What can one do with rage and anger? diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen on why it’s sometimes necessary to rant.
One thing about this blog that’s bothered me is that we don’t have that many comments. Some blogs get a lot of comments but the comments are just awful, the kind that make you despair about the state of humanity and worry about whether democracy is actually better than an enlightened dictatorship, a la Singapore. A few blogs get very nice comments. Actually I can only think of one that I read regularly, and that one is, ironically, about fashion. You’d figure people would be catty, but they’re actually really enthusiastic about what they see.
So we published a post recently that did get a lot of comments, Paisley Rekdal’s “Biracial Rage in Hanoi.” Maybe it’s just me, but I like rage, albeit in measured doses and not in my household. I’d heard of Paisley Rekdal a long time ago, when her memoir came out, the one with the unforgettable title: The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee. Then I ran into her in Hanoi a couple of months ago at Nguyen Qui Duc’s bar, Tadioto, our very own version of Rick’s Café Americain. After that I read her blog, where she posted “Biracial Rage” for the first time. Read it for yourself, but in summary, it’s about the stupid kinds of things people will say to biracial people such as herself. I identified with it because people say stupid things to me all the time. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve been guilty myself of (occasionally) saying stupid things to people, sometimes even when I’m not under the influence. Sometimes people I’ve said stupid things to have done me the favor of telling me I said something stupid. It’s not the greatest thing to hear, but I’ve learned a lot from people’s honesty, probably a lot more than from people’s politeness.
So I reprinted Paisley’s post here and somewhere in the back of my mind perhaps it did register that the post would be controversial. If you read the comments, you’ll see the controversy. I have no problems with people disagreeing with our posts, or the commenters. But at one point one of the commenters crossed the line from disagreement to insult. On the internet, that’s not a very fine line. What it boils down to is that I’d rather have a handful of meaningful, useful, heartfelt, productive, dialogue-provoking comments–including those that disagree with something or someone else–than lots of insults or attacks. How do we get to that point on diacritics? Help me out here. We need suggestions. Better yet, we need your comments.
The problem isn’t one of posting something in which rage was the topic. There are some things we should be angry about, but we need to be artful in expressing that anger. Paisley’s post was artful, but that, too, is a matter of judgment and the eye of the beholder. The issue here is that art and anger are an uncomfortable mix for some readers or viewers. It’s an uncomfortable mix for a lot of writers and artists too. What’s the proper proportion of art to anger? For whom are we mixing this particular concoction? One person’s rant is another person’s honesty, but the flip side is that one person’s subtlety is another person’s obfuscation.
What I’m suggesting is that every minority writer, however defined, has had to deal with this issue of how to mix or balance or address or ignore the relationship of art to anger. Here’s a wild guess on my part: even minority writers who don’t seem angry on the page have had to at least think about the kinds of anger that are tied to being their particular minority and decide to evade it or sublimate it into something else. For those of us from Viet Nam or Southeast Asia, there is so much to be angry about, whether it’s on the vast geopolitical/historical scale of countries and warfare and colonialism or whether it’s on the much more intimate scale of families and love or the lack of love or the loss of love and so many other things. Even on the intimate scale, though, the horizon lines go directly to the macro-history of all the screwed up decisions and events that shaped us.
Like the day I wrote this, I read about how Hillary Clinton visited Laos and met with survivors of US bombs that blew up years after they were dropped on the country. I’m glad she visited, even if it was only for four hours, and that she had pictures taken of herself at a prosthetics workshop and with someone with no hands or sight as a result of a US bomb. But I’m angry too that the US did this to this country that I had the first chance of visiting this past April, a spectacularly beautiful and peaceful country. And I’m angry that the US is contributing all of $9 million a year to help find the tens of thousands of unexploded ordnance that the US dropped in the first place. And I’m angry that the US is considering increasing that contribution to (only) $10 million a year. The Pentagon spends that much money in approximately seven and a half minutes.
How did I get from biracial rage to unexploded ordnance? In my paranoid, angry mind they’re both connected by an understanding that we live in a world where there exists an Orientalist imagination that fetishizes Asian women and sees Asia as weak, feminine territory to be conquered by force of arms (see Edward Said, Orientalism, for the full treatment–you can cheat and just read the introduction–or David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, for the pop culture version). This is what anger does–it allows us to connect the dots we might not otherwise connect. The danger, of course, is that we can connect the wrong dots, and it’s certainly the case that if we don’t agree with someone else’s rage and anger, we think they’re connecting the wrong dots. That’s why the Tea Party version of rage and anger makes me groan in frustration and reach for my pen, while my version of rage and anger makes them reach for their guns.
