Thursday, March 3, 2011

Outsiders

Being A Harbinger Of Things Unheard Of.

I recently came across this quote that struck a chord with me.......

Literature is not conformism, but dissent. Those authors who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones. He is by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy......
Ludwig von Mises....The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.
Although I am by no means an expert on the subject, it doesn't require an expert eye to notice that when it comes to Asian-American literature, very rarely can it be characterized by the criterion set forth by Von Mises. There can be very little doubt that dissenting anti-authoritarianism plays little part in the themes of possibly the majority of Asian-American literature. Rarely, it would seem, do we concern ourselves with the notion of substituting new ideas for old, or the rejection of traditional standards. Rather, it would appear that there is a tendency for some to repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear - some of Asian-America's most widely read authors have been accused of using this strategy.

Yet, for Asian American men, about whom much is written that is misrepresentative, our very existence is dissent - what else could it be? Because Asian men are represented in such a negative way, to conform is to accept that we are less than human, therefore our only option is non-conformity. Given this, the question is; why is so much that is written by Asians about themselves devoid of this element of opposition? Given the degree to which Asians are villified and dehumanized by American culture, the largely conciliatory tone of the literary response seems bizarre to say the least. It's not that conciliation is a bad thing in and of itself, but without an equally established, vibrant, and assertive culture of non-conformity and dissent, its value would seem to be diminished.

Whether this description of the Asian-American literary world is accurate I leave the reader to decide for themselves, but, for me, any endeavour that requires creativity and originality must almost by definition challenge any, most, or all of the attitudes that we hold (or are held about us) regarding a given subject. In this sense, I lean towards the belief that much literature that is produced within Asian-America has not yet risen to this challenge. For a misrepresented minority the importance of original thinking, and a dissenting attitude are essential, if not a natural outcome of our circumstances.

To understand the power of non-conformist dissent, one need only look at the suppression of the intelligentsia in Stalin's Soviet Union. According to the book "Stalin And His Hangmen" it was through a series of "purges" that Stalin and his henchmen systematically murdered opponents, both real and percieved, first in the political sphere, but also in a process which ultimately saw tens of thousands of social activists, musicians, writers, artists, military personnel, peasants, foreigners, and minorities, being murdered or sent to the GULAG. The reason for this is simple; an intelligentsia is by definition an oppositional entity. Comprised of artists, philosophers, writers, journalists and social misfits, an intelligentsia pushes the boundaries of a society's beliefs and tastes and in so doing has the potential to set in motion dramatic shifts in social dynamics. There is power in asking uncomfortable questions and highlighting uncomfortable truths.

I would argue that it is this power that many in the Asian minority seem ambivalent about embracing - for whatever reason. There may be cultural reasons for this, or not, yet it seems to me that the most genuine expression of the Asian-American experience has to be based in opposition, and non-conformity. There are some who suggest that the future of Asian-American writing must endeavour to reach as wide an audience as is possible - this can only mean white people. I don't necessarily agree with this, simply because in order to do this one must dilute the experience in order to allow the mainstream to feel comfortable with itself. I would submit, instead, that Asian-American literature must strive to make the mainstream feel uncomfortable with itself, its pretensions, and its prejudices. After all, if we give the mainstream what it wants to hear, and is used to hearing, then what have we contributed that is new and innovative?

4 comments:

  1. Ben, I always have to read your stuff slowly, like a kid learning to read for the first time. All them big words!

    Anyway, a lot of interesting points, so I'll address the absolute last one: does the AA lit need to address the mainstream?

    There is a way to address both the AA communities and a mainstream audience: write a book for multiple genres.

    let's take Ed Lin and Henry Chang, 2 authors who write stories about Chinese American cops in NYPD. Chang writes as if he's taking white readers on a bus tour through Chinatown, which is f-ing annoying. His books are crime novels with Chinese immigrants issues added in.

    Ed Lin's books are the exact opposite: they're AA lit books with the mystery genre added in.

    I think the bottom line is if you can write a GOOD book that appeals to a mainstream genre and addresses AA themes, then you can kill 2 birds with one stone.

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  2. or it could be that the dissenters are silenced by the mainstream establishments?


    I have to say, on our MM page we have nothing but anti-mainstream rhetoric. ~__^

    crazy MMer

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  3. fuck you ben efsaneyim.

    there, was that rebellious enough literature for you?

    :D only joking. good point.

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  4. James..

    That's a good point. The trick is to not compromise the values that have defined our experiences as an Asian-American in order to sell copies.

    Crazy MMer..

    Yes I think that dissenters are definitely silenced by the mainstream - which may include some within our own community. And yes, I know MM doesn't take any prisoners!

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