April 4, 2023

AAP Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For Asian American literati, the highly-anticipated 2019 Asian American Literature Festival came and went in a blur of inspiring events, hugs with old and new friends, and strolling through several Washington, D.C. landmarks which served as the venues for a diverse programming.

A disclaimer would be that due to both concurrent events and other digressions, several key events were not covered by this lone community news contributors, such as the Hawaiian literary events which were prominently featured and the queer Asian American programming which someone rejoiced that they were numerous and integral parts of the Festival, as opposed to just one token event. The main theme focused on “Care and Caregiving.”

The Festival aimed to be both a space and a moment when literature meets museum, and the literary programming played several roles of convening, engine, and incubator. Lawrence Minh Bui David, curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and one of the main brains/hands behind the festival, casually shared several times that there is no hierarchy and each part of the program was curated by various artists who completely independently designed their piece. “In the short terms, the impact is flowing new resources to Asian American writers and flowing Asian American writing to new readership. In the long term, the hope is we’re bending the arc of careers in good directions—and helping birth new careers. And maybe most importantly, growing literary community with cooperation and solidarity in mind,” he wishes to share with this broader audience of news readers.  

Interaction was the greatest strength of the festival. Case-on-point, the literary lounge. Unlike other literary conferences where most of the booths showcase schools, big publishers, independent presses, and literary organizations, tables in the lounge offered a mix of interactive activities, such as making little cards about what literature means to you and sticking them on a velvet board or getting a reading from the “Open in Emergency” Asian American tarot cards. To be an active participant enhanced both the learning experience of the festival and catalyzed the creative process. The Lounge also served as a community news space, where one could find out more about the upcoming Chinese American Museum scheduled to open on 16tht Street in DC next year or connect with the DC Mayor’s Office on Asian & Pacific Islander Affairs.

The actual programming of the Festival also traveled through various venues with distinct intent and effect. The Invocation Breakfast shared poetry and food at Franklin Square Park, one of the gathering spots in the city for the homeless. Verbal Fire, the queer spoken word performance and contest opened the doors after hours at the Freer/Sackler gallery, where festival goers could refresh their bodies with conventional bar offerings as well as traditional drinks and even some Asian flavored ice cream like Thai Tea, Mango Lassi and Coconut Pandan.  Then they could stroll in the galleries and feed their minds on Asian art and history, before heading to the auditorium where a line-up of today’s talented spoken word artists battled in good form and spirit.

Meanwhile on the other side of the National Mall back at the Eaton House hotel, Kundiman, the premier writing workshop organization for Asian American writers, held its customary Salon in the hotel room of Cathy Linh Che, the warm and welcoming ED of Kundiman. About forty Kundiman community members and other friends piled on every inch of the bed and floor and shared less than 250 words of art. For two hours, the Salon resonated with beautiful words, funny words, or sad words, all words of power that were carefully crafted by word lovers to titillate their fellow worldlovers’ brains and imagination.  Cathy praises that, “the Asian American Literature Festival is an opportunity to center our values as a community,” she “loves that we emphasized care and caregiving, which have been central to Kundiman’s core since our onset,” and concludes that “it was a real privilege to be able to uplift voices who most need to be heard.”

Earlier that day, Laomagination, an upcoming project by Bryan Thao Worra and Kaysone Seonsea, projected collected images of Laos and recited poems sharing landscapes and the culture of Laos. This is a process by people of the Lao diaspora to recapture through memory and imagination the country and culture that are the foundational elements of their Lao American lives and identities. In one verse, Bryan talked about a mother becoming a hunter, searching for words, recalling both the past and the language of the old country. Kay evoked her father who refuses to eat mackerel as it reminds him of the refugee camp, whereas her aunt can only talk about happy or funny times, such as when she had to drop down  Kay’s sister to rest a bit on the road during the refugee exodus, as the baby was so fat. Part of the Laomagination process involved taking the opportunity of being in DC to catch glimpses of Lao American life or lack thereof at museums and restaurants, DC having become a leader in the Lao Food Movement.

The second day of the festival shifted gears with events taking place at the Library of Congress. This is a significant venue both because it is the national library and a place that originally did not expect to hold space for the great diversity of writers who now have gained entry into the privileged world of creating American literature. As Kazim Ali, one of the two poets remembering forgotten poets, commented, it is both an honor and a victory to host Asian American literary events at the Library of Congress, a place neither originally intended nor welcoming of brown and yellow people. Kazim believes it is important to remember the forgotten poets as they are part of the Asian American poetic lineage. Even when their names or poems may be officially forgotten, some teacher may still remember their poems and recite them from memory to students who later will become poets and will remember those beautiful lines as they strive to find their distinct voices as Asian American poets. That’s Kazim own story, who heard Shreela Ray’s poetry when he was 14 and has remembered her in his own poetry work. His co-presenter, Ching-In Chen, a queer poet and professor, advocated to remember queer poets, as a means of affirming the beautiful humanity of queer poets and of welcoming them in the larger community of poets.

Back at the Eaton House hotel, David Mura led a workshop on Race, Identity + Asian American Writing, based on his book by a similar name which collected the lessons learned and taught over his decades of teaching. David emphasized that the struggle about race in this country is a about power. The mere fact that whiteness is the universal default makes all other races exceptions from the norm. Racism is a systemic problem that weighs on writers of color, who often must address the psychological aspect of writing before they can move on to the literary aspect of writing. Creative writing is the search for a language that does not exist yet to express one’s true experiences. When writers of color are added to academic curricula, it changes the canon of American literature to reflect the reality of the American experience in all its diversity. Finally, David’s key advice on writing is to just do it, with no judgment as to whether the writing is good or bad, as one can always revise bad writing later. However, one can revise nothing if nothing has been written yet.

