One of my most meaningful collaborations has deepened over the three years I’ve been involved with She Who Has No Master(s), a collective of women and gender-non-conforming writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. Our collective formed in affiliation with the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. This weekend we performed our newest poem #metoovietnamesebodies in San Francisco, where we also held individual readings of our own work.
We performed on Saturday at the International Hotel Manilatown Heritage Center on Kearny Street, a historic site of Asian American activism. The I-Hotel event was prefaced by poetic and dramatic performances by two classes of Vietnamese American literature at SF State University. On Sunday we performed at the Asian Art Museum, which houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world. Both events were part of APICC’s 21st annual United States of Asian America Festival and the city’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
This year’s APICC festival theme is Regenerative Community, which aligns with the mission of our writing collective. When imagining our contribution to this theme, Aimee Phan suggested that we echo Me Too. Our structure and process remain innovative. As with our previous collaborative poems, we compiled a master document (over 15 pages!) before two of our members edited a single poem with interwoven contributions. As before the use of color signals our nod to concrete poetry, palpable each time we publish. When performing we take turns reading our parts, our tones and experiences distinct yet constellated.
Our poem joins the chorus of those demanding another world, where women, men, and children remain safe from sexual transgression. As Arundhati Roy wrote in War Talk, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.” Roy’s realism that many of us won’t be here to greet the other world reminds me of the long-reaching aims of Generation Five, an Oakland nonprofit that aims to end sexual abuse within five generations. Likewise, we know that writing a poem won’t save the next victim from harassment or assault. But we’re also here to save ourselves and others from isolation after a lifetime of undesired experiences and mandated silences.
Our resulting multivoice poem #metoovietnamesebodies challenges the double silencing and layered shame we experience, both as women and as Vietnamese, when navigating direct and indirect assaults, including the admonition that we ‘brought it upon ourselves.’ This age-old patriarchal prescription instructs us how to dress, walk, talk, sit, and smile to protect ourselves from predatory men. Yet these rape myths never really guard us but instead bring blame. “Why didn’t you…?” is a refrain more common than “How dare they!” Along those lines, our poem defies the Asian cultural mandate to “save face” about such “shameful” experiences to keep intact the image of the family by foregrounding the mirage of one’s purity and the impression of one’s placid nature. Even our mothers demand we save face, a betrayal of empathy. We refuse. And our message resonates for certain generations. Tram Le writes, “So much work to do to love our Vietnamese bodies! Thank you to all of you strong writers for your brave work of putting yourselves out there so that we can see that we’re not alone in our pain and struggle.”
After our collective reading in Samsung Hall at the Asian Art Museum, several members of our collective had pop-up readings in the galleries of the museum. I read several poems and a memoir essay in Gallery 10 within earshot of the only Champa statues I have seen exhibited in the US. After reading an excerpt from The Gift Horse of War, I reminded those assembled that although our ancestors created the masterpieces in the museum we are still here, despite conditions of genocide, colonialism, war, diaspora. I felt my ancestors with me as I presented, not just the artisans who carved those sacred statues but also those whose traces are scarcely palpable if not in my breath, blood, bones.
Most people relegate friendship to a lesser status in the hierarchy of relationships, but friends have been divine intervention for me. The process is mutually impactful, but every once in a while I’m sent someone light years ahead of me, to guide me.
Jen was sent to me at age 5. I first saw her in the office of our elementary school but we met later that day on Swan Meadow Lane.
From day one she modeled honesty, vulnerability, and strength.
She was my confidant, my co-explorer of dark woods, my co-catcher of crawdads, and my best friend. She was blunt, sincere, hilarious, loyal, and good. She taught me how to communicate and how to love.
And when I didn’t have the courage to save myself, she did it for me.
I’ve been reading the news since my childhood in Texas. One parent even claims I was reading the paper by age four, before kindergarten, which I attribute to an early facility with language and to my job as the cultural broker for my refugee mother. By high school, however, the newspaper was my route to understanding history and politics beyond the narrow scope of Oklahoma classrooms, as I devoured yesterday’s Tulsa World while sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, after getting home from school. To date, history and politics are two registers of continued interest as a scholar, writer, and professor. So I often incorporate current events into my lectures, noting synchronicities to draw attention to the continued relevance of our curriculum. Last April, for example, my class was reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner at the same time that Trump dropped the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan. That day during my lecture I brought this news to their attention. I explained how the bomb had terrorized civilians, quoting Afghanis, and reminding my students that the US war in Afghanistan, although officially over in 2014, is far from over.
These days, as a practice of engagement with the world, I read the headlines at least twice a day and often commit part of my day to investigating a particular story. Today it was an effort to better understand “Incel,” a lethal branch of the men’s rights movement, as misogyny evolves to kill women in new ways. While reading I remembered a debate with a bookstore customer about Elliot Rodger’s massacre at Isla Vista. This unsettling conversation revealed that some men think that all men want to commit massacres when frustrated over celibacy. Yet I also recalled David Langstaff‘s powerful essay about the toxic masculinity of Rodger’s massacre. I’d met David at the same bookstore, where I worked at the time. The Rodger apologist was shadow whereas David was light, both passing under the same roof and meeting me in the same exact location but with radical difference.
Today I considered the fraught intersections between rape culture, mass-murder culture, and terrorism. I enlarged my Manosphere vocabulary (shudder) by reading more about Incel while researching the Incel-inspired massacre in Toronto, the worst Canadian mass killing in three decades. Incel is toxic masculinity’s lethal expression of male entitlement to women’s bodies. But I also looked to the light, to the Good News. I took time to read, appreciate, and discuss that Bill Cosby has finally been convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault, after years of attacking and gaslighting victims, after previous failed efforts to bring him to justice. Accused by 60+ women, his conviction rests upon a narrow scope, so the verdict is minor compared to the enormity of his crimes. But it’s still a step in the right direction, this day in court, partly because Cosby’s celebrity status has been both a lure and a shield. Until now.
It’s not a complete victory. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Justice would be if the first of his victims had secured a conviction that prevented more than 50 more women from enduring the same. Justice would be if they had not endured attacks on their character and truthfulness up through this trial with a vicious defense lawyer trotting out old stereotypes about promiscuity and the rest.” And there is no commensurate justice for sexual assault, if you think about it, considering that one’s pre-assault psyche can never be restored, even after the body heals. How can any justice system adequately address that form of foundational harm? And why should survivors accept our “second rape” by a legal system that often discredits and diminishes us, or else technically believes us but punishes perps with horrifically light sentences? Yet in the age of Me Too it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to hide sexual predatory behavior behind celebrity status…a long overdue change to Standard Operating Procedure.
Yet how to move forward? Brilliant poet, committed ally, and dear friend Joe Lamb writes to me:
We do need a real “men’s movement,” one that recognizes oppression, one that works hard to help heal the spiritual diseases of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and classism, one that pushes for reparations, one brave enough to support equal rights for all peoples, one brave enough to admit to and atone for horrors of our collective past, one that defends the life sustaining systems of the Earth. Incel is pathologically adolescent. Just because your diapers have swastikas doesn’t mean you’re a man. Manhood is a construct.
Sometime in recent months, I passed along research query about Buddhist cosmology to Bryan Thao Worra, Lao American writer. I wanted to know if the obscure legend of a Cham centaur (learned through fieldwork in 2010) is an imprint of our Buddhist influences. Certain Cham communities have maintained religious syncretism with some of our Buddhist elements, so I asked him about centaurs in Buddhism so I could look into this possibility.
You know you have a poet on your hands when instead of directly replying to your query, they poem our conjoined route and destination.
And I was delighted to discover today this poem he sent on 15 April, the onset of Champa New Year celebrations. Today is the birthday of my dear friend with whom I traveled Cambodia, where we learned together the mention of a centaur in Cham cosmology. So I passed Bryan’s poem to her as a birthday gift.
Because some get a poem.
When I was a child in Texas, my mother kept a framed illustration of Chăm mother goddess Po Nagar in our home, one of the few early memories of my Chăm-American self-awareness. During the American war, my mother used to pray for protection, with my grandmother, at Po Nagar’s temple in Nha Trang. Since most of our family survived the war, we were indeed protected from death even as the war ravaged our family in other ways.
For the past seventeen years, I have kept Po Nagar’s statue in a living room altar. I honor Po Nagar as a protective ancestor, an aspect of the sacred divine in my ancestral line. She is cosmology. She is genealogy.
