Fear the Racism Pandemic Uncovers in Our Communities May 5th, 2020 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest writer Summer Tan

Bio:  Summer Tan is a high school sophomore who lives in West Linn. She enjoys mock trial, and her team won first place in the 2020 Oregon State Championship. She loves competing in debate tournaments, participating in Model United Nations, and playing golf with the high school team. She is also currently Vice-Chair of the City of West Linn Youth Advisory Council and has volunteered for various non-profit organizations with the National Charity League.

 

I have lived in the Portland area my entire life. As such, I have been privileged in how I have had, for the most part, nothing but positivity directed towards the subject of my race. In fact, on that day in late January when a stranger accosted me at the mall, I’d been commenting how happy I was to see Chinese New Year decorations everywhere.

“Are you worried about the coronavirus?” this woman asked, out of nowhere in the middle of a store in Washington Square Mall. Was I what? Confused, I had tried to get out of her way. I’d panicked for a few seconds as I tried to identify her, even as I responded that, no, I wasn’t worried about the coronavirus — as far as I knew, there had been no cases in Oregon. “Oh,” she’d responded, almost disappointed. “I was just wondering because your people are spreading it everywhere.” I wish I had asked, “What do you mean, ‘your people’?” I wish I could have gathered myself enough to ask her what could have possibly possessed her to walk up to a girl distracted by shiny bracelets and accuse “her people” of spreading some disease. Selfishly, I wish I had made a scene.

I did none of those things. Instead, I’d looked at her, smiled, and replied, “Well, there have been no cases in Oregon,” and then fake-coughed, making only superficial efforts to cover the cough as she cringed away from me. While I felt some satisfaction from her discomfort, I still mostly felt like crying as I walked back to my friends.

I wonder, now, if she even realized that what she’d done — what she’d said — was wrong. After all, if she had been bold enough to approach a 15-year-old with a baby face and accuse “my people” of “spreading around” a virus, who could say what else she was willing to accuse other people of? Maybe she had thought that her comments were a lead-up to appropriate conversations, though I cannot imagine any circumstance where those comments were appropriate. Maybe she had been intentionally rude. Maybe she just didn’t think, and spent the rest of the day regretting her words, even as I tried to forget she’d said them.

I knew that I’d done nothing wrong — and yet, I felt “dirty” throughout the rest of the day, carrying around the baggage of her words as if something was undeniably my fault. Besides those two minutes of my life, nothing eventful happened at the mall that day.

Here’s the thing: I know that there has been much fear over the coronavirus pandemic. The event at the mall, as well as reading accounts of increased racism towards Asians, however, have made me realize that, while fear of a deadly disease is understandable, those fears have allowed people to abandon civility in favor of stark racism and xenophobia.

Perhaps I was naive in not considering that people would turn against each other in fear and that their fear would bring out the worst versions of themselves. I still believe, though, that we ought to try harder to not let this fear cripple ourselves or our empathy. As Oregon schools close, events are cancelled, and people self-quarantine, we must choose kindness. We owe it to each other to try.

 

Summer’s essay was originally printed on March 16, 2020 in the WestLinnTidings, published by the Pamplin Media Group.

Oregon Public Broadcasting followed up with Summer on their Think Out Loud program. You may listen to it here, if interested.


And then there is … music that transcends borders during this global pandemic …

Portland cellist brings peace during epidemic

Kira Wang of Portland is one of 24 cellists acknowledging difficult times but giving hope through ‘The Swan Project.’

 

 




An Open Letter to My “Eomma” (Mother) April 8th, 2020 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest writer, Michelle Hicks, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog).

“Aga” (Korean for “baby”), why should we fill out the census?

When has it ever mattered to us?”

For my mom’s generation, this sentiment reflects their experiences coming to America, being here, and living under this government. In her life, she has lived through wars, corruption, and global calamity. In her time in the U.S., she has experienced the failures and successes of various government-funded programs. She has seen the Immigration and Naturalization Service expand into Immigration and Customs Enforcement and continually target our Korean community and many other immigrants. She has seen the prisons expand and our community separated.

Why should she fill out the census? I try to tell her why.

Eomma (“Mother”), we should fill out the census because we have the power to change the story of our community and this country. When people think of a state like Oregon as a White place, they overlook our community and the power that we have when we come together. By being counted, the data tells our histories of migration, of family. It tells the rest of the country that this is our home. Eomma, you came here because of the promise that we are all equal. Under the census, that is finally true. We fill out the census the same as Kate Brown or Timothy Boyle or Phil Knight, and each of our data is weighted the same. We are equal — if we are counted.

