The Fine Line Between Satire and Insensitivity

Calvin Trilling

Is it funny or is it offensive? With comedy I often stop to question whether or not what I am hearing is objectionable, though it is being said in the name of satire. The outrageous quality of comedy is what makes it so funny, and yet there is a fine line on which the comedian must tread carefully. If the two sides one must walk between are agreeable and distasteful, Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” lands heavily upon distasteful. While many have gone back and forth over the meanings and intentions of Trillin’s poem, the use of rhetorical questions within “Provinces” creates an imperious tone that, regardless of satirical value, must be seen as offensive.

In her article “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire,” Katy Waldman critique’s “Provinces,” arguing that Trillin’s poem and the negative feedback it received “place the entire genre of satire on trial” (Waldman 2). We do not know Trillin’s intentions, Waldman argues, and so we cannot say for certain that the poem is not a work of comedy, that the poem is certainly racist. Waldman acknowledges the multiple understandings of Trillin’s work, stating that the poem is well intentioned but culturally unaware; in short, that it is bad satire. Drawing of Man LaughingHowever, far from satirical, the rhetorical questions the narrator poses in “Provinces” are just plain derogatory. Even the title, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” a question which the narrator continues to ask throughout the poem, trivializes Chinese culture, suggesting a lack of value in the many regions of China. The use of rhetorical question gives this line a sarcastic tone, belittling the many aspects of Chinese culture that have made their way to the United States. It seems, almost, to imply that there are too many Chinese provinces, too many aspects of culture to keep track of. This sense of American entitlement, white entitlement, is furthered by Trillin’s use of the word “they.” As Waldman points out in her critique, the use of “they” and “we” essentially “others” those who are Chinese. To ask whether they have run out of provinces yet suggests that these provinces are items that the Chinese supply to the United States and that they are simply there for white enjoyment.

It is true that most satire walks a thin line, yet it is not fair to the art of satire to write off Trillin’s cultural insensitivity as merely a weakness of comedy. To call Trillin’s poem to be a piece of satire-gone-wrong is to excuse the ignorance withinB6

Works Cited

Trillin, Calvin. “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?.” The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.

Waldman, Kate. “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire.” Browbeat, Slate, 12 April 2016.

Erasing the Past: Vietnamese Identity in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”

Multiple images of Vietnam War

The past is often inescapable. Try as one might, there are certain things that simply cannot be erased. In “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Daniel Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen argue that the Vietnam War continues to define Vietnamese Americans in this way. It can be seen through literature, as “most Vietnamese literature continues to be about the war or its consequences” (Kim 67). This is certainly true of both “Aubade with Burning City” and The Gangster We Are All Looking For. These works are a “direct confrontation with the war” (Kim 69), detailing the war and its aftermath on the characters. The stories and authors, therefore, come to be defined by the Vietnam War or its consequences.

In “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” on the other hand, the narrator spends most of the novel trying to distance himself from his past. Using flashbacks, the narrator discusses his hatred for his father, sharing specific examples from childhood to comment on their strained relationship. In doing so he distances himself from his father, simultaneously distancing himself from Vietnam. Kim and Nguyen argue that Nam Le uses this perceived distance in order to “to demonstrate that a Vietnamese author in the United States…does not have to write about Viet Nam” (Kim 67). However, though Le’s story is not explicitly about the Vietnam War, ironically the story is incomplete without it. In one particular scene, the narrator speaks of the time when he “discovered that [his father] had been involved in a massacre” (Le 13). In the three plus pages Le uses to describe this massacre, it is clear that without Vietnam, the story is incomplete. Of course this flashback is used to shed light on the narrator’s childhood and to build the character of the narrator’s father, yet in doing so it is clear that much of the narrator’s relationship with his father and the strain it constantly seems to be under, is a result of the Vietnam War.Father and Son Silhouette

Therefore, though the use of flashbacks can be seen as a tool to create distance between the narrator’s current life and any attachment he has to his Vietnamese ethnicity, flashbacks also function to tie him to this identity. While the narrator works to distance himself from his father for the entirety of the work, in the end, the father’s story still comes to define the son. B4.

