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Asian American Literary Pioneers

May is Asian American History Month. As a recent U.S. Census report revealed, Asian Americans are the largest group immigrating to America in the last decade. It goes without saying that Los Angeles and Southern California is central to this, like it is with the Latino population. L.A. Letters celebrates all histories every month but nonetheless this week will focus on a few forgotten early Asian American pioneering poets that paved the way for the stellar contemporary writers mentioned previously in this column, like Sesshu Foster, Amy Uyematsu, Chiwan Choi, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Edren Sumagaysay, Cathy Park Hong, and musicians and artists like Tracy Wannomae, Alan Nakagawa, DJ Rhettmatic, Prach Ly, and Yayoi Kusama, among countless others.

"Asian American" is an umbrella term for descendants from several countries and the large expanse of geography stretching from Siberia to the Philippines. Author Ronald Takaki adds, "Asian Americans are diverse, their roots dating back to China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Many of them live in Chinatowns, the colorful streets filled with sidewalk vegetable stands and crowds of people carrying shopping bags; their communities are also called Little Tokyo, Koreatown, and Little Saigon."

On this website there are stories and maps about many of these areas. Besides the obvious districts in L.A. named above, there are many other more undercover areas with large Asian American populations, like the Japanese enclaves in the South Bay, West L.A. and the Crenshaw District. Filipinos began their Southern California history in Bunker Hill and Historic Filipinotown before moving out to Glendale, Eagle Rock, Cerritos, and West Covina. Chinese in L.A. emerged out of Chinatown and settled in Monterey Park and Alhambra and then into Arcadia, San Marino and Rosemead. More recently many Chinese continued to move east across the San Gabriel Valley to Walnut, Hacienda Heights, and Diamond Bar. There's Cambodiatown in Long Beach, Samoatown in Carson, Little Saigon in Garden Grove and Westminster, and smaller Koreatowns in both Orange County and the Valley. The list goes on: Little India in Artesia, Little Bangladesh near Melrose Hill, and no question other Asian American enclaves still below the radar, but coming to rise now. Southern California is an unquestionable mecca for the Asian American community.

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Ronald TakakiRonald Takaki is an authority on Asian American history. Author of over 20 books, Takaki has won numerous awards, lectured around the world and is considered one of the fathers of Multicultural Studies. Born in 1939, the Japanese American Takaki grew up poor in Oahu, Hawaii, where he was known to be an outstanding surfer, before going off to college. When he went to the College of Wooster in Ohio he was one of only two Asian students at the school; this caused him to think about the plight of Asian Americans through the course of American history. Early in his career Takaki dedicated his life to working for equality for Asian Americans and others. He eventually got a Pd.D in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

Before teaching at Berkeley for an extended period, he taught at UCLA for a number of years during the 1970s, where he started one of the first Asian American History classes in America in 1972. He also dispelled the myth of Asians as "the model minority." Among his many venerated books, two excellent volumes are "Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America" and "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America." Takaki's prose gives a voice to neglected chapters of American history, telling the story in a lyrical style like Howard Zinn, Carey McWilliams or Mike Davis. Combining the right combination of narrative history, personal recollections and oral testimony, Takaki delivers a kaleidoscopic account that is a symphony of its own. Takaki had multiple sclerosis the last 20 years of his life and committed suicide in 2009. By all accounts he was an academic leviathan and an advocate for the people. I am thankful to my great Professor Lamont Yeakey for introducing me to Takaki's book, "Strangers from a Different Shore," a 200-year panoramic history of Asian-Americans.

Yone Noguchi is one of the first Asian American poets in U.S. history. In 1893, the Japanese-born Noguchi came to San Francisco to work as a journalist. He met the famed poet Joaquin Miller in the Oakland Hills, and eventually travelled to New York where he lived during the early part of the 20th Century. Among his many distinctions, Noguchi became the first Japanese poet to publish a poem in English. Skilled in poetry, fiction and literary criticism in both Japanese and English, Noguchi was a towering literary figure. He was hailed by Poetry Magazine as a titan of Modernism, and he connected with WB Yeats and Ezra Pound. His cycle of poems about Yosemite was titled "The Voice of the Valley," and remains one of the most beautiful poetic descriptions of the beautiful park.

Yone Noguchi's ''American Diary of a Japanese Girl''His 1914 prose volume, "The Spirit of Japanese Poetry" compares Eastern poetry with American poetry and delineates the connection between Buddhism, nature and sacred verse. Besides many elegant passages describing the mechanics of Japanese poetry, Noguchi manages to include some humorous observations on the wordiness of American writers. He tells the truth when he writes, "I come always to the conclusion that the English poets waste too much energy with 'words, words, words,' and make, doubtless with all good intentions, their inner meaning frustrate, at least less distinguished, simply from the reason that its full liberty to appear naked is denied. It is the poets more than the novelists who not only misinterpret their own meaning, but often deceive their own souls."

