APIA Writingscape Commentary

APIA Writers on Today's Political Climate

Featuring the voices of Craig Santos Perez, Barbara Jane Reyes, Kao Kalia Yang, Rajiv Mohabir, and Lehua M. Taitano

resistance auntie illustration

“Long Live Resistance Auntie” illustration created by Shing Yin Khor (@sawdustbear). Used under a free culture Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

In February of this year, shortly after the inauguration of the current US president that was met with numerous protests stateside as well as worldwide, I sent out an email request to some APIA authors asking if they’d be willing to contribute brief commentaries on what it means to be an APIA author in today’s political climate, one I described as an “era of renewed xenophobia and racism.” The following authors graciously agreed and worked with a tight deadline to help lay out some ideas on the responsibilities and challenges of writing and being an author today.

I wanted to get a sense of how people envision living in, possibly challenging, and simply engaging with a world in which more blatant displays of white supremacy are appearing in the media, in high schools, and in public spaces. The president’s key policy platforms make no qualms about rolling back hard-won civil rights and programs that see nonwhite and not-filthy-rich people as fully human. His cabinet appointments, as many people have pointed out with wry humor, are people whose work and orientations are anathema to the departments they will be guiding (an education secretary who has long been opposed to public education? an energy secretary who not only is one of the biggest champions of oil over any other energy resource but once publicly stated that he would get rid of the energy department?).

Outright hate crimes are being reported, with the perpetrators often praising the president and his policies such as white youth chanting “build the wall” at their schools. In the face of such cruelty, it is hard not to react. The image above, “Long Live Resistance Auntie” by illustrator Shing Yin Khor, captures the mood of many people I know, and is in fact based on a viral photograph of Anita Yavich, a theater professional and professor who gave the middle-finger salute on the president’s inauguration day. And yet, defiance is not the only emotion I and others feel. There is also despair, fear, caution, anger, and a complicated mix of feelings that pull one way and then another on different days.

These are confusing times.

My partner, who works in a public library housed in a county services building, noted that the week after the elections, he saw a marked uptick in Spanish-speaking individuals asking for the service center where people go for government-issued identification cards. He speculated that many Latinos and other people who might be perceived as immigrants may be worried about being harassed for their papers and so possibly wanted to make sure all of their documents are up to date.

These are precarious times.

After the election, a number of news publications offered venues for writers to comment on what the new regime means for them and their work. Huffington Post framed the question as one of truth-telling. Slate went in another direction and has invited 10 writers to imagine dystopian worlds for a collection of short stories they will publish. But the op-ed that captured my attention the most was by Ausma Zehanat Khan in the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail, in which she mulls over the challenges of recognizing what the election means for her relationship to her readers—people she’s connected with over the years and for whom she felt she had humanized Muslims via her novels.

These are difficult times.

I said to a friend shortly after the elections last fall that I could feel myself retreating from people. I’ve spent the last two decades of my adult life trying to become a more open person, someone who is trusting and able to connect with others immediately. But the election of this US president only demonstrated to me that there are millions upon millions of people in this nation who harbor an active hatred of people who are not like them—people like me and numerous others they deem to be undeserving of basic human rights and the respect of fellow human beings.

These are scary times.

In these situations (and, to be honest, pretty much most situations), I turn to literature for solace and inspiration. I turn to literature not as escape, although it can serve that function as well, but to understand the world I live in better—to learn and to build my sense of empathy for people whose lives are radically different from my own.

But simply reading is not enough. Simply writing is not enough.

Engaging with literature to connect with others and to create a better world, though, is something we can all do in small ways and big. Read a book that captures a perspective different from yours. Share a poem with a friend or coworker. Go to literary events and connect with someone you don’t know in the audience. Read to reflect and to work through your emotions rather than let them guide you haphazardly.

It may be folly to think that literature alone can save us, but it is also true that literature in concert with daily actions and larger movements can transform the systems around us.

Paul Lai



On APIA Poetry in the 21st Century

Craig Santos Perez

Contemporary Asian American and Pacific Islander poetry emerged from the complicated political contexts in the 20th century. Our poets have always written in times of violent racism, colonialism, militarism, environmental injustice, and capitalism in our homelands and across the United States.

