The New Transnational Immigrant in Wang Ping’s Poetry

The title poem of Wang Ping’s recent collection Ten Thousand Waves (2014) reflects on the tragic fates of Chinese migrants who died off the English shore. Already in her first collection of poems Of Flesh & Spirit (1998), she had composed an elegy, “Song of Calling Songs” in remembrance of another group of Chinese migrants who died in a tragedy that happened on the coast of the USA. In my essay I discuss both poems in order to show how Wang Ping situates her poetry in water spaces and contributes to a new transnational immigrant sensibility in poetry that reconfigures conceptions of hope for a new homeland.

Born in Shanghai in 1957, Wang Ping earned her BA at Beijing University, worked on a rural commune for three years, moved to the US in 1986, and earned her PhD in comparative literature at NYU. She is currently Professor of English at Macalester College. Wang Ping’s work includes short story collections, a novel, an academic monograph, and three collections of poetry. Her work critiques the repressive conditions of life in China and the effects of the Cultural Revolution by unpacking the forms of “tangled roots for home”—as the last line of her poem “Mixed Blood” has it (16). Though she writes mostly in English, she occasionally employs bilingual code-switching to articulate the dystopic space of language. Her collections also consider the disoriented immigrant and themes of alienation, detachment and loss in the city, that is, in New York City and its boroughs. As a post-Tiananmen Square writer, Wang Ping carries the cultural capital of dissidence and critiques the East while situated in the West.

Wang Ping identifies strongly with waterscapes, and she co-founded Kinship of Rivers, described on its website as a “five-year interdisciplinary project to build kinship among communities along the Mississippi and Yangtze, and bring much awareness to the river’s ecosystem through art, literature, music, food, and installations of river-flags made by river communities” (“Kinship of Rivers”). As part of her biography on the website, she writes of being born at the mouth of the Yangtze and growing up on an island in the East China Sea fed by the Yangtze river. She marks thirteen years of living between the Hudson and East River in New York City, and she traces her current living place as being across from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers (“Kinship of Rivers”).

Wang Ping’s first collection of short stories appeared about five years after the June 6, 1993 crisis of the sinking of the Golden Venture, and her poem, “Song of Calling Souls” (1998), examines this unfortunate event as an originally utopian impulse towards transnational migration that quickly becomes dystopia for those who lose their lives and those who are indefinitely detained by the US. Director Peter Cohn produced a 2006 documentary titled Golden Venture that followed four of the survivors in one of the most tragic examples of undocumented migration. In the early hours of June 6, the Golden Venture was carrying 286 undocumented Chinese immigrants from Fujian. Their smugglers had sailed from Thailand to Kenya, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then towards the US. The ship ran aground in Queens, New York, and 10 of the undocumented migrants drowned. The survivors were detained in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania while awaiting news of their applications for political asylum. In the end, ten were granted asylum, and half of the immigrants were deported, with some survivors being accepted to South American countries. In 1997, President Clinton released fifty-two survivors from prison.

A year after the tragedy, a New York Times article reported that at least 223 of the undocumented migrants were still detained, and that they passed the time by creating art out of torn-up magazines. The art reflected their sentiments of hope, such as one creation, a three-foot pagoda, festooned with tiny American flags cut from magazine advertisements, for one of the detainee’s attorneys. The art included a Chinese couplet, which read:

Drifting across 10,000 miles in search of freedom,

On the verge of hopelessness, I meet with mercy. (Dunn 6/5/94)

The Golden Venture documentary portrayed the detainees’ creations of more than 10,000 folk art sculptures from paper. Many detainees created eagles, the American symbol of freedom, as well as other birds to symbolize their desire for freedom through the metaphor of flight. Their art traveled across the US as part of an exhibition titled, “Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees”.