Po Nagar is also central to celebrations of the Chăm New Year, which begins today. I was fortunate to attend the New Year festival with my family at Po Nagar’s temple in Nha Trang in April 2006. She’s an agriculture goddess so the crops (and their bounty) are central to our offerings and prayers.
Happy Champa New Year to Chăm people far and wide. May this season of abundance nourish and honor you.
My earliest ecopoem (circa 1986) was titled “Spring is Here!” with very intentional punctuation. Exclamation. That little Julie still wakes in awe each time she’s able to fold away the blanket of winter and welcome what’s next. Plus each spring Persephone got to leave her confinement in Hades, according to myth. She was my first #metoo echoed from the ancients. Each spring I throw her an honorary party simply because she’s free.
As my favorite season arrives I welcome the sense of renewed possibility, as dormant wishes spring to life, as tender buds appear along every bare branch.
We love despite our fears of loss.
And the pollinators remind us that the plants are still in charge.
For this year’s Association for Asian American Studies conference, I was fortunate to appear in Valerie Soe’s panel Centering Legacies of Resistance: Asian American Visual Culture Strategies. Eight a.m. panels slay me, but somehow we all made it and even gathered an audience. Our discussant was Tina Takemoto and I co-presented with [rock stars] Johanna Poethig, Laura Kina, and Jenifer Woffard!
My presentation was called (Auto)biographical Persistence: Cham-American Filmmakers Defy The Rhetoric of Disappearance. First I historicized and contextualized the Chăm people and the erroneous notion of Chăm “extinction,” including my childhood encounter with the misnomer. I noted that the Khmer Rouge even used this idea to disguise its genocidal intent towards the Chăm in Cambodia. I demonstrated how film/video functions as an effective strategy of visibility and subjectivity for four 1.5 and 2nd generation Chăm-American media artists: Anida Yoeu Ali, Asiroh Cham, Saiffudin Amath, and me.
I was the first Chăm-American filmmaker, so I am grateful that my community has grown in the 20 years since I first studied film. I am also proud of my solidarity with Chăm from Cambodia since some of the first-generation “old guard” maintain a kind of provincialism regarding Chăm authenticity. In my view, this approach is too limiting, as I demonstrated in 2015 when I co-directed the reGenerating Champa conference with attention to Chăm from all over the place. Because the borders crossed us.
The Hawker Prize for Southeast Asian Poetry invites editors of SE Asia-focused literary journals to nominate poems they believe are deserving of greater recognition.
AJARpress nominated the collaborative poem “Love | Object | Treason,” written in May 2017 by She Who Has No Master(s). Our writers collective has now learned that our poem received an Honorable Mention. This visually-enriched poem addresses sex, desire, love, objectification, death, violence, history, and memory. We appreciate that AJARpress nominated us and that the Hawker Prize saw value in our work.
She Who Has No Master(s) has published our second collaborative poem “Love | Object | Treason” in the fifth issue of AJARpress, titled “Song Song | Para||el.” We wrote this poem in May during our retreat in Corsica, France. Interwoven voices in this poem are Aimee Phan, Angie Chau, Anna Moï, Dao Strom, Hoa Nguyen, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Julie Thi Underhill, Lan Duong, and Thao P. Nguyen. The poem is trilingual, in English, Vietnamese, and French. Our translators were Genève Chao and Quan Tran.
Here’s how it begins…
I’ve been estranged from a significant portion of my family for most of my life, but as we age, my younger sister’s become more deliberate about gathering family. I am now forming relationships with nieces and nephews I hardly know because they grew up far away.
This year’s campground compound at Mt. Baker (in Washington State) was the perfect summertime reunion. We stayed on the river and formed a little tent village. During the day we hiked or swam. We had plenty of time to talk around the campfire, at night.
One nephew asked me a series of questions to get to know me, and I realized how much my absence (and the mystery of my identity) may be palpable to the younger generations. In turn, I want to be more present in their lives.
This is a good place to begin.
My writers collective She Who Has No Master(s) has published our first collaborative poem, “From My Mother I Inherited,” in BOMB, a magazine I’ve admired for 20 years. Our founder Dao Strom arranged for this innovative printing/attribution design at a press in Portland, and BOMB maintained it!
We most recently performed this poem during a reading at the American Library in Paris. We’ve previously performed it at readings and festivals in Portland, Berkeley, and the Marin Headlands.
I am honored to be part of the collective and to grow within our deep-hearted excavation(s).
My paternal grandfather was a French military officer stationed in Indochina during the decolonization wars that eventually drove France out of the region. Every once in a while people actually guess that I am French, including in Cambodia in 2010 where I was repeatedly asked by my Cambodian traveling companions to hide my French Nose to avoid incurring additional charges for our group in Siem Reap. (I hid behind a handkerchief.) Yet this recognition of my French-ness is few and far between. Compared to Việt Nam, I know little about France besides the aspects of French culture/art/cuisine that are palpable in the US, besides the French words we’ve adopted into English, besides the study of French colonization and occupation of Indochina. I was excited to go to France not only to spend time with my friends and collaborators but to see my grandfather’s country firsthand.
This month my writers collective She Who Has No Master(s) was gifted a private residence in Corsica for a writing retreat. We each had individual rooms in a large villa near Plage de Palombaggia in Porto-Vecchio. We ate and collaborated together, yet also worked on solo projects in our own little area scouted for the day. We prepared for our upcoming reading in Paris by writing together (in person and online) and reading our collaborative poem together. I came to savor that villa and the friendships/collaborations strengthened under its roof.
It was stunningly beautiful on Corsica, an island. We stayed within a short walk of the Mediterranean in a quiet seaside town. I’d often wake at sunrise and go upstairs to the balcony just to watch the sky and sea change color with the gift of another day. I savored those still mornings, those bird symphonies.
I took solo naturalist hikes where I photographed, sketched, and identified trees, animals, and rocks. This process always helps me feel more connected and grounded. The Italian (Stone) Pine tree became one of my favorite trees to draw, and I later learned that they also grow in San Francisco. On my final day on the island I followed the coastline north as far as I could go, then south, with the same idea.
Our writer’s collective also had a reading at the American Library in Paris at the end of the month, where we shared individual works and performed our collaborative poem “From My Mother I Inherited,” a bittersweet braided maternal memoir of pain and resilience. The library was standing room only and it was evident that Paris had been waiting a long time for this event. One audience member, a white American woman living in Paris, explained that our impact as writers is in our honest collective vulnerability. Writers don’t collaborate often enough, and rarely with enhanced power.
Conversely, we were sometimes subjected to problematic and essentializing questions. One audience member, a white American woman living in Paris, decided to survey our bilingualism in the middle of a group photo shoot in the library. For her sizing us up linguistically (are they really Vietnamese?) was more crucial than just listening to (and learning from) our experiences as diasporic Vietnamese women.
Another audience member, a Vietnamese-French man, told me after the reading that we should not write together as a collective of women, we should not openly challenge white supremacy (as did one of the individual readings), and we’re not permitted to speak anything of war unless we were born before 1963. I was even asked if we believe in Malcolm X. I pointed to my collaborator/friend’s daughter, sitting near, and said, “This child goes to Malcolm X Elementary School. We all believe in Malcolm X.” I also challenged his mandates on our writing, as diplomatically as possible. “Perhaps you should form a collective of male writers born before 1963? Since you’re worried about omission and representation?” He shook his head. “I’m not a writer,” he admitted. And yet he still felt it was acceptable to tell us that we shouldn’t be writing.
In truth, many people (including the first generation to immigrate) disavow the reality of hybridity for diasporic people. What does it mean to be Vietnamese enough to satisfy an audience who came, in part, to satisfy a passing curiosity about our kind? What is Vietnamese “authenticity” when we’re living outside of our original territory, most conversant in another tongue by virtue of survival? Does Vietnamese-ness cut off at a certain calendar year? With blood quantum? Birthplace? As diasporic women (and nonbinary) writers we continue to negotiate disparaging measurements and other strategies of exclusion, both in France and in the US, both inside and outside “our” communities.