Eomma, we should fill out the census because it shows the government how much funding we need for programs our community uses every day. The census lets them know how many kids will go to school so that our classrooms won’t be crowded. It lets them know how many people might go to college so they can allocate money for Pell Grants. It lets them know how many people need SNAP so that our families can be fed. It lets them know how many people might need Medicare and Medicaid so that they can actually see the doctor and get care. If any one of us isn’t counted, it doesn’t mean that we’ll have less need. It means our communities will not get enough resources to support that need over the next 10 years.

Eomma, we should fill out the census because it amplifies our political power. To me, this is one of the most important things about the census. Census data is how the government figures out how many representatives we have at the federal and state level. States like Oregon could gain another seat in the House of Representatives and this increases our community’s chances of being represented and more visible.

Eomma, when our community doesn’t fill out the census, we miss out on billions of dollars over the next 10 years. We don’t get a chance to get it right again until 2030.

Eomma, you came here to give us a better life. This is why I care so much about the census because it helps give our community a better life with access to resources that we deserve. I learned this from you and your example. Now, I want to make sure our family and our community is counted.

As for filling it out, it’s pretty easy. 10 questions in 10 minutes. Online, by phone, or by mail. Call me, we can talk through it.

Sarangheo Eomeoni (“I love you, Mom”),

Michelle

Note: There is no consistent way to romanize Korean words because many letters are between two sounds in English. For example, eomma makes the sound of eo+aw+uh all at once but it can be romanized as eomma or ahmma or umma. The romanization in this piece was provided by the author.

 

Bio:  Michelle Hicks is a Field Organizer at APANO. She was raised in San Jose, CA by her mother, a Korean immigrant, and two incredible older sisters. Her upbringing influenced her to study Politics with minors in American Ethnic Studies and Spanish at Willamette University. Michelle is passionate about political engagement, civil rights, and human rights and is committed to cultivating a more equitable Oregon.

 


How to Fill Out the 2020 Census

You can fill out your census online here in 10 minutes: https://my2020census.gov/

You can also give your responses by phone by calling 844-330-2020.

If you live in a more rural area, or you don’t respond online or by phone, the Census Bureau may send you a paper copy of the survey, that you can fill out and mail back in.

You can respond in 12 non-English languages when you fill out the form online or over the phone. Those languages include Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.

The census is safe. Your personal information won’t be shared with other government agencies or anyone else and will only be used for statistical purposes. The census will not ask you for your social security number, money or donations, your citizenship status, your political affiliation, or bank/credit card numbers.

Did you happen to receive two surveys? In addition to the 2020 census, the Census Bureau is conducting another survey called the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS samples a segment of people living in the U.S. (the 2020 census counts EVERY person) and also provides important information for local leaders to understand their community. If you fill out the ACS, you still need to fill out the 2020 census separately.

Do you have other questions? The 2020census.gov site has more information, or you can call one of these national organizations who can answer your questions in English and other languages:

  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice
    • (844) 2020-API or (844) 202-0274
    • Available in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu and Bengali/Bangla
    • Live from 8:30am – 8:30pm Eastern Standard Time
  • Arab American Institute
    • (833) 333-6864 or (833)-3DDOUNI (“Count me” in Arabic)
    • Available in English, Arabic
    • Live from 9am-9pm Eastern Standard Time
  • NALEO Educational Fund
    • (877)-EL-CENSO or (877)-352-3676
    • Available in English/Spanish
    • Live from 8:30am – 8:30pm Eastern Standard Time

 

APANO is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.




Postscript: Arts Activism 50 Years Apart March 8th, 2020 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest author/editor Shawn Wong

Shawn Wong is the author of two novels, Homebase and American Knees, and editor or co-editor of six anthologies of Asian American or American multicultural literature. He is a professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His website is: ShawnWongWrites.com

 

Last summer I waged a social media war against Penguin Classics for what I believed to be their piracy of John Okada’s No-No Boy, trampling on a valid copyright by claiming that the book was in the public domain because I filled out the copyright form incorrectly when the co-editors of Aiiieeeee!, Jeffery Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, and I, used our own money to republish the novel in 1976 as a CARP publication (Combined Asian-America Resources Project). In addition, the original publication by Charles Tuttle Co. was in 1957, which meant that both copyrights were still in force. Later, in 1979, I transferred the rights to the University of Washington Press. Penguin Classics had made no attempt to contact the Okada family or the UW Press prior to releasing their edition. They were essentially, in my opinion, making a stand on commerce over decency.

During my public campaign against Penguin Classics and its Vice-President and Publisher, Elda Rotor, many people and organizations joined in the battle, supporting my stand. Some of the first to stand with me were Viet Thanh Nguyen, David Henry Hwang, Asian American professors and teachers, and independent bookstores from all over the country who returned copies of the Penguin edition, refusing to sell it. That support, combined with the mainstream media picking up on the “David vs. Goliath” story and the work of intellectual property attorneys, actually brought the battle to a quick end. The teamwork was textbook Asian American activism at its best. The only difference between the activism of 50 years ago and now is the power of social media. I should know, I was there at the beginning.

