In August, the Smithsonian Asian American Pacific Center will host the second Asian American Literature Festival. Re-imagining Migration’s Adam Strom was fortunate to be able to speak with one of the organizers of the festival, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis. He is a Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the founding director of the Washington, DC-based arts nonprofit The Asian American Literary Review.
Adam S: Lawrence, thank you for taking the time to speak with Re-imagining Migration. I hope you don’t mind me beginning with a personal question. How did you get interested in Asian American literature?
Lawrence-Minh: Thank you for having me, and don’t mind at all. I always like to credit one of my mentors, the wonderful Patty Chu of George Washington University. I also trace my interest to growing up in a refugee family. My mom was the first of her generation to settle in the U.S. more or less permanently, so we sponsored most of my family who arrived afterwards as refugees from Vietnam throughout the 80s and 90s. Romantically I like to think of the storytelling of aunts and uncles and cousins as my initial brushes with Asian American “literature”–with a brand of storytelling/meaning-making that didn’t just engage the experience of Asians in America, but also shifted how I understood America more broadly. At home I was hearing elliptical accounts of Vietnam, the War, refugee experience (and ghosts!), while everywhere else I was getting the dominant narratives of 80s and 90s America–ones without ever a single reference to Vietnamese refugees.
It’s not just that the narratives were different. My family’s stories forced me to resee what I was absorbing unconsciously in school and pretty much all public spaces so that I could no longer do so unconsciously anymore. My aunts and uncles were acutely conscious their stories didn’t get to exist in public, in America or Vietnam. Which pushed me to think about why and how those stories were erased, why dominant narratives needed to erase them to work. And what that kind of perpetual gaslighting meant for us, and for a community’s historical memory.
Once you go down that rabbithole, there’s no coming back, I think.
Adam S: Many of our readers are educators, what would you want them to know about the state of Asian American literature? What should they be reading? What should they be teaching?
Lawrence-Minh: The state of the union is good! Beyond the sheer volume of Asian American literary publishing today, there’s a thriving support infrastructure of Asian American arts organizations with collective commitments to social justice, and to one another. Asian American literature is more than a disparate constellation of writers and writing, it’s a living, breathing community. The Festival itself is the product of community curation–a wide range of organizations and institutions collaborating to share resources, honor elders, incubate emerging writers, grow readerships, provide care.
Education is a central focus of the Festival. The organization Kundiman is hosting a 4-hour Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to expand the platform’s Asian American literature resources, which we invite educators to draw from and help to grow. A group of local DC-area students are hosting the program “(Re)Centering Sensitivity: an MFAoC,” a workshop rethinking creative writing education to better serve students of color; check the Festival website post-Festival for student-designed assignments and writing prompts. The poet and novelist David Mura is also running a workshop on creative writing and race, based on his new book, which I’d highly recommend to educators, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. And one of our featured readings, by Ocean Vuong, from his new novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous–one of the most heralded Asian American titles since Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and one I’d highly recommend to educators, particularly those interested in addressing refugee experience and queer life–will cap a series of “class discussions” we’re holding throughout the festival to teach and process the novel together. Visit the Festival website post-Festival for a bank of discussion questions and other resources on the novel.
I’d also point educators to the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Learning Together page, run by our education specialist Andrea Kim Neighbors–it’s always a great resource for Asian American art, history, and culture. In August the page will feature Andrea’s interview with Sarah Park Dahlen, a scholar who’s curating our children’s literature and YA books sessions at the Festival, working in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, an organization all K-12 educators should familiarize themselves with.
One last set of suggestions. In a recent essay published in the Massachusetts Review, Franny Choi writes that “the future is femme and queer.” She means that so many of the most important emerging voices in Asian American lit (and other literatures from communities of color) are queer. She means also, of course, that we are in a global moment of reckoning with gender and sexual identity, with literature serving as a crucial portal into that reckoning. Franny just finished curating an online series for the Smithsonian called “Queer Check-ins,” part of our digital exhibition A Day in the Queer Life of Asian Pacific America. The check-ins are video poems with footage shot by the poets themselves of their daily landscapes, so that the series maps out queer space across the U.S. and beyond. (The video poems will be playing onsite throughout the Festival, with a live “Check-ins” session on August 4.)