And always….photography. My other reason for wanting to see Paris. With Henri Cartier-Bresson in my heart and a camera in hand, I also covered the city’s topography on foot, flanking the riverside picnics of the Seine in the midst of the worst heat wave in a century, heading to/from the landmark Eiffel Tower through various districts of the city. No matter how far I needed to go, I walked every time. I visited Notre Dame cathedral during Sunday services, lighting a candle, in gratitude for those I love. I rummaged around the infamous Shakespeare & Co bookstore with two friends from the writing collective, Isa and Dao. I rented a bicycle with two other friends, Hoa and Thao. I saw that the locks had been moved for fear of a bridge collapse and wondered which one belonged to Nancy and Steve back in California. I ate passionfruit gelato and watched street dancers in the Latin Quarter until past midnight.
This fortune teller ~ called a cootie catcher, chatterbox, salt cellar, or whirlybird ~ is a centuries-old form of origami used in children’s games.
According to Caitlin Schneider of Mental Floss, “Most sources suggest it’s possible that it appeared in Europe as early as the 17th century.” I suppose then that it traveled with children and adults who emigrated to the US from Europe.
As a child in the South, I had no idea I’d inherited an embedded European folk practice, when my friends and I used this fortune teller for a game called MASH that predicted our economic fortunes (or lack thereof) ~ Mansion, Apartment, Shack, or House were our possible futures, written in the innermost privacy of the origami, covered in flapped and folded triangles, until chosen. Sometimes we used instead the names of our crushes to see who were fated to love us in return.
But really, the possibilities were endless, as we attempted to steer ourselves into desirable futures.
So if you could make your own fortune teller now, today, which options would you give to yourself?
Ready, set … fold, write, unfold, fold, unfold….
During a photo shoot my musician client Carolyn requested that we go somewhere into nature, and a local redwood forest immediately came to mind. After a winding drive through the hills, I took a series of environmental portraits for her, and as we returned to the car I made a request for the one tree photo I’d envisioned thus far. Carolyn graciously took my camera and captured me laying below the root system of a redwood.
For years (in three countries thus far) I’ve been doing self-portraiture, with the assistance of others, while I’m tucked into some part of a tree, whether I’m inside the trunk or nestled amongst the roots. Although not as experimental as the work of Finnish-American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, through this series I add myself as human figure within an otherwise unmanipulated landscape. I am clearly a guest each time, in careful choreography.
At the projected time of the eclipse, I began wandering my neighborhood, looking eastward, while attempting to find the moon in the sky. After standing in a parking lot with an elder named Bonnie, whom I’d just met, I finally found something. “Is that the moon?” I asked, looking over the Berkeley hills. Yes, she agreed. It was so hard to see at first, completely dark and eerie.
Now that I knew where to look, I then walked the streets to find an impromptu eclipse-viewing party near Ohlone Parkway which included a WWII vet with a homemade telescope through which we could see the moon close-up. Together we watched the moon gradually lighten from below as we stood/sat around talking and thinking astronomical events, as we faced skyward.
I felt gratitude that I turned to the sky at an early age, because I still find solace and excitement there. I remember the first poetry I ever received recognition for, in sixth grade, concerned stars and planets. It was a free verse poem about the intergenerational experience of wonder at the heavens, and about the heavens’ conversation with us through millennia.
Even today, I appreciate how astronomical events pull us out of our homes, regardless our age or political beliefs or any other potential divide, to experience something remarkable together on the streets. The excitement in the air is palpable. And, at that moment, nothing else matters.
Then far later in the evening, one of those magical ice-in-atmosphere halos formed around the moon. It was huge, expanding across the entire night sky. My friends and I stood transfixed wondering how many others were also looking up, far past the eclipse hour, with the same sense of wonder.
One of my favorite artists is Ehren Tool, whose “cucking fups” are life changing. I first encountered them four or five years ago when one of my ethnic studies students (also Tool’s art student) invited me to her art opening at UC Berkeley and introduced me to him and his work. He is a potter, and as he explained in 2011, “I decorate cups with images of war and violence. The use of these icons reveals how abstract war is for most of our culture—so abstract in fact, that somehow it’s okay to use images of war as toys.”
Instead Tool puts quotes and images and 3D impressions of war iconography that makes the [be]holder consider war in a more nuanced way, in my experience. One such cup contains a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, addressing the social and political role of veterans as peacemakers, a demographic to which Tool belongs.
I believe this quote captures for me something I appreciate, very much, about Tool’s work and life.
This cup was displayed during the Special Reception for Back Azimuth, a veteran artists movement residency featuring artists from Combat Paper and Warrior Writers, among others, learning clay for the first time. This informal residency includes three events that are open to the public: an open studio, a portfolio show, and special exhibition at Worth Ryder Art Gallery, seen here. Artists included Jesse Albrecht, Kevin Basl, Dalton Brink, Lovella Calica, Drew Cameron, Daniel Donovan, Amber Hoy, Aaron Hughes, Ash Kyrie, Ehren Tool, and Eli Wright.
Grounded in the rich history of veteran artists, with a nod to famed UC Berkeley ceramicist and veteran Peter Voulkos, this group of contemporary artists has realized this informal residency program in order to work together to create and exhibit artwork that challenges social norms and addresses misconceptions about veterans during a time of perpetual war.
As for the group’s compelling name, in land navigation, an azimuth is the route taken and a back azimuth is the calculated way back to the original point.
During the residency and opening, I got to see my friend Eli Wright, a veteran medic whose powerful sculpture Spare Parts emphasized the particular ruptures and hauntings of doctoring during war, something shared by Viet Nam War medics I know.
We must listen to those who bear the true costs of war, on any “side” of conflict, even (and especially) when we’re made uncomfortable by their stories. Art and literature are particular rich access points for veterans’ experiences, so I recommend seeking it out whenever possible. I believed this four years ago when I created the blog Writing Through the Wounds of War, and I believe it still.
Part of my gravitation to the West Coast had to do with trees. Actually it’s a toss up between the old growth trees and the Pacific seastacks, the selling points on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest as a child, when I decided to move there once I grew up. Promise kept. The first place I moved after leaving home was only a few hours away from the Olympic Rain Forest in Washington. My undergraduate alma mater was built in the middle of the woods in Olympia. It felt like home to be enveloped in so many trees. Since the infamous rain made the trees grow even taller, I came to forgive even seasonal affective sadness, as long as the trees drank in all that rain in exchange for my lack of vitamin D3.
When I later moved to California, I was a bit nervous to be away from the evergreen forests of the Land of Endless Rain. They’d been within a short drive for all of those years. Yet after moving south, I came to love the eucalyptus (despite their status as non-native) and cypress trees of California, in particular. I transplanted myself in the shadow of the tallest stand of Tasmanian blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) in the world, planted in 1882 in Berkeley. (It is also the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America). Yet every once in a while I still make my way to old-growth redwoods in order to be with the truly ancestral trees. Nothing else feels as grounding to me, in the classic and metaphysical senses of the word.
Here’s my birthday visit to the Marin Headlands, two years ago, as I acquainted myself with an old great-great-great-great-grandparent of Muir Woods. In awe!
I haven’t really initiated my second favorite season until I’ve sat in a sundrenched park, reading and writing and eating. Today I cued my inner seasonal soundtrack via Janis Joplin’s Summertime in Dolores Park in the Mission District of San Francisco.
I wrote in my journal, read books I’d snagged earlier from a library book sale, and ate the fruit I’d brought along for the day. Vendors sold drinks, and happy dogs ran between clusters of people talking and laughing and picnicking and drinking and smoking. The nearest party played Bob Marley on a boombox.
Clouds cartwheeled overhead on the chilly Pacific breeze and so I moved spots every time the sun slipped behind the fringe of trees.
Excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country —
I’m a collector at heart. Luckily for space/finances, most of my collections consist of simple things like postcards and found objects and other ephemera of daily life. These items sometimes end up tucked away in other collections only to emerge when I stumble across them again.
While sorting my archive of correspondence, I recently came across this altered postcard from 1996 when I lived in Washington State as a young adult. I’d visited Mount St. Helens as a child and marveled even then at the complete desolation of the post-eruption landscape, the dead trees floating in Spirit Lake like matchsticks. When I bought this postcard eight years later I added my own commentary. My marginalia.
The forest is always greener on the other side of utter destruction, isn’t it? A truth that’s simultaneously utopian and dystopian.
I’m still feeling it all these years later.
A year ago this week I camped at Salt Point for the first time, on the California coast. Sitting at the edge of the Pacific watching night fall was sublime.
Sea-stung winds churned the crashing surf. The moon, planets, and stars whirled above me as I felt my way along the path, over boulders, in the dark.
