Revisiting Janice Mirikitani: A Search for Unencumbered Aesthetics

by Toshiaki Komura

Image Credit: Michelle Jia. Image via Flickr.

Janice Mirikitani, widely recognized as one of the foundational figures of Asian-American literature, has been known for her populist and activist blend of poetry.  As one of the pioneers of the genre, Mirikitani has been credited for her contribution in expanding readerships.  Mirikitani's poetry touches on major issues of Japanese American experience, including the World War II internment camps, ethnic stereotyping, and the subordination of women, and while this approach is partially responsible in catapulting her poetry to prominence, her reputation as a political activist "has caused Mirikitani to be underrated as a literary writer" (Birns 227).     

This undervaluation of Mirikitani's poetry largely originates from the entrenched assumption that political poetry, perceived as a genre that employs straightforward styles, is at odds with lyrical dexterity and aesthetic subtlety.  Mirikitani, as one of the "zero generation" Asian American writers, has certainly written her share of intensely personal and political poetry.  This poetry, however, is not aesthetically lacking; in fact, a close look at her actual poems suggests that the oft-evoked binary of politics and aesthetics in ethnic poetry, the presence of which is acknowledged by multiple critics,[1] is false.  On the other hand, some critics have also argued that such classifications "are inadequate, especially when analyzing contemporary op/positional poetry" (McCormack 62). 

This paper examines two of Mirikitani's well-anthologized poems, "Recipe" and "Suicide Note" as examples in which the political and the aesthetic merge to produce a third path that amalgamates those two, moving us beyond the aforesaid binary.  As poems that do not choose either but rather embody both, they constitute a search for a new venture:  an aesthetic of unencumberment.  In their particular mixture of the political and the aesthetic, "Recipe" and "Suicide Note" float between escapism and the impossibility of it by retaining both a longing for an imaginary flight out of the present conditions of the world and a full awareness of the fictiveness of such possibilities.  When these "political" poems are released from the false dichotomy, they become a fantastical site of projection for readers, where simplicity and complexity melt into one another to synthesize multiplicity.     

"Recipe," a poem that is written as a recipe for making "round eyes," has been read as expressing, in the word of one critic, "the tortuous extent" to which a minority female speaker "struggle[s] to be white:  bleaching her face, taping her eyelids" (Nimura 234).  In this reading, an Asian-American woman, who believes the big Western eyes to be the pinnacle of beauty, tries hard to turn her eyes into their likeness but fails to do so.  That is certainly a valid reading, given Mirikitani's political activism and the biographical context in which she herself claims to have "pursued being white and middle-class… all the things that [she] thought were part of the American dream" ("Rebirth" 68).  But one queries if this dominant, exoticizing reading and its chain of reception suppress the alternative possibilities posed by this poem.  In a recessive reading that this paper proposes, "Recipe" implies that the notions of beauty are "cooked up" and that they don't actually exist.  What this "recipe" creates is the effigy forged in the place of such absence, signifying an aesthetic that currently does not exist anywhere.     

Despite the straightforward, directive voice of recipe writing, the poem "Recipe" creates enough ambiguity that makes this resistant reading possible.  The first line of the poem is a two-word line, "Round Eyes," which is used both as a title for the recipe and as a subtitle for the poem.  Given the chain of reception, we tend to assume that this phrase "round eyes" refers to the eye features of Europeans, and that gives credence to the popular reading of this poem as an Asian speaker's cosmetic struggles to attain "white" facial features that are presumed to be the benchmark of beauty.  Overlooked in this reading is the alternative association that the word conjures up:  "round-eyes" can also be an expression of childlike simplicity and credulity that is a sign of innocence, naïveté, or wonderment. 

In fact, a corpus search produces as many associations of round eyes to children or child-like qualities as those to European features.  Corpus of Contemporary American English returns about 125 hits for the phrase "round eyes."  A sampling of those offers portrayals such as the following:  "he had a great big head and round eyes like a bush baby"; "who would not believe those big, innocent, round eyes of his?"; "The little boy follows his mother's fall to the deck with his big round eyes, strawberry ice cream plopping out of his cone"; "what new mom wouldn't like more time to stare into her baby's big round eyes" (Corpus).  These images of round-eyed children are suggestive:  this "recipe" could be for creating the eyes of the ingenuous, naïve, inquisitive child who sees the world without the burden of age and experience. 

