solved: First: After reading, you need to answer in 300 words or more: What does Cathy Park Hong mean by the


After reading, you need to answer in 300 words or more: What does Cathy Park Hong mean by the key phrase “Bad English?” How does it relate to the practice of “speaking nearby” (p. 103)? Then, show how Maparyan and Keating’s conversation captures the practice of “speaking nearby.”


Respond 200 words or more

According to Cathy Park Hong, “Bad English” is part of her identity and is the language that she has spent her life interpreting and making hers as it is not the first language she grew up understanding, so she configured it to fit her tongue.  Hong writes, “I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry- who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it into a fugitive tongue.” This quote reminded me of Amy Tan’s writing, Mother Tongue, where she also mentions having to help her mother be a translator because her English was “too broken” to be understood by others. I think it’s very special that Amy Tan acknowledged her proficiency in English as a writer but also identifies her mother’s English as one she will always understand and favor. Just like Hong, this language that is termed “bad English” by others, is the English that she most understands and refers to as her English. 

The practice of “speaking nearby” means to speak indirectly. I think “speaking nearby” means to also interpret a word or phrase on your own and the way of which you communicate it is still understood without directly naming or talking about the topic at hand. Page 87 specifies, “The link is nicely done, especially between “speaking nearby” and indirect language… A Speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”  The key is that the message is still understood even though it almost needs to be decoded, but as long as the two or more in conversation can understand what each are talking about without using identifying words. I think “bad English” relates to “speaking nearby” for example, if Amy Tan’s mother spoke her “broken English” to Nancy Chens “bad English” they would be speaking nearby because they are speaking indirectly but can still be understood in their own interpretations of the English language. 

The example of “speaking nearby” is present when Layli talked about a phrase in her language, “seeing the light”, that means to illuminate/ illumination. She then mentions a Japanese Zen tradition, “Satori” which means “instant illumination”. This example helped me internalize the action of really seeing, “the world differently afterwards” because once you understand the meaning with a different name or sound we are able to picture and feel the meaning differently.




NANCY N . C H E N : One of themostimportantquestions
for myself deals with the personal. In your latest film SHOOT
FOR THE CONTENTS Clairmonte Moore refers to himself as
“a member of the residual class” which is a euphemism for
“living underground, for living outside the norm, and for
living outside of the status quo.” Then another character
Dewi refers to having the “pull” of being here and there. I
think that this reflects on the personal and I would like to
ask how your family background or personal experience has
influenced your work,

TRINH T. MINH-HA: Although the ideology of “starting
from the source” has always proved to be very limiting,
I would take that question into consideration since the
speaking or interviewing subject is never apolitical, and
such a question coming from you may be quite differ-
ently nuanced. There is not much, in the kind of
education we receive here in the West, that emphasizes
or even recognizes the importance of constantly having
contact with what is actually within ourselves, or of
understanding a structure from within ourselves out.
The tendency is always to relate to a situation or to an
object as if it is only outside of oneself. Whereas
elsewhere, in Vietnam, or in other Asian and African
cultures for example, one often learns to “know the
world inwardly,” so that the deeper we go into ourselves,
the wider we go into society. For me, this is where the
challenge lies in terms of materializing a reality, because
the personal is not naturally political, and every personal
story is not necessarily political.

In talking about the personal, it is always difficult to
draw that fine line between what is merely individualis-

tic and what may be relevant to a wider number of
people. Nothing is given in the process of understand-
ing the “social” of our daily lives. So every single work
I come up with is yet another attempt to inscribe this
constant flow from the inside out and outside in. The
interview with Clairmonte in SHOOT FORTHE CONTENTS
is certainly a good example to start with. His role in the
film is both politically and personally significant. In
locating himself, Clairmonte has partly contributed to
situating the place from which the film speaks. The way
a number of viewers reacted to his presence in the film
has confirmed what I thought might happen when I was
working on it. Usually in a work on China, people do
not expect the voice of knowledge to be other than that
of an insider — here a Chinese — or that of an
institutionalized authority— a scholar whose expertise
on China would immediately give him or her the license
to speak about such and such culture, and whose super-
imposed name and title on the screen serve to validate
what he or she has to say. No such signpost is used in
SHOOT; Clairmonte, who among all the interviewees
discusses Chinese politics most directly, is of African
rather than Chinese descent; and furthermore, there is
no immediate urge to present him as someone who
“speaks as…” Wliat you have is the voice of a person who
little by little comes to situate himself through the
diverse social and political positions he assumes, as well
as through his analysis of himself and of the media in the
States. So when Clairmonte designates himself literally
and figuratively as being from a residual class, this not
only refers to the place from which he analyzes China—
which is not that of an expert about whom he has spoken

82 Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 Visual Anthropology Review

jokingly, but more let’s say that of an ordinary person
who is well versed in politics. The designation, as you’ve
pointed out, also reflects back on my own situation: I
have been making films on Africa from a hybrid site
where the meeting of several cultures (on non-Western
ground) and the notions of outsider and insider (Asian
and Third World in the context of Africa) need to be re-

This is where you talk about the intersubjective situation in
your writings.