My co-editors and I discovered Okada’s novel 50 years ago in a used bookstore for 50 cents and following the publication of Aiiieeeee! in 1974, we made it our mission to bring No-No Boy and other canonical works of Asian America back into print. Many literary scholars have critiqued our anthology over the years and pointed out its failings or its tone or its dated definition of Asia America (we even included in the new edition of the anthology a foreward by Tara Fickle in which she documents that criticism), but many did not realize that the anthology was the production of activism more than literary scholarship. The book made a stand that Asian American literature deserved a seat at the table of American Literature. We often pushed back against the publishing companies and editors who rejected our manuscript with often demeaning and dismissive letters of rejection. It was no surprise when the only publisher to find us a legitimate literary voice was Howard University Press.

We never met John Okada before he died in 1971, but we vowed that his achievement be recognized and that his place in American literature be secure. What Penguin Classics didn’t realize when they went to market, is that the publishing history of the novel and the people behind it were as important as the book, which is why the UW Press edition of the novel contains three supporting essays about the literary history.

Under the pressure of all of this social media activism, Penguin Classics chose to withdraw their edition of No-No Boy from all distribution in the US in an arrangement with the UW Press and only distribute their version abroad. They also agreed to pay the Okada family and estate royalties for all copies sold—something they avoided when they released their version of the novel. The UW Press version of the novel continues to be published as it has been for the last 40 years here in the US and worldwide. The current sales of the UW Press is 160,000 copies sold.  That number combined with the CARP sales of 6,000 copies far exceeds the original Tuttle printing of 1500 copies.

This last January, I found out that Elda Rotor was attending the Modern Language Association conference in Seattle at the same time the UW Press was doing a book launch for the new edition of Aiiieeeee! on the occasion of its 45th anniversary. The agreement between Penguin Classics and the UW Press and the Okada family had been signed. I invited Elda to come to the book launch and she agreed. When we shook hands, I told her that I supported her efforts to publish Asian American literature and offered my advice should she ever need it. I didn’t enter into the campaign against Penguin Classics to shame them or disgrace them. I’m a teacher and I thought there was a lesson in the history of Okada’s book that everyone should know.

There’s no monetary incentive for me to defend No-No Boy and its publishing history or an author I never met, rather I’m defending my own history with the book and my voice in urging people to read this novel I found in a used bookstore when I was an unpublished undergraduate student trying to be a writer myself.

To buy copies of No-No Boy, click here. For Aiiieeeee, click here.




Breaking the Bubblegum Code February 5th, 2020 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest writer, Lauren Yanase

(Also, see the announcement from Linda Tamura that follows Lauren’s essay: The Journal of Ben Uchida, first commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, will be presented by OCTC in Portland, OR)

 

At 87 years old, there are few things my paternal grandmother does not have an opinion on; fewer still that she is not ready to share. From skirt lengths to savings bonds, rest assured that Bobbie has something to say about that. One topic spared from commentary from my no-nonsense grandma? Her four-year stint in an internment camp as a young teen (photo to left is Bobbie at age 12-13 at Heart Mt, WY).

Eleven-year-old Bobbie Kato, daughter of Japanese immigrants, native of Merced, California, existed separately from the wartime Japanese Americans in history books. She had grown up in a universe parallel to that of Executive Order 9066, never in my mind affected by the horror of internment. Barbara Shirota, Mom to two, Grandma to three and Auntie Bobbie to many more, did little to dissuade me of my fantasy of her bubblegum youth.

Her reluctance to speak about her adolescence made it all the more romantic to me. I envisioned shiny saddle shoes, first kisses over chocolate malts, and glass bottle sodas with nickel movies. The reality, I later learned, was not necessarily devoid of those Americana stereotypes, but warped through the lens of shame and fear, behind barbed wire fences and guard towers.

A fifth-grade project on my pre-war immigration legacy made me an involuntary expert on internment. My classmates’ interest revealed my naive understanding, and, embarrassed, I started to push for answers to the unasked questions in my family. With the doggedness of an investigative journalist and the precociousness of a nine-year-old, I set out for The Truth. So began the nearly decade-long journey of relearning Bobbie Shirota (nee Kato)’s past. After avoiding the topic for half a century, she and her siblings were more susceptible to a granddaughter or a great-niece’s curiosity. Still, even that fell short of convincing them to talk openly about their experience. Their careful, coded recollections compel me to remember their story, and their silence commands that I not let it be forgotten by time.

I cannot and will not fault Bobbie’s resistance to see her youth as a cautionary tale from the past. The liability of her lost childhood now mirrored in the fate of others lies not only in the hands that directed it but also in those who did not protest it.

