I saw a picture of myself at a recent wedding and noticed again how wide my nose is. It’s my mother’s nose, and her mother’s and father’s nose. My cousins have this nose. Along the spectrum of Filipino-Americans I am pretty dark. I’m 5’8 ½” in Timberlands. I’ve got a belly these days. The freckled girl who came to visit her dad on weekends when I was 10 pointed out my chinky eyes and this Gelacio nose, then stood up and let the screen door slap twice behind her.
It’s 2014 and dudes like John Cho and Steven Yeun are making women – and men, I’m sure – swoon. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. You know the litany of Asian characters on screen – most notably, Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. So they were hardly mainstream heartthrobs. Bruce Lee was an implicitly erotic and maybe an explicitly sexual figure in film. In Way of the Dragon (often known as Return of the Dragon), an Italian woman picks up Tang Lung, Lee’s character, and brings him back to her apartment. Even then, Lung bolts out the door when the woman emerges from her bedroom topless.
There was a very good article recently on why so many Asian-American men aren’t wed to white women. It traces the history of our emasculation and feminization to the high man-to-woman ratio among Chinese laborers during the 19th century. This was also true of Filipino laborers at the beginning of the 20th century.
Immediately after reading that article yesterday, I saw another “project” by Brooklyn photographers called “Persuasian” that sought to redefine the white standard of male beauty – with black-and-white fashion photos of Asian-American men. The models of that photo series are all lean-bodied and have impeccably angled jaws and cheekbones. A high key light carves their faces and torsos into more sensual contours. The photos and the men are beautiful.
When I saw these pictures, I thought to myself, we also have Asian-American leading men, if I can borrow from cinema, in contemporary poetry. It’s often true, you can find poets leading the arts in the way they challenge preconceptions, conventions, and master narratives. Contemporary Asian-American men have been composing all kinds of eros from and about their bodies for some time.
Li-Young Lee’s Rose has a powerful undercurrent of the erotic. The lyrics of that book are distilled, quiet, even gentle portraits of intimacy about Lee’s parents and his wife. These are lines from his widely read poem “The Gift”: "I bend over my wife’s right hand.//Look how I shave her thumbnail down/so carefully she feels no pain./Watch as I lift the splinter out.“
Rose is a book that I’m extremely grateful for, written in a register of calm that I can’t achieve easily in my own poetry. I’m grateful to Lee and other poets that came before me who even acknowledged that we could be erotic bodies in America. While Lee’s poems are gorgeous and meditative, something was missing for me. My sexual life has been fiery, playful, scary, loving, clumsy, hilarious, transformative, absurd. When I started to write, I hadn’t read anything that showed me an Asian body could be al those things.
Partly the mandates of the Catholic Church (my father, a devout Catholic, theologian, and ex-priest) and partly the absolutely ludicrous portraiture of Asian men erased all that richness and complexity from the American imagination. In response, I often felt ashamed of my own very lively, very erotic imagination. How could I have such profound feelings of desire, such sophisticated experiences of my own body and a woman’s body in private and be such a eunuch in public ?
I started to write these poems down – just as a way to record my sensual life. I think it’s probably really hard to understand the full political force of a song form like the kundiman if you can’t imagine some complexity about Asian love and Asian eros in a white-centered American culture — a white-centered world culture, in fact. I now have many poems about love and sex. They aren’t perfect poems. But they are written about my goddamned body, from my goddamned body. They are refutations of the stupid public mythology that I am (and other Asian-American men are) exotic or asexual. I have a body that dances hard and fights good and sings bad and knows his lover’s body in the middle of the night. I have a body that touches and is touched. This body is not nearly perfect.
It is no small assertion that my greatest literary encouragement in writing an erotic self has been from queer writers.
Audre Lorde is writing from a black queer feminist perspective in her seminal essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”. And it has helped me mine my “capacity for joy” as much as it has made me aware of the varieties of bodies that can experience so many kinds of pleasure. Because my specific body has been erased from history, according to Lorde, a latent power resides in its very muscle and probably in the language that brings the shamed physical body into the public imagination. Others: my dear teachers, Joan Larkin and Suzanne Gardinier, as well as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich.
I also think about David Mura, Jessica Hagedorn, Lawson Inada, Luis Francia, Eric Gamalinda, and others of that generation who have been instrumental in writing Asian-American eros — the physical and metaphysical. And I want to make special note of a few of my many contemporaries who have done the same, Regie Cabico (“Your fucking is foreshadowing/Your sighs are the climax”), Joseph Legaspi (“I wanted my penis/to be like my father’s”) and Justin Chin (“I could conjugate fuck like nobody’s business”), who have been incredibly important to me in the composition and discovery of an erotic self. They are leading Asian-American men. And they are queer. And Yeun and Cho couldn’t be what they are unless Regie, Joseph, and Justin did their thing first. I say Amen to all of them.
I wonder what the mechanisms are that choose Asian-American leading men. I also wonder what leading men lead us toward anyway— besides the plot of the TV show or feature film. When I look at the fashion photos of the men in “Persuasian”, I wonder when my grandparents’ descendants will be considered beautiful too.
Long before there were hot Asian male models, long before there were leading Asian men in film, there were writers and poets – who had and have bodies. Those who have lead me (and the rest of our country) to its hidden self haven’t always been that model kind of beautiful. And they haven’t always been men. But they had bodies they wrote about. They brought me to a place where I could pay attention to an absolutely terrifying and gorgeous inner life, where I could look and love and praise this softening body, this aging body, this wide-as-fuck nose, these fat lips, this dark skin, the history of my face.