I’ve always lived a little on the outside—whether due to the obvious ways I didn’t fit in with the rural, conservative, mostly-white community of my small town upbringing, or to my linguistic and geographic estrangement from Asian American communities. Somewhere in the dichotomy of being caught between places—of being both inside and outside—somewhere therein, I believe, may lie an explanation for my interest in forms that do not adhere—solidly, obediently—to any one professed label or parameter.
Enter, thus, hybrid forms.
Hybridity is a way of saying we are neither this nor (completely) that; at the same time we are this AND we are that, maybe even that other that, too. And it’s all subject to change. We might dissolve or evolve any boundaries. We will not stay put where you think you’ve safely placed us, named us, tried to corral us. Neither this, nor that. Neither of here nor there, wholly. Such territories are not always supported, condoned, understood, or even accurately perceived by either the ‘heres’ or ‘theres’ the artists have strayed from. They abide in a state of ambiguity—hard-to-define, unwilling to capitulate, limbo-ed in a sort of accepted tenuousness of being.
For this list, I’ve focused on writers who address hybridity via form/genre, or via subject matter (i.e. being of multiple cultures, places)—and some that do both. Due to my own (admitted) biases, I’ve chosen a number of writers whose “betweens” reflect some of my own concerns: spaces of mixed-race and mixed-cultural identity, post-war, after-diaspora, between Asia and America, between text and image, between theory and memoir, nonfiction and fiction, prose and poetry.
The one thing all of these artists have in common is that they are women who refuse to be easily categorized or defined when it comes to their art, and, hence, to their measured and declarative actions in the world. They work to complicate, disorient, and reorient how we perceive—them, ourselves, experience in society, language, culture, art and literature as we know it.
1. Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Many people are probably familiar with this one already, but because Dictee can so easily slip under the radar, I think this list should start here. By a Korean American artist/writer, Dictee occupies the realm of the in-between with both unnerving quiet and undeniable presence. Using prose, poetry, photographs, images of handwriting, and an oblique narrative structure referencing a chorus of Greek muses, this book performs its dance in a way that seems simultaneously to evoke and evade its own political “heart.” Why is such a dance necessary? Here’s what scholar Patti Duncan (Tell This Silence: Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech) has to say about the role of form in Cha’s seminal work:
…I interpret Dictee as an attempt to resist both the official histories of the United States, which ignore the history of Korea, and Korean nationalist writings, which often elide the roles of women… Through a willful loss of genre, and a disavowal of conventional categorization… Cha’s text enacts a form of resistance to being said.
A willful loss of genre. A disavowal of conventional categorization. A form of resistance.
Dictee, first published in 1982, has lain as quiet herald of this form, for decades now, awaiting but never demanding your discovery.
2. Intimate: An American Family Portrait, by Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal is the daughter of a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, whose childhood occurred against the backdrop of the 20th century Pacific Northwest, the same region where the photographer Edward S. Curtis conducted much of his “documentary” work near the turn of the preceding century. Curtis’s photographs of Native Americans are controversial, largely because they were often posed, with Natives portrayed in almost a “noble savage” kind of light; exoticized, in short. There is no doubt, though, that the Curtis photographs are evocative. In her memoir, Rekdal interweaves prose, poetry, and photographs from the Curtis archives, to create her own unique map of an “American” background. A couple prominent threads, experienced and imagined, vein the narrative: a fictive account from the viewpoint of Alexander Upshaw, Curtis’s Native American guide and interpreter; and Rekdal’s own accounts of mixed-race experience, roving the poles between mother and father. Rekdal manages to dance the line between imagined fact, fiction, “American” and “Native” history, her own family history, all along complicating our notions of identity and representation.
3. “You Didn’t Kill Us All, You Know,” by Julie Thi Underhill
Julie Thi Underhill is one of the most dynamic artists I’ve encountered coming out of the Vietnamese diaspora, and I have the privilege of knowing her as a colleague and a friend. Underhill is an essayist, scholar, poet, visual artist, filmmaker and photographer. Her writing has been anthologized in collections such as Troubling Borders (see below) and Veterans of War Veterans of Peace, among others. She is, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with.
