• Global Asian Culture and America’s Shifting Identity

    I HAVE THIS FEAR that once I write about my experience as an Asian American just a little too much, I have consigned this writing to a shelf only to be read by other Asian Americans, if it’s published at all. Yet like other minority writers I know, I write just as much with others in mind. And not to further screw up these smooth categorizations with my unwieldy wrench, sometimes I write to my father, who was Caucasian. What shelf do I go on today?

art history and related fields in the humanities have long acknowledged the fundamental position occupied by writing, which entails among other things that writing is not a neutral medium, and that there is no secure distinction between nonfiction and other kinds of writing—but few scholars have taken writing seriously in their own practice. Art historians, theorists, and critics continue to write along well-defined disciplinary paths. We cite poststructural philosophers on the idea of writing, but our own writing continues to be restricted by disciplinary expectations. The few authors who permit their writing to become more experimental (such as Barthes, Derrida, John Berger, or Hélène Cixous) tend to have their texts viewed as fiction or as sources for art history, rather than examples of art history.

One result of this is a deep disparity between the ways writing is taught and interpreted inside and outside art history. Art history, visual studies, and related fields have virtually no discourse on what might make writing interesting or challenging: we mainly praise writers who are clear, or remark on those who aren’t. Meanwhile, just outside our disciplines, in literary history and criticism, there is rich literature on writing with a complex history and an enormous repertoire of strategies for reading texts. Within art history, it is as if none of that ever happened. Most of what is written under the name art history is not compelling, on account of a lack of reflection about writing itself. (What does art historical writing actually express, aside from its subject matter? For me, the average professional essay expresses the scholar’s anxiety about being correct, professional, and authoritative. The scholar’s anxiety or preoccupation with status provides much of the affective content of an average text. I find that once you start paying attention in this way, it can be difficult to read past art history’s emotionally narrow tone, its brittle tension, and its affective fragility, to hear what might be expressed about the art.

language also communicates our deepest selves back to us, as if words were a shroud that give form to our inner world. Language is power and protest, inclusion and exclusion. It is game and braggadocio.

And it is impossible to talk about multilingualism in the United States without acknowledging the politics of language and culture…Language divides as easily as it unites. But when I teach multilingualism in writing, I try to concentrate mostly on the game, on language’s ability to give us pleasure, because it can and because we’re writers and that is what language ultimately is for us, a source of deep pleasure even when the words are angry or difficult or even ugly.

What does it mean to be multilingual? At the most basic level, we all are. If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other. “English,” this solid behemoth that depending on your politics should either be preserved or purged, is actually, when you cut it open, quite a shape-shifter. What is English? A relative newcomer to the club of languages, (in use a mere 1400 years compared to truly ancient tongues like Tamil which reach back to the third century BCE) and not all that original: Mostly German, Latin and French with some Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit.

But even if you’re not a linguist and even if you don’t speak anything other than this closeted polyglot called English, you are probably still speaking in tongues. Do you have a different language for your parents than you do for your mates? Do you speak the language of lawyers? Of doctors? Of your hometown? Of your own particular tribe?

…She writes: “The problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.”

And yet, as an adult, she chooses to write in English. “If I’m to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of the self.”

Later, she realizes that each language “modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages.”

One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.

This is part of what Mikhail Bakhtin was getting at when he wrote “…language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between ones’ self and the other… The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s “own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.”

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

To translate, one must really understand what is being said. The translator crawls inside a text and inhabits it in a way not even the careful reader can. This is why every writer must read as the translator does.

* * * *

This essay is cheekily sub-titled “being a multilingual writer in the 21st century” which implies that we invented it. Of course we didn’t, anymore than we invented globalization.

“One truth that is rather neglected in creative-writing workshops is that all good poets of the past, almost without exception, were at least bilingual if not trilingual,” the critic Helen Vendler said in a 1996 interview with the Paris Review.

I started this essay off with the idea that at its basic level, language exists in order to communicate. But the flip side is the possibility of miscommunication, misunderstanding and the sense of mute inarticulateness that many learners of a new language experience.

“I want to write a story about a woman who is trying to say important things, but cannot,” one of my Chinese exchange students recently told me.

She was trying to express what it feels like to have a vibrant intelligent inner life that cannot yet be fully expressed in the elementary constructions of a new language.

Our universities are woefully lacking in multilingual writing programs that can give students the encouragement and freedom to use their native languages. We should be building many more such programs, and they should not only be for multilingual writers. Monolingual writers, too, have much to learn from the multilingual experience, one that will invite them to confront, perhaps for the first time, the gulf between a lively mind and a poor tongue. A good writing program will acknowledge the limits of language while celebrating its pleasures and possibilities.

  • What is Interesting Writing in Art History? by James Elkins

    This collection of texts, with its question for a title, is part of a larger project on the history, theory, and possibilities of writing that includes images.

    By “writing,” in the wider project, I generally mean fiction (modernist, experimental, conceptual, unclassifiable) but also nonfiction (including some art history, art criticism, cultural criticism, visual studies, and art theory).

    By “images” I mean principally photographs (but also charts, diagrams, maps, photocopies, and other graphics) and sometimes drawings and paintings.

    The larger project is therefore meant to be about all writing that includes images, and especially novels and experimental fiction with photographs in the text. That larger theme surrounds the topic of these chapters, which are focused on the narrower subject of experimental writing on fine art, and especially writing that presents itself as art history. The idea is to try to lead from the specifics of art history out into wider spheres, and eventually into any writing (fiction included) that uses images (which aren’t necessarily art). In all this, writing has center stage.


