Friday, June 27, 2008

Thoughts on Buffalo Boy and Geronimo

Back in late April I began a series of posts mulling over the definition of Asian American literature--specifically thinking about the boundaries of Asian American literature and the expansion of that term. My musings were prompted by the announcement that James Janko's novel Buffalo Boy and Geronimo had won an Asian American book award. If you want to read my initial post on this issue, click here.

I had promised to give a review of Janko's book once I finished it, and I had actually finished it a while ago but got side tracked by other issues and projects. However, a recent comment by a friend of Janko (click here) made me realize I should revisit this subject and weigh in on Janko's novel.

The first thing I'll say is that Janko is a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural landscape of Viet Nam--the animals and plants and insects of the region of Viet Nam along the Cambodian border--truly made the novel come alive and gave a perspective to the war in Viet Nam (the American war as those in SouthEast Asia refer to this conflict) sorely lacking from other narratives (I hope someone will work on the novel in terms of eco-criticism and/or environmental justice). The novel follows two narratives, Nguyen Lu, the titular "Buffalo Boy" and Antonio Conchola, "Geronimo," whose lives eventually intersect. I'm not going to provide a summary here, if you want to know what follows you should read the book, it's a worthwhile read. What I will say is that I enjoyed the story and will be interested in Janko's other writings, if he continues his literary career, because I think he has a good eye for detail.

However, I never doubted the literary merit of this work--it's not why I was disturbed by the book winning this award (although I have to be honest and say that a book that was eligible for the award, Lois-Ann Yamanaka's novel Behold the Many is a stronger story; her voice is lyrical and haunting and polished (this is her sixth novel I believe), whereas Janko, as a first time writer, has a few places where I think he could use some more editing and revision). Let me repeat something I wrote in my April 28 blog post: I believe that writers should be free to write whatever subjects they choose. My criticism of this novel winning an Asian American literary award isn't about Janko's right to author a novel where he does not "match" the identity of his protagonist or any other "authenticity" arguments. Nor am I trying to impugn Mr. Janko's character--as his friend noted in the comments section of the April 28 post, Janko seems to be a man respectful of Vietnamese culture and Asian American politics.

What I am concerned about--what I already voiced in the April 28 post, is what the conferring of an Asian American literary award to a novel set in Viet Nam with a main character of Chicano background written by a white American man signals for the expansion of the category "Asian American literature."

Because after reading this novel, it is not clear to me what exactly qualified it for the status of "Asian American" other than the fact that one of its main characters is "Asian" (ie: Vietnamese) and the other is "American" (ie: Mexican American specifically) and that it is set in Viet Nam (an Asian country).

So this begs the question: what does it mean for a work of literature to possess an "Asian American aesthetics" because that's essentially what troubles me about this novel winning this award. It's not that I think the novel was poorly written or uninteresting or without literary merit. But in thinking specifically about issues of race, there are many questions I am left with that remain unanswered either by the novel itself or by the novel winning this particular award:

*Why was the American medic made to be a Chicano man? His ethnicity seemed to be important--the fact that he was not a white American. In fact, I interpreted both the reference to Germonimo as well as the continued references to Spanish and other aspects of California Chicano culture to be significant to understanding the character's personality and motivation, and a partial reason he is targeted by a white American troop member. So race seems to be playing a role in this novel--a recognition of racism if you will. But how this gets translated into an "Asian American" issue seems to puzzle me--not to say that Asian Americans shouldn't be interested in other forms of racism and race outside of their community, but in terms of marking or signaling a concern that is "Asian American" there seems to be no hint of that in the novel itself.

*Why the reference to Germonimo? Cross-racial and cross-cultural identifications abound in the novel--but I am not sure I understand the purpose of these markings and what the author is trying to demonstrate with them, other than an attention to marginalization and perhaps stereotyping/myth making.

*If there is no "Asian American" content per se in this novel, why was it up for consideration? Is Asian American literature now to be understood as any type of literature set in Asia that features an American character or penned by an American author? In which case, are novels written by Pearl Buck now to be understood as Asian American? Or Mark Salzman's The Laughing Sutra?
[By the way, Mark Salzman is a great writer and I love The Laughing Sutra as well as another one of his novel's Lying Awake--although I wouldn't consider either of them Asian American].

