General 5-7-2007

Double Vision, Three Times

Lovers of poetry and prose, and of Asian and Asian American arts, were treated to a night of luminary talent on May 1 at the Loft.

Wang Ping
sun yung shin
yuko Tanoguichi

Sun Yung Shin, author of Skirt Full of Black; Yuko Taniguichi, who wrote The Ocean in the Closet; and Wang Ping, author of The Last Communist Virgin, read their work to a full house at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. These three powerhouse women writers left the distinct impression that there is a revolution in Asian American writing occurring here in Minnesota – and it has the potential to change the contours of the genre, not just here, but across the country as well.

“These writers, all immigrants . . . speak through their art about seeing the world with double vision,” said Coffee House publisher Allan Kornblum, who opened the evening. Coffee House, an award-winning, nonprofit literary publisher based in Minneapolis, co-sponsored the reading with the Loft. The press brought out Shin, Taniguichi, and Ping’s work earlier this year. “Every literary giant is produced from this tension between writing from both inside and outside mainstream culture,” Kornblum concluded.

Poet Sun Yung Shin was the first reader of the evening. Her collection Skirt Full of Black is a fascinating addition to the nascent Korean American canon, exploring the interstices of language, power and culture through lyric collage. The high point of Shin’s selection came when she read from “Vestibulary,” the penultimate section of the book, inspired by hangul, the Korean writing system. “I used the hangul characters and (the old Romanization) – their orthography, form – to create bits of narrative and images inspired by their shapes. The eros of language acquisition,” Shin writes in the section’s introduction. For example, in the poem for “a,” Shin writes: “A man with a solitary arm, ghost / war, phantom companion; / next year’s wife, her double / embrace.”

Yuko Taniguichi took a narrative turn, reading from the beginning of her first novel, The Ocean in the Closet. “Mom put us in the closet again,” Taniguichi writes. “…My spot was right under Dad’s coats because it had a little more space. Mom put ropes around the doorknobs so that the door wouldn’t pop open. Sometimes, if I had to go to the bathroom, I kicked the door, but all I would get was the small light from a crack in the door. Mom sometimes forgot that we were in the closet, so we had to wait until Dad came home to let us out in the evening. He never came home soon enough though. At dinner, Dad was always so nice to Mom, holding her hand and telling us that we had to do what Mom said. His voice was so deep that I always thought it came from the bottom of the ocean.” Chronicling the journey of a Japanese American family’s struggles to leave the Vietnam War, and all its attendant emotional and psychological casualties, behind, The Ocean in the Closet may widen our disappointingly narrow creative discourse on this conflict.

“This is it, Shan Gui, June 6, 2006. In six hours, the cofferdam will explode. The river will rush in and we’ll all go under.” Thus begins “Maverick,” the last story in Wang Ping’s The Last Communist Virgin. Ping, who recently returned from a trip to China where she documented the Three Gorges Dam and its soon-to-be displaced people, read sections from “Maverick” on Tuesday night. “The wind is blowing. Clouds are gathering on the Twelve Peaks of Wu Shan. Below us, white water tears through the narrow Wu Gorge, sending up clouds of mist on the steep slopes. Such was the morning we welcomed our eighteen years together; now it’s eighteen years since your departure. In six hours the river will rise to the red mark, 175 meters, and everything will go – the gorge, the slopes, the mist, and our home under the magic tree. The river will become a lake: tame, servile, voiceless,” writes Ping. This preoccupation with the voiceless, with those people and stories that are deemed either not important or irrelevant, characterizes all of the pieces in The Last Communist Virgin.

Find copies of Skirt Full of Black, The Ocean in the Closet, and The Last Communist Virgin at your local library or bookstore.