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Paisley Rekdal on Biracialism and Poetry
This is the reason why, when approached by students or anthologists to present work publicly that I deem representative of my biracial status, I hesitate. Because for me to choose some poems over others as “proof” they are/I am biracial ignores what I have come to understand, for myself, what this mixed identity means. I don’t isolate myself into Chinese and Norwegian halves. In the same manner, I don’t want to isolate some of my work from other parts of my work, which might encourage whatever readership I’ve scraped together to privilege certain poems (or dismiss these same poems) for a kind of content which is, in my own life, deeply intertwined with so much else. Over time, I’ve written both the explicit narrative of race and what I’ve imagined to be its formal “enactment,” and discovered that while neither option “answers” (because it can’t) the question about how race might be written, it has made a few deeply held beliefs more clear to me.
First: I believe that we are all fragmented, we all live “in between” identities at any one moment in time. Biracialism merely literalizes this metaphor we daily experience: the difference between how we understand ourselves, and how others understand us. Because of this, I am interested in the postmodern fragmented and multi-layered self, but I believe strongly in my need to write from a coherent, cohesive first-person position. In this sense, perhaps this most antiquated feature of my poetry is its most political: I get enough post-modernism walking into the classroom and being asked where I was born. The “I” in my poems may not always be me, but it is a cohesive self.
Second: I, too, am anxious about language’s inherent instability, the slippery ways in which it does not always connect with the world we experience. But when race, whether formally or thematically, enters into the poem, it serves no one’s interest to make the language more opaque to sound intelligent since the stakes (like it or not) have now been raised. Bad writing about race—including racist writing—is often unclear. For me the question has become: how can I allow people to experience the complexity of race, while never muddying my own thoughts? Clarity is just another expression of language anxiety.
All of these beliefs of course put a lot of pressure on the last belief I’ve come to hold, which is centered on the problem of catharsis and identification. I, too, am concerned with the potential “kitsch” factor of a badly written poem, and it is for this reason that I have become more interested in narratives that purport to create connection between writer and reader, or between speaker and listener within the poem, but that often resist the culmination of a narrative into a “single” unifying perception with which the reader might identify. In this, again, I recognize that it is not necessarily race per se which has driven me to this conclusion, as this is the same goal held by thousands of writers across the globe, but race has clarified the necessity of my thinking about this point. The fact is, a vocal readership exists which would like to read all poems that investigate identity as nothing more than victim narratives, denigrating, as it does, any writing that it suspects comes from a disempowered position. So perhaps I should be clear on a final point, which is that I don’t perceive being a woman or being biracial as inherently disempowered positions. If anything, I think it’s given me extraordinary psychological insights that, while shared by us all, are forcibly articulated by few. What is disempowered about my position, however, is the negative critical reception that my work can receive from any readership suspicious of writing that engages even superficially in narrative “identity politics,” for which I have no sympathy and over which I have little control.
Read more at Boston Review.