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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong Session Author and Literary Works: Russell Leong

Russell Leong

Author Bio

Russell Charles Leong was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. After studying at the Kearny Street Workshop for writers and National Taiwan University, he earned an M.F.A in film at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently the editor of the Amerasia Journal and the head of the Asian American Studies Center Press at UCLA, where he also teaches Asian American studies. His rich cultural background, along with a strong visual sensibility, informs Leong’s complex poetry.

Leong’s work often focuses on cultural exile, or “diaspora.” His poems describe the bifurcated consciousness of the individual who exists between two worlds. In “Threads,” for example, Leong imagines himself as an unformed, yet somehow indivisible, entity: “It is with me / And yet / There is nothing I can say … That will make it work.” Leong does not specifically say what this vestigial “it” is, or why “it” sticks to him so irritatingly. But he does go on to metaphorically describe this “it” as undigested but necessary food: “It is with me … A fruit ripening on a tree … a fat insect caught on threads.” In this way, Leong’s poetry both bemoans and celebrates the half-split consciousness of diasporic identity; it is uncomfortable to experience oneself as a dual entity, he seems to suggest, but it is also exciting and filled with potential.

Leong’s work speaks in general about diaspora, but it also speaks specifically to the Chinese American and larger Asian experience. As he demonstrates to Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens’ class, studying Chinese American culture often brings students into contact with various Asian cultures: Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian — or “Chino,” as Leong refers to them collectively. In this way, Leong investigates the relationship between different types of Asian American identity.

Leong has published both scholarship and poetry, including Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. His work has been anthologized in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Charlie Chan is Dead, The Open Boat, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, ZYZZYVA, The New England Review, and The United States of Poetry. Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories, Leong’s collection of short fiction, was honored with the 2001 American Book Award. The Country of Dreams and Dust was awarded the PEN Josephine Miles Literature Award in 1993.

Synopsis of "Aerogrammes" by Russell Leong

The poem “Aerogrammes,” from Russell Leong’s collection The Country of Dreams and Dust, offers a meditation on the author’s cultural heritage. It describes the correspondence that a man receives from his relatives following his first trip to visit them in China.

The poem is divided into an introduction and a series of communications between the speaker and his relatives. In the initial aerogramme, the speaker’s relatives welcome him as a member of their family. But as the correspondence continues, the family begins to add requests to their long-distance embraces. “We would like to open a / dry goods shop. / But we lack capital. / Send as much as you can spare.” The flat, end-stopped lines seem to reflect the unromantic nature of the proposal, along with the speaker’s discomfort with the new relationship. As the aerogrammes continue, the family’s pleas for money become more pointed: “Please send five thousand dollars U. S. / Tomorrow.” Or: “Auntie met a young lass, / still single / and supple as a willow. / It’s time to start a family, / Agreed?”

The speaker of Leong’s poem gradually comes to terms with this uncomfortable introduction to family life. He sends what he can, but accepts that he cannot be what his family wishes him to be. “I wrote off filial piety / as useless, / a fallen branch,” he says. And yet, he recognizes that the connections with his ancestry are more complex, and more long-lasting, than he can quite explain: “I await the arrival / of the next / immutable / aerogramme.”

Throughout the poem, Leong uses metaphors of pursuit to explain the emotional ties he feels to the heritage. For example, the ideograms of his relatives’ letters are “crabs scuttling after my past.” Throughout, Leong describes his longing for his past as a kind of stalking; he speaks as if he is being tracked down physically by it. He feels connected to his overseas family, but it is an uncomfortable connection, wrought with problems of identification, empathy, and guilt.

Audio Clip with Russell Leong

Aerogramme 1: Los Angeles
I confess
I did not open the first letter
for a week. Not that I feared
using a dictionary,
but the eight-legged ideograms
were like crabs
scuttling after my past.
“Your cousins and nephews
were happy to scatter wine
with you over the ancestral hillside….”
the letter began.
(I see them hack away
the green thicket
clearing a path to bring gravestone
markers to light. They hadn’t
climbed here in months, or more.)
Later, between spats
at tin spittoons,
they splatter me with questions.
“How old are you?
Are you married?
How many sons did your father have?”

Audio Clip with Beverly Ann Chin

Russell Leong, through his literature — his poetry, his essays, his short stories — as well as through his own activism as a social, political being, shakes people up. He wants us to not be complacent about our own identities. He refuses to be stereotyped. He wants to be seen as an individual and to celebrate people as individuals. And much of his poetry is informed by his political beliefs, his social beliefs, his views on gender, and his religion, Buddhism.

Q & A with Beverly Ann Chin

How would you characterize Russell Leongs work?
Much of Russell Leong’s poetry deals with migrations: looking to the past, traveling in Asia, juxtaposing Asia with California and the United States. In his poetry, Russell looks for being centered, finding out who he is and, therefore, who we are, in terms of the complexity of the American and Chinese American experience. In Russell’s work, we have the opportunity to see through his eyes what it means to be a Chinese American male in contemporary society and all the complexities facing an individual.

