Some Thoughts on Biracialism and Poetry

June 13, 2013

Race Cube: Mixed / Nathan Gibbs, Flickr(cc)

 

To be a biracial and female writer might suggest one of two things: first, that my gender and race are the subject matter of my work or, second, that the forms of my writing reflect my identity. Between these two possibilities–race and gender as theme versus race and gender as enacted form—a tension exists, perhaps arising from our current distrust of both narrative and identity politics. To write from the first position—race and gender as theme—boils a poem down to the recounting of experience, most likely the narrator’s marginalization. It is an easy poetry to identify, and it is a type whose detractors (rightfully and wrongly) criticize as an attempt to engender in the reader both sympathy with and catharsis through the personal revelations of the narrator. It is a poetry that at its worst risks becoming performative cultural “kitsch” through its manipulation of readers’ sensitivities to race and racism but, at its best, illuminates some part of the complexity currently surrounding ideas of racial authenticity and identification.

The second option—identity as enacted form—is harder to pinpoint, relying as it does as much on the writer’s stated objectives for the work, as on readers’ stereotypes about what kind of poetic form female biracialism could take. On the surface, we might expect “biracial” forms to be highly skeptical of an imaginatively coherent first person. They could be poems that rely on fragmentation, that are deeply engaged with critical theory regarding perception and language. They could be ironic, self-reflexive, suspicious of catharsis, engaged more with the playful destruction of archetypal myths of identity than in reifying them. In short, they would be hard to distinguish from much of contemporary poetry today.

I’ve studied the work of many biracial writers, many of them also women, and it strikes me how frustrating it is to imagine exactly what does, and does not, make a poem “biracial.” Few of us consistently write about our mixed identities, and when this subject is treated explicitly, it is never done to generate (or manipulate) reader sympathy. I am thinking of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first collection, Miracle Fruit, which, when it looks most directly at race, often examines it through the pleasures surrounding food. As race and culture intersect with eating, we can imagine a “dialogue” about race taking place when one food and not another is eaten, or when two different cuisines are eaten at once: the engagement with culture and race is not a conflict but a constant state of decision-making that is as dependent upon context as upon appetite.

More often, however, biracialism as theme or form seems to be something we must extrapolate from the work over time. In a poet like Brenda Shaughnessy’s case, gender seems most obviously foregrounded, but it is worth remembering that race and gender create similar theoretical “problems” regarding subjectivity. I am thinking in particular of her poem “Panopticon,” from Interior With Sudden Joy, in which two female roommates watch each other through different telescopic lenses: for me, an apt metaphor for both the female and biracial position in society, in which identity is often conferred upon us through the act of being observed.

This same anxiety of looking and appearance haunts the work of a writer like Natasha Trethewey, who might be the most easily categorized as “doing’ biracial writing, considering how explicitly she writes about being between both white and African American worlds. And yet, like some of Shaughnessy’s poems, Trethewey’s work often deals with the perception of identity in general rather than the reification of any one sort of identity in particular. Poems like those in Bellocq’s Ophelia parse our complicated grammar of race to discuss how, historically, race has been perceived and understood: how, for example, is one’s racial make-up determined not by one’s own identification, but by the perceptions, and legal formulations, of others? These are poems that process thinking about race, rather than relying on simplistic formulations of what does or does not constitute an authentic white or non-white self in the world.

Finally, the poet-novelist Monica Ferrell’s amazing novel, The Answer Is Always Yes, raises fascinating possibilities about how we might read biracialism as a postmodern narrative form. Is the narrator’s unreliability a comment on how any “authoritative” narrative is suspect? Is the main character’s outsider position also a reflection of the author’s own ultimate outsider position—never quite here, never quite there?