With the resurgence of white nationalism and global empire in the 21st century, we must continue the legacy of creating literature that critiques empire, inspires our people, and articulates sustainable futures. We must continue to speak our truths and stand up for ourselves and for others through political action, literary intervention, and solidarity movements. We must continue to publish the most powerful poetry we can so that our words will form an archive of resistance for the next generation and beyond.

Thankfully, there is an abundant selection of new AAPI poetry to give us hope and strength. Below is a selection of five AAPI books from the past few years that I have blurbed and recommended. I hope readers will seek out these authors and find comfort and empowerment in their words.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter (University of Arizona Press, 2017): In this stunning debut collection, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner weaves a basket of poems that carry the beauty, depth, and resiliency of her Marshallese culture. Through lyrical, narrative, and visual modes, the poet gives voice to how nuclear testing, migration, racism, and climate change have impacted her family and her people. At the same time, she offers a vision of hope that the future will be a place in which our children, and humanity itself, will thrive.

Lyz Soto’s Translate Sun/Son/Sum (Finishing Line Press, 2017): This book solidifies Lyz Soto as one of the most profound and innovative poets in the Pacific. Using an exciting range of lyric, visual, narrative, and avant-garde styles, she explores the themes of motherhood, geography, cultural heritage, and love. Throughout, she translates her experiences into a poetic calculus and genealogical map for the reader to navigate.

Janice Sapigao’s Microchips for Millions (Philippine American Writers and Artists, 2016): Janice Sapigao, in this powerful and innovative debut, captures her mother’s traumatic experience as an assembly line worker in Silicon Valley, as well as the larger social, economic, and environmental impacts of the high tech industry. The poems switch between English, Ilokano, and binary code, and between documentary, visual, ethnographic, and lyric modes. In our time of toxic exposure, labor exploitation, and gentrification, Sapigao shows us how poetry can be a site to protest injustice, affirm dignity, and maintain hope.

Cynthia Dewi Oka’s Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (AK Press, 2016): Cynthia Dewi Oka’s nomadic poetry migrates across Indonesia, Canada, and the United States, witnessing “the unbearable with the light.” The unbearable signals the trauma of displacement, war, racism, violence, colonialism, and empire; conversely, the light heralds love, family, home, memory, and the natural world. Nomad of Salt and Hard Water shows that poetry is “born without sanctuary,” “beats its wings / against history” and waits “replete with all that cannot be saved.” This compelling and revised edition speaks to women of color, migrants, survivors, mothers, laborers—all of us—to say: “you are stronger than / the ruins you carry, that salvage is not your / body.”

Collier Nogues’s The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground (Drunken Boat, 2015): Collier Nogues, who grew up on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, explores how war has shaped the island of her childhood. Taken together, these poems not only express a desire to erase violence, but they also attempt to map the topography of islands and nations, caves and embrasures, weapons and flags, grace and dread. Nogues is a brave poet who disassembles the official discourses of empire to articulate a dream for an island of peace. (Note: Nogues is not an APIA poet but writes poems that engage thoughtfully with APIA worlds.)

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is the author of three books, most recently from unincorporated territory [guma’], which received an American Book Award 2015. He is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.


What Does It Mean to Be an APIA Author in “These Times”?

Barbara Jane Reyes

Let’s be clear on this: Xenophobia and racism are not on the rise just now in 2017, in the United States of America. Xenophobia and racism have been here, as our ongoing condition, and many of us APIAs have benefited from them—including from anti-blackness and native genocide.

What I would like to think is changing is our consciousness and the willingness of some in our literary communities to address institutional violence directly in our literary work, in our use of language, and also in our literary career ambitions.

When I am most optimistic, I believe I see an eroding of reticence on the part of some in our literary communities to interrogate our relationship to the State, to the Corporation, to US American institutions, and to power structures that perpetrate violence and terror that are based in gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, ableism, ecology, and immigration.

