Where does inspiration lie? Everywhere!

This is my attempt to pounce on and then shape the words I breathe.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Stereotypes are Ugly

Today the prompt at dVerse Poets Pub stopped me short: Poetics: 'Asians are Ugly!'  Written by Kelvin S.M. a self-proclaimed "Poet*Artist*Mythical Sleuth*" who is "Filipino-Spanish," the prompt lays out a bit of his experience of racism and asks us to write about any experience we have had with Asians--which includes, of course, being Asian.  He called the resulting poems his "Asian revenge (lol)" which is rather tongue in cheek.  

Geraldine Farrar as Madama Butterfly, 1907Metropolitan Opera de Nova York

I, who have never met an ugly Asian, sat down to think about Kelvin's prompt.  My Asian experience is all within the USA.  Here are the highlights summarized chronologically:

1.      Uncle Nishino
2.      Chinese and Indian food
3.      Taiwanese roommate Ye Fe Chou
4.      Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
5.      Japanese set designer Jun Maeda
6.      Butoh dancers
7.      Chinese Canadian Ping Chong and Company
8.      Korean students of English as a second Language
9.      Thai food
10.   Noh theatre
11.    Kabuki Theatre
12.    Chinese Opera
13.   M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
14.   Tea by Maxine Hong Kingston
15.   Bunraku
16.   Vietnamese students in Public School English classes
17.   World Affairs Council Seminar in South East Asian Culture

Of these, Number 13 was probably the most intense.  I saw Hwang's M. Butterfly first on Broadway, second in text (as part of  the "Freshman Seminar in Multi-Cultural American Drama" I taught at the College of William and Mary), and third as a Hollywood movie.  Only the movie disappointed.  


The Broadway play in 1989 with actors John Lithgow as Gallimard and BD Wong as Song Liling literally put me in my place.  Not forewarned about the content and message of the piece nor anticipating its relationship to Madame Butterfly, I was taken in by the same racist stereotypes as Gallimard who was “loosely based on” French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and his relationship with  Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer.  Here is Wikipedia’s summary of the plot: 

The first act introduces the main character, Rene Gallimard, who is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man masquerading as a woman. In traditional Beijing opera, females were banned from the stage; all female roles (dan) were played by males.

Act two begins with Song coming to France and resuming his affair with Gallimard. They stay together for 20 years until the truth is revealed, and Gallimard is convicted of treason and imprisoned. Unable to face the fact that his "perfect woman" is actually a man, that has been posing as a woman for 20 years to be able to spy, he retreats deep within himself and his memories. The action of the play is depicted as his disordered, distorted recollection of the events surrounding their affair.

The third act portrays Gallimard committing seppuku (also known as harakiri, ritual Japanese suicide through self-disembowelment) while Song watches and smokes a cigarette.

So what were the stereotypes?  

The worst is that all of Asia is feminine/submissive to the male western world—HA! Here are some memorable quotes from the play found at Goodreads:   

“As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East -- he's already confused.  The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. ...Basically, 'Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.' The West thinks of itself as masculine -- big guns, big industry, big money -- so the East is feminine -- weak, delicate, poor...but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom -- the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated -- because a woman can't think for herself. ...You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now I believe you should consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner–ah!–you find it beautiful.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Why, in the Peking Opera, are women's roles played by men?...Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

“Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.” 
David Henry HwangM. Butterfly

The classes I have taught since 1989 have all, in one way or another, been about identity vs. stereotypes/expectations.  I champion curiosity, inquiry, listening.  As in Kelvin’s prompt, the results I am after are much bigger, but we start always with individual experience.  I enjoy diversity.

I first learned I was white European and racist in 1969, two decades before this play taught me the depth of that racism, sexism, and classism.  I was getting on a Greyhound bus in Worcester, MA, to travel to Albany, NY where my parents were waiting for me. I looked up and saw all the faces, all black faces.  I had never been in a place where everyone else was Black, and I wondered for the first time in my life how it felt for my African-American friends to experience White.  My first instinct was to back up and step off the bus, but I didn't   I walked to the back of the bus and sat down.  I had experienced difference, but not danger—I hope I will never know the full extent of racism experientially. 

Now I love that this life-changing moment occurred on Memorial Day weekend.  Insight into self, good or bad, is always memorable.

Thank you, Kelvin S.M.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Writing as Healing

I ride on emotion as if it were language, a trusted transport into meaning—not definitions, but rhythms and feelings that lead me where I want to go as swiftly as a November wind.

But I do not know the name of the horse I am riding, be it tame or wild, love or .... A giddy rider now, screamingly happy, I fear that if I stop to name a vortex will flush me. 

If I stop, something precious will keep going, will drop my hand  and leave me tumbling, eye glasses smashed, teeth broken, nose and knees bleeding, blood writing.  

But if I don't dismount, I will lose myself as if a Frodo who could not destroy his magic ring.  As if a Dorothy asleep in a field of forgetfulness, I will lose my choice.  

So drop. I will myself.  Stumble.  Find name and voice.  Write names, say them, touch them, welcome the horse, then remount and ride words dangerously in wind and sea and city.  

Nothing is more precious


Re-posted 5/19/2013 for Poets United  Poetry Pantry - #150,  after major revision--but still not quite settled.  Perhaps if you say what you see, I will know how to proceed.

This writing is inspired by Kim Nelson's 5/8/2013 suggestion to share a self healing  (which this is), a concrete instance (which this is not), and 100 words or less (which this is not)--I will go and write that poem next now that this is off my chest.  Thank you Kim and Poets United!   Visit my poem, "Getting On With It," here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wanting to get on with it!

I want to finish the draft of my novel this year, but cannot stir myself.  So I wrote this poem--though part of the problem is how to turn away from the poetry for a while.  It isn't taking me deep enough into the knowledge I want to put forth from my life.  Ah me.  Deep Sigh.  This poem needs a better title:

Wanting a Drink

Sitting in Meeting for Worship and seeking clearness on my path
Watching a cat turn an empty couch into an absent mother
One clump of fabric after another becoming her belly, her breast—

It is the teat of God I want to suck on for knowledge of my path now,
Why my reluctance to work hard every day in this luscious time to write
I've set aside, journals in the living room, computer in the study

Novel opens to page 46 on paper and screen; conflict is set—
Maybe I don’t know enough yet—ha!—If not, I never will
At least not without climbing into the writing itself

So let me pump your breast, my God, let Sophia meet me there
Rich and milky, let me re-nurture there like a son and a daughter
My thirst is beyond water and blood, beyond the earth.

Copyright © 2013 S.L.Chast

Visit my new poem, "Getting On With It," here.