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“Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora”: A Book & Its Fundraiser


Art lovers everywhere, swoon! Here diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill features some beautiful and intense artworks, while telling the history and motivation for the forthcoming anthology Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and ArtWith less than two weeks left to go in their Kickstarter campaign, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network is seeking donations towards printing of the numerous color images in this forthcoming volume. Although the Kickstarter campaign’s goal is capped at $2,000, DVAN actually needs to raise $20,000 in order to publish the anthology. Their Kickstarter campaign ends sooner than one week from today, on June 22. Consider pitching in to support this long-awaited and much-needed project. As the first book to exclusively feature Southeast Asian women artists, Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora will promote the visibility and visuality of diverse artists and communities that often remain underrepresented. 

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When I first read the call for contributors for Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art, several years ago, I was initially struck by the centering of women’s experiences and by the broad attention to many geographical areas of Southeast Asia. The editors sought work from women “who trace their ancestry to Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei or East Timor.” Yet even more phenomenal to me was the attention paid to ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia, “like the ethnic Chinese and Indians throughout Southeast Asia, and the Mien, Hmong, and Cham.” Not only were multiple nationalities and ethnicities recognized by the call for contributors, but also multiple disciplines — the editors welcomed short fiction, poems, personal essays, and artwork addressing (but not limited to) “youth, generational difference, nationality, identity, gender, sexuality, and class.” Seriously. As I read the call, I thought, how wonderful and rare that these editors specifically address Southeast Asian women artists, with an approach that’s multinational, multiethnic, multigenre, and multidisciplinary.

That might seem to be a dizzying array of intersections, for some. But for me that call for contributions gestured to my own identity-blurring, border-crossing, and genre-defying experiences as a woman artist, of Southeast Asian descent, born and raised in the United States. Perhaps similar to the other contributors, I felt that the call for entries was written specifically with me in mind. I am mixed-race Cham American woman poet, essayist, and photographer, whose mother is from Việt Nam. I’ve long noticed how Southeast Asian women are centered so infrequently, in any context, and how Cham ethnicity is never really recognized or encouraged. And rarely are visual and literary artists of Southeast Asian descent brought together, with all genres recognized. So I didn’t want to miss out on this groundbreaking opportunity for inclusion, since exclusion often keeps us at a distance, as unsettling reminders of what American society may prefer to forget. As the editors write, “our voices make visible in part the enormous ruptures caused by colonization, wars, globalization, and militarization.” These phenomena all resonated with me. So I chose my strongest unpublished writing and photographs, waited patiently, and eventually received an acceptance letter for an autobiographical essay and three photos. In the end, the editors selected the best essays, poems, and artworks from among the submissions. The final manuscript totaled over two hundred pages from sixty-one contributors, mostly based in the United States but also a few from abroad.

Anida Yoeu Ali - Palimpsest (image from installation)

Gina Osterloh - Anonymous Front

Tiffany Chung - Bubble Shooter and Friends

In many anthologies, visual work seems like an afterthought, yet not for Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art. Viewing a slideshow of the images chosen for the anthology, I was struck by the power and energy of the provocative selection. Yet upon realizing that fifty-five color images would cost the editors $20,000 to print, I was admittedly crestfallen. Granted, color printing is necessary for accurate representation of visual artworks — even black-and-white photographs have warm or cool tones. Color printing, however, is very expensive. I wondered how the editors would raise the money to print in color, in today’s bleak economy. More importantly, would this important collection receive the attention it deserves? “Featuring both the visual and the textual, the anthology will be the first of its kind in showcasing the artistic imagination of Southeast Asian diasporic women,” editor Lan Duong writes. “The anthology offers a bold counter to the dominant images and static narratives in both media and academia about women in the Southeast Asian diaspora.”

Such an effort is long overdue. Many years ago, struggles over discipline and genre derailed this project’s predecessor, an earlier-conceived anthology of Southeast Asian women’s stories. In 1997, University of California Berkeley graduate students Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Anh Bui received funding to collect written and oral stories from Southeast Asian American women across the United States. Through a Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grant from UC Berkeley, Isabelle and Anh traveled to Southern California, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Houston to interview women of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong descent, with a goal of publishing an anthology of these women’s stories. Due to a lack of consensus, however, this hope diminished. With their adviser Khatharya Um, they had strong disagreements over what constituted a “story.” As a political scientist, Khatharya Um wanted Isabelle and Anh to focus only on women’s experiences, not on their creative or literary productions. A student of English, Anh wanted to accept only creative and literary work. And Isabelle, a student of Ethnic Studies, wanted to center both experiential and creative work — “as long as the stories were told well,” Isabelle emphasizes. However, due to these deep theoretical and conceptual disagreements over which “stories” were viable and valuable, the Southeast Asian women’s anthology collection was shelved indefinitely, the same year it began. Meanwhile the cultural productions of Southeast Asian women continued to grow more complicated and nuanced.