The second day of the Festival ended with Queer Literaoke, which featured artists sharing poetry and singing a karaoke song. The grand finale perfectly captured the spirit of that event. Ching-In Chen sang the first lines of Bohemian Rhapsody, soon to be joined by the entire audience gustily belting out with all the fire and bravado embodied by the song. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?…I need no sympathy/Because I’m easy come, easy go…Too late, my time has come…” Carried by sentiment, Regie Cabico, the Asian American spoken word luminary/leader/hero, still in his turquoise Lady Gaga costume, leaped across the stage, and landed with his black dress unraveling and pooling down. And we all laughed and screamed at the power of that moment of absolute community high: this life as Asian American poets and writers is like a huge leap into the glorious unknown and may often end into a dark puddle, but we embrace it with truth, ferocity and fire.

The last day of the festival took place in part on the rooftop bar of the Eaton House, which is a beautiful space with special accents, such a glittering mosaic murals and hanging plants everywhere. There, one of the first workshops of the day presented new works in progress of three Asian American women poets who shared their processes. Dilruba Ahmed sought to advocate via her poetry, praising women’s acts of resistance in Afghanistan, decrying pesticides on seeds, and reciting a verse acknowledging that daily writing involves risk. Mai Der Vang discussed her process of researching declassified documents to uncover the truth about yellow rain: reading and writing about difficult materials, such as Hmong medical physical samples arriving in bits and pieces faster at US labs than the whole bodies of Hmong refugees whose immigration screening and processing took longer. Cathy Linh Che has been working for several years on her second book of poetry, which includes a collection of photos. She is documenting her parents’ experience at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they served as extras in the movie Apocalypse Now. Cathy also discussed napalm, another chemical used as a weapon of war. She addressed the problem of striving to keep projects interesting to the self as the work seems to take forever. She mentioned the golden shovel approach, originated by Terrance Hayes in his poem by the same name, when he created the technique of using words from an original source as the last word of each line of the new poem, so that all those end words retrace to the original poem.

At the session formatted like a refugee roundtable, the effort to develop a refugee poetry collective was further examined. The refugee experience cuts across race, ethnicity, geography, religion and other divides. The refugee lens offers another lens for community and collaboration among Asian American writers. The theme drew some great interest and desire to participate in the audience. The featured presenters, such as kaveh Akbar, Mai Der Vang and Ocean Vuong, affirmed that they would aim for more community engagement, bringing lectures and classes to the community. Furthermore, they would not want to be known as experts or founders, but would prefer to just be facilitators of community processes.

Sally Wen Mao headlined a solo session where she shared the results of her in-depth research on Anna May Wong, who is considered to be the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star and the first Chinese American international movie star. Sally’s quirky remarks on the fascinating career of Anna May Wong at a time of anti-immigration and anti-miscegenation against Chinese and Asians evidenced both Anna May’s strong spirit that could thrive in the usual exoticized and victimized roles offered to her and Sally’s acumen in articulating the many layers of Hollywood and American mix of giving opportunities on one hand and marginalizing the recipient on the other hand. In “The Toll of the Sea,” Anna May Wong’s character experienced the exact storyline of the heroin in Miss Saigon, getting her heart broken by her white lover-father of her child and committing suicide. In real life, although she had a string of white men lovers, Anna May believed that her happiness would come with a man of her own race. Sally’s work on Anna May’s legacy showcased that not only is Sally a talented poet, she is also a great scholar. As Sally concluded her session by asking members of the audience to visualize their super hero-self and waved her magic wand to make those wishes come true, one thing became crystal clear: there is no other contemporary Asian American woman poet who has the smart, funny, whimsical and magical qualities of Sally Wen Mao. Later, Festival attendees could experience more of Sally’s teaching as she led the book discussion on her dear friend Ocean Vuong’s new memoir.

On late Sunday afternoon and evening, paths less traveled and not on the official schedule led an afternoon of community poetry reading in DC Chinatown organized by the 1882 Foundation and the Chinese Cultural Center, where members from the Hawai‘i delegation were warmly welcomed.  Then the few Lao and Hmong American Festival guest artists and participants gathered in the lobby of the main hotel venue and chanced upon Mai Der Vang for a last minute autograph of her award-winning poetry book, a first copy bought online having been gifted to some teacher, and a second copy could be purchased right at the Festival. The little contingent was sad to miss the amazing keynote lecture by Ocean Vuong, the IT Asian and just plain American poet of these days, which other people all raved was incredibly powerful and moving, especially when his mother joined him on stage. His memoir, “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” was written in her honor, in the form of a long letter to his mother who could not read.

However, after unsuccessfully trying to catch dinner at the new DC Lao restaurant, Hanuman, for two nights in a row, they had finally been able to make a reservation via informal channel and took the last chance to gather again and explore the delights of the DC Lao Food Movement which has seen an explosion of new DC restaurants thanks to Chef Seng and her son, Bobby. Still they could only be seated at the bar, where they later chanced to meet DC friends (yoga teacher) and friends from their homestate of MN. They were glad to share with Chef Bobby that Lao American artists had the honor of presenting Lao American poetry at the Smithsonian, which Chef Bobby celebrated with a complimentary special noodle novelty dish. As they walked through the sultry DC summer night back to the hotel, with stomachs full of good Lao food and brains full of three days of memorable Asian American literary events, they concurred: this was a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate Asian American art, culinary and literary, in the summer of 2019. 

Back at the Eaton, they were ready to part, but spotted the informal closing ceremony for the Festival and smoothly joined the circle of organizers, guest artists and attendees sitting on the floor of an empty conference room. Heartfelt thanks and good moments of the Festival were shared and more connections were made, before all left inspired to create more Asian American art and more opportunities for Asian American artists to gather, share their work and create community.

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