Quite honestly, I am still reeling from the experience of co-directing the reGenerating Champa: Transitioning Identity From Past to Future conference, which happened on May 24 at UC Davis, yet which required months of preparation. I’m still in post-events-management decompression mode. I’m still tying up loose ends. I’m still processing. Yet this post-conference victory pose photo (with 3 out of 4 of the conference organizers) pretty much sums up the conference itself (a major success on all fronts) AND the relief in the conference being over (a major “yeah!” on all fronts). Running a conference is no joke.
Yet I could never lose hope for reGeneration and renewal. Because I made sure that national, generational, gender, and religious divides were relaxed/dissolved in a manner that I’ve never seen for a Cham community conference in the US, which made this event truly extraordinary for all. As context for outsiders, the Cham in Việt Nam have multiple distinct communities with their own marked identities and histories, which are also distinct from the Cham in Cambodia. Due to proximity and trade relations, the Cham in Chau Doc and Tay Ninh share a close affiliation with the Cham in Cambodia, including routes of evacuation and repression en route to Thailand and in refugee camps. Yet at previous events I’ve attended, these “western” communities are often in the shadow of Cham from Phan Rang, a coastal area where the highest concentration of Cham live today in Việt Nam (not counting the Chamic-speaking Montagnards, of course). The name Phan Rang is derived from the last standing Cham principality, Panduranga, which was absorbed in the 1830s yet held some autonomy during the French colonial period.
Since 2009, I have been researching and writing about the Cham in Cambodia and I’ve strongly advocated for all Cham to have a better historical awareness of one another, across geographical and religious divides. Although my family is Cham from Phan Rang, I am friends with diasporic Cham from all over the place, and so I understand how our future as a people is strengthened by building community ties across our ethnic group, not solely specific to our region (or religion) of origin. Due to centuries of separation and censored history we have far to go before we recover our full awareness of one another.
Hoping to get a good geographical representation of Cham communities in/beyond SE Asia, I invited Cham panelists and performers whose families originated in Việt Nam in/near Phan Rang, Chau Doc, Tay Ninh, and multiple regions in Cambodia. Also every single panelist is Cham or is part of Cham communities where they reside (such as the Muslim Malay in Cambodia, counted as Cham during Pol Pot’s regime). After 100+ years of non-Cham scholars primarily speaking on our behalf, to assemble three panels of Cham from all over–and 45+ performers, filmmakers, & artists–is actually quite revolutionary. And every panelist or filmmaker presented in English or with English subtitles (the lingua franca we most have in common, at this point) which meant that their insights/works were comprehensible to the youth who are often not fluent in Vietnamese (the language of most Cham community conferences I’ve attended). I believe that reGenerating Champa has brought us closer to one another in significant ways.
All of this is groundbreaking because none of this has happened before, not like this. And during and since, I have heard so many people remark how inspired and invigorated they were by the conference, including non-Cham whose awareness was altered so much by being present that day (this list includes those who identify as Hmong, African American, and Pakistani-via-Dubai).
Although I had a great deal of responsibility for the conference, I could not have done it alone—not by a long shot. I am so grateful for the women in the above victory pose photo, Azizah Ahmad and Asma Men, and for Amina Sen-Matthews . They were my co-organizers who made this conference possible and who supported my inclusive vision even when I had ambiguous support from the elder generation. In the end, everyone (of multiple generations/religions/geographical origins) was on board with the program, but without these women and their efforts to back/support me, I could not have accomplished my lofty goals of inclusiveness. Nor could I have managed the billion things required to execute a conference, without their help.
I am eternally grateful for the gifted and courageous participants who made our panels and performances so powerful and inspiring, including Asiroh Cham , Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde , Ariya Chau , Anida Yoeu Ali , Saifuddin Dean Amath , Inra Jaya , Khaleelah PoRome , Rofek Sos , Rohany Karya , Marimas Hosan Mostiller , Muhamedarifeine Manhsour , Vananh Moon , Hatefas Yop , Po Dharma, Sean Tu, and many many others (with apologies for omissions). Our panelists and performers included historians, international human rights activists, doctoral students, lawyers, humanitarians, traditional dancers, student advocates (for higher ed), medical students, filmmakers, spoken word poets, rappers, painters, photographers….and more….WOW.
And we could not have done any of it without the help of Yee Xiong and Kevin Vang (the esteemed Hmong among us!) and without the support of Southeast Asians Furthering Education (UC Davis), UC Davis Depts of Asian American Studies and Native American Studies, International Office of Champa, The Council for the Social-Cultural Development of Champa, and many individual donors.
Herself a phenomenal scholar, Professor Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde delivered very thoughtful opening remarks about the Cham and about the importance of remembering and articulating history/identity for marginalized peoples. This is one key contribution that ethnic studies keeps making to the world, and I am grateful our conference could fall within this proud lineage. Myself, the other organizers, and all the sponsors are definitely indebted to Professor Valverde for her support and encouragement from the very beginning through the end. And then some.
I’m grateful to be selected as DVAN’s current artist in residence at Intersection For The Arts in San Francisco, from May through June. My affiliated photographic exhibit is called Split/Infinite: Việt Nam Documentaries, which runs from May 11 to June 15. I feature eight gelatin silver prints from 1999, 2001, and 2006. Here is my artist’s statement for the exhibit—
On May 20, I was also honored by an opening reception at Intersection For The Arts where I screened my film-in-progress Second Burial and answered audience questions about everything from diasporic remittances to the comparative histories of war and communism in Việt Nam. I was a bit frustrated by one of the questions, but I remained very diplomatic as I [hopefully] opened some hearts and minds.
This spring break ended up being a “working vacation” for me, which basically means no real vacation. Yet I managed to carve out one day for a road trip to Point Reyes with my friend Jennifer. I was excited to hike along the rugged cliffs of this national seashore, yet I felt a bit apprehensive because two hikers had just died in the park after failing to heed warning signs about unstable trail terrain due to tectonic plate activity. It was Jennifer’s first trip to Point Reyes and I didn’t want to frighten her by going off trail after that accident, but at times, we strayed. Not when it was unsafe to do so, just when it felt right. We followed previous trails etched into the land by those who’d gone astray before us, which the geographer Carolyn Finney cites as “desire lines.”
Yet we also spent plenty of time sitting on Chimney Rock and watching the occasional white blow/spout of spray as grey whales surfaced to breathe during their offshore passage. The majestic grey whales have the longest migration of any mammal on earth, 9,000 to 13,000 miles every year. During March they migrate northward past Point Reyes. Watching the ocean’s surface for the plumes of whale spray is a meditative but subtle undertaking. Jennifer and I peppered our whale spottings with stories of growing up in (and eventually escaping) the South.
We were joined by a pair of ravens as we watched the whales’ migration. I gave thanks to Edgar Allen Poe for making it impossible to see ravens without saying, Nevermore! As if the birds haven’t heard it before. As we all sat on our precipice, the sun slipped behind mottled clouds as the Pacific acquired the gunmetal sheen of dusk.
Moving to the rhythm of nature has always put me at ease. Kaying with two friends on the Sacramento River Delta, I was most excited to see seals, waterbirds, and other wildlife cohabitating in the brackish waters there. We also enjoyed a sweet riverside picnic, telling stories and identifying the migratory birds coasting on the air currents high above us. We also “liberated” several duck decoys on our way out….
Due to some malice on the part of a hacker, I lost this website a few days ago. I have been reconstructing the site, and bolstering my security. But for now, many images are still missing from this BLOG and the EVENTS page, and my gallery is only a fraction of the total number of photos I had in place.
Apologies for missing imagery as I get my site up and running again. Thanks for your patience.
As soon as I heard about choreographer, performer, and scholar Natalia Duong’s work, and caught wind of what she was doing with Project Agent Orange, I knew that she was breaking ground. We first collaborated in 2013 when she adapted my poem Banquet of Consequences to stage in New York City. So I was especially honored to get the chance to interview her recently, about her May 2014 performance of Trở Về Nước, after which I moderated her post-show discussion.
In the interview we discuss Trở Về Nước: Between Home and Memory, which investigated the politics of memory and migration through the eyes of two Vietnamese American women in search of home in the diaspora. This performance brought together two (seemingly) separate bodies in a dialogical investigation of the boundaries between generations, people, and countries. They explored how their bodies became the site where larger aesthetic, political, and historical questions are fractured open and confronted. Who remembers? Who is remembered? Who leaves and who stays?
