Sunday 29 November 2015

Category Error

Ray Hsu considers how categories such as "Asian-Canadian" can straitjacket writers:
When I was working as an editor for Rice Paper Magazine, people would send in stuff that seemed terribly hmm… clichéd? They seemed to be stuck in a mould of what Asian Canadian writing was for a very long time and sometimes I would pick up the phone and I would call the writers and contributors and ask them to tell me more about their submissions. I would ask them, why did you write this? So many times they would respond with, “Oh, I thought this is what you wanted. I looked at past issues of this and this was the kind of thing I thought you wanted so I changed the characters so they would be ‘Asian.’” And that seemed to me rather striking. Or not even that they necessarily “changed it,” but maybe they made certain things more explicit. It has been super interesting talking to writers who don’t want to necessarily foreground—make the story or make the poem or make the piece all about their Asian-ness, their Asian Canadian-ness or something like that. And I think that is also true of my own work. I would say that I probably I buck against those conventions a lot.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Yes. One of the things that strikes me about reading that passage from the interview is that it frames something about being an editor: one is (necessarily?) in a position where one must respond implicitly to the weight of all the issues that have come before. If a magazine has been "successful," then it may become victim to that success, making it harder for imagine a way forward that looks different from before.

Contributors may believe emulating what came before will give them a way into some inner circle. The nature of literary capital is that folks who are submitting work may well wish to toe some perceived line that they think may be necessary to be published in the first place and advance a career they imagine requiring such steps. Unless, of course, they don't read back issues and found the submission information from Poet's Market.

The effect of this upon the category of "Asian Canadian" (and probably other categories under which one might fight for collective recognition towards a fair share of social goods) is a conservative one: what one might imagine it takes to climb a literary ladder means kowtowing at the feet of gatekeepers, even if those who occupy gatekeeping roles (e.g. me) don't think it serves anything.

If there's one thing that my adventures in Asian Canadianness have taught me, it's that I never want to be part of some pyramidal power structure in which I get to benefit from being some kind of elder statesman.