Asian Women and the Power of Poetry
an article by Lana Isabel
Dear Asian Youth,
Art drives the world. Without words, without beauty, who are we?
We look to music and to literature in our everyday lives. It shapes our characters, it connects us to others around us, it gives us a channel to let out feelings that we can’t express on our own. It unites us.
We see poetry. It is writing, and it is art -- and is incredibly diverse in its endeavors. From it’s rhythm, mood, and symbolism, poetry provides a unique outlet for expression, and has been a significant factor in the artistic developments of cultures all around the world.
From Japanese haikus to the European romantic era, this love of poetry has been universal, just as it is timeless. We seek answers to modern questions in these lines and stanzas. Each word is carefully crafted and delicately threaded together to make a poignant statement distinct to its maker. Poetry can be as gentle and airy as it can be bold and hard-hitting. It makes for a diverse coalition of authors and messages, able to shape this mold into whatever they wish -- tackling personal experiences, addressing adversities, empowering others.
As an Asian woman, it can be difficult navigating these adversities. We battle between ties with our culture and the need to reject all normalities for self-liberation. We struggle to express ourselves the way we wish -- and the second we do, we are shunned or sexualized. We fight tirelessly against stereotypes and cut-outs that society deems us meant-to-be, still our hope fails from time to time and we think, are these stereotypes really that bad? I could live with this...
Microaggressions against Asian women are so widely observed yet so widely ignored -- by both the bystanders that look upon these acts of racism as well as the community that receives them. It’s an endless loop as we struggle to confront these aggressors as we are simultaneously shamed by our peers and relatives, assured that it’s better off if we just don’t. Asian women are put in an impossible dilemma, a middle ground with hardly any ways for us to claim our Asian identity with pride. We fit into one mold but not the other, we can find liberation -- but only with rejection comes with it, we can succumb to these stereotypes at the expense of our confidence.
It can become suffocating, searching for an identity that seems so scattered.
This is why creativity, literature, and art are so important in this fight for cultural and individual ownership. Here, we take these forms of expression and empty out our feelings of dejection as we empathize with one another, or to uplift our peers with tales of happiness and self-realization. This is where poetry finds its match in this struggle for identity as an Asian woman. Its lines and symbols are crafted towards this cause, creating a community of safety and acceptance as this journey winds on, one that each Asian woman embarks on for the entirety of her life.
Theresa Hak Kyung (1951-1982) articulated her feelings of Asian identity through her contemporary novel Dictee, using a combination of her skills in photography, narrative, and poetry to create a highly unique collection of images, writings, and poems -- praised as the cornerstone of contemporary literature. Her childhood experiences fleeing from four invasions amount to her diverse outlook as she moved from place to place throughout Asia, amounting to her expression through poetry in Dictee as she tackles misogyny, colonialism, religion, and more. She writes of her struggle of acceptance in a home that was not her own. Rejection, hurt, failure.
This excerpt from Dictee is originally written by Kyung in broken English and French. She battles language through her poetry, paralleled with this battle she fought in her own life, shining a light on an experience that is so familiar to thousands of Asian women, bringing these stories to the larger public audience.
Little at a time. The commas. The periods.
Before and after. Throughout. All advent.
Paragraphs. Silent. A little nearer. Nearer.
Pages and pages
void to the left void to the right, void the
words the silences.
She, too, combats this middle ground, this impossible dilemma. She speaks in broken tongue, unable to find and claim where she truly belongs and what she truly identifies with. We see timelessness and universality in her statements. Asian women are not exempt from these struggles any less than they were decades ago. Asians are shamed by non-Asians for speaking their native language in public. And still, when they do speak English, they are shamed for their odd accents, their odd words, their broken tongue. “White-washed” Asian women feel shame for the distance between them and their heritage, insecurity in their trials, disapproval and mocking from their peers.
Her struggle is universal, her struggle is timeless. We feel it too -- ostracized, ridiculed, ignominized. The power of poetry reaches to every fiber of each and every Asian woman that has bit their lip in the face of laughing peers, felt their heart sank at incessant whispers, the rage in the pit of their stomach at the hurl of a name or a catcall.