Underhill identifies herself as a “mixed-race daughter of the war in Việt Nam,” and more specifically as the daughter of a Cham grandmother (on her maternal side). For those who don’t know: the Champa were/are a Southeast Asian indigenous culture that was overrun by the Vietnamese between the 15th and 19th centuries (around the same time that a similar usurping of indigenous cultures was occurring in the Americas…). The Cham people still exist in regions of Vietnam and Cambodia, and people like Underhill are working to bring cultural knowledge and attention to this fact. Hence, a fitting introduction to Underhill’s work is her brilliant two-part essay, “You Didn’t Kill Us All, You Know,” (Pt. 1; Pt. 2) in which she weaves autobiography, historical investigation, and criticism to reflect on the oppression—and omission—of the Cham people, from Vietnamese and Vietnamese American “histories.”
4. Nox, by Anne Carson
You are likely already quite familiar with Anne Carson, but I wanted, in particular, to include Nox on this list. In scrapbook-like manner, the very personal (letters, photographs, pencil-written memorabilia) is poised next to the linguistic and textual (word-definitions, etymology, etc.). In a beautifully circuitous way, Carson winds around to a simple, familial story: an absent brother, news of his death on another continent. The emotion at the heart of this seeking, collagist work is one of love and loss: the book is an elegy to her brother. It is also a remarkable object, with all of its pages connected, accordion-style. You could plausibly stretch them out into one continuous (very long) ribbon of a book. More likely, though, you’ll unfold a 4 or 5-page spread at a time, marveling at the strange continuity of this book-object, at how it makes your eye travel differently across the page, searching, as Carson herself does, for the absent brother (not exactly) located in those pages.
5. Split, by Cathy Linh Che
These are sensual, unsettling, delicate yet bold poems. Cathy Linh Che’s “betweens” are, most apparently, Vietnam and America, past and present, mother and father, but she also exists between forms of occupation – of a country/homeland, of her personal body/self. That is: others’ occupation of one’s home, one’s own body. I’ll let her poetry speak for itself:
“If I say, I have been touched. If I say, by my cousin, then a neighbor boy and then another. If I say no, I didn’t want it from my first boyfriend. There was blood and membrane and he didn’t believe me. If my body can be a box. If I can close it up. If it has to be open. Who will touch me again?”
6. Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, edited by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Lan Duong, Mariam B. Lam and Kathy L. Nguyen
This anthology gathers the voices of American women of Southeast Asian descent/diaspora. Containing Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong American writers and artists, many of these are voices that exist in the margins even of the margins. Within the pages of this beautiful volume there are essays, fiction excerpts, poems and prose-poems, photographs and other forms of visual art. It is a wide-ranging collection that aptly addresses the disparate and rich experiences of women from this region, or whose families and ancestors are from those countries, and their differing circumstances. Being Asian American can be perceived—by some, perhaps by a general many—as a homogenic, similarly “Asian” experience. However, an anthology like this one asserts the presence of multiplicity and hybridity; it “troubles the borders” and complicates the portrait, which is not of one (group, voice, identity) but of many. A great reader for classes or for anyone wishing to better understand the nuances of America’s diverse Southeast Asian American culture(s).
7. It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers, edited by Lisa Pearson
Siglio Press publishes some beautiful books at the intersection of visual art and literature. It is Almost That is an eye-opening showcase of what can be done in the spaces of the in-between, and may serve as an inspiring introduction to the world of image-text/hybrid forms. The title draws from an image-text piece by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha from 1977, preceding Dictee. The pieces collected in It is Almost That date from the 1940s to the present, many from lesser-known artists and writers. There are words written on leaves, photographs attended by minimal text, typographical experiments, free-form handwriting entwined with illustration, concrete poetry, book-objects, and other modes of ephemera. Editor Lisa Pearson’s afterword comments on how such hybridity may alter how we read and see: “There are differences between seeing a work of art and reading it, between reading a literary work and seeing its visual presence within the space of the page. These are works that are truly hybrid, in which language and image are inextricable and thus must be seen and read—not as two separate acts but multiple ones.” One might say hybrid forms works are about inclusiveness, nuance, and influencing us to engage our senses synchronously.