Notes From Underground

Asian American Writers' Workshop Makes A Scene

Situated in a basement below the Gap on St. Marks Place, the Asian American Writers' Workshop is easy to miss. But as much as its location cries out for metaphorical abuse, the workshop is anything but underground.

Since its inception in 1991, the Workshop— with some 30 readings a year and four books to its credit— has become the premier incubator for the city's Asian American writers. And on November 16 the Workshop will take a big step into the mainstream by hosting the first annual Asian American literary awards ceremony at the Public Theater.

Second-guessing awards is a favorite hobby of all literary scenesters, but when the Workshop's panel of judges picked Lois-Ann Yamanaka's novel Blu's Hanging for the fiction prize, it set the Asian American literary community abuzz. While well-received, Yamanaka's Hawaiian novels have been accused by some of perpetuating racist stereotypes of Filipino Americans.

Peter Ong in the subterranean world of the Asian American Writers' Workshop
Hiroyuki Ito
Peter Ong in the subterranean world of the Asian American Writers' Workshop

Such interethnic tensions have torn apart Asian American organizations in the past, as have battles between writers and activists over the role of literature and politics in the community. Considering this track record, the Workshop's deadpan mission statement, "to create, develop, and disseminate Asian American literature," doesn't even begin to hint at the difficulty of the task.

Peter Ong unlocks the Workshop's front door at the bottom of an unmarked stairwell on St. Marks and gives the grand tour— which takes the 28-year-old director all of two minutes. Up front is the Asian American Bookseller, one of the country's most complete collections of Asian American literature. With its array of books, pamphlets, and movie posters, the space feels more like the suburban rec room of some artsy intellectual activist family than the locus of a literary scene. This humble space has hosted readings by young writers as well as luminaries such as novelist, poet, playwright, and National Book Award nominee Jessica Hagedorn and Tony-award winner David Henry Hwang. As varied as the events and artists are in ethnicity and concern, the work, whether explicitly or not, orbits the question: "What is an Asian American writer?"

This was on the minds of aspiring writers Jeff Yang, Bino Realuyo, Marie Lee, and Curtis Chin back in 1990. In college, says Chin, his work was often "misunderstood or misinterpreted," and people often expected pat fictional primers on the immigrant experience. They saw the need for a place where young Asian American writers could explore their work in a supportive atmosphere that wasn't inhibited by oversimplified racial expectations. They envisioned an organization that not only would reflect the diversity of the city's Asian American community— which encompasses Southern Asia and the Pacific Islands as well as East Asia— but also live up to the complexity of the label "Asian American." "We were born the same year as the coinage of the term 'Asian American' in 1968," says 30-year-old Yang. "Up until that point there was a history of Asians in America as separate groups, but not of 'Asian Americans' as a group per se. Our generation is the first to negotiate the fact that we're already perceived as a pan-Asian community with a shared cause and identity."

In fact, the first issue of the Workshop's literary journal featured an article in which it acknowledged its debt to Basement Workshop, a seminal arts organization founded in 1968 by a group of Asian American writers. Charlie Chin, an early Basement participant, says they were all acutely aware that it was a period of self-definition, in which the civil rights, antiwar, women's, and gay rights movements were in the public eye. "It became clear to Asian Americans that anything was possible. We saw these people walking around with signs articulating their causes, and you begin to ask yourself, well, what's my story?"

Basement eventually received grants, moved to a huge loft space at Spring and Lafayette, and expanded its artistic scope to include dance, theater, and visual arts. In the early '70s, when those in Basement further attempted to articulate who they were, as Chin puts it, "inevitable and natural division and splintering" occurred. He remembers how "at that time, Koreans, Filipinos, and Southeast Asians were just an afterthought.

"At first, the Maoist concept of forming groups was effective, with people volunteering and sorting things out collectively. But then it turned into little camps with people only interested in their own agendas." It's no secret that Maoists are lousy capitalists, so after a series of "fits and twitches" Basement lost its funding in the late '70s and ceased operations for several years.

In 1980, writer Fay Chiang resurrected it with a much smaller staff in a tiny space on Catherine Street. Responding to the changing cultural mix of New York, they consciously focused more on building a pan-Asian organization. They brought in Jessica Hagedorn to run the reading series and a workshop. Hagedorn further pushed the boundaries. She says, "I felt a need for a space that was not just Asian American but multicultural, and there was nothing like it in New York at the time, if there even is now. We had Miguel Pinero, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Jorge Rodriguez, Carolyn Forché, Lawson Inada read there." Despite such high hopes, again Basement shut down due to cutbacks in arts funding in the mid '80s. From the beginning, the Workshop has done everything not to replicate the growing pains of its predecessor. After Yang left to found A. Magazine, the remaining Workshop staff decided to generate much of their budget through events and program fees, to avoid complete dependence on grants and charitable funding. Still, this doesn't make the organization immune to troubles from within. "Sometimes they have more enthusiasm than experience. There's a danger they may get too big to cope with their growth," says one member of the Asian American literary scene, citing recent scheduling snafus and missed grant deadlines that resulted in the dismissal of a staffer. "For a nonprofit of this size, even a $5000 grant makes a difference. They have to realize this is for the long haul." But the source adds that the board of directors has taken a more active role in preventing mishaps like this from happening again.

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