Hosted and edited by Veda Kumarjiguda. Guests featured in episode 2 are Alex Ngo and Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd.
Drop that Hyphen is As[I]Am’s podcast where host Veda will be in conversation with artists and activists around the country about their work and how they think about social justice topics. In the second episode, guests discuss memory and systemic violence in their respective pasts and how they link these stories to their present understanding of social justice and identity. Listen to it on this page or on our SoundCloud!
Editor’s note: we had some difficulties with recording quality in this episode due to recording our conversation over Skype, so if you have difficulty hearing in some parts, we suggest you use headphones. There is also a helpful transcript that follows the podcast below.
Alex Ngo is passionate about educational access, racial, economic, and queer justice, sexual violence prevention and education, and healing as a political practice. He graduated from the University of Michigan and currently works in a Philadelphia public high school as a college adviser and advocate. You can reach him on Twitter @alexrichardngo.
Fredrick combines stories from ancestors with diverse academic and literary genres to interrogate memory, identity, alienation, and the loss of history through intergenerational adultism and ageism and bring a Black Pacific archive to visibiity. His book– Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific, will be published by 2Leaf Press (NY) in Fall 2015. He presently lives in San Francisco.
Veda Kumarjiguda is a writer and eavesdropper living in New York City.
[background music playing]
Veda (host): Welcome to the second episode of As[I]Am’s Drop That Hyphen. I’m Veda, your host. Our guests today are Alex and Fredrick – well, we weren’t actually together but Alex lives in Philly and Fredrick is in San Francisco. I’m in New Jersey. We recorded this chat over Skype, so please excuse any issues with the sound.
Alex and Fredrick come from very different backgrounds, but as we talked today we found similar threads in their work. Threads around memory, violence, and how they relate on a larger level. Fredrick will also read from his upcoming book, Dream of the Water Children. Stay tuned.
[background music fades out]
Alex: I’m Alex. I recently just graduated from the University of Michigan. There I was involved in a lot of queer people of color activism; I was part of an organization called the Queer People of Color Coalition for queer people of color, and I was also active in the sexual assault prevention and awareness center. And most of my work that I’m proudest of involved both of those identities and organizations.
Fredrick: Yes, I’m Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd and I just finished a masters and PhD program – well, not quite finished [laughs], but wrapped up my studies in 2008. And I finished a book right after that, which is due out next fall, fall of 2015, called Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific. Right now I’m not doing any institutional or corporate work of sorts. I’m working on my thinking in relation to writing, so that’s what I bring here.
V: Well I’m happy that you’re both here and I’m curious to see where the conversation goes. Fredrick, do you want to read an excerpt from your book?
F: Sure. My book, Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific, to give everyone an overview, is about the presence of blackness and it’s position in relation to militarism and colonization. And I focus on the Pacific, and particularly occupation territories that the US military have created in the Pacific. My own background is my father was, just after the occupation, he was station in Japan and Korea. And in Korea during the Korean war, and then in Vietnam. But I was born in 1955, so I was born just at the end of occupation, but the United States of course have never left Japan. My mother is Japanese and Chinese mixed, and they met just after the war and I was born. So these two snippets are from my book, and they’re in relation to race, nation, gender, and you know their position in relation to identity.
1962. “you ain’t nothin’ but a nigger bitch,” the white women said to mama in the PX. There were three of them, standing there, with their shopping carts in the aisle. Mama had brought me with her to shop in the PX. My mother yelled at them “you shut up!” The three white women came up to mama. Mama rolled up her sleeves and her face changed into some sort of monstrous expression that I became afraid of. Just then, a tall white man came and asked if everything were ok. The three white women hurriedly left the aisle to take their carts to the checkout stand. When mama and I left the PX, she gripped my hand tightly and we stopped in our tracks just outside the doors. I looked up to see her looking all around, checking to see if those women were around. They called her those names because they saw me – they knew that my dad, her husband, was black. I was the cause of mama’s pain, I thought.