Right. I have dealt with this hybridity in my previous
films quite differently, but the place from which
Clairmonte speaks in SHOOT is indirectly linked to the
place from which I spoke in relation to Africa. Just as it
is bothersome to see a member of the Third World
talking about (the representation of) another Third
World culture — instead of minding our own business
(laughter) as we have been herded to — it is also bother-
some for a number of viewers who had seen SHOOT, to
have to deal with Clairmonte’s presence in it. And of
course, the question never comes out straight; it always
comes out obliquely like: “Why the Black man in the
film? Has this been thought out?” Or, in the form of
assumptions such as: “Is he a professor at Berkeley?” “Is
he teaching African Studies or Sociology?”

In some ways those questions indicate there’s a need for
authenticity. My question about Clairmonte concerns what
he said about identity and I think that the issue of identity
runs throughout all of your work. You ‘ve often talked about
hyphenated peoples and I’m interested if in any way that
notion stems from your personal experience. Have you felt
that people have tried to push you, to be a Vietnamese-
American or Asian-American, or woman-filmmaker? All of
these different categories is what Clairmonte points out to.
In your works and writings you distinctly push away that
tendency. I think you are quite right in pointing out earlier
that there is a very strong tendency to begin with a psycho-
logical sketch like “What are your primary influences…”
(laughter) I would be very interested in learning about your
particular experiences in Vietnam. Could you talk more
about that?

I will. But again, for having been asked this question
many times, especially in interviews for newspapers, I
would link here the problematization of identity in my
work with what the first chapter of Woman, Native,
Other opened on: the dilemma, especially in the context
of women, of having one’s work explained (or brought to
closure) through one’s personality and particular at-
tributes. In such a highly individualistic society as the
one we belong to here, it is very comforting for a reader
to consume difference as a commodity by starting with
the personal difference in culture or background, which
is the best way to escape the issues of power, knowledge
and subjectivity raised.

My past in Vietnam does not just belong to me. And
since the Vietnamese communities, whether here in the
U.S. or there in Vietnam, are not abstract entities, I can
only speak while learning to keep silent, for the risk of
jeopardizing someone’s reputation and right to speech is
always present. Suffice it to say that I come from a large
family, in which three different political factions existed.
These political tendencies were not always freely as-
sumed, they were bound to circumstances as in the case
of the family members who remained in Hanoi (where I
was born) and those who were compelled to move to
Saigon (where I grew up). The third faction comprised
those involved with the National Liberation Front in the
South. This is why the dualistic divide between pro- and
anti-communists has always appeared to me as a simplis-
tic product of the rivalry between, (what once were) the
two superpowers. It can never even come close to the
complexity of the Vietnam reality. All three factions had
suffered under the regime to which they belong, and all
three had, at one time or another, been the scapegoat of
specific political moments. As a family however, we love
each other dearly despite the absurd situations in which
we found ourselves divided. This is a stance that many
viewers have recognized in SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME
NAM, but hopefully it is one that they will also see in the
treatment of Mao as a figure and in the multiple play
between Left and Right, or Right and Wrong in SHOOT.

How I came to study in the States still strikes me
today as a miracle. The dozen of letters I blindly sent out
to a number of universities to seek admission into work-
study programs… It was like throwing a bottle to the sea.




Visual Anthropology Review Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 8 3

But, fortunately enough, a small school in Ohio
(Wilmington College) of no more than a thousand and
some students wanted a representative ofVietnam. And
so there I was, studying three days of the week and
working the other three days at a hospital, in addition to
some other small odd jobs that helped me to get through
financially. As an “international student,” I was put in
contact with all other foreign students, as well as with
“minority” students who were often isolated from the
mainstream of Euro-American students. It was hardly
surprising then that the works of African American poets
and playwrights should be the first to really move and
impress me. By the sheer fact that I was with an
international community, I was introduced to a range of
diverse cultures. So the kind of education I got in such
an environment (more from outside than inside the
classroom) would not have been as rich if I had stayed in
Vietnam or if I had been born in the States. Some of my
best friends there, and later on at the University of
Illinois (where I got an M.A in French Literature and
Music; a Master of Music in Composition; and a Ph.D
in Comparative Literatures) were Haitians, Senegalese
and Kenyans. Thanks to these encounters, I subse-
quently decided to go to Senegal to live and teach.

