Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Interview with Emory Holmes II, Part 2

[cont'd from part 1]

EHII – Were you going to say more about CARP? You formed other institutions didn’t you?

CHIN – Well, the stuff that we did for CARP, and the stuff we learned, we developed that into the two “Aiiieeeee!”s.

EHII – Important anthologies, and the first anthologies of Asian American writing anywhere.

CHIN – Yes, the first histories and anthologies. There were several little anthologies beforehand. The first one was Asian American writers by Kai-yu Hsu.

EHII – Are you in that anthology?

CHIN – I think so. But Kai-yu and I, we talked when he was thinking of giving up the contract because he said, “There is no Asian American writing.” The only Asian American writing that exists are autobiographies. And all the autobiographies are Chrisitan. And the autobiographies, he told me, is not an Asian form. It’s not a Chinese form. And so he just wanted to dump the anthology. And I said, ‘No no no no no. If all we are writing is autobiographies, then that’s our form – unfortunately.’ And we’re Christian, unfortunately. And that stuff should be published and criticized. And he said, ‘The quality of the writing is so bad and it was a shame to want to dignify these past works,’ and so, in talking, I think I convinced him that if Asian American writing is all bad, then it’s all bad. But publish it. And he did. And the all-bad writing unfortunately inspired several people to do more bad writing.

EHII – You are talking about his anthology, you are not talking about “Aiiieeeee!”

CHIN – No, no.

EHII – When did his anthology come out.

CHIN – It came out in ’71, something like that. And it was a textbook for junior high school students. Kai-yu was from China. I learned a lot from him. I’m put down for saying…I mean, people will say, why do I ban the autobiography from Chinese literature? I say, I’m not banning it. I just looked at Chinese literature and I just saw that there are not autobiographies. And so obviously autobiography is not a Chinese form. And they say, ‘You can’t say that.’ And I say, ‘I do say that.’ I mean, in Chinese literature you will not find an autobiography. Not one! And occasionally an autobiography, a first autobiography, they are specialized, they are oddballs. The first autobiography was a book of pornography, by a man who loved fucking his wife. And he wanted to write about it [laughs]. The first official biography published anywhere by a Chinese was ‘My Life in China and America,’ by Yung Wing – a Chinese mission-school boy. The first boy to graduate from Yale. The first Chinese traitor. Of course, he thought he was doing good. And is celebrated, not as a traitor, but as someone who was fooled, or cheated by arms merchants. But he was a traitor. And it’s the Christians that heroize him. And his book was published in 1910. And so, obviously the autobiographical form is not Chinese. And none of the scholars ask – none of them – not from here to Brandies Univ. on the East Coast – none of them ask, ‘How do Chinese write autobiography, then? Is there a form?’ Yes there is a form. If you ask, you shall be told; but if you don’t ask, I’m not gonna tell ya.

EHII – So what is the form?

CHIN – Sun Tzu. You will find, every now and again, a general, a writer, a dictator will have a conversation with Sun Tzu. He will recite Sun Tzu’s verses and then he will free associate with them. So and so comments on Sun Tzu. Or, as with General Tao Hanzhang’s “interpretation” of SUN TSU’S ART OF WAR. (Sterling-N.Y.1987)

EHII – Kind of like you did in your book “Bulletproof Buddhists.”

CHIN – Yes, yes. That was the form that Mao Tse-Tung used in “The Little Red Book,” but he just removed the verses of Sun Tzu. And any Chinese reading that would instantly recognize, ‘Oh, this is kind of like a children’s form. A dialogue with a book.’ But the book has been removed and the conclusions that Mao has have remained. And that’s a literary observation, and it just goes to show you that in 30 or 40 years of study, that Asian American Studies has not been studying Asian America.

EHII – You’ve taught on the university level before; but was this recent effort at UCLA you opening salvo to reverse this trend?

CHIN – Yes, yes it was.

EHII – How do you think you did?

CHIN – Terrible.

EHII – Why was that?

CHIN – Because the teacher I was teaching with was a know-nothing and was a committed feminist. She contradicted everything I said, with no proof. And tried to turn the class into a free discussion. But I said, ‘The students don’t know anything, so what can they discuss?’ This is the beginning, if we are studying Asian American lit, Asian American and every nation’s lit begins with a children’s story. Never. And so you have no basis. Out of the children’s story comes the concept of the individual, comes the concept of the family, comes the concept of the country, comes the concept of the nation, comes the concept of law for that culture – and you have never studied it. And so we are going to study, we’re going to study the beginnings of literature. Asian American studies seems uninterested in the Asian beginnings of Asian American literature.