Kou Vang - Forgotten

Lin+Lam - Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 (film still)

Tran T. Kim Trang - Kore (film still)

Since the late 1990s, the Southeast Asian American community has dramatically changed. The population has grown demographically and professionally, with more children earning a secondary education, more Southeast Asians becoming teachers and professors, and more artists and writers producing compelling work. Within this context, Isabelle earned her doctorate in 2001 then became a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. As a Vietnamese-Eurasian-American, in 2008 Isabelle founded the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) to encourage and promote artists in the Vietnamese diaspora, eventually becoming its executive director. Since 1998 she had been working on her doctoral dissertation, which she published in 2011 as the first book to focus exclusively on the literature of Vietnamese Americans, This Is All I Choose to Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature (Temple University Press). Despite these accomplishments, however, the abandoned anthology project was still stirring in her consciousness. “The stories that I heard during that trip with Anh had stayed with me,” Isabelle explains. “I was personally touched. It was clear to me that women carry a special burden, especially when it comes to sexual assaults, stereotypes, and taking care of the family.” Isabelle concluded that there remains a real need for the visibility of these experiences.

As the demographic and professional dimensions of Southeast Asian women artists had become more complicated, Isabelle had remained involved in both academic and artistic communities. As a professor, working artist, and executive director of DVAN, Isabelle was connected with an interdisciplinary network of scholars who value both experiential and artistic works. These conditions eventually summoned the opportunity for a successful collaboration. So twelve years after abandoning the anthology, Isabelle approached the women members of DVAN in 2009 and asked if they were interested in reviving and re-envisioning the project. “To my delight, they said yes,” remembers Isabelle. At that point, Lan Duong, Mariam Lam, and Kathy Nguyen came aboard as co-editors. As university professors and writers, they divided the work equally — the community outreach, the call for contributors, the reading and selection of works, the fundraising, the writing of the introduction, and the editing and formatting of the book. Recognizing the diversity of the Southeast Asian American community, the editors also chose to expand the scope beyond the original focus on women of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong descent. Isabelle explains, “We decided to enlarge the category to also include women from Burma/Myanmar, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.” They intentionally broadened the parameters of to dispel normative notions of the region as an area delineated only by Việt Nam, Cambodia, and Laos — as “Southeast Asia” was known during the Cold War and American wars in the region, and as “Indochina” was once consolidated during French colonialism.

Ann Phong - Box of Water

Nalyne Lunati - Kranok

Quyen Truong - Nightmare

As I’d noticed during the call for contributions, the editors also specifically sought works by ethnic minorities and stateless peoples who emigrated from these countries, including the Mien, the ethnic Chinese and Indians, and the Cham. In scholarship and in popular discourse, these populations are frequently overshadowed (as are Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong) by the comparative visibility of Vietnamese Americans. Granted, the Vietnamese represent the largest refugee cohort in U.S. history, whose frantic flight from Việt Nam in 1975 signifies the “first wave” of three waves of Vietnamese refugees to depart mainland southeast Asia and arrive in refugee camps and dozens of host countries around the world. The Vietnamese also bear the racial and ethnic mark of the name of the undeclared armed conflict – “The Vietnam War” – a moniker obscuring that the American war in Việt Nam crossed into Cambodia and Laos, and targeted more than the “Viet Cong” and “North Vietnamese,” as U.S. history puts it, when historians mention the war at all. Those who’ve emigrated from Southeast Asia as a result of warfare are far more nuanced than the label “refugees from the Vietnam War” would lead anyone to believe. Yet the cultural and historical complexities of Southeast Asian refugees are frequently lost, as “the war” in Việt Nam overshadows varied other identities and geographical origins.

Despite their presence in U.S. society and universities, and despite their flourishing cultural productions, Southeast Asians from any country or ethnicity remain underrepresented in the anthologies of American artists and writers, and even in collections of Asian American cultural productions. In addition, Southeast Asian women are even less visible. Isabelle elaborates upon this phenomenon. “Too often the stories of women are subsumed under the general category ‘Southeast Asian Americans,’ and thus problems of patriarchy and sexism tend to be overlooked.” So the editors counter this by including works that directly address what is often unspeakable, including “the traumas of sexual abuse and the horror of displacement.” In addition, Southeast Asian women are often hypersexualized and othered in movies and the media, frequently depicted as dragon ladies, prostitutes, and “bar girls.” The anthology hopes to counter these degrading stereotypes, as the multidisciplinary stories of Southeast Asian women “provide a sharp contrast to normative narratives and ideologies that have historically been constructed by the West and the nation-states of Southeast Asia,” according to the editors. In addition to speaking the unspeakable and countering the negative images of Southeast Asian women, the works in the anthology “reflect upon the ways that we negotiate with the past, we form and reform our fluid identities, as well as how we sustain memory and imagination in our present lives.”