Yone Noguchi passed through Los Angeles around the turn of the 20th Century. His son, Isamu Noguchi was born in Boyle Heights in 1904 after his affair with the American writer Leonie Gilmour, who edited his work and collaborated with him on his early books. Isamu was his illegitimate son because the elder Noguchi had a wife waiting for him in Japan. The father and son had some contact during his childhood, but Yone was mostly absent from his son's life. As any art and design enthusiasts know, the younger Noguchi is even more known than his father -- Isamu Noguchi is a huge figure in the world of sculpture, landscape architecture, and furniture design.

The younger Noguchi won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926, even though at the time he was three years below the age requirement. His major commissioned iconic stone gardens bridging the East and West can be found in Paris, New York, Munich, Jerusalem, Hawaii, Hiroshima. He designed the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center plaza in Little Tokyo in 1984, shortly before he passed. Also known for his time in Greenwich Village, design enthusiasts hail his work as some of the most influential modern furniture ever designed. His ability to merge aesthetic and function made his work, like his iconic, "Noguchi Table," internationally known. There's a Noguchi Museum in New York and much of his furniture remains in production today.

Another Asian American pioneer is the Japanese American poet Lawson Fusao Inada. Born in Fresno, California in 1938, Inada is a third-generation Japanese American. Inada was in the internment camps during his early youth, and this had much to do with his eventual calling as poet and activist. His first book, "Before the War," was published in 1971 and was one of the first books by an Asian American poet, a few decades after the early pioneer Yone Noguchi. In 1974, Inada edited one of the first anthologies of Asian American writing. Inada's poems have the Japanese quality of less is more, while at the same time they have a jazz vernacular of his era. The poems, dedicated to the father of his father, several jazz musicians and Malcolm X, show a muscular line of verse that is direct and packed with energy.

His early poem "Projected Scenario of a Performance to be Given Before the U.N." is equally hilarious and a call for Asian-American self-determination. He prophetically wrote in 1971, "Call me a very irate fatherhugger, that's what we Asians have to be, making these various variations. But, you fine folks sitting there behind smiles and earphones, don't you know that Yellow is now in THE majority, according to THE latest census?"

Inada has gone on to become the Poet Laureate of Oregon in 2006. He has also won the National Book Award, and one of his quotes has been enshrined at the Japanese American Cultural Plaza in Portland, Oregon. Inada is also known for dynamic readings of his work, often accompanied by live jazz. Inada remains in Oregon writing and publishing, producing over 20 volumes of poetry through his long career.

Carlos BulosanOne more Asian-American literary pioneer is the great Filipino-American Carlos Bulosan. His 1943 autobiography, "America is In the Heart" is a heartbreaking tale that describes his happy boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and the many years of hardship he experienced in America as an itinerant laborer on the road from Seattle to rural California, and for a short time in Los Angeles. In spite of working in the fields and living a nomadic lifestyle, Bulosan produced a number of literary works and was championed by John Fante and Carey McWilliams. In one of his most famous passages, Bulosan writes, "Why was America so kind and yet so cruel? Was there no way to simplifying things in this continent so that suffering would be minimized? Was there no common denominator on which we could all meet? I was angry and confused, and wondered if I would ever understand this paradox."

Bulosan was only 43 when he died in Seattle. His work, especially "America Is in the Heart," is now regarded as pioneering work in early Post-Colonial Studies. Bulosan, who was gay, is also noted today for his work in what would now be considered Queer Studies. Popular resurgence in interest in his work has led to the republishing of three of his books and the construction of a memorial exhibit dedicated to his memory in Seattle. Bulosan's work sings with the passion of the Romantics, even in spite of all he faced. The conclusion of his autobiography explains his perspective. He writes,

It came to me that no man -- no one at all -- could destroy my faith in America again. It was something that had grown out of my defeats and successes, something shaped by my struggles for a place in this vast land, digging my hands into the rich soil here and there, catching a freight to the north and south, seeking free meals in dingy gambling houses, reading a book that opened up worlds of heroic thoughts [ ... ] I knew that no man could destroy my faith in America that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.

There are publishers like Kaya Press and Tinfish that publish Asian American poets, but in general Asian American writers aren't as visible as some other poetry communities. There are obviously numerous other Asian-American pioneering poets, musicians and artists. The scope of today's column is too small to include them all but in future columns I will write about others. This week L.A. Letters salutes Ronald Takaki, Yone Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, Lawson Fusao Inada and Carlos Bulosan. These titans are Asian-American artistic pioneers and champions of L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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