Saturday, May 28, 2005

Discovering Asian American Literature

In 1996, I was a graduate student studying composition and rhetoric at a university in California. My reading was comprised of classic (Cicero, Aristotle) and contemporary rhetoricians, thinkers I admired greatly and use to this day in my classrooms. But that year was especially memorable for me because it was the first time I ever read a Korean novel. Like any English major undergrad, I read my way through the canon--Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, and Dickinson--but in grad school I had the honor of taking a course from the mythic professor, Dr. Doug Taylor. Dr. Taylor was mythic in stature (he was a linebacker in college) and in the classroom (he was a Medievalist but an expert also in Japanese and Adolescent Literature). The seminar I took focused on novels on the canon's fringe--The Woman Warrior and Invisible Man. I enjoyed these books. But it was my own discovery that was most meaningful. Our final project was a lengthy analysis of a novel of our choosing. Dr. Taylor suggested I read a Korean novel, and since I never had (I was embarrassed to admit this to him) and since he was rather convincing, I began a search. I eventually read Kang Sok Kyung's A Room in the Woods. It is a novella really, very manageable yet provocative and haunting. Today, Kang is one of Korea's foremost women writers. Almost ten years later, I am grateful that Dr. Taylor suggested I read a Korean novel. It was a major turning point in my life. I was heartbroken when he passed away that year, from a heart attack while on the golf course. I was given something that year--something quite powerful and real---the green light to search and love inside what literature offered. Kang sok-kyung changed my life.

After grad school, with a Master's Degree in Composition and Rhetoric, I took a teaching position at Fresno City College, where I remain happily teaching composition, poetry, and Asian American Literature. In 1997, I met the late Andres Montoya, a blessed poet and believer. We would talk about poetry and politics--Miloscz, Neruda, our own writing, and we shared an admiration for Li-Young Lee. Sure, Rose is a great book, but The City In Which I Love You changed my life. Somewhere around the time I read Li-Young's books I studied for a week in Iowa with Timothy Liu, an amazing energy of spirit and language, collision and love and desire, a wonderful teacher as well. He was the first and only formal poetry education I have had. Somewhere soon after that I found Garret Hongo's The Open Boat, still probably my favorite anthology, and there I found the great Amy Uyematsu. So when Amy read at Borders in Fresno I had to go and meet her. Her reading was awesome--from Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain. We've since become friends, and her latest book is at the very top of my to-read list this summer. No. I'll probably read it this week.

Anyway, writing these memories is fun. I am selectively nostalgic. And I am enjoying this. If you have read this far, will you let me know? I am curious to know if there are other good hubs for Asian-American poetry and blogs. I want to write about history but also about my own poems from time to time. I have published quite a few in places like the Berkeley Poetry Review, Hawai'i Pacific Review, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Korean Quarterly, among others--and my first book, This Many Miles from Desire, is under consideration at a handful of presses. I'm keeping my fingers crossed because I think the book is good. I believe in the poems; they breathe well. There's a struggle for air sometimes in life. When my breathing accelerates, I think of that grad school project. I think of Timothy asking us to write a line on the board. I think of our good fortune, to have so many good books with which to fall in love.

2 comments:

mor x. chang said...

Lee,
I like what you did to this web page. It seems awsome to me. Good work!

Just wondering if you have read "Quiet Fire," a historical anthology of Asian American Poetry, edited by Juliana Chang. I also recommend "Paj Ntaub Voice," which is a Hmong Anthology of poetry, short stories, and more.

Mor

Anonymous said...

Good for you. Lots of good anthologies out there now--"Open Boat" by Hongo and a new one "Asian American Poetry..." by Victoria Chang. Also the Asian American Writers' Workshop does a lot of anthologies too. There's one by Barbara Tran and others called Watermark on Vietnamese writing. Lots more...