Notes From Underground


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.

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.

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.

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.