I found Dorothy Wang’s discussion of parody a useful framework for approaching John Yau’s Genghis Chan poems. It was a little dizzying to read so many different scholastic accounts of parody, but the key points which struck me were Hutcheon’s definition of parody as “repetition with difference” (I assume based on a power differential and with subversive potential), Rose’s reclaiming its dismissed “lowly” form as”both comic and double-coded,” and Bakhtin’s suggestion that parody offers a “‘sideways glance’… as it were, in its own piously stylized quotation mark.” Each of these points made me think of camp, a queer aesthetic rooted in parody. I think it’s worth politicizing this queer dimension to parody, in its premise of unfaithful reproduction (of heteronormative cultural production) and its shift away from “straight”/literal reading in favor of open-signifying and ambiguous meta-play on multiple levels.
Even though John Yau identifies as straight, I still find a queer framework useful for approaching his Genghis Chan poems, particularly his investigation of Asian American masculinity. Race and sexuality are mutually constructed; straight/queer isn’t always a productive binary. Instead of assessing queer as a politics of identities, it can be more useful to examine it as a politics of norms and sexualization–of what it is deemed valuable, threatening (see Cathy Cohen “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens”–how marginalized subjects such as black welfare queens are made sexually abject regardless of their sexual orientation). In the introduction to Q&A : Queer in Asian America, David Eng and Alice Hom contend that “Asian Americans are never purely, or merely, racial subjects,” pointing to dominant tropes of emasculated Asian American men and hyper(hetero)sexualized Asian American women (3). Eng delves into that former stereotype in his book Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, deconstructing the conflation of Asian and anus in feminizing fantasies rendering Asian masculinity invisible.
Dorothy Wang points out how Yau’s Genghis Chan character hybridizes parodic versions of of two popular Hollywood racist yellowface depictions of Asian masculinity–“the shuffling asexual detective Charlie Chan and the marauding Asian invader on horseback, Genghis Khan” (208). Combining these two figures points to the oscillating colonial gestures of desexualizing/castrating vs. barbarizing Asian masculinity as wild, sinister threat. In the white American imagination, their combination does not produce a neutralized image but instead produces Asian masculinity as an inscrutible and exotic mystery. But Yau’s revision of these two images in the Genghis Chan sequence undoes the terms of their negotiation. This re-imagining is “queer” to the extent that it mediates two toxic misrepresentations of Asian masculinity to open a space in between–rendering visible what has been made invisible by these representations.
My favorite poem in the sequence was Genghis Chan: Private Eye VII” (which Wang quoted in full on 228-229). I was fascinated by its ritual self-laceration and submission through the anaphora imperative “You will.” This poem’s internalized violence (reading “You” as directed to the narrator’s self) as an effect of intergenerational trauma and media misrepresentation of masculinity–a turn on the figure of Genghis Khan as a violent invader to represent how colonization has violently confined Asian masculinity as passive and impotent. This is parody qua horror, not humor: the stakes of colonialism amplified and its scars made visible.