We know we are light years behind where we need to be in terms of teaching gender and sexuality, in terms of our educational system upholding–better, advancing–the humanity of queer and trans peoples, the most disproportionately vulnerable among us. So in terms of Asian American lit, I’d suggest reading/watching/teaching work that engages queer life and love, precarity and death, joy and expression. I’d ask them to consider starting with the “Queer Check-ins” series, expanding outward to the works of the featured poets–Joseph Legaspi, Wo Chan, Lauren Bullock, Shailja Patel, Ryka Aoki, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kazim Ali, Terisa Siagatonu, Soham Patel, Paul Tran, Kitty Tsui, and Franny herself.
Adam S: There is an incredible diversity in the experience of Asian Americans in the United States. I’m wondering, are there themes that connect Asian American literature? To what extent do you think Asian American literature is reflective of the lives of Asian Americans?
Lawrence-Minh: It’s an abiding (and thorny) question, how to make sense of “Asian American” as a viable category given the incredible diversity you mention. As for the extent to which Asian American lit is reflective of Asian American lived experience: let me work up to an answer.
Asian American lit undeniably takes up certain themes again and again. We find these commonalities stretching across regions, across histories, across ethnic communities. Rather than list them out, I’d rather think a little about why they recur. One answer is they give meaning to “Asian American,” they gather us together under a banner of both shared experience and shared commitment. Historically we have “become” pan-Asian American in the process of organizing against certain social injustices, exclusions, and violences (Vincent Chin’s murder, to cite one famous example), and much of our literature operates similarly, full of textual occasions to “cohere” in particular strategic directions.
But forming any theme, like forming any identity, always means foreclosing the possibility of others. To say “Asian American” is to flatten us into a kind of plank you can manageably look across–or walk. Because Asian America is so unwieldy as a category, the act of making it wieldy is always a violence, with victims. Who gets to decide the themes that represent and define us? Who is getting left out?
Publishing doesn’t sidestep this dynamic. Another key reason you see common themes in Asian American lit is that publishing houses and reading publics have expected and wanted certain themes from us. Who knows how much shadow writing is out there by Asian Americans that was never published because it didn’t conform to popular desires? And how do we make sense of the consumption of what has been published? Science fiction writer Ken Liu sees Asian American lit as often being put in service of American myths about immigration and assimilation. I’ve been thinking about a notion of “respectability trauma,” the kinds of trauma that make Asian Americans legible, that are respectable, pitiable, that as consumed by American reading publics help confirm America as a humanitarian savior. I worry that as our literature works to document our trauma, it is also providing expiation to an American citizenry perpetually anxious about the nation’s moral standing. I worry about non-respectable trauma, trauma that threatens American sensibilities, being hidden away.
So to what extent does our literature reflect our lived experience? There are always imbalances in terms of which voices get lifted up. So it’s always a partial reflection, in some periods perhaps better than others, or in some ways perhaps better than others. We must always pay attention to whose voices are being drowned out and ask why, whose are being held up and what agendas they might unconsciously serve. We have to read responsibly, and be intentional about being involved in the processes of creation and promotion.
Adam S: Asian immigrants have been in the United States since the years before the civil war and yet, it seems that in every generation Asian Americans are often treated as newcomers or as not really American. First, do you agree with that characterization? And then, how do think Asian American writers deal with being treated as the other?
Lawrence-Minh: You have to agree with the characterization. It’s not up for debate, unless you want to pretend it away. Erika Lee has a forthcoming book, America for Americans, cataloging the long history of xenophobia in the U.S. It’s always been part of our national fabric, and it’s still part of it.