Hong An Truong - Goes To Heaven

Melba Alba - God Bless America

Phuong Do - Self and Aunts

The editorial vision for the anthology is necessarily bold, and its goals emphasize the far-reaching impact of the collection. “By publishing their works and pushing the boundaries of literature and art,” the editors explain, “we want to show the global connections that bring such disparate groups of women together.” The editors hope that Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art will push future generations of women artists and students to articulate their own voices through essays, poetry, and visual art. As editor Lan Duong states, “For both aspiring and emergent artists, I would like for the anthology to inspire others to create and produce.” In addition, the editors hope that the book will be incorporated into academic curricula, because the current offerings are quite shortsighted. Lan emphasizes that she often cannot locate enough texts produced by women when teaching courses on Southeast Asians in the diaspora. “As an academic I see that women’s stories and ways of storytelling (through visual imagery and different forms of narrative) are not foregrounded enough in books and studies about women and the Southeast Asian diaspora,” she explains. In this regard, the editors hope that the anthology will strengthen Southeast Asian American Studies curricula in universities while promoting stunning works that are still largely invisible to the public eye.

As nothing similar has ever preceded it, Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art is a truly groundbreaking venture filled with admirable literature and art. The featured Southeast Asian women writers and artists include Melba L. Abela, Azizah Ahmad, Anida Yoeu Ali, Christilily Chiv, Tiffany Chung, Rachel Quy Collier, Thang Dao, Phuong Do, Reanne Estrada, Marsha C. Galicia, Tran T. Kim-Trang, Grace Kong, Marine Ky, Emily P. Lawson, Anne Le, Lin+Lam, Leakhena Leng, Karen Llagas, Phayvanh Luekhamhan, Nalyne Lunati, Heang Ly, Vi Ly, Pacyinz Lyfoung, Phet Mahathongdy, Mong-Lan, Pang Houa Moua, Anh-Thu Ngo, Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen, Chau Nguyen, Debbie Nguyen, Gina Osterloh, Connie Pham, Aimee Phan, Ann Phong, Trần Tụê Quân, Jai Arun Ravine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Gayle Romasanta, Amy L. Sanford, Linda Saphan, Davorn Sisavath, Grace Talusan, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Kao Lee Thao, Angela Torres, Diep Tran, Linda Tran, Quyen Tran, Pimone Triplett, Hong-An Truong, Quyen Truong, Tran Mong Tu, Julie Thi Underhill, Kou Vang, Jenifer K. Wofford, Mai der Vang, Võ Chương-Đài, Chi Vu, Kao-Ly Yang, May Lee Yang, and Yer Yang.

Debbie Nguyen - darkgreen

Kao Lee Thao - Way of Life

Jenifer Wofford - Curtain Nurse

grassroots community effort spearheaded by DVAN on Kickstarter is generating some crucial funding, so it is only a matter of time and perseverance before the visibility and visuality of Southeast Asian women is realized in print and in color.  Yet this project still needs the broad support of those who understand the simultaneity and diversity of Southeast Asian women – in all our hues, values, accents, and inflections  – and who value an approach that’s multinational, multiethnic, multigenre, and multidisciplinary. As Lan Duong puts it, “For non-academics and non-artists, I think that the anthology presents another side of the aftereffects of war, displacement, and migration. The stories they tell are varied in their themes and imagery and collectively they portray how diverse Southeast Asian women in the diaspora are.” The volume is compact in terms of unifying so many writers, artists, and genres, and comprehensive in respect to the histories and geographies it covers. However, without community support to accrue the remaining $14,000, this compact and comprehensive anthology will never see the light of day.

Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art certainly needs your attention and support. And DVAN will definitely be accepting funds past the June 22 deadline. Yet the Kickstarter format makes things easier for everyone, so if a donation is possible in the next six days, please visit the Kickstarter page to support the anthology. There you can also watch a succinct video interview with three of the editors — Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Kathy Nguyen, and Mariam Lam. You can also learn about the various incentives per donation level. Although DVAN will accept any amount of pledged support, contributions of $20 or more earn you a “thank you” in the anthology as well as other tiered acknowledgements. After June 22, donations are possible through DVAN’s website or with a credit card online. Make sure that you select DVAN (Diaspora Vietnamese Artists Network) to choose where you’d like to direct your donation. To donate by check, download the donation form here and send your check written to “Intersection for the Arts” (with DVAN in the memo line) to Intersection for the Arts 5M, 925 Mission Street, Suite 109, San Francisco, CA 94103, or P.O. Box 720053, San Francisco, CA 94172. Since DVAN has nonprofit affiliation, all donations (through Kickstarter and through DVAN’s website) are tax-deductible, regardless of method.

Although the original Kickstarter goal of $2,000 was met, you can still donate, since the project still lacks $14,000. Don’t miss out on the chance to show your support and earn a “thank you” in the book’s acknowledgements. After all, this anthology will make visible — at national and international levels — not only this incredibly talented group of artists but also the diversity of women in the Southeast Asian diaspora.

Julie Thi Underhill - Grandma

— Julie Thi Underhill is managing editor of diaCRITICS and a doctoral student and instructor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. She’s previously written for diaCRITICS about her ‘authenticity’ as a Vietnamese AmericanDemocratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the ChamIsabelle Thuy Pelaud’s launch party for this is all i choose to tellUCLA’s VSA culture show tribute to Tam Tran, the first San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, an exclusive “intervu” with writer Vu Tran, and a radio interview between Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Andrew Lam.

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