Refugee Poetics: Southeast Asian American Poets, Literary Institutions, and Structures of Postmemory

Author: ORCID icon
Wei, Joseph, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chong, Sylvia, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Chakravorty, Mrinalini, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Ngo, Fiona, AS-American Studies (AMST), University of Virginia

“Refugee Poetics: Southeast Asian American Poets, Literary Institutions, and Structures of Postmemory” argues that 1.5- and second-generation Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, and Cambodian American lyric and spoken word poets conceive of making poetry as making refuge. A generation after the Vietnam War displaced their families, these poets embrace a refugee subjectivity in their poems to mediate their histories of war, exile, and empire. This dissertation theorizes their practices of what I term “refugee poiesis.” Bringing together critical refugee studies and institutional studies of literary production, my idea of poiesis—the root word of “poetry,” denoting “making” or “creating”—not only indicates their poetry-making in the wake of war and displacement, but also the making of networks, collectives, and organizations—or refuges—that prioritize refugee remembrance. Drawing on close readings of these poets along with ethnographic interviews conducted with poets and organizers between 2018 and 2022, I take social and institutional sites of contemporary poetry (e.g., writing workshops, open mics, and festivals) as my units of analysis. I ultimately show how these poets create communal and institutional infrastructures that facilitate social identities and positionalities around their refugee histories, and intervene in a present marked by permanent war and refugee “crises.” More broadly, my dissertation also provides a new interdisciplinary method for understanding contemporary poetry as not isolated but social and communal activities.
“Refugee Poetics” is organized into three chapters and a coda. Each chapter examines how a community or institutional formation shapes these poets’ writings and performances. Chapter one examines how Vietnamese American poets Cathy Linh Che and Ocean Vuong rewrite tropes from representations of the Vietnam War by reading their poems as produced or “crafted” in writing workshops. I argue that these workshops enable expansive social identities around Vietnamese refugee histories to come into being, while they also negotiate their racialized literary value and reception in a poetry industry dominated by MFA creative writing programs. The second chapter explores a more grassroots workshop in the form of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC), based in Fresno, California, and reads Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (2017) as a product of the HAWC workshop. Examining HAWC in the context of poetry networks in Fresno, particularly Chicanx poets in the Valley, I suggest that HAWC poets share a regional focus that reimagines the Central Valley as shot through with the global and colonial histories of Hmong, drawing on an Indigenous and Chicanx landscape poetry tradition to excavate the epistemological silences produced by the Secret War in Laos.
The next part of my dissertation highlights a vibrant, understudied Asian American spoken word and slam poetry community, a scene where Southeast Asian American poets and organizers have established counterpublic spaces. My third chapter explores the performances and community organizing of Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi. Focusing on the 2011 API Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in Minneapolis, which Phi co-organized, I analyze how Phi’s hip hop-inflected performances create what I term “sonic dwellings”—relational contact zones in the spaces where poets and audiences interface, and where postmemories of refugeeness and present-day police violence come to the fore. A coda examines how Cambodian American poets address one of the ongoing aftermaths of Southeast Asian refugee resettlement—namely, deportation. It explores the spoken word poetry of Kosal Khiev, an exiled Cambodian American poet deported to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and his collaborations with Studio Revolt, a transnational artists collective founded by Anida Yoeu Ali (herself an accomplished spoken word poet and organizer of past Summits in the US) and filmmaker Masahiro Sugano. I argue that Khiev and Studio Revolt create spaces for precarious and abject Khmer exiled Americans who find themselves in an ambiguous and illegible position within the nation-state given their deportee status.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Asian American poetry, Critical Refugee Studies, Literature and Sociology, Oral History, Southeast Asian American Studies
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: