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Archive for April, 2008

A well-known playwright in the Asian American community wrote me recently and said, “Everything I’ve done–in theater, in publishing . . . is more activism than art.”

I write with an activist spirit, but I prefer not to compromise art simply to promulgate my personal ideologies. The line between activism and art is hard to locate, however. I write to express my essence and as an Asian female living in the United States, racism, feminism, and cultural imperialism come into play. Not writing about my experiences in these realms would be disingenuous. Writing about it runs the risk of coming across as proselytizing, as somewhat angry and bitter, as flaunting the I’ve-been-marginalized card.

When re-reading my manuscript (what I have of it so far), story and politics intertwine like fibers of rope. I cannot pull out one without unraveling the other. Is that really what I want? I’ve read works where story and politics are layers. I haven’t the artistry to make my novel layered. It’s just rope.

As an Asian American artist, one faces an audience of stiff-lipped folk with their arms folded. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Too much Asian Americanism and people tell you to get over yourself. Too little of it and people accuse you of being white-washed, ignorant, entrenched in self-denial. You can’t write in an art vacuum. You can’t write fiction like a middle-aged white male, but you weather just as much hostility if you write like Frank Chin.

I don’t know whether I should say “My writing is more activism than art” or “My writing is more art than activism” or “My writing is both” or “My writing is neither.” I shouldn’t have to say any one of the above, but that’s most likely not going to be an option. I’m not saying every one of us must explain our actions and expressions, but if you keep on burning crosses on front lawns, at some point you have to stop and give your reasons.

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Sum Ting Wong

A guy I’ve known since high school who I keep in touch with on occasion e-mailed me a forward meant to be humorous. Here it is:

Su Wong marries Lee Wong. The next year, the Wongs have a new baby. The nurse brings over a lovely, healthy, bouncy, but definitely a Caucasian, White baby boy.
‘Congratulations,’ says the nurse to the new parents. ‘Well Mr. Wong, what will you and Mrs. Wong name the baby?’
The puzzled father looks at his new baby boy and says, ‘Well, two Wong’s don’t make a white, so I think we will name him…
Sum Ting Wong

I can’t articulate exactly why it bothers me that a white guy, from a small hick town whose only tie to the Asian American culture is, well, me and he’s never tried to expand that diversity, is sending this forward as opposed to an Asian friend. What further bothers me is that he included the names and e-mail addresses of everyone he was forwarding it to and other than me and an Indian guy, everybody else on the list was white.

And because life has a funny way of having everything happen all at once, just recently I had a conversation with a girl from my hometown which didn’t bother me per se, but in light of the e-mail forward I received, I couldn’t help but recall the conversation:

Small Town Girl: “Wow, so you’re in the Bay Area now. I hear there’s a lot of your people out there.”

Me: “Um…yes. You could say that.”

STG: “You’re so brave! I don’t know how I could live in a place like that, where everybody on the streets speak foreign languages. When I’m in America, I like to hear English. You know what I mean? Hey, so like when you meet Asian people in California, do you speak Asian to them or English?”

Me: “We speak Quechua.”

STG: “Really!”

Me: “No.”

With high speed Internet at our fingertips, variegated media outlets, and books, I wonder how it is so many people can still be utterly tabula rasa when it comes to other cultures. Granted I’m not informed enough about, say, Latino, Persian, Bengali, Black, or other ethnic enclaves, but I’d like to think I know enough to avoid putting my foot in my own mouth. It’s sad when people aren’t interested in learning about anything that’s too-different from them and instead wind up asking me inane questions like “When you meet Asian people in California, do you speak Asian to them or English?”

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