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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
Writing Truth, Three Generations  -  Context of Adventure in Chinatown
By Ronald Spatz « Prev   Page 3 of 4   Next »

Paul Silook's Family
"Adventure in Chinatown 1958," by Susie Silook, is set within the context of a U.S. government relocation program in the 1950s, a program whose goal was assimilation--to mainstream Native Americans and to eliminate their "special status" by "helping" them fit seamlessly into American society.

In this case, the Silook family, a Yupik family from "Bush" Alaska, was encouraged to move to Chicago. They were invited to give up their subsistence life style -- a harsh and demanding existence -- in order to take their place in a great American city. The government promised a good, new life. Here was the chance to trade in the past and its old traditional ways for the convenience and opportunity of living in the modern world. So, Mr. Silook decided to accept the relocation offer over his wife’s objections, and when they arrived in Chicago, the family was placed in Chinatown, where, because of their Asian appearance, it was thought that they would "blend" right in.

One is immediately struck by the power and authenticity of Silook’s voice. Her vivid and yet unadorned language is the perfect complement to the narrative of the poem. The use of irony and humor-- what Grace Paley calls "another kind of light" -- illuminates the racism and cultural genocide inherent in the government’s relocation program but avoids the trap of a didactic, angry tone. This stylistic restraint is key to the poem’s success.

"A good poem," Jane Hirshfield says, does a number things. A good poem "offers always some entrance into and reminder of the fact that genuine experience is unexpected." A good poem also "shocks us awake." "Adventure In Chinatown 1958" does it all. Silook uses the content of the situation to convey what it is to be "Other" in our society. What could be more resonant than to imagine -- to experience -- being displaced from your home and your culture, displaced from your identity? The Silook family was relocated but other words come to mind--hidden and disguised. They were sent to a place where they looked like their new neighbors but did not share their neighbor’s language, culture or their values. So close and yet so far--the situation equivalent to dying of cultural thirst: "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." Silook affords us the opportunity to experience what it means to be an "impossible immigrant" and we are as "wide eyed" as her lost Yupik sister in Chinatown. We have entered this no-man’s land and we are astonished and we are now awake.

The stakes are high in "Adventure In Chinatown 1958." The Silook family fights to stay sane, to hold onto their identity. Their fight is against the full weight of modern American society, a weight so overwhelming that even years later Mr. Silook can only say, "Chicago is too big to remember." Susie Silook has written a poem of consequence. It bears witness to the survival of "persistent Native identity" and ultimately embodies the triumph of the human spirit.

Photo of Paul, Margaret, Henry and Estelle Silook in Gambell, Alaska, is from the Dorothea Leighton Photo Collection, Alaska & Polar Regions Department, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Next page:   Paul Silook's Letter to Henry B. Collins Pages:  1  2  3  4 


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