Translation and Contradictions

After class Tuesday I sat with my last comments to try and get to what made me uncomfortable about the analysis of Li- Young Lee’s poetry. Like anyone would, I used my own experience. When I’m writing, the writing includes cultural references because I write about my lived experience—and it isn’t always done consciously. If I use metaphor to describe an experience it’ll likely include references to blackness, womanness, etc. because how else could I use metaphor. For writers of color writing autobiographically, identity intersects “colorless” literary techniques naturally. It has to, in order to talk about ourselves in language that excludes us, along the lines of Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” So if a poet like me is analyzing something of mine and pointing out cultural references that she understands, I’d wonder, “To who”? What’s the value in that? It would only make sense if 1. my audience didn’t look like me or 2. I was analyzing in the tradition of academic critique. So Wang was writing for the literary journals, to validate Li-Young Lee in the prestigious and predominantly white literary world. I knew that, and I was still unsettled.

I understood her intent and then got really critical of her motives. I got into the spirit of, “you don’t have to explain yourself,” “you don’t have to validate your culture,” “fuck the avant-garde,” etc. I could only feel obliged to make this kind of critique if I valued the institution. And I realized that’s where the disconnect lay. I question the values in academia, daily. And from that perspective, Wang’s read looked like an offering to the keepers of the Western literary gate: an attempt to be noticed, represented and counted within that canon. But from where I was thinking, the perspective of “forget that canon,” I was let down. Then, I realized I was having these thoughts moving through Brown University’s campus as a full-time student: a literal walking contradiction. Generally, who was I to be critical, but who I was to be critical when my motives are likely the same as hers.

Whereas I want revolution and total dismantling of colonialism in literature, it doesn’t come fast and requires sacrifice—purism is inconvenient. Would I want my work critiqued in an anthology published by Stanford, or do I want to hustle, move it guerilla-like through communities I wish to serve?  (Disclaimer: there’s lots of space and nuance that exists between these two options, they’re not binary.) Stanford Press may get me jobs, published and a lot of money, but may also exclude the communities I want to serve. Or, I might use the money I make there to be of service. Representation matters, imagination matters, and in that position my identities may be visible in ways they haven’t been. Or I could have an independent campaign that bypasses the institution. I may have to sacrifice having little or no resources for a while. Or the community may supply an abundance of resources. The point is that I have to be respectful of the choices people make, of differences in activism, and that Dorothy Wang’s contributions are means to an end.

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One Response to Translation and Contradictions

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Yes! I think most of us outsiders (women, queer, non-binary, racialized) struggle with exactly this contradiction a lot of the time. Walk away, build something new, or work within the system to expand and dismantle – and as you rightly say it’s never an either or, it can’t be. I think too this is some of how Chin is using irony as Wang explores it – to expand the binary and create third and alternate possibilities that doesn’t negate the validity or truth of either seemingly contradictory perspective. Irony as a lived way of holding paradox.


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