Last year, news broke that the federal government was holding immigrant children in detention centers built on the bones of a Japanese ‘relocation center’ used during World War II. I asked Grandma what she thought of the report. No response. Finally, she briefly opined on the general horrors of family separation and locking up kids. Then she asked if I had found a job yet.

This year, the Japanese American Citizens’ League was among the first to speak out when Iranian Americans were detained and interrogated at the Canadian border. I know if I ask Grandma, she will say what she always says: that it’s not right what is happening, that they are Americans, Lauren, and more importantly, people. Then she will ask if I am seeing anyone.

I can and should be savvy to my grandma and her peers’ quiet pleadings to our generation. She asks if I’m registered to vote (then advises me to double- and triple-check). She tells me to read today’s paper and notes that the headline is “kind of interesting, hmm?” She sends books and documentaries and notable names who wrote or performed or talked on the internment camps, the Asian American experience, the plight of immigrants.

If I let myself listen, I find that she has a lot to say, after all.

 

Lauren Yanase is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon. An avid storyteller, Lauren has previously written creative fiction and nonfiction accounts of Japanese American internment and has been recognized regionally and nationally for her writing. In 2019, she earned the Girl Scout Gold Award for her documentary about the Japanese American internment. This is a prestigious honor, with fewer than six percent of Girl Scouts worldwide earning this award.

Lauren will be attending Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 2020 following a gap year of working in outdoor education and community organizing. She is an enthusiast of mid-priced coffee and semi-athletic endeavors in the mountains.

Excerpted from the documentary’s press release, written by Maddy P.

Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American follows the story of the Kato family during World War II as Japanese Americans along the West Coast were being forcefully relocated into internment camps. John Golden, a TOSA in Portland Public Schools, says that this film, “sheds a light on a forgotten and shameful chapter in American history… and presents a story that is compelling and should be essential viewing for all high school students.”

Bobbie Shirota features as Yanase’s protagonist and narrator, recalling her family’s story of forced relocation in 1942 to their return to Los Angeles almost a decade later. Shikata Ga Nai is interwoven with footage from an exclusive tour of the Santa Anita Racetrack, and a haunting, authentic soundtrack by the Minidoka Swing Band and Portland Taiko music groups. Yanase juxtaposes sobering U.S. propaganda footage with personal photos to emphasize how the Kato’s story is not an anecdotal anomaly, but a reflection of the nearly 120,000 displaced Japanese and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Yanase illustrates the economic and sociological impacts on the Japanese American communities through her own family’s journey and struggles to define and maintain their American identity. It is ultimately a universal story about family and building the American Dream. Jodi Walder, an independent college counselor concludes “Shikata Ga Nai is a powerful story that every middle and high school student should see. Young filmmaker Lauren Yanase has masterfully captured her family’s experience in the Japanese internment camps… and forcefully asks us to reckon with the fear that caused those in power to unfairly treat our Japanese-American neighbors.”


Announcement from Linda Tamura:

An upcoming play will be performed by the Oregon Children’s Theatre at the Winningstad Theatre in Portland, OR in late February and March. “The Journal of Ben Uchida,” first commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, is about a young Nisei boy and his family who were incarcerated during World War II. Dmae Roberts directs the play. Ken Yoshikawa, Jenna Yokoyama and David Loftus (son of Mitzi Asai Loftus) are key cast members. Chisao Hata is choreographer and cultural consultant. Linda Tamura is dramaturg (historical) and education consultant. On Friday, March 6 and/or 13, the performance will be followed by a panel that includes former incarcerees. This is an especially appropriate time to remember the past and connect it to current events.

Summary: In 1942, 12-year-old Ben Uchida and his family are forcibly removed from their home in San Francisco and imprisoned at Mirror Lake, an American concentration camp, along with hundreds of thousands of other Japanese-American families. In this unfamiliar place, removed from everything he once knew, Ben’s emotional journey is even more upsetting than his physical one. The play details—with anger, despair, sadness, and hope—a dark chapter in this country’s history. Join Oregon Children’s Theatre as we tell this ambitious story at a time when families need to hear its message more than ever.

Content Advisory: This show uses historically accurate language (from the 1940s/WWII), including racial slurs, and bias-motivated violence. Additionally, the play contains visual imagery and indirect references to suicide in the concentration camp (note: the word suicide is not used in the play, nor is the act dramatized or seen on stage).

For more information and tickets : octc.org; 503-228-9571




Japanese Americans & Intersectionality January 7th, 2020 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest author/poet David Mura

David Mura has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Identity and Sexuality. His novel about the son of a No-No Boy is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He has also written four books of poetry, including The Last Incantations. David’s latest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing. His website is www.davidmura.com

 

When my father as a teenager was imprisoned in the Jerome, Arkansas internment camp during World War II, his white high school teacher told his class that when they got out of the camp, they should try to be not just 100% American but 200% American. The Japanese Americans were imprisoned not for anything they had done, but for their race and ethnicity, and so, not surprisingly, my father took his white teacher’s advice to mean that he should become like white Americans: He and my mother raised me in a credo of assimilation not just into America but into a definition of American which equated America with white people.