Questions I have:

  • How may we foster in ourselves and one another a willingness to soul search, to ask ourselves why we have been so in denial, going about our lives and writing careers as if we have nothing to do with any of this violence and terror?
  • How can we critically examine why we have consented to the role of the well-behaved, respectable Good Colonial, resigned and relegated to apery, when we truly know this will not keep us and our loved ones safe?
  • How may we hold ourselves accountable and do the hard work of calling out those in our communities who inflict these violences upon our own?

I would love to see more poetry and literature, more community-based grassroots publishing and mentoring arise from that critical self-examination, and more prioritizing and centering resistance, dissent, and defiance. I have been returning to Carlos Bulosan frequently—to remind me to be present, engaged, vigilant in the world, to remind me not to take “American freedom” for granted.

“I read more books, and became convinced that it was the duty of the artist to trace the origins of the disease that was festering American life.” ~ Carlos Bulosan.
“...the writer is also a citizen; and as a citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties. Life is a collective work and also a social reality. Therefore the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life. Otherwise he has no meaning—a nothing." ~ Carlos Bulosan.

You may want to argue with me that poetry is personal, not political—that poetry is about beauty and beautiful things. And I would respond that resistance, dissent, and defiance are beautiful because when we stand up for what we believe is right, we expose our rawest, truest selves, and who and what we love most in the world are all laid bare. Because especially during the most volatile times, compassion, hope, and light are beautiful.

I would also add that under the rule of tyranny, there is no luxury of neutrality, of just being.

“...always art is in the hands of the dominant class – which wields its power to perpetuate its supremacy and existence.” ~ Carlos Bulosan.
“...in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor...” ~ Paolo Freire.

So then, what does it mean to be an APIA author in these times? To learn well the necessary activist history of our forebears, to understand why activism and art have no tidy dividing line between them. To meaningfully resist white supremacy and patriarchy, to meaningfully resist the historical pressure and desire to conform to bourgeois ideas, which do not reflect our own lived realities, and therefore do not benefit our communities. More insidiously, they mean to undermine and erase our efforts at self-determination.

We must meaningfully resist appropriation by institutions that would skew and defang our words and work, via tokenism and celebrations of diversity, for example, for their own edification.

The work is daunting, and it is neverending. The smallest start is to read. Here are recommendations: Tarfia Faizullah, Solmaz Sharif, Tony Robles, Janice Sapigao, Sarith Peou. Brandy Nālani McDougall, Rajiv Mohabir, Cheena Marie Lo, Bhanu Kapil, Craig Santos Perez, Aimee Suzara. They’re all poets.

“a million brown pilipino faces
chanting: makibaka, makibaka, makibaka
makibaka, makibaka, makibaka...” ~ Al Robles.
“This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.” ~ Audre Lorde.

I often think of, as a poet, this binary social attitude that poetry is on the one hand frivolous and excessive, and on the other that poetry is so necessary, especially in times of strife and turmoil, such as now. As poets, we are tasked with taking the temperature of the room and putting it down on the page with eloquence. And then as poets, we are accused of being too little in the world, too much in our own indulgent heads, not doing anything of social relevance because we are seen as sitting in our safe little writing studios, agonizing over muses and love. In the academic world, we aren’t seen much at all because we’re not perceived as doing any heavy lifting like those who toil over producing factual, institutionally sanctioned bodies of work.

If we are regarded, it is with disdain for being so “poetic,” elliptical, and flippant—somehow unserious because of the relative brevity of the poem, because of tone, and because of the genre’s artfulness. And because of the oft-made error that even many academics make, that the “I” is not lyric and expansive, but personal and individual, hence small. And that the love poem is always a poem of personal, self-serving eros, certainly not of larger social significance, even when we are guided by the Filipino core value of kapwa, “shared humanity.”

“We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” ~ Che Guevara.

Barbara Janes Reyes is the author of To Love as Aswang (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015). She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of three previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003), Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), which received the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008), Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlán Libre Press, 2012). Her fifth full-length poetry collection, Invocation to Daughters, is forthcoming from City Lights Publishers.


