Landmarks in Literature by Asian American Lesbians

by Karin Aguilar-San Juan


For fun the other day a lesbian colleague and I tried to rattle off as
many names of U.S. lesbian writers as we could, limiting ourselves to
the years between 1960 and 1980. In a few minutes, we came up with
fifteen names, but although we listed white, Jewish, and African
American women and Latinas, we could not come up with even one Asian
American.1
	Asian American lesbians have had many reasons for silence. We
are relative latecomers to the lesbian/gay writing scene, in part
because it has taken us a long time to declare ourselves as lesbians.
In the early 1980s, Kitty Tsui emerged as one of our few published
writers and role models, and some of us exalted her fire-breathing
poems, as if they-actually having appeared in print-were better proof
of our existence than our own flesh and blood could ever be. In The
Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire (1983), a collection of poetry and
prose, Tsui offered us an image of a proud, defiant, "no bullshit'
woman, the dyke we all wanted to be:

	i am not afraid of
	talking back to those
	who presume to know
	who i am
	and telling me that what
	i do is not natural...
	[From "A Celebration of Who I Am' (62)]

	Tsui's writing reflected her discovery that, as a matter of
survival, she must assert her multiple identities as a Chinese
American lesbian. Significantly, her book appeared at a time that a
loose network of Asian American dykes was finally organizing itself in
enclaves across the nation, from San Francisco to New York City. By
the time I considered myself a card-carrying member somewhere in the
mid-1980s, the network of individuals was practically a "movement,'
sponsoring newsletters and potlucks and softball leagues on a regular
basis and going public with declarations of our independence from men
and celebrations of our love for women.
	Often, we risked family ties-for those of us raised in white
suburbs, our families are sometimes our only link to our Asian
heritage-in the hope of finding a truer family in the lesbian and gay
community we were creating. We saw Tsui as part of our movement, a
writer who was ours-and indeed she was. In asserting her multiple
identities against a society resistant to such wholeness, she showed
us the rewards of inner strength. But personal courage alone would not
have sustained Tsui, or any of us for that matter. All of us are brave
(to turn a phrase from the black feminist anthology by Hull, Scott,
and Smith [1982]), but all of us also have depended on the sense of
belonging that community-even an emergent one-brings.
	Reviewing our literature has made clear to me how critical the
assertion of identity still is to our Asian American lesbian
community.2 Twenty-three years have passed since Stonewall, but we are
still arguing merely for the right to exist. We confront not only
homophobia but also racism in our struggle for visibility. Much of our
activism, and therefore, our writing, continues to be focused on
claiming multiple identities and making ourselves whole. This is true
in Canada as well as in the United States. Much published writing by
Asian lesbians in Canada is revolutionary simply because the lesbian
community there, as here, is often erroneously perceived as white. To
counter that notion, in spring 1990 works by Asian Canadian women were
featured in a special issue of Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly. Titled
"Awakening Thunder,' the issue included pieces by writers for whom
their lesbian identity is a focal point. Nila Gupta, a South Asian
lesbian, dedicates a love poem to her compatriot:

	we meet
	where the three seas meet
	and braid hair
	at Kanniyakumari
	where we are
	our bodies
	laughing
	together
	gentle waves
	lapping
	rolling

[From "Love Poem for Sharmini' (Fernandez et al. 1990, 24)]

