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Foreign AccentsChinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity$
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Steven G. Yao

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199730339

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199730339.001.0001

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Chinese/American Verse in Transnational Perspective

Chinese/American Verse in Transnational Perspective

Racial Protest and the Poems of Angel Island

(p.63) 2 Chinese/American Verse in Transnational Perspective
Foreign Accents

Steven G. Yao

Oxford University Press

This chapter examines the classical Chinese poetry written by immigrants detained on Angel Island. Composed in almost total anonymity between 1910 and 1940 by largely uneducated Chinese commoners attempting to enter the United States, the poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station detention buildings have garnered attention almost exclusively for socio-historic, rather than literary or cultural, reasons. As a corrective to such a tendency, this chapter shows how, coinciding in an almost uncanny way with the period of traditional Anglo-American high modernism, these works at once arise from and reflect an altogether different, and still largely unremarked, dimension of the internationalism shaping “American” culture at the time. More specifically, through their very distance from canonical works of “mainstream” English-language modernism, the “Island” poems dramatize a traumatic encounter with modernity by Chinese commoners that issues in a painful discovery of the social condition of ethnicity in the United States. In doing so, they embody an expressly international version of Asian American literary production, one that bespeaks the need to develop a more complex conception of both “American” and, more particularly, “Asian American” culture that cuts across the boundaries not only between nations but also between languages.

Keywords:   Angel, Island, exclusion, Yellow, Peril, transpacific, classical, Chinese, poetry

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