Asian-American writers talk about generations of activism voice
AAP contributing writer
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 13, 2017) — AWP 2017, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writers’ Program, just brought over 10,000 writers to the U.S. Capital.
Among the many offerings, a recent workshop sponsored by Coffee House Press featured four of its writers who spoke on Asian American writers and activism in what was one of the most substantial workshops at the conference. The Asian American writers brought wisdom built from over four decades of experiences.
Evelina Galang, the session moderator, opened the gathering by stating that Asian American writing will become more critically important, in much the same way that words will take additional weight in this new political climate. However, she also reflected that words have had power before for Asian Americans, when they emerged before being given permission to be expressed.
In a brief overview of the history of Asian American writing at Coffee House Press, Karen Yamashita shared that she was first published in 1990 with “Through the Arc of the Rainforest” and read a passage describing the confusion that people used to feel when trying to identify where an Asian person might come from, looking at their clothes, their mannerisms, listening to their speech, and finally getting unexpected responses when asking the question directly. Her writing recalled the complexity of the Asian American space, which is extremely diverse, on top of the Asian diaspora often being far more convoluted through indirect and multiple migrations before arriving in the U.S.
Vi Khi Nao is the newest member of the group, with her first novel, Fish in Exile, published by Coffee House Press just last fall, although she has received many awards previously and has other works with other publishers. Vi Khi chose a passage of what she identified as the most Asian part of her new novel, the one-night-stand between the woman narrator and an exotic former circus performer and current mistress of some person(s). Vi Khi’s prose is beautiful and mysterious. It takes some time to finally understand that the narrator is actually the Asian character and not the other way around. Vi Khi’s writing was characterized as experimental, with a lot of ambiguity, including gender ambiguity, reflecting the author’s complex and fluid identity.
Evelina Galang was first published in 1996 with Her Wild American Self by Coffee House Press and read from a passage about mother and daughter where drum playing becomes a metaphor for beating on the mother’s skin to find oneself and make sense of the world. The writing features Tagalog expressions, which the author later explained was something she had to fight for, back then.
Bao Phi introduced himself as a spoken word artist who never thought he would ever get published. He prefaced his reading with a reference to Dr. Juliana Pegues, who has articulated that every racial group experiences a different flavor of racism. As part of that dynamic, people of color often find themselves weary of being inauthentic, always on the defensive, and always have to prove their self.
Bao read a poem titled Knock-off, about how there are fake everything, as well as a poem for his mother about growing up in a poor neighborhood where rainbow-colored kids did not know better than harass the Asian refugee woman, and his own ability to say much to either of them, concluding that love is not neutral ever.
All the featured authors agreed that in their experience with Coffee Press, Alan Kornblum, the founding publisher, was like a teacher who was so open, and never treated writers as commodities or acted with an agenda.
The group reminisced about the first generation of Asian American writers who fought the battles for Asian American literature, such as Frank Chin and the likes.
Frank Chin, Coffee House Press author, was very provocative and controversial. With others, he published the first anthology of Asian American literature, Aiiieee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, in 1974. Chin got in trouble with Maxine Hong Kingston, and later with Amy Tan, arguing about their catering to mainstream expectations.
Alan Kornblum was never afraid of anyone. He passed away, but the authors he helped publish have many stories to remember his great deeds. Alan was the only one who could have edited U Sam Oeur’s Sacred Vows, looking back at Cambodia.
After first authors like Wang Ping, Evelina Galang and David Mura, the doors were broken open for the next generations of Asian American writers.
The group then discussed various topics.
They discussed the strange challenge of Asian American writers to connect with their own communities and be read by their own communities. Vi Khi explained that when she first came to the US, her family went to Iowa. There, only ten to twenty Vietnamese or Asian families resided. Unless they went to mass, they would not see each other. Growing up, she had limited exposure to the Vietnamese culture, except for listening to Vietnamese music, which helped her gain an appreciation for her culture.
Vi Khi is also a musician. Both music and literature involve a high level of isolation. When she became published, a new world opened for her art. Her work moved white people who started writing her, and eventually, people from the Vietnamese community as well. Personally, Vi Khi feels a minority of minority, as she is Vietnamese, queer, and gravitates towards experimental things.
She describes her life as very solitary and desolate, living on an island of her own. Even when people share some aesthetic taste with her, she feels a sense of deep sadness and disconnection. In her opinion, the word “Asian” separates her from humanity in general, especially for someone like her who grew up in a little village that still served coffee beans.
Bao also took an a very unusual path to publishing. He had been doing spoken word since he was a teenager, but he never thought he would get published. He only did shows, did not send stuff to be published unless those outlets were interested in Asian issues. He bought a lot of books, but publishing was a completely different world from what he was doing.
Then one day, he was at some social event and Alan Kornblum asked him to send him a manuscript. Bao was not sure if Alan was jesting, or whether he might have been under the influence of alcohol, as he was holding a glass of wine at the time. However, Bao’s friends, including David Mura, convinced him to take a chance anyway. And thus, suddenly his first book of poetry, Sông I Sing: Poems, was published in 2011.
Bao also noted that technology has made artists’ lives a lot easier and better. Before Youtube, people bought your chapbook or CDs when they came to see you live. Similarly, the strength of Coffee House Press is that anyone can access his work. They do not even have to meet him. They can just deal with him on the page anywhere. Publishing does allow for a broader reach.