Ultimately what I think is bothering me is the power of representation. It's not that I believe my "voice" is any more "authentic" than a non-Asian American person's--especially given the fact that I often feel that some of my experiences are not necessarily typically understood as "Asian American" (ie: large extended maternal family from Jamaica that identifies as mixed heritage or in some instances mixed-race), even while others seem to be typically Asian American (childhood in the SF Bay Area). It's that finally we're at a moment when we, the Asian American community, as imperfect a group as that is, is trying to make itself understood, legible if you will, within the larger American (read mainstream white) culture and society--and understood in a way in which we are not simply the standard stereotypes of foreign immigrants or insulated and insular ethnic communities.

So having a book that seems not to have any discernible or explicable or legible Asian American content written by someone who does not "identify" as Asian American win an Asian American book award given by an Asian American association begs the question:

What does it mean to be Asian American?

And if the category has become so broad that affiliation with something Asian and something American qualifies, than what does this do for the state of Asian American political enfranchisement and social/cultural awareness in the U.S.?


Cipher said...

Hi Jen,

I'll take a stab at something here. It seems to me that the book award reflected the activist nature of the text, something that Asian American literary criticism has long valued in texts about the so-called Asian American experience, but like you, I have a number of issues related to awarding this book to someone not of self-proclaimed, or determined, Asian descent.

Yes, there will always be the question of "how much Asian" will be enough, but the larger and more important question for me is the power of representational mobility.

Given the fact that we're still in an age where the vast MAJORITY of Asian American writers can only achieve publication legibility through and by rehearsing ethnic and racial tropes, we will have examples where "white" writers can "cross over" and achieve MAJOR success, the most obvious examples being Robert Olen Butler and David Guterson and even to a certain extent, Arthur Golden. Even Kazuo Ishiguro was PLAGUED with questions about how ethnicity still played a part in Remains of the Day, but he still is an anomaly of sorts.

In any case, for me, when cross-over hits become much more apparents, when authors of "asian" descent can move freely into representational terrains that supposedly aren't "autobiographically" inflected, than maybe we can talk about awarding non-Asian writers the Asian American literary award.

Until then, call me Frank Chin.

Peace Out.

Cipher said...

oh and p.s.

I don't mind Janko winning the award if he deserves it; but I think there were other "Asian American" texts published in the same year that were better.


but i guess that's tit for tat!

Jennifer said...

Hey Cipher,
Always glad to have your comments (your acerbic tongue and wit knows no bounds!).

I like the fact that you have reminded me that Asian American literary criticism has always valued social activism. Even if this hasn't always been reflected in the larger Asian American political community, I do think that many scholar-activists do take on cross-racial agendas in their literature and in their lives (and then there are real activists like Yuri Kochiyama who really put her money where her mouth is, so to speak).

Total aside, but should I stop using phrases like "Scholar-Activist"? I do think it sounds a bit pompous and over-inflates the role of academics as if we are out there crusading against in justice and wearing a cape with the word racism slashed out in a circle. Just a thought.

Anyway, getting back to your comment, I think you've gotten to part of my discomfort or much of my discomfort with a non-Asian American author winning this award--because Asian American writers are still ghettoized by the publishing industry. It's terribly hard to be a writer. It's harder to try to be a writer who just wants to write freely about any topics. There is still this orientalizing quality to publishing that the Asian American writer needs, somehow, to convey their uniquely and authentically "ethnic" experience to audiences.

And then there's the added pressure of the ethnic community itself wanting/wishing/demanding potraits that are respectful/authentic/realistic to their experiences.

All of this can create quite a headache for a writer who happens to be of Asian ancestry but who just wants to write about Civil War re-enactments or who has a mystery novel in the making set in Maine or the novelist who wants to write the great American novel.