In “Song of Calling Souls” (1998) Wang Ping commemorates those who lost their lives reaching for a new life in the US. The poem’s subheading reads, “THE DROWNED VOICES FROM THE GOLDEN VENTURE”, and Wang Ping writes from the collective voice of six of the drowned Chinese migrants (original italics, 66). The men mourn their death and speak as a collective voice, “Our bodies not ours, / but only bodies rotting / in the grave of lao fan” (8-10). These lines speak of the six men’s estrangement in a country that would not accept them for asylum and yet accepts them for burial. What does it mean for bodies to not belong, or for voices to not belong to bodies? The speakers emphasize the disorientation of being without a country, for in leaving China for the US they had sought to leave behind the prevailing dystopic conditions of home in following their hope for a new life. Yet the image of the “grave of the lao fan” evokes scorn in the Chinese reader (10). The Chinese usage of “lao fan” signifies a Caucasian or Westerner, it is derogatory and suggests a subordinate race. In this way the men are represented as viewing their burial on American soil, land of the Caucasians, with derision. Yet, the men’s attempt to land on US soil was driven by desire for a utopian future. The contradiction is caused by their dissatisfaction with the dystopic conditions they encountered as undocumented migrants who could only reach U.S. soil upon death, when the freedom they desired from the U.S. no longer mattered.

The men desire to speak from the grave and this calling of the souls (after the poem’s title) asks for the reader’s recognition of their existence:

Something wants to be said,

even if our words

grasp the air in vain

and nothing remains. (26-29)

These men are at the center of an international smuggling crisis. They speak from a grave that is not a resting place; in fact, their final home is in a country that had not allowed them access. This stanza expresses the fear of being forgotten. The formulation that “nothing remains” suggests the dissolution of the body’s remains after some time (29). Moreover, the men’s burial away from their original home means that their families and friends in China cannot pay tribute at their graves. This moment is contradictory in that they have abandoned China only to lament the absence of their remains in China.

These voices assert that they are telling their own story, repeating the phrase “Our story” to claim ownership of the narrative (30, 32). Their longing for China, their home, is evident when they mourn: “‘Home,’ we say / and before we utter the word, / our voices choke with longing" (34-36). Images of fishing and farming from their home villages create a pastoral nostalgia and show a tight-knit and lively community in China, one far different from the lonely graves from which these dead men call. The only community is in the shared grave for the six men, which strips them of individuality.

In the first half of the poem the speakers portray the appeal of sailing to the U.S. on a ship like the Golden Venture:

Still, waves of desire

rose daily,

this voice luring

from the far side of the sea. (94-98)

The play on the word “waves” to characterize the desire of the men to leave their Chinese homes foreshadows the waves that will consume them upon the ship’s running aground (94). The phrase “far side of the sea” indicates that the men seek access to the US through the Atlantic instead of aiming at the West coast, closer to China and to be reached through the Pacific Ocean (98). While the ship crosses the entire Atlantic Ocean, its starting point is the Fujian Province of China that borders the Pacific Ocean, and the journey is transpacific as well as transatlantic. The men come to personify the call that increases in urgency to persuade them, and the speakers employ water-based imagery to communicate their emotions upon leaving China:

So in hope and fear we fared.

In tears we fared.

Mist spread a veil

Till ocean-bound. (103-106)

The “tears” and “mist” convey the sadness and the finality of leaving home. The closeness between the men and their dwelling place on the ocean shore in the poem is explained by the Fuzhou region’s fishing industry. The men describe how the ocean shore provides a source of comfort and a reminder of home in China: “Fishermen’s dwellings everywhere. / How lovely! / How familiar!” (44-46). Images of the “waters of Changle,” “Sea and sky fused,” “small boats offshores” and “fishhawks in silhouette” transmit the men’s nostalgic remembrance of the fishing trade despite the draw of material success that they had anticipated upon being smuggled into the US (39, 41, 51, 52). The duality of the word “fare” (104, 105) evokes the noun “fare,” the price that one pays for passage in addition to the verb “to fare”—that is “to manage”.

Multiple references to the ocean reflect the transnational nature of the journey of the Golden Venture and reinforce how the ocean serves as the place of hope as well as despair. The economic constraints of life in Fuzhou serve as a push factor, and the men suggest that the pull factor is bilateral, that “America needed our labor and skills / as much as we needed its dream” (142-143). This vision characterizes the US as having a lack of labor, and the speakers identify that what pushes them to pursue this American dream is the prospect of the country’s needing their labor.

