Chax Press ($15)
by Kenny Tanemura
Heather Nagami's debut, Hostile, is an anomaly among first books by an Asian American poet, or any young poet writing today. While many young Asian American poets leap over the now unfashionable “identity work,” only to come up with generic lyrics about generic topics—as if streamlining is the solution to a problematic politics—Nagami struggles with the very issues that have compelled such a move toward presumed anonymity. “Acts of Translation,” the 12-page, 9-part poem that opens the collection, serves as a good introduction to Nagami's work. It's only an introduction, since Nagami covers a lot of ground, both in style and content, but a section of the poem, titled “VII. Yonsei” is revealing:
ichi, ni, san, shi, go
issei, nisei, sansei, shisei?
Shi, which is a Chinese character, can mean “death”.
So, we use yon—the Japanese number “four”.
Yon-sei. You are yonsei.
Not death—say it.
Not death—yone, say.
“Issei, nisei, sansei,” is how Japanese Americans label generations: issei refers to the first generation of Japanese Americans, while sansei means third-generation Japanese Americans, the generation of Nagami's parents. By asking the question, “shisei?” Nagami is playing with her tenuous relationship to the Japanese language, while at the same time suggesting that such a thing as the yonsei—or fourth-generation Japanese American—doesn't exist.
It doesn't exist for a number of reasons: fourth-generation Japanese Americans are the least cohesive generation, with the least connection to community, and they are mostly bi-racial and multi-racial. The term, yonsei, therefore is exclusive, since it presumes a mono-racial, cohesive group. While this kind of labeling might apply to the nisei, who are well-known for their place in American history—internment camps, the 442nd regiment, the draft resisters, etc.—yonsei is a group that scholars have shied away from considering.
Nagami explores how this lack of a yonsei community is a kind of death. Japanese Americans are known for being a spare group, and with lack of immigration from Japan, with the highest out-marriage rate among all ethnic groups in the country, one can't help consider the ramifications of the death of a community.
In the section of “Acts of Translation,” titled “VIII. Fourth Generation,” Nagami begins with these lines:
white washed? banana? twinkie?
haven't been back?
Can't speak your own language?
and ends the poem with these lines:
Yes, Hezza san. Wax on,
Nagami starts the poem with a conflation: other Asians accuse her of being “white washed” in the first line, but in the next three lines, the speaker is confronted with stereotypes of herself, created by non-Asians. Nagami takes us on another twist at the end of the poem, where the speaker imagines herself as the main character in the movie The Karate Kid. Instead of “Daniel-san,” the hero in the movie, the sensei, played by Pat Morita, addresses the poet as “Hezza-san,” a faked mispronunciation of “Heather-san.” The sensei tells her to wax on, wax off, just as he told Daniel-san, when the Confucian old man asked the would-be martial arts star to clean his collection of cars.
This works as both a parody of the stereotype perpetuated in films like The Karate Kid as well as an enactment of the inevitability of assimilation. The speaker is actually more familiar with these classic pop-culture lines from than she is with the Japanese language or with Japan or Japanese culture. “Ganbatte!” is a word the old sensei in the movie used, and it means “hang in there.” While Nagami satirizes the movie, the meaning of the word remains, and it is a common expression among Japanese and Japanese Americans, and in that sense is “authentic.”
With subtle gestures like these, Nagami investigates the fine line between what is “authentic” and what is trivialized by pop culture. It is a also a mocking, ironic note—the speaker tells herself, to “hang in there” in spite of all the confusion.
The novelist and poet Maxine Hong Kingston once quipped that Japanese Americans don't write novels—she suggested it might have something to do with the silences of internment. It could just as well be said that Japanese Americans don't write poetry books. Yet Hostile is the genuine article—a collection that insists on not only staying alive in the poetry world, but going beyond the poetics established by the older generation of Japanese Americans, which include Lawson Inada, David Mura, Garrett Hongo, Amy Uyematsu and others. One wonders how these various poetries will cohere or disassemble as more and more poetry books by younger Japanese Americans are published.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006