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The Story outside the Story in Totem: America*

By Debra Kang Dean, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry Faculty


Paul Gauguin – “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

When the Hawaiian Renaissance, a cultural revitalization movement, began in 1970 in my home state, I was a sophomore at a large public high school attended by students from the University district of Manoa Valley and two others between which I lived: the largely middle-class Asian district of Pauoa Valley and Papakolea, an area referred to as Hawaiian “homestead land.” A few months into the school year, I found myself in the company of an ethnically diverse group brought together by a common interest: track and field. Outside the schoolyard, Japanese investment and tourism were on the rise, and, a couple of years later, Ferdinand Marcos would declare martial law in the Philippines, which would bring an influx of Filipinos. I understood only in retrospect how this confluence of events had knocked me out of my comfort zone in the Islands.After finishing a semester at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I enlisted in the Air Force. If I had to characterize my relationship with the Islands back then, perhaps I would call it an instance of unrequited love. I remember distinctly feeling at eighteen that I was leaving for good.


As fate would have it, the person who launched me on this journey is a Hawaiian woman who grew up in Manoa Valley and remains a dear friend. (We had planned to enlist together, but I was seventeen and had to wait a few more weeks to sign my papers.) She had also been a go-between of sorts for another classmate, whom I married. Brad, the son of an NCO in the Air Force, had enlisted in the Navy because he’d drawn a low selective-service number and didn’t want to leave being drafted to chance. When I first met Brad’s family—his parents were from Flint, Michigan—I thought that theirs was the life real Americans lived. Only after remaining in the Midwest in the wake of Brad’s death in 2006 would I come to see it as the family’s Midwestern version.

In 2009 I taught the first of several introductory Asian-American Studies classes, learning as I went along. It was also the first time I’d had more than one Asian-American student in a classroom, and in them I came to see some of the same struggles I’d had with my own identity, but not until I had faced in myself the reflex reaction of a Buddhahead—strange considering that I had been moving in a largely white world all of my adult life. Buddhahead is what the mainland Nisei called the Nisei from Hawai‘i  during World War II, and, rightly or wrongly, I’ve come to suspect that it was really “Butahead”—pig head, an aspersion cast on my mother’s people, the Okinawans, many of whom became pig farmers in the Islands.

The Buddhaheads called the mainland Nisei the Kotonks, which is said to have referred to the sound made when two mainland Nisei’s heads were knocked together. Evidently, the Buddhaheads had a reputation as the roughs, perhaps what one might expect from the children of First Wave Asian immigrants who had come to the Islands to work on sugar plantations and later in pineapple fields and canneries. It was, I think, a difference of style.

Lemonstone_Reading (3) (480x640)

Debra Dean with Jason Nguyen on the Đàn Bầu

Engaging with Asian-American students who were primarily the children of Second Wave immigrants or refugees offered me a connection to Asian America that jelled in our reading of Robert G. Lee’s brilliant essay, “The Cold War Construction of the Model Minority Myth.” Reading Asian-American history made visible the connections among people of color in this country through the shared struggle for equality and justice as together we looked back through the Civil Rights era and farther back to the economic forces that brought “unskilled laborers” from the Far East, and from South and Southeast Asia, to this country—and the divide-and-control strategies used to keep them apart. There was also the particular sting these students registered about the old paradigm of race that, regardless of how they saw themselves, meant racism and xenophobia were inextricably linked in their person. (Later there would also be students from the Far East in whose attitudes I would understand what lived beneath the surface of my Korean grandmother’s telling my father that Japanese girls were no good, and the problem with seeing Okinawans strictly as Japanese.)

While, as a teacher, I was bringing largely historical knowledge to the classroom—“Why was I never taught this?!” one student wrote in a weekly response—another student was bringing us news from outside the classroom, and I began to visit online sites she referred to. It was in this context that I came across a video clip of a fight that broke out on the San Francisco Muni in Chinatown between two women, one Chinese- and the other African-American. Beyond the incident itself, the comments on the video deeply disturbed me. I later learned what the larger context for this incident was: the Housing Authority had begun opening Chinatown up to African- and Latinx-Americans.

In a 2002 profile, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said of “‘Mother”, a poem about a jailed son’s nostalgia for his mother’s bread and coffee,” that it “was a poet writing a simple confession that he loves his mother, but it became a collective song.” He went on to say, “All my work is like that. I don’t decide to represent anything except myself. But that self is full of collective memory.”

What I gather from Darwish’s words is that collective memory figures in the work of a poet not just as subject matter per se, but in the development of the full-throated song of a lyric poet in the world.

When my father died in December of 2006, I was still in my year of magical thinking, my husband having died almost exactly eleven months earlier, and I think it is only because studying Asian-American history had provided me with a larger context for understanding my family and for gaining the necessary perspective to see the man who was my father, that I was finally able to write a sonnet sequence for him.


I have come to believe that the Hawai‘i I grew up in, the fiftieth state set apart by time and space, was a microcosm of this country and to assume as my own words what Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I have never gotten over my surprise that I should have been born in the most estimable place in all the world, and in the nick of time, too.” What I have narrated here moves through Totem: America, my new book.

Writing poems in earnest for over thirty years and putting some of them aside because they didn’t seem central to what I believed were my concerns, I’d forgotten about them. And yet one such poem, an ekphrastic poem, became the title poem of Totem: America; it is one among a handful of poems I wrote a good long while ago. Over and over again in my life as a poet, I have found that after I’ve had some distance on them, if I’m lucky, my poems very often will speak back to me. As a proverb, ascribed to the Chinese in a translation of uncertain origin, would have it, “A bird sings not because he has an answer but because he has a song.”

If there is takeaway from this story, perhaps it is this: When something gets under your skin, whatever it is, write it down. If the artifice of lines becomes an edifice in which you begin to give a meaningful shape to the amorphous substance of thought and feeling, you can always revise or renovate. And if you need to, put it aside for safe-keeping until your life catches up with it. You can’t always know which poems you do write will be part of a book that is a larger story you don’t yet know how to tell.

*This essay began as a paper written for a panel on literary citizenship that was part of the Citizenship in the U.S.A. Conference held at Indiana University in 2011. The original paper included “Confessional” and “Song of the Tastes,” poems that appear in Totem: America.


Debra Kang Dean497

Debra Kang Dean is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Totem: America (2018) from Tiger Bark Press and Fugitive Blues (2014), which won Moon City Press’s Blue Moon Chapbook Contest. She has also published a chapbook of renku with Russ Kesler, and she has recently published a sequence of ghazals written with Greg Pape and three renku written with Robin Lippincott. “In My Mother’s House,” a personal essay, is forthcoming in The Louisville Review. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and “Bouquet,” a ghazal, is forthcoming in issue 16 of One. She is on the poetry faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program.



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