(For readers unfamiliar with Kanniyakumari, the poet explains that it
is the southernmost tip of India where three seas meet-the Indian
Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea.)
	The newest full-length work of fiction by an Asian American
lesbian comes from Canada. Vancouver-based writer Sky Lee is certainly
the most promising Asian American lesbian novelist to date. Her newest
book, Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990), delves into four generations of a
Chinese family in Vancouver. Lee weaves together historical fact and
fiction with a deft and delicate pen, bringing to mind Maxine Hong
Kingston's China Men (1980) and Louise Erdrich's Tracks (1988).
	Although Lee comes out as a lesbian in Telling It: Women and
Language across Cultures (1990), Disappearing Moon Cafe' is not a
novel about lesbian life. Nevertheless, more woman-bonding occurs here
than in either Kingston's or Erdrich's tales. Kae Ying Woo, Lee's
narrator, and Hermia Chow, Woo's jet-setter college roommate at the
Peking Language Institute, are intoxicated with each other. They sneak
erotic Chinese classics into the women's dorm, jump into each other's
beds, and giggle together between gulps of forbidden brandy. One day
Hermia declares to Kae, "Women's strength is in the bonds they form
with each other. Say that you'll love me forever! The bond between
true sisters can't be broken by time or distance apart! Say that, Kae
. . . tell me!' (39). In turn Kae thinks, but does not say, "Why do
women always want to dig beneath the surface? . . . Are we not happy
enough? Are we looking for more loyalty? More purity?' (39). In that
moment, Kae reflects the ambivalence I sometimes feel about the
intensity of bonds I have had with women, although at other times I
find myself believing such bonds to be exactly what I am looking for.
	Even if Sky Lee's writing career soars, as I hope, we need to
continue developing our own specifically lesbian venues, where being
lesbian is neither secret nor taboo, and where we can freely explore
our own experiences. In the meantime, I believe the Asian American
feminist community (including our writers) is making progress against
homophobia.3 The anthology The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American
Women's Anthology, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and others (1989),
includes several pieces by lesbians. Although, sadly, Lim's
introduction makes no mention of these pieces, they are nevertheless
an integral part of the collection. One piece, an erotic lesbian sex
poem by Merle Woo, not only breaks the silence about lesbians but also
breaks a silence about sex that has traditionally existed in Asian
American culture.

	My legs around that great horse's neck
	not riding
	but my body singing down under
	in front of the beautiful dark head
	feeling her moist tongue in my center-
	I am risking my life for these moments
	My head possibly dashed against the rocks....
	[From "Untitled' by Merle Woo(Lim et al. 1989, 131)]

