Widgets Magazine


Asian-American icons and poetry

I loved literature long before I realized I could one day write it myself. Several reasons might explain this delayed realization — a cultural stigma against an occupation considered unstable, the rarity with which I heard others say they wanted to be writers — but I think I mainly didn’t know writing was even a possibility because I didn’t know that Asian-American writers existed. Like many people of color (POC), I never had writers with my cultural background included in school curricula, and it took me years to slowly find them on my own, to seek out their work, to feel like maybe one day I could get there too. When all I had known was a cursory reading of Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” in a fifth grade classroom, discovering Ocean Vuong and Li-Young Lee and Jenny Zhang in high school felt like revelation, both slow and staccato, learning and unlearning all I thought I knew and didn’t know.

Now, something quiet swells up in me on mornings when I check my email and see that the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day” feature is written by an Asian-American. I sit still, and I read carefully; I feel a vague sense of belonging in this hazily defined genre of Asian-American literature. I feel love for their language, the same way I love the quiet exhilaration of poetry in general, except with an extra kind of selfish hope. Just a few days ago, I read featured poet Hieu Minh Nguyen’s poem “Heavy” as I lulled myself out of sleep: “There are days when I give up on my body / but not the world. I am alive. / I know this.” Has anything ever felt so true? I remember thinking.

In the “About the Poem” blurb accompanying the piece, Nguyen wrote, “The poem is about the little moments of love I have for the world, but also my body, which allows me to attend the world.” The poem is an encapsulation of his intimate experience of the world, one that does not explicitly locate the role of racial identity within it, and yet I still look to Nguyen as an inspiration nonetheless; I automatically associate with the piece a certain solidarity of feeling. And I worry that this habit could be dangerous — I don’t know how much of the personal must be political or whether letting color influence my reading of a poem can either dimensionalize or flatten it.

I think this danger exists for icons of all sorts — the danger of attributing an inhuman significance to a person who ultimately cannot save you. I’m afraid of assigning a political intention where one may not exist in the first place, yet I’m also inclined to believe that identities of race and gender and sexuality are inseparable at the root from the people who inhabit them. One of my own icons, Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski, declared in an interview, “Here’s the thing: Everything is an undercurrent. No woman of color can be in love without it being political. I can’t walk through the world without being a political entity just by being who I am.”

But sometimes people don’t want to be icons. The weight of responsibility that being considered a spokesperson for an idea or identity is a heavy one. I remember once reading a personal essay by Jenny Zhang in which she talks about how strangers often come to her with their problems as if they knew her personally just a couple of weeks after I sent her an email asking for existential advice. When Jenny wrote an essay about her friendship with Mitski, in which they talk about POC love and the tensions of Asian-American womanhood and Eastern vs. Western notions of happiness, I was ecstatic — almost awed — to discover that two of my Asian-American artist-idols had come together over lunch in the basement of a bustling Asian food court in Queens. To read this piece would be to understand a fundamental part of me, I thought to myself. And I felt immediately guilty for thinking it, for in the same essay Mitski also talks about the false notion that she is a cohesive symbol.

There’s a fine line between flattening someone into a symbol, an image of a person rather than a real one, and feeling personal truth and solidarity in their work. Both Mitski and Jenny Zhang have talked and written about the value of serving as a source of comfort, of connecting with readers and listeners as artists in fields where their identities are not often represented. I met Vietnam-born writer Ocean Vuong a couple years ago at a poets’ brunch, and when I told him about how I liked Li-Young Lee, he responded by affirming the importance of reading “our fellow Asian writers” — of standing behind those who have helped give us a voice.

I love that there are writers I can describe as fellow; I love Jenny Zhang and Mitski and Ocean Vuong and Li-Young Lee and Hieu Minh Nguyen, and I love how they have shaped my own artistic obsessions and given me the courage to explore all the terrifying parts of my identity because I know it is possible — because I have seen them do so themselves. It’s a selfish love; it’s a love I must be wary of turning one-dimensional, but I’m glad for it. I’m glad for the literature I have held close, and I hope to one day write something like it.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.