I can't even think of too many Asian American authors penning works that don't deal very directly with their Asian-ethnic background--closest would be Vikram Seth writing GOLDEN GATE (great novel written in the Onegin sonnet form--an entire novel written in verse set in SF of the mid-1980s.)

I am curious, though, Cipher, if you are still out there are reading this--what novel would you have preferred to win? I would have chosen BEHOLD THE MANY, but I couldn't think of any other prominent Asian American novels or short story collections published in 2006--your thoughts?

Mike Wong said...

Hi Jennifer and all,

Jim Janko asked me to post his comments for him. He tried but had computer trouble. I also posted it on the other comment line ( ).

yours in peace,

Mike Wong

July 1, 2008
Re: Buffalo Boy and Geronimo
Dear Jennifer,
I much appreciate the questions you raise, and of course I have no answers. I was very surprised and grateful to receive an award for ‘Buffalo Boy’ from the Association for Asian American Studies. I hadn’t even known that the publisher (Curbstone Press) nominated my book for the award.
Below, are comments I’d planned to make at the Awards Ceremony in April. Because buses were waiting, I skipped all of this. I offer it now not to answer questions, but to communicate. One thing for sure: I in no way––small or big––wish to inspire rupture in any community.
With deep respect for you and your colleagues,
James Janko

April 19, 2008
Association for Asian American Studies––Awards Ceremony
I was a medic in the Viet Nam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War. I was not drafted and sent to Viet Nam to get to know anyone or anything, but I did begin to know a kind of beauty which neither the military nor myself could have anticipated.
Ironically, I know the Vietnamese earth more intimately than the earth of my own country. I was a platoon medic for the 25th Infantry Division for around nine months. We operated in the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh areas, and were part of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970. I stumbled through rice paddies, forests, jungles, waded through swamps, and at night I lay down on Vietnamese (or Cambodian) soil ten thousand miles from home. I sometimes felt the land was inside me, that is was growing in me, and this––rather than being a burden––was my one comfort. I was dazed, not quite believing I was in this war, but now and then the beauty of the place was too great to be missed. Lushness is too mild a word to describe the Vietnamese earth and the Cambodian jungles. Even the bombed-out Cu Chi countryside still had a few pockets that blossomed. In these, I took refuge when I could.
So I first came to know the Vietnamese through the land that sustains them. About 30 years after my time in the war, I returned to Viet Nam and made dear friends. The family of Huyen Thieu Qui and Chi Long answered hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of my questions, and I am especially grateful to Anh Qui, Anh Quan, and Chau Gai Minh.
In my novel, there is a character, a mother, named Ma Xuan. She has lost many to the war, and she has an altar with pictures of those who have passed on––her husband, her parents, her husband’s parents. Que huong (ancestral homeland) is home in the deepest sense. The placentas and umbilical cords of Ma Xuan’s two children are buried in the land of the ancestors. Her husband is buried near the field where he worked, as are her parents. The ancestors and the fields they farmed, and the living who continue to work in these fields, are one circle, one web of union. When one lives in this way, and honors the dead in this way, how can one harm the land? It would be like stabbing one’s own flesh.
The U.S. had cobra gun-ships that could “put a bullet in every square inch of a football field in less than a minute.” American planes dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than double the bombs dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II.
The Vietnamese word for human is con nguoi; con mean animal, and nguio means person. The language is old enough to remember a time when human beings did not view themselves as separate from animals. In my novel, certain animals––water buffaloes, a tiger, an elephant––are living beings who struggle alongside humans to survive. In the present time, it seems to me that an awareness of the oneness of life is essential for the survival of many species, including homo sapiens.
I want to thank my mentor, Maxine Hong Kingston, and the Veteran Writers’ Group. And I deeply thank the Association for Asian American Studies for recognizing my book. I dedicate the award to the generosity of my friends in Viet Nam, especially to the family of Huyen Thieu Qui.

Jennifer said...

Jim (and Mike),
Thanks for your comments and for reprinting the speech you had planned to give at the AAAS banquet back in April.

I must admit it's a little daunting to realize that the author you were discussing (and his book) is actually reading this blog and my ruminations on all of the award granting and what this signals for Asian American literature.

