EILEEN TABIOS Engages
TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS: Cross-Cultural Collaborations in Asian American Literary Production by Rei Magosaki
(Fordham University Press, New York, 2016)
Apparently, a scholarly study can sing.
And be, as well, a page-turner! Move aside Lee Child!
I don’t usually review scholarly treatments but I find Rei Magosaki’s TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS to be magical—I’m tempted to change that word “magical” to something more sturdy, as befits her scholarship, but that’s what she and her publisher gets for sending a review copy to a poet. Anyway, magical…albeit sturdily so from the standpoint of the necessary buttress of scholarship.
First, the premise is unique (I haven’t read everything in the world though I try but I haven’t yet read another study on her topic). That is, Magosaki’s book is—and I quote blurber Yunte Huang here as I agree—“a timely and groundbreaking study of Asian American literary production in the age of globalization.” TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS looks at various Asian American literature produced during the latter part of the 20th century into the early 21st century, a time when the publication industry underwent various and structural shifts due to globalization.
By itself, the topic is fresh and valid—Magosaki’s intentions include the brilliant parsing of how (white) editors edit the writings of people of color partly in response to the radical commercialization of the publishing industry. I repeat myself: that’s just a brilliant and well-needed point of view for investigation. In Magosaki’s hands, the topic is also addressed from a multi-layered, fluid approach that deepens understanding: smartly (re)presented are the concerns of literature, economics, philosophy, politics, culture and a textual analysis that, frankly, at times sings. One of the most important and interesting elements she raises is what she calls “trickster cosmopolitanism” that she developed from “Signifying” as used in Afro-American literary history as first indicated in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1989). Simplistically, the concept relates to a parallel English language created by various immigrant and postcolonial writers including Asian Americans like (she cites) Lois-Ann Yamanaka and (I note) R. Zamora Linmark, Jessica Hagedorn and, actually, most of the younger Filipin@-American poets who interest me nowadays.
Magosaki also presents a fascinating presentation of the “cosmopolitan subject” and locates it in San Francisco, a major port of entry into the U.S. and, thus, a complex incubator—for instance, as Magosaki puts it, “San Francisco was also strikingly unique for its capacity to nurture and embrace politics and aesthetics formed in marginality, shaped as it was by multiple countercultural forces.” Those countercultural forces include the people/artists of color themselves. Yet, Magosaki notes
“The arrival of the cosmopolitan writerly subject can certainly threaten to prematurely dislodge the critical imperative of early multiculturalism and minority discourse; the working-class immigrant can all too easily be marginalized once again, a dark double to be resubjugated as the subaltern and unduly banished to outmodedness, abjection, and silence.”
I still witness this tension today—how a focus to the cosmopolitan Asian American subject can dilute the socio-political-economic hardship still being suffered by those not necessarily in the category, e.g. the immigrants, impoverished and victims of racism. Of course, the situation is not a binary—the cosmopolitan subject vs. other subjects—and I don’t mean to imply Magosaki is presenting such a binary. For her analysis relates, too, to a particular point in time—a time when the publishing industry went through its violent internal changes that resulted in more limited publication opportunities for those not deemed sufficiently commercial such as the works of people of color.
During this time framework, Jessica Hagedorn blossomed in the Bay Area scene, and as THE HALO-HALO REVIEW’s scope focuses on Filipin@ literature, the rest of this review will focus on the book’s second section which features Jessica Hagedorn. During the time covered by TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS, Hagedorn released her 1981 novella Pet Food. Here, Magosaki the scholar impresses with this analysis:
Hagedorn’s 1981 novella “Pet Food” provides a harsh critique of multiculturalism in the context of emerging structures of globalization and transnational capitalism. Unlike neoconservative critiques often launched at multiculturalism, which refuse to recognize the legitimacy of anything other than the Euro-American-centric model of historiography, Hagedorn’s work raises concern for minorities who are further disenfranchised by a focus on al handful of privileged and successful minorities whose presence actually participates in and reinforces the exploitative structure of late capitalism. An uncritical celebration of multiculturalism is, in this sense, like a birthday party where the guest of honor is absent, or even dead.