Thus, when I was in high school and a white friend said to me, “I think of you David just like a white person,” I thought: Yes, that’s how I want to be considered. In college, when I met my wife, whose family roots go all the way back to the Mayflower, I told her I considered myself an American, not a Japanese American (the terms Asian American or people of color weren’t part of the culture then).

After college, in a Ph.D. program in English, I read an all-white Anglo-American canon. I wanted also to become a poet, and in my poetry workshops, other than a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka, I read only white poets. I was taught that to call myself a Japanese American writer or to write about race would relegate me to a literary ghetto, would be to take up a non-aesthetic, politically-based ideology, would be to try and get into literature through a sort of backdoor affirmative action program. When a fellow graduate student, the African American poet, Marilyn Nelson, lent me a copy of Aiiieeeee! the first major anthology of Asian American literature, she remarked, “I think you might be interested in this.”

But. I was not. I didn’t read it for a couple years. But when I did, reading the work by Japanese American authors like John Okada, Wakako Yamauchi, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Momoko Iko, I sensed that they were pointing to a direction I might take as a writer to explore the Japanese American experience.

But it was only when I happened to pick up in a bookstore one day, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, that my take on my own identity shifted. I’d heard in college about Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and its account of the anti-colonial revolutions in the Third World. But in Black Skin White Masks the Paris-trained Black psychoanalyst from Martinique was examining the psychology of racism.

In one passage, Fanon described the education Black West Indian children received in the French colonial schools which talked about “our ancestors” the Gauls and how the European explorers and colonists went into Africa to civilize the savages. What are these Black school children learning, asked Fanon, but self-hatred, self-alienation and an identification with their colonial oppressors.

Reading this, I had the immediate reaction, “Oh, shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

In that instant, I finally realized I wasn’t white, I wasn’t ever going to be white, and I had to figure out just what I was and formulate a new and different identity.

I began to read Black writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and I discovered in their work a language to talk about race and my own experience of race—my sense of alienation and self-hatred from white standards of beauty, my denial of my cultural roots and history as a Japanese American, my adopting a belief in the supremacy of white culture and its norms. And I realized that the language of race I was learning from Black American writers was not present in any of the white writers I had read (and I had read through almost the entire Anglo-American canon—at least the white version of it).

Several years after this, I helped start a community-based Asian American arts organization in the Twin Cities where I live. I became friends with the African American novelist Alexs Pate and we talked incessantly about the issues of race, both in politics and literature. After the events surrounding the Rodney King beating and the violence in Los Angeles, Alexs and I created and acted in a performance piece, “Secret Colors,” where we examined our lives, our friendship and the tensions between the Asian American and African American communities. In that show, we tried to talk to our own communities about their mutual distrust, about the possibilities of alliance and connection, about thinking beyond our relationship with whites. Later, Alexs and I made a movie based on this piece, “Slowly This,” directed by the great African American cinematographer, director and artist, Arthur Jaffa.

During the making of that film, Alexs and I were staying at a hotel on 49th street in New York. As we stood outside the hotel one day, no taxis came down the side street. I suggested we go up to Broadway to hail a cab. Alexs said, “Okay, but I’m a Black man in New York with dreadlocks. If I stand outside a hotel, the cab might think I’m staying at the hotel, but if I go up to Broadway I’m just another Black man the cabs won’t stop for. Maybe with you, it’s different.”

All of this was part of my process of understanding and exploring the experience of Blacks in America and then reflecting upon those experiences both in terms of the African American community itself and in terms of my own community. I was learning to think intersectional before that term became a popular coinage.

A few years after that, in 2001, I started to teach at VONA, the only writers’ conference for all writers of color (and not just one race), and I realized there were other communities of color whose experiences and literature I needed to learn and learn from. My own understanding of what it means to be a Japanese American or Asian American needed to encompass those communities and not just my community’s relationships with white America.

Today, I still live in the Twin Cities where more than seventy percent of the students are children of color and where my children have grown up amid a diversity I could not have imagined as a child or a teen growing up in an all-white Jewish suburb of Chicago. My children have grown up familiar with other immigrant communities as well as with their Japanese American identity and with the languages of race that I first learned from African American authors. They understand that as Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in 2020, they are living in a multiracial, multiethnic society where we all must work to understand each other—our histories, our cultures. They understand that such work is even more important in this dire time of Trump with its racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment whose earlier strains sent my father and mother to the internment camps of World War II.