David prompts us to consider what kind of nonfiction is demanded by contemporary reality, suggesting that there may be an imperative towards open-endedness, self-questioning, being playful and exploratory. That the essay might be a kind of ‘critical play’…he describes how he wanted the essays to be personal but not in a navel-gazing, self-obsessed way, rather in a way that the individual, himself, is always implicated. David encourages us to think about the epistemological imperative, considering who am I to tell this story?’

John…describes his work as often polemical, what he calls ‘advocacy works’, though the essayist dimension is not located in those polemics but rather in the form. Quoting Walter Benjamin, John says ‘storytelling is about the ability to exchange our experiences.’

In the middle of a classroom, two poets are dancing. Ellen van Neerven and Nhã Thuyên – each holding handwritten signs – face each other and sway, back and forth, retreating and gaining. One sign says contemporary poetry; the other, reader. They are curious then wary, confident then timid. It becomes clear that the dance is a physical rendering of the workshop topic: Approaches to Contemporary Poetry.

What is contemporary poetry? How can the reader reach it? Ellen and Thuyên pose these questions and – far from expecting definitive answers – they each spend some time prodding them. Ellen asks: ‘What is the now? How will we know it? When will we know it?’

For Ellen, a First Nations Yugambeh woman, poetry functions to create new archives, new records, new histories – to rewrite the past. She explains that, in her work, there’s not a clear line between what happened then and what’s happening now: ‘The past atrocities are still current atrocities.’

Nhã Thuyên, a Vietnamese poet and publisher, sees language as a living being. Working in close partnership with her translator, Kaitlin Rees – a recent recipient of the Pen/Heim Translation Grant – she is fascinated by how languages work, how they may be made to dance with one another. She describes the Vietnamese and English editions of her book of poetry as sisters. Thuyên shares that she feels a limit, both living and working in her language. She keeps herself distant from Vietnamese by reading in English. She sees her language better from a distance.

Travel is a luxury. Right now, this second, Theresa May is at the UN, asking for the free movement of refugees to be stemmed. We are entering an era of closing borders and mass migration, where tides of desperate people, walking away from war zones, are met with fences or penned in camps. We can’t talk about the healing power of walking, solvitur ambulando, any longer, without knowing too that the ability to walk freely is a privilege, that being able to get up and go is not a shared human right, though it feels like the most basic act of our bipedal species.

And still I travel. Why? Because lives are lived in places, shaped by geological forces, and places serve as portals to descend through time.

… Which bodies can go where might be the central question of our century. For travel writing to be more than a rarefied excursion of the privileged, it’s as essential to grapple with these issues of power as it is to own a passport.

  • Seeking welcome while AustralianBut this kind of nationalism elides a multitude of problems that go beyond the domination of whiteness in our mainstream and everyday spaces; under its umbrella also exist the neoliberal fallacies of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘assimilation’. When (new) settlers are gradually subsumed into a grand Australian narrative – through, for instance, the bestowing of citizenship on Invasion Day – who are they grateful to, what are they working towards, who is being left behind? As I pull up my bootstraps to assimilate into a White Australia meritocracy, thousands of First Nations peoples continue to languish in institutionalised discrimination and poverty.


F. Scott Fitzgerald used to claim that he wrote with ‘the authority of failure,’ and he did. It was a source of power in his later work. But the authority of failure is but a pale shadow of the authority of suicide, as we feel it in Ariel and in The Bell Jar. This is not so much because Sylvia Plath, in taking her own life, gave her readers a certain ghoulish interest they could not bring to most poems and novels, though this is no doubt partly true. It is because she knew that she was ‘Lady Lazarus.’ Her works do not only come to us posthumously. They were written posthumously. Between suicides. She wrote her novel and her Ariel poems feverishly, like a person ‘stuck together with glue’ and aware that the glue was melting. Should we be grateful for such things? Can we accept the price she paid for what she has given us? Is dying really an art?

This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great question posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?

In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath has used superbly the most important technical device of realism–what the Russian critic Shklovsky called ‘defamiliarization.’ True realism defamiliarizes our world so that it emerges from the dust of habitual acceptance and becomes visible once again. This is quite the opposite of that comforting false realism that presents the world in terms of clichès that we are all too ready to accept.

What matters, at a time when popular culture is full of celebrities who identify themselves as feminist, is the very relationship between the mainstream and the margin. “The mainstream wants to claim the radical space for itself while simultaneously denying the work radicals do.”

The journey from radicalism to self-help is surely a depoliticisation. A movement that once imagined new ways to live has become a self-improvement course with empowerment as a personal goal.

…What is there for women who want to live outside the dominant romantic culture? This is what the work is – to make new collective ways of being. What men think of this is of no concern to Crispin. If they object: “Take that shit somewhere else … you as a man are not my problem.”

Dystopia is a defining characteristic of contemporary world fiction. Revolution has given way to devolution. The reduction of the body and the spirit, material scarcity, erasure of memory, and challenges to individual and group identity increasingly displace the older narratives of struggle and success. Eroded hope in the power of individuals to influence vast global forces—changing climate, fraying alliances, migrating populations, rapidly advancing technologies—though not new in itself, has become increasingly dominant.


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