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Marilyn Chin is recognized as a contemporary Asian-American poet whose work refutes stereotypical and static images of Chinese Americans, often by providing diverse and dynamic portrayals of Asian-American characters. she addresses the topic of cultural assimilation by attacking the assumption that every Asian American, regardless of specific ethnicity, place of birth, and social status, wants to share a collective identity and political agenda.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Folk Songs, Opera, and Immigration
Marilyn Chin was born on January 14, 1955, in Hong Kong. Her early childhood was filled with music. Chin’s grandmother used to carry her on her back while singing folk songs and chanting poetry. Additionally, Chin’s mother was a fan of Cantonese opera and took her first daughter to live performances. Chin memorized the songs she heard there and at home, where her mother played opera recordings. However, Chin immigrated in 1962 with her mother, paternal grandmother, and younger sister Jane to Portland, Oregon, where they joined her father and paternal grandfather and where she forgot all of the Chinese songs she had learned. Chin’s father worked as a chef in various Chinese restaurants and even jointly owned some, but his business dealings were unsuccessful. By the late 1960s, Chin’s father moved out of the family home, while Chin, her siblings, and her mother continued to live with and be supported by her father’s parents. Though Chin’s father never legally divorced her mother, he remained estranged from the family.
Reclaiming the Lost
Songs In 1977, Chin graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a BA in Chinese language and literature, part of a lifelong process of reclaiming the childhood songs she had lost after emigration. Chin went on to receive an MFA in 1981 in English/Creative Writing from the University of Iowa, where she taught in the comparative literature department and also served as a translator for the international Writing Program. Between 1980 and 1985, Chin spent considerable energy on her interest in language, translating or editing three volumes of world literature. She also worked in 1983 as a bilingual counselor and adult-education instructor at Crestwood Hospital in Vallejo, California.
Writing about Sociopolitical Change
After receiving a series of fellowships between 1983 and 1987, including a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1985, Chin published her first volume of poetry, Dwarf Bamboo. In this collection, Chin self-consciously and critically explores the crossroads she encountered as a child and young adult. She recalls her Chinese immigrant family’s experiences and anticipates a future that might faithfully address the bicultural social consciousness that she developed during her coming-of-age in the United States.
In 1989, Chin joined the faculty of San Diego State University as an assistant professor. That year she also received a Gjerassi Foundation Fellowship, and her second National Endowment for the Arts Grant followed in 1991. In 1994 The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty was published. In this collection, Chin depends upon and reveals her personal life and political commitments to provide emotional momentum. In an interview with Bill Moyers in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (1995), Chin discussed the pain of her father’s leaving the family and disclosed that ”How I Got That Name” and many other poem sin the collection function on a personal and familial level.
Views on Assimilation
The poem entitled ”How I Got That Name,” epitomizes Chin’s view toward her resistant stance regarding cultural assimilation and romanticizing the Chinese American culture. She critically recounts her father changing her name from ”Mei Ling” to “Marilyn,” after movie icon Marilyn Monroe; she places this alteration of her name within the context of immigration to the United States and her father’s infatuation with a movie star and American culture. Chin makes clear that she views assimilation as a loss of identity, a loss of culture, language, and religion.
In The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, Chin also expresses her dedication to feminist issues. She returns for inspiration to an early feminist influence in ”Song of the Sad Guitar,” which she dedicates to writer Maxine Hong Kingston. The poem echoes the conclusion of Kingston’s book The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), when the narrator finishes a story begun by her mother about the translation of songs across cultural borders. Chin folds together allusions to cultural and fem in is ancestors and shared songs, a technique that allows her to juxtapose two cultural views.
Songs of Loss
In 1996, Chin became a full professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, teaching courses in poetry in the MFA program and literature classes. In 1999, Chin was awarded a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan. When Chin published her third book of poetry, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002), the overall tone was different from her first two volumes. Many of the poems in the collection focus on love, relationships, and death, perhaps because they were written during a period in which Chin’s mother, grandmother, and lover all passed away. Indeed, the volume is dedicated to Chin’s mother, who died in 1994, and her grandmother, who died in 1996. The elegies to Chin’s mother and poems that explore mother-daughter relationships are particularly poignant. Unlike in Chin’s previous books, this collection is not divided into titled sections. Beyond a recurring melancholy, what connects the poems are the various song forms that Chin adapts and collects, including the blues; Chinese folk songs and ghost stories; Persian ghazals; a ”Broken Chord Sequence;” an aria; a sonatina, or short sonata; and the emotional and improvisational rhapsody.
