period of protests and civil rights marches, of sexual liberation and the growth of feminism.
Significantly, throughout my reading and my search for poetic models, I seemed little concerned with my position as a Japanese American writer. Indeed, as I had in high school and college, I sought to minimize my attachment to a "minority" group, subconsciously fearful that such labeling would put me into the category of other minority poets. As seen from much of the American literary establishment, "minority" poetry was interesting as an assertion of "minority" rights and identity, but most of it, as poetry, was considered crude, unschooled, and substandard, filled with the understandable but regrettable cliches of oppression. It seemed natural then that I read little "minority" literature, including works by Japanese Americans. Certainly, such poets and writers could not display the erudition, intelligence, and attention to craft that a poet like Berryman or Lowell displayed. Besides, people expected me to read Asian American literature just as they expected me to speak with an accent. I believed that to assent to one stereotype would somehow mean I was also assenting to the other. It was important that I be considered a writer first, and if I was going to be associated with a group, it was better to be associated with Lowell, and through Lowell, with Donne, the Elizabethans, and Browning, rather than with the untutored, unskilled, anonymous "minority" poets. Although I wouldn't have articulated my desires in this way, I think I wanted Lowell's patrician background and credentials as much as I wanted his poetic abilities.
In my last semester of grad school, I took a course in the French department on critical theory, a course which opened me up to Freud and Marx, as well as to current structuralist proponents of Freud and Marx, such as Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. The course also introduced me to the whole fandango of French structuralism and post-structuralism--Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Claude Levi-Strauss. In this course, I suddenly discovered a way out of the cul-de-sac of the New Critical method, a method which dictated that one must approach the text solely as literary object and forbade any reference to matters outside the text, such as autobiography, psychology, history, sociology, or politics. (This is perhaps a reductive way of describing this method, but the method, as I was taught it, was incredibly reductive.) Gradually, I came to feel the Anglo-American New Criticism was not only somewhat limiting and boring, but unsuited to my talents as a thinker and writer.
Just as importantly, the French and German philosophical and literary traditions offered a whole slew of writers from which I've drawn inspiration, writers like Barthes, Benjamin, and Foucault, who, though far away from the current American poetry scene, provided me with insights I could not have received elsewhere. To cite a small example, I was never the same after I read Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History." According to Benjamin, most histories, in empathizing with the rulers, end up supporting the victors of history; such histories come to function as paeans to power and help give legitimacy to rulers in the present. In criticizing this empathy, Benjamin finds the objects of culture are not innocent, apolitical creations of beauty, but implicitly guilty:
According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.Reading Benjamin, I suddenly began to understand the identification that my parents and I projected between ourselves and the middle-class whites of America, as well as my identification with writers like Lowell and Berryman. We had so come to identify ourselves with the victors, with the rulers, that we had denied our own experience. Drawn to the sources of power in the society, we disassociated ourselves from the powerless people who were put in the internment camps, and from the other colored "minorities" at the bottom of the political and social heap, people whose disadvantages were a direct reflection of the advantages of others. Instead of fighting the people who created this imbalance, we wanted to share in their advantages.
I soon began to tie this in with the Stockholm syndrome, outlined by Bruno Bettelheim and others; in this syndrome, the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps came to identify strongly with their captors. Bettelheim writes: "They [the prisoners] would try to acquire old pieces of SS uniforms. If that were not possible they tried to sew and mend their uniforms so that they would resemble those of the guards. The length to which prisoners would go in these efforts seemed unbelievable, particularly since the SS punished them for their efforts to copy SS uniforms. When asked why they did it, the old prisoners admitted that they loved to look like the guards." Now admittedly the Nazi death camps were quite different from the internment camps in America, although racism was the basic cause of both. But what I want to emphasize here is that movement whereby the imprisoned and the less powerful come to deny their own identity and instead identify with those in power, the rulers. Such a psychology explains this remark by a Nisei character in The Gold Watch (1970), a play by Momoko Iko: "Go someplace where there isn't another Jap within a thousand miles. Marry a white girl or an Italian or even a Chinese. Anything but a Japanese. After a few generations of that, you've got the thing beat." If only I could look like the rulers, if only I could be white.
Excerpted from Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto, and Mr. Moto: Poetry and Identity by David Mura Copyright © 2002 by David Mura. Excerpted by permission.
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