Asian women, reduced to sexual objects, things of desire. We see it in Hollywood, we see it so regularly we hardly bat an eye toward it any longer. When do we find it in ourselves to confront it? We look to art, we look to poetry… it articulates the ways we struggle as we lie awake at night wondering, how do I find myself? and gives us ways of overcoming it… like advice from a loved one, an empowering speech upon a podium.
Once a source of shame, but I now say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out.”
The glorification of imperialism has overshadowed the racism harbored towards those that do not fit into the desired stereotype molds imposed by colonization for decades. Poetry creates the outlet to dismantle these views, to reassert what it means to be an Asian in the Western world and take back the microaggressions and claim an identity that doesn’t succumb to degrading and silencing stereotypes.
Language can unite Asian women. It creates understanding, it creates meaning. Finding empathy and similarity in art makes it known that this combat against acceptance is not individual, it is a shared fight.
Cathy Hong describes how this shared fight extends to the confusion that many Asian women encounter in the face of Western society, the overarching issue of the inarticulability of Asian identity. Her Korean heritage and experience in Los Angeles brings to light her insecurities and shame around being an Asian in American culture, as well as racism that came from her own community towards other minorities.
Hong discusses the feelings of inadequacy with creating a cultural statement in the sea of so many other ethnic and racial groups, seen “not White/dark enough.” The Asian community is overshadowed, ignored, and ostracized only when to be utilized as a political or racial weapon. We are painted out to be impassive and calm, the “model minority,” the ones that “have it good” and paves the way for ourselves. Art uncovers the truth behind these statements to find a community of those struggling, hurting, barely scraping by. A community that isn’t all perfect grades and role models.
She delves into an ocean of “minor,” hostile, belligerent feelings surrounding the place of Asian women in society. Undermined and invalidated almost constantly, Asian women have not been given the chances to create a community of pride and shared identity.
Can I write about it without resorting to some facile vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin?
Literature joins us under this painful, shared reality -- one of an endless cycle of guilt, shame, and insecurity. Poets and authors strive to reach Asian women to empathize and alleviate, to stress that these issues surrounding our community need to be addressed. They address larger issues, ones much bigger than us, yet still affect each one of us incredibly intimately and directly. Creative outlets connect, support, and uplift.
Both of these women are just a couple shining examples of a coalition of women partaking in an inspiring movement among the Asian community, delving into the problems that Asian women face, crafting their words to cater to the women that share these feelings of hatred or insecurity towards themselves and their cultures. But not only do they find comfort and solace in these experiences, they use it to bring attention to how widespread these issues are, the harms in its universality -- Asian women should be able to express themselves without shame.
Making bold, poignant statements to bring light to these issues are the first step in battling the barriers within ourselves and in our environments that prevent us from fully embracing our individuality. With these first steps, we build upon the foundations that artists before us did, climbing pillars to view, with hope and conviction, a future without ambiguity, without dilemma -- but with confidence and reassurance.
We look to art and literature to alleviate the battles and stresses of our everyday lives, but often times the two can be seen working hand-in-hand amongst the sociopolitical scene. Poetry, wholly an art form just as it is literature, is an often overlooked but an incredibly impactful staple in the movement of finding identity as an Asian woman. Constantly bombarded by Western influence and the love-hate relationship with Asian culture, Asian women are stuck in this middle ground, this impossible dilemma, pressures from either side and within themselves keeping them from expressing themselves fully. We bottle up our frustrations and our guilt, scared to speak. Poetry allows us, as a community, to empathize and connect, to address the issues surrounding our insecurities and bring light to a wider audience. It is a step towards a brighter future in which Asian women do not have to shy away in the face of microagressions and rejection, but to claim their identities with pride.
Biography: My name is Lana Isabel Abad, I am 16 years old, a first-generation immigrant, and a proud full Filipina. I was born and lived in England for ten years, but I currently reside in California. Dancing has been my biggest passion, but writing comes in as a recently-discovered close second, and I hope to inspire, educate, listen, and learn as I continue this journey. You can find me on Instagram @lanaaisabel :)
Cover photo source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/547046685962940514/