THIS ABC (APPALACHIAN-BORN CHINESE) WOMAN
She’s a middle child, middle finger to the fortune
cookie, born in Radford, heart of the New River Valley.
Never fully Chinese, she devoured sausage biscuits
before Sunday school; never fully American, she chews
chicken feet, a preference she used to not proclaim, feared
being shamed by white folks grossed out, as if bacon, ham,
and steak were holier.
Excerpt from “This ABC Woman” by Lisa Kwong, which originally appeared in Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Charles Frazier Volume IX (2017).
When UACC First Thursday Literary Salon organizer, poet Pauletta Hansel read with Lisa Kwong at the 2017 Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, she knew then that she wanted for our community to be able to experience both her fine poetry and her unique perspective on what it means to be Appalachian. As a preface to Lisa’s November 2 reading (7 pm, at Lydia’s on Ludlow; information below,) we interviewed her on how she incorporates her heritage both in her writing and profession.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from? What is your writing process like?
A: Inspirations: family history, encounters with nature (even though I’ve said many times that I am not a nature poet), 90s pop and R&B, music, pop culture, heroes in real life and fiction, love, incidents of racism, self-reflection, office supplies, place, food
Writing process: It depends on the piece, but all of them start with paying attention very closely to the moment or voice I am about to write. I like brainstorming, making lists, and freewriting. Sometimes I even draw before I write. I do often write about things from my personal experiences. When I write those pieces, it is very intense. I have a semi-photographic memory and can vividly and viscerally place myself back in the moment when I am writing and also when I read my poems to an audience. I also like writing from prompts, because they lead me to write pieces that might not exist otherwise.
Q: How did growing up Asian American in Radford, Virginia shape your identity? Do you use this perspective in your writing or teaching?
A: Growing up Asian American in Radford, VA, I knew that being Chinese American did make me different from the majority of my classmates. But that wasn’t the only thing that made me different. In terms of other Asian Americans I went to school with, there was a class difference. My parents owned a restaurant, and they worked around the clock to ensure the continuing success of the business. My classmates’ parents were doctors and professors. My siblings and I all grew up working at the restaurant, and we also had to learn how to do a lot of things on our own (for example, knowing how to fill out paperwork for school, the doctor’s office, etc.). There was certainly pressure to do well in school, but our parents were okay if we didn’t make straight As as long as we had worked hard and tried our best. If anything, my siblings and I wanted to succeed in school and life, because our parents gave and sacrificed so much to immigrate to the United States; they worked hard at the restaurant to ensure that we would grow up and be successful adults. Because we had to learn a lot of things on our own, all of us are very independent, can take on a lot of responsibility, and have held leadership positions in different aspects of our lives.
Writing is a way for me to express and process my identity. I do see a lot of things through a racial lens, but I also know that being Asian American, Chinese American, and AppalAsian are only a few facets of my identity. So I don’t feel limited to writing about race and identity, even though those are major themes in my work.
I teach several intro classes for the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University, and I bring a few different perspectives to my classes. In terms of my Asian American experiences, I can relate to students who had no idea about Asian American history, because if I’m being honest, I don’t remember learning anything pertaining to Asian Americans growing up. I grew up with the model minority myth based on what I saw my Asian American classmates achieving in the classroom. So I am unfortunately not surprised when students say that they had no idea about Asian American history or that racism does happen to Asian Americans. I also have a different approach to Asian American studies, because I am an artist-scholar and creative writer. My students get plenty of exposure to the best scholars in the field, but they also get exposure to a lot of visual media and literature. I also want to say that because I grew up in a small town where almost everyone knew each other and because my parents’ restaurant was a community center, the concept of community is important to me and that extends to my classrooms. I want to cultivate classrooms where my students form a community and can have respectful discussions about tough topics.
Q: How did the term “AppalAsian” come about?
A: I was inspired by Frank X Walker, Kentucky Poet Laureate, and his coining of Affrilachian. I first began using the term AppalAsian for myself probably as early as 2009. What began as a fun play on words has become an affirmation of my identity and where I’m from. I was never ashamed to be Chinese American, but I couldn’t always say the same for being from Appalachia, and that was due to the stereotypes of Appalachia being a poor and white region. I gained a greater appreciation for my home region after moving back home for several years after college and through my exposure to Appalachian literature. I’m not the first person to ever actually use the term AppalAsian—there’s actually a musical group called Appalasia—but I’d like to think that I popularized it. The biggest boosts for the term have been the acceptance of my poem “An AppalAsian Finds Home in Bloomington, Indiana” in Best New Poets 2014 and Frank mentioning AppalAsian as one of many different and unique Appalachian identities in his keynote speech at ASA 2016. I’ve met a few other AppalAsians since being more vocal about this identity, and I hope to find and meet more. What has been gratifying is to hear my Appalachian colleagues say that they’ve taught my work and had AppalAsian students be excited that a writer like me exists.
More of Lisa Kwong’s poetry can be found at http://www.stilljournal.net/lisa-kwong-poetry.php.
AppalAsian Poet Lisa Kwong will be showcasing her work in the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s First Thursday Literary Salon Series this Thursday, November 2nd, 7-9 pm at Lydia’s on Ludlow, 329 Ludlow Avenue in Clifton. Come early for a good seat and to order locally-sourced, organic food, coffee, tea and craft cocktails at Lydia’s on Ludlow.
Founded in 2016, the Salon Series brings urban Appalachian literary artists to the attention of our community, and uses their work as a springboard for engagement around Appalachian culture and identity. The focus of the 2017/18 Salon series is “Exploring the Boundaries of Appalachian Experiences,” in preparation for the upcoming Appalachian Studies Conference in Cincinnati in April, “Re-stitching the Seams: Appalachia Beyond Its Borders.” The Series is funded in part by ArtsWave. For more information about the Salon Series (including Affrilachian Writer Crystal Wilkinson on December 7) and other Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Cultural Programs, click here.
Rosie Carpenter serves as UACC’s new Volunteer Coordinator, through the AmeriCorps Program. Rosie has a BA in Anthropology with certificates in Historic Preservation and Heritage Studies. Since graduating in May 2015, her career path has focused on building community through the preservation of the built environment; she welcomes this new opportunity to build community through personal relationships at a grassroots level. To contact Rosie about UACC volunteer opportunities, email her at [email protected]