American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ASIAN AMERICAN LITERATURE. A theme common to Asian American literature is immigration and migration. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, edited by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung (1980), documents the plight of would-be immigrants detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. While they awaited decisions about their entry into America or deportation back to China, many of the male inmates carved and ink-brushed more than 135 poems onto their barracks walls. Some described the seasickness they suffered in overcrowded steerage during their voyage. Others lamented their imprisonment while government bureaucracy prevented their passage to the mainland, their sense of isolation exacerbated by the encircling waters of the bay.

Midway through the novel Jasmine (1989), author Bharati Mukherjee recounts the measures taken by refugees desperate to get to North America as the title character describes her odyssey, first in tiered bunks on a trawler out of Europe, then on a Caribbean* shrimper, hiding for days under a tarp on deck. Similarly, Mei Oi, the female protagonist in Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), undergoes a sea change from innocent young schoolgirl to vamp during her Pacific Ocean crossing. Vinh Liem’s poem “Ko Kra” in War and Exile (1989) recalls one of the worst atrocities of the exodus of the so-called boat people from Vietnam, the rape of hundreds of women and female children and the subsequent mass murders on a remote Thai island in 1980. David Mura’s poem “Huy Nguyen: Brothers, Drowning Cries” in After We Lost Our Way (1989) gives wider voice to a Vietnamese student who, assigned a comparison-contrast paper, has written of his experience as a refugee on the South China Sea.

Canadian* Joy Kogawa in Obasan (1981) recalls the sufferings of the Japanese immigrants who settled on the coast of Vancouver. Her immigrant grandfather had prospered as a boatbuilder and salmon fisherman. But in 1941, in an extensive confiscation of Japanese boats by the Canadian government, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) seized a beautiful fishing vessel designed by her father. Soon afterward, her uncle and neighboring Japanese fishermen were forcefully relocated inland, eventually to Alberta. That same year, Kogawa and her family watched as a boat carried her mother away. They never saw her again. A recurrent image contrasts the prairie of their exile with the sea of their longing.

Two poems in War and Exile carry similar themes. “Tonight I Go Out to the Sea” by Cao Tan reprises the experience of an exile dangling his feet in the Pacific Ocean in California as he dreams of returning to Vietnam. “When I Die, Take My Body to the Sea” by Du Tu Le reveals a similar motif, the realization that the ocean separating Vietnam and the United States in life joins them in death. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Summits Move with the Tide: Poems and a Play (1982) contains several poems concerned with the sea, as well as a play, One, Two Cups, in which the sea itself is a character.

In his memoir Running in the Family (1982), Toronto author Michael Ondaatje chronicles his late 1970s return to Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, where he exults in the fishing vessels and luxury liners as he rides on a tug with his brother, a harbor pilot. Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion (1987) is set in 1920s Toronto, where workers dig forty feet under Lake Ontario, building a tunnel to collect lake water as recreational boats ply the surface.

With the literature of Hawai’i, a distinction is generally made between Hawaiian writing, which properly denotes works in the Hawaiian language, and what is called “local.” As might be expected in an island society, Hawaiian writing is deeply imbued with sea images and references, particularly in traditional works like the hula songs. Many of these may be found in Na Mele o Hawai'i Nei: 101 Hawaiian Songs (1970), collected by Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe. Most notable is the plaintive “Aloha ’Oe,” composed in 1877 by then-Princess Lili’u-o-ka-lani. In the days of the steamers, passenger ships were serenaded with this song, which speaks of “fragrance in the blue depths.” “Local” literature, largely written in English, deals extensively with the sea. Julie S. Kono’s poem “Surfer” in Hilo Rains (1988) contrasts the experience and values of a seventeen-year-old absorbed in the sport of surfing with his great-grandfather from Japan, who at the same age had “crossed the same ocean that mesmerizes” the grandson.

In his poetry collection The River of Heaven (1988) and in Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i (1995), Garrett Kaoru Hongo writes largely of the inland town of Volcano, his birthplace; in “The Pier” (1988) and several poems in Yellow Light (1982) his perspective is a California beach. “The Pier” is a meditation upon his father’s death that locates the transpacific voyage as the origin of the Japanese experience in Hawai’i. Numerous poems focusing on boats, the sea, and the seashore may be found in the anthology edited by Eric Chock and Darrell H. Y. Lim, The Best of Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaiian Writers' Quarterly (1986).

In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), one of the four daughters, Rose Hsu Jordan, recalls a family outing at the beach that culminates in the drowning of a four-year-old brother. Eric Chock’s “Poem for George Helm: Aloha Week 1980” in Last Days Here (1990) memorializes a friend who drowned in “that vast ocean from which we all come.”

The Filipino immigrant author N. V. M. Gonzalez focuses several short stories on seafarers, fisherfolk, and shipboard travelers in the Philippines, in and around the island of Mindoro. In “Far Horizons” (Seven Hills Away [1947]), a seafarer sails home to bring news of his brother’s death at sea. “The Old Priest,” also in Seven Hills Away, contrasts an aging priest who delights in sailing to villages along the seacoast with a visiting young priest who fears sailing and the sea. Several stories written much earlier and collected in The Bread of Salt and Other Stories (1993) highlight themes of migration, inter-island travel, fishing, and the perils of the sea. In “A Warm Hand” the passengers of the Ligaya (happiness) must go ashore to seek refuge in a fisherman’s hut during a violent storm. A pregnant woman wandering on the beach in “The Morning Star” finds a boat; later, in a nearby hut, a sailor and an old man deliver her baby. “The Sea Beyond” features a dying stevedore who has fallen off the reconverted minesweeper Adela. “On the Ferry” takes a group of people on a rough crossing of the straits that separate Mindoro from the principal island of Luzon. “Crossing Over” describes a young Filipino student’s freighter trip and arrival in Oakland, California.

FURTHER READING: Cheung, King-Kok, ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997; Lim, Shirley Geoklin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992; see also the extensive annual bibliographies in Amerasia Journal, published by the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

Roger J. Jiang Bresnahan and Sally C. Hoople