My first exposure to Celeste Chan was in early 2014, when Lambda Literary Foundation put up a page of that year’s fellows. I ogled through the photos and short bios of my classmates-to-be in the nonfiction group (led by Randall Kenan). Chan was the only other Asian nonfiction fellow that year. In a sea of camera-phone selfies — some filtered in horrid sepia or washed-out grayscale — her professionally-taken photo stood out. In it, she wore red lipstick and a huge red rose in her black hair. I was immediately jealous of her.
As it turned out, the San-Francisco-based Chan was a big deal in the queer literary community, most notably through Queer Rebels (with KB Boyce), an art project that features queer and trans people of color. During the Lambda Literary Fellowship orientation, people actually came up to her and told her how much they loved her work and appreciated what she’d done for the community.
All the recognition didn’t seem to get to her head. She nodded and said her thank-yous, but not in a meaningless, hurry-up-so-I-can-get-to-the-next-person kind of way. She took time to listen to her gushing fans.
Chan’s parents have deep connections to the holocaust. Her mother is Jewish and her Chinese-Malaysian father was six when Japan colonized Malaysia. HIs father’s family was sent to a concentration camp. “It was either that or death,” Chan said.
We had an open-mike session on the last evening of the fellowship week. Chan, through trembling voice, read “Pacific Deep and Atlantic Thick,” her essay/manifesto created with Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, about Asians and Blacks. There was not a dry eye in the room. Some people were bawling. Our activist/poet friend Tim Carrier described Chan as a soul-shine-through person.
I tried to get together with her whenever I had readings in SF or whenever she was in LA for conference or readings, but for whatever reason, we never talked about that open-mike night at Lambda Literary Fellowship.
Three years later, Chan was in LA again. She was on tour with Radar Production’s twentieth-anniversary Sister Spit tour as the only Asian member of the show. They were having an afterparty at a bar in Hollywood to celebrate their shows in SoCal. I decided to kidnap her from the other members of Sister Spit to finally catch up and ask her about her manifesto and it’s haunting relevance in today’s activism.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
That night [at Lambda Literary Fellowship], you talked about the animosity between Asians and Black Americans. Where do Asians stand in the BlackLivesMatter situation that’s going on right now?
I think that tension has historical roots. There’s a number of things that contribute to that. Slavery is the foundation of this country. The United States has never worked to create reparations or any type of undoing. It’s just, “Oh, [slavery] is over, but we (the United States) are not going to do anything to heal or repair all these past generations that have survived such an atrocious and horrible thing.”
Within Asian-Americans, there’s been vastly different experiences. There are Asian-Americans who are very privileged, economically and through skin color — lighter skinned vs. darker skinned. But I think there’s such a range of experiences, from Asians who are working at Google and financially not worried to seniors in Chinatown who are strapped financially. Then there are people who are refugees or those escaped from Vietnam.
My dad says [the US] treats Black people the worst, and I’d agree with that. There’s never been any type of repair for that historical damage. I think for us [Asians] who are either immigrants or children of immigrants, we are benefiting from the Civil-Rights struggle that’s happened before us. We know the historic tension [between Asians and Blacks] is there because it’s structural. We know that it’s happening, so we need to and work in allyship.
In the US, people don’t seem to know what to do with Asian-Americans in general. It’s either that we don’t exist, or we’re model minorities. We’re supposed to be the good minorities as opposed to people who are fighting for their civil rights and that’s been such a divisive thing. The model-minority myth both hurts us [Asian-Americans] and pits us against other communities of color. It’s as if to say, “Oh look, these people have ‘made it.’” Not all of [Asian-Americans] really have. It’s so complicated. By design, this structure is dehumanizing.
You’re Malaysian, but you’re Chinese. While I’m southeast Asian. We look different, but people regard us as Asians anyway. Do you think a lot of people know the differences among Asians?
Do people know the difference or our histories? No. I don’t think so. I think in this country, maybe people know the most about Chinese or Japanese or Koreans or Vietnamese, but the rest of southeast Asia, no. I wish there were room for more nuance, for all of our stories. When we’re looking at Black-American experiences, there’s so much richness within that as well. There’s so much diversity within each group. But when it comes to Asians, people just know some about the large East Asian groups, and not really anything else.
It’s like, “Oh you’re Black but you’re Somalian, or Nigerian, or Ethiopian,” and they all have different and rich cultural backgrounds that set them apart from other Black folks.
According to Department of Homeland Security, there are 1.3 millions of undocumented Asian immigrants, or 12% of total undocumented immigrants.
Why do you think that a lot of the talks right now [about illegal immigrants] are about Latinos and not so much about Asians?
I’m not sure I know the answer to it. Is it a numbers thing? Is it a thing where we know the president-elect has so demonized Mexico and wants to build this wall — and that’s our immediate neighbor. When did the border even happen to a country that’s really part of America? I don’t know if it’s proximity or visible activism since a lot of the activists are Latino. I don’t know. Are [Asians] more quiet, are we not as vocal about this?
I think we don’t have the same history of activism that Latinos and Blacks have in this country. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see more Asian-Americans really step it up and be visible and be vocal. I mean, those of us who can. I understand if someone’s undocumented. That’s a very hard and scary place to be in, especially in this climate.
Structurally, if [Asian-Americans] get to be advantaged, it’s at the expense of Black Americans.
You know what that creates. And that’s messed up.
