Compare the conflicting perspectives in "Can’t Tell," a poem by Nellie Wong, and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Gutterson.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most significant aspects of conflicting perspectives between both Wong's work and Gutterson's novel is the location of narrative.  Both works converge in speaking out against prejudice and discrimination.   Yet, how this is demonstrated is fundamentally different.  In Gutterson's work, intolerance is viewed from the perspective of the cultural majority.  Through Ishmael's perspective as well as the intolerance of the prosecuting authorities, the pain of discrimination is evident from the cultural majority.  The language that Gutterson uses reflects the silencing of voice in light of those who are perpetuating the disrespect:

Kabuo sat in his prison cell now and examined his reflection carefully. It was not a thing he had control over. His face had been molded by his experiences as a soldier, and he appeared to the world seized up inside precisely because this was how he felt. . . What could he say to people on San Piedro to explain the coldness he projected?

The "appearance" to the world as well as Kabuo seeking to figure out how to "explain the coldness he projected." He is imprisoned and yet his focus is the need to articulate the reality of his condition to those who have perpetrated it. This is where the pain of racism is seen, in terms of how it can be articulated to those who are perpetuating the suffering of others.

Wong inverts this narrative in her poem "Can't Tell."  The articulation of suffering is told from the intended target's point of view.  This can be seen in several points in the poem.  Lines such as " we glued our ears, widened our eyes,/ Our bodies shivered" is one example of this.  Wong does not seem to be concerned with how the outsider view of the silencing of voice.  Rather, Wong is driven to depict how this reality is endured by its targets.  This is continued in the poem through the use of personalized pronouns. "Us" and "We" form the point of emphasis in the poem.  The outsiders are not those who suffer the indignities of racism, but rather those who perpetuate such suffering.  This is one distinctly different aspect of Wong's approach to Gutterson.  In Gutterson's novel, the exploration of racism is seen from the point of view of the group of people who are demonstrating prejudice to the Japanese.  Wong is more concerned with the effects of this reality.  In her exploration, the focus is on those whose voice is silenced through prejudice and exclusion.  This constitutes a difference between both works.

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