What is happening now, for instance, with the Muslim Somali American community echoes so much of what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II. And since my middle son has been going out with a Somali American woman for several years and has several Somali American friends, and since I’ve also had Somali American students and friends, and my wife Somali patients and colleagues, their community is now simply part of my life. I cannot think of America the way my parents did when they got out of the internment camps; our lives are much more inclusive and various now—and richer and more complicated.




Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers: How a Literary Origin Story Began with a Shout December 7th, 2019 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest author/editor Shawn Wong

Shawn Wong is the author of two novels, Homebase and American Knees, and editor or co-editor of six anthologies of Asian American or American multicultural literature. He is a professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His website is: ShawnWongWrites.com

 

In the summer of 1969, while an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, I decided that I wanted to be a novelist. The problem was that I was the only Asian American writer I knew in the world. No professor or high school literature teacher had ever assigned a book by an Asian American writer or even mentioned the name of an Asian American writer in my literature classes. There were no Asian American students in my creative writing classes. I was it.

Think about that for a second. No Asian American literary organizations, no Asian American studies classes, no subject category in the library under “Asian American Literature,” no Google. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me to ask the damn question, “Are there any Asian American writers?” until I was 20 years old and unpublished myself. When I went to my American literature professor at Berkeley and asked him, he said there weren’t any Asian American writers.

To make a long story short, I did not believe him and decided to begin a search. I found Jeff Chan, then a graduate student and a teacher in the newly formed Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College who introduced me to Frank Chin who had just returned to Berkeley from Seattle where he had been a news writer for a local television station. Together, Jeff, Frank and I discovered Lawson Inada’s work in an anthology of Fresno poets in 1970. We called him at his home in Ashland, Oregon and he drove down to Berkeley the very next weekend to meet us.

Jeff, Frank and Lawson were all older than me by 8 to 12 years. I was still in college. By the time I graduated in 1971, we had the manuscript to Aiiieeeee! in our hands. We had found 14 writers to put in the anthology that my professors said did not exist. You might say that I majored in Asian American literature except there were no classes, no teachers, no grades, not even independent study credit. My side gig was Asian American literature while I was still writing papers on Spenser and Shakespeare and Yeats. I ended up teaching myself the subject that I would eventually teach in my first job as a college professor in 1972 at Mills College. I entered graduate school in Creative Writing at San Francisco State College in 1971 and I shopped our manuscript around to publishers without success. We often got back insulting and ignorant comments or questions such as inquiring whether or not the stories in the anthology were in translation or that the “least ethnic pieces were the best” or that the stories were interesting as social history rather than literature.

In 1972 I won a prize in a children’s short story contest from The Council on Interracial Books for Children. Roberta Palm, an editor from Howard University Press, contacted me and asked if I had a children’s book manuscript they could see. I didn’t have a book-length manuscript, but I wrote to her and told her that I had a manuscript for an anthology. In 1974 Howard University Press published Aiiieeeee! as one of their first ten books to kick off their entrance into publishing.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising to note that African American presses were the first to recognize the legitimacy of Asian American literature. My first three books were published by African American presses. Our anthology was reviewed everywhere from the Rolling Stone to The New Yorker to The New York Times with rave reviews. We received only two bad reviews—both from the only Asian American reviewers to review the anthology—one in Bridge Magazine and the other in the Honolulu Advertiser. One reviewer took exception to the fact that we stated there was Asian American literary English specific to the author’s ethnicity, a kind of street English, and the other reviewer noted all the Asian people we had not included even though he could not name the names of the excluded writers.

The University of Washington Press has published the third edition of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, a groundbreaking volume that shows how Asian Americans fought for—and seized—their place in the American literary canon. This new 3rd edition celebrates the 45th anniversary of the anthology and includes material from the previous editions of the book from four different publishers. Professor Tara Fickle (University of Oregon) will be designing a website, featuring a treasure trove of archival materials collected during the compilation of the anthology in the early 70s, including correspondence and interviews with authors, correspondence between the four editors, as well as other documents, photographs, reviews, unpublished versions of the original introduction and other valuable primary materials that tell the story of the rediscovery of Asian American literature that our teachers said did not exist. Get a 30% discount if you order before December 31, 2019 using the code WST30 Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers.




The King and I: How We as Asian Americans Inhabit Our Bodies November 8th, 2019 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest author/poet David Mura

David Mura has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Identity and Sexuality. His novel about the son of a No-No Boy is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He has also written four books of poetry, including The Last Incantations.

David’s latest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing. His website is www.davidmura.com

 

In 2010, I was chosen to play the King in a local Minnesota production of “The King and I.” I had acted before, mainly in performance pieces I had written or co-written with others, and as a writer who constantly presents his work to audiences, I was a practiced and accomplished public speaker.

But this was a classic Broadway musical and I was the lead. And I had never had any formal training as an actor.