Another tell-tale sign that this poem is more than just about an Asian woman's cosmetic attempt to make her eyes big and round lies in the choice of the recipe style itself.  In lines 2-4, the poem presents to us a list of ingredients in the cold, detached, directive voice of the recipe: 

Ingredients: scissors, Scotch magic transparent tape,

eyeliner - water based, black.

Optional: false eyelashes. (2-4)

As George Steiner declares, "in… literature style is substance" (Steiner 37).  The poetic appropriation of the recipe style is itself substance, and it indicates that something is being "cooked up" from these directions given in this poem.  But as for what is to be created, one has to query:  what will be concocted out of the pretense of transparent tape, water-soluble eyeliner, and false eyelashes?  Three key ideas are conveyed in this stanza:  first, the recipe style suggests that something—we don't quite know what—is being cooked up; secondly, ingredients include something of magic, something of falsity; and thirdly, many of these ingredients emphasize invisibility, ability to be dissolved or erased out of sight.  These ingredients take us to the realm of fiction, fantasy, the domain of "magic" (2), the habitat of infants and children whose imaginary eyes can see the world unburdened and unsullied.  This recipe, in short, is make-believe, where castles are made of sand and feasts are made of mud.

In this resistant reading, even actions like cleansing the face in line 5 can take on divergent meanings.  If readers were to assume that this poem depicts the lyric speaker's attempt to be beautiful, the primary meaning of the phrase "cleansing" would likely be the act of washing or bleaching one's face, which would whiten it and make it look less oriental; there is an unmistakable connotation of ethnic and social cleansing in this phrase, and the adverb "thoroughly" sounds annihilative in this context.  If, however, we were to focus on the elements of absence and fantasy, cleansing could symbolize purification, an effort to rid oneself of any sources of adulterations.  Just as William Blake's Songs of Innocence portrays childhood as a state of protected innocence unburdened by experience, this cleansing suggests an effort to return to such a state:  a disposing of acquired cognitions, including a posteriori social constructions of gender and race.  In this regard, what one is supposed to construct by following this "recipe" is the appearance of a wide-eyed child, innocent and naïve enough to imagine seeing the world that is freed from the presumptions of intersectional racial and gender onuses.   

Furthermore, the eye is itself a symbolic organ that engenders multiple layers of interpretations.  If, as dominant readings of this poem suggest, "Recipe" were merely a description of the caucasianization of an Asian face and an indictment of the race politics that elicits an action of such ilk, it could have also focused on the nose, the depth of the eye socket, the structure of the cheekbones, or any of the other facial features that are associated with one's ethnic background.  But eyes are not just the organs of sight or markers of ethnicity; as metaphorical windows into one's interiority, the eyes express thought and feeling, and as such, they turn into the metonym of one's selfhood. 

In this sense, it is telling that the one thing that is missing from this poem is any use of the word "I."  Since the poem takes the form of a recipe, it does not feature a speaking "I":  the poem is composed of a series of directions given in a detached voice.  Mirikitani's avoidance of "I" concretizes a specific rhetorical choice.  On one level, this disappearance of the subject creates the effect of reducing "the Asian / American subject to an opaque, inhuman mask" in the word of one critic (Yamamoto 221); the pathos of being a target of objectification is definitely detectible in this poem.  But the effacement of the subject "I," which is reduced to an object "eye," produces another layer of meaning-making:  the disappearance of the actuality, with one's self at the center that holds it together.  Without tangible underpinnings, the poem flees into the world of fantasy and abstraction. 

What we can glean from these clues—the double-meaning of the word "round eyes" that points to an unsoiled beginning in childhood and the absence of ethnicity, the recipe style and its emphasis on fantasy and effacement, the curious focus on the eyes, the discomfort with the subject "I" being reduced to the object "eye"—is a desire for a new beginning.  It is a longing for wide-eyed innocence before one becomes aware of one's identity; it is a wish for a forgery of something that had existed before but is irrevocably lost, a creation from insufficient ingredients that necessitates an alchemic concoction in the world outside the physical and the actual.  It also suggests the disappearance of a sense of self, of a subjectivity that binds one's selfhood:  a type of self-loss, a thoroughly cleansed abstraction of a face with nothing on it.  And just like this tenuous subjectivity, the notion of beauty is itself a contrivance:  it does not exist. 

