Building Our Hope: AAPI Women Artists/Activists

Image credit: Sunu Chandy

As many of us have experienced, it is often a song, a novel, a photograph or a poem that lays out injustice in a way that we cannot deny, and that moves us to action. In some cases, art is the only available option for expression and protest. In addition to our legal cases and campaign work, it is important to pay tribute to AAPI women artists who engage in social justice activism across many themes.
In this post, I pay tribute to Asian American women activists who have transformed and illuminated the struggle toward justice using art across genres and themes. I invoke artists I met in New York City in the late 1990s, including  Jaishri Abichandi , who founded the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) thereby creating critical community spaces and access for more South Asian women within the art gallery world; and Chitra Ganesh, whose work has now been widely exhibited both locally and internationally over the past ten years. To add these visual artists, I include AAPI women poets including Jenny Xie, the author of Eye Level. Her book was selected in 2017 as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Xie writes about immigrant family experiences both abroad and in the U.S. with countless lines that are both tender and compelling. Another established AAPI women poet and professor is Aimee Nezhukumatathil who was born in Chicago to a Filipina mother and a father from South India. Her honors and awards include a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Angoff Award, the Boatwright Prize, the Richard Hugo Prize, an Intro Award in Creative Non-Fiction from the Associated Writing Programs, and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony. When I read one of Nezhukumatathil’s poems to a public high school classroom in Queens, New York several years ago, a young student with a family from Kerala, India came up and shared that she had never heard a poem by an Indian woman before and even more so, from her own home state in India.
At this time, more AAPI women poets are now included in the poetry “canon” as well as within other community spaces, such as for example, by the poetry social justice organization, Split This Rock. In the Split This Rock poetry database, The Quarry, one can find poems by AAPI women concerning resistance of all sorts along with one of my own poems concerning an incident related to gender identity on the NYC subway.
With our art, AAPI women are telling our truths as a way to find community, and also to speak truth to power – to those who continue to stereotype AAPI women into certain roles and sectors of society. Stereotypes that assume we won’t complain, we won’t fight back, and that we will hide the abuse in our communities for fear that the community will be looked down upon. Thanks to countless activists across sectors – including these women who’ve helped put our stories at the forefront – the world faces increased efforts to prevent and address sex harassment with greater societal support. As the #metoo movement continues to charge ahead, I have frequently thought back to all the women, and individuals of all genders, who fought back across the decades before social media and hashtags. The poem below is about one such person, SK, who came to our EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) office with her dad in about 2000 and decided to take action.  This poem is in tribute to SK and her family, with gratitude.
A “Good Job” for SK– by Sunu P. Chandy
–       After we filed the settlement Consent Decree in federal court, Year 2002

My father gave me some good advice she said
as we were chatting during our break
from where we sat preparing her to take
the witness stand.

SK with her headcovering and
beautiful daily-wear salwar kameez
she continued, he told me that
if I study hard for my GED
and get into college and do well
then I can get a “good job” and
in a “good job” things like this don’t happen to girls
then I can get a job where men don’t
grab girls and try to kiss them
in the basements of 99 cents stores.

Upon hearing this my eyes fell sad
and my mind was unsure whether or not
to break this girl’s delusion
and whether or not to tell her
that men try to grab and kiss women
in all kinds of “good jobs” – women in million dollar jobs
speak to me about presidents of companies
grabbing them, and worse.

I was unsure whether to explain
that men in corporate positions
think they are even more powerful
than men who supervise
six little stores. How to explain
the complexities of human resources policies
and the legal ramifications of not having any.
Yes, maybe in corporate jobs they have pieces of paper
explaining sexual harassment but women still come here
talking about men grabbing them and kissing them
no matter how much money they make
in their “good jobs.”

But I told her simply yeah, in some offices it is better
than other offices and yeah in some offices, it is better
than in little stores and yeah you should study
hard for your GED and yeah, you should go to college
and yeah, you should get a “good job.”

We continued to prepare her testimony
about how many times her manager
said I love you and how many times
he said you have to go out with me
otherwise I could fire you.

She remembers that she told him
you know we are both Muslims
you know this is wrong in our culture
please stop it, you know this is wrong.

We went over her testimony about
how many times he touched her shoulders
and how many times he grabbed her hands
and how many times he tried to grab her waist
in the basement and how many times
he tried to kiss her. We continued to prepare her testimony
as she dreamed of a better job. And what I did not tell her
is that I am so sorry darling to inform you
that your lovely supportive father is wrong.

He is so wrong because
studying hard will not make the difference
going to college will not save you
and a “good job” cannot protect you
from these kinds of evil men.
These men who are usually protected
by the dead silence
in our communities. But not this time.

This time, by this time this is over
these little stores will get their own pieces of paper
about sexual harassment. After paying a significant
monetary settlement to you. And uncle manager man
will get some training and some counseling.

And we will carry forward
a small hope
that this will be his last victim
so that in any job, “good” or “bad”
more of us might be safe.