When I planned for university education abroad, I
could have tried France (where financially speaking,
education is free) instead of the United States. I decided
on the United States mainly because I wanted a rupture
{laughter) with the educational background in Vietnam
that was based on a Vietnamized model of the old, pre-
1968 French system. Later on, I did go to France after
I came to the States, in a mere university exchange
program. It was one of these phenomena of colonialism:
I was sent there to teach English to French students

During this year in France I didn’t study with any of
the writers whose works I appreciate. Everything that I
have done has always been a leap away from what I have
learned, and nothing in my work directly reflects the
education I have had except through a relation of dis-
placement and rupture as mentioned. While in Paris, I
studied at the Sorbonne Paris-IV. It was the most
conservative school of the Sorbonne. But one of the
happy encounters I made was with noted Vietnamese
scholar and musician Tran Van Khe, who continues
until today to shuttle to and fro between France and
Vietnam for his research, and with whom I studied
ethnomusicology. That’s the part that I got the most out

of in Paris. So you go to Paris, finally to learn
ethnomusicology with a Vietnamese {laughter).

This throws my question about intellectual influences or
ruptures the question (laughter). In all your works, but
particularly your writings on anthropology, ethnography,
and ethnographic films, there’s a critique of the standard,
the center of rationality, the center of TRUTH. I think that
critique is also shared by many anthropologists, especially
those in the post-structuralist tradition. Do you think that
there is more possibility in ethnography if people use these
tools? What do you think would be possible with reflexivity
or with multivocality?

Anthropology is just one site of discussion among others
in my work. I know that a number of people tend to
focus obsessively on this site. But such a focus on
anthropology despite the fact that the arguments ad-
vanced involve more than one occupied territory, disci-
pline, profession, and culture seems above all to tell us
where the stakes are the highest. Although angry re-
sponses from professionals and academics of other fields
to my films and books are intermittently expected, most
of the masked outraged reactions do tend to come from
Euro-American anthropologists and cultural experts.
This, of course, is hardly surprising. They are so busy
defending the discipline, the institution, and the spe-
cialized knowledge it produces that what they have to say
on works like mine only tells us about themselves and the
interests at issue. I am reminded here of a conference
panel years ago in which the discussion on one of my
previous films was carried out with the participation of
three Euro-American anthropologists. Time and again
they tried to wrap up the session with dismissive judge-
ments, but the audience would not let go of the discus-
sion. After over an hour of intense arguments, during
which a number of people in the audience voiced their
disapproval of the anthropologists’ responses, one woman
was so exasperated and distressed, that she simply said to
them: “the more you speak, the further you digyour own

If we take the critical work in REASSEMBLAGE for
example, it is quite clear that it is not simply aimed at the
anthropologist, but also at the missionary, the Peace
Corps volunteer, the tourist, and last but not least at
myself as onlooker. In mywriting and filmmaking, it has
always been important for me to carry out critical work
in such a way that there is room for people to reflect on

84 Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 Visual Anthropology Review

their own struggle and to use the tools offered so as to
further it on their own terms. Such a work is radically
incapable of prescription. Hence, these tools are some-
times also appropriated and turned against the very
filmmaker or writer, which is a risk I am willing to take.
I have, indeed, put myself in a situation where I cannot
criticize without taking away the secure ground on
which I stand. All this is being said because your
question, although steered in a slightly different direc-
tion, does remind me indirectly of another question
which I often get under varying forms: at a panel
discussion in Edinburgh on Third cinema for example,
after two hours of interaction with the audience, and of
lecture by panelists, including myself, someone came to
me and said in response to my paper: “Oh, but then
anthropology is still possible!” I took it both as a
constructive statement and a misinterpretation. A con-
structive statement, because only a critical work devel-
oped to the limits or effected on the limits (here, of
anthropology) has the potential to trigger such a ques-
tion as: “Is anthropology still a possible project?” And
a misinterpretation, because this is not just a question
geared toward anthropology, but one that involves all of
us from the diverse fields of social sciences, humanities
and arts.