EHII – Now I sat in on a session in that class, and your exchanges with your colleague, [Prof. King-Kok Cheung] who is a scholar of Asian American literature, and a PhD…

CHIN – Yes…

EHII -- …they were extremely intense and very combative. Now, you have said that life is war, and that all behavior is tactics and strategy. Was the way you conducted the class a demonstration of your life philosophy?

CHIN – Umm.

EHII – It didn’t seem like an amicable situation.

CHIN – No, it wasn’t. My contempt for her grew.

EHII – Do you think that that exchange, that dialectic, had any benefit for the students that were there?

CHIN – I hope so. We were both performing for the students. She was appealing to their baser instincts, I guess. But I was always saying, ‘This is a class. You have to use your head. You have to read. And you have to read the works of the heroic tradition.’ And that ‘life is war; and all behavior is tactics and strategy,’ she contradicted that. And yet, that’s the content of the heroic tradition. Life is war.

EHII – Now I’ve read a statement from Professor Cheung in which she speaks of coming from China and reading Maxine Hong Kingston initially, and dismissing it as begin ‘fake’ basically. But over time, she began to understand, she said, that this was a legitimate approach to literature that, that the main character is a know-nothing, and that in fact, the central form of the novel is an expression of the main character’s inability to understand her own identity as a Chinese American woman. Do you buy any of that?

CHIN – No.

EHII – You are aware of her statement of this?

CHIN – I am aware of King-Kok’s statement of it. But Kingston’s own book and her own response to the criticism belies King-Kok’s conclusions. In the book [The Woman Warrior], nowhere in the book does Kingston, the author of the book confess that Kingston the know-nothing character, knows nothing and reveal the truth of Mulan, or otherwise resolve her falsehoods. No. She opens as a poetic know-nothing, and she closes as a poetic know-nothing.

EHII – Kind of like the people that the Monkey encountered.

CHIN – Yes. And in the subsequent books, she adds to the falsehoods. In “Tripmaster Monkey”…

EHII – Which some people say is about you, do you believe that?

CHIN – Well, I…I… I’m not going to deal with that. It is or it isn’t about me, I don’t care. What people say is their business. But I’m not going to say that character is me and take credit for it.
Her last book, “Fifth Chinese Book of Peace,” in the class I said, you don’t measure a person by their first work. You measure them by the total. All their work. And what they are saying will either become clearer, or not. And with “Fifth Chinese Book of Peace,” Kingston is obviously faking everything. There is no Fifth Chinese Book of Peace. She says, ‘Yes, there has to be; because it was a Chinese tradition for the emperor to burn all the books.’ No, it wasn’t. Only the first emperor of the first empire, Ch’in His Huang tai . He burned the books. But the futility of burning the books is proven by the fact that we know Confucius, we know Mencius, we know Sun Tzu. And these were men who all lived before the first empire, and still their books are known. The Chinese learned very early on that the emperor wanted to control reading. And so individual families wouldn’t let it be known that anybody could read in their family. And they memorized books.that had meaning for them.

EHII – Did you have a concluding remark on that?

CHIN – King-Kok says, categorically, that life is not war. And yet all the books of the heroic tradition are about war, are set in war. They begin in war, they end in war. “The Three Kingdoms” “Water Margin” “Far Mulan” the ballad of Far Mulan itself, the story of Yu Fei, all are about war. All are about tactics and strategy. So what is she saying? What is Asian American studies saying? Not teaching the heroic tradition. Teaching these falsehoods about Chinese literature and teaching a false vision of Chinese culture. I don’t know.

EHII – Early on your work has attracted a small, but very important audience of African American scholars and writers; and you’ve also been criticized by someone who is kind of pretending to be a militant writer in the mold of an African American writer [CHIN LAUGHS]. Why do you think that your work has such resonance with such writers as poet David Henderson, novelist-publisher Ishmael Reed, and Howard Univ. Press, which published “Aiiieeeee!”? What do they see in you?

CHIN – I don’t know. What do I see in them? I mean, we are attracted to each other, definitely, as writers at first. And as we became acquainted with each other, we’re more attracted. Yeah. I don’t think that any of us are… we might be masters of ‘bad-mouth,’ we might be outspoken about what we’re angry at, but we’re not leaders. I mean, you don’t see Ishmael or David Henderson running for office. And neither do I. You don’t see us gathering our followers behind us and going from town to town. We are writers. And writers lead a lonely life, writing and we are satisfied with that. We don’t – well, I don’t – want followers.