1968. “you love nigger bitch!” Then the throwing of whatever near [sounds of items being thrown/shattering in background]. Cups, bowls, plates, forks, knives flew at the air at my dad. Things flew at my dad and then shattered all over the wall, the floor, the table, the chair. Dad would silently open the door to leave the house while he quietly yet sternly told my mother, “don’t yell at me, woman,” as the objects flew at him in rapid succession from mama’s hands. “She nigger bitch, ugly nigger bitch!” She had found the photos of beautiful black women friends that dad had hidden in the folds of the encyclopedia sets. He must have thought that since mama couldn’t read them the photos were safe there, but mama cleaned every nook and cranny that day. She wondered why she was alone most of her life in that house, raising me. Where was he every night? He was never home, even when he was supposed to be the father of the house. Sometimes I wouldn’t see dad for two or three days afterward.
V: How did these memories, I’m very curious, how did these memories affect how you viewed your own identity?
F: Well, I think that for a long time I’ve tried to make myself a mono-identity. So at first I thought I was Japanese, but the Japanese never saw me as that and I couldn’t figure out why, what was wrong. When we moved to America, we moved to America when I was 7 and then we went back there when I was 9, so we were there twice, of course I started to become American and I tried to view myself as American. But of course both black boys and white boys would not consider me American. And then nowadays, when I think of the mixed race movement, I find that also a problem. So, in that sense it’s offered me a lot of thoughts about how identity is constructed, and for me it’s more about how I view myself multiply and to use labels differently.
V: Can you describe what you find problematic about the mixed or multi-race movement?
F: I think that it’s an important movement, don’t get me wrong, and then I will sometimes say yes I’m mixed race. But that’s how I think of all labels or identities as perhaps provisional, or I would like to use the word ‘strategic’. So if we can learn to use labels strategically in relation to who we’re speaking with and what we want to happen, that would be better than saying ‘oh, ok, you’re one thing.’ And then if we need to decolonize, then that would be great too. If we think that we need to decolonize ourselves. For instance, I know quite a few mixed race people who think of themselves as superior to mono-racial people. And then mono-racial people will sometimes say oh, mixed race people are more beautiful than mono-racial people. And a lot of people buy into that, and I think that has a lot to do with self-esteem and not being accepted, and so we resist. But I think that we should resist that kind of positioning as well. And that’s what I find problematic, is if it’s unexamined. Like when am I using myself… Like I sometimes say I’m Amerasian – I’m not mixed race, I’m Amerasian – because that brings in politics and things like that, whereas race focuses on race and doesn’t bring in nation. And so I say, well my mother is Japanese and she’s nothing like Japanese Americans and Japanese Americans don’t like her. I said, so why are you lumping them all together? They’re not really alike at all. So that’s how I view myself. So mixed race movement is important, as long as it’s not doing what the mono-racial reality has done, which is that there’s some kind of hierarchy. So now mixed race people are superior? I find that to be problematic.
V: Also, as you mentioned before, erasing the history behind the terms.
F: Yes, that’s for me probably the most important thing.
V: In your work you use stories to bring back that history.
F: Yes, bring it back and then give people tools to look at it. You know, it’s like people going to Japan and eating at McDonalds – you know how people do that? It’s like, well, they went to Japan but they didn’t taste any Japanese food. So people do the same thing with history. They’ll look at history, but it’s like they’ll look at it morally – these people are bad, these people are good, this is right, this is wrong. And so nothing changes even though they’re looking at history. So trying to write or present – I mean, I don’t do it good most of the time, but once in a period, I’ll hit on something. A great thing that I say or do that will help people have tools to look at history.
V: How has working on your book changed the way you interact with your own memories?