Works Cited

Kim, Daniel Y., and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66–72.

Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 3–28.

She Cries, She Cries, She Cries: Repetition and Juxtaposition of Action Verbs in The Namesake 

Homesickness. We all know the feeling. The empty pit in your stomach. The feeling of longing that you just can’t quite put at ease. And then just like that, something familiar comes along and there is a brief sense of relief. In The Namesake, Ashima’s homesickness is almost tangible. However, with the birth of her son, Gogol, there is a short lived relief. Lahiri uses the repetition and juxtaposition of action verbs to show this brief, but positive change.

Figure walking through emptiness.

From her first years in the United States to the birth of her son, all Ashima thinks about is going home. Every day she goes through the same routine, barely moving, barely living. Lahiri’s use of repetition emphasizes the monotony of Ashima’s everyday routine.

“She cries as she feeds him and as she pats him to sleep, and he cries between sleeping and feeding. She cries after the mailman’s visit because there are no letters from Calcutta. She cries when she calls Ashoke at his department and he does not answer” (Lahiri 34).

Not only does the repetition of “cries” make clear how unhappy Ashima is with life in the United States, it also emphasizes how boring and colorless each of her days is. Every activity that Ashima performs takes place within her house and there is no interaction with anyone but the mailman. However, all of this changes once she starts to take agency in her life, due to the birth of her son. In taking care of Gogol, Ashima develops new patterns that make her life much more eventful and the verbs Lahiri uses to describe her actions begin to change too.Mother and child's hands

“She discovers,” “she gives,” “she sings,” “she drinks,” (Lahiri 35).

Just as before, the word “she” is repeated over and over, and yet each time it is accompanied by something new. Though to cry is an action verb, the verbs that accompany “she” here show much more physical movement and, along with that, happiness. In juxtaposition with the words from just a page earlier, it is as though Ashima has finally begun to live her life.


Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2003.

Going with the Flow: Movement and Water in The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The first time I was away from home for an extended period of time was my freshman year of college. The experience was exhilarating but it was also disorienting and scary. I missed my house, my neighborhood, and most of all, my family.person in the middle of nowhere

I would imagine that others experiences are similar to this. This is why I find the attitude of the narrator in The Gangster We Are All Looking For to be so surprising. Though the narrator has moved from Vietnam to the United States, leaving behind her mother and brother, the tone she uses to describe her journey is almost calm. While there is a sense of disorientation, the use of water imagery makes the tone of the narrator seem carefree or perhaps even apathetic within the first two paragraphs.

As the narrator describes the experience of traveling to the United States from Vietnam, as a refugee no less, her tone is almost peaceful. “We floated across the sea” she states, detailing how she and her father, along with four other men, traveled by multiple ships, planes and cars to reach the United States (le thi diem thuy 3). Nothing about the journey sounds easy and yet le thi diem thuy chooses the word float, a word associated with serenity, to describe the narrator’s journey. “Float” undermines the chaos of the fishing boat, Navy ship, plane, and car the narrator takes to reach the United States, making the journey seem easy and relaxing.

This sense of ease occurs again in the first sentence of the book, as the narrator describes how she and her father “washed to shore” (le thi diem thuy 3). The imagery in this phrase is again one that is care free. There is no control in washing to shore, one just goes along with the flow of the water. And yet that lack of control, inherent in both floating and washing ashore, does suggest disorientation. Both seem aimless, movements without a specific direction. In addition, both are movements that are not necessarily human. That is to say, through this word choice the narrator paints herself as an object more than a person. The allusion to an object floating through the water or washing to shore reinforces the idea that the narrator has no control over where she is going. She simply floats along beside her father, going wherever the water might take them. B3.Person surrounded by ocean