Whether reflexivity and multivocality contribute
anything to ethnography or not would have to depend
on the way they are practiced. It seems quite evident that
the critique I made of anthropology is not new; many
have done it before and many are doing it now- But what
remains unique to each enterprise are not so much the
objects as the relationships drawn between them. So the
question remains: how? How is reflexivity understood
and materialized? If it is reduced to a form of mere
breast-beating or of self-criticism for further improve-
ment, it certainly does not lead us very far. I have written
more at length on this question elsewhere (“Documen-
tary Is/Not a Name,” October No. 52, 1990) and to
simplify a complex issue, I would just say here that if the
tools are dealt with only so as to further the production
of anthropological knowledge, or to find a better solu-
tion for anthropology as a discipline, then what is
achieved is either a refinement in the pseudo-science of
appropriating Otherness or a mere stir within the same
frame. But if the project is carried out precisely at that
limit where anthropology could be abolished in what it
tries to institutionalize, then nobody here is on safe
ground. Multivocality, for example, is not necessarily a

solution to the problems of centralized and hierarchical
knowledge when it is practiced accumulatively — by
juxtaposing voices that continue to speak within identi-
fied boundaries. Like the much abused concept of
multiculturalism, multivocality here could also lead to
the bland “melting-pot” type of attitude, in which “multi”
means “no” — no voice — or is used only to better mask
the Voice — that very place from where meaning is put
together. On the other hand, multivocality can open up
to a non-identifiable ground where boundaries are al-
ways undone, at the same time as they are accordingly
assumed. Working at the borderline of what is and what
no longer is anthropology one also knows that if one
crosses that border, if one can depart from where one is,
one can also return to it more freely, without attachment
to the norms generated on one side or the other. So the
work effected would constantly question both its interi-
ority and its exteriority to the frame of anthropology.

This goes back to your previous point that being within is
also being without, being inside and outside. I think this
answers my next question which is about how if naming
identifying and defining are problematic, how does one go
about practicing? I think that you are saying that it also
opens up a space being right on that boundary. I would now
like to turn from theory to filmmaking practice. Your
writing has often been compared to performance art. Could
yousay that this is also true ofyour filmmaking as well in the
four films that you have made so far?

I like the thought that my texts are being viewed as
performance art {laughter). I think it is very adequate.
Viewers have varied widely in their approaches to my
films. Again, because of the way these films are made,
how the viewers enter them tells us acutely how they
situate themselves. The films have often been compared
to musical compositions and appreciated by people in
performance, architecture, dance or poetry for example.
So I think there is something to be said about the
filmmaking process; Although I have never consciously
taken inspiration from any specific art while I write,
shoot or edit a film, for me, the process of making a film
comes very close to those of composing music and of
writing poetry. When one is not just trying to capture
an object, to explain a cultural event, or to inform for the
sake of information; when one refuses to commodify
knowledge, one necessarily disengages oneself from the
mainstream ideology of communication, whose linear

Visual Anthropology Review Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 85

and transparent use of language and the media reduces
these to a mere vehicle of ideas. Thus, every time one
puts forth an image, a word, a sound or a silence, these
are never instruments simply called upon to serve a story
or a message. They have a set of meanings, a function,
and a rhythm of their own within the world that each
film builds anew. This can be viewed as being charac-
teristic of the way poets use words and composers use

Here I’ll have to make clear that through the notion
of “poetic language,” I am certainly not referring to the
poetic as the site for the consolidation of a subjectivity,
or as an estheticized practice of language. Rather, I am
referring to the fact that language is fundamentally
reflexive, and only in poetic language can one deal with
meaning in a revolutionary way. For the nature of poetry
is to offer meaning in such a way that it can never end
with what is said or shown, destabilizing thereby the
speaking subject and exposing the fiction of all rational-
ization. Roland Barthes astutely summed up this situa-
tion when he remarked that “the real antonym of the
‘poetic’ is not the prosaic, but the stereotyped.” Such a
statement is all the more perceptive as the stereotyped is
not a false representation, but rather, an arrested repre-
sentation of a changing reality. So to avoid merely falling
into this pervasive world of the stereotyped and the
cliche*d, filmmaking has all to gain when conceived as a
performance that engages as well as questions (its own)
language. However, since the ideology of what consti-
tutes “clarity” and “accessibility” continues to be largely
taken for granted, poetic practice can be “difficult” to a
number of viewers, because in mainstream films and
media our ability to play with meanings other than the
literal ones that pervade our visual and aural environ-
ment is rarely solicited. Everything has to be packaged
for consumption.

With regard to your films you’ve always been able to show
that even what one sees with one’s eyes, as you say in your
books, is not necessarily the truth. My next question concerns
Laura Mulvey ‘s comment on language where any tool can be
used for dominance as well as empowerment. Do you think
that this is also true of poetic approaches to film?

Oh yes. This is what I have just tried to say in clarifying
what is meant by the “poetic” in a context that does not
lend itself easily to classification. As numerous feminist
works of the last two decades have shown, it is illusory to

think that women can remain outside of the patriarchal
system of language. The question is, as I mentioned
earlier, how to engage poetical language without simply
turning it into an estheticized, subjectivist product,
hence allowing it to be classified. Language is at the same
time a site for empowerment and a site for enslavement.
And it is particularly enslaving when its workings re-
main invisible. Now, how one does bring that out in a
film, for example, is precisely what I have tried to do in
SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM. This is an aspect of
the film that highly differentiates it, let’s say, from
REASSEMBLAGE. If in the latter the space of language and
meaning is constantly interrupted or effaced by the gaps
of non-senses, absences, and silences; in Surname Viet,
this space is featured manifestly as presences — albeit
presences positioned in the context of a critical politics
of interview and translation.

