This issue of the Asian American Literary Review is packed with ambition. While many literary journals experiment with the elements and the appearance of language, this issue of AALR crosses the physical conventions of the idea of the literary journal. The contents, like the challenges to the physical form, provoke questions and emphasize ambiguities rather than entertain, which is perhaps fitting when the issue centers on “mixed race,” a sometimes questionable and often ambiguous term laden with history, exultation, and pain.
The issue comes in a rectangular box labeled with the AALR logo and the words “Mixed Race / in a Box,” and within are three mostly black-and-white booklets of different sizes, a folded-up glossy poster, and a pack of playing cards. The box immediately recalls controversies about the race question on the census and other forms, which is a point of departure for the way people and their communities box or refuse to box themselves in. The booklets are entitled “Mixed Race is an Inbox,” “Mixed Race is a Pandora’s Box,” and “Mixed Race is a Black Box,” each suggesting an aspect of the mixed-race experience. The issue is full of symbolism and word play of the sort.
Nonfiction makes up the greater part of the issue, and it explodes with variety. The subjects of the essays and interviews include the children of American soldiers stationed in Asia and the local women, unions between Chinese men and Englishwomen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mixed-race hip-hop artists in the Twin Cities, and the impact of the web on discussions on mixed-race experience. Several people from China, whose country generally regards itself as a homogenous society, respond to photographs of mixed families. Kip Fulbeck, creator of The Hapa Project, revisits a few subjects of his photographs from more than ten years ago in updated photographs and in the subjects’ own words.
The most successful pieces are those that stay close to the personal. My favorite is Leila Nadir’s “Chadars and Hairspray for our Muslim Daughter,” which chronicles the relationship among herself, her Afghan-born father, and her Slovak-American mother through the all-important vehicle of traditional femininity—to be controlled, flaunted, and fretted over—of hair. It was her mother who took her to her first professional haircut, against her father’s wishes, and it was her mother who shopped for her first chadar to cover up her hair for the mosque. In “Some Myths to Have a Good Time” Jennifer Kwon Dobbs meditates on her infertility and how she was given away to an adoption agency by her grand aunt when she was a baby in Seoul, because she was the child of an American soldier and a Korean woman. Both Nadir and Dobbs win me over with their honesty, the skillful layering of their stories, and their appeal to universal human experience through the particular.
On the other hand, certain pieces speak more directly from a political perch. The author is in the spotlight, and the work becomes a thin veil for an agenda hijacking artistry. “Lebanon in Two Hemispheres: Posts from a Post-Colonial World” by Shannon O’Neill and Amira Pierce consists of an exchange of e-mails between two friends and the posts on their shared blog. One of the friends is Karim, the child of a European-American father and a Lebanese mother, who has returned to Lebanon; the other is Mona, also both European and Arab, living in Dearborn, Michigan. The “Critical Quotes for Reflection” at the end of each blog post are pedagogical; I hardly expect to be condescended to in a piece presenting itself as fiction. Even the e-mails between Karim and Mona feel more like reportage than a conversation between friends; in fact, the story may have worked better as journalism or an essay, without Karim and Mona as puppets. The dramatis personae in Robert Farid Karimi’s “Unlost in the Supermarket” also put their races, biological and otherwise, front and center. I would have loved to get to know them as people. A part of me wonders whether the irony is deliberate: after all, people of color sometimes don’t get the chance to be known as people.
Finally, the deck of cards: each has a picture on one side and an explanation, reflection, or quote on the back. They make for hours of fascinating looking and reading. Why cards, though? Like races and ethnicities, they shuffle and combine; are played according to the situation; and some trump others. I’m just guessing, the way I might guess at the ethnicities of the ambiguous-looking individuals I come across. That is probably AALR’s best stroke with this issue: bringing home, on a visceral level, the feeling and perception of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the desire for certainty. Long after I’ve closed the box, I keep thinking about how that feels.