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Becoming Realer: Visible

2011 June 23

Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.

 

Elaine Gin Louie's "Visible" and "The Red Frame" installations, photo taken by Nicole C. Roldan

 

One of the things that my advisor likes about living in San Francisco is that there’s something for everyone. She says that no matter how weird or specific the interest seems to be, people are able to find each other. Since moving to the East Bay, I’ve joined two organizations. One is the Association of Korean Adoptees | San Francisco (AKASF) that hosted a literary reading with Lee Herrick, Jo Rankin and some authors from the new More Voices anthology in May. It’s a large group of Korean adoptees celebrating and educating others on what it means to be a KAD. The other is the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) that sponsored the A Place of Her Own art exhibition at SOMArts, also in May, with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC) for the 14th Annual United States of Asian America Festival. Twenty-three Asian American women artists responded to the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”

I’ve lived here for a little less than a year, and I was starting to take it for granted that I can walk out on the street and see people that look like me. I’ve been told that I “have the facial features of Busan,” but I’m just happy to see other Asian American faces when I go to Starbucks or Safeway. There’s a Korean cultural heritage event at the Giants game this Friday that AKASF is co-sponsoring, and the KADs get a special section of our own in the stands. I receive email invites to at least three literary or visual arts events weekly that I could be attending to support Asian American women artists, and I was taught by David Lau, co-editor of Lana Turner: Journal of Poetry and Opinion and a self-identified Chino-Latino poet, last semester for a craft course. All of this seems natural to me now, and I forget that for most of my life, I grew up being stared at because I was one of the only Asian faces around for miles. I forget why I originally needed a place of my own.

Before I moved to California, I was worried about just that. I was afraid of becoming invisible in a place where Asian Americans aren’t in the minority. I was concerned that I would forget the reasons I became a militant and radical Asian Americanist and thought that all of the sunshine would make the anger I felt with such ferocity in the Midwest dissipate.

In a sense, it did. I joined A Place of Her Own because something was missing in my writing, and I sensed it could be found by making the objects that lived in my imagination concrete in the world. I also agreed with the mission to allow each Asian American woman her own space to form and utilize her unique vision in the belief that she would go on and give back to the community at large once undergoing such an intensely personal and thought-provoking journey. It’s the same message that I had been writing about in my undergraduate thesis and tried to enact at Kalamazoo College with little to no support after my racial identity formation, but I was a couple of years too far removed from those memories to be conscious of them while building my installation. It’s only now that I’m reflecting back on the entire process that I see that even more than going off the page in the name of my essay’s life force or finding such a talented and supportive group of Asian American women, the voice I was coming into was the same militant voice I had created in college and forgotten in the comfort and relative safety of my California life.

That all changed one afternoon in late May when I was sitting with Elaine Gin Louie in the SOMArts gallery for A Place of Her Own. A group of four older Asian American women walked in to see the exhibit. One of the women was Flo Oy Wong, who co-founded AAWAA back in 1989 with Betty Kano. She told Elaine and me about how Asian American art, especially art by Asian Americans who were also women, wasn’t being considered by galleries in the Bay area back then, and the sense of pride and community she felt the first time she sat in a room with about twenty other Asian American women artists. It was the same sense of pride and community that I felt twenty-two years later joining A Place of Her Own; the kind of community I had only imagined when I was twenty-two and  had never had an Asian American role model.

At least not for writing. The first Asian American woman poet that inspired me was Nellie Wong. I read her poem, “For An Asian Woman Who Says My Poetry Gives Her A Stomachache,” in The Forbidden Stitch anthology when my poetry professor allowed me to have an independent study in Asian American Poetry. I had never read anything so fierce and beautiful, and I learned how to write political poetry by imitating her style. Nellie’s poetry gave me a taste of something greater, something outside of the loneliness of Michigan, and the idea that maybe one day I could become part of it.

When Flo found out I was a writer that afternoon in the gallery, she asked if I had ever read anything by her sister, Nellie, and pointed towards her. Nellie was standing there, looking at the artwork with the other women. I had passed them earlier out on the street before they’d come into the gallery and smiled because a week before a friend from college had visited and reminded me of the isolation we felt as Asian Americans back in Michigan when the rage inside of me could only be contained by the possibilities for progress I heard in Nellie’s poetry.

“Yes. She’s one of my heroes,” I told Flo. The Wong sisters and their friend wanted to hear about my installation, The Red Frame, and Elaine’s piece, Visible, which was placed in front of mine. I told them that my 12-foot doors and six overlapping red frames of various sizes were about my search for a frame for my story of being a Korean adoptee, and the role of imagination in creating each narrative possibility.

Elaine’s installation had a wool base protecting her place of treasures beneath it. She dyed the wool batting various warm colors and a long, winding copper wire journey that reached up to 16 feet arose from the base. Hanging down from the copper wiring was a mirror to show that no matter where we travel on our journey, we are always brought back to ourselves. As Elaine was speaking, I couldn’t help looking at the Wong sisters and feeling such pride to be standing next to them. I was literally standing next to a part of history, and I felt like I was part of something much, much larger than myself.

 

2 Responses leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011

    Kelsay:

    Thanks for writing about me and Nell in your Lantern Review blog. I am blown away by the depths of your feelings, which motivated your art-making and writing as a Korean adoptee in this country. What an honor it was that day in May when I came to see “A Place of Her Own” for the second time. The opening had been too crowded for me to view the works intimately. I didn’t know you and Elaine and was pleased that we struck up a conversation collectively and then individually. When you spoke in front of your stunning installation my heart was deeply touched. Wasn’t it wonderful that my sister, Nell, was there to see the art also? You had a chance to connect to her as her poetry had inspired you when you were a student. I left the exhibit that day absolutely glowing because I connected with you and Elaine. I support AAWAA but often don’t come to the events anymore so this May’s showing of “A Place of Her Own” meant a lot to me.

    Looking ahead – Nell is using an image from my “Dinner Table II” installation as the cover illustration for her new book. I adored Judy Chicago’s seminal “Dinner Party” and saw it three times when it showed in San Francisco. I literally DRAGGED my children to see it. What made me ANGRY was that there was little or NO representation of Asian American women at the table. That anger served me well because it added to my frustration of being invisible in yet another dimension as an American female of Asian background. So, in 2004, I started to develop ideas for “Dinner Table II.” When I was an artist resident at Art Omi in New York the installation began in earnest. I am honored that Nell decided to use one of the images (she chose the one of her place setting at our family’s table) for her new book.

    May we continue to cross paths and support one another. I am truly looking forward to July 30th when you and other AAWAA members present at the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers’ picnic.

    May our friendship grow!

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