So, before the rehearsals started, I took an acting workshop at Theater Mu, the local Asian American theater. The instructor, Randy Reyes, devised this exercise where we would go to the local mall and observe someone walking through the mall and then come back and imitate their body movements. I first chose an older Somali woman, but she quickly entered a beauty salon and so I had to make another choice. I then saw a group of young white men, not big enough to be football players but bigger than normal; I thought they might be baseball teammates. I saw that they walked with arms outspread, chests forward, in long loping strides, taking up as much space as they could. They moved through the mall as if they owned the mall.

Back at the workshop, I realized that I walked through the mall with a slight crouch, hunched over as if always on guard, always wary of where some attack or challenge might be directed my way. As if I were an alien presence. As with many people of color in America, my first concern, which emanated from my body posture, was safety, protection; both consciously and unconsciously, I felt I had to be attuned to any potential negative forces around me.

With the help of Randy, I realized I couldn’t play the King of Siam with my normal body posture or movement. I had to stand and move and enter my body in a new way; I had to believe not just that I could be the king of a country, but I was the King of my country. I should not just project power and strength but embody power and strength. I had to imagine a country where my body had never been invisible or marginalized, where I was always destined to be King. Similarly, to play the king, I had to improve my vocal projection, to breathe in and out from the bottom of my diaphragm, to speak from deep in my core.

The cast of The King and I was large, indeed like a small village. There were the wives of the king, his attendants, children of all ages. It was bracing to be part of such a group of Asian Americans. At the opening we received a standing ovation, and we played to full houses and standing ovations throughout the run. (In an odd connection, my cousin, the singer and actor Paul Nakauchi, has played the King in a London and a traveling production of The King and I; so I’m pretty sure we’re the only Japanese/Asian American family with two members who have played that role.)

There are times still when I lose the King’s sense of strength and power and relationship to my body. But I have known it; I have enacted it on stage before crowds of several hundred. I have taken over the stage and owned my body. So I do know now how that feels.

My friend, the Korean American actor Sun Mee Chomet, tells me that when she teaches women, especially Asian American women, to breathe and project properly, from the core of their body, and these women feel the power emitting from their voice and body, they often break down weeping. So many repressed emotions are stored within the core of our bodies, and in getting in touch with this core and the voice it produces, these emotions are released; the women feel then a strength that they did not know existed within them. One implication of this: Asian American students can benefit from training in theater and the arts, and such training can be extremely helpful and just as essential as any academic training to their becoming leaders or moving up whatever ladder they are trying to climb. Just as importantly, our own psychic health as Asian Americans is influenced by how we inhabit our bodies, and if it helps us, we all have the ability to change how we do that.




Go Back Where You Came From (for Beverly) October 10th, 2019 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by poet/author Tony Robles

Go back to the mountain
Of your heart
Carved with your poem
Your story

Go back to the
Skin scarred
Soil of your name
Before the teachers
Mispronounced it

Go back to the
Strong smell of who
You are, lingering in
Pots and pans smouldering
In the fire that is you

Go back to when
Your words betrayed
Your throat in
A shadow of shame

And somebody
Else’s laughter

Go back and get it
Back, whatever it is
Or whatever it isn’t

Go back to your face

Will it
Recognize you?

Go back
Where you came from

Is it everywhere,
No where?

Go back

(C) 2019 Tony Robles

BIO:  Tony Robles – the People’s poet – was born in San Francisco. He is the author of two books of poetry and short stories, Cool Don’t Live Here No More – A letter to San Francisco and Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. His poem, The Beekeeper, was featured in Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing. Tony was awarded the San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Literary Artist grant 2019-2020. He has worked as a tenants’ rights advocate and served as board president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, following in the footsteps of his uncle, the late Manilatown poet Al Robles. Tony currently lives in North Carolina where he is working on his first novel.




“Where From … ? Go Back … !” September 10th, 2019 posted by Val Katagiri

When our Asian American activist group put together the anthology, Where Are You From?, we decided that the question we are often asked would make a good title for our book because it expressed many of our experiences as AAs in America. The question can be interpreted in many ways, depending on who is asking and how they are asking the question. It can be interested. Wary. Looking for reasons to accept or reject. Befriend or report to the authorities. The question might make us feel like The Other, as not belonging even though many of us are American citizens. Sometimes we choose to believe that the question is asked as a chance to explain ourselves. Sometimes we walk away from the question feeling resentful that we are obligated to prove that, even though we aren’t White, we still have a right to be in the United States, too.

Recently, we are having to confront a less opaque “threat” when we hear the directive, “Go back to where you came from!” The person saying this has already pronounced judgment on the Other. They have closed their minds to hearing our stories. Today, it is even more important that we share our stories* so people will see us as fellow human beings with the same feelings, wants, and needs. I think most of us feel terrible when people say insensitive things to and about us that imply that we are inferior to them and don’t “belong.” We all want to make good lives for ourselves and our families. We want to belong and be accepted for who we are and what we bring to those around us. We want to live in a peaceful world which will allow us to make these “good lives.” I have a hard time understanding those who tell others to “Go back to where you came from!” because, as a citizen in a nation built by immigrants, doesn’t this mean we all (including the person making that demand) have to leave the United States? Doesn’t this mean only Native Americans have a “right” to be here, if we base this “right” on origin?