As the Asian American population grows, so does the market for books
for, by, and about Asian Americans. The large publishing houses are
consequently recognizing more and more Asian American writers, most of
them women. Finally, by 1992, in addition to Chinese American Amy Tan
(1989), we also had discovered Japanese American Cynthia Kadohata
(1989) and Filipina American Jessica Hagedorn (1990).
	Depending on whom you ask, these writers range from
straight-laced and corporate to quasi-radical, but as far as I know,
none of these writers is lesbian, an identification which is still
highly unacceptable to the mainstream press. The lack of lesbian
writers, I would argue, has at least as much to do with our own
literary inexperience as it does with the economics and politics of
book publishing. Four years after Tsui published Words of a Woman, a
group of young Asian/Pacific writers from Santa Cruz, California,
self-published an anthology, Between the Lines (Chung, Kim, and
Lemeshewsky 1987). I never had a chance to review the book back then;
belatedly, I send them three cheers. While the five-page bibliography
of works by, for, or about Asian American lesbians compiled by Alison
Kim is definitely worth noting, the prose filling the rest of the
collection is excruciatingly earnest. Evidently, the self-publishing
route allowed these writers to have a voice without the guidance (or
burden) of an editor, whereas ideally a publishing house could have
both provided them with a supportive editor and allowed them a strong
voice.
	I doubt Chung and her compatriots had many options other than
to self-publish. The industry's mainstream is still plagued by sexism,
racism, classism, and homophobia. Alternative publishers need to
continue to search out Asian American women writers whose feminist and
lesbian experiences explicitly influence their work. Because of our
community building and the efforts of a few committed and independent
publishers, we do have work by novelists Chea Villanueva (China Girls,
1991) and Willyce Kim (Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid, 1984);
playwright/performer Canyon Sam ("The Dissident' and "Taxi Karma,'
both unpublished); poet/essayists Tamai Kobayashi and Mona Oikawa (All
Names Spoken, a collection of pieces by these two Japanese Canadians,
1993); and a host of other emerging writers. Many Asian lesbians are
represented in Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Color Anthology edited
by Makeda Silvera (1991). This groundbreaking collection reflects an
Aspiring vision of community where women of color speak "sister to
sister,' sharing everything from coming out/coming home stories to fa
vonte reclpes.
	This list of fictional works that portray Asian American
lesbian life is short. But other developments give me hope for our
literary future. Two new publications are likely going to produce new
writing. The first, initiated by Los Angeles-based Ingin Kim, is a yet
unnamed periodical with a gritty, underground feel and absolutely no
editorial guidelines, geared specifically toward Asian Pacific
lesbians and bisexual women. In her call for submissions, Kim states:
"Asian/Pacific women are often prone to serious self-censorship.
That's a problem because it continues our invisibility. This
publication promises to be loud and out there-stressing the quirky,
experimental, irate, and provocative. Think of it as a journal or a
'zine or a document of our times.' Indeed, Kim's desire to expand the
genres available to us is a reasonable response to the disturbing lack
of published works among us. The second, New York City-based
COLORLife! The Lesbian, Gay, Twospirit, and Bisexual, People of Color
Magazine, is a more sober, hard-hitting publication that is not
exclusively Asian but that will likely have its proper share of Asian
lesbian writers.4
	Our literature has everything to do with the state of the
lesbian/gay movement. Asian American lesbians are becoming more
visible and more diverse. The San Francisco Bay Times regularly lists
meetings of South Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese lesbians.
In the Los Angeles Times Magazine feature on "lipstick lesbians' in
Spring 1992, I spotted a striking photo of an Asian dyke on a flashy
motorcycle. Though while mounted atop a Harley Davidson she may not
represent the height of community activism, I found it comforting to
have yet more evidence that we are everywhere; that some of us are
wild; and that not all of us have confined ourselves to well-behaved
poetry readings or to the stuffy pages of prestigious academic
journals.  
	Our community of writers is changing too. I was one of the
organizers of OutWrite '92, the third National Lesbian and Gay Writers
Conference held in Boston in March. There we convened what I believe
is one of the first major groups of gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers
of Asian heritage. We are still debating what to call ourselves-the
hybrid term Asian American does not work for everyone-and our
gatherings remain too often dominated by East Asians, with not enough
representation by South Asians or Southeast Asians or even by Asian
Americans of mixed backgrounds.5
	In their review of the conference for the Nation, Jan Clausen
and Andrea Freud Loewenstein observed, "Now that we finally understand
the stakes, we are writing as though it matters' (1992). I believe
this holds true for the state of Asian American lesbian writing. I
have no doubt that we are committed. I am not sure, though, what we
are committed to. I believe we need to push ourselves beyond the
politics of identity and develop a political agenda based on our
vision of a free and just world.6 After all, telling the world who we
are should not be the be-all and end-all of our work. What we plan to
do and how and why (as writers, readers, and publishers) should
definitely receive at least as much scrutiny as what race we represent
and who we sleep with.
	As writers, we need to wrap our minds around the other issues
our literary communities face: teaching lesbian/gay writing in
heterosexual academic environments; race and problems of
representation; the role of writers in shaping the lesbian/gay
movement; the moral dimensions of writing about sex; the politics of
book reviewing; and so on. We have come a long way since Tsui first
breathed her "words of fire.' New challenges face us. Now, in addition
to our struggles for personal wholeness and political visibility, we
should think constructively about the rest of society and how we are
going to create peace, justice, and sexual freedom in our lifetimes.

South End Press Boston

Author's note: Mona Oikawa and Milyoung Cho provided helpful insights
for this essay.

References

Aguilar-San Juan, Karin, ed. 1993. The State of Asian America:
Contemporary Activism and Resistance. Boston: South End. In press. 

Chung, C., A. Kim, A. K. Lemeshewsky, eds. 1987. Between the Lines: An Anthology. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Dancing Bird.

Clausen, Jan, and Andrea Freud Loewenstein. 1992. "OutWrite '92.' Nation May 18, 1992.

Erdrich, Louise. 1988. Tracks. New York: Holt.

Fernandez, Sharon, et al., eds. 1990. "Awakening Thunder: Asian Canadian Women,' special issue of Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly, no. 30.

Hagedorn, Jessica. 1990. Dogeaters. New York: Pantheon.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. 1982. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press.

Kadohata, Cynthia. 1989. The Floating World. New York: Viking.