Patricia Nguyen entered the work from a historical perspective that focuses on oral histories and performance poetry, while Natalia Duong was situated in an embodied approach that foregrounds movement and the body. Weaving together oral histories, embodied movement, poetry, and improvisation, Trở Về Nước examined the conflicting and layered ways that stories are told, felt, and remembered, as their two bodies—literally—collided, contracted, expanded, united, and diverged, a new way of capturing the elusive space between home and memory emerges between us.
Here’s one of my photographs of Natalia, from Trở Về Nước—
About this particular scene, during the interview, I commented, “One of the images or experiences that sticks with me, from your Trở Về Nước performance, is the chicken scene, where you’re using the floor as a place to take apart a chicken, ostensibly to cook it. It felt very quotidian, as you said, very much the daily life. But at the same exact time, stories are being told about the past. And so there’s this taking apart, in order to sustain—the reason why you consume the chicken is to sustain your own life, and the reason why you take apart the past, on some level, is to sustain the memory of it, so that others can understand their families. By this, everyone can understand the past, and ostensibly themselves, on some level. I remember that scene feeling so grounded and real to me, like you got it, and you thought of a way to perform it, and to share it with other people. And I don’t know how many people in the audience felt like they had memories like that from their lives, or if it was this symbolic something that couldn’t be accessed, but for me it felt really real, just real. It’s surreal but it’s real, the same way that the stories you’re describing, the improbable actual—”
After discussing the themes of Trở Về Nước, we also also discussed Natalia’s forthcoming performance REFUSE, part of the APAture ’14 Festival.
Natalia’s work is thoughtful, complex, and relevant to my own explorations of the intergenerational residues of war. It seems fortuitous that we have crossed paths, and that we keep finding opportunities to collaborate. It’s been a gift.
Last night on my way to a DVAN fundraiser in San Francisco, loaded with three bags, I was spit out by a bus in the entirely wrong city, thanks to the online Transit 511 mapper sending me many miles from the destination I’d actually entered. I first started to get suspicious when I saw so many cemeteries from the bus window, since I knew that crowded San Francisco moved nearly all of its cemeteries out of the city over 100 years ago. I soon began to get really nervous, realizing I might be having one of those public transportation nightmares, where you’re on your way somewhere important, and you’re taken to the entirely wrong city, and you don’t know how to get back or how long it’s going to take. I ended up in Colma, which I later learned has more dead residents (around five million and counting) than alive.
And so when I ended up far south instead of in San Francisco, in the land of cemeteries, I had to walk nearly four miles from my disembarking point in Colma, via El Camino Real, to get to the San Bruno BART station, so I could head north again by train. I stopped at a drugstore and bought sunflower seeds and peanut butter cups, for consolation during my walk. The “detour” cost me 1.5 hours.
Yet on El Camino Real, I walked for a very long time next to Golden Gate National Cemetery. And as I passed by I was mesmerized by the cross-hatching aisles of grass between thousands of headstones, on 161 acres. I watched for names, wondered about their lives and their families. I considered what it means to be remembered once we are gone.
After all these years, when I wake in the morning and hear them calling to one another from trees and power lines, I always wonder, is that particular caaaawwwww crying out for retribution? For one’s missing other, the ragged inky silhouette belonging only to one? Or both?
Are our own fierce devotions—our vengeance on behalf of one of our own, our ache for the singular other whose peculiarities summon o you over and over—our own indications of highest intelligence?
What have we lost of one another, and ourselves, without such loyalties?
And, once I’ve cut the ink-stained red thread tying me to you and you and you and you but especially to you, is there a way to begin anew?
My pen-and-ink illustration “Slipknot” appeared in 2006 as cover art for Sissy Boyd’s In the Plain Turn of the Body Make A Sentence, in the Casements Series. TrenchArt is soon releasing an anthology including the illustration of the crows, my original artist’s statement, and two subsequent writings.
The postscript above I wrote this afternoon, in the library.
After decades of elusive justice and millions of dollars poured into the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, today marks the conviction of crimes against humanity for two of the top remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In a historic verdict issued in Phnom Penh, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have just been sentenced to life in prison for their responsibility for brutal conditions during Democratic Kampuchea, an ultra-Maoist regime run by Pol Pot between 1975 to 1979. During the trial for the ECCC’s Case 002, two other elderly defendants were previously eliminated through death and serious illness, leaving only Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuon Chea, and former head of state, Khieu Samphan, on trial.
Since justice took so long, their lives in prison could be brief, by this point. Yet, for whatever it’s worth, the genocide trial is up next as ECCC’s Case 003, if the men live long enough. This complication of their advanced age leaves me to revisit the obvious limitations of justice, in situations such as this.
In 2010, I visited Cambodia to research at the Documentation Center of Cambodia and to meet with survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. As part of a collaborative documentary trip, my friend Asiroh and I traveled together and video-interviewed Chăm about their experiences under Pol Pot’s rule. Later that year, I published Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Chăm, my first in-depth historical/photographic essay on the Chăm in Cambodia. These experiences also catalyzed my analysis of intergenerational oral history projects as an alternative method of healing in post-genocide Cambodia, a notion developed further when selected as an Emerging Scholars Workshop Fellow at Swinburne Institute’s first Historical Justice and Memory conference, held February 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. In my work, I began to see the obvious limitations of justice mechanisms in Cambodia, where reparations will be symbolic at best, and where conviction means life in prison, at “worst.” In addition, legal verdicts mean different things to different survivors, leading to vastly divergent views on the possibilities of ideal justice.
Even while appreciating the three life imprisonment sentences from Case 001 and Case 002, I have been sensitive to the fact that legal justice could never heal the damage caused by Pol Pot and his circle. Their deranged vision for an agrarian utopia turned Khmer Rouge leaders against nearly everyone in the country, even against one another, evidenced by 6,000 grim portraits taken at S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed other Khmer Rouge, the suspected traitors within. In less than four years, up to 2.2 million Cambodians died throughout the country. Even today, survivors remain deeply traumatized by memories of family deaths, massacres, and labor camps, to the point of psychosomatic effects—such as blindness—resulting from their psychological and spiritual injuries. In addition, the pain of the regime’s survivors has been exacerbated by the prolonged delay in prosecuting the regime’s leaders, with impunity lasting 36 years, as the international community never supported earlier attempted trials since the regime’s collapse in 1979. As leaders have long dodged legal culpability for war crimes and genocide, survivors of the regime have felt even less acknowledged. By this, not receiving any real justice for decades has only exacerbated the traumatic pain of the survivors. Although justice could never eliminate the original horrors and traumas, actually receiving some form of justice, however imperfect, may possibly begin to alleviate for some survivors the aggravated pain that the Pol Pot era in Cambodia has been ignored, for too long, by global onlookers, who sometimes guarded their own best interests rather than Cambodians’ best interests.
Over the years, that conscious avoidance by the international community has done tremendous insult to survivors of the Khmer Rouge. So it is significant when justice is granted, in the case of the hybrid (UN/Cambodia) Khmer Rouge tribunal, after such a long delay.
Even so, no amount of justice could ever ameliorate the horrors of that regime. Since these horrors are incommensurable, justice could never truly restore such losses.
For a while, as they were curating the digital exhibit A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America, the Smithsonian selected one of my family photos from my first trip to Việt Nam in 1999, Aunts and Uncle, as the background for the promotional banner image for the project.
The photo had gotten some recognition in summer 2012, when my photo essay and critical statement “Luminous Elegies: Chăm Family Photographs in Phước Lập, Việt Nam” was published in positions: asia critique (Duke University Press) in a special issue on Southeast Asian American Studies. Aunts and Uncle was also chosen for the cover of the special issue. Years before, the photo also ran in 2006 in ColorLines magazine alongside an interview of me, making it one of the best-loved photos I have shared with others. Each time I’ve given editors their pick of many photos, and this is the one they’ve chosen.
Even after getting used to seeing Aunts and Uncle on the cover of a journal, when I saw the image of my family in Việt Nam selected to represent the Smithsonian project I had a shock, of sorts, to see such a familiar image (in both senses of the word) being used to promote an international project that’s still strongly connected to a national research institution. Since we Chăm haven’t been fully recognized within the heterogeneity of Asian America, if even within the diversity and complexity of Southeast Asia, it is gratifying to experience Chăm photographers/subjects promoting a project that seeks to redefine “Asia America” as a global phenomenon.