One thing I do want to say is that you are, by no means, responsible for a rupture in Asian American literature or literary studies. I don't even know if I'd classify my concerns as a "rupture" -- and truthfully, these discussions have gone on in various forms and forums for a while now--which is why I mentioned Pearl Buck in my post--because once upon a time Pearl Buck was considered to be a Chinese author or Asian American author because of her subject matter. I don't know that anyone nowadays would consider her work as such, but you never know.

At any rate, I know it can't be easy to read comments about yourself on a blog--I hate getting anonymous reader reports back from the articles I submit. So I appreciate you wanting to engage in this format. And I look forward to your next novel (I could be cheeky and ask if you will next be pursuing an African American literary award or Chicano fiction award, but you don't know my sense of humor and may not take this in the vein it is intended, which is good natured and good spirited. Of course if I have described something that I claim that I am not going to say, and yet in effect have said it anyway, does that negate the whole not saying of it in the first place? This is a signal I should go to bed).

James Janko said...

Hi Jennifer,
My new novel (almost finished) is unlikely to win an award in African American literature and/or Chicano literature. The narrator, a 72-year-old white guy addicted to booze, baseball, and TV discovers a lifeline--poetry--late in life.
Truth be told, I never thought Buffalo Boy and G would find a publishing home let alone win awards. When it found a home (Curbstone), I thought it might win an environmental book award (if such an award exists in fiction), but I never could have anticipated an award in Asian American literature.
This is my favorite sentence from Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men:
"Men build bridges and streets when there is already an amazing gold electric ring connecting every living being as surely as if we held hands, flippers and paws, feelers and wings."
Best regards,

Jennifer said...

Hi Jim,
Glad you weren't offended by my sense of humor--and good luck to you as you finish your latest book manuscript.

I do think your book has a very strong eco-critical stance--perhaps you should have Curbstone Press contact ASLE (association for the study of litereature and the environment). They have a journal and they have a bienniel conference that will be in Victoria, BC this year--your book would certainly fit with the themes of the conference, especially the link between social justice/racism and environmental issues (what those in the movement would call "Environmental Jutice"--looking at superfund sites next to poor communities of color, what is going on in post-Karina LA and MI, etc...).

Anyway, I think you should be plugging your book with environmental groups, for what it's worth. You can always do a google search for ASLE and see if you can contact someone--the people at University of Nevada's English dept are big Environmental Studies folks. Good luck!

Mike Wong said...

Hi Jennifer and all,

I had an thought. Perhaps the solution to this (for the future, at least) would be to have a separate award for, say, "Friends of Asian America." Such an award would recognize writers who are not themselves Asian American, but who have contributed in some meaningful way to a better understanding of Asians or Asian Americans. Pearl S. Buck, in her day, did just that. She presented Chinese as human beings worthy of understanding and respect, at a time when much of the media presented us as stereotypes - and often very negative ones at that. Pearl Buck was able, because she was Caucasian, to succeed big in a market where perhaps no Asian could due to the discrimination at the time (Don’t worry, I never met Pearl Buck and am not about to start channeling messages from her). It wasn't ideal, but it was a small step forward at a time when such steps were difficult if not impossible. In dangerous times, we need our allies. This might be an appropriate way to show our appreciation of them.

yours in peace,

Mike Wong

P.S. - Another thought - the Pearl Buck subject raises more questions about who should count as Asian American. Pearl Buck grew up in China, in the countryside, and spent a majority of her life there. She spoke and read Chinese as a native speaker, and knew Chinese history and culture better than, well, probably me and many other American born Chinese. And I don’t even speak Chinese! (I was born and raised in San Francisco, but somehow managed to live a childhood in Chinatown without learning to speak much Chinese.) Pearl Buck also broke the ground for books on Chinese life stories, creating a market for writers such as Jade Snow Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan. Pearl Buck surely contributed far more to the Asian American community than I or most average Asian Americans ever have. Yet I count as an Asian American and Pearl Buck does not. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair.