Viewers who take for granted the workings of
language and remain insensitive to their very visible
treatment in SURNAME VIET, also tend to obscure the
struggle of women and their difficult relation to the
symbolic contract. Hence, as expected, these viewers’
readings are likely to fall within the dualist confine of a
pro- or anti-communist rationale. Whereas, what is
important is not only what the women say but what site
of language they occupy (or do not occupy) in their
struggle. With this also comes the play between the oral
and the written, the sung and the said, the rehearsed and
the non-rehearsed, and the different uses of English as
well as of Vietnamese. So, if instead of reading the film
conventionally from the point of view of content and
subject matter, one reads it in terms of language plural-
ity, comparing the diverse speeches — including those
translated and reenacted from the responses by women
in Vietnam, and those retrieved “authentically” on the
site from the women in the States about their own lives
— then one may find oneself radically shifting ground
in one’s reading. The play effected between literal and
non-literal languages can be infinite and the two should
not be mutually exclusive of each other. Everything I
criticize in one film can be taken up again and used
differently in another film. There is no need to censor
ourselves in what we can do.

I’m also intrigued by your works where you mention
“talking nearby instead of talking about”— this is one of
the techniques you mention to “make visible the invisible. *
How might indirect language do precisely that?

8 6 Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 Visual Anthropology Review

The link is nicely done; especially between “speaking
nearby” and indirect language. In other words, a speak-
ing that does not objectify, does not point to an object as
if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from
the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and
can come very close to a subject without, however,
seizing or claiming it. A speaking in brief, whose closures
are only moments of transition opening up to other
possible moments of transition — these are forms of
indirectness well understood by anyone in tune with
poetic language. Every element constructed in a film
refers to the world around it, while having at the same
time a life of its own. And this life is precisely what is
lacking when one uses word, image, or sound just as an
instrument of thought. To say therefore that one prefers
not to speak about but rather to speak nearby, is a great
challenge. Because actually, this is not just a technique
or a statement to be made verbally. It is an attitude in life,
a way of positioning oneself in relation to the world.
Thus, the challenge is to materialize it in all aspects of the
film — verbally, musically, visually. That challenge is
renewed with every work I realize, whether filmic or

The term of the issue raised is, of course, much
broader than the questions generated by any of the
specific work I’ve completed (such as REASSEMBLAGE, in
which the speaking about and speaking nearby serve as a
point of departure for a cultural and cinematic reflec-
tion) . Truth never yields itself in anything said or shown.
One cannot just point a camera at it to catch it: the very
effort to do so will kill it. It is worth quoting here again
Walter Benjamin for whom, “nothing is poorer than a
truth expressed as it was thought.” Truth can only be
approached indirectly if one does not want to lose it and
find oneself hanging on to a dead, empty skin. Even
when the indirect has to take refuge in the very figures of
the direct, it continues to defy the closure of a direct
reading. This is a form of indirectness that I have to deal
with in SURNAME VIET, but even more so in SHOOT.
Because here, there is necessarily, among others, a lay-
ered play between political discourse and poetical lan-
guage, or between the direct role of men and the indirect
role of women.

That leads me to some questions that I had about your latest
film because you choose Mao as a political figure and he is
also one who plays with language. There is a quote in the
film: “Mao ruled through the power of rhymes and prov-

erbs. ” I think this is a very apt statement about the scope of
the film. I’m curious as to “Why China?” You mentioned
before about how your next project or your next film is a
rupture from the previous one. So was going to China just
a complete change from SURNAME VIET/3

It’s not quite a rupture. I don’t see it that way. Nor do
I see one film as being better than another; there is no
linear progress in my filmic work. There is probably only
a way of raising questions differently from different
angles in different contexts. The rupture I mentioned
earlier has more to do with my general educational
background. So why China? One can say that there is no
more an answer to this question than to; “Why Africa?”
which I often get, and “Why Vietnam?” {laughter)y which
I like to also ask in return. Indeed, when people inquire
matter-of-factly about my next film in Vietnam, I cannot
help but ask “why Vietnam?” Why do I have to focus on
Vietnam? And this leads us back to a statement I made
earlier, concerning the way marginalized peoples are
herded to mind their own business. So that the area, the
“homeland” in which they are allowed to work remains
heavily marked, whereas the areas in which Euro-Ameri-
cans’ activities are deployed can go on unmarked. One
is here confined to one’s own culture, ethnicity, sexuality
and gender. And that’s often the only way for insiders
within the marked boundaries to make themselves heard
or to gain approval.