Is it safe to say then that we as Asians don’t really have a pressing matter — not as pressing as what Black people or the Latinx community are experiencing in the US, and therefore, our activism [as Asian-Americans] for now should be focused on building an ally to those communities.
I think it’s a both-and situation. I think there are pressing issues in our communities, I think immigration and deportation are definitely an issue, Asian poverty in the US is something that’s overlooked. Making safe spaces for queer and trans Asian-Americans is also an issue.
We need to look at what’s happening in our own communities and how we can be more active. And how we see ourselves as a part of other people-of-color struggles. How we see ourselves fitting into that and being, “You know what, I don’t want to say I’m a model minority. I want to make something better for all of us. Whatever privilege I have, I want to use it to create a space to move, to create activism.
Activism is important. We need to make change any way we can. From what’s happening in our own [Asian-American] communities and families.
I don’t want to stereotype us. Some of our Asian-American cultures are “don’t make waves,” or “keep things harmonious and peaceful.” So we don’t have the same tradition of protests like African-Americans do.
In the gay male community, we have what we call “Fat, Femme, and Asian.” Is that the same thing in queer women community? I mean, you’re femme and you’re Asian, although I wouldn’t call you fat.
But I would. (Laughs.) Or chubby.
I don’t feel like it’s the same thing. In the queer women’s community, we don’t have the same kind of body fascism, so I’m glad for that. (Laughs.) I mean it’s true.
Yes, it is.
I’m sorry, gay men are really intense with that “no fats, no femmes, no Asians.”
I did actually make a film called “ABSENCE: No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians.” I did use that title because I think that’s immediately recognizable. I think people see that and immediately get what it’s about because it’s such a thing in the gay community. While I’m not a gay man, I wanted to talk about that sense of invisibility that happens when you’re three of those things. There’s a sort of sense of “where do I see myself in the queer community, in the larger community?” Forget the mainstream media, I just won’t see myself there [let alone in the queer media].
It also ties in with the idea of we as Asians not knowing where to be in this activism that seems to only be about Blacks and the Latin community.
BlackLivesMatter came out of police brutality and systemic profiling. We’re more aware of it now because of social media but this isn’t new. [Asian-Americans] don’t face that same kind of systemic police brutality. There are still cases of Asians being killed in hate crimes, or by police, but we’re not racially targeted or profiled in the same way that Black people are. The Black Lives Matter movement is important and the activism is really inspiring.
We can learn a lot from them.
Totally. We can also learn a lot about being in solidarity with the Black community. Seeing how the Black communities are under attack and saying, “You know what? We’re not going to be a tool of white supremacy. We’re going to take a stand about this too.”
There’s also intense racial-profiling [by authorities] that happens in the Latin community. I think [Asian-Americans] are in a space where we’re a weird in-between and nobody knows what to do with us.
People have talked about us [Asian-Americans] as a wedge, with the model-minority myth. And that is so divisive and puts us at odds with other communities of color.
But we also have the opportunity to be a bridge. We’re not being racially-profiled in the same way that Black communities are, but we can see the ways that we relate to them. I definitely feel a lot of relatedness although I don’t get treated the same way. And I have light-skin privilege. I mean, that’s a thing. And I think, how can I use what privileges I have? What is the true definition of allyship? Also we – Asian-Americans- have issues we’re facing. We also are the targets of xenophobia of searing hatred of “foreigners.” We are treated like we don’t belong here. How can we use these experiences in building a really powerful coalition [with other communities of color]?
Finally, what do you think of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Finn Jones as Iron Fist?
Oh my God, no. (Laughs.) I’ve been trying to hide my head from all of these things because it just seems like a continuation of the same thing. I think there’s this thing with Asian-Americans and I don’t know if it’s because of our small numbers in the US. I don’t know. I feel like there’s this kind of invisibility that’s particular to Asian-Americans.
I think all people of color know what it is like to feel invisible, but other communities of color have that invisibility and visibility at the same time, since they’re being profiled and targeted. [Asian-Americans] don’t have that. [Asian-Americans] don’t exist to the extent that there’s this model-minority myth that doesn’t involve actual people, because if you look at actual people, you’ll have to look at the nuances of our experiences. You’ll have to look at Asian-American poverty. Especially southeast Asians are the most disadvantaged in the Asian-American group. There are some big inequities between east Asians and southeast Asians that are not being addressed and [Asian-Americans] are being looked at as one group that’s a monolith.
We’re so invisible that they refuse to find and hire Asian-American actors. That they keep doing this yellowface. I feel like our [Asian-American] image is so distorted. This is so symbolic of it. “Let’s just hire white actors to play us.” [Asian-Americans] don’t even register.
It makes me angry for sure. We’re actually a huge part of the world’s population, but if you look at [Asians] in the US, it’s like we don’t even exist. It’s a weird mindset. I can’t look at anything mainstream to see a reflection.
We’ve got to create coalition with other people of color, feel our affinity. That’s how we make change.
Chan is currently working on several projects, including on a writing project called Regeneration where she collects her father’s oral history to understand the experiences of migration and war, as well as two new programs with Queer Rebels: a senior story-telling project (headed by Chan’s long-time collaborator KB Boyce) and Writing Rainbow, a free writing school for queers and trans of color.
Catch Celeste Chan and other phenomenal writers at the final leg of Sister Spit’s SoCal tour in Palm Strings at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, March 15, 2017.
Featured image by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta.