In Poor Taste: Food, Poetry, and Nostalgia for a Whiter World

We are very excited to run our first guest blog entry by the very talented poet, author, and academic Neil Aitken. Many of the ideas for this podcast were developed during long meals with Neil in Portland and we are honored to kick start our blog with his piece. 

It’s been two weeks since The New Yorker published Calvin Trillin’s now infamous poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” While some have tried to defend the poem as light verse, intended as a satirical jab directed at hipster foodies who pretend familiarity with the cuisine but whose grasp of the food supposedly pales in comparison with serious food critics like Trillin—the poem instead comes across as the type of painfully awkward and unfiltered conversation you might overhear between two white men who think there’s no one else in the room.  It comes across that way because that is pretty much how Trillin sees the world, even if we buy his defense that it was meant as satire.

While the responses and critiques of the poem have been many and varied (including several biting parodies of Trillin’s poem), poet and scholar Timothy Yu offers perhaps the best critical dismantling of the poem and its problems in his response “White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People” that appeared April 8th, in the New Republic. As Yu notes in his editorial, regardless of whether or not Trillin’s poem is satire, “For Trillin’s satire to work at all, he must be implicated in the ‘we’ of the poem.” Or in other words, he must align himself with either the foodies he satirizes, or a superior class of food critics with a richer understanding of the cuisine and the regions, but in either case not the “they” in the title and first line of the poem.  

Who are the “they” in the poem? Yu suggests that the “’they’ can only be the Chinese themselves, with ‘their’ provinces and ‘their’ food brought to ‘our’ tables. And the ‘we,’ by implication, can only be white American diners befuddled—or delighted—by this influx.” I’ll defer to Yu’s excellent analysis and recommend reading his article in its entirety, but in a nutshell, he connects Trillin’s piece and its use of Chinese regions and cuisine as mere props for the joke to “a much longer tradition of American poetry about China, one that uses Chinese objects, Chinese culture, and even Chinese bodies to express white American anxieties and desires.” 

When called out like this, we can clearly recognize the ways in which the poem participates in this tradition: Chinese regions such as Szechuan and Fukien are primarily invoked for their exotic-sounding names and left without description or context, few dishes are explicitly named or even described, other than to note how they impact the speaker’s eating experience. In this respect, you could say that Trillin participates in a type of identity theft, stealing names for the sake of constructing an aura of authority, while simultaneously erasing the histories, geographies, and peoples of those regions.

Sadly, Trillin’s poem was not the only poem published in the last two weeks that engaged in this type of cultural appropriation for the sake of white anxiety or delight. On April 6th, just two days after Trillin’s piece appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times published a light verse poem by Lou Craft entitled, “Hummus Swirled with Harissa” which converts the mingling of two dips into an almost farcical melodrama overflowing with food references, domestic violence, and whirling dervishes. Craft’s poem has its own share of problems, but like Trillin's, it seems to push forward in its use of cultural markers and names with no sense of responsibility to the people, places, and histories that they derive from. Adding to the mess, the Spring 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review featured two questionable poems by John Smelcer which cobbled together nearly every known Native American stereotype and Hollywood Western cliché. To be a white poet, it sometimes seems, is to operate with a carte blanche – perhaps the only race card that opens more doors than it closes.

* * *

As the editor of a literary journal myself, when I look Trillin’s poem or some of these others which rely on a white speaker utilizing another culture’s signs and markers to explain himself or herself, I am struck not just by the ways in which that culture is misused and abused, nor the ways in which whole groups of people are being excluded or ignored in the speaker’s posture, but also with the terrible quality of the poems themselves. These are not good poems by any measure and the fact of their publication speaks volumes of other problems that exist within the literary publishing world.

How do these poems make it through and find a home in prestigious journals and newspapers?It's partly because the vast majority of editors for literary journals and newspapers are white, usually male, and usually straight. Without a conscious effort on their part to read outside their own lived experiences, to talk to people within different cultures, and to educate themselves about other identities and experiences, they will continue to be tone deaf when it comes to identifying work that is questionable. The other part of the problem lies in a deference and certain amount of leeway that is given to older and established (usually white) writers. It seems from these recent cases that too often more weight is given to the names, biographies, and connections of the poets than to the work itself.