I Don’t Want Your White Privilege

Kao Kalia Yang

I have been staring at my left hand for the last few weeks. All my life, I’ve liked the left hand better than the right. I’m a right hander. The left hand works less in my world. It has always been prettier, the fingers straighter, less like an old woman’s. But for the last month, I feel as if it has been dirtied.

About a month ago, I gave a reading at an Association of American University Women (AAUW) meeting. It was a strong talk. The Q&A was wonderful. The incident happened after the talk, when members came up to thank me, have me sign their books, and just converse away from a viewing audience.

The woman was perhaps in her seventies. She had gray hair, streaked with white. She wore it in a bun. Her hair, her face, her clothing—all of it looked gray. She walked with a cane. Her eyes were incredibly clear. She had waited in line to speak with me. When her turn came, I took her hand, as I had been taking hands.

She looked at me, and she said, “You were in that book, weren’t you?”

I said, “Which one?”

She shook away my question, she said, “The one about race in Minnesota, A Good Time for the Truth, or whatever it was named.”

I said, “Yes, I have an essay in there, ‘Dark Trees in the Landscape of Love.’”

She said, “You are all so angry.”

I felt the dry coldness of her hand seep into my own. I wanted to free my hand, but her grip was strong and unrelenting. Both her hands enveloped mine. Her cane fell into the fold of her skirt, against her body.

She went on to tell me how we all had gotten it wrong. We, writers of color living in Minnesota. She told me about her six interracial grandchildren. She talked about one of her Mexican daughters-in-law who had been her best friend and how they can’t stand each other anymore. She said the daughter-in-law was a liar.

It was evident to me that she had a lot to say and reckon with. Her words were not directly about me or the narrative I come from, and yet it was an attack on all people of color’s perspective.

I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

I wanted to give her a chance to correct herself, to re-work her words, to take them back.

The women in line behind her were beginning to get uncomfortable. I was beginning to get uncomfortable, and I wished I hadn’t been in that room full of white women, in that shiny space with its wide windows. Up to this point, the work had gone well. I understood and I saw how age and experience had converged in these older women, how their education, curiosity, and careers had brought them into this room together, had extended an invitation to me, a writer of color, so they could better understand the story I had lived, the work I was out to do. I had been inspired. Now, I was trapped.

The old woman proceeded to tell me about how her Mexican daughter-in-law and her son had trouble conceiving and how they had gone to a fertility clinic for help. She was so angry, throwing out the words, “She lied to me. She never told me that their children were not my son’s. Donated sperm.”

I wanted to end the conversation. She could see it my eyes. I had talked about how I would build a life because of faith, not fear. She pushed my faith.

She said, “Your story about how you feel when white women refuse to use the same toilet. You get hurt by them.” She sneered. She took one hand off mine, swept it around the room, and said, “None of us would be. You see? We all have white privilege.”

I said, “You all do.”

She said, “Here, let me rub some off on you.”

The old woman let go of my right hand. She grabbed my left hand, and started rubbing the skin of one of her hands on mine, hard circles. I wanted to take my hand back and say, “I don’t want your white privilege,” but I come from a culture that teaches us to respect our elderly, to love in the way that we know how, their sometimes difficult journey to the other side, and so I let her rub her white privilege on me. I watched her let go, take hold of her cane from the folds of her skirt, and start to walk away. She felt my gaze—the gray woman turned back to me, and she said, looking directly into my eyes, “I’m sicker than I look. I’m closer to death than life.”

I said to her, “Death is not scary. I died last year when I gave birth to my sons. I came back to life again. You’ll stop hurting when you die.”

It was not only white privilege she had rubbed off on me. It was death. Were they the same thing in America? I thought of all the black men and women who’d been killed, the Native people in North Dakota fighting for us all, fighting for the earth, I thought about my Hmong father and mother hiding out on their hill, more comforted by the wolves that roamed their land than the white folk who sometimes came up our driveway in their trucks with their guns during hunting season.

What is life without death? What is it to live in America as a woman of color without being touched by white supremacy every time we reach for something outside ourselves, reach for others?

