Asian-American Poetry: Diana Chang

I could fill pages with my outrage at a white male poet posing as a Chinese women in order to benefit from attempts to listen to Asian-American voices — as if the entire world did not already listen long and well to white men. But instead of adding another white voice to the outcry, I encourage anyone who has not already done so to read Jia Tolentino’s article above, and then go read Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed article.

In the meanwhile, I am going to rectify my own narrow vision, for while I have been reading classical Chinese & Japanese poetry in translation for decades, I am entirely unfamiliar with the work of Asian-American poets. It is a rich body of work to explore, and I have begun by acquiring some older collections of Asian-American writing from the library and investigating the authors whom I meet there. The first of these is Diana Chang; she was born in New York in 1934, but grew up in China, only returning to the United States after World War II. Her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, is believed to be the first novel by an American-born Chinese published in the United States. She went on to publish five more novels, and then began to publish collections of poetry — but so far as I can tell, poetry is where she began; her first publication seems to have been three poems in the November 1946 issue of Poetry Magazine. Here is one:

Knowing What Desires We Have Had

Knowing what desires we have had (some flaring, beautiful ambitions),
And have had to let go,
And knowing what questions we have put off answering,
Slurring over them, always,
Seeing double, gladly,
(Fearful, unbigoted minds grasping at both sides of every question),
It is not surprising, only regrettable that we should have come to this.

And now we are too-far gone:
We have practiced too well a partial living.
From here, there is no recovery.

To the roomful of us, it seems always to have been this way:
You, I, and the other, manifesting conversation,
Watching the gestures of talk.
We hear the silence, uneasily,
Fearing the next pause might give us away.

It is a beautiful poem, very clear, building that tension of regret and despair. It needs no biography to make it live and move, but I cannot read it unaware of Chang’s life; this was published when she had been in the United States for at most a year. Coming to New York to finish high school after living in wartime China seems a very definite double vision. Perhaps not what she meant at all, but it is there in my reading, in part because of this much more recent poem of hers which seems to be included in a number of textbooks and thus, one hopes, frequently taught:

Saying Yes

“Are you Chinese?”
“Yes.”

“American?”
“Yes.”

Really Chinese?”
“No… not quite.”

Really American?”
“Well, actually, you see…”

But I would rather say
yes

Not neither-nor
not maybe,
but both, and not only

The homes I’ve had,
the ways I am

I’d rather say it twice,
yes

The more I read these poems and others by her, the more I consider her work, the more excited I am to have encountered her. I will be reading more of Chang’s poetry, and all of her novels which the library can provide, and will of course write about them here in the months to come.

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