It is so difficult to live as exposition. This is the strain Su acknowledges, the weight of one’s own footnote.
March 15, 2022
I don’t know how to talk about the South without division. The term “Southerner”’ is too broad to explore the lives of Southerners, so I cordon off my own family and establish another South. It is this South that Adrienne Su’s collection of poems, Peach State, addresses—this concentric South and dual identity for Asian Americans. Ours are invisible histories and a conspicuous existence.
As Imani Perry observes, there are “many Souths,” in which the “[s]tates have identities despite the arbitrariness of their borders,” and this distinctiveness is what we ultimately claim as Southern identity. I first heard Perry discuss the existence of many Souths during Library Journal’s Day of Dialogue in September 2021. I work as a public services librarian in Central Florida, and I was at the end of a summer filled with high-tension and even xenophobic interactions with the public. Perry’s “many Souths”’ became a mantra for me, something which offered solace, that “if we’re going to figure out this country, [the South] is where we’re going to do it” because ultimately the South juxtaposes the costs of assimilating and not assimilating these concentric versions of itself. It’s at this juncture that Adrienne Su addresses her readers.
Although Su’s Peach State (2021) draws from her experiences growing up in Georgia in the ’70s and ’80s, her account feels evergreen, and captures a rare portrait of the South I know, offering such a full portion, proud of its productive effort, and intimately defined. It’s this intimacy which matters most, how it addresses a collective who so often remains invisible in their geography, those of us:
who grew up to confuse work with pleasure,
to become typical immigrants’ children,
taller than their parents and unaware of hunger
except when asked the odd, perplexing question.
Here is the South where the families I grew up with traded calamansi, gumamela, sampaguita, saging, and pandan, a cottage industry of homemaking straight from the garden. We did this as part of a larger history of occupation and diaspora, and yet any attempt to explain this to a classmate seemed laughable. The way, when I talked about Tagalog, I was asked why I cared so much about a Girl Scout cookie. Yet as soon as I entered kindergarten, I was asked to identify the Philippines on the globe. “A native with access to handwritten / recipes, crabapple blossoms, / and leafy driveways” is still the subject of interrogation. So to whom do we write? Or rather, whom do we preserve by writing?
It is so difficult to live as exposition. This is the strain Su acknowledges in Peach State, the weight of one’s own footnote. “They might not look it up,” she tells us in “Peaches,” it being the facts that offer her origin and belonging, being both “from the Peach State” and “The homeland of the peach.” While Su’s speaker considers how she’d “like to reply” to “to those who ask ‘But where are you from originally,’” she says nothing. It’s a grounding technique she revisits throughout the collection. When confronted with othering language, Su directs the reader towards familial address and internal dialogue, an inclusive “we” which, here, brings the admission that “the reason we bought so much / did have to do with being Chinese—at least / Chinese in that part of America.” She reserves exposition for an audience who might understand that “A crate of peaches straight from the farm / has to be maintained, or eaten in days. / Obviously.” Generously populated, nearly every line in “Peaches” ends in a noun collected into the crate of peaches, the plenty of them, the abundance of things, beckoning to a “you” who “bothered to drive / to the source.”
The familial address becomes a rhetorical strategy that recenters the speaker’s narrative and prevents an assailant from taking up the scope of the poem. In the poem “Long-Term Care,” the slur “‘Go home!’” from a passing truck becomes an echo of a father’s question to his wife (“Are you going to go back to China?”) and it is the catalyst for the speaker’s own question: “what kind of person thinks she can just walk out, / unable to lie to protect her father.” Within the poem, the speaker’s language regarding home is absolute. Home and parental origin are not interchangeable, except by a total stranger.
In a collection titled to reflect origin, Su situates state borders—the borders of Chinese diaspora and Southern statehood—within the speaker’s state of being. If belonging has a border, Su steers us away from the periphery to more closely examine the meaning of home.