The gray woman struggled to come up with words for me, and I struggled to keep my gaze steady, but another woman rescued us both from the moment, the one who had been waiting next in line; she cleared her throat. I turned to her, a woman perhaps the same age as the gray one, but full of colors, her cheeks layered with a dust of pink, blue eye shadows on her lids, thick mascara around her eyes. I took the extended hand in both of mine. I felt warm, living flesh, and some of the tension lifted.

The rest of the meet and greet went smoothly. There was even a funny moment. A woman, tears in her eyes told me, “That was the most powerful talk of my life.” Then, the woman behind her came up, shook her head sadly at me, and whispered pointedly, “She has Alzheimer’s.”

It’s been a month and some days. I can’t stop thinking about the gray woman, her demonstration of white supremacy but also a sickly life. I can’t stop looking at my left hand. I find myself wiping it against the fabric of my clothes, washing it and then washing it again with soap and water. I don’t like the feel of white supremacy against me. While I am not afraid of death, I don’t like its connection to race in America. I don’t like the disease of racism and how it eats at the living, the spirit and the soul, casts us into the shadows of ourselves and each other. I can’t stop thinking about how hard it must be to be her Mexican daughter-in-law.

Kao Kalia Yang is the author of the award-winning book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and the newly published The Song Poet. This year she is the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Faculty in American Studies and English at Carleton College. She is currently working on her third book, a fictional story about rape for younger audiences. In addition to writing and teaching, Yang is a sought after public speaker.



Rajiv Mohabir

In the halls of Kuykendall at the University of Hawai‘i a professor who was having a bad day stopped me. She narrated what just happened in her class—students, mostly fourth and fifth generation Asian Americans lamented, immigrants are taking our jobs. Later that evening my partner told me about his high school classroom in which he showed his students a photo of a smiling hijabi woman and asked them to describe what they saw. What he elicited from his mostly Asian American students: Terrorist. Islamic State. Anxiety. An Indo-Caribbean woman posted a comment on my Facebook page that “illegal” immigrants should not be allowed to enter the country. And now ICE is raiding Liberty Avenue, Little Guyana for people they deem a threat to national security. This rhetoric is what kept all Asian Americans from inhabiting the second word in the identity category until 1965, and how, having gotten fat on Kānaka Maoli land, the descendants of laborers turn to one another and whiten their tongues. This backlash of xenophobia and racism is nothing new.

Yes, the racism, xenophobia, and homophobia live in our homes, eat with us, braid our hair as we sleep. One of the first nursery rhymes that my own Indo-Guyanese Aji taught me compared the face of a black man to a vulture. We have to stop pretending that we are the victims and innocent of the same oppressions that we challenge. We have to talk to our elders, our mothers, our brothers. We have to remind our fathers that our skins are brown too, that we are queers too, that we are immigrants too, that we have more in common with other People of Color than we do with the white people who invaded our countries, stole our riches, and enslaved us.

To be clear, I have the privilege of being English dominant, of being a citizen, of being a cisgender man. I also am queer, brown with Hindu, Muslim, and Christian ancestors, and have chronic health issues. What this means is that I have to mobilize my identities to help fight white supremacy. Let’s be honest, the term “Asian American” is a very convenient label that attempts capaciousness and tries to locate many diverse ethnicities and people. For me, it’s helpful to think about identity as assemblage—much in the way that Jasbir Puar in Terrorist Assemblages puts into conversation with identity as intersectional. Identity is not static. We have different identities dependent on our various contexts. Assemblage is a way to think of aligning ourselves against our biases and working to achieve whatever end we are currently engaging with.