This being said, China is a very important step in my
personal itinerary, even though the quest into Chinese
culture has, in fact, more to do with the relation between
the two cultures — Vietnamese and Chinese — than
with anything strictly personal. The Vietnamese people
are no exception when it comes to nationalism. Our
language is equipped with numerous daily expressions
that are extremely pejorative toward our neighbors,
especially toward Chinese people. But Vietnam was the
site where the Chinese and Indian cultures met, hence
what is known as the Vietnamese culture certainly owes
much from the crossing of these two ancient civilizations.

Every work I have realized was designed to transform
my own consciousness. If I went to Africa to dive into a
culture that was mostly unknown to me then, I went to
China mainly because I was curious as to how I could
depart from what I knew of Her. The prejudices that the
Vietnamese carry vis-a-vis the Chinese are certainly his-
torical and political. The past domination ofVietnam by
China and the antagonistic relationship nurtured be-

Visual Anthropology Review Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 87

tween the two nations (this relationship has only been
normalized some months ago) have been weighing so
heavily on the Vietnamese psyche that very often Viet-
namese identity would be defined in contradistinction to
everything thought to be Chinese. And yet it merits
looking a bit harder at the Vietnamese culture — at its
music, to mention a most explicit example — to realize
how much it has inherited from both China and India.
It is not an easy task to deny their influences, even when
people need to reject them in order to move on. An
anecdote whose humor proved to be double-edged was
that, during my stay in China, I quickly learned to
restrain myself from telling people that I was originally
from Vietnam — unless someone really wanted to know
(precisely because of the high tension between the two
countries at the time.) The local intellectuals, however,
seemed to be much more open vis-a-vis Vietnam as they
did not think of Her as an enemy country but rather, as
a neighbor or “a brother.” This, to the point that one of
them even told me reassuringly in a conversation: “Well
you know it’s alright that you are from Vietnam; after all,
She is a province of China.” {laughter)

So it reifies that power relationship…

Yes, right…{laughter) O n a personal level, I did want to
go further than the facades of such a power relationship
and to understand China differently. But the task was
not all easy because to go further here also meant to go
back to an ancestral heritage of the Vietnamese culture.
I’ve tried to bring this out in the film through a look at
politics via the arts.

I think Wu Tian Ming’s commentary in the film gives a very
good description of the present state of the arts in China. I
have another question. In your book When the Moon
Waxes Red there is a chapter on Barthes and Asia. This is
where you talk about his notion of the void and how it is
important not to have any fixed notions of what Asia is
supposed to be about. You ‘ve stated that SHOOT FOR THE
CONTENTS is precisely about that void, but one of the
difficulties about creating a space where there can be a void
is the fact that some people are unnerved by it; there is also
the possibility of reifying stereotypes, of reifying the notion of
Asia as other or as exotic, or feminine, or mysterious. Do you
think that this was something you had thought about
carefully in making your film or in the process of making
your film did this issue come up?

It always does, with every single film that I have made.
And the risk of having viewers misread one’s films
through their own closures is always there. The only
consistent signs that tell me how my films may have
avoided falling into these ready-made slots is the contro-
versial and at times contradictory nature of the readings
they have suscitated. But to say the space of the Void can
reify stereotypes is already to reify the Void. Perhaps
before I go any further here with SHOOT, I should ask you
what in the film makes you think that people could fall
right back on a stereotyped image of China?

Possibly when there are different scenes of China. In the film
one cuts from one location to another, so you see scenes that
are in northern China and then the next few frames you see
Xishuanbanafrom southern China and theyareallconflated
as one image or representation of China. I saw this film with
several China scholars and they were very concernedwith the
image of China as being enigmatic, as a space that is a void
which cannot be defined, and the possible reification of
China as a mystery.

Are these scholars from here in the States or from China?

These aren’t Chinese friends.

Maybe that is one difference worth noting, because as I
mentioned earlier, there is no speaking subject that is
apolitical, and sometimes I have had very different
readings of my earlier films from Africans than from
African-Americans for example; not to mention Euro-
Americans… although generalizations are never adequate,
and you will always have people who cross the lines. First
of all, to take up the point you make about conflating the
images from different cultures across China: the film has
a structure that momentarily calls for this deliberate
violation of internal borders, but other than that, this
structure is devised precisely so as to emphasize the
heterogeneity of Chinese society and the profound dif-
ferences within it — hence the impossibility to simply
treat China as a known Other. If you remember, it is at
the beginning of the film, when Mao’s concept of The
Hundred Flowers is being introduced that you see a
succession of images from different places in China. This
is the very idea of the hundred flowers which the visuals
indirectly evoke. But as the film progresses, the cultural
differences that successively demarcate one region from
another are sensually and politically set into relief, and

88 Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 Visual Anthropology Review

never do any of these places really mix. The necessary
transgression and die careful differentiation of cultural
groupings have always been both structurally very im-
portant in my films, in SHOOT, as well as in the three
previous ones.