In the absence of the object of attachment, the Freudian imperative, as detailed in "Mourning and Melancholia," initiates a search for an alternative object of reattachment (Freud 164–179).  And when such an object does not exist, Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok suggest that we create a phantom that stands for this absence (Abraham and Torok 17).  This assemblage of phantom turns into an exploration for an aesthetic that does not exist anywhere; it transforms itself into a fanciful voyage.  In fact, a group of the present author's students recently conducted an experiment as a part of their project, in which they followed Mirikitani's "recipe" to see if it would actually result in a Western-looking face.  The result was predictable:  the effort produced faces that one would not encounter anywhere in the world.  This recipe is a fictive construct (Komura 23-27, 29).

This aesthetics of fancy—an imaginary flight out of the actuality into the realm of self-loss in fiction—is emblematized by the utopian aesthetic of Japanese animations:  an art form in which the likenesses of humans are alchemized into being from celluloid sheets.  There is a popular sentiment, mostly among the Western media, that anime characters have westernized appearances.  There have been scholarly and popular discussions about this topic, and opinions are divided between two camps:  the claim that anime characters in fact look Western and that this suggests Japanese people's idolization of the West; and the observation that this perception is a mere reflection of the Western assumption that non-westerners want to be like westerners.  A study entitled "What Race Do They Represent and Does Mine Have Anything to Do with It?  Perceived Racial Categories of Anime Characters" points to a phenomenon of their "own race projection" in anime viewers; respondents of various racial backgrounds largely claimed that anime characters have the same features as themselves, regardless of whether the characters are intended to be Japanese, Caucasian, or of other ethnic backgrounds (Lu 181).  That is to say, in the realm of imaginary nowhere, one sees one's own projections—whether that of one's face, one's ethnicity, or of one's ideas about the world—reflected back at oneself.

The crucial lesson from these studies is that fictional characters—such as anime characters where this tendency becomes more pronounced, or literary characters, including those speaking or represented in poems—become sites of projection.  We see what we want to see in them, and we make them out to be what we want them to be, just as a phantom retains a projected image of us.  It inhabits the world of fantasy, and it is a necessary fiction, which is "[r]equired, as a necessity requires"—as Wallace Stevens phrases it in "The Plain Sense of Things" (Stevens 20).  In a study entitled "Anime Degree Evaluation by Feature Extraction of Anime Characters," a team of researchers at Hokkaido University identifies several markers that make anime characters look more "anime-like," such as eye size and color, hair shape, and face shape, and the logic of those features does not follow that of racial characterization (Kawatani 35-38).  In anime, one finds many eye or hair colors that do not exist in real life.  Most importantly, features like big eyes in anime are not necessarily an indicator of the character's ethnicity; those function also as an indicator of age, or even of the degree to which the characters are more "anime-like" than real-like.  

Like anime characters that are born out of what Stevens calls the "necessary fiction," Asian American poetry, such as Mirikitani's "Recipe," can also be read as a site of projection.  In it, one can, when inclined to do so, uncover enough elements to see an Asian-American envy of the Western notion of beauty—such as some textbooks and anthologies do, by putting the poem next to Chiaki Tsukumo's 2003 photograph of a young Tokyo girl holding a popular Western-style doll, with a caption that speaks about the power of "Western concepts of beauty…, even among non-Western people" (Meyer 565-566).  One may even sense latent racial preconceptions in this reading of the poem as a non-westerner's desire to look western, especially when the poem comes with so few markers of the lyric speaker's identity.  Alternatively, however, one may also unveil other traits that make the poem more of a "necessary fantasy," a phantom thrust into a place of self-loss:  a search for a place, outside of the real and the physical, where notions of race or beauty are sabotaged, with a covert suggestion that those do not, or should not, really matter, at least in the fictional space of the lyric. 

