East of Eden, North of Irvine: The Joy of Representation

BY MISHA PONNURAJU · Summer brings the promise of empty schedules and open books — many open books, hopefully. East of Eden has accompanied me on my quieter days, and my summer is more thankful for the still moments I can retreat into the narratives of the Trask and Hamilton families. East of Eden delicately and painstakingly renders several generations of two families who thrive and suffer on the soil of central California. This is an American story; American in the sense that this is an ‘American narrative’ which can typically exclude me and my family’s history.

I’ve accepted this exclusion. In order to love literature and my literary education, I have to accept this. It also helps that East of Eden has beautiful storytelling characterization. However, I cannot personally relate to the migration of European families who settle down onto rich farmland. As an Asian American, I don’t expect the great American novelists to tell stories that my family may recognize in ourselves.

So you can imagine the surprise I felt when I encountered, Lee — a character who’s deep introspection has given me joy beyond expression.

Lee doesn’t impress me at first. The character begins to perpetuate stereotypes of Chinese immigrants. When he is introduced, I could not help but cringe at the depthless, inane conversation made in pidgin. This Chinese-American dialect brought back horrible memories of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles or Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Lee’s role as a servant continues to create the mold which most Asian-Americans fulfill in their Western portrayals: a mindless servant used for comedic effect. However, after a gentle question made by one of the protagonists, he switches from pidgin to a perfectly eloquent American-English tongue. He speaks with sensitivity and intelligence. Lee opens up with the painful and complex duality of being both Asian and American.

Perhaps due to my limited reading, this was the first time I had encountered this dialogue in literature. I was stunned. Lee expressed, with a brave vulnerability, many of the strange issues I have encountered in my own.  Lee describes the confusing sensation of un-belonging. In my experience as an Asian American, it is difficult to truly belong to your American identity because you don’t look the part. 

In a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing. (Page 161)

In the same vein, being Asian-American still ties you to your family’s cultural heritage. But it is difficult to completely belong to your Asian identity as well.

I did go back to China…It didn’t work. They said I looked like a foreign devil; they said I spoke like a foreign devil. (Page 162) 

I don’t have answers for myself about how to reconcile these two identities. However, seeing this experience written down in this novel was an incredible experience. East of Eden, more than any other great American novel, made me feel like I was also part of America’s grand and complicated story.

However, it doesn’t end there. Lee captivated my heart once again as he engages in scholarship and literary discovery. In one of the most poignant and moving passages of the whole novel, Lee recounts early Genesis. The Biblical allegory of East of Eden is present from the novel’s exposition, but the characters look directly into the source material and deconstructs its original language. To be brief, a scholar discovers that the original Hebrew reveals that “[Sin] mayest rule over man,” when modern translations writes that “[Sin] shalt rule over over man.” The change from “shalt” to “mayest” gives choice to man – a choice that makes him responsible for his own destiny.

However, it was not an elite professor who makes the discovery. It was Lee — the child of immigrant parents, the servant to these wealthier families, the humble man with hidden identities — who changes the landscape of religion for the characters in the book. It was Lee’s spirit of curiosity and desire for knowledge which created new understanding that elevates the human spirit.

This is not theology. I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed — because “Thou mayest.” (Page 302) 

Often when I read beautiful stories, there is a distance between the story and the reader. There is an understanding that this world is not real, and it is not your own. But when I read this beautiful passage, I felt like this was me. This was my world. This was my epiphany, my delight, my liberation. I felt so much pride to be Asian-American, because I read this passage and knew that we are not merely the servants or the stereotypes. We are dreamers and writers and agents of discovery.

I urge the reader to find narratives that represent you gracefully, and to expect the authors you cherish to write humane stories. John Steinbeck isn’t the end-all, be-all writer for immigrant narratives by any means. It is kind of miraculous that he wrote about it at all. Even with Lee’s character’s evocative development, the racist language used to initially establish Lee’s character is difficult to digest. Was this type of introduction the only option a white author had for a Chinese character? Does his spiritual and intellectual musings perpetuate the Magical Asian trope? Despite my love for this character, I have to reconcile with everything this novel gives me, good and bad. Again, this is not a perfect representation. The imperfections in Lee’s character brings about a larger goal for the modern reader.

We can’t control how the authors of the classics wrote about marginalized folks (or didn’t write about us). We can’t control the time periods in which they lived and wrote from, and the narrow perspectives they worked within. If we choose to read from the Western canon, maybe we can also choose stories that are written from marginalized voices. If we must read Heart of Darkness, we can also read Things Fall Apart. If we are assigned Catcher in the Rye in the hopes of a good ol’ American coming of age story, maybe we can also read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. (Spoiler alert: Baldwin’s is better.) We can recreate our own canon where historically excluded stories — where Black stories and Indigenous stories and queer stories — are at the center. The stories exist, we just have take the time to read them.

