On my first date with a very nice Chinese banker, he took me out to an expensive restaurant that specialized in Shangainese cuisine (think sweet red sauces, alcohol used as flavoring, and seafood, especially the famed ‘hairy crab’, which, I’m sorry to say, really does have hair on its claws). After dinner, we took a stroll along the Huangpu River in the moonlight, and as he turned to stare soulfully into my eyes, he suddenly recoiled and told me, “You...your eyes are...brown!”
Well, the relationship didn’t last, but I’ll never forget that moment. Just as Americans tend to have stereotypes about the Chinese – you know, clannish but hard-working and good at math – the Chinese have ideas about who Westerners are: they all have blue eyes, the women behave like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct if given half the chance, and the poets all write like Robert Frost.
Those who ascribe wholesale to these stereotypes, of course, account for a tiny percentage of the population. Most people, especially in the major cities, have a much more sophisticated perception. The frame of reference, however, is necessarily limited. This is a country, after all, that thirty years ago allowed very few foreigners beyond its borders. (After the bloody Opium Wars, the brutal Japanese occupation, and the humiliating Foreign Concessions, would you?) Today, however, Beijing is rapidly becoming an international city. Walking around, you discover signs written in Cyrillic, Korean, French, German – and the populations to go along. This exposure to other cultures is relatively recent, however, and compounding this is the fact that censorship is still alive and well in the PRC.
It’s amusing to go into the bookstores and look at the foreign novels that have been translated from English. Harry Potter, check. The Godfather, check. Jane Austen novels, check. But then try looking for expatriate authors. Ha Jin, nope. Bei Dao, nope. Ma Jian, heck no. Gao Xingjian (you know, the guy who won the Nobel in 2000), nowhere to be found. This censorship has meant that while the Chinese readership is exposed to a fair amount of foreign literature, what might be most interesting and useful (i.e., books by exiles and work that approaches Chinese society or culture in ways different from the CPC line) is scrupulously kept out of the country. And work by American authors tends not to be translated according to a standard of literary value, but of marketability. As a result, not a whole lot of contemporary American poetry gets into the hands of Chinese readers.
It’s unfair to say that literary types in China expect American poets to all write like Frost. They expect all American poets to write like Frost, or like Ashbery. So when I was invited to give a lecture at Beijing University on the state of contemporary American poetry, I leapt at the chance to introduce some poets who I think are writing in a unique voice and with a unique vision. I chose work from poets as disparate as Jared Smith, Peter Campion, Maxine Kumin, and Natasha Trethewey, all masters at what they do, and all bearing little resemblance to Frost or Ashbery. (As an aside, I certainly don’t mean to diminish the tremendous influence these two great poets have had on American poetry. I’m just saying...let’s move on a bit, shall we?)
The work that garnered the greatest reaction from my audience of grad students, professors, and a smattering of undergrads was a poem by Thomas Sayers Ellis. If you haven’t read his work, you must. Ellis’s poetry is explosive and angry and borders on offensive. In this, he is unlike so many of us who tiptoe around anything that might conceivably offend anybody ever. To do all this with a confident, tight, intelligent, lyrical voice is a rare feat indeed.
The poem I discussed is called “All Their Stanzas Look Alike”. Here’s the beginning:
All their fences
All their prisons
All their exercises
All their agendas
All their stanzas look alike
All their metaphors
All their bookstores
All their plantations
All their assassinations
All their stanzas look alike
All their rejection letters
All their letters to the editor
All their arts and letters
All their letters of recommendation
All their stanzas look alike
And from there it really gets going. This poem is a fantastic entrance into a host of historical and cultural issues in America. Slavery and its influence on current race relations, the hegemony of the ruling literary elite (with its ties to academia and profit-driven publishing conglomerates), the struggle of a young black writer to deal with the overwhelmingly white canon – it’s all in there, and how.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was surprised by the response I got. In general, Chinese audiences in an academic setting are preternaturally quiet. (This is in stark contrast to audiences at poetry readings, which tend to verge on participatory or, less charitably, disruptively cacophonous.) But this poem got a reaction. The students argued with my interpretation of Ellis’s lines, they wondered about his use of racially tinged words, they were either thrilled or bothered by the angry tone of the poem. All in all, it was clear that this poem had struck a chord.
And I believe the chord it struck was the ever-present, perhaps even genetic, reality of in-group/out-group politics. Ellis addresses racial and class divisions with delicious asperity and without fear. The Chinese face these same problems, but are not allowed to write about them. Here, we all know about Tibet, but not as many Westerners have heard about the oppression of the Uyghur peoples in Xinjiang, the co-opting and destruction of the indigenous Dai culture in Yunnan, and the strict government control over the mosques of the Muslim minority Hui. Difference is dangerous in China, a country that has historically struggled to keep together an enormous geographical area and peoples of different languages, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups. Oppression naturally results from the attempt to make everybody get along. Ellis wrote a poem whose analogue would be impossible to write in the PRC today, and my audience knew it.
Conclusion: please, please America, let’s guard our freedoms carefully.
And tomorrow, no one says goodbye better than Wang Wei 王维. -–EG (顾爱玲)