After some Asian American writers protested the publication of his latest New Yorker poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?,” humorist Calvin Trillin had to defend his doggerel as just satire of the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie,” not racist verse.
Trillin’s offending poem starts out with a complaint:
“Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)”
The Smithsonian Asian Pacific Center rounded up the indignant responses to Trillin’s poem and expressed their sentiments with the title “Have they run out of ways to insult Asians yet?” The critics charge that the 80-year old Trillin represented another White Writer name-checking foreign Asian places to continue the Western world’s cultural dominance.
Even without knowing Trillin or his previous writings, a fair reader of the poem may find some clues about its intentions very quickly with it’s quirky rhythm and labored rhymes (traditional mode for doggerel verse). For example, rhyming “Mao” and “chow” should alert an observant reader to the writer’s ironic approach that undermines the whine of the poem’s food-obsessed speaker.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
The obvious comical devices within the poem itself suggest a separate persona for the speaker of the poem, apart from the writer of the verse.
A fair criticism of Trillin’s poem and the New Yorker’s publication of it could be made: that it is tone-deaf to current sensitivities to cultural appropriation. A younger and more diverse generation of writers and cultural commentators have been justifiably questioning some long-standing modes of depicting the “Orient” and similar colonial misrepresentations.
However, the critics undermine their calls against injustice when they go beyond questioning the quality of the verse or the editorial judgement of the New Yorker and wade into charges of Trillin’s underlying racism. Doing so without the context of Trillin’s other writing and by conflating other forms of cultural insults to his satirical verse only create misdirected grievances about racism and other forms of injustice.
It is too glib and easy to disparage a writer as merely an old white man with a “nostalgia for a white planet that this poem perpetuates” without checking his substantial reporting on civil rights in the 1960s and food writing that reflect his sincere affection for egalitarian dishes.
And missing Calvin Trillin’s dry sense of humor is an injustice in itself.
- [New Yorker] Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet? by Calvin Trillin
- [Smithsonian Asian Pacific Center] Have they run out of ways to insult Asians yet?
- Have They Run Out of White Tears Yet? “Jenn Reappropriate so wittily points out, the irony itself suggests that our cuisines only exist to be “reprocessed” into “a foodie’s troublesome adversity,” as opposed to, you know, feed the people who call it comfort food? Our cuisines are not culinary tourism.” Read more
- [The Establishment] A Rap Battle With The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin: “But taking down hipsters at the expense of others is crazy. / Your intent might’ve been good, but the execution’s lazy.” Read more
- [New Republic] White Poets Want Chinese Culture Without Chinese People: “Reading Trillin’s poem this way places it in a much longer tradition of American poetry about China, one that uses Chinese objects, Chinese culture, and even Chinese bodies to express white American anxieties and desires.” Read more
- [NPR] For Some Asian-Americans, Calvin Trillin’s Chinese Food Poem Is Unappetizing: “What’s bothersome to a lot of Asian-American readers about it is not the satire; it’s the fact that Chinese things are kind of being used as the punch line or the prop.” Read me
- [Guardian] Calvin Trillin defends his Chinese food poem in the New Yorker: “In his email, Trillin defended his poem, saying: “Some years ago, a similar poem could have been written about food snobs who looked down on red-sauce Italian cooking because they had discovered the cuisine of Tuscany.” Read more
- [Washington Post] Calvin Trillin says his Chinese food poem is satire. Here’s why I believe him: “His attackers, it seems, have drawn two fundamentally wrong conclusions about Trillin in general and this poem in particular. First, they’ve committed a basic reviewer’s sin: They’ve confused the narrator of the poem for the author of the poem.” Read more
- [Huffington Post] Protecting Calvin Trillin: “Trillin doesn’t get something crucial here. What he needs is not someone telling him what a close-minded idiot he is — for he is neither idiot, nor close-minded. He is just 80 years old, a minority group himself. He is someone who needs some assistance in negotiating a world that has clearly moved fast beyond his understanding. “ Read more
- [Kirkus Reviews] DEADLINE POET: Or, My Life As a Doggerelist: “Trillin’s father, a Kansas City restaurateur, devised rhymes for his menus (“Let’s go, warden, I’m ready to fry/My last request was Mrs. Trillin’s pie”), lending young Trillin a rhymer’s background. ” Read me
Photo credit: Menu from a Chinese Restaurant, Courtesy photos-public-domain.com