In my previous post, I mentioned that I am currently in touch through Facebook with some University of Georgia students who are in an Asian American Literature class reading my poems this week. While discussing my work with these students, I have found myself rethinking and reconsidering an artistic decision I made over twenty years ago while writing a poem in their textbook, Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Here is that poem:
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Madison Review
(1989). Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology (1996).
If you have the Wong textbook in front of you, or else the issue of The Madison Review in which this poem first appeared, it would be relatively simple to see how the version above has been altered from the original text. The changes involves two instances of what is called, in polite society, the n-word.
The character Alan Valeriano above is quite the raconteur, speaking in ultra-hip Black English — well, hip for the late 1960s, anyway — and he uses the n-word the way African American youth today say "niggah" (insiders say this spelling and alternate pronunciation indicate a non-racist usage, though I still find it troubling). Alan is not black, however, so although he sees himself as an honorary black person, when he uses the n-word it has a more toxic bite.
Here are the two times where the word "nigger" appears in the text of the poem as I originally wrote and published it: And his buddy Rolando, he yelling
But . . . does this make it art? Twenty-plus years ago, I would have said yes. But now, I wonder. Especially when the changes I am making to the poem today seem equally genuine for Alan as character: "That's a '57 Chevy, brother! / Sweet, sweet, sweet." And again, "I ain't black! I'm Flip. Filipino." The deal-breaker for me is imagining reading this poem out loud to an audience where there might be one black person, perhaps an older woman in her 70s. In that situation I would probably have tacitly made these very changes on the spot, on the fly.
I suppose the craft lesson for the day has to do with revision, how one makes decisions about what to change and what not to. I am tempted to make some other edits:
I should say, though, that I have made a couple of very small changes: the textbook has "the Temps" as a nickname for The Temptations; this should be "the Tempts." Otherwise, it sounds like a reference to temporary workers. I've also taken the hyphen out of the middle of "motherfucking" . . . that hyphen should have never been there in the first place, if we are to follow customary usage. I also capitalized "Flip" since it derives from the proper noun "Filipino."
Moving to issues of content and theory, "Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob" is a dramatization of a phenomenon among Asian American youth in San Francisco when I was a teenager: imitating and even entering African American culture as a rebellion against the tendency among our parents to imitate European American society, become the "model minority." During the 1960s, American culture was seemingly made up only of white and black — that's all we saw in the news, in the movies, on TV, in sports, wherever. Asian American young people felt they had to choose between those two monolithic influences, and many (both boys and girls) chose black culture to identify with. It would be more truthful to say, though, that Asian American youth often individually swung back and forth between "being" black and white.
In the discussion I've been having with the UGA students, a question that came up was whether or not the "lynch mob" scene is literal or figurative. I meant it to be not literal. Imagined more than figurative, though. In other words, there is no mob, just curious bystanders, but Alan, because he has identified so closely with blackness, imagines the lynch mob. And his blackness breaks . . . he falls back on being Filipino.
At least that's how I had always thought about it. Because of my conversations with the UGA students, however, I am starting to see a new way of looking at Alan. My idea for the poem had been that Alan was not seeing a hypocrisy within himself. Because he's still dressing up, right? But how about this? Maybe Alan is really a trickster figure and he tells the story as he does because the lynch mob drama makes it a better story. He's a showman, an entertainer. Alan could be exagerrating about both the lynch mob and his reaction. Does that make sense?
There is a real person I knew as a child on whom Alan is modeled, and I can certainly see "real Alan" just making up all that stuff. Maybe there was no car accident at all. Maybe he was just pulling the kids' leg. Playing a joke on them. Keeping them real. Alan the character then becomes something like a Native American trickster, whose job it is not just to pull the rug from under our feet, but to pull the whole world out from under us. Destabilize us. Keep us from getting too comfortable. From thinking we know everything. Hmm.
I do want to thank those students in Georgia, my new Facebook friends, as well as their professor, Will Abney, for making it possible for me to see in new ways this poem and the others we have been discussing ("Aswang" and "Fighting Kite"). I hope our interchange has helped them also to see literature in new, fresh ways. Peace out.
NOTE: the International Fashion ad above comes from a collection of 1970-1976 Ebony ads (http://learning2share.blogspot.com). The second picture comes from Wikimedia Commons; the original photo was taken by Douglas Wilkinson for RemarkableCars.com in 2006.
Added on 3-31-09: audio recording of poetry reading above (to the right of the poem).