When “Reunions with a Ghost” was published in 1991, the American literary, social, and political landscape was marked by the need to express the ethnic diversity of the nation. Each ethnic group, whether African American, Asian American, or any other people of color, sought to affirm their own identity, in distinction from the dominant white culture that has tended to marginalize all voices other than its own. Feminists and gays also played a part in this explosion of diversity and multiculturalism, whether based on ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. This movement began in the 1960s and has gathered force in each succeeding decade.
Ai, who is half-Asian, part African American, and part Native American, as well as possessing some European blood, has been in a unique position to express the multicultural experience, to say what it is like to be a person of mixed race in contemporary America. Literary scholars and theorists refer to this as the attempt to create a discourse that empowers oppressed peoples. However, it is not a role that Ai has embraced. She says that she does not write as a black person or as a member of any other minority. Some black and feminist writers have criticized her for this, but she insists that she does not want her work to be catalogued in this way. She prefers to create poems that are universal in their meanings.
Changing Roles in Relationships
There is no racial element in “Reunions with a Ghost,” since the ethnicity of the two people is not stated. But the poem does reflect difficulties in intimate relationships between men and women that were particularly apparent in 1990s America, and which continue to the present day. A frequently quoted statistic indicates that half of all recent marriages in the United States are likely to end in divorce, and in the 1990s, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the world. The divorce statistics are related to wider social changes that have been going on since the 1960s. During that time, the number of women in the workforce increased dramatically, and this played a large part in breaking down traditional ideas about the roles of men and women in marriage. In the 1950s family, the role of the husband was to earn money to keep the family, whereas the wife looked after the home and raised the children. But a survey in 1994 showed that less than one person in four agreed that these were still the appropriate roles for men and women. In the absence of generally agreed upon roles for the sexes in close relationships, many couples found that they had to negotiate their own way to a successful partnership. The negotiation might have to cover everything from who pays for the dinner date to whose career is given priority and who does the majority of the housework and childcare. Although this has led to many new ideas about how to create successful partnerships that are in keeping with the temper of the times, it has also led to much unhappiness and failure.
The difficulties in relationships between men and women, and the need for new understanding, were reflected in popular culture. In the early 1990s, there were a number of best-selling books that sought to educate people about the differences between the way men and women think, feel, and behave. These included You Just Don’t Understand (1991), by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, which explained the difference in conversational styles adopted by men and women and how failure to recognize the differences leads to miscommunication. Another popular book was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), by John Gray, which argued that couples must acknowledge and accept the differences between men and women before they can develop happier relationships.
The poem is in the form of one long, unrhymed verse paragraph, and the diction (the words and phrases used) is largely the language of common speech. Most of it is literal description, although there is also some figurative language,...
(The entire section is 1,227 words.)