Still later in the poem, the men articulate a sense of dislocation that exacerbates their grief in being between their homeland and their original destination. They describe their condition:

Condemned to wander,

Lost among the roots of our six senses,

Gazing at New York,

Gazing homeward. (190-194)

Their burial location exists between their homeland and their original destination. This space of being in between is a permanent place of exile. The speakers reference national borders on the ocean sides of both countries in their recognition that “Sands of the shore / may reach an end, / but not our grief” (227-229). That is, their grief is unbounded by national territorial epistemologies. Their song of mourning, then, also serves a purpose; the speakers ask to be named, even though they might be called by strangers who cannot pronounce their names. Their names, Chen Zinhan, Zhen Shimin, Lin Guoshui, Chen Dajie, Wang Xin, Huang Chanpin live through these calls. The poem concludes, “Do not let us fade / from this place, / unlit and unfulfilled” (250-253). The ethical responsibility of remembering these men and of calling their names as a memorial articulates their “unfulfilled” dreams in the US. While they did in fact reach the “land of paradise,” their utopic vision immediately becomes dystopic for their souls are “condemned to wander” after their deaths on the shores of the US (161, 190).

This poem puts pressure on the catalytic vision of the US as a presumed utopian site. The US becomes a place of loss from which the American Dream is interrogated. In using the term “American Dream” I refer to what literary critic C. Lok Chua calls the “rather uniform version” in which Chinese immigrants called the US Gam Saan, which translates from the dominant Toishan dialect to “Golden Mountain” and the desire for wealth that was initially possible through the 1848 Gold Rush (Lok XVI). Lok explains the introduction of the American Dream[1] for the Chinese:

“Golden Mountain,” therefore, succinctly suggests the dream of the first Chinese who came to America as sojourners in pursuit of frankly materialistic goals—to get rich quickly and retire to their native villages. However, once on the land, and despite their homing instincts and the exclusionary laws of the United States, many Chinese became settlers in America, and the original dream of merely materialistic fulfillment underwent changes, taking on nuances and different ideals as Chinese Americans evolved from sojourners to immigrants, from settlers to native sons and daughters. (Lok XVI)

The poem’s collective voice on behalf of Chen Zinhan, Zhen Shimin, Lin Guoshui, Chen Dajie, Wang Xin, and Huang Chanpin draws attention to their unfulfilled American Dreams. Though they anticipated financial gain from jobs in America, the only part of America these men experienced was death off American shores.

In a Christmas 2013 Facebook post titled “The Making of Ten Thousand Waves: an Immigration Carol (draft)” Wang Ping discusses how the Golden Venture tragedy and migrant stories led to her becoming a multi-media artist. She discusses the writing of “Song of Calling Souls” and her intentions:

I thought I could rest the dead souls from the Golden Venture, buried namelessly in the public cemetery in NJ. I thought I could rest my own conscience afterwards, by giving them all I had. An intense three-day composing without sleep or food drained me so much that I went blind for 24 hours.
But the story keeps coming, from the deserts in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, from the seas, shores, trucks, ships, from Canada, England, Spain, Italy, Holland…every story is the same story, soaked with blood, death, unfulfilled hope.
Each story makes me weep, lose appetite, sleep, sanity. Each story reminds me of my own arrival at JFK, on the night when the Mets won the World Series. (12/25/13)

Wang Ping speaks of these stories as negatively affecting her mental, physical, and emotional health. The burden of these experiences and the burden of telling these experiences confront the American Dream, which promises that anyone can find happiness and success in the US. The uniformity of “every story is the same story, soaked with blood, death, unfulfilled hope” demonstrates the loss and misery of not achieving the storied American Dream. The rareness of achieving the American Dream is suggested in the contrast of Wang Ping’s JFK arrival with one of New York City’s baseball teams, the perennial underdogs, winning the World Series. This event is especially American, given baseball’s place as the nation’s sports pastime. Yet, Wang Ping’s arrival and hardship illuminate a more sobering portrait of an unfulfilled American Dream. In the same Facebook post mentioned earlier, she writes, “I cried myself to sleep every night, questioning why I gave up teaching at Beijing University to live like a dog in NYC” (12/25/13). In memorializing six victims from the Golden Venture, Wang Ping offers a rendering of unfulfilled American Dreams.

The 1993 Golden Venture tragedy seems all-too familiar as it has a historical parallel in the Chinese immigrant experiences of the 1910s through the 1940s that is captured in Angel Island detainment poetry. By giving the drowned men a voice in “Song of Calling Souls,” Wang examines the space by which transnational Chinese immigrants occupy offshore locations and sites. These spaces are within US territories and yet they exist in a liminal space in their transatlantic and transpacific geographic coordinates. The line, “Sands of the shore / may reach an end, but not our grief,” rings true, then, for in the defense of national borders, unwelcomed immigrants such as those on the Golden Venture continue to be denied U.S. access to an “American Dream” (227-229). Those who survived the ship’s demise endured imprisonment in the York County Prison, a way of being on American soil without the freedoms of the citizens on the land.

