The inaugural issue of The Asian American Literary Review – whose mission is to form “a space for writers who consider the designation ‘Asian American’ a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community” – features an interview with Karen Tei Yamashita; three book reviews; poetry; and prose that often concerns individuals confronted by personal shortcomings.
The journal begins by evaluating the term Asian American, along with the struggle of Asian American literary journals that have, in the words of the editors, “burned hot but short.” Should it matter whether contributors claim South Asian, East Asian, or Pacific Islander backgrounds? Whether they are second- or third- generation, or half-Asian? Must their writings derive from autobiographical material, draw cultural inferences, or employ specifically Asian poetic forms to be considered “Asian enough”? AALR does not seek conclusive answers to questions of this nature, nor does it attempt to prescribe who Asian American writers must be, nor what they must write. Instead, the reader is offered the views of authors David Mura, Ru Freeman, and Alexander Chee in an introductory forum – a welcome change from the more common Editor’s Note or preface.
The journal distinguishes itself from others which frequently cover Asian literature (such as Asia Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Manoa) by adding another dimension. Several of these journals feature writers in translation or writers who currently reside in Asia; AALR, similar to Kartika Review, is especially interested in the plurality that exists within the U.S. Ru Freeman writes:
Asian American writing […] is the writing of negotiation and activism. It is the writing of many tongues which transforms the common English language which unites us, and creates something new about the language itself. It is not a matter of it being a new world but rather of refining – or even bastardizing – but ultimately transforming the tool we use to describe that world and of learning to wield it with a sure and distinctive panache.
The choice to feature a wider selection from fewer poets is particularly commendable. Like miniature chapbooks, these groupings reveal decisive arrangements as well as a marked thematic coherence. They include an epistolary series by Oliver de la Paz; a nineteen-page poem by Paisley Rekdal that twines memories of a relationship with scenes from Lisbon; three food poems as well as a poem narrated from the perspective of an Iraqi “Bodywasher” by Mông-Lan; Cathy Song’s take on gender disparity in a Benihana restaurant; eight poems by April Naoko Heck, some of which recall a grandmother’s experiences in Hiroshima; and poems by Eugene Gloria, Nick Carbó, and David Woo.
The prose section reinterprets familiar events, from a brief recollection of childhood music lessons (“Gus”) to a story about gathering for Chinese New Year (“Chinese New Year”), both by Ed Lin; considers Japanese social mores in the context of marriage, cohabitation, and gay relationships (“Compartment Comportment,” Marie Matsuki Mockett); and, in a story by David Mura, highlights the contrast between “The Orient Express” (a man who leads the seemingly intoxicating life of a Vegas gambler) and the narrator who faces marital problems and the burden of his brother’s memory. Other entries include work by Sonya Chung, Gary Pak, Brian Ascalon Roley and Hasanthika Sirasena.
Given the journal’s focus, some readers might expect the poems and stories to use hybrid forms as a means for exploring multiple languages/cultures. The actual contents are relatively straightforward evocations of Freeman’s call to “create something new,” but nevertheless present a strong debut.
Among the standouts is Oliver de la Paz’s aforementioned series. His six “Dear Empire” poems detail the aftermath of an unspecified, nearly apocalyptic event with an eerie, pensive lyricism that is well-worth delving into. Like the best of AALR’s works, they subtly reinforce that past traumas, no matter their scale, need not diminish a speaker’s resolve:
The buoy near the furthest atoll is a constant. Red light. None. Red light. None.
The boats are moored against their own destruction. They pitch like restless
horses. We, from the shore, are nervous. We, from the shore, are listening for
the lighthouse. We listen for its shine.