Another poem by Mirikitani, "Suicide Note," exemplifies a working of a similar process of projection.  Largely read as a protest against cultural expectations of Asian and Asian American women, the poem "emphasizes the destructiveness of internalizing the 'model-minority' myth" (Nimura 238).  The poem certainly invites this reading; unlike "Recipe," the epigraph of "Suicide Note" specifies the lyric speaker—namely, the writer of the suicide note—as an "Asian American college student" who was "reported to have jumped to her death from her dormitory window" (Mirikitani 305).  Underneath the dominant surface of a stereotypical Asian-American experience, however, one may also unearth a curious mixture of the political and the aesthetic—similar to "Recipe" in thrust, but different in the actual rendition of the approach.  In "Suicide Note," the external view of the Asian American experience as reported in the epigraph is countered by the lyricism of the internal monologue in the body of the poem, and together, they produce an incisive critique of the way in which the perceived Asian American struggle with the model minority myth itself mythologizes and trivializes the actual suffering of the deceased girl.  The poem's project, in other words, is an attempt to reconstitute, even if only after the fact, the truth of the deceased girl's suffering that cannot be contained by this mythologizing view of it.     

Aside from the fact that both are written in the same year, 1987, "Suicide Note" and "Recipe" resemble one another in that they are presented as performative poems; they are styled as a suicide note and a recipe, respectively.  We may query, then, why one of them is written with few markers of the speaker or the addressee, and the other has an epigraph that specifies the circumstance.  A closer look at the poetic style and substance reveals a partial answer to this question:

Asian American college student was reported to have jumped to her death from her dormitory window.  Her body was found two days later under a deep cover of snow.  Her suicide note contained an apology to her parents for having received less than a perfect four point grade average… (305) 

"Suicide Note" adopts an approach that one may liken to a division of labor:  the epigraph outlines the external circumstances, and the poem presents the internal voice of the deceased narrator.  The epigraph feigns to be an objective report, but the rhetorical excess is hard to miss; it reveals itself to be a purveyor of destructive stereotype.  While the phrase "four point grade average" becomes an allegory of expected norms that Asian American students struggle against, casual readers might be moved to dismiss "falling short of 4.0 GPA" as a cause unworthy of suicide—if one is presumptuous enough to judge which motive for committing suicide is worthy or unworthy of the act—and thus reduce this suicide into a parochially Asian-American problem stemming from the unhealthy obsession with perfection or parental pressure or conformity to the cultural norms or the like.  When so many people are unable to go to college—when so many people struggle at levels far below the problem of falling short of perfection—how would one empathize with the plight of what might be characterized as a first-world problem?  Through its rhetorical excess, the epigraph brings to light the force that undercuts the gravity of so-called Asian American problems:  namely, the perception that Asian American problems are, or are presented to be, not serious, especially compared to those of other minorities underrepresented in higher education.  

This perceived triviality of Asian American plight is precisely what the body of the poem is set to counter and reexamine; as the epigraph lays out the stereotypical narrative of Asian American experience, the body of the poem reveals a struggle that reaches far beyond it.  For instance, while the line "ink smeared like birdprints in snow" (2) may be suggestive of the specific pejorative aimed at Asian language characters—in the 1980s, it was not uncommon for less culturally sensitive people to mock Asian language characters as chicken scratch or some other bird marks—this image also portrays how the distraught scribbles attest to the fierceness of the inner turmoil and its incommunicability:  a sense of despair one feels when one is unable to convey one's cry for help to anyone, reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Terrible Sonnets" and the "cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away (Hopkins 7-8).  Furthermore, the poem's depiction of the parental preference for a son—"If only I were a son… / I would see… / the golden pride reflected / in my father's dream" (10, 12-14)—may lead readers to consider the poem to be reflective of Asian American values, mirroring the popular sentiment in cultures where male children are customarily tasked with caring for aging parents.  But parental rejection is a larger psychological issue that extends far beyond a particular group's cultural practice:  it has a universally significant effect on the child's personality development in any culture, as a 2012 study entitled "Transnational Relations between Perceived Parental Acceptance and Personality Dispositions of Children and Adults" has discovered (Kahleque and Rohner 103-115).  That is to say, the son preference, even if one decides to interpret it to be one of the poem's main struggles, may be a specifically cultural phenomenon, but it is one manifestation of a larger, transnational psychological issue—a feeling of lack of acceptance in childhood and its effect on personality development—that cannot be reduced or trivialized.   