After much deliberating by the curators, the collective vision(s) of many Asian Americans are now part of the digital archive, accessible by internet, unlike a trip to Washington, D.C. From my twenty-hour shoot in four Bay Areas locations, my ten favorite photos are now live on the Smithsonian’s website. As a Spotlight Photographer, I’ve got a whole page to myself for my photo essay featuring the environmental portraits of six Asian Americans, including myself, all taken on May 10.
This past spring, I happened to meet Franklin S. Odo, the director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution since 1997. During his talk to an Asian American history seminar I was enrolled in, he explained that Asian Americans are grossly underrepresented in U.S. national institutes and archives. I remember being disappointed yet not surprised to learn of that omission and elision, as a historian of Asian American history.
Yet it was later that same day when I received the invitation to participate as a Spotlight Photographer in A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America, from curator Eddie Wong, mediamaker and activist −
And I as replied a hearty Yes I thought − that’s one way to represent the Chăm, where even Asian Americans (as a much broader category) are currently absent or invisible from national memory, history, and visuality. For my contribution, I knew I’d want to do self-portraiture and well-situated portraits of others, some of the Asian Americans who’ve been important to me here in the Bay Area, where my connections to Asian America are the strongest they’ve ever been. These connections to Asian America − cultural, social, political, historical − have expanded in profound ways during my past seven years in the Bay, and my photo essay is a tiny homage to that gift. The Smithsonian even chose the Sutro Baths photo of Istifaa and Ilexis, which I selected for my 15 May blog post, as their banner for their curatorial subsection, “The Love” −
How wonderful. Love has its palimpsests, after all.
There are difficult aspects of Bay Area Asian American memory, as I can see Angel Island from the rooftop of my apartment building, with all of its heavy associations as a gatekeeping mechanism meant to exclude Asians from the national body. Ultimately, those efforts failed, in part, since we’ve gained citizenship rights. But since we are still largely marginal within mainstream and popular conceptions of “America,” I believe these kinds of collaborative cultural productions meant to include Asian Americans are most effective when they challenge the U.S. border as a natural container or boundary for anyone’s identity, as gestured to by the international intentions and scope of A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America.
Here’s to new thresholds.
A while back, my good friend and occasional collaborator Nomy Lamm asked if I would join her performance of 515 Clues: A Kabbalistic Collabaret, as part of the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. In Nomy’s words, “A fairy tale for grown-ups, 515 Clues explores moments of trauma and transformation that spiral us into each other’s worlds.” The performance is based upon an experimental novel by Nomy that links stories across centuries and continents through the migrations of ethereal bird-girls−
Here’s a trailer for 515 Clues, made by the exceptionally brilliant Nomy Lamm, whom I have admired since my late teen years when she was already doing bad-ass work as an hellraising artist, writer, performer, musician, and as part of the queercore scene in Oly, where I attended college. She blew me away then, and still. Among many other roles, today she is a singer/songwriter, political activist, and novelist. Check out the latest−
Nomy invited me to do my own solo performance within the show, which I called “Terra Nullius.” I addressed settler colonialism’s logic of genocide, and how that logic is coterminous with the need to dispossess in order to evacuate the land of its indigenous inhabitants. In the US, for example, this process occurs through Manifest Destiny. I traced the violent linkages between settler colonialism and warfare, yet instead of keeping the conversation academic and/or theoretical, I centered the body, and the lived experiences of those ‘on the ground’ during such processes, especially girls and women.
Although I had a general sense of where I wanted to go, and I had performed “Terra Nullius” once in tech rehearsal, I largely spoke extemporaneously during the final performance. For several reasons, unscripted performances are challenging. But I have come to appreciate the intense presence and connection required, to say exactly what must be said, precisely, and to remain attentive to the audience and the red thread between us, not just on the words ahead. “Terra Nullius” was performed this way. Drawing from my teaching practices, I also involved the audience in a call-and-response to the conversation, the same way I do when lecturing in history and in the humanities, to courses at UC Berkeley. Ultimately, “Terra Nullius” was an interactive feat, powerful in content and presentation, and I am grateful to Nomy for allowing me to dance that wire and go there. In our previous and private talks, she’d listened closely to my observations about the rationale afforded by the logic of “terra nullius,” and threaded my ideas with the ongoing phenomenon of genocidal settler colonialism, with places she’s been thinking about daily. For her, my insights were not purely historical, they were contemporary−and we scholars and artists love to feel that our work feels relevant now. So I was grateful for her connective sutures, for those ten solo minutes on stage during 515 Clues, and for that appreciative audience.
I also got to collaborate on stage with others, not just as a solo performer, when Nomy invited me act in the opening scene. I played an unnamed drummer from an Oly band, Total Recluse. As background, I moved to Oly (née Olympia) when I was 18 years old, and I spent six years partly surrounded by the type of girl I got to play that night. During 515 Clues, I’d broken my hand and ruined our band’s national tour. My bandmates and I show up at a party in an industrial district in Chicago, where we were largely disaffected amongst not only one another, but also among many kinds of party-goers. The scene was humorous, a bit cajoling in all the right ways, and the actress and comedian in me loved being in it. I channeled the Oly parties when I couldn’t connect with anyone because they were too cool for school. They actually drove me to be a Total Recluse for a while, outside of work and school, so it was really fitting to me. Those scenesters went a little something like this−
I was really pleased to be tracked down by the digital curator and invited to participate in a world-wide project called A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America, a project of the the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The digital curator Eddie Wong had read about my work and so reached out to tell me that he really liked my “commitment to the documentary tradition” while inviting me to participate. Not many people have given me props for my commitment to the documentary tradition, so it was an honor to have my work noticed by them and to be invited to do this collaborative project. I like the idea of people working on the same day, in tandem and yet apart, towards a common cause (self and community representation, in all diversity) which will be shared online. We are truly in the digital diaspora! At the same time, there’s some degree of high pressure to do things right when you only have one day to photograph, so I was a bit nervous as I began making plans with people to photograph, and as I envisioned possible self-portraits that would push the genre a bit.
On May 10, I stayed up past midnight and got some early morning self-portraits using a magnetic tripod on the fire escape of my apartment building. After waking in the morning, I did some tripod self-portraits in the parking lot of a bookstore that closed down, using the vines and the graffiti on the wall as graphic elements. In the afternoon, my friend Bonnie and her kids took a walk with me through the woods at the Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve in Oakland. Another friend was supposed to meet up with me in the evening, but was ill. So I was fortunate that one of my students, Istifaa, and her friend, Ilexis, were willing to take his place for a sunset shoot at the Sutro Baths in San Francisco.
As for all six people I photographed that day, our backgrounds are diverse, including origins from the Chǎm in Việt Nam (that’s me!), Bangladesh, Taiwan, and China, and including four multiracial individuals as a reminder of the complexity of Asian American identity. As I joked to Istifaa and Ilexis, “The Asian American community would be in a lot of trouble if it tried to get rid of its hapa contingent!”
It was a great day, overall, with good weather conditions and wonderful company. And I’ll never pass up a sunset over the Pacific, especially from a rocky Pacific coastline. I was under some intense teaching/writing deadlines and could scarcely afford the time to shoot, but it was completely worth it to get very little sleep last weekend.
According to digital curator Eddie Wong, “The photos you’ve submitted are superb, light as a summer’s day.“
Since last summer, I’ve been affiliated as an events coordinator for University Press Books. The position puts me in contact with many talented authors and artists, as I help coordinate and introduce the readings at our well-loved independent bookstore in Berkeley. Yet no visual artist I’ve met in a long while, at the store or out in the world, has captured my attention as has Hung Liu (刘虹), a Chinese-born painter who has lived in the U.S. since 1984. Originally trained as a social realist painter and muralist, her work now surpasses genre. She is one of the most prominent Chinese painters working in the U.S. today, and if you don’t know about her, you should.
I met Hung Liu on April 16th when she came to the bookstore for a public conversation with Peter Selz, the renowned art curator who wrote one of the first books of art history I ever read, German Expressionist Painting. To see them in conversation was wonderful, and a packed house attested to the interest in her work. Peter Selz praised the specific attributes of her oeuvre and encouraged Hung Liu to speak about her choices and motivations. Since they have known each other for years, their rapport was familiar and friendly. Hung Liu was incredibly warm, charming, humorous, and down-to-earth, and her discussion with Peter Selz taught me so much. I appreciated her descriptions of her artistic processes, adding rich biographical and historical context, especially the work carried out in or about China, into which she often incorporates images of women, children, soldiers, and refugees. I also valued Liu’s observations about the artist’s place in society, which fed her critique of how women artists are marginalized by critics who study Chinese art.