Works in Literary Context
All three of Chin’s published collections of poetry address such themes as the limitations of the American Dream for immigrants, Asian American unity, Chinese cultural traditions, and the function of poetry in Western culture. Exploring a dynamic notion of poetry as a cultural expression of identity—when identity is defined as multiple, contextual, and changing—is one of Chin’s significant contributions to contemporary poetry in the United States. However, unlike many activist poets of the late 1960s and 1970s who sought unity through cultural expression and worked collectively to demand changes in the United States, Chin’s poetry focuses on the concept of assimilation.
Blending Eastern and Western Style
In order to achieve her distinct poetic voice, Chin boldly blends elements from a range of different cultures and historical periods with a contemporary form and content more familiar to American readers. The cross-cultural exchange and blending of poetic influences parallels the dialogue that Chin often sets up between different speakers or personae within poems as much as it echoes the dynamic and fluid process of Chin’s own Asian American identity formation.
By melding different poetic forms, Chin is able to meld her East-West identity. Chin comments: ”Once I blended the epigrams of Horace with the haiku of Basho and came up with a strange brew of didacticism and pure image that made a powerful political statement.” In Dwarf Bamboo, Chin seems to make extensive use of the theme of sabi (loneliness) through explicit references to Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth-century Japanese poet known for developing the concept. Chin also seems to reference Basho through unmarked allusions, such as the use of images to evoke emotions, the use of haikai renku, or unorthodox linked verse, where poems continue the mood or tone of a poem written by a literary predecessor.
Most provocative perhaps is the overlap among the traditions and historical contexts that Chin highlights. Throughout Dwarf’Bamboo, but particularly in ”We Are Americans Now, We Live in the Tundra,” Chin uses sabi to connect thematically the historically distant Chinese con text of Western and Japanese imperialism, a more recent revolutionary communist China, and a contemporary Chinese American postcolonial longing for a lost homeland and culture. Few poems include notes that translate or define non-English words, identify Chinese literary and historical figures, or explain cultural references; in most poems, readers are left to their own devices and experiences to make meaning of Chin’s impressive synthesis.
Works in Critical Context
Reviewers of Chin’s work find it difficult to characterize her work as specifically Asian American. Scholars insist that considerable attention must be made in how to read the cultural and social context of her work. Several critics have suggested that while readers should heed cultural context, the danger of ethnocentric readings is that they can lead to exclusive attention to the poet’s ethnicity. As Xiaojing Zhou writes, this kind of focus feeds ”a misconception that a pure and fixed Chinese culture has been inherited” by Chinese American poets and that their poems somehow automatically and clearly reproduce it, expressing one side, the ”exotic” or ”foreign” side, of an irrevocably split Chinese American identity. Hence, many scholars prefer to emphasize the eclectic variety of poetic influences evident in Chin’s work.
The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty
In The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, Chin combines feminism with old stories and American idioms. She juxtaposes images of Chinese culture with her American rearing. One of Chin’s most distinctive marks as a poet is her skilled play with language. Anne-Elizabeth Green notes in Contemporary Women Poets that Chin ”is not afraid of mixing tones and styles within the same poem, evoking radically variant moods and creating strange juxtapositions with differing literary voices. These juxtapositions may be playful, or may shock in the sudden aggressiveness of her shift in tone.” In The Progressive, critic Matthew Rothschild comments that Chin ”has a voice all her own—witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy. . . . She covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush.” Some verses explore the difficulties faced by women immigrants, other verses warn about the dangers of stereotyping.
Rhapsody in Plain Yellow
Although many of the poems in this collection are melancholy, the volume also features poems written in a confrontational style that continue Chin’s poetic efforts against cultural assimilation and racial injustice. For example, in ”Millennium, Six Songs,” the speaker insists that ”We’ve arrived shoeless, crutchless, tousle-haired, swollen bellied / We shall inherit this earth’s meek glory, as foretold.” There are also poems that are explicitly feminist. Donna Seaman of Booklist describes the tone of collection: ”Chin paces the line demarcated by the words Chinese American like a caged tiger, jury just barely held in check.”
- Lim, Shirley Geoklin. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
- Moyers, Bill. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
- Chang, Juliana. ”Reading Asian American Poetry.” MELUS 21 (Spring 1996): 81-98.
- Gery, John. ”’Mocking My Own Ripeness’: Authenticity, Heritage, and Self-Erasure in the Poetry of Marilyn Chin.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (2001): 25-35.
- Green, Anne-Elizabeth. ”Marilyn Chin.” Contemporary Women Poets (1998): 61-63.
- McCormick, Adrienne. ”Being Without: Marilyn Chin’s Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing.” Hitting Critical Mass 6 (Spring 2000): 37-58.
- Slowik, Mary. ”Beyond Lot’s Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25 (Fall/Winter 2000): 221-242.
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