Kim, Willyce. 1984. Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid. Boston: Alyson.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. 1980. China Men. New York: Knopf. Kobayashi, Tamai, and Mona Oikawa. 1993. All Names Spoken. Toronto: Sister Vision Woman of Colour Press.

Lee, Sky. 1990. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Seattle: Seal.

Lee, Sky, et al., eds. 1990. Telling It: Women and Language across Cultures. Vancouver, B.C.: Press Gang.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, et al., eds. 1989. The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology. Corvallis, Oreg.: Calyx Books.

Silvera, Makeda, ed. 1991. Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Color Anthology. Toronto: Sister Vision Woman of Colour Press.

Tan, Amy. 1989. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam.

Tsui, Kitty. 1983. The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink.

Villanueva, Chea. 1991. China Girls. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Author.

Endnotes 1 During the extensive process of revising this piece to address the many valid questions raise d by the special issue editors, I frequently wondered whether I was the right person to do this piece. After all, just because I am an Asian American dyke does not mean that I have read everything any Asian American dyke ever has written. I see this essay as a place for me to put forth political insights that I have developed over the years in my work as a publisher and activist and, thus, to make some small contribution toward the debates we shall continue to have about the purpose of literature, the direction of the lesbian/gay community, the direction of the Asian American community, and so on.

2 When I agreed to write this essay, I understood that I was agreeing in some way to represent the Asian American lesbian community. I knew also that I was the only Asian American writer for this issue. I decided to do the piece despite my awareness of how problematic these roles were. Asian Americans have been invisible in too many texts, and I hope to do my part to articulate some of the particularities and complexities of our experience. This essay is not the "last word' on literature by Asian American lesbians. It is one essay, by one writer, one attempt to make sense of Asian American lesbian history as it is rejected back to us in our literature. I have attempted to cast my thoughts broadly and have taken pains to acknowledge even the writers that I personally do not feel moved by. I feel a responsibility to acknowledge the positive accomplishments of our community-a community that is harmonious as well as conflicted, cohesive as well as rife with personal animosities and petty rivalries. We are not without growing pains. Partly for lack of time and space, I have resisted the temptation to drag out the laundry list of Asian ethnic similarities and differences, as if such a backdrop would lend more credence to my views. Instead, I will simply refer readers who seek more comprehensive background information to the historians Ronald Takaki and Sucheng Chan. (See, e.g., Takaki's Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans [New York: Little, Brown, 1990] and Chan's Asian Ameriacans: An interpretive History [Boston: Twayne, 1991].)

3 In my experience, the Asian American community is indeed confronting its homophobia. That is not to say that all Asian Americans love that I am lesbian or that they recognize how deep sexuality goes in shaping our world; it just means that I no longer feel as though I will be lambasted as "decadent and bourgeois' as I have been by Asian American leftists in past years. In recent years, the panels on Asian American community building that I have joined seem to have accepted the need to discuss gender and sexuality. It is in my mind important to recognize this minirevolution and then to state the ways in which homophobia must be further eradicated. Ultimately, I feel an investment in making space for myself, and my lesbian and gay compatriots, within the Asian American community.

4 COLORLife! is looking for contributors; contact the Cairos Project, RO. Box 1518, Ansonia Station, New York, N.Y. 10023.

5 We need still to interrogate and subvert hierarchies based on ethnicity, class, and gender within the Asian American community. In my view, identity-based politics falls short of addressing this need. Often, ethnic hierarchies are intertwined with class differences, cultural prejudices, or religious biases. In mixed queer settings, such as the Asian American meeting at OutWrite '92, lesbians occasionally express frustration with the sexism and misogyny of some gay men.

6 I have edited an anthology titled The State of Asian America: Contemporary Activism and Resistance (1993), in which I put forth my critique of identity politics and my thoughts as to where the Asian American community should be headed. l realize that many of the points I make here and elsewhere will provoke debate-e.g., my belief that dentuy politics is worth challenging on theoretical grounds, even if material conditions make our liberation only a dream, because theory shapes action (as well as the other way around). Indeed, as an activist rather than as an "expert,' I am electing to engage such debate, hoping that some reader more knowledgeable than I will take the time to respond to my views.


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