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Several contemporary writers challenge neatly drawn, "naturalized" cultural categories by ernphasizing their own mixed ancestry and the multiplicity of their identifications. . . .

The poet Ai refuses to reduce her identifications to a single ethnicity and thereby calls cultural boundaries into question. Disturbance of boundaries--though by no means only ethnic boundaries--also characterizes Ai's poetic practice and makes of that practice a powerful cultural critique.

Although reviewers occasionally refer to Ai as a black poet, she does not consider herself to be a black writer. As she pointed out in a 1988 interview, her poetry does not deal primarily with black life and experience. While she characterizes herself as "Japanese and black, or black and Japanese," in this interview she also mentioned Irish, Choctaw, and German forebears and a sense of affinity with the Hopi, Navajo, and Pima people of the American Southwest, where she grew up. Though Ai denies none of these as influences, she calls each of them into question as the category that furnishes her a stable and essential identity. If one cannot escape cultural definition, she implies, one can at least use the very multiplicity of one's identifications to destabilize culture's categories of definition.

Ai's poems have the indirect effect of calling cultural definitions of all kinds into question. A dramatic monologuist, she invents voices for those whose entrapment in their cultural definition is most apparent. The speakers of her poems include the obscure and despised who are usually presumed to have no voice at all and those public figures who have become sheer icon, whose cultural meaning subsumes anything they can be imagined saying. In the crucible of her work, their unbearable identities seem always at the point of being shattered and remade, or simply shattered. The poems' speakers by no means transcend cultural definition, but they speak in such a way as to profoundly unsettle the very positions from which they speak.

The poems achieve these effects by a variety of devices. As Bulgarian literary theorist Julia Kristeva argues, ambiguous image--images that obscure or transgress boundaries--tend to disturb the sense of settled identity. The speakers of Ai's poems often describe themselves breaking the body's boundary through violence, by transgressing laws and gender roles, or by crossing from the world of the ordinary into surreal, dreamlike experiences. The poems contain horrifying and unsettling images of the bodily remnants and effluvia that disturb because they seem neither human nor inhuman, as well as characters who disturb by their ambiguity, seeming both innocent and evil. The reader is both deeply engaged and deeply unsettled by the poems' speakers; none of the positions constructed by the poems invites comfortable identification. Thus, the poems have the effect of destabilizing the reader's position as well as the positions of their own speakers. By means of these destabilizations, Ai's work performs a radical critique of the identities constructed by contemporary culture.


From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.