As for my own awareness of her work, it’s so resonant with me, I should have known about it long before I did. A few years ago, I’d seen Hung Liu’s glass window mural Going Away, Coming Home (2006) at the Oakland airport, featuring dozens of red-crowned cranes in flight, and I found it very striking, especially because I have a fondness for birds (they are often the subject of my photographs) and I have a formal appreciation for the translucence and sense of layers in the piece. But I was absolutely captivated by Liu’s portraiture when I first saw it in the book Summoning Ghosts, with the same title as the Oakland Museum exhibit (which I missed, to my regret.) As a fine artist, I am most drawn to painting people, either in portraiture or as figures. Yet I am also one who prefers how with abstract expressionism, you can create a sense of decay or imprecision. I sometimes combine both of these impulses (portraits and abstract expressionism) in my own life as a painter. Yet Hung Liu not only brings them together, she’s a master. As a result, I am very excited by her work.
Although she often paints from Chinese historical photographs, when she does her oil portraits, her linseed oil drips create a sense that the vision or visage is breaking down, exposing the way the passage of historical time can erode the archive, the memory, or both. Is this how history haunts us? As a persistent image that refuses to completely disappear, despite the disintegration caused by time, by attempts at forgetting? Such questions make the idea of summoning ghosts all the more relevant to me.
I am very fortunate to have five works (three photographs, one poem, and one memoir essay) published in this groundbreaking anthology, showcasing creative writing and visual artworks by sixty-one women of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Cham, Hmong, Lao, Thai, and Filipino ancestry. To be a written and visual artist, working in many genre and forms, I am accustomed to having my own creative conversations not crossing paths, as it were. Troubling Borders has been a remarkable intervention into art, literature, and Southeast Asian studies, but also into the segregation that usually keeps my artistic practices apart.
Troubling Borders is available from University of Washington Press or a nearby independent bookseller.
I also appear in the book trailer, compiled from interviews conducted from artists during a symposium at UC Riverside−
Having attended the UN’s fourth Forum on Minority Issues on my own in 2011, as a liaison officer of the International Office of Champa, I was grateful to be included in this year’s delegation of three women, where I functioned as a liaison officer adviser to the delegation to Geneva and as a contributor to the oral statement. As in 2011, I was proud to represent the Chăm at the international level, showing to what extent the Chăm community is both diasporic and transnational, as sometimes we’ve moved across the globe and across generations while maintaining a living connection to Chăm communities in both Việt Nam and Cambodia. I am also part of the second generation who believes in the possibility of reaching across some of the common second-generation impediments, like distance from the motherland and difficulties speaking the ancestral language, in order to advocate for the Chăm whose voices are often made silent by governance and lack of media coverage.
IOC’s oral statement at the Forum first offered brief background on the Chăm in Việt Nam, including a summary of our diverse religious traditions, while putting into context the overall lack of religious freedom for ethnic minorities in in Việt Nam, including Khmer Krom Buddhists and Montagnard Christians. We then made recommendations to the Vietnamese government that focused upon protecting the distinct spiritual practices of the Chăm in Việt Nam. For example, we recommended that the government remit our confiscated temples and permit the building of new places of worship to accommodate growing populations of Chăm, as currently accessible temples and mosques are overextended. We also recommended against the government’s plans to build a nuclear power plant in the vicinity of Po Klong Garai temple in Ninh Thuận province, home to the largest concentration and highest religious diversity of Chăm in Việt Nam. This planned nuclear power plant would subject Chăm worshippers, visitors, and residents to the nuclear contamination that is well documented in the radius of all nuclear power plants around the world. In all, seven concise recommendations highlighted the need to extend protection to Chăm religious practices and practitioners by describing ways to improve access to safe and available sites of worship. Implicit to these recommendations, and the recommendations submitted by other nongovernmental organizations, is recognition of the right of distinct peoples to maintain their own spiritual and cultural traditions even if these traditions are quite different than those of dominant populations.
For more on this topic, visit my more lengthy article, The International Spotlight on Chăm Religious Forms and Practices—From Mỹ Sơn to the UN in Geneva.
On October 24, I was part of a microfestival of collaborative performance called Forest Fringe SF. The way they put it, Forest Fringe is an adventurous posse of performance artists hailing from the UK. In partnership with CounterPULSE (in the SOMA district of SF) and University of Chichester, in October they took San Francisco for an exciting ride, offering a microfestival full of improbable, experimental and spectacular work made in the UK. They also teamed up with local artists to create and share completely new experiments made in just one week, which were presented on Thursday night before the mircofestival of their own work made in the UK.
As for my own contribution, a few months before, I was invited to create a collaborative performance with UK actor Lucy Ellinson, acclaimed for her ongoing performance of a drone pilot in Grounded. Even as I eagerly stepped up to the chance, she is a very talented and experienced actor, so I was a bit intimidated to perform with her. Plus, we only had one week to come up with our performance, amidst my own steady obligations of work and school. I fretted about it in advance, on occasion−I am very comfortable with spontaneity, but these parameters left me wondering how it would all come together so quickly, and well. Yet working with her was a truly unforgettable experience, as was the time-space compression of conceiving of and performing a piece in just one week. There was an intensity to both. Our talks were deep and complex, and our politics and concerns intersect in such a way that the collaboration was easy for us to plan and carry out. I felt very fortunate. The resulting performance, Our Exquisite Corpse, included our two-person dialogue/acting (conceptually sketched but otherwise improvised in dialogue) as well as a video installation I created to accompany us, using US Army cockpit footage, my own filmed sunprints of an annular eclipse form 2012, and the music of Peter Broderick and Machinefabriek.
Here’s the program copy—
Our Exquisite Corpse is a haunting meditation on the dehumanization of the enemy during warfare, as the living pass forcibly into the realm of the dead. To “see” someone as an enemy, in warfare, relies upon both their visibility as target coordinates and their invisibility as human. And yet to “see” someone as worthy of mourning, after death, is predicated upon their humanity. Our Exquisite Corpse invites us to consider how the recognition of the enemy’s humanity is a necessary haunting for those whose governments rely upon public complicity to wage war.
A memoir essay I wrote several years ago in my Veterans Writing Group (founded by Maxine Hong Kingston) has been selected as an Editor’s Choice at Nailed magazine.
“The Gift Horse of War” critically examines some of the tensions of being a “war baby” of the American War in Việt Nam, centering an episode of overt discrimination by a boss who spitefully insulted me for being the offspring of an interracial relationship that began during the war. However, I was also later defended by my coworker Henry, who shouted a phrase that included the words “the gift horse of war,” from which I took the essay’s title. I shall never forget his act of outrage on my behalf. He is one of the best coworkers ever, and I’ve worked with many, many incredible people throughout the years.
In the essay, I also address how my ethnic fluidity placed me in a precarious situation during that job in Seattle, where I was pressured to perform as a Native American woman for a special motion graphics effect. Although I successfully avoided having to play a part so insulting to the specificity of Native Americans, the awkward situation made me reflect upon my people’s indigeneity in Việt Nam, where we’ve experienced a devastating form of settler colonialism during the past 500+ years, similar to the situation (and timeline) for Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada. I grew up very conscious of this lived parallel between native peoples on different continents, even as I resist the transposition of indigenous peoples, as if one “sorta brown person” can stand in (literally and figuratively) for another.
I am grateful to editor John Barrios for soliciting this memoir essay for publication, which also includes an illustration (below) made from my family history photographs.
Paul and I were out for the evening, at a superhero party, in a club under the freeway. He dressed as Robin. We danced before retiring to the booths at the edge of the club.
I’m so excited to see one of my favorite performers, Björk, perform her Biophilia concert tonight at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California. I’ve always wanted to see her live and I am very much looking forward to this show.
Hailing from Iceland, Björk is an imaginative and daring musician, and this is her eighth studio album. The concept of biophilia, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. This is something I have been innately conscious of since childhood, and I believe that our indigenous spiritualities know this as an embodied truth. It’s also something that Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan expresses beautifully in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. “We want to live as if there is no other place,” Hogan tells us, “as if we will always be here. We want to live with devotion to the world of waters and the universe of life.”
