I’ve been thinking about history—the contexts and precursors for the disturbing situation we find ourselves in today, where the US president considers white supremacy just another side of discussions on racism in the United States, no better nor worse than any other perspective; where his bluster is pushing us closer and closer towards nuclear war with North Korea; where his continued mockery on Twitter is appalling and baffling behavior from a so-called world leader; where his push to remove health care support for many Americans is downright petty and yet another time when he shows his hand in supporting the wealthy’s need to hoard more wealth at the expense even of the lives of everyone else; and where far more daily outrages on his part, on the part of his cronies, and on the part of all the bigoted people he has encouraged and empowered have made the last year seem like a surreal, dystopian, not-quite-plausible reality.
I’ve been thinking about history because I know that we didn’t arrive here out of nowhere, nor did we suddenly stumble upon a man out-of-step with the times who suddenly seized power. No, this world we live in has been with us all along, limning individuals and institutions and our communities—some might even say it’s foundational to the idea of America—only now we’re standing at just the right angle to see the unseemliness more clearly.
I’ve been thinking about history and anniversaries, the way we use the repeated length of time we call a year to reflect on events at particular intervals. This year is the centennial of the Immigration Act of 1917, infamous as a major step in restrictive federal immigration law that created, along with a literacy requirement for immigration, the Asiatic Barred Zone, an entire region of the world in the Asian continent and Pacific Islands that was deemed to contain peoples undesirable and thus inadmissible to the United States. Both the literacy and Asiatic Barred Zone components were undergirded by the eugenics movement, the faulty science and social engineering policies that championed some parts of the human population over others in a bid to improve the genetic quality of the human population.
I’ve been thinking about history and particularly of how American anxieties about Asia have been so frequently the pretext for war. Our military’s far-reaching presence all over the world is particularly visible in the Asia–Pacific region, the legacy of a nineteenth century expansionist program. And I’ve thought about the weapons and technology of war, both in their hypervisible and hidden states (think of military-issued weapons and tanks in local police forces or in contrast the drones that fly virtually unseen in many corners of the world).
I’ve been thinking about history as stories that help us understand ourselves and our present, but especially stories that must be told, retold, untold, corrected, revised, and contested. Historians’ research and various kinds of archives, including stories handed down from family member and family member, from friend to friend, are all important to the preservation and maintenance of our histories. Like many others, I also value literature in its various modes for offering versions of histories and correctives to official records as part of this ongoing work of history and memory.
I’ve been thinking about history and searching online for archival images as documentary evidence. In this meandering, I stumbled across the photographs of Louis Lee, a Chinese American photographer in the middle of the last century, whose work captured the terrible beauty of warships under construction at the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver, Washington. I wonder what he thought of his camera’s eye, the way he captured the work of building these ships but also gave us glimpses of everyday people going about their jobs. I wonder what he thought of the war and his place in the United States, whether he had to insist that he was not the enemy, and whether he knew his photographs would contribute to the stories we tell of his time in his future.
I’ve been thinking about history, so I chose one of Louis Lee’s photographs of dry docked ships for the cover of this issue. The photograph is visually striking, the way the heavy metal of the ships looms expansively in the frame, the way the prows repeat three in a row between the crossed bars of scaffolding, and the way the people move in blurred shapes below, as if precisely to give a sense of the scale of the ships and to contrast with the ships’ solidity with the softened outlines of their human bodies.
But thinking of history as a representation of the past is just one approach to making meaning out of the past, in the present, and into the future. I am interested in other ways of making that meaning that do not primarily accept historical documents as evidence, per se, but that more directly challenge their assumptions and biases to make sense of the world. Literature, the visual arts, and other creative endeavors can encourage this kind of critical engagement that opens up new thinking about the past, present, and future.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting my sister, the artist Li Jun Lai, for the opening reception for her art exhibit, …smouldering, unclean, yellow. This exhibit includes two large, colorful paintings based on antique wallpaper patterns, a broad selection of the colors she mixed for the paintings (along with notes on pigments and technique), photographs of her skin next to natural objects like leaves and onions, political cartoons about the Yellow Peril, an audio soundtrack of her reading aloud with the sounds of domestic labor and a crying baby (our niece, in fact), and throughout it all, the lingering presence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The opening reception additionally featured one of her friends as a server of yellow tea, his work of measuring out tea and water, brewing, pouring, and serving visible in the gallery space.
The paintings and the exhibit are Li Jun’s physical, bodily overtaking of Gilman and her story, in particular Gilman’s depiction of the woman in the wallpaper as the abject figure of a laboring, Asian body. Li Jun’s skin because the source of the yellows, browns, blues, purples, reds, and greens that infest the wallpapers that are the nightmare of Gilman’s narrator.
In this way, Li Jun’s art explores the xenophobic, anti-labor, anti-woman world inhabited by Gilman, who was neither wholly resistant nor wholly accommodating of the way her society empowered and disempowered people. Known as a feminist writer, Gilman certainly revealed the dangers of treating women merely as mothers and caretakers, but she was also an outspoken eugenicist. Li Jun’s paintings, then, are something else to replace Gilman’s vision, something to leave a trace of an alternative perspective on race, nationhood, labor, and sex. Where Gilman’s short story as fiction was itself already a reworking of what might have been considered official accounts of history of her time, Li Jun’s art takes Gilman’s story as another primary text to rethink the context of her time.
I am happy to publish this latest issue of Kartika Review with poems, short stories, creative nonfiction, and author interviews that will each individually and together collectively tell stories and engage with meanings in our world. Enjoy each piece; read and reread them and think about how the language of these writers helps us understand the world we live in.