Yet, the USA was not the only country drawing and then disappointing Chinese immigrants’ hope. In “Ten Thousand Waves” (2014) Wang Ping memorializes migrant workers who died while working off the English shore. The poem consists of 27 stanzas with subtitles that list one to two victims’ names per line. The stanzas alternate roughly between a third-person plural speaker and a first-person singular speaker, with the final stanza in the collective voice. On February 5, 2004, 23 Chinese migrant workers drowned while cockling in Morecombe Bay on the Atlantic coast in Northwest England. Most of the workers were from Fujian province and had borrowed large sums from family and friends with plans to repay their debts after finding work in England. The rising tide surprised the workers picking the saltwater clams from the shore, since they could not read the warning signs in English and they were not told by their bosses when the tides would rise. Twenty-one victims’ bodies were found in the days after the disaster, one victim’s body was found in 2010 and one body was never recovered.

Many news accounts occasioned by the disaster detailed the exploitation as well as low wages suffered by the migrant workers for cockling, or picking edible clams. While this focus emphasized the economic constraints in China and the lure of financial opportunity in England, less attention was paid to the victims’ family members, many of whom were dependent on these workers. All of the victims were considered their families’ breadwinners and upon their death, the debt they had incurred was passed on to their families. Wang Ping frames the tragedy by noting the cultural significance of the disaster’s date. In her preface to “Ten Thousand Waves,” she writes, “The accident happened on the evening of the Lantern Festival, a holiday when, traditionally, friends and family get together to celebrate the end of the Chinese New Year (original italics, 74). What should have been a joyous reunion and festival night turned instead into tragedy when some of the migrant workers began to realize they were trapped by the rising tide. One victim, Guo Bing Long, had a mobile phone with him and was able to call home to Fujian. As the Guardian reports, his wife recounted, “He told us the water was up to his neck and asked us to pray for him” (Watts 6/20/07). The family member who received the phone call, Guo Bing Long’s mother, could not stand the creditors’ hounding calls and the loss of her son; she committed suicide less than a year later.

Wang Ping invokes the theme of home multiple times by using the same poetic strategy as in “Song of Calling Souls”: the collective voice of the lost workers. She opens the poem with highlighting the contrast of the migrants who have to work although it is the night of the Lantern Festival: “Home, we say, home / And tears streak our rubber sleeves / On the night of riddles and light” (7-9). The speakers explain, “They say we could return / When the bag is full / But home is far away” (18-20). The repetition of “home” and the ways in which the speakers are drawn to their home underscores the temporary nature they attribute to the labor of cockling. And yet, the play on returning home juxtaposes the temporary home in England with the long-term plan of returning to China to ensure their family’s financial stability. The first eleven stanzas conclude with lines mentioning the North Wales Sea, and this geographical reference gestures at the distance from home and the disoriented condition of the migrant workers. The North Wales Sea is characterized as “distant”, “cold,” “silent”, “decaying”, “bottomless,” “bitter,” and “wild” (12, 26, 36, 48, 81, 91, 109). The stanza that begins with the subtitle “Guo Bing Long,” concludes with apologies to his wife, as he tells her, “My wind-chapped beauty / Pray for your ill-starred man / Wailing from the forbidden North Wales Sea” (117-119). The sense of doom that has pervaded the poem at that point emphasizes the way in which people use the space of the sea for illicit activity. The workers had been exploited with the task of finding cockles when the tide was likely to rise.

The speaker of a later stanza expresses anxiety over being caught between two shores, and much like the speakers in “Song of Calling Souls” he thinks of his family still in China. He laments:

Ten thousand waves

Push me to the shore

My son skips rocks on the rolling sea

Will he hit me, a bodiless soul

Foam among endless waves

Will he raise a lantern on my path

A soul bodiless

Floating in the swollen North Wales Sea (121-128)

He takes the global nature of the sea as a starting point for imagining the ways in which he is both near and far from his son. As Kornelia Freitag points out, the speaker takes the nature of the sea as a starting point for imagining his son being able to hit his soul with rocks, thus illustrating a metaphor of painful global interconnectedness (6/24/15). The anxiety over where the speaker’s soul resides and over the “bodiless” nature of his soul comes from a resting place that is, in fact, not one of rest. Restless, he is worried about the absence of proper burial rites for himself, when he as a father is inaccessible and he and his son are separated by “endless waves” (125).