At the same time, it’s important we doth not protest too much. By that I mean it’s important not to deny we’re newcomers in a way that ignores the reality that we often are. There are always newly arriving waves of Asian immigrants and refugees, from before the Civil War up until right now, and none of these new arrivals have any less claim to humanity, any less need for shelter and care, any less right to shape what it means to be American going forward. Their newness–their “FOB-iness”–should never be something Asian Americans who’ve been here longer want to distance ourselves from in order to secure our own belonging. We can insist upon differentiation, including disaggregation of data when it comes to surveying Asian American communities and needs, but that’s not the same as tacitly accepting a nativist framing of newness as less than.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1980 novel China Men is a literary catalog of anti-Chinese immigrant energies. America Is In the Heart, Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 novel, is among other things a grim chronicle of anti-Filipino sentiment in the early 20th century. How do Asian American writers deal with othering? By making visible its workings, and by deeply interrogating its roots. I mentioned earlier the writer David Mura and the workshop he’s hosting at the Festival. David has always been a careful student of Fanon and Baldwin, particularly their theorizations of othering. I knew Baldwin for “Price of the Ticket” and Giovanni’s Room, but I came to this thread of thinking by way of David, this searing quote in particular, from Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work:
An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.
It’s a line that’s shaped David’s work, and my own, and I hope that of numerous other Asian American writers and readers who’ve crossed paths with David, and, by way of his lead, Baldwin. And I think it’s one helpful answer to your question. Asian American writers deal with othering in 20th and 21st century American space by trying to understand why it happens, who it serves, and by looking outwards at how othering has manifested in different contexts, in different times, as suffered by other communities of color. Asian American lit owes a deep debt to African American lit, and indigenous literatures, Latinx literatures, Arab diasporic literatures, not to mention postcolonial thinkers across the globe, drawing upon their works, seeing in their struggles glimmers of our own, seeing the prospects of liberation as necessarily grounded in shared struggle.
Adam S: This is probably a harder question than it seems, but what are you most excited about with regards to the Asian American Literature Festival? Not everyone can make it down to DC in person, how can those of us unable to attend engage in the festival’s activities?
Lawrence-Minh: We’re throwing something called Queer Literaoke, a mashup of literary reading and karaoke (with an all-queer-identifying lineup) that’s a lot of fun. We’re hosting an “EdScape Room”–an escape room designed by detective fiction writer Ed Lin that groups of 5 or 6 enter and solve together. We’re hosting “Queer and Trans Ghost Stories,” an interactive campfire-style session featuring writer Mimi Mondal and arts collective p0stb1nary, curated by Mayx, a really, really talented young musican, curator, and thinker. I single out these programs because they stage new kinds of experiential encounters with literature, a chief focus of the festival: exploring what it means to bring literature into the museum.
For those who can’t make it to the Festival in person, our virtual offerings include:
–Invocation Poems commissioned for our opening ceremony, a Poets’ Peace Breakfast co-hosted by the Poetry Foundation and Sakina Halal Grill to be held in DC’s Franklin Square Park, by Yanyi, Kazim Ali, Juliet Kono, Christy Passion, Prageeta Sharma, and Cathy Linh Che;
–A twin folio of Invocation Poems for the Breakfast up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, with poems by Cathy Song, Arthur Sze, Ching-In Chen, J. Mae Barizo, Mai Der Vang, Sarah Gambito, Sharon Wang, Hari Alluri, and Carolina Ebeid;
–VS podcast live from the Festival, hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, with Kundiman guests Sarah Gambito, Joseph Legaspi, and Cathy Linh Che;
-Intimate Lectures on Asian American literary history by novelist Monique Truong and poet Arthur Sze, available by Library of Congress webcast; and
-the aforementioned “Queer Check-Ins” video poems.
Stay tuned to the main 2019 Asian American Literature Festival website for:
-audio of Mimi Mondal’s queer ghost story;
-resources we compile for Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous;
-resources we compile from the MFAoC workshop; and
-a series of literary addresses assessing the state and futures of Asian American lit, including by Craig Santos Perez, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Ken Liu, Barbara Jane Reyes, Samina Najmi, and Brandon Shimoda.