What is the poem “Aerogrammes” about?
“Aerogrammes” is a fascinating poem because so many individuals want to return to their homeland. In this case, Russell Leong is a Chinese American who returns to China, looking for the relatives of his father and his father’s family. The dilemma he faces is when his past crosses the Pacific Ocean to reach him [after] he returns to California, and asks him to invest, actually, in the present and the future of China. Russell has to deliberate, make decisions, and decide who he is now. Is he going to go to the past? Or is he going to claim his Chinese heritage, claim and celebrate his Chinese Americanness, but also live in the present in California, in the United States, and then move on to his own future?

How is the poem structured?
The poem “Aerogrammes” is based on Russell Leong’s trip to Sun Wei County in southern China. He returned to China to find his ancestor’s grave, to visit, to pay respects, to discover who his relatives are and therefore his past. The poem is structured around five airmail letters that Russell receives from his relatives in China upon his return to America. In Aerogramme 1, the relatives ask him for money so that they can invest in a dry goods store. In Aerogramme 2, the relatives ask Russell for money so that they can invest in a government condominium. In Aerogramme 3, his aunt suggests that he be reintroduced to a young village lass and that he might be interested in marrying her. Aerogramme 5 is actually from the young girl herself, offering herself in marriage to Russell.

Information About Key References

Tai Chi
Derived from Chinese characters meaning “supreme force,” Tai Chi is a martial art that combines meditation with graceful postures. The practice is said to increase the flow of chi, or life-force, through the body. In Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens’ class, Tai Chi is taught by a Filipino master

Los Angeles Chinatown
Chinatown as a neighborhood began in the 1850s, when Chinese people began to settle in a little stretch along Calle de Los Negros. In 1938, California’s governor dedicated a central plaza to Los Angeles’ Chinatown, ensuring that the neighborhood would become a historic district.

Ishmael Reed calls Leong’s poetry a breakthrough in the poetry of diaspora. Diaspora is a concept that originally referred to the continuing cultural and religious connections among Jewish people despite the common experience of exile. It has since come to be applied broadly to the exilic condition of a range of racial and ethnic groups.

Vincent Chin
Vincent Chin was a Chinese American man who was fatally beaten with baseball bats in 1982 by white auto workers in Detroit. His case united Asian Americans politically throughout the United States.

Canton, Guangdong Province is a region in southern China from which many Chinese emigrated to the Americas, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Meng Chen
This Chinese Buddhist term refers to the dreams and “dust” of the material world.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to "Aerogrammes" by Russell Leong

Russell Leong’s poetry is very visual. As a reader-response strategy, teachers can take advantage of the imagery and have students pause to consider what additional images come to their mind as they read. They can describe the images on paper or orally, and then work to decipher the personal or familial origin of their responses.

The poetry is also filled with many specific historic and geographic references. Teachers can allow students to sort through and pick from the events and names and do short inquiries to find whatever they can on the topic in a day or two. When they report back to class on their findings, they should talk about the process as well as the content they gathered. As students report, the teacher should tally the findings to note each contribution to the class’ understanding of the poem based on the mini-inquiries.

Finally, Leong’s poetry can be adapted or dramatized, and performed for other students, noting the challenges of diaspora. This critical strategy takes students beyond the aesthetics and simple facts of the poetry and into an exploration of the personal, political, and cultural results of the events that shape contemporary life.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Leong, Russell. The Country of Dreams and Dust. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1993.
In this collection of poems, Leong offers his perspective on the Chinese and Chinese American experience.

—-. Phoenix Eyes: And Other Stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.
This award-winning collection of short stories covers a wide range of issues and emotions.

—- and Edward T. Chang. Los Angeles: Struggles Toward Multiethnic Community. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
This book presents Latino, Asian American, and African American perspectives on the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992.

—- (ed). Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. New York: Routledge, 1995.
This collection of essays, interviews, and creative writing reveals the politics of homosexuality in the Asian American experience.

—- (ed). Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Asian American Studies Center, 1992.
This critical anthology focuses on Asian and Asian American film, video, and radio work.

— and Don T. Nakanishi (eds). Asian Americans on War and Peace. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Asian American Studies Center, 2002.
A collection of writings by Asian American authors, including work by Vijay Prashad, Amitava Kumar, Frank Chin, and Mari J. Matsuda.

—- (foreword). On a Bed of Rice, edited by Geraldine Kudaka. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
These stories and images present views on Asian and Asian American eroticism and love.

—-Why Is Preparing Fish A Political Act? A Portrait of Janice Mirikitani by Russell Leong
This video profiles Janice Mirikitani, a sansei (third generation Japanese American) poet/writer/activist who lives and works in San Francisco, California. Spanning three generations of women, from grandmother to daughter, the program gives the viewer a glimpse of Mirikitani’s life and work – the influences which transform her personal history and political commitment into strikingly original poetry. Length: 17 minutes.

Works about the Author

Cheung, King-Kok (ed). An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1997.
This collection provides an introduction to writing by American authors of various Asian ethnic backgrounds

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


Produced by Thirteen/WNET. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-676-6