Notes From Underground

Asian American Writers' Workshop Makes A Scene

More than a few eyebrows were raised with the announcement that their fiction award would go to Lois-Ann Yamanaka. It's not the first time controversy has surrounded Yamanaka. In 1994, the Association for Asian American Studies, which represents the interests of Asian Americans both in and outside the academy, bestowed its literature award on Yamanaka for her collection of poetry, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre. The Filipino American Caucus protested the book's negative stereotypes. They objected again when Yamanaka's Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers was nominated in 1997, and yet again when Blu's Hanging was given the AAAS's fiction award. One local Filipino American says that the Filipino characters in Blu's Hanging are more one-dimensional than the others, even cartoonish, and though it could be offensive, it's more about sloppy writing than racism. Hagedorn, a Filipina American, will present the workshop's award to Yamanaka and says, "This isn't an award for good citizenship. We're talking about art and literature that should be challenging, uncomfortable, provocative." Luis Francia, a Filipino American poet, Voice staffer, and member of the Workshop's board, says that "the pain of the Filipino American community in Hawaii is real and must be acknowledged. For myself, the most effective way of addressing that marginalization is to stop relying on the Asian American establishment's validation and to empower ourselves by writing and supporting our own creative texts." As of this writing, no Filipino American group has made a formal protest.

"We stand by the literary merit," Ong says. "In our seven years, this is the first time we've been involved in something controversial." In fact, the Workshop is in some ways fueled by constructive confrontation. Before David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly and The Golden Child, came to read at the Workshop, Ong warned him that he'd probably get some friendly fire. Audience members questioned his use of the stereotypical emasculated Asian male in M. Butterfly. Hwang addressed this issue by saying he's been on both the sending and receiving end of such criticisms. He said he criticized Miss Saigon for perpetuating the stereotype of the submissive Asian female. "In my writing," he says, "I've tried to wend my own way toward answering the questions: Who am I? What is my context? How do I perceive the past to proceed into the future?" These are the perennial questions of the Asian American arts community and, as such, of the Workshop.

The Workshop continues to live up to its pan-Asian beginnings. The most recent issue of Ten, the Workshop's literary magazine, features interviews with Indian American writers Reetika Vazirani and Tanuja Desai, Filipina American poet Sofiya Cabalquinto, and Korean American poet Mi Ok Song Bruining. And recently the workshop hosted Tongues Afire, a gathering of writers from the Workshop and from Phati'tude, an African American writers group. While the Workshop has reached an unprecedented level of success in the Asian American literary community, it has yet to impact the larger publishing world in the same way.

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

Literary agent Jin Auh got her first job in publishing through a Meet the Editors night at the Workshop. Says Auh, "Editors go to Bread Loaf and Iowa looking for young writers, but they don't go to the Workshop. I think eventually that kind of thing might happen. Even non-Asian writers are beginning to enroll because word's gotten out that it's a workshop of quality." Luis Francia, editor of the Workshop's Flippin': Filipinos on America, says, "I think one of its biggest strengths is that it's now a publisher. The workshop realizes that if it had to rely on the larger publishing world it wouldn't get very far." But Jessica Hagedorn takes the longer view, saying, "Eventually we're all going to have to open it up. It can be your club, and that's okay. But it can also keep us over on the sidelines because it makes us look like we're happy on the sidelines instead of being part of the larger debate."

Those entering the fray include poet and early Workshop participant Barbara Tran, who won a Pushcart Prize in 1997 for poetry and edited the Workshop's book Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry & Prose, which last year won an American Book Award. Workshoppers Bino Realuyo and Christian Nguyen Langworthy have gotten book contracts.

Back at the Workshop on a recent evening, novelist Ameena Meer's fiction writing group sat on folding chairs around a table discussing their work. A few of the workshoppers were Filipino American, several Chinese American, one Indian American, and a Caucasian. Ethnicity came up when it needed to, but for the most part they talked character, plotting, word choice. You could hear people clomping around in the Gap upstairs, completely unaware of the subterranean world beneath them. And if the Workshop can continue to weather the inevitable growing pains, they just might find out one day.

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