APA / Heritage / Month: A Problem in Three Parts

by Sharon Luk, author of the forthcoming The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity

for Lawson Fusao Inada

1. APA (Asian Pacific American)

“Asian Americans” and “Pacific Islanders” are two different panethnic groups, each with their own history, development, and problems… for the most part, Pacific Islanders have fought to be excluded from the Asian American category.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Jazz — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “apples” for a certain kind of efficacy.

Navel, Valencia, Blood (can Tangerines fit here?) — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “oranges” for perhaps comparable purposes of reference.

If someone invited me to celebrate Apples Oranges Month, I imagine my first response might be, “Do you mean Apples and Oranges?”

In this crude analogy to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (do you mean Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month?) I don’t assume that the “someone” who invited me to their celebration would hear my question. In many settings, they almost never feel a responsibility to answer or seek clarity.

What exactly is it, then, that we are being asked to celebrate?

2. APA Heritage

…the old poem
birthing itself
into the new
and murderous century.

Li-Young Lee

My heart goes out to the students in my Introduction to Asian American Studies class (and in this present discussion now, I’m excluding Pacific Islanders to honor their distinction). I told them this course could not in any way approach the depth and breadth of all the people who have, at one time or another, been included in the racial category “Asian/- American.” I told them it could not represent any, let alone all, particular ethnicities ortheir experiences. I told them it certainly could not reveal to anyone “who they are.” In this context, then: What is it that we are supposed to be learning?

I ask students to study the processes involved in creating an Asian/-American racial distinction. We examine specific instances in post-1865 U.S. history to question how this distinction has mediated developments in racial capitalism. The construction of nation-states. Empires. War. Survival. More war… I don’t know how to make any of this easy to digest (and now, a corollary issue — can this really be the goal?). The deeper we get into the twentieth century, the more confused students become. Their faces look at me as if to ask, so are Asian Americans good or bad?

Despite the profound constraints on their universe of reference, I think students’ confusions about the contradictions of “Asian American” distinction may still get at the crux of the dilemma the latter heritage presents. That is, what “truths” are to be found in such cycles of suffering?

3. APA Heritage Month

every word of every image is a step towards the end this
urgency dictates that the sentence as we know it no longer
an option grammar is obsolete stories once told in detailed
chapters have been reduced to a noun a verb the father dies the
lover leaves in search of his own ending perhaps now the
writing can finally begin

Truong Tran

What is a month supposed to measure? What story does this measurement tell? In whose words does that story come? What end do those words bring (or, try in vain to defer)?

Let’s assume that Asian American heritage cannot fit into those limits — nor Pacific Islander, nor any people’s heritage, for that matter. Then, the problem of heritage remains beyond what is celebrated in a month and its killing, the problem’s most urgent expressions coming in forms that at once accept their mortality and open out to the living.

Sharon Luk is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Oregon.

Her forthcoming book The Life of Paper explores the evolution of racism and confinement in California history. Publishing this November, the book offers a wholly original and inspiring analysis of how people facing systematic social dismantling have engaged in letter correspondence to remake themselves.