As far as the Void is concerned, the comment
certainly reveals how people understand and receive the
Void in their lives. For some, “void” is apparently only
the opposite of “full.” As absence to a presence or as lack
to a center, it obviously raises a lot of anxieties and
frustrations because all that is read into it is a form of
negation. But I would make the difference between that
negative notion of the void, which is so typical of the
kind of dualist thinking pervasively encountered in the
West, and the spiritual Void thanks to which possibili-
ties keep on renewing, hence nothing can be simply
classified, arrested and reified. There is this incredible
fear of non-action in modern society, and every empty
space has to be filled up, blocked, occupied, talked
about. It is precisely the whole of such an economy of
suture {laughter), as film theorists calls it, that is at stake
in this context of die Void.

Nobody who understands the necessity of the Void
and the vital open space it offers in terms of creativity,
would ever make that comment (which is mystifying in
itself as it equates void with enigma and mystery),
because the existence of everything around us is due to
the Void. So why all this anxiety? What’s the problem
with presenting life in all its complexities? And, as we
have discussed earlier, isn’t such a reaction expected after
all when the authority of specialized or packageable
knowledge is at stake? Among other possible examples,
I would also like to remind us here, that when the film
opens with a remark such as “Any look at China is bound
to be loaded with questions,” that remark is both
supported and countered by the next statement, which
begins affirming “Her visible faces are miniscule com-
pared to her unknown ones,” but ends with the ques-
tion: “Or is this true?” As in a throw of the dice, this
casual question is precisely a point of departure for the
film and the reflection on the arts and politics of China.
It is later on followed by another statement that says
“Only in appearance does China offer an everchanging
face to the world.” So the knowable and unknowable are
never presented as being mutually exclusive of one

A distinction that may be useful here is die one
theorists have made between a “radical negativity” and

a negation. The negation is what the negative, dualistic
reading of die void points to; while a radical negativity
entails a constant questioning of arrested representations
— here, of China. This is where Bardies’ statement on
the stereotyped being the antonym of the poetic, is most
relevant. There are a few immediate examples that I can
mention (although specific examples never cover the
scope of the issue raised, they just tell you about the single
problem involved in each case) in terms of the choices I
made in the film to prevent its readings from closing off
neady within the knowable or unknowable categories.
Again, the question of language: the dialogue between
the two women narrators features not only a difference
in ideology but also a difference in the modes of speak-
ing. Both modes can easily be mis/identified: one as the
illogical, elliptical and metaphorical language of poetry,
and the other as the logical, linear and dogmatic language
of political discourse. If the film is entirely done with
only one of these two languages, then the risk of it falling
into the confines of one camp or the other is very high.
But in SHOOT, you have both, and the narrators’ dialogue
is also punctured all along by the direct speeches of the
interviews, or else by songs which offer a link between the
verbal and the non-verbal.

Also by the text itself where you have English and Chinese
characters as well as Confucius and Mao…

Exacdy. Sometimes, it is strategically important to
reappropriate the stereotypes and to juxtapose them next
to one another so that they may cancel each other out.
For example die fact that in the film, the “Great Man”
can be both Confucius and Mao, makes these two giants’
teachings at times sillily interchangeable. Such a merg-
ing is both amusing and extremely ironical for those of us
who are familiar with China’s history and the relendess
campaigns Mao launched against all vestiges of Confu-
cianism in Chinese society. The merging therefore also
exposes all wars fought in the name of human rights as
being first and foremost a war of language and meaning.
In other words, what Mao called “the verbal struggle” is
a fight between “fictions.” The coexistence of opposite
realities and the possible interchangeability of their fic-
tions is precisely what I have attempted to bring out on
all levels of the film, verbally as well as cinematically. If
the only feeling the viewer retains of SHOOT is that of a
negative void, then I think the film would just be falling
flat on what it tries to do; it would be incapable of

Visual Anthropology Review Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 8 9

provoking the kind of vexed, as well as elated and excited
reactions it has so far.

You mention the viewer quite often and in another inter-
view you once said that audience-making is the responsibil-
ity of the filmmaker. Can you talk about who your viewers
are, what audience, or for whom are you making a film, if
such a purpose exists?