Below, I recommend three writers of color who are dear to my heart. Read them and I hope you can recognize yourself in their stories, or just see a better understanding of humanity as a whole. Thanks for reading!

  1.  Sujata Bhatt • One of my favorite poets of color, which is a shame because it is difficult to find any of her work online. I stumbled upon Bhatt accidentally.  Her book Brunizem is a hidden gem of poetry to me. It beautifully melds her narrative across several continents. Bhatt was born in India, studies in the United States, and lives and writes in Germany (marking the symbolism of the soil, brunizem, as it is found in Asian, Europe, and North America). I am defeated by some of her historical poetry, which imagines the dialogues between famous lovers and famous women. But her poetry of her own home echoes with truth and hurts me too, in the most wonderful way. Here’s one of many favorites:
Marie Curie to Her Husband
The equations are luminous now.
The glimmer across my page, 
across the walls
across the pillow
where your forehead should be. 
You would've smiled at the shape of your graph
which I completed test tube by test tube. 

You've managed to slip inside me,
managed to curl your length tightly within my chest.
I want to remind you
of periwinkles, narcissus,
wisteria, iris, laburnum; 
the cows that plodded over to sniff, 
the handlebars we clutched while bicycling past so many trees,
so many skies and grasses.
Reaching shelter in the dark, each night we'd go
inspect our magic lights, glowing hot
yellow and green, yellow and blue,
caught in rows and rows of bottles.  

I now crave grey,
crave rain: days like the one 
that killed you keep me
in the laboratory and the lecture halls.
Pierre, this afternoon at one thirty
I continued your lecture at the Sorbonne. 
This afternoon
you tossed around my chest.
Your beard streamed in my veins, my blood. You thrashed, 
your legs knocking against my ribs
while I analysed the progress
that has been made in physics. 
But at night, I still count in Polish.

2. Danez SmithThis wonderful contemporary poet writes with both incredible pain and unrestrained humor. Their poetry, especially from the book Don’t Call Us Dead, should be on your must-read list. Their poetry tells stories that you would recognize, jokes you would recount hearing, pains you might already experience. For this day and age, Smith captures their own queer-Black narrative in a beautiful and eccentric way, offering readers a perspective that has been silenced far too often. Here’s one of my favorite poems by them, titled, “Dinosaurs in the Hood.”

UPDATE: After the publication of their latest book Homie, I also wanted to include, “what was said on the bus stop.”

lately has been a long time

says the girl from Pakistan, Lahore to be specific
on the bus stop when the white man
asks her next where she’s from & then
says oh, you from Lahore?
it’s pretty bad over there.

                 lately has been a long time
she says & we look at each other & the look says
yes, i too wish this white dude would stop
asking us about where we from, all these questions
derived from skin
but on the other side of that side eye
is maybe a hand where hands do no good
a look to say, yes, i know lately has been
a long time for your people too
& i’m sorry the world is so good at making
us feel like we have to fight for space
to fight for our lives

that might be me projecting but let me project
i want to say something & this
is the only way i can get in
even half good  

solidarity is a word, a lot of people say it
i’m not sure what it means in the flesh
i know i love & have cried for my friends
their browns a different brown than mine
that i have danced their dances when taught
& tasted how their mothers use rice
different than mine. i know sometimes
i can’t see beyond my own pain, pass
but black & white, that bullets
love any flesh. i don’t know how to write this poem
i want to say something about all of us
without speaking for all of us, i want to
say i know it’s foolish to compare.

(what advice do the drowned have for the burned?
what gossip is there between the hung & the buried?)

& i want to reach across that great distance
that is sometimes an ocean & sometimes just a few inches
& say, look. your people, my people, all that has happened
to us & still make love under rusted moons, still pull
children from the mothers & name them,
still we teach them to dance, & your pain is not mine
& is no less, & i pray to my god that your god
blesses you with mercy, & i have tasted your food & understand
how it is a good home, & i don’t know your language
but i understand your songs, & i cried when they came
for your uncles, & i wanted revenge when you buried your niece
& i want the world to burn in child’s memory
& i have stood by you in the soft shawl of morning
& still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, somehow, we breathe.


3. Sarah Kay • Sometimes poetry as performance can be the most powerful of all. Sarah Kay remains my favorite spoken word poet because her words live elegantly and energetically, on or off the page. Her book, Beyond the Wreckage, brings you to New York City, to her elementary school classroom, to beaches on Ireland with her brother. Her poems are imaginative and and full of wonder.  Listen to her poem, “Hiroshima” below.