And what about Natives of these lands we live on? What is our “community’s” responsibility to them? In Hawai`i the sovereignty movement is alive. How can we as Asian Americans help to fight against the imperial impulses of America alongside the Kānaka Maoli? For me, using my own skills, it’s about amplifying indigenous voices around me. My experiences as a postcolonial person harmonize with the illegal occupation happening here. This also means finding every moment that I can to raise my voice against the colonizing machine of the United States. I’m even doing this in my essay that you are reading or are at least skimming. We are settlers on this land and we have a responsibility to stand up against Native American genocidal practices, continuing land grabs, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I’ve just gotten off the phone with my family friend, my “Aunty.” She was not invited to my sister’s wedding because of her anti-black racism. My brother-in-law is Guyanese and Bahamian. I explained to her why Black Lives Matter and how the prejudices she brings from the Caribbean work against her own well-being in this country. We must protect one another since tr*mp wants us all deported or dead. I reminded her of how her parents had a hard time with their intermarriage—she from a Hindu family and “Uncle” from a Muslim one. She said, “After one time come another time,” which is a Guyanese proverb meaning that as one social convention normalizes, the next boundary is up for question.

Other family members stopped looking me in the eye when they heard from my mother that I am an “antiman,” a makeup-wearing faggot. When the extended family stopped inviting me to their weddings, parties, and to the wake of my Aji, I was wounded. I felt like I lost my kin and my familial connections, and it was this very scar that drove me to consider what other kinds of group belongings I have. Now there is a renewed sense of oppression—the new administration has turned up the volume in national hatred. Muslims are being refused entry into the country. Black and brown bodies are viewed with suspicion, still. I have since reached out to cousins and family members to check in on them, to see if they are okay, if they are safe.

I’ve started to build back the connections with people that were part of communities that I had previously belonged to. I’ve gotten back in touch with friends, queer family, biological family and the like. I have started to reconsider my hurt, seeing the systems of oppression as interconnected, a web of terror followed by darkness. Racism and homophobia in Indo-Caribbean communities are a direct result of colonization—a kind of colonial fallout that I have been researching and writing about. But this does not excuse it. I have decided that I have to use my strengths for good. The poet Brenda Shaughnessy just recently said at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs that now more than ever we need to write our poems. That we cannot let the silence in to take over our hearts and minds.

So, dear reader, please consider this an open invitation. Let’s write and write. Let’s use our gifts to make a blaze so bright that it will eclipse night. If you are feeling scared, you are not alone. If we can fight together, write together, we will come away with a deeper understanding of ourselves and our complicities in our heteropatriarchal white supremacist country. As Yuri Kochiyama once wrote in her book Passing It On,

“I am hoping you place love for your family, friends, and humanity; service to your community; concern for human rights, justice, and human dignity on your pedestal... We are all part of one another.”

Rajiv Mohabir is the author of two collections of poetry The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books 2016), which won the Four Way Books Intro Poetry Prize, and The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press, May 2017), winner of the Kundiman Prize. He received his MFA from Queens College and will be completing his PhD at the University of Hawai‘i later this year. To read more of his work, visit www.rajivmohabir.com.


In This Current Era

Lehua M. Taitano

Before I was born as this human form, there was nothing. Nothing, according to me, because I had no awareness. There was history, sure. An invented and remembered and retold multiverse that would be taught to me later—an existence containing an earth filled with elements and microbes and fungi, plants and animals and people, and the recycled/recycling molecules of all once-living things now extinct. Some believe god(s) plopped humans on the earth. Some believe humans evolved from amoeba. Some others believe countless something elses. And though many of us have our own convictions about human origins, if we keep going back and back and back into the history of everything, and back further still, beyond what the human imagination can imagine, that which lies at the beginning of beginnings—gods’ mothers’ mothers or what lies beneath the taproot of the Big Bang’s ancestral tree—the truth is that we just don't know.

We may speculate. We may have faith and believe. But we simply weren’t there, and we haven’t collected enough evidence to piece together an answer, so we don’t know. And that unknowable moment—before people were people and we started killing each other for survival and killing each other for territory and killing each other to satisfy other emotions that we associate with survival and territory and which stems, above all, from fear—that moment is what drives us, still, toward the contemplation of our deaths.

Because we cannot know the beginning, we try to predict the end.

With minds honed on such apocalypse, it is no wonder humans struggle to define how we should live in the meantime, what identities we wish to possess before we are hurled toward our own extinction. Apocalypse, after all, is a moment of uncovering, of a great finding out.

