Book Reviews, Non-fiction, Short Stories

Transgressive poetry in Yuri Kageyama’s the New and Selected Yuri (2011)

Why hadn’t I heard of Yuri Kageyama before? She’s been quietly publishing poetry, essays, and short stories for over 30 years. Her style ranges between transgressive and journalistic, channeling similar frustrations as writers like Kathy Acker, but with a style devoid of flourish or absurdity. She’s published in journals and magazines, and had her one and only poetry collection, Peeling, published by her close friend and fellow author, Ishmael Reed, in 1988. The New and Selected Yuri, published in 2011, contains 41 short works of poetry and prose dating from 1978 to 2011. It contains short stories, essays, anecdotes, conversations, cultural explanations, and a wealth of poems.

Keeping with her 25-plus years of experience in journalism, her vision and messages are concentrated: She’s primarily chronicling the injustices of both the East and the West against women and minorities; how those injustices are fostered between individuals who otherwise should know better, but instead feed into biases and persecutions without understanding why or how. Her relationship with her father is defined by such a contrast — his high education and contributions towards NASA’s space program, and the physical abuse of his child — and seems to inspire much of the cognitive dissonance she explores:

when I got older and got the nerve
I asked him why he had done that
what was he thinking?
I wanted to know
and he said he didn’t know
he helped us get to the moon but
the rocket scientist didn’t know
he couldn’t remember why he hit me at all
Loc. 405, from “rocket scientist”

Yuri’s writing shouldn’t be this obscure. In her journalism and in her personal writing, she seeks out the unspoken stories of minorities or the disadvantaged* — and where do you go from there? These are the stories most in need of being heard, and her crisp-but-provocative writing provides a vehicle both uncomfortable and enjoyable.

Yuri Kageyama performing with percussionist Winchester Nii Tete.

Asian women have narrow roles to fulfill in both America and Japan. Americans need her and other Asian-American women to meet gross stereotypes (be grateful that white men might like you; accept their sexual invitations as gifts; your poetry and anger is an erotic invitation; you’re an unthinking target; feel honored to be desired). ‘Asian American Art Story’ — possibly nonfiction(?) — and ‘the Story of Miu‘ — definitely nonfiction — are favorites here. The narrator of the former is forcibly excised from her own cultural group for being a woman with strong opinions and aspirations; the latter is Yuri’s exchanges with a young woman named Miu who was then oppressed by young men pushing their sexual expectations on her.

It’s not always about sex, though: A culture’s religion can be just as oppressive, however loving the message. ‘The  Nunnery’ is a story of two young Japanese girls attending a Christian school. Even the inviting religion ostracizes them based simply on physical traits — once a year, a graduating student is chosen to represent the Virgin Mary based on their academic performance, but the two leads are automatically disqualified because of their black hair and Asian features. If they’re disqualified from getting rewarded, why bother giving schoolwork their full attention? It just feeds a garbage cycle of oppression and bias. It’s gross.

Japan’s no different, currently confused by a cultural crisis as women seek educations and work in a society that suggests they keep quiet behind their Noh masks, as seen in ‘the Suicide’:

“[Women] don’t think, and, if we did, maybe I’d [kill myself], too. Or, at least, go away, some place far, by myself, and try to find a better way out. Yet then,” she smiled faintly, “there may be none. It’s like staring deeply into the fire. After a while, one feels one is inside the fire, an one wants to jump in and burn until nothing is left.” She paused. “I wake up at night, sometimes, and I get filled with the passion of wanting to die. Everything is so unbearable. Except dying _”
“Didn’t you hear? I told you to stop.”
Loc. 920, from ‘the Suicide’

She stops. And, Noh mask back on, returns to being a quiet and unfeeling thing.

‘Ikiru,’ her story of family loss and aging, was particularly difficult. Yuri’s relationship with her mom was nearly as deleterious as her relationship with her dad, and the turmoil she feels on seeing her mom waste away from pancreatic cancer is painfully accurate. Particularly of not being able to say what you’d like to say before it’s too late, and the guilt that comes after. You have all that time of watching someone whither away, and yet communication is still broken and miserable. There’s no reconciliation.

Yuri Kageyama, image by Annette Borromeo Dorfman.

Admittedly, much of Yuri’s poetry went over my head, or I just feel inadequate rationalizing how to judge its free-verse structure. Poems like ‘rocket scientist,’ ‘Little YELLOW Slut,’ and ‘an ode to the Caucasian male’ were just as angry and clear as her best stories and essays, but many of the others lead my eyes to glaze over, lost from the writer’s thought processes. It’s clear much of her work is best heard — spoken-word poetry — and the introductions to the collection suggest as much. The worst stories and essays suffer the same: Rough editing (or the stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry in some parts) sometimes left me behind.

The New and Selected Yuri is a necessary collection of stories and poetry, but is hurt by the sometimes-clunky formatting. Given the rhythm of the poetry, too, I wish I could see Yuri perform them (as she does here!). Still, Yuri’s stories and poems cover the unspoken stories and perspectives of the Asian-American and Japanese women — something absent from and required in our cultures’ narratives — with style. Maybe not so much class, but the misogyny and racism she fights against is so bafflingly stupid and patronizing, who’s to say it deserves it?


The New and Selected Yuri is available from Amazon. Yuri Kageyama can also be followed on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and her official site.

* E.g., see her 2015 play, News from Fukushima: Meditations on an Under-Reported Catastrophe by a Poetwhich combines theater, poetry, and journalism to tell the ignored stories behind the Fukushima disaster.

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