* * *

Trillin’s poem and others of its ilk operate as a type of "nostalgia for a white planet." I think what lies beneath the surface of these poems is an unexamined racist sentimentality that has been either inherited or absorbed. The poems are not intentionally malicious, but they are disrespectful in how they engage without dignity with things, people, and histories that are important and valued by others from those cultures in ways that the white speaker is usually unaware of.

I've started thinking that this type of nostalgia for “a simpler time” is really just a way of colonizing the past and imagining it without the presence of others. We see this show up in the way film and tv screenwriters continue to imagine a past where Chinese people were villains, martial artists, madams, prostitutes, and cooks. To be Chinese within white nostalgia is to be a prop or a part of the landscape: a thing to work against or to be defined in contrast to.  

* * *

One of the other things that started to trouble me after following the various articles and responses to Trillin’s poem, was the realization that almost always white writers invoked satire as their cover if their work was called out for its intended or unintended racism. Doing so essentially allows an author to have their cake and eat it too, because any criticism can be turned around and the critic blamed for not being sharp enough to “get” the joke. 

Satire is the tool of those who have privilege – that is to say, into order to satirize, one must be capable of both identifying with the person or people being satirized, and also be able to demonstrate some sort of moral or intellectual superiority. Satire is only effective if your presence is already acknowledged and your voice is already being heard. Which most often means being a white speaker in a white room.

Parody, on the other hand, is the tool of the disenfranchised and silenced. Part counterfeit and part inversion, those who use parody borrow privilege and gain access to the conversation by their impersonation of those with power and recognized presence. How better to call out hypocrisy than to reveal the foolishness and flaws of an argument by translating it to a new situation where its ridiculous can be more clearly seen? It’s no surprise then that many of the first responses to Trillin’s poem came from Asian American poets who wrote scathing parodies, inverting his poem to ask their own questions: “Have They Run Out of White Poets Yet?”, “Have They Run Out of White Poems Yet?”, and “Have They Run Out of Franchises Yet?”

Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “the male gaze” to refer to the way that the visual arts were constructed around a male viewer. I’d argue that much of light verse and satire, especially when it comes to culture, is similarly constructed around a white male reader of a particular economic wealth bracket. Rather than a gaze, it’s an expression or attitude that governs what it written and read. Behind these poems, I can’t help but imagine an older white man sitting in an expensive leather club chair in private library or study, smoking a pipe and gesturing dismissively at the trophies of his past conquests and exploits, all of which have been ripped from their historical and cultural contexts, bereft of voices and people, and remade into a story he tells himself and his peers for his own amusement. All the while, he smirks his colonial smirk.  

* * *

To be honest, I’m no longer surprised when a poem like Trillin’s piece gets published or when a major Hollywood studio announces they’ve once again cast a white actor to play an Asian character. I wish that weren’t the case, but it happens far too often. Despite our letters, tweets, and voiced outrage in social media and in print, the editors, screenwriters, and casting directors don’t seem to hear us. Change, most likely, will not come from those presently in those positions of power. Change must come from the rest of us. If we want to see more responsible editing and thoughtful selection of work, we must be willing to create new spaces and journals and invest our own time and energy to build them up. When we are in those rooms where decisions are being made, we should speak up – we should call attention to editorial blindspots and unexamined biases, pushing for a higher standard of work. One of the wonderful things that happened in the aftermath of the Trillin fiasco was the way in which many of the poets I know flooded social media with poems from Asian American poets about food and eating. Poems that went far beyond signaling their “Asian-ness” through a sprinkling of names, but instead invested deeply in the familial, cultural, and historical narratives that made food and eating together meaningful. These poems born not from abstract caricatures, but from lives and experiences of individuals, rich with memory, loss, joy, and grief. In the days that followed, I feasted on these words, reconnected with parts of my own past, and felt filled with joy and longing in ways that Trillin’s piece could never offer.

Neil Aitken is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review and administrator of Have Book Will Travel, an online resource for authors and reading series.  His first book of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight, won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and his second, Babbage’s Dream, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications later this year. A former computer programmer of Chinese, Scottish, and English descent, he was born in Vancouver, BC and raised in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western United States and Canada. His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, Radar Poetry, and elsewhere.