In addition to this synthesis of parochiality and universality, what makes Mirikitani's poem more than just a simple political protest is its craft.  Even in the case of the less emotional "Recipe," line breaks are used to accentuate some of the key themes:  line 11 features an abrupt enjambment that highlights the word "finding," suggesting that this whole act of "make-believe" is meant to facilitate a discovery of something (11).  In "Suicide Notes," aspects of lyricism are accentuated, whether through varying line lengths that control the speech rhythm the way D. H. Lawrence does in his poems, or through the incantatory rhymes and assonances that dominate the concluding stanzas—"broken body," "sorries / sorries," "me," "bury," "sturdy"—and add a melodic momentum reminiscent of the poetic maneuvers of skilled confessionalists like Sylvia Plath.  This lyricism in the body of the poem adds depths to the authenticity of the deceased speaker's voice and, especially when set against the superficial language of reportage in the epigraph, transports it past the confines of a model minority struggle.         

If "Recipe" is merely suggestive in expressing the double vision of the desire for unencumberment—a fantasy of a new beginning through its making of child-like, innocent "round-eyes"—and its impossibility, "Suicide Note" shows a state in which this awareness of impossibility of unencumberment has been finalized.  The oblique self-loss in "Recipe" becomes more explicit in "Suicide Note":

Perhaps when they find me

they will bury

my bird bones beneath

a  sturdy pine

and scatter my feathers like

unspoken song

over this white and cold and silent

breast of earth. (56-63)

The lyric speaker imagines herself after death.  The speaker turns into a first-person object; the subject-object ambivalence manifests in the speaking voice of someone who has turned into an object.  Ambivalence continues with the alternation between the eloquence of longer lines and the reticence of shorter lines, simulating the measured wavering between the living note and the deceased subject.  The phrase "breast of earth" has sufficient echoes of the common phrase "mother earth"; the flight into the realm of fantasy takes the form of a wishful return to the mother.  The poem neither celebrates this suicidal unencumberment as a viable way out of suffering nor imposes lamentation in a sentimental manner.  By presenting the external account of the suicide and the internal voice of the deceased girl next to one another, the poem melds the political and the aesthetic to give voice to the truth—even if imagined—of the actual suffering of the girl.     

The type of resistant reading conducted in "Recipe" and "Suicide Note"—one where, unlike New Criticism, readers are fully aware of the historical, social, and biographical subtexts of the work but can choose to bypass some of their dominant, limiting assumptions to produce more fertile readings—has the potential to uncover the recessive genes within the literary work:  namely, in this instance, the broader complexity underneath the veneers of straightforward activist poetry.  When the poetry that is labeled as political contains within it the elements of lyricism and farther-reaching sensibilities, the onus is on the readers to come to a stage of maturation that enables them to see minority writers' work beyond the binary of the political or the aesthetic.  And that, in turn, reveals the artificiality of this dialectic. 

The hallmark of minority poetry is that poems can be immersed in both lyricism and identity politics, with specific colorings that reflect the collective lived experience of the particular group; the promise of this type of literature lies in its multivalency, its ability to reach multiple audiences—both minority and mainstream audiences—simultaneously through its variegated mixtures of specificity and universality.  In Mirikitani's "Recipe" and "Suicide Note," the synthesis—the new path that amalgamates various oppositions such as the political-aesthetic and simplicity-complexity into multiplicity of meanings—manifests as a wish for unencumberment.  The fact that both poems feature misguided efforts—namely, self-injury—suggests the lyric awareness that true unencumberment is an impossibility, but at the same time, the persistence of this wish signals that fantasy—whether it is the innocence of a newborn's round-eyes in "Recipe," the otherworldly appearances of anime characters, or the reconstructed truth of the deceased girl's voice in "Suicide Note"—has to be retained, as a necessary fiction.                 


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[1] Various formulations of this idea can be found in Juliana Chang's "Reading Asian American Poetry" (xxv), Adrienne McCormack's "Theorizing Difference in Asian American Poetry Anthologies" (61), and Timothy Yu's "Review" (225), among others.