Alan was always author-looking. He loved to publish first-timers. That is how he found Kao Kalia Yang. He had the vision and the foresight
Evelina recalls being a young Filipina American looking for Filipino American writers. Some were born in the Philippines, not even ten were of Filipino descent, back then. She felt that Tagalog italicized disrupted the narrative. She talked to Alan about changing those italics and now as a house rule, the Press stopped doing that. The native tongue is organic to the character, not foreign. Unfortunately, at most other places, in 2017, writers still have to fight that battle. For her too, publishing enabled her to connect with her community and get her work into schools. Independent press can focus on education. One of her books is in the seventh or eighth printing, as the Press brought it to the schools.
The group then discussed what creative risks can be taken with a small press, that will not taken in a mainstream press.
Bao responded that if a small press had not been interested in his book, he would not have been published. He came from spoken word. He was not famous enough. A small press is more willing to take chances, and find out if it will sell or not.
Vi Khi emphasized that Fish in Exile has many different kinds of genres: play, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Because it is so experimental in its form, the kind of attention that the Press gives it, elevates it to a new form. It wouldn’t get the same attention with a large press that would not have published more radical ideas, including about gender and queerness. However, as she has worked mostly with experimental presses, it is hard for her to compare oranges with orange juice. Coffee House Press was bold in publishing her, when she writes things that are not accessible, that feel out there in very perverse ways, such as gender-bending work.
Karen acknowledges that her speculative fiction about Brazil was very different from the many and popular mother-daughter stories back then. Coffee House Press took a chance with stories that were completely different. Her book, Tropic of Orange, was written on a spreadsheet, with seven days and seven characters. That methodology was experimental. In contrast, the hyphen of her Asian-American background is neither political, nor experimental.
Next, the group addressed whether young Asian American writers are shying away from writing about personal stories as per the current trend to pursue speculative, science fiction writing about space aliens. Karen remarked that the mix of speculative fiction with present and ethnic writing may actually indicate a cross-use genre. The trend rather portends that writers of color are going to explode in the fantasy space.
In Bao’s opinion, it is tricky, you never want to tell any writer what to write, but what you write has consequences. He said he understood the concern about narrowing down one’s audience through one’s choice of writing, while noting that if one is a poet, one does not have a market anyway. The issue of the burden of representation, which is the choice of whether to become the voice of your people: it is a complicated question. He himself made the choice to write about experiences with race and class. Always ask the question, why are you writing? If writing about space aliens, why? If writing about space aliens as metaphors for Asian people, fine, but why?
The conversation then moved on to the new Administration, in which the need to protect freedom of speech and democracy seems to be more urgent. How to integrate this responsibility in daily life? After the elections, Evelina shut down for a month. Now the question has to be wrestled with: what to do as a responsible citizen and author?
Karen concurred that Asian American writers have a role to play. There is a long history of encountering Asian exclusion, racial profiling of migrants and workers. Asian American writers know what it is to be immigrants, refugees, and incarcerated.
Vi Ki expressed she was saddened a great deal by the elections. She cried, not for herself but for everyone. Especially before the elections, all anti-immigration ideas that were thrown out and were actually said in public, they are a very palpable, tangible reality. As the type of writer she is, there is a deep struggle to marry the fiction world with reality. The type of current US political climate is usually only seen in literature, but he (the President) actually said the things he said. It took her a while to let his words and the words of what happened sink in.
As a writer, Vi Khi has always been interested in writing about immigration and racial discrimination, all the things the President is pro. She wrote them but kept them in notebooks and did not share them. They were not shared because there is a time for things to come into the world, with good intentions. She wished for what she wrote about immigration to have the most effect. As in David and Goliath, she intends her writing to be like only one rock that hits well.
Vi Khi empathized with Syrian refugees because she was also a refugee. Only the past winter, she felt really sad and cold, not from a physical effect but from a spiritual one. She felt really removed from reality, felt as she were in some science fiction and outer space still, not feeling that this was happening yet. She felt nothingness in consciousness, wanting to go to Mars, still in between this world and the one that was still safer. Everyday she googled world news, but they had not sunk in yet. She is still waiting for what it will take to really feel that what is bleeding out already is real. At the moment, this is still an out of body experience.
Bao expanded that this is not a censorship issue or being afraid to be shut down as an individual writer. It is the greater fear of destroying the networks that artists have relied upon to survive, such as the NEA. It makes one think not only about contributing as a writer, but also as a person with his or her own battery of skills and interests. Not everyone can help in the same ways. Whether helping with immigration papers, translating health care issues, and so on, there are many ways for writers to contribute, beyond their usual craft.
In response to the common question of how to deal with the complexity of the Asian American experiences being lumped together, Karen recalled that the term “Asian American” emerged as an umbrella term in the ‘60s, in universities, during the ethnic movement for ethnic studies, eg, African, Chicano-Latino, and Asian. Asians were divided over the term. Asian is a political term. It unites and is embraced because it is a political tool, and not so much because it is an identity definition. Karen also identifies as a person of color.
Bao cautioned that in a society of Twitter, many quick and broad statements are made. However, Asian American communities are very nuanced, from well-educated Asian exchange students on HB1 visas to the very differently-situated refugees. The term “Asian American” should be embraced but it is very complicated. It is used for convenience but it cannot be used to make generalization.
Evelina concurred that in the same way that there are so many Miamis, there are many Asian American communities. There is concern that the Asian American Pacific Islander page on the White House website has been taken down and is being rebranded now. There are concrete consequences to the new Administration. This time is so much more important for the work we do as writers, as we are witnessing what is happening right now.
The authors concluded the session by praising Coffee House Press for the welcoming collaborations. Vi Khi appreciated how she never felt censored and experienced very fluid and friendly editorial experiences.
Bao closed the session on a serious advocacy note. He cited Andrea Smith’s (a Cherokee scholar) three pillars of white supremacy and encouraged Asian American writers to not engage in cross-racial hostilities, as Asian American writers have the power to participate in forms of oppression and should be aware of that privilege.