Song and poetry are siblings, both undoing our familiarity with language. One of my favorite bands, Sunset Rollercoaster is a Taiwanese indie pop band that writes dreamy songs in English instead of the band members’ native Mandarin. The lead singer Tseng Kuo-Hung explains, “I learned all English from Sesame Street and school stuff, so English for me is a really outsider thing… If I sing in Mandarin, I will think too much, but if I’m singing in English I just really don’t care.” When I listen to the band’s synth-laden melodies and charming lyrics, I feel the ease in Tseng’s singing.
The emotions associated with language encompass a wide spectrum. They can be tethered to joy or tethered to pain–such as expressing oneself accurately or navigating society as a non-native speaker. The sonic fabric of New Jersey is likewise diverse, with many multilingual, diasporic communities. Languages are inseparable from the weight of our social and personal histories. For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m highlighting books by Asian American Pacific Islander poets who explore this complexity by playing with our linguistic assumptions. How does a language, English or any other, sit on our tongues?
“Dance Dance Revolution” by Cathy Park Hong
In this collection, “’The Guide’ is a former South Korean dissident and tour guide who speaks a fluid fabricated language; ‘the Historian’ interviews the Guide and annotates the commentaries. Cathy Park Hong’s passionate and artful poem sequence weaves an ultimately revitalizing dialogue on shared experience in a globalized world, using language as subversion and disguise.”
“Dictee” by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
“A classic work of autobiography that transcends the self, Dictee is the story of several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo (a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself… Cha deploys a variety of texts, documents, images, and forms of address and inquiry to explore issues of dislocation and the fragmentation of memory.”
“If They Come for Us” by Fatimah Asghar
“…An imaginative, soulful debut poetry collection captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America. Orphaned as a child, Fatimah Asghar grapples with coming of age and navigating questions of sexuality and race without the guidance of a mother or father… In experimental forms and language both lyrical and raw, Asghar seamlessly braids together marginalized people’s histories with her own understanding of identity, place, and belonging.”
“When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities” by Chen Chen
“In this ferocious and tender debut, Chen Chen investigates inherited forms of love and family — the strained relationship between a mother and son, the cost of necessary goodbyes — all from Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives. Holding all accountable, this collection fully embraces the loss, grief, and abundant joy that come with charting one’s own path in identity, life, and love.”
“Living Nations, Living Words” an anthology of work by Native poets including Imaikalani Kalahele, Brandy Nālani McDougall, and Craig Santos Perez
“A powerful, moving anthology that celebrates the breadth of Native poets writing today. Joy Harjo, the first Native poet to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate, has championed the voices of Native peoples past and present. Her signature laureate project gathers the work of contemporary Native poets into a national, fully digital map of story, sound, and space, celebrating their vital and unequivocal contributions to American poetry.”
These poets interlace multiple histories into their work and allow language to slip and slide. While you check out these fantastic books in our collection, I’ll be re-listening to Sunset Rollercoaster’s song “Vanilla.” As the vinyl spins, Tseng croons, “Vanilla / First time I met you in America / You showed me the way to your lonely Mars / Where I tumbled down, where I fall apart…”
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