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Asian American Literature  
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Responses to AIDS

The devastating effects of AIDS has demanded a personal as well as a collective response from the gay Asian/Pacific community. Dwight Okita's poem "Where the Boys Were," in his collection Crossing with the Light (1992), examines this issue with striking visceral beauty: "When they look at my life / like a charcoal sketch / ripped from a pad, tell them / I wasn't done. / That there was color to be added-- / oranges, pinks, greys."

In addition, Vox Angelica (1992), a collection of poetry by Timothy Liu, also ponders the exigencies of AIDS, while quilting together other concerns such as pornography and political agency.

Several performance art pieces have been produced not only to educate but also to instill a sense of responsibility and empowerment within the Asian/Pacific community regarding issues around HIV. For example, the "Love Like This Theatre" of San Francisco's Asian AIDS Project recently toured the United States and Asia with their performance of director Vince Sales's Dates, a series of tableaus organized around three gay Asian friends grappling intimacy in the face of AIDS.

Asian/Pacific Lesbian Literature

Like their gay counterparts, Asian/Pacific lesbians have been writing and speaking long before their narratives were published. Living at the intersections of often mutually exclusive heterosexual Asian American communities and European-American feminist and lesbian communities, however, has frequently put the Asian/Pacific lesbian in the position of having to "prove" she is possible.

When white lesbians look at her in a bar, Alice Hom wonders, "Maybe they are surprised to see me because Asian/Pacific women stereotypes are so ingrained in the heterosexual context that Asian lesbians do not even come to mind." Nevertheless, Asian/Pacific lesbians contest these erasures of their sexual identities by representing their lesbian desires.

"I, splinter trees / with the roar / of my voice," writes Willyce Kim in Under the Rolling Sky (1976), her third book of poetry. Although lesbian-themed works, such as Margaret Chinen's play All, All Alone (1947), have been published since the 1940s, Kim is recognized as the first Asian/Pacific lesbian to publish a collection of poetry, Curtains of Light (1971); she is also the first to publish a novel, Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid (1985).

Challenging the racialized, gendered, and sexualized conventions of the Western, Kim introduces new terms for a Korean-American lesbian Western. In "Poem for Zahava," Kim writes, "we could: / roll five joints with either hand, / rescue ten women with a smile, / and kick the shins out of any man."

Other early writers, Barbara Noda, Kitty Tsui, Merle Woo, and Canyon Sam wrote to revise dominant versions of history. For instance, in Strawberries (1979), Noda limns one critical strategy in Asian/Pacific lesbian narratives: to figure forth her own Japanese-American lesbian body through inscribing desire and personal history upon the mirror of her lover's body. Noda writes upon that body both the sweetness of its forbidden fruit and her father's bitterness as a seasonal fruit picker in the difficult years following internment during World War II.

In a similar vein, Tsui re-envisions a myth of origins more specific to her than European genealogies tracing lesbian desire to Sappho. In her poem, "Why the Milky Way is Milky" (1982), republished in Irene Zahava's Lesbian Love Stories, Tsui writes a Chinese lesbian myth of origins that revises the heterosexual Chinese legend of Spinning Girl and Shepherd Boy.

For Woo, writing history in Yellow Woman Speaks (1986) engages her own particular struggles for minority rights in her anti-discrimination suit against the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. Looking back on the history behind Asian/Pacific lesbian communities, Sam contrasts the collective Asian/Pacific lesbian activism of the 1980s with the isolation and loneliness she felt in the 1970s. Published in Zahava's Lesbian Love Stories, "Sapphire" (1989) recalls her momentous first meeting with another Asian/Pacific lesbian.

The Difficulties of Forming Coalitions

Concerns over the necessity of forming coalitions converged in the first Asian/Pacific lesbian anthology, Between the Lines: An Anthology by Pacific/Asian Lesbians of Santa Cruz, California (1987). Writings by A. Kaweah Lemeshewsky, Alison Kim, Anu, and Cristy Chung chart the difficulties of forging alliances across racial and ethnic differences, geographical boundaries, and divisions between lesbian, bisexual, and straight women.

The anthology also features excerpts from Alison Kim's compilation of the earliest Asian/Pacific lesbian bibliography. The call for international coalitions has, in turn, emphasized the importance of alliances between lesbians of color. Chea Villanueva's epistolary novels Girlfriends (1987) and Chinagirls (1991) follow street-smart African-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Filipina-American, and racially mixed lesbians whose bonds see them through both dangerous and raunchy escapades.

Most recently, The APA Journal's "Witness Aloud" issue (Spring/Summer 1993) stitches together an impressive array of Asian/Pacific lesbian voices. The title of Indigo Chih-Lien Som's poem "Just once before I die I want someone to make love to me in Cantonese" calls for the need to name desires with a language of one's own.

As Anu's poem "Silence of Home" illustrates, however, the Indian voices associated with home bring pain as well as pleasure. On the other hand, Donna Tanigawa reclaims Hawaii's multiracial pidgin in "Pau Trying Fo' Be Like One Haole Dyke" in order to contest the "standards" set by English and the white lesbian body.

In other works, words take on different meanings when situated against the body of a lover. Meditating on the meaning of "Passion," Elsa E'der writes of conflicting desires for a lover who has survived sexual abuse. Sharing similar concerns with Asian/Pacific gays, Margaret Mihee Choe's "Chamwe at the Club" confronts the internalized racism that makes it difficult for Asian/Pacific lesbians to date one another.

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