The twelfth stanza takes a turn when it repeats the anaphora “We know” to draw attention to previous tragedies of Chinese migrants: 23 Chinese migrants who died in Rockaway, or the Golden Venture; the 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in a truck in Dover, England; and the 18 Chinese migrants who attempted suicide in Shenzhen, 14 of whom died, and 4 of whom survived with injuries (130, 133, 135, 138). The anaphora transitions to the chilling line, “We know we may end up in the same boat” (138). This line plays on the phrase “same boat” insofar as many of the smugglers turn to the sea as a way of evading immigration authorities; travel by boat also emphasizes the original transpacific and transatlantic crossings by which Chinese migrants sailed westward for opportunities in Europe, the UK, and the US.

The speakers mourn their lack of agency, instead tracing the ways in which the sea brings them to their fate. They voice how their bodies and experiences will live on:

We move with the sea

Plankton, eels, turtles

The sea carries us

To the land of gold

We’re urchins

Under prickly needles

Tender hearts

We ride currents

Following the Polaris

Our destiny always the same

To feed the old and young

To rest at peace

By the yellow sea (179-191)

The speakers point to their end at a waterscape, the Yellow sea, near northeastern China. This region is not too far from the coast of Fujian, with its fishing trade. This return is one that is not quite home, and yet near the national space once inhabited by these migrant workers. One way to read this passage is as a sketch of the emigrant experience: that the emigrant leaves in search of material wealth (whether to support oneself and/or one’s family) and can return afterwards only dead to his homeland. The speaker seems to indicate that what is understood is a shared purpose among migrants: to feed, or care for the young and old, and to be by the sea. At the same time, the speakers are dependent on the sea to carry them home, they hope for the “land of gold”, and yet they are also “Tender hearts” who cannot control their final destination (182, 185).

The lines that precede the poem’s final stanza re-interpret a Confucian analect in order to demonstrate the danger of leaving one’s homeland. Horizontally, the text reads, “父母在不远游”which translates to “While your parents are alive, do not travel far.” This phrase is a famous Confucian saying that means that children should not leave their parents for an extended amount of time, (81) or they may not be able to take care of their parents if something were to happen. This moment relates to the earlier anxious premonition of the son throwing stones upon his father’s dead soul. The full saying is “父母在、不远游、游必有方”, which translates to “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away. If you do travel, you should have a precise destination” (Mueller). In the context of the Morecombe Bay tragedy, this abbreviated version reveals the responsibility of the migrant workers to financially support their parents and children back in China.

Earlier in the poem, the shortened version is repeated three times and followed by the couplet:

When father and mother are around

The son does not wander far from home

This couplet seems to be the speaker’s translation of the abbreviated Confucian analect. The repetition in Chinese emphasizes the sense of warning; the juxtaposition to the Chinese repetition of an English translation seems to reach out to a bilingual or bicultural audience, or to gesture at the transnational nature of understanding the Confucian context. The English translation demonstrates the anxiety over generational displacement as well; by citing the son’s likeliness to stay home as being dependent on the father and mother’s presence, the speaker seems to argue for the unity of the family unit at home.

Vertically, the text reads, “父母不远游”, which translates to “Parents should not travel.” It is unclear if the formatting of the Chinese in a cross-like shape is meant to borrow the 在 character from the horizontal saying and thus be identical, or is intentionally different (81). In the latter case, one can reinterpret the previous saying as serving to admonish parents from traveling far from their children. The emphasis falls on the responsibility that the migrant workers have to take care of their children. The tension lies in caring for the children by being physically present or caring for the children by sending financial assistance from jobs abroad. In other words, a migrant worker could do right by one’s parents and children in the traditional way of staying home, or she could respond to the necessity of feeding her parents and children by going abroad. The interpretation of the vertical text is that parents should stay with their children. In the context of the cockling disaster, this phrase reveals the orphaning of the children in China and the inherited debt that these children carry now that their parents’ fare to England must be paid. Both the vertical and horizontal readings have an authoritative tone of warning, and point to the dangers of traveling far from the homeland. While the former reading focuses on the elder generation and the latter reading considers the third generation, the migrant workers, or the second generation, shoulder both burdens.

