Creating a Voice for Asian American Writers

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Asian American Artists Guild
Image Credit: N Engineer (with gifs from clipartbest.com & bytedust.com)

Last week in Los Angeles, I attended the first ever Asian American Caucus at the annual AWP conference. This caucus brought together a diverse group of writers from across the United States with a shared goal of sharing the voices of Asian American writers.

Representatives from organizations like Asian American Writer’s Workshop and Kundiman in New York City to Kaya Press of Los Angeles gathered to discuss current opportunities for the Asian writing community.

One issue we discussed is that we’re trying to define our own space but nobody wants to give us money. Another was that Asian Americans are underrepresented in terms of shelf space in bookstores. These are all legitimate concerns. But what we have to do, really, is look at the situation objectively and judge ourselves fairly.

As Asian American Artists, what is our Mission?

We want respect, recognition, and support, both emotionally and financially.

One woman, from the organization RAWI, pointed out that getting funding from the Arab community to fund the artistic endeavors of their own community has been difficult. Several individuals mentioned that the arts just aren’t respected by Asians, who want their children to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers. A strong sentiment expressed was that our work gets rejected by the large publishing industry as well as our own communities. So surely, they assert, we are being marginalized.

However, while it may be easy to feel marginalized and let the disenfranchisement weigh upon us, my reaction was a little different (as, I believe, was the intention of the organizers). Here’s how I see it.

1. If we want our voices to be heard, we must first ensure our work is ready.

It is too easy to let our egos shield us from rejection, to point the finger outward when in fact, our writing is not actually ready to go out. Yes, after being asked by our parents when we’re going to get a ‘real job’ and get over this arts hobby enough times, it’s easy to look for outside reasons for why our work is being overlooked. Our parents don’t understand the value of our art. Publishers don’t realize our voices deserve to be heard. But too often, our egos get in the way of accepting that maybe it’s not that our work is rejected for what it is about, but rather for the condition it is in. We owe it to ourselves, our work, and our readers not to shortcut the process, but rather to ensure that the work we put out in the world is polished and prepared, and not just ‘good enough.’

2. If we want our work to be valued, we must prove its worth.

Our parents don’t value the arts because the arts don’t pay. They need tangible proof that our chosen financial endeavors will yield financial security. So if we want them to support the arts, we have to prove that the arts do pay on their own, and not just with handouts. It seems a disloyal perspective, to put a price on art, but if we want to consider careers in the arts, we need to consider the marketability of our production, or the measurable benefit of pursuing the arts. What does that mean?

  1. Support Asian American artists – read and review their books, attend their events, buy their art. If it’s worth supporting, support it. Essentially, walk the walk.
  2. Provide metrics to support your claims. You want publishers to publish Asian stories, show them that there’s a demand, that there’s a niche that needs to be filled. And as for parents and those more scientifically-minded members of Asian society, prove the worth. Find the evidence that shows that books about Asian characters are sought, and lead to positive outcomes for youth. Find the statistics that show the benefits of the arts on society and social development. Be an advocate for the arts — not just Asian art, but all arts.

As far as I know from my discussions at AWP, there is no umbrella organization that unites and represents Asian American Artists as a whole. A one-stop shop, if you will, that can link artists to what they need, anywhere in the US. There are groups that seem close, but not quite:

So if I were to form an organization (and I’d like nothing more than not to have to) that could consolidate all these efforts, become a one-stop shop for Asian American artists, I’d call it AAAG – Asian American Artists Guild – because Aag is the Hindi word for fire, and while I haven’t yet figured out why that’s the perfect metaphor (this organization can sustain artists to help set their careers ablaze, or something like that, maybe with a reference to glowing and fueling and stoking, I don’t know yet), it has potential.

The logo could use a pen, paintbrush and maybe even ballet slippers as the ‘logs’ and flames of artists, books, and paintings. Fire as a positive force. That said, aag.com (american advisors group), aag.org (american association of geographer), aaag.com (something in Chinese), and aaag.org (something in Japanese) are all taken, so clearly this planning would require more than my five minutes of thought. However, saaag.com is available (so South Asian American Artists Guild), but I haven’t yet figured out a good metaphor using this Hindi term for spinach…