F: Ooh God, that’s a heavy one! [laughs] Actually it’s changed a lot because, you know, a lot of memories that I had forgotten or buried or refused, came up. And then I had to restructure how I thought of it. To give you an idea, even in the process of writing the book it changed. Because the first form of the book, I started 25 years ago and it was called something like Snowflakes in the Valley of Fire. And I wrote the story as kind of a victim – and my mother was a victim of history, I was a victim of history. My father was a victim of history, white supremacy. All this stuff. And then I found it to be like something missing, but I couldn’t figure it out. So I really did have to encounter my masters and PhD programs in post-colonial anthropology. And I really credit my professors for this. They started me to think differently about the way I was reading history or considering history and self, because you know history is all of us. We are all walking encyclopedias. So that taught me to think about myself differently, and then the victim thing became placed. Like sometimes we are victims of some kind of malice or violence, but that’s not the whole story. So the way I wrote the story began to change, the way I viewed time began to change. So then it became this huge long process of trying to figure out how I was going to write this process – because words can never express reality. You know in Zen Buddhism, they say “a menu doesn’t feed your hunger.” And then, in relation to memory, I realized how constructed it is. So, my book for instance, is written as one long dream. In the beginning I wake up in the middle of the night and turn on the lamp; at the end, I’m turning the light off and falling asleep or waking up from sleep. So I decided to do it that way and I wrote the whole book in the form of ghosts and dreams throughout. So that, you know, I can tell people ‘look, this is just what I remember.’ But it could be different a few years from now, as I remember more. Or recently, I’ve met my father again. I haven’t spoken to him in 20 years, and we’re now communicating and he’s come to visit me here so we’re reestablishing. But there’s things we don’t talk about, which is my mother, because we don’t get along when we talk about my mother. But when he talks about himself, I’m learning so many things that I didn’t know, which changes it. So I wish I could go back and rewrite some of the book [laughs] because it changes it. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that memory is fractured. Also, we know parts and then we don’t know parts. So we do the best we can with memory – and that we shouldn’t hide that we don’t know everything.
What are we writing for? And if I think about it, I am writing this for social justice, for all my ancestors who died you know, in the Pacific wars and the Asian colonization by Europe and even further back than that. Then, if I’m writing for my ancestors then it’s going to have a different tone, and so memory should serve people.
A: I think about memory a lot in my own writing. Because a lot of my writing is focused on past experiences that I’ve gone through. And so I’ve had conversations with my friends where it’s like ‘I write so that I can remember.’ And you hear this rhetoric of like, ‘you have to move on and just keep going forward,’ and in order for me to move on I have to look back and take the time to actually process what has happened to me and what has happened to my family, and why I am the person that I am. Why I am the way that I am today. In order to heal and kind of make sense of all that’s happened, not just in my life but in my parents’ life because I think it’s all interconnected. So that really does resonate a lot with me. I write to remember and to try and piece together my own memories. And I think a lot about language in that sense, because I have a lot of memories of my parents arguing over a bunch of different stuff, but not necessarily trusting my own memories because I don’t know if my translation of what they were saying is accurate. Because I don’t speak Vietnamese today but I do understand bits and pieces of it conversationally. So when I think about things that have happened in my past and the things that my parents used to talk about, I wonder if I’m making it up or if I actually remember it. So I try to write to piece together what I do remember.
I’ve realize that I am not the only person that has gone through similar experiences, and so I write that other people realize that they can realize there are other people out there who have gone through things like them, because I didn’t have that growing up. I didn’t know that other people were struggling with their queer identity, especially within Asian families, East Asian families specifically. And so when I realized like, oh there are others like me: how do I find them? How do I reach out to them? How do I tell them that I know that they’re out there and I know that they’re hurting, and I’m hurting too. And so, for me, I do this through writing. And it started off actually through Tumblr, of course. Just blogging and finding people through that way, and then eventually moving on to longer pieces of writing. But that really motivates me – seeing the affirmation of like ‘wow, thank you for sharing this – it’s making me think about my own life in a way that I didn’t before’ is really one of the most validating things for me in terms of my writing.
F: I think that that’s great. I think it’s important. Because I think that’s the whole point of memory in that sense, is that usually our personal problems are more social or socio-historical [and] socio-political than we think they are. But because we’re so individualistic, especially in America, they’ve torn the communities apart and made individualism the highest thing. And that’s also part of colonialism because we destroyed all these communal nations and communities, and cultures. So, in questioning our individual memory and our thinking about it, and our trauma, and our pain, and our questions. And then we connect it to other people, we start to see that it is a social thing, it is a social phenomena – it’s not personal. And so we’re trying to handle social histories in a personal way, through a therapist or something, when in effect it’s a social problem. So I think in that sense what Alex is doing is beautiful and well-needed, and that’s what we need. So that’s my thinking on that.