Drift logs! A dual birthday camping/road trip along Highway 1, with Anna, heralded the transition from spring to summer. We ended our journey at the Mendocino Coast before turning back home. Glass Beach is in MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, California.
For the second time, I am directing the biennial San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival, which happens this weekend at the Roxie Theater in the Mission District. This festival is an initiative of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. For those of us who have been volunteering for this non-profit festival, we are all alternately excited and nervous because the festival is so close. We’ve worked quite hard for months to bring a quality line-up of films to screen to a wider public in the Bay Area. The Roxie Theater, a historic venue built in 1909, is a great place to feature these works by Vietnamese filmmakers all over the world, and it’s close to public transportation (16th/Mission BART). I’ll be happy to take the train into the city, then sink myself into a seat and watch these films all weekend. As with the first festival, I am committed to seeing every single film. Because there’s no better way to see if your festival came together as planned, as a whole, than to watch it in its entirety. Not that I mind! I’d be a fool to mind!
Our program this year features twenty-one outstanding films and videos from seven different countries—Cuong Ngo (Pearls of the Far East), Đỗ Quốc Trung (On Duty With Shu Qi), Duc Nguyen (sneak preview of Stateless), Hong-An Troung (Adaptation Fever series), Leon Le (Dawn), Lin+Lam (Departure), Mark Tran (All About Dad), Nghiêm Quỳnh Trang (Un Interrogatoire), Nguyễn Đình Anh (Uncle & Son), a retrospective by Nguyễn Trinh Thi, Phương Thảo Trần and Swann Debus (With Or Without Me), Tony Nguyen (Enforcing The Silence), Trần Anh Hùng (Norwegian Wood), Trần Dũng Thanh Huy (16-30), Trần Ngọc Sáng (Go Playing With Ice), and Việt Lê (Love Bang!). The festival is pleased to feature introductory talks and Q&A discussion with filmmakers/directors Việt Lê, Duc Nguyen, and Tony Nguyen.
We’re also having an Opening Night Gala ($10, 7:30-10pm, April 26) at Artists’ Television Access (992 Valencia St), featuring a night of music, mixing, mingling, and open mic, with short poetry readings by Việt Lê (director of Love Bang!), Genny Lim, Bonnie Kwong, Paul Ocampo, and Tracy Nguyen.
I have been fortunate to work on this ongoing cinematic celebration, as this endeavor is the first Vietnamese-centered film festival in Northern California. As a filmmaker, I understand how important it is to support artists as they distribute their creations for a wider audience. So I am grateful to be able to help filmmakers get the exposure they so rightfully deserve—especially marginalized voices which often don’t get heard—those doing experimental work, those focusing on queerness/sexuality, and those creating depictions which challenge dominant images of the Vietnamese, wherever they may live. There’s something for everyone on the program, so be sure to join us if you’re in the Bay Area.
Here’s an interview with me and festival supervisor Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, conducted by Estela Uribe, on diaCRITICS.
My short experimental film Spoils, included in the triptych She who has no master, has been selected for inclusion in underCurrents & the Quest for Space, a multidisciplinary arts exhibition and discussion investigating the space occupied by Asian America, socially, artistically and physically. This multimedia exhibition is organized by Asian American Women Artist Association and Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, curated by Linda Inson Choy, with guest jurors Jay Xu, Ph.D., Director, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and Mary-Ann Milford, Ph.D., Professor of Art History, Mills College. This multimedia, multidisciplinary arts exhibition aims to identify and contemplate the political implications of what lies below the surface, while exploring possibilities to move beyond, reinventing history and artistically predicting an unrestrained future.
underCurrents & the Quest for Space will be featured as part of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center’s 16th Annual United States of Asian America Festival at SOMArts Cultural Center Main Gallery, 934 Brannan Street, San Francisco, CA.
This exhibit is conceptually fitting for our triptych She who has no master, a collaboration with Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Dao Strom. Our three-fold investigation is best described, below, in my February 11 blog post announcing its premiere screening at the Vietnamese International Film Festival.
My short experimental film Spoils, included in the triptych She who has no master, will be part of this year’s Vietnamese International Film Festival.
The raw footage for Spoils was originally shot in 2000 with cinematographer Tracy Andrews, through Mediaworks at Evergreen. I chose to edit Spoils in 2012 specifically for this triptych collaboration with Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Dao Strom, who each included their own short experimental films in our three-fold meditation on war, memory, and unwarranted masters.
The premiere screening of our triptych will be held at UC Irvine—
She Who Has No Master
Sunday, 14 April 2013, 1:00 PM
UC Irvine, HIB (Humanities Instructional Building) 100
She who has no master is a triptych of experimental shorts by three women writer-filmmaker-artists negotiating the shifting terrain of historical and personal violence while confronting the three-fold of war, memory, and unwarranted masters. Julie Thi Underhill’s spoils negotiates the connections between militarism and family violence, with Persephone’s rotten pomegranate pluming smoke from Hades. Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s letgo incorporates poetry and family photographs into a meditation upon her French father and Vietnamese mother. letgo investigates how Pelaud’s seemingly contradictory parts create a place for those who dwell “in between.” In Dao Strom’s self-mythology, a woman drifts through landscapes after inheriting war and exodus. She contemplates her role as traveler while tracing the currents flowing from historical, political, and mythological sources. Together these women’s films portray how the daughters begotten by colonialism and war are interrogating the divided loyalties and internal contradictions of lives marked by violence.
Biography of filmmakers—
Julie Thi Underhill is a filmmaker, photographer, poet, and essayist. As a Cham-French-American (grand)daughter of conflicts in French Indochina/Viet Nam, her artistic and academic work addresses colonialism and war. She is in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace and other collections. Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is Associate Professor in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. She authored This Is All I Choose To Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature and co-edited Troubling Borders in Literature and Art: Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora. Her creative and academic work has been widely published. Dao Strom is the author of Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, and recipient of NEA and Oregon Arts Commission grants. As a songwriter, she is currently working on a hybrid music/literary/visual project. Together these women voice a compelling three-fold narrative.
My 2009 poem Banquet of Consequences is included in this year’s Poetic License Festival, held at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street, East Village, NYC)—
My poem is part of a play conceived and directed by Natalia Duong (co-presented with Project Agent Orange) that features writing by Angie Chau, Tom Deedy, Janis Butler Holm, Lan Ngo, John Phalen, Alice Shapiro, Chris Soucy, Julie Thi Underhill and Andrew Pham.
This theater piece was developed around the excavation of memories of war, family, grief, anger, and love, long interred by women of the Vietnamese diaspora.
If you happen to go, my poem is performed by the character playing the older sister in the family.
I feel honored to be chosen for this. Not only is the play so well-conceived by its director, this is the first time my work has been performed in New York and performed by someone besides me. I am also grateful that the project brings together the experiences of both diasporic Vietnamese and families of U.S. soldiers. This is a rare effort on the part of the director, as these two communities are not often considered together. Although both U.S. soldiers and the majority of Vietnamese Americans were technically on the same “side” during the American war in Viet Nam, the side of the South, their experiences of post-war sorrow do not often come into conversation with one another. Kudos to this very perceptive director, for her choices and insight. Wish I could be there for the performance!
I originally wrote Banquet of Consequences for my 2009 guest appearance on The Talking Earth: Veterans Voices, with Walt Curtis and Dan Shea, on KBOO radio in Portland, Oregon. Dan had asked me if I might read some poetry that captures the experiences of being the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American father who were both impacted by war. I realized that I had a memoir essay about that topic, Ghosts, but that I hadn’t yet written a poem. I was pushed to create something new, in a good way. So I also thank Dan for inspiring the poem. Writers need good prompts where we can get them!
In 2005, I was grateful to receive a professional development grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council in Portland, Oregon, towards the building of my first website, which I designed myself and launched with the coding help of a webdesigner. The website was beautiful, a warm-tone monochromatic palette, featuring fifty-six black-and-white 35mm photographs, my favorite portraits from my first 10 years as a photographer—
Yet it was challenging (and expensive) for me to keep the website updated, which meant that updates didn’t happen very often. My website began to feel more like a photographic archive of my past work, rather than something dynamic, which could change as my work acquired new directions and inflections.
So I am thrilled to launch a redesigned website that allows me more flexibility and creativity with how I approach my galleries and events. I’ve also added my color photography, more landscapes, and a wider range overall, including more experimental work—such as my Fear series—and my self-portraiture. My website redesign also includes this blog, where I’ll make announcements and occasionally post ideas, writings, and photos.