I want to share one poem with you in its entirety. It’s titled “Not Your Grandmother’s Sunday Dinner”:
I return to this reframing again and again. In part because it is so difficult as someone who identifies as Asian in America to center a narrative on the familial archetype, with the understanding that my family might be the archetype.
We live in a country, in an era, where a sizable number of our neighbors doubt facts, where populist rhetoric may overwrite expert consensus . There is no proof for belonging. As Christine Kitano summarizes in her essay on Asian American poetry, “There is no elementary point of origin, rather, a brief overview of Asian American poetry’s many earlier manifestations does reveal it has always been rooted in contradiction and struggle, the tension between who belongs and who does not.” But poetry is a generative practice. As Aimee Nezukumatathil, another Southern writer, emphasizes with her students through “low stakes” exercises, “Some days you may not make with words. And that is just fine. The writing will always come. Sometimes you might need to make other things so the writing can come.” Craft demands moving beyond definition-through-opposition, in part, because opposition doesn’t offer definition. Su offers a different objective: writing which preserves our humanity, an invitation to be generous and to create an index of that fullness.
In Peach State, Su risks exposition, restructuring the language of the observer so that Sunday dinner might be equated with the familial. She risks taking the center, even “in that part of America” where the grocery store demands adaptation, substituting “Balsamic, for Zhenjiang vinegar. / Letters, for the family gathered.” These lines from Su’s poem, “Ginger,” underscore the nuance of Asian American presence and visibility. The lack of imported food doesn’t prevent dinner, but one imported food being stocked and not another emphasizes how footnotes in America’s unequal immigration history have ostracized even aromatics from the pantry. Perhaps garlic has become a pantry staple after once being “barbaric” but ginger has yet to be recognized as essential. Though we now see ginger headlining recipes:
We’ll affirm its arrival
when it’s not in the titles
of recipes in which it figures
quietly, as moderate slivers
At a reading with Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Su explains that she wrote Peach State after leaving Georgia. In interviews, Su notes that the collection was spurred in part by her many visits with family in Atlanta where she found a growing and visible population of Asian American businesses and customers, as opposed to the alcoves of families dispersed across the city during her childhood. Her work was aided with extensive research citing 1970s cookbooks by Chinese American writers who knew that not all ingredients would be accessible to their readers, yet Su’s research stretching back fifty years still reflects the experience of Southern families today sourcing ingredients for Asian dishes. Like the immigrant gardens of my childhood that allowed my nanay to trade calamansi for fresh pandan, Su’s collection describes a generation adapting and maintaining culinary traditions alongside the efforts of other communities in diasporas, utilizing replacement ingredients and visiting scattered markets when food was “[u]navailable to us in the early years, when populating a dim-sum house would have required every Chinese person in Atlanta to show up on both days of every weekend.” Su shows the simultaneous pushes towards and against assimilation as a generations-long negotiation of identity. These are poems where a speaker brings tea eggs to the potluck but shys away from pronouncing “Haixian sauce, said in both languages or neither.”
Su portrays the South as a place of reinvention, a starting point and a final home, which opens a more complex question about families in diaspora. Who doesn’t want to know who (and what) was left behind? When we discuss adaptation, we acknowledge a departure, but from what?
This week, my cousin posted on Instagram that she is returning to Manila from Zambales. Here is my cousin’s beautiful list:
Without notice, we lose power. Fresh fruits are hard to come by, but we have the ocean and fresh-caught fish. We order Jollibee when I’m lazy.
Our days are hot but our nights are colder than AC maxed out.
My cousin shares a picture of her abundant wrecked field which grows nothing specific. Take part. Take part. I want to invite myself into an obvious lineage and compare this garden to my garden, each of us taught by the same grandparents not to show our teeth when we plant corn or how to keep a tomato from bolting.
