“Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”: Trillin Informs His Readers But Waldman Thinks Otherwise

Chinese Provinces

I could not help but smile when reading Calvin Trillin’s food poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” (2016). Perhaps my joy is because of the rhymed couplets, which reminded me of a childish song, that Trillin uses to inform his readers about numerous Chinese provinces as they connect to Asian cuisine. Or greater than this, upon first reading Trillin’s piece, it reminded me of cherished memories with my grandmother. Every weekend I would indulge in sharing “Szechuan” crispy shredded beef with my grandma at our favorite Asian restaurant, “Hunan” Ritz (Trillin 5, 11). Therefore, with these fond memories in mind, I was shocked to read Katy Waldman’s negative reaction to Trillin’s poem in her piece, “Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker Poem Wasn’t Just Offensive. It Was Bad Satire” (2016). Nevertheless, while Trillin’s piece personally evoked nostalgia, I can understand the backlash Waldman brings up and critiques. However, given the speaker’s inquisitive and informative tone, I believe Trillin looked to “delight in the cultural richness left to discover” rather than intentionally spread bigotry towards Asians (Waldman 3).

Trillin’s poem begins with the question, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” (1). Paired with the second line, “If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret” creates a good-natured inquiry (Trillin 2). Trillin advocates for additional Asian cultures to gain respect. The speaker asks this question because it is a bigger problem if additional provinces seize to exist instead of looking at them as an emerging threat. Waldman argues that Trillin’s “interchange[ing]” of “Chinese cuisines” is a main reason for angering readers (Waldman 1). However, Trillin does not interchange these cultures, but rather distinguishes the importance of each. His tone informs readers that “Long ago, there was just Cantonese” (Trillin 3). It was not until “Szechuan came our way” that people questioned the different provinces within Chinese cuisine (Trillin 5). Until then, Chinese cuisine was generalized as only one thing. Trillin is informing readers of the progression of provinces that influenced foods they believe they know all about, but actually may not know the history behind. Waldman states that the “Americanized noodles represented white people’s closest contact with the Asian ‘other’” (1). Thus, Trillin is informing “white people” about the distinct cultures that “noodles” emerged from, creating an understanding instead of “other[ing]” (Waldman 1). While Trillin’s attempt to inform readers may come off as stereotyping, considering “burn[ing] through your tongue” is not the only characteristic of “Szechuanese” food; ultimately, Trillin’s poem “reads like a good-natured poke at the snooty aspirations of wannabee hipsters” (Trillin 8,7; Waldman 3). One may not know about the origins of the food they love, or perhaps they complain about the numerous options when they simply want noodles. Trillin attempts to remedy both categories of customers through information and distinction between cultures many (mis)associate with their favorite chow.

Szechuan Crispy Shredded Beef

Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” is not a perfect poem. Waldman’s commentary reveals the insensitivity many readers felt in Trillin’s work. What one reads as nostalgia can be interpreted as bigotry by another. Nevertheless, whether one reads this poem as “good [or] bad satire,” Trillin reveals a list of different provinces and cultures (Waldman 2). While one reader may take offense by Trillin simply dropping names with little elaboration, he also exposes readers to over five provinces they may never have heard of before. Waldman cites an “eye-rolled Rich Smith at the Stranger;” however, perhaps it is more eye-opening (2). The next time you “slurp dumplings” remember they originate from “Shanghainese” culture (Trillin 10, 9). This is a fact unknown from the generic name of Chinese restaurants, but one revealed by Trillin, making readers potentially think twice about food they casually eat thanks to the information they learned in his poem. B6.

Works Cited

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

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

 

 

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.

Blog Post #2: No-No Brakes

You don’t need a period to end a sentence.

Well, alright, technically you do. But in the reality of the literary world, there are many other devices that can be used to simulate the use of a period without actually using one. For example, D. H. Lawrence’s work “The Elephant Is Slow To Mate” uses numerous line and stanza breaks to force the reader’s eye to slow, similar to the titular elephant’s mating speed.

A Japanese bullet train zooms over a bridge.

 

John Okada’s No-No Boy, on the other hand, reads like a Japanese bullet train.

<— Click on it.

 

But it does so with a purpose. Rather than speeding along to compensate for having nothing interesting to say, Okada establishes this frenzied pace to both help the reader insert themselves into the mind of main character Ichiro Yamada and to characterize him as a neurotic person who exhausts himself for every moment he spends inside his own head.

One of the best examples of this pacing technique in motion (no pun intended) is a section of the novel’s third chapter, where Yamada thinks over his experiences with the American educational system:

“To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going.”

(Okada 49)

Whew. Take a deep breath. Now, I’ve got a few questions for you.

  1. Did you notice the perspective shift?

That’s the most immediate goal of this rapid-acceleration flow of consciousness style:  This quickly-paced design refuses to allow the reader enough time to understand they’re being shoved into Yamada’s mind. The shift occurs during the above quote’s second sentence, where Okada writes, “…he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most” (Okada 49, My Bolding).  But there’s no time to halt and question perspectives, because, by the next sentence, the reader is blitzing through Yamada’s mental stream at the same rate as the character himself.