The subtitle to the final stanza does not carry a victim’s name, and is instead labeled as though it were a stage direction, “Chorus from All Ghosts”. By calling this stanza the “Chorus from All Ghosts,” the speaker references all who have perished as victims. The speaker uses a collective voice and reaches back in history for additional force:

Once again

Our blood boils with longing

Children of the Yellow Emperor

Master of the sea

Our ancestors wrestled

With dragons, monsters, nine-headed beasts

Their floating cities

Covered four seas and five continents

Our village—yellow kingdom by the sea

Port of grand adventures

If you don’t believe me

Go stand on the shore of Changle

Where the South meets the East China Sea

You’ll hear the junks’ horns through thick fog

Clashing swords and fine porcelain

Admiral Ho’s robe fluttering in the arctic wind

Oh, fire of three thousand years

Ancestral ghosts

Our eyes on the North Star

Our spirits churning for the sea (193-212).

The “blood boil[ing]” gestures at the simultaneous righteous anger as well as “longing” for a better life (194). The speaker calls forth the long history of Chinese strength by referencing how their ancestors defeated the “dragons, monsters, [and] nine-headed beasts”. The Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi, is known for being the Emperor who united China and who reigned from 2697-2597 BC. By invoking the Yellow Emperor, the speaker references the shared ancient history and bond between Chinese countrymen and women. The multiple references to the sea recognize the intimate relationship the Chinese have with the ocean, because of its long coastal area as well as port cities such as Changle. By asking the listener to “stand on the shore of Changle”, the speaker directs the audience to occupy the position that the immigrants once held, that is, of looking westward across the ocean to a place of opportunity (4). The city of Changle in Fujian province represents the hopes and dreams of high numbers of Fujianese migrant workers. While the earlier parts of the poem may have given the impression that the migrant workers were unfamiliar with the sea since they were surprised by the rising tide, this picture of their collective voice shows a determined people that is familiar with the ocean and can anticipate the “junks’ horns through thick fog” (6). Additionally, the speaker alludes to Admiral Ho (1371-1433), or Zheng He as his name is also Romanized, China’s most famous admiral and diplomat (who happened to be from Changle). Admiral Ho was known for his numerous expeditions around the world; the image of him calls forth the boldness and adventure of Chinese maritime history. By concluding with “Our eyes on the North Star / Our spirits churning for the sea” the speaker recognizes a transnational guiding principle (211-212). The Chinese history called forth by the collective voice in this concluding stanza is one that recognizes the transnational Chinese migrant. Wang Ping gives the collective speaker a voice to tell their own story in a way that gives them the opportunity to conjure a great history.

Wang Ping’s commemoration of migrant worker tragedies calls attention to the dangers and problems of crossing borders and seas. The way she positions the migrant worker in her poems also calls into question the concept of Chinese migrants being mere sojourners: as against those who choose to settle in a new homeland, she asks how those who forge temporary homes might begin to think of these spaces of hope and utopia, or conversely, despair and dystopia? The workers had hoped for a new world in which to provide for their families, and yet the new world posed a risk that in fact burdened many of their families with insurmountable debt.

Wang Ping’s writing offers a way to memorialize the migrant flows and exchanges across borders. The lineaments of old narratives such as those in Angel Island detainment poetry persist in the fresh reproductions of exile and the condemnation of displacement and alienation. Examining the spaces of hope and despair, utopia and dystopia, enables a deeper understanding of the new transnational immigrant sensibility, one that reflects the power of the utopian imagination. Though these waterscapes initially offer forms of hope in the anticipation of passage to financial opportunity, this space becomes one of despair and of death. In remembering these victims through these poems, Wang Ping nuances the migrants’ plight. The collective voice of the six speakers in “Song of Calling Souls” are no longer anonymous, despite sharing one unmarked grave on American soil. Similarly, the Morecombe Bay victims’ names precede the stanzas in “Ten Thousand Waves”. By having the speakers of both poems call out across the oceans to family and to any listener, Wang Ping emphasizes the global interconnectedness of the seas.