A: Growing up, I was a lot more TV-obsessed, so I really didn’t think of any authors that I latched on to, until college of course, but I think my first quote unquote “role model” that I had in terms of my own identity was really Margaret Cho. Like, watching her stand-up, I remember crying. Like she’s supposed to be comedic, right, but I literally like watched her stand-up and her talking about how her mom reacted to her coming out and how she was the victim of a lot of anti-Asian racism. And to see her on the stage stand up and be really strong and not be a victim about it, which was what I saw myself as, really really shook me when I was younger. And I still remember watching her special late at night and stuff in my room, just crying.
[clip of Margaret Cho’s stand-up, laughter fades in]
Margaret Cho: Then there were people who didn’t understand the concept of ‘Asian American’. I went on a promotional tour for the TV show, and I went all over the country, and I went to one morning show and uh, the announcer said, “hey Margaret, we’re changing over to an ABC affiliate, so why don’t you tell our viewers IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE, we’re making that transition.” [laughter] So I looked at the camera, and I said “they’re changing to an ABC affiliate.” [applause]
A: Students, when they’re confiding in me, and when they’re talking about their conditions of poverty, and how they not only have to go to school – which is an hour away from where they live because neighborhood schools don’t exist in Philly pretty much – I want to instill in my students the kind of knowledge that their stories are not just by accident, or by chance, or because their parents didn’t work hard enough.
V: How do they get to school?
A: They take the subway, and the train. Here we have like, 12 year old children, who don’t really have the guidance of their parents to lean on and they have to navigate public transit by themselves. It’s 5 o’ clock in the morning, an hour to go to school. And then be lectured about why they’re late, why they’re not coming more often. Instead of being affirmed that like, you know, going to school is hard! Especially in the city. Especially for children who also have to go through so much other stuff at home and have so many other worries. And so when they’re confiding in me about this, I always tell them – but look around you, like you’re not the only one. And why aren’t you talking about this with your classmates? Why aren’t you thinking about this in a broader scale? I don’t say “why don’t you,” I phrase it in a more tactful and friendlier way of course, but that’s what I’m [like] in monologue, right? Like, [out] of frustration. Because I want that for them, I want them to be able to find community with one another and say this is not.. this is weird, right? That we’re all going through this while going to a school that doesn’t have any resources for us, like what’s happening, right? So I just try to get them to question that a little bit more and see that their lives are part of a bigger structure and part of something that they don’t realize. You know?
F: Yeah… yeah.
A: Mhm. It’s hard. It’s really really hard. I literally have some students who will tell me about family members who are incarcerated, their parents for example. And then they’ll tell this whole heartbreaking story and be very very vulnerable, and you can kind of see that kind of glimmer in their eyes where it’s like they want to cry but they’re not going to. And then at the end of the story, they say “but, you know, I don’t know if that’s good enough.” Like, we’re talking about our personal statements, we’re talking about what they can write to get into college and what they can talk about, like their personal struggles, their adversities. And then at the end of this whole intricate story that they’ve just told me, they said “I don’t know if that’s good enough. Like, that’s not that bad. I’ve heard worse. Like, my life’s not that bad.” And in hearing that, I see the resiliency, but then I also see this disconnect from the knowledge that they should have – that like, woah, this is actually really messed up.
V: And it’s also like, your stories are worth something. The fact that no one tells them that in a way, or you might not hear it enough – like “your stories are validated, they mean something.”
A: Mhm, yeah. So they like tell this whole story and then they invalidate themselves all at the end. And I’m like, wait, why do you do that? [pause] And it’s hard because I know why they do that. Because I’ve been there, I was that.