Few people like anger and rage in general, but in American society, if you’re white, you’ll get more leeway to be angry than if you’re a minority. Some people may not like the Tea Party, but the Tea Party gets major airtime. Compare their reception to the Black Panther Party’s reception and you get an idea of the inequity. A white man (and now a white woman) with a gun is a hero(ine). A black man with a gun is a criminal. In general, people from any given majority, however defined, almost always hate it when a minority gets angry. Men don’t like angry women, whites don’t like angry people of color, straights don’t like angry gays, colonizers don’t like angry colonized, and so on. Generalizations, perhaps, and with exceptions, but still true. So Americans and French generally don’t like angry Vietnamese or Southeast Asians, and westerners don’t like angry Asians. That’s why it’s easier to be a writer or an artist of an Asian background who isn’t angry, on the surface. It’s okay to talk about the problems of history and war and race and gender and immigration and what not if one doesn’t do so in an angry fashion, which is to say, anger at the dominant society. But confusion? To be expected. Disfunction? By definition. Self-hatred? Even better. Sadness? Nice! Melancholy? Terrific. Comedy? We need more of that. Romance? Absolutely. Hope? Of course! But anger? Absolutely not, with one very big exception. If you are angry at other Asians, namely your parents, your family, your abusive husband, your ungrateful children, or your old world country, that’s cool. We can sell that. Anger at non-Asians–oh, let’s be honest and say anger at whites–not so much.
Let’s talk about Vietnamese Americans as one example of how intra-minority anger is acceptable. Who are Vietnamese Americans most likely to be angry about in public? Other Vietnamese Americans or the Vietnamese in Viet Nam. See: any incident charged with allegations of Communism in Orange County. There are a lot of angry anti-Communists in Orange County. They hate Communists of any color, true, but they save all their rage for the Vietnamese American (or Vietnamese) ones. I can see that point of view, but really, the USA had nothing to do with the plight of the Vietnamese people after the war? We can’t be angry about white people? They are, to be frank, the ones ultimately responsible for screwing Viet Nam, from French colonialism to American occupation. And yet, if we don’t get angry with white Americans, we’re plenty angry about those other Americans, namely black people and Mexicans (the Vietnamese use “Mexican” to refer to all Latinos, so far as I can tell). Vietnamese Americans are not not racists, they just speak their racism in Vietnamese so other people can’t eavesdrop. But white people–Vietnamese Americans may not think much of their parenting habits, but that’s about all they’ll say about white people in private, much less in public. And you know what? That makes me angry.
The general public looks at how angry (some) Vietnamese Americans get about Communism and they wonder what the big deal is. Anti-communism is so 1988. But at the same time, “dominant society”–that faceless hegemony, that other name for power–is happy that (some) Vietnamese Americans are angry about Communism because it prevents them from being angry about a lot of other things, like poverty, domestic violence, structural inequality, etc., or asking dangerous questions about things like mega-tons of bombs and Agent Orange and free-fire zones and whether the use of them in Viet Nam was a war crime. (But the Communists committed war crimes, someone is saying…yes, they did. How does that make an American war crime less of a war crime?) Now I’m a little less angry for having said that.
Then there’s the issue of how other minorities see Vietnamese Americans, or Asians in general. (See the comment thread on Paisley Rekdal’s post for one elaboration of this.) Let’s put it this way: it’s a no-no to be angry at white people in America, but if you want to hate your fellow minorities or other minorities, go ahead. Who stole your lunch money? Who seized your job opportunities? Who took your Ivy League college seat? Who’s bringing down property values in your neighborhood? You know who, says Mitt Romney. Not people like me.
So a little biracial rage directed at supposedly monoracial societies and their representatives is not a bad thing. And a little more anger on the part of Vietnamese Americans at American society would be nice, too. Not the kind of anger that only gets spoken of behind closed doors, or that gets spoken in Vietnamese, knowing no one can understand, but the English kind. The kind that Americans can’t say they didn’t hear, even if they don’t like it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here.
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