It is important to know then, reader, that it is within the above context of supposition and postulation that I approach the task of contemplating the specificity of this question, from Paul Lai, Editor of Kartika Review:

What does it mean to be an Asian Pacific Islander American writer in an era of renewed xenophobia and racism?

Maybe I have to start at the beginning in order to understand the present. Maybe I wish to homologize humanity’s shared once-nothingness, our collective groping for what our existence actually is or means—as if to expand my easily contracted view of contemporary social structures, imaginary boundaries placed on the physical world, and the subsequent human and environmental injustices that arise from such categorization and enforced mores—in order to remind myself that we as human beings are the same. Despite our differences in belief, speculation, and fear. Because when I think of being an APIA writer, identity, culture, gender, ability, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and religious dis/belief all play a role in the reality of daily human life, regardless of my ability to reason that human bodies are comprised of 50–60% water, that we are each made up of approximately 7 octillion atoms, or that our heartbeats mimic the cadence of music we hear or feel.

As modern humans, we tend to constrict our sensibilities such that we allow ourselves to be governed by (often pre-existing and outdated) social constructs and act out our intentions and behaviors within them. And currently in the United States—as in right now in this militaristic, neocolonial, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist, sexist, Trans/Homo/xeno-phobic, fear-mongering political moment—I think some humans are behaving in ways they have always behaved in the Era of Their Lives. Racists and xenophobes are still acting with racist and xenophobic intent. Radical liberationists are still acting with the purpose to de- and re-construct oppressive political regimes. But since the election of the 45th US President, there has been a notable shift in behavior from many of those who fall somewhere in between—possibly because they are, at long last, both shocked and surprised.

As for me, the current Era of the 45th President has amplified a focus for liberation from oppression that has always been in my consciousness. It is clear to this queer, brown islander that “liberty and justice for all” is an obvious lie invented to keep institutionalized oppression seemingly normal or invisible to the populace and entities who benefit from that lie. And though the audacity of the US military and its militarized police is always shocking but unsurprising to me, it is difficult, really, to say that “in this new era” something has drastically changed for me, either generally as a human and, more specifically, through my work as a writer. Perhaps this seems like overt pessimism or ignorance regarding the rising tide of reinvigorated hatred. But I contend it is, rather, the lifelong, purely tenacious pursuit of happiness-while-resisting-and-surviving that so many QPOC know so well.

Things seem perhaps unchanged because I am still fighting the systems that have existed long before any recent inauguration. I am still educating myself and striving toward beneficial solidarity with other communities whose human rights are also denied and imperiled and who are often at greatest risk of physical and emotional trauma. I am still working to make art that makes a difference. Art that speaks to social revolution, for the rights of Indigenous, Trans, Undocumented people. I am still suffering in body and mind the inequities of our human-made societies, but I endeavor not to be defined, solely, by them. I have been honing my voice and shouting and creating and resisting for so long, that it has become how I define living. And maybe it is. In this Human Era. It is one way to live—my octillions of atoms whorling and whirling me toward a freedom I have never stopped imagining.

In this current era, I’m searching for the multitude of ways to decolonize, deconstruct, dismantle, and disrupt. Because regardless of what may come after the end, surely we must turn our attention and service to the imbalances of the now.

Lehua M. Taitano, a native Chamoru from Yigo, Guahån (Guam), is a queer poet, writer and artist.  She is the author of A Bell Made of Stones (poems, TinFish Press) and two chapbooks: appalachiapacific, which won the 2010 Merriam-Frontier Award for short fiction, and Sonoma (poetry, Dropleaf Press, 2017). Her poetry, essays, and Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction have appeared in or are forthcoming from Fence, Poetry Magazine, Narrative Witness, Witness, The Yellow Medicine Review, and others. Taitano currently serves as the Community Outreach Coordinator on the Executive Board of the Thinking Its Presence: Race, Literary and Interdisciplinary Studies Conference.
Published March 15, 2017
© 2017 Paul Lai, Craig Santos Perez, Barbara Jane Reyes, Kao Kalia Yang, Rajiv Mohabir, and Lehua M. Taitano