In fact, at a culminating moment of Hagedorn’s novella, a teenage Filipino American musician lies dead in the shower as his birthday party goes on without him. Unbeknownst to his guests, he had overdosed on a birthday gift from the novella’s Filipino American protagonist. As it happens, the birthday party is also meant to celebrate the completion of the protagonist’s manuscript, and thus it is a dual celebration for the “birth of the Asian American artist”—one birth biological, the other symbolic….The writerly Asian American subject supposedly celebrated here overwrites another kind of Asian American subjectivity found in earlier narratives of Asian immigrants, erasing them from cultural memory and thus preparing the way for the privileged cosmopolitan subject. Moreover, the celebrated manuscript completed by Hagedorn’s protagonist is not a collection of poems but a script for a Broadway musical financed by transnational capital. Within the context of globalization, now running the postindustrial economy, creative expression can be reduced to a cultural commodity expected to create returns on shareholder investments and capital gains. Commodification and commercialization of art sustains the exploitative economic structure of globalization, and without intending to, the artist participates in a globalized postindustrial economy that shapes the severe living conditions of those who continue to toil in what Giorgio Agamben calls “zones of indistinction,” many among them Asian, inside and outside of the United States.
The arrival of the cosmopolitan writerly subject can certainly threaten to prematurely dislodge the critical imperative of early multiculturalism and minority discourse; the working-class immigrant can all too easily be marginalized once again, a dark double to be resubjugated as the subaltern and unduly banished to outmodedness, abjection, and silence. (44-45)
TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS offers the valuable service in highlighting the role of poet-publisher Stephen Vincent whose Momo Press published Pet Food. From reviewing the Jessica Hagedorn Papers at at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Magosaki is able to reveal Vincent’s significant role as editor—and how his and his small press’ role, unlike that of editors at larger presses more concerned with the work’s commercial impact, is more true to the author of color’s spirit and concerns. The comparison of how Vincent edited Hagedorn’s writings versus how a Penguin editor, Helena Franklin, edited Dogeaters is telling:
Franklin’s editing sometimes differs in nature from that of Vincent and Abbott, particularly in her suggestions for sanitizing characters. Franklin worries that the audience might be put off by some of the descriptions of the characters that prompt visceral reactions of repulsion. (80)
Franklin referred to “several places where material from the new draft seemed to emphasize physical grossness—people pigging out and belching, gross food, laxative-gobbling, barfing, etc….I sense that this stuff expressed your gut reaction (forgive the pun) to all sorts of moral grossnesses, but … the reader [is] apt to just go ‘yick’ and switch off.”
To cut to the bottom line (sorry, couldn’t resist), to be “put off” means to lose sales—a key concern of the big publishers of the late 20th century. Magosaki evenly concedes that perhaps the “sanitizing” changes contributed to Dogeaters’ success “and perhaps it’s a small concession.”
But Magosaki aptly notes that “it seems worth highlighting that the suggestions from Vincent and Abbott did not involve any sanitizing of Hagedorn’s raw artistic vision”—a vision also referred to below as “funk.”
I’ve met Stephen Vincent and find him to be a wonderful person, poet and artist. I had been less aware of his merits as an editor, and am glad to be so informed. The section ends with his words—a moving testament to his sensitivity with his subject that, unfortunately, can’t be afforded (as much) by more commercially-minded publishers and editors:
Vincent’s own comment about a demand to do [sanitizing] is more telling than anything about the sympathy he felt for what shaped Hagedorn’s early artistic vision: “In terms of eliminating or paling down the ‘funk’ in her work, I think that must have been hard for her to do—as a young teenager and adult I remember being much in love with Sly and The Family Stone, the Funkadelics and the musics spoke from ‘the streets’ in contradistinction the smoother sides of Motown. An attraction to the ‘raw’ materials.”
I read somewhere (I can’t recall now) that something like 75% of the creation of the novel is its editing. The novel-creation process is not easy, and can be frustrating and tortuous. But imagine the layers of race and “other” culture on or within the process—I am a long-time fan of Jessica Hagedorn but Magosaki’s book increased my respect and admiration.
There are many other gems and insights in TRICKSTERS & COSMOPOLITANS. I did not touch on, for instance, Magosaki’s analyses of the cosmopolitan subjects of the Asian American, non-Filipin@ writers Karen Tei Yamashita, Monique Truong and Min Jin Lee—analyses that are both brilliant and accessible. With her book, Magosaki offers, too, an example for how a scholarly treatise can be written to attract the non-academic reader. RECOMMENDED!
P.S. I learn after writing this review’s first draft that English is Magosaki’s second language – enhancing the feat of her marvelous prose. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released over 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental (auto)biographies from publishers in eight countries and cyberspace. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com