EHII – You don’t want followers?

CHIN – I don’t want followers.

EHII – But you’ve got nothing but followers. Your followers are militantly passionate about your work and your influence and your importance to American letters. They refuse to allow anyone – even you – to pigeonhole you into some kind of little niche because you’ve hit them right between the eyes with such liberating moral, and literary and aesthetic authority, that you have nothing but followers. I think that’s only going to grow. I might be wrong, but I can’t see how you cannot, once the dust clears, be recognized as one of the most important language, or any racial or cultural group, as an authentically American-ass-kicking writer.

CHIN – Well thank you.

EHII – Well, what do you think of that? I’m sure you’ve had them come up to you, amid all the people who are trying to go for your throat and have you publicly pilloried and all of that, there is an equally vocal group that wants you canonized.

CHIN – To tell you the truth, I haven’t really seen them, if they’re out there.

EHII – Some of them are featured in Curtis Choy’s remarkable film documentary on you What’s Wrong With Frank Chin? What about those people?

CHIN – Some of those people were former students, and some of them were friends of mine.

EHII – Look, we all have the ability to hate our former teachers, and people that we were once allied with, it’s another thing to, 40 years down the line, to still be preaching, with stars in your eyes, the gospel of the influence of this particular author on your life, which is what they are doing. Are you not distant enough from the material of your own life to observe that?

CHIN – I guess not. Or, I don’t seek it. I don’t see these people every day, or even once a month, or twice a year. I pretty much hole up, and read, and take a walk, and write. I’m not surrounded by people every day or every week or every month. .

EHII – Yet, sometimes when any individual in America sits down and they are trying to apply for a new job and they sit down and they write a resume, their own resume, and of course we all want to make our own resume look wonderful, but when you sit down and re-read your resume you have to go look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Damn, I didn’t know I was that cool.’ Each one of us. Well, you must have the same revelation, when you see a film like Curtis Choy’s film, or even review some of the criticism. I mean, right now you are being debated in some of our finest universities. Frank Chin is a proper subject for critical analysis and study. There is a fine scholarly work on you by Prof. John Goshert, from Purdue Univ., entitled “Frank Chin Is Not a Part of This Class! – Thinking at the Limits of Asian American Literature,” and there are others. I guess it’s a good thing that you don’t seem to understand. I mean, your work is collected and archived at UCSB, you are the first Asian American playwright produced in New York City, you are the founder of the first Asian American theater in the United States…

CHIN – That’s not true. The first Asian American theater, that goes to The East-West Players, of L.A. They were in existence since ’59.

EHII – Well, your [Asian American Theater Workshop] was the second.

CHIN – And me and Mako [former artistic director of the East-West Players], we became close. And I’ve learned a lot from Mako, and I hope he’s learned something from me, over the years.

EHII – Well, let me ask you this: in Jan. 2001, there was a revival of your second play, “Year of the Dragon,” by your friend Mako, yet you didn’t attend. You refused to set foot into the theater. Why was that?

CHIN – Because the theater was named the David Henry Hwang Theater.

EHII – You have a problem with that?

CHIN – Yes. David Henry Hwang, he doesn’t stand for Asian America. He doesn’t stand for Chinese America. He has declared himself against me.

EHII – He’s stated that? I thought he was still one of the writers who admires you, even though he’s aware that you have savaged him. What are the negative things he has said about you?

CHIN – He mis-characterizes me in response to my saying I’m not going into his theater. He says that reminds him of the Christian behavior, and he tries to take credit for being against the Christians. And in his plays, Family Devotions, F.O.B., he’s very clearly a Christian. And very clearly, in F.O.B., his first play, that got the Obie, by the way, he very clearly states that he got Gwan Gung from me, and Fa Mu Lan, from Maxine Hong Kingston, and that he doesn’t care about the real. I mean, what would you say about a writer in America who’s writing about his French background and saying that his Joan of Arc was a tribute to his great teacher Heinrich Himmler and he was getting his understanding of De Gaulle from a German writer he admires. I mean, it doesn’t go to the source. It doesn’t go to the childhood literature that every Chinese child has read. And he dares take this position in public in his introduction to his published plays: that he doesn’t care about the real, Gwan Gung or the real Far Mulan, he meant his use of them as a tribute to these lesser authors. And these lesser authors just happened to be the only authors that are known in America. And so they don’t notice that he has just named the two most popular stories in the Chinese lexicon of stories. And he’s that stupid. And America is that stupid.

[cont'd part 3]

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