This last question reminds me that there is also something inherently dangerous about the assumption that race can be a form of writing, encouraging us to disregard the experimental qualities of a work as “merely” reflections of the writer’s “fragmented” identity, rather than a considered engagement with tradition. To read the form of The Answer Is Always Yes this way ignores its debts to and arguments with Nabokov. Likewise, to focus on food as a subject matter in Miracle Fruit exoticizes the material in ways that the poems themselves formally contradict. To try and isolate “what is biracial” in a poem engages in the same exhausting debate someone like me engages in every day on the street: What are you? What part of you is (or is not) really Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Black, Filipina? It also highlights the complicated intersections of being female and biracial and a writer: none of these identities are isolatable, static positions, nor can they hold themselves to any one set of socially agreed-upon markers of “authenticity.” I don’t stop being a woman when I sit at my computer, just as I don’t stop thinking about language when I engage with people in the world. As there is no one authentic form nor consistent authentic position from which the biracial writer can identify herself with over time, so too there is no authentic subject matter or form which can be isolated so easily or meaninglessly.

This is the reason why, when approached by students or anthologists to present work publicly that I deem representative of my biracial status, I hesitate. Because for me to choose some poems over others as “proof” they are/I am biracial ignores what I have come to understand, for myself, what this mixed identity means. I don’t isolate myself into Chinese and Norwegian halves. In the same manner, I don’t want to isolate some of my work from other parts of my work, which might encourage whatever readership I’ve scraped together to privilege certain poems (or dismiss these same poems) for a kind of content which is, in my own life, deeply intertwined with so much else. Over time, I’ve written both the explicit narrative of race and what I’ve imagined to be its formal “enactment,” and discovered that while neither option “answers” (because it can’t) the question about how race might be written, it has made a few deeply held beliefs more clear to me.

First: I believe that we are all fragmented, we all live “in between” identities at any one moment in time. Biracialism merely literalizes this metaphor we daily experience: the difference between how we understand ourselves, and how others understand us. Because of this, I am interested in the postmodern fragmented and multi-layered self, but I believe strongly in my need to write from a coherent, cohesive first-person position. In this sense, perhaps this most antiquated feature of my poetry is its most political: I get enough post-modernism walking into the classroom and being asked where I was born. The “I” in my poems may not always be me, but it is a cohesive self.

Second: I, too, am anxious about language’s inherent instability, the slippery ways in which it does not always connect with the world we experience. But when race, whether formally or thematically, enters into the poem, it serves no one’s interest to make the language more opaque to sound intelligent since the stakes (like it or not) have now been raised. Bad writing about race—including racist writing—is often unclear. For me the question has become: how can I allow people to experience the complexity of race, while never muddying my own thoughts? Clarity is just another expression of language anxiety.

All of these beliefs of course put a lot of pressure on the last belief I’ve come to hold, which is centered on the problem of catharsis and identification. I, too, am concerned with the potential “kitsch” factor of a badly written poem, and it is for this reason that I have become more interested in narratives that purport to create connection between writer and reader, or between speaker and listener within the poem, but that often resist the culmination of a narrative into a “single” unifying perception with which the reader might identify. In this, again, I recognize that it is not necessarily race per se which has driven me to this conclusion, as this is the same goal held by thousands of writers across the globe, but race has clarified the necessity of my thinking about this point. The fact is, a vocal readership exists which would like to read all poems that investigate identity as nothing more than victim narratives, denigrating, as it does, any writing that it suspects comes from a disempowered position. So perhaps I should be clear on a final point, which is that I don’t perceive being a woman or being biracial as inherently disempowered positions. If anything, I think it’s given me extraordinary psychological insights that, while shared by us all, are forcibly articulated by few. What is disempowered about my position, however, is the negative critical reception that my work can receive from any readership suspicious of writing that engages even superficially in narrative “identity politics,” for which I have no sympathy and over which I have little control.

Regardless, in the end biracialism reminds us that connection is an illusion and a desire, not just between intimates, but between parts of ourselves. How is it that an identity becomes seamless over time though parts of the self still retain separateness, complexity and even contradiction? That is the difficulty inherent to writing itself: to find the language that can express what is available to the self without being able to articulate everything that the self is: a language which inevitably gives way to what cannot be said, what can only be felt or hinted at, the shadowy outline of whatever consciousness is able, at the end, to marry each part of the self to the others.

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In the sound
of a primrose
a luminous
feeling recalls
the atmosphere
of a sullen
desire.
 
Francesco Sinibaldi

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