Most of the time, I say: “What’s happened in your life is not by accident. And they take a second, and are like “what do you mean by that? Of course it’s not by accident, it’s because my parents were selling drugs, they made bad decisions, I don’t want to be like them” etc. etc. And then I always try to say, but what drove them to make those decisions? What circumstances were you living in? Look at the situations that are around you now – the game is rigged. Why is it that many of your classmates have these similar experiences but then white students in the suburbs don’t? And so they kind of see it in that way, and then they start to say “we’re brown and we’re poor” and then they start connecting. And so it’s like they know, but they don’t talk about it, they don’t say it out loud because they think that it’ll be invalidated. And then they hear from their teachers the opposite. They hear: “You don’t want to make those same choices. You don’t have to be like that. You’re not your past experiences. You can be better if you just work hard enough.” Right? So it’s that kind of mentality, so they then socialize to kind of break themselves away from that, disconnect themselves away from that and say “I’m a better person, and I will make better individual choices” instead of thinking about the structures that their parents grew up in.
F: How individualism then lives in that dynamic. It’s like, ok, the kids are the problem, they take care of it. When it’s actually structurally the parents, what they have to go through between home and school, what they have to go through on the school bus, what they have to go through on BART, what they have to go through with their friends and the gangs, and then what they go through with the teachers and counselors creates the issue, but they’re making it the child’s problem. So individuals have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, which is you know the traditional American way, and so that’s where I think that if we could start shifting that whole idea of individualism being prominent and think of things as relationships, then I think it would change. But again, because that’s what you were saying Alex, you know we don’t have the programs for that.
F: Can I read a little bit from my manuscript just after the pieces that I read? I though it might be interesting as a way to kind of, not completely close, but to get to it I guess [chuckles].
So, in regards to the scene with my mother and the white women in the PX and me, and then my mother throwing things at my dad and then the name calling – the traveling of the term ‘nigger bitch’ across race and nations and times – this is kind of how I reflect back on this:
Dad never raised his voice or hit or yelled, but mama did. The more dad became quiet, holding things in so as not to disturb my mother, the more angry mama became. She wanted expression, warmth, companionship, something that dad did not give her. Dad was a charming man who was peaceful and controlled. And when she used the term ‘nigger’, it was meant to hurt him. It also hurt me when I heard it. It might have been the only counterforce she had to fight a battle with a man, an American man, a victorious occupier in her land. A class inferior, but a warrior against occupier white America. To counter the ‘dutiful Geisha wife that must serve him’ image, she began questioning that since before the war, with Japanese men. Although with the Japanese men, she didn’t need to be a gentle Geisha, she certainly had to know her place as second class and subservient to men’s commands. In the post-war period, the demands of becoming the correct Japanese woman that the elite Japanese men propogated against their class was now deployed across the entire populace, then helped by the Americans and the Brits and the Australian occupiers. What were the monsters that now ran rampant in our identities and in our homes in an open way? How have they shifted? Where were they from? Wasn’t this now an impossible place? What now would love look like, and act like, and feel like?
Yeah, so I began to understand the complexity of race, marriage, sex, gender, and nation. But I could not articulate it, I was only 9.
[music fades in behind Fredrick’s voice, then fades out]
So that’s kind of, I was trying to link that to what Alex was talking about – there’s a lot of questions in our interactions. Like if the kids, for instance, where Alex [is], just as an example would learn the term ‘internalized oppression’. What does that mean and how does that play out? How does that work? You know it’d be really interesting I think.
[outro music and thank yous]
The second episode of Drop that Hyphen was made possible by the hard work of our host Veda Kumarjiguda and contributors Alex Ngo and Fredrick Kakinami Cloyd and their editors Jordan Alam and Amanda Zhang. A big thanks also to P.H.F. and Spazzkid for the music used in this show. Project As[I]Am is an online Asian American social justice publication aiming to challenge dominant media narratives around what it means to be Asian American. Through writing, art, and critical discussion, we are building a community of opinionated artists and activists, and giving them a platform to share and be compensated for their work. To ask a question or find out how you can contribute, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.