This winter, I drove to every grocery store within forty-five minutes of my home for Mochiko glutinous rice flour, a popular brand of rice flour produced in the United States by Koda Farms. I found multiple brands of coconut flour, gluten-free flour, barley flour, many variations of “cup-for-cup,” and yet when I asked about rice flour, I was referred to Amazon. As if my desire was not too niche, but was too foreign to stock. Under the shadow of Stone Mountain Park, Su’s speaker states, “it’s normal for immigrants / not to see themselves in landmarks,” to explain how “Nothing at Stone Mountain Park / echoed my ancestry” and yet, this speaker is not an immigrant. At what point do we become American? I would even settle, at this point, for Asian American, to have my “foot in the door,” so to speak. In 1996, Lisa Lowe wrote that “the American of Asian descent remains the symbolic ‘alien’, the metonym for Asia who by definition cannot be imagined as sharing in America.” It has been more than a quarter century since this sentence was published.
I ended up steaming sweet rice and pounding it in a Kitchen Aid. I grew adzuki beans and ube in my own garden, proof that my cravings could be satisfied here, where I live.
Peach State captures the experiences of Chinese American families in the ’70s and ’80s in order to offer context for third, fourth, fifth generations that are shaping a different South. It is a text about heritage, tradition, and adaptation. It is a collection of cravings and desires, collated in the fashion of a cookbook, which is to say, these flavors go together. Crave peaches or ginger or tea eggs or Krispy Kreme, yes Krispy Kreme, too. Referring to the popular Southern doughnut chain, Su explains that for the next generation, too, “it matters / that they learn this is part of their heritage.” Heritage is a threatening word in the South. It is a word used to tell me that the symbology of death threats is essential to my neighbors. It is a word used to interrogate my parentage. It is a red flag when I read a business listing. And yet heritage, at the root, is an act of transmission, from one generation to the next. Heritage is what we choose to carry, a self identification. After all, I, too, am here by self-selection. I returned to the South more Southern than when I left because at some point I decided to claim it. When describing why her father settled in the South, the speaker says:
He liked the optimism
of those around him, who seemed
not to have eaten bitter, as the idiom
goes, even though some of them
Su’s is a Southern poetics which recognizes hardship and still gives us sugar, a transmission from all the generations who affirm, “their history exists” for us to build upon. Asian American experiences in the South do not start with this generation, nor do they end with it.
A little small town history: in 2021 I became the first Asian American librarian in my senior position within my library system. Although there is really very little documentation to make such a claim (what we have to compare with is simply the absence of documentation), we celebrated in the Fil-Am newsletter. I brought bilo bilo to the holiday party. I thought about my little dot on political scientist Claire Kim’s formative graft, as if I had taken up Kim’s Field of Racial Positions in Radical Triangulation as a conquerable equation where I might jot down a little history to demonstrate Asian America within America. History is often a list of exceptionalisms, the very definition of racial valorization. The problem with any attempt to “win” on such a field is that any reprieve from racial inequities requires solidarity. As Ina Cariño, another Southern poet, recently stated on social media “if your ideologies are already skewed to harm & racism toward Asians, it’s likely that you’re racist in general.” Focusing on anti-Asian institutions and belief systems alone “ignores the ubiquitous anti-Blackness permeating America.”
When considering Su’s focus on a family unit and the speaker’s internal dialogue, I cannot help but wonder if her scope is influenced by the South’s history of anti-Blackness, which continues to promote the isolation of marginalized groups. Even so, Su’s poems offer helpful antithesis to valorization by charting the interior, a history of desires, appetites, and longing:
for forms that live in obscurity
most of the year, assembled in albums
my grandfather made—thousands
I love how the reader must linger on the plenty of that line break—the “thousands” of dishes “immortalized, glistening / on platters, one eye admiring the chandelier, / one side adorned with scallions and ginger.” In this small space, Su offers a retrospective not of successes or valorization but of the celebrations themselves. What the record ultimately shows is the intimate gathering. These celebrations are the point of the documentation, a methodology that transforms history into a catalog of endless replenishment, one dish after another to suggest that the South will sustain this heritage, too.