Wang Ping uses these waterscapes to reconfigure hope for the new homeland. The speakers in her poems are migrants who have entered waterscapes in hopes of economic opportunity for their families. They endured exploitative conditions in order to pay the fee for passage and to support their families in China; in this sense the migrants placed their hope in how their families could benefit from their earnings and less on their happiness in a new country. Wang Ping nuances a more traditional idea of transnational immigration by exemplifying a migrant’s fear and anxiety over not being remembered by their children and future generations in the home country. In both poems, hope for life in England or life in the US is tied to financial gain; because the speakers call out from the grave they reveal moments of regret and nostalgia for their homeland. It’s evident that the site of their death is not a homeland, and in this sense, the speakers hint at the transitory nature of settling into a new place, and how perhaps homeland is singular. Wang Ping demonstrates the complexity of the migrant worker’s situation when she draws from one of the Confucian analects, 父母在、不远游、游必有方. She draws from her knowledge of Chinese culture and custom and yet blurs the anticipation and expectation of the migrant’s responsibilities in her reimagining of tradition. The abbreviation of this analect results in the interpretation, or reimagining, of how workers should care for their families, and how these traditions are amended. A new understanding of how one imagines a better future in a new homeland—not for oneself, but for one’s family in the home country, is forged through these waterscapes. These narratives help develop a transnational immigrant sensibility that is not necessarily eager to adopt a new country’s traditions and culture, and yet still seeks survival in the new country as an economic means to an end.

The migrant tragedies of the Golden Venture and Morecombe Bay show a glimpse of unsuccessful migration, the rarely told stories that destabilize our understanding of the generally successful patterns of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century migration that lead to fulfilled dreams of prosperity. The Chinese migrant workers who died in each of these tragedies were unable to fulfill the dreams they set out to achieve. Instead, through “Song of Calling Souls” and “Ten Thousand Waves” the Chinese transnational immigrants receive the power of storytelling, as Wang Ping gives them the representation and opportunity to cast new narratives for their lives.

Works Cited

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1931. Print.

Dunn, Ashley. "Golden Venture's Tarnished Hopes; Most of Ship's Human Cargo, a Year Later, Is Still Confined." The New York Times. 4 June 1994. Web. 09 June 2015.

Freitag, Kornelia. “Re: Colloquy after ACLA Seminar “Locating Asian American Poetry.” Message to the author. 24 June 2015. E-mail.

Golden Venture. Dir. Peter Cohn. Hillcrest Films LLC, 2007. Golden Venture Immigration Documentary. Hillcrest Films LLC. Web. 09 June 2015.

"Kinship of Rivers." Kinship of Rivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.

Lin, Yutang, and Cheng Lok Chua. Chinatown Family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Print.

Mueller, A. Charles. "Analects of Confucius 論語." Analects of Confucius 論語. N.p., 6 June 2013. Web. 10 June 2015.

Wang, Ping. Of Flesh & Spirit: Poems. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1998. Print.

Wang, Ping. “The Making of Ten Thousand Waves: an Immigration Carol (draft). Facebook. December 25, 2014. Web. 9 August 2015.

Wang, Ping. The Magic Whip: Poems. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2003. Print.

Wang, Ping. Ten Thousand Waves: Poems. San Antonio: Wings Press, 2014. Print.

Wang, Ping. "WANG PING - Kinship of Rivers." WANG PING - Kinship of Rivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.

Watts, Jonathan. "Going under." Http:// The Guardian, 20 June 2007. Web. 9 June 2015.

[1] In the broader sense, American historian James Truslow Adams made the phrase “American Dream” popular in his 1931 book Epic of America. He writes:

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (ix)

Adams acknowledges the material American Dream in which each person by his own hard work can achieve a better life for himself. The challenge or potential for discontent that arises, he notices, reveals a desire for a more nuanced dream, one in which a person can reach his capacity and be understood in this capacity. The exclusive group to which Adams is writing includes European upper classes and “us ourselves”, which can be read as the American population in the early 1930s. The initial reception of Adams’s text, then, is not inclusive of the Chinese Americans.

Adams made his observations during the time that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in place, and it was not until the repeal of that act in 1943 that Chinese immigrants were allowed to become American citizens.

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Locating Contemporary Asian American Poetry


In 1996, Juliana Chang observed that there were a "disproportionately small number of critical essays" on the topic of Asian American poetry and poetics. Asian American literary and cultural study might have grown rapidly as an area of scholarly specialty since the 1970s, but academics still seemed to approach verse with near "fear and loathing." 