On the other hand, Pearl Buck also gained from being Caucasian American, and was able to do much of what she did precisely because she was a Caucasian American. So perhaps there is some balance here.

The line (as I point out in a comment on the other comment line) between being Asian American and not being Asian American can be a complex subject. On the one hand, there is a need to recognize those who are genetically not Asian American yet have made meaningful contributions to our community. On the other hand, as Jennifer so accurately points out, in dangerous times - which these surely are - there is a need to keep our voice representative and strong in order to protect ourselves politically. Thus, there is a need to have clarity as to who speaks as one of us and who does not. Sometimes, a person may even be stronger speaking as not one of us, yet advocating for us. Developing awards for “Friends of Asian America” might be just the way to honor such people.

Jennifer said...

I like your idea about a "friends of Asian America" award. The interesting thing is that the association has long given awards to non-Asian Americans for their contributions to academic writing and publishing. So at the banquet where Jim received his award, there was a publisher, of white American background, who was also honored for her work and service in publishing scholarly monographs and collected editions in the field of Asian American literaure. And no one would dispute the contributions of many non-Asian American academics to the field of Asian American knowledge, especially in terms of Japanese American internment history.

And you are so right--allies are key. I've written about the need for allies in other places on this blog--that we need others and we need to be allies for others, because it can be a very powerful thing to have someone from a majority group speak alongside or advocate with a minority presence.

But I think part of the problem is in the use of prepositions. I cannot speak FOR a group I don't identify with. I live with straight privilege--a hetronormativitiy if you will--that gives me a type of power (albeit limited by other factors in my personal profile) that my queer friends and colleagues don't have.

And I think this is what makes people nervous when we get to art and literature--maybe more specifically literature. Because we are still trying to work out in our contemporary period, whether fiction is just fiction and not representation--but truthfully, it's both and a whole lot more. So of course Pearl Buck, while in some senses much more Chinese than I'll ever be (because like you although I grew up in the SF Bay Area, I never learned mandarin or cantonese) lived with white privilege--she enjoyed connections in the publishing world and in terms of speaking that someone who was Chinese American didn't have access to.

None of these issues is simple--they are complex and we should recognize their complexity. Which is one of the reasons I'm trying to puzzle through all of this.

Because while, on the one hand, it'd be easy to say that this is such a minor thing in the scheme of things--will anyone remember (besides close friends and family of Jim's of course) who won the 2006 AAAS literature award? Probably not. But precedents are important -- although I don't know if it is a precedent or not--it's something I should find out about--but it certainly has provided a lively discussion.

I'm glad that both you and Jim have found your way to this site (even though I was initially a bit apprehensive I have to admit--because as I said in my previous post to Jim, it's an odd feeling to realize that the person you've been writing about is responding, but I'm sure it must be very odd for Jim to be reading about himself in the 3rd person by someone who has never met him).

Anyway, I've really enjoyed this exchange and hope it continues in various forms.

James Janko said...

Hi Jennifer,
Thank you for the tip--ASLE.
I rarely navigate the web, so I'm glad Mike sent me the link. I much appreciate the communication.
All the best,

Debbie Reese said...

I just learned of this book and in searching, found this blog post.

I'm going to run over to the library in a few minutes and pick it up.

I'm curious as to why there is a character in it named Geronimo.

Like Jennifer, I am a professor. The subject of my study is the ways that American Indians are portrayed in books for children and young adults. I, myself, am from Nambe Pueblo, one of the tribes located in what is called New Mexico.

Jennifer said...

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for finding your way to my blog. I won't ruin why the character is named Geronimo for you--I think given your field of study you will find it interesting (and probably problematic) in its invocation of Geronimo.

There's not much discussion of the novel--certainly among Asian American lit scholars no one I know has worked on it, although I think others (like myself) have mused about just what it means for a work written by a white American to win an Asian American book prize.

At any rate, hope you find the book in your library -- I do think that as far as the depiction of Vietnamese village life, it seems very accurate/authentic, at least as compared to other works that I've read written by Vietnamese/Vietnmaese American writers, although I also realize how problematic it is to talk about authenticity.