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Race, Space & Place: Two Books for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Following last week's column on two events for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this week L.A. Letters extols two important contemporary Asian Pacific American authors and their most recent books. The authors discussed in this week's column are from different literary genres but are equally groundbreaking with their respective books.

It is no secret that the San Gabriel Valley is one of the epicenters of Asian Pacific American culture. The first book discussed unpacks the innovative ways racial identity is shaped by place in the San Gabriel Valley. "The Changs Next Door To The Diazes," recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, delivers an in-depth portrait of race and place in the SGV. Author Wendy Cheng zeroes in on the Western part of the region, specifically the cities of Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, and Rosemead with some coverage of San Marino, Temple City, South San Gabriel, and other adjacent areas. As much as the book's theme is implicit in the title, Cheng thoughtfully highlights the progressive demographics of the area by offering candid portraits of the dozens of local residents she interviewed over a few year period.

The opening of the book begins with an anecdote about two longtime friends that grew up in the area. The author notes that Laura Aguilar, a forty-seven-year-old Chicana artist, "met and befriended Lisa Beppu, a third-generation Japanese American, whose family had taken advantage of the lack of racial restrictions in unincorporated South San Gabriel to buy a house there in the 1960s. As adults, both women lived not far from where they had grown up and maintained a close friendship." Cheng's book not only celebrates friendships like this, she asserts that the San Gabriel Valley is a window into the future for racial consciousness across the nation. She uses the term regional race formation to characterize the relationship of race and place in the area.

Cheng broadly defines regional race formation "as place-specific processes of racial formation, in which locally accepted racial orders and hierarchies complicate and sometimes challenge hegemonic ideologies and facile notions of race." She notes in the introduction that "through the regional, we can articulate a set of practices intertwined with the production of local, daily knowledge that exceeds what national frameworks and top down ideologies can dictate." To this end, Cheng interviewed close to 70 people from the neighborhood, focusing primarily on their daily experiences and how these everyday interactions define their lives and racial identity.

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There have been other studies of the San Gabriel Valley that were more direct, chronological historical accounts of the area's transformation, like Timothy Fong's "The Suburban Chinatown." Cheng writes, "instead of focusing primarily on political struggles or single ethnic community-based cultural and economic processes, this book also shines a light on people who will likely never attend a city council meeting, run for office, or make Pan-Pacific business deals -- people who are beneath the public radar, so to speak -- and how they make sense of race and place in their everyday lives." She focuses her analysis more on neighborhood stories, like the activists that saved Vincent del Lugo Park in San Gabriel.

Cheng quickly covers the regional history early on in her narrative to set up the rest of the work, but the book is primarily dealing with contemporary residents of the area and recent key developments in the last decade. Chapters on Alhambra High School and the San Gabriel Valley Boy Scouts examine racial stereotypes in education, prevailing belief systems, and the model minority myth. In the chapter, "Diversity on Main Street," the testimony corroborates with what Sesshu Foster told me in late 2013 about recent changes on Alhambra's Main Street. Cheng notes the formulaic redevelopment of the street and disconnected rhetoric in the city's ad campaign: "Alhambra's diversity and Mosaic on Main campaign featured stock images that were meant to be representative of the city's demographics as well as a colorful plate of salad."

This campaign is problematic, Cheng asserts, because "with their celebratory tone, multiculturalist narratives allow us to gloss over structured inequalities, conflicts and heterogeneity among different racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups." Her answer to such narratives that lump all of the groups together was to go speak directly with each group to get the detail of their story in their own words. The resulting work is informed by many individual voices, years of research, and her thorough scholarship.

The real world testimonials and three episodic case studies give the book a ground up perspective that is not only relevant to Southern California, but to the shifting demographics across America. Cheng is also a coauthor of "A People's Guide to Los Angeles," an important contribution to the contemporary discussion of race and place.

Another Asian Pacific American writer making important points about race is the Minneapolis based poet Bao Phi. Celebrated author and Hip Hop Scholar Jeff Chang call Phi "the bard of Vietnamese America." A performance poet since 1991, Phi has won countless poetry slams, appeared on HBO, and been published widely. His book "Song I Sing," published by Coffee House Press, is a sweeping collection of poems that critique imperialism, racism and growing up Vietnamese in Minnesota. The book is aptly titled and Phi sings it well. Anecdotes in a few of his poems are worlds away from cities with large Asian populations like Garden Grove or Monterey Park.

In a series of persona poems titled "The Nguyens," Phi presents 10 different Vietnamese Americans from across the country. Phi knows his people well and this very creative cycle of poems reveals their daily lives and biases. Similar to the case studies presented by Wendy Cheng, it is in the daily lives of people that we see what they are truly about and what defines them. In the opening poem introducing the series, Phi writes, "Their last name is Nguyen, all of them/they're not related/but they're more related than any of them will ever know." In one of these poems, "The Nguyen Twins Find Adoration in the Poetry World" he juxtaposes two very different poets with the last name Nguyen. The first part of the poem he presents Joan Nguyen. "Her book," Phi writes, "won the Pushcart, the Yale Younger/ Writers, the safe ethnic poet award/ she and her boyfriend Chad Kaufman/have a fine but modest house." The second poet he presents, Jesus Nguyen, is a militant spoken word poet. Describing the poetry venue where Jesus Nguyen is, Phi notes, "Everyone in the joint is black, Latino/a, some white dudes/who talk like Michael Rapaport." Anyone who's been to these venues could tell you Phi is right.

Phi's sarcasm is equally funny and accurate. A few lines later in the poem, Jesus Nguyen utters another equally true statement addressing the traditional poetry world: "you white people are just mad that us people of color/came up with making sense as a poetic device/before you did." Phi's poetics have the accuracy of a skilled practitioner of darts, his insights always hit the mark. As much as he looks at the world around him, he turns the sharpest eye on himself. Phi deals with pain and injustice and spins it into potent, rhythmic poetry. There's a hip-hop spirit alive in the work, and many of the poems from the book appear on his various recordings. Simultaneously his line breaks and technical poetics are first-rate. Phi is one of the few contemporary writers, along with his close friend Douglas Kearney, that is equally proficient on the page and the stage. Phi and Kearney worked together on "Hip Hop Haikus", which was published in a Spoken Word anthology.

Phi's work travels through war zones, but always ends up returning to the power of love and building community. His book's opening poem, "For Us," is a powerful manifesto of Asian Pacific American identity. The poem begins: "From the mud of the Mekong to the bones of the Mississippi/From the dusty winds of Manzanar to the glowing scars of Hiroshima." Phi pays honor to the Asian American community and also advocates for the future. "This is for you, for all of you, who still don't know/How beautiful you are." Phi works at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and won the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Anti-Racism Initiative Award. His poems leave no stone unturned and urge us all to do the same.

Though the work of Wendy Cheng and Bao Phi are in different literary genres, they each make important points about the Asian Pacific American experience and this country on the whole. Salute to these two for being visionary thinkers and writers in the topography of American and L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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