Works Cited

le thi diem thuy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

A Mile a Minute: Stream of Consciousness in “No-No Boy”

jumbled text surrounding the word

Sometimes, with so much going on around me, I forget to breathe. It is not human nature to stepback and evaluate our surroundings. Rather, often we overthink and circle round and round in our heads to try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Just as my own thoughts are sometimes messy and jumbled, reading John Okada’s No-No Boy is a chaotic experience. While some parts read like a conventional novel, much of the first three chapters is made up of rambling, interminable paragraphs that lack proper punctuation. These paragraphs, which read like a stream of consciousness, pop up each time Ichiro tries to grapple with his identity; as American, as Japanese, as both or perhaps as neither.

In one particular instance, after visiting with his friend Freddie, a “no-no boy” like himself, Ichiro embarks upon one of these long-winded inner dialogues. After wondering for ten lines how his decision not to serve in the United States military will affect his life, he comes to the conclusion that eventually people will forget that he is a “no-no boy”. “And time would destroy the old Japanese who, living in America and being denied a place as citizens, nevertheless had become inextricably a part of the country which by its vastness and goodness and fairness and plentitude drew them into its fold, or else they would not have understood why it was that their sons, who looked as Japanese as they themselves, were not Japanese at all but Americans of the country America” (Okada 48). Ichiro goes on to decide, in another ten-line mess, that someday there will indeed be a place for him in the United States, only to decide in the next paragraph that the whole matter is hopeless.

Drawing of a figure with much going on in their mind.

The entire debate flowing through Ichiro’s head lasts almost a full page and the paragraph does not break. It is full of run on sentences, and feels incredibly chaotic. This chaos, however, gives the reader the ability to feel Ichiro’s inner turmoil.The number of adjectives he gives to America, the number of times he chooses to say the words America and Japanese, and the lack of breaks within the dialogue, show how fast Ichiro’s brain is working to understand what is happening to him. At the same time, they express his deep-rooted anxiety in his identity or lack thereof.

Access to Ichiro’s thoughts does not just tell the reader what is going on, it also allows them to empathize and gives them a lens through which they can see the narrative of the “no-no boy”. B2.

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

broken identity: Uses of Repetition and the Lowercase in “First Writing Since”

Broken American Flag

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 left behind both physical and emotional destruction. Using forms of repetition, as well as the lowercase, Suheir Hammad is able to share a personal experience of the anxiety and confusion this destruction caused in her poem, “First Writing Since.”

Hammad uses repetition often and with purpose to emphasize certain points within her poem. This is particularly noticeable within the first few stanzas. One of the most eye catching examples is the fifth stanza, where Hammad writes “i do not know how bad a life has to break in order to kill. i have never been so hungry that i willed hunger, i have never been so angry as to want to control a gun over a pen,” (1). Here, Hammad uses repetitive phrases in order to emphasize her feelings of confusion on the recent tragedy. However, while repetition can often work to reinforce, this use makes it seem as though the speaker herself is trying to rationalize and understand what has occurred. In addition, while the use of the word “i” to start each line is eye catching in itself, what makes the repetition even more apparent is the choice to make the word I lowercase. By using “i” instead of “I”, Hammad makes the speaker both physically smaller as well as much weaker.

Identity Crisis Image

Hammad’s repetition creates a sense of assertiveness within her poem and yet her choice to use the lowercase contradicts this. This all works to create to the sense of confusion and anxiety seen throughout the poem. In terms of format, the lines are broken and the stanzas are formatted unconventionally. The choice to make identifying words lowercase simply adds to the lack of conventionality. In fact, the entire poem seems to express the speaker’s confusion over what has just happened, mixed with apprehension for what is to come and a loss or contradiction of identities through it all. As she says, “i have never felt less american and more new yorker” (4). B1.

Works Cited

Hammad, Suheir. “First Writing Since.” In Motion Magazine, 7 Nov. 2001.