2. Did you like that long sentence? Do you want to read more of them?

These ‘dips into Yamada’s mind’ happen at multiple points during the novel, and serve to aid in his characterization. Hyper-extended lines like these can be exhausting, so Okada spaces them out to make the read more enjoyable. But there’s a catch: Yamada doesn’t get these breaks from his own mind. He’s in there 24/7, and every time we’re forced to join him, we get a brief reminder of how exhausting his thought process is. By imagining the numerous instances of these worry-rants and regret-rants Yamada pushes upon himself, the character’s harsh reactions to certain actions by other characters become more understandable.

By forcing the reader into Yamada’s mind, Okada places them in a position to understand the emotional exhaustion that often results in aggressive reactions towards those around him. Since Yamada’s struggle is very much internal, this process is nearly invisible to other characters, who see Yamada only as a high-strung individual. This further contributes to a reader’s ability to associate themselves with the character and to understand the disconnect between the reality of his emotions and how they are perceived by the outside world.

Works Cited

Lawrence, D. H. “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 4 Sept. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/elephant-slow-mate.

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

No Words and No Poetry in a Poem Made of Words

I do not remember 9/11. I was two years old when it happened, and I have no memory of the event itself. For me, 9/11 was not an outstanding moment in time, but an event that indirectly shaped my life through the culture of my country.

Hammad reading First Writing Since

In her poem “First Writing Since,” Suheir Hammad creates a series of contradictions between an expectation and reality, drawing from the real world political and social ironies after the 9/11 attacks. Opening the poem by immediately introducing irony to the text, she arises a contrast between the stated narrative and the situation actuality. Hammad’s poem begins “1. there have been no words. / i have not written one word / no poetry in the ashes south of canal street. / no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and dna. / not one word” (Hammad 1). Hammad’s first statement denies the existence of words, but by the sheer nature of the medium, her poem consists entirely of words. In addition to the denial of a presence of words, Hammad also denies the presence of poetry and prose. By indicating the absence of these forms of writing, she surfaces a contrast between the lack of meaningful writing and the presence of her work, a piece of reflection. This dissonance that comes from denying an easily observable fact creates an irony, and therefore establishes a disconnect between presented statements and the truth of the matter.

The effect of acknowledging a contrast between words and reality surfaces throughout the poem. Hammad references a vilification of the Middle East from the public and political authorities, citing the assumptions people make about her due to her race and family. To disrupt those assumptions, however, she constantly questions their validity and consequences, referencing the victims of bombing strikes and the presence of prejudice in America (Hammad 2-3). Hammad’s suggestion of the disconnect between a stated narrative and the realities behind it.

Near the end of the poem, Hammad writes “there is no poetry in this. there are causes and effects. there are / symbols and ideologies. mad conspiracy here, and information we will / never know” (Hammad 4). Again denying the poetry in the subject she has quite literally written a poem about, Hammad brings up a reminder of the implicit contrast between words and the truth behind them, noting the symbols, ideologies, conspiracy, and information that shape these contradictions.

9/11 Memorial Wall. "No day shall erase you from the memory of time -Virgil"

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

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You: The Use of Anaphora in Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since”

“Thank You” in several languages.

       When was the last time you said thank you for something you usually take for granted? As a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Suheir Hammad gives “plenty of thank yous” in her poem, “First Writing Since” (33). Using anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence, Hammad appeals to her reader’s emotions by stating that even in the hardest of times, it is important to be thankful for occurrences that may otherwise be overlooked.

       Through the repetition of “thank you” in the eighth stanza, Hammad encourages her reader to appreciate occurrences in life that may seem mundane or infuriating in the moment, but may actually end up saving one’s life. The use of anaphora emphasizes that there are a number of moments to be thankful for, even in a time as grim as September 11th. For example, Hammad states, “thank you for my lazy procrastinating late ass” (34). Typically traits such as “procrastinating” and being “lazy” and “late” are associated with negative connotations. However, had Hammad’s faults not been factors, she would have been on her “daily train ride into the world trade center” (31-32). Additionally, Hammad appeals to the reader’s emotions by saying, “thank you… rude nyer who stole my cab” (36-37). It is easy to think of an instance in which you have been late and it feels as if the world simply does not want you to make it on time. In any other instance, this is an irritating feeling. Yet, by starting her sentence with “thank you,” Hammad asks her reader to take a step back and recognize the implications of what would have happened had she successfully gotten a “cab going downtown” (37). She concludes this stanza with, “thank you for my legs, my eyes, my life” (38). This final, rather general, statement especially makes her reader recognize aspects taken for granted. Most days, many do not think about their legs, or the impact they have on daily occurrences. This use of anaphora is significant because September 11th made New Yorkers, Arabs, and everyone in-between realize the consequences and impact one day can make on the rest of their lives.

Rapunzel, the princess from Disney’s film Tangled, taking a deep breath.

       Admitting you are wrong and acknowledging the necessity of negative attributes as a key concept to success, and in this case survival, is a hard idea to come to terms with. Using anaphora, not only does Hammad acknowledge her faults, she actually says “thank you” and admits their importance. Recognizing situations that may seem undesirable and putting them in the context of appreciation allows Hammad’s reader to recognize that often small situations can have the biggest impact. It is important to take a deep breath when times get hard, as oftentimes there is a lot worse that could have happened. B1.

 

Works Cited

“Anaphora.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.meriam-webster.com/dictionary/anaphora.

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