Ronault LS “Polo” Catalani is an activist, a lawyer, a writer, and a commentator. He calls himself a “Spanish-speaking Asian Muslim island boy,” an old worlder on a new continent. And if Polo is hard to put in a simple box, so is his new book, Counter Culture.
This collection of essays, he writes, is a “knotted string of a stalled immigrant’s observations and propositions.” They are reflections on immigrant life that begin with scenes at various Portland diners and cafes and bars and chain restaurants but radiate outward and backward to encompass Polo’s Indonesian heritage, trips to Thailand, and memories of a Saigon bakery.
Languages are at the forefront of the story, and Polo introduces us to an “expanding American lexicon”: words and phrases in Indo patois and “Chou Chu market” Chinese, Thai and Tagalog and Spanish and Arabic. And he shows us how even familiar words can be used to describe this land in surprising ways. In Polo’s telling, for example, the Willamette River becomes the “River Willamette” — a simple reversal that seems to create a new waterway of the imagination.
At its heart, Polo’s work explores the construction of personal identities and the sometimes tense places where those identities intersect. But, he writes, it’s not bent on integration:
“It is not assimilative in the tradition of the American civil rights movement. It has instead explored and unapologetically articulated the world of ethno-cultural differences necessary for a new versatile and vibrant national family.”
Do you, like Polo, consider yourself a “stalled immigrant”? What does that phrase mean to you? What do you see as the promise of assimilation — or the perils? If you arrived in this country as an immigrant, or were born here but still consider yourself a member of an immigrant community, how do you navigate these questions of identity?
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OPB | Feb. 22, 2017