In 1996, Juliana Chang observed that there were a "disproportionately small number of critical essays" on the topic of Asian American poetry and poetics. Asian American literary and cultural study might have grown rapidly as an area of scholarly specialty since the 1970s, but academics still seemed to approach verse with near "fear and loathing." Indeed, she estimated that there were probably more essays in print about a single novel, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (1976), than about the whole of Asian American poetic production from the 1890s onwards (83-84).

Two decades later, one can no longer make the same claim. The year 2004 seems to mark a turning point. An anthology appeared, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, that announced the emergence of new, self-aware, ambitious cohort of authors, and the organization Kundiman put on the first of its storied annual "workshop retreats," in which Asian American writers, including poets, could meet each other, forge a nation-wide peer network, find mentors, and discuss topics of mutual interest in a supportive environment.

Soon after these important inaugural gestures, major monographs on Asian American poetry and poetics began to appear at the rate of one or more a year. Among them number Xiaojing Zhou's The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (2006), Josephine Nock-Hee Park's Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics (2008), Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (2009), Steven G. Yao's Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity (2010), Joseph Jonghyun Jeon's Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (2012), and, most recently, Dorothy Wang's Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2014). While there remain large holes in academic coverage of the subject—for example, most scholarship to date focuses on poets with East Asian affiliations, not Southeast or South Asian, let alone Near Eastern—one can now talk about Asian American poetry and poetics as a solidly established scholarly specialty.

For the 2015 American Comparative Literature Association annual conference, the co-editors of this colloquy decided to organize a seminar with the purpose of exploring the state of the field. What kinds of material are scholars choosing to write about? How do they imagine their objects of study, and how do they configure the relation between the three key terms Asian, American, and poetry? How do they deploy rubrics such as diaspora, nation, and migration? How do they define the relationship between race and aesthetics? We chose the title "Locating Contemporary Asian American Poetry" because so many of the questions we were asking involved charting spaces, providing timelines, and (re)discovering texts. We did not intend to fix or contain our subject matter, to pin it down or assign it a place; we wanted to generate and share impressions of and insights into a swiftly growing, changing area of study.

This colloquy gathers together six of the papers presented at the 2015 ACLA conference, along with excerpts from two precursor texts, Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde and Wang's Thinking Its Presence, which provide literary-historical and literary-critical background. Two of the new essays concentrate on figures who first came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Toshiaki Komura challenges Janice Mirikitani's reputation for writing straight-ahead poetry of political engagement by highlighting the ambiguity and wordplay present in even her most "activist" verse. Jane Wong revisits the formally adventurous, "transnational" poetics of Wong May, a Singapore-raised poet who earned a MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1966. Three essays concentrate on more recent bodies of work. Kornelia Freitag's essay explores Meena Alexander's intertextual dialogue with Walt Whitman; Brian Reed's looks to Sueyeun Juliette Lee for insight into the relationship between geography, diaspora, and the poetic imagination; and Sharon Tang-Quan's recounts Wang Ping's inquiries into migration and mourning. A final essay, by Pimone Triplett, combines commentary on John Yau's innovative dramatic monologues with a more-wide ranging, personal statement on what it means to be both Thai American and a poet in the era of Facebook.

Collectively, these pieces demonstrate a faith in the ability of close, careful reading of particular poets and poems (1) to enhance our appreciation of their aesthetic accomplishments and (2) to ground sociopolitical arguments about race, identity, nationality, and history. These aims are not perceived as opposing or irreconcilable. Rather, they are presumed to be mutually reinforcing, and to advance in tandem. The essays are of their literary-critical moment in other ways, too. For instance, the "masculinist critical bias" associated with early canonizing efforts such as Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) feels like a distant memory (Cunningham 17). Five of the six original contributions here focus on women writers, and two of the female contributors are themselves successful poets. Triplett has published three books, most recently Rumor (2009), and she has taught at Kundiman. Wong is a former Kundiman Fellow whose first poetry collection, Overpour, is forthcoming from Action Books in 2016. While no one gathering of essays could ever do justice to the full spectrum of what is being written by or about Asian American poets today, we hope that this colloquy—along with other, comparable efforts, such as the recently published volume Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (2015)—will help to introduce a wider readership to a compelling, even revelatory body of work.

List of Works Cited

Chang, Juliana. "Reading Asian American Poetry." MELUS 21.1 (Spring 1996): 81-98.

Cunningham, John Christopher. Race-ing Masculinity: Identity in Contemporary U.S. Men's Writing. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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