In some ways, “Where are you from” and “Go back to where you came from” ask the same “origin” questions. Is Origin:

  • Where our Original ancestors were born? What if they mostly lived somewhere other than where they were originally born?
  • Where we, ourselves, were born? What if we mostly lived somewhere other than where we were originally born?
  • Where we are now citizens?
  • Where we live now even if we are not yet citizens?

When we move to another place, it’s never without a lot of anxiety and difficulties… but I have a feeling that most people move because they want better lives and are willing to risk everything. That is why my grandparents moved to Hawaii from Japan. That is why my husband and I moved to Oregon from Hawaii. Is that such a bad motivation? Isn’t that how progress is made? By people wanting better lives for themselves and their children?

The immigration issue is very complex. But it seems to me that the screening at our borders could be simplified if we ask different questions of those wanting to be admitted to our country. Questions such as:

  • Why do you want to live in the United States?
  • Do you know anyone in the U.S. who can help you until you are on your feet?
  • What kind of work can you do if admitted to the USA?
  • Will you promise to be a good person while in the USA (and if you do something bad like rape, kill, torture or maim another human being, then you can be deported … and to be fair, maybe any American who does any of these things can be deported to the country their ancestors came from if it’s decided that ancestral origins define where we came from)?
  • And are you a human being (as opposed to an alien from another planet – although, perhaps one day, we may need to be open to them as well if they will help us with the multitude of problems we are creating for ourselves, our country, and our planet … )?

 

Valerie Katagiri is co-editor of Where Are You From: An Anthology of Asian American Writing and coordinates the web-blogs for the book’s related AsianAmericanWriting.com website. She would love to hear your stories.

* Email Valerie at info@asianamericanwriting.com if you have personal stories and essays (and videos, art, poems, etc) that you want to share with our readers.




Repatriating Myself: Becoming Asian American August 10th, 2019 posted by Val Katagiri

Contributed by special guest writer, Michelle Hicks, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog)

Correcting my mother’s emails and work announcements almost every day was tiring. She called me every day at all hours, saying that her request was very important and I should not let her down. Everyone will see her communication, so it is best not to mess up. Growing up, I was always annoyed with her because this responsibility fell to me, a 10-year-old. I saw how people treated her, felt how inconvenient it was for me to incessantly proofread every single document she produced, and was angry that I was the translator of important documents. Moreover, I saw how she got passed over for promotion countless times because of my failures to translate well enough. I just did not understand why she did not just try harder to improve her English and do it herself.

As a result, I never wanted to be “that Korean” who couldn’t speak English or who was stuck at a dead-end job. I wanted to be the “American Dream” my mom hoped for. As a misguided kid, this meant the rejection of everything it means to be Korean outside of my house. I tried with every fiber of my being to reject my heritage and who I was in order to assimilate. I spent extra time doing my English homework so I could learn what good grammar was. I begged my mom for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of jigae or other homemade meals she made with love.

In these moments, I didn’t realize how much Whiteness I had internalized or how entitled I was to believe that I was better than where I came from. My mother has given me everything, food, an education, and love, and with that I bought into the myth of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” In my mind if she just “tried harder” and did more, then we could have the coveted Dream; however, upon entering high school, I realized how much my mother had done for me and how “trying harder” was impossible because she was already doing everything she could to make my sister’s and my lives better. She had carried her dreams across an ocean for us and pushed us to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that she didn’t have when she was our age.

Only then was I able to take the necessary space to fully understand how common my experience of proofreading parents’ emails and other communications is in the Asian American community. For the first time, I found a kinship in my community, because I was finally able to feel a unity in our shared experiences and understand a solidarity in our struggle for a better future. By seeing others who were my age unabashedly unafraid to be themselves, Asian and all, I finally could feel comfortable with myself. I started the long process of repatriating myself. Now, I am more freely speaking our language, practicing our customs and traditions, and connecting with my mother. It led me to become passionate about inclusion, equity, and the issues that affect the Asian American community and other communities of color. Though this realization has taken me almost a decade and a half, I am finally learning to be Asian American.

Bio: Michelle Hicks is the Census Intern at APANO. She is originally from San Jose, CA, and is Korean American. She is a senior at Willamette University and upon graduation will receive a Bachelors of Arts in Politics with minors in American Ethnic Studies and Spanish. Michelle is passionate about political engagement, civil rights, and human rights and hopes to cultivate a more equitable Oregon.

 

APANO: Established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key focus areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.