There are many ways to approach this question and there
are many languages that have been circulated in relation
to the concept of audience. There is the dated notion of
mass audience, which can no longer go unquestioned in
today’s critical context, because mass implies first and
foremost active commodification, passive consumption.
Mass production, in other words, is production by the
fewest possible number, as Gandhi would say {laughter).
And here you have this other notion of the audience,
which refuses to let itself be degraded through standard-
ization. For, as Lenin would also say, and I quote by
memory, “one does not bring art down to the people, one
raises art up to the people.” Such an approach would
avoid the levelling out of differences implied in the
concept of the “mass” which defines the people as an
anonymous aggregate of individuals incapable of really
thinking for themselves, incapable of being challenged in
their frame of thought, and hence incapable of under-
standing the product if information is not packaged for
effortless and immediate consumption. They are the
ones who are easily “spoken for” as being also smart
consumers whose growing sophisticated needs require
that the entertainment market produce yet faster goods
and more effectual throwaways in the name of better
service. Here, the problem is not that such a description
of the audience is false, but that its reductive rationale
reinforces the ideology in power.

The question “for whom does one write?” or “for
whom does one make a film?” was extremely useful some
thirty years ago, in the 60s. It has had its historical
moment, as it was then linked to the compelling notion
of “engaged art.” Thanks to it, the demystification of the
creative act has almost become an accepted fact; the
writer or the artist is bound to look critically at the
relations of production and can no longer indulge in the
notion of “pure creativity.” But thanks to it also, the
notion of audience today has been pushed much further
in its complexities, so that simply knowing for whom you
make a film is no longer sufficient. Such a targeting of

audience, which has the potential to change radically the
way one writes or makes a film, often proves to be no
more than a common marketing tool in the process of
commodification. Hence, instead of talking about “die
audience,” theorists would generally rather talk about
“the spectator” or “the viewer.” Today also, many of us
have come to realize that power relationships are not
simply to be found in the evident locations of power—
here, in the establishments that hold the means of
production — but that they also circulate among and
within ourselves because the way we write and make
films is the way we position ourselves socially and politi-
cally. Form and content cannot be separated.

Furthermore, in the context of “alternative,” “ex-
perimental” films, to know or not to know whom you are
making a film for can both leave you trapped in a form
of escapism: you declare that you don’t care about
audience; you are simply content with the circulation of
your work among friends and a number of marginalized
workers like yourself, and you continue to protect your-
selfby remaining safely within identified limits. Whereas
I think each film one makes is a bottle thrown into the
sea. The fact that you always work on the very limits of
the known and unknown audiences, you are bound to
modify these limits whose demarcation changes each
time and remains unpredictable to you. This is the
context in which I said that the filmmaker is responsible
for building his or her audience.

So of importance today, is to make a film in which
the viewer — whether visually present or not — is
inscribed in the way the film is scripted and shot.
Through a number of creative strategies, this process is
made visible and audible to the audience who is thus
solicited to interact and to retrace it in viewing the film.
Anybody can make REASSEMBLAGE for example. The part
that cannot be imitated, taught, or repeated is the
relationship one develops with the tools that define one’s
activities and oneself as filmmaker. That part is irreduc-
ible and unique to each worker, but the part that could
be opened up to the viewer is the “unsutured” process of
meaning production. With this, we’ll need to ask what
accessibility means: a work in which the creative process
is offered to the viewer? Or a work in which high
production values see to it that the packaging of informa-
tion and of fiction stories remain mystifying to the non-
connoisseur audience—many of whom still believe that
you have to hold several millions in your hand in order
to make a feature of real appeal to the wide number?

9 0 Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 Visual Anthropology Review

You’ve answered on many levels but your last point draws
attention to the state of independent art and experimental
film here in the U.S. Could you comment on your
experience with or interactions with those who try to
categorize your work as documentary, as ethnographic, as
avant-garde feminist, as independent! Could you talk
about the process of independent filmmaking instead of
more mainstream films?

Independent filmmaking for me is not simply a question
of producing so-called “low-budget” films outside the
funding networks of Hollywood. It has more to do with
a radical difference in understanding filmmaking. Here,
once a film is completed, you’re not really done with it,
rather, you’re starting another journey with it. You
cannot focus solely on the creative process and leave the
responsibilities of fundraising and distribution to some-
one else (even if you work with a producer and a
distributor). You are as much involved in the pre- and
the post- than in the production stage itself. Once your
film is released you may have to travel with it and the
direct contact you have with the public does impact the
way you’ll be making your next film. Not at all in the
sense that you serve the needs of the audience, which is
what the mainstream has always claimed to do, but
rather in the sense of a mutual challenge: you challenge
each other in your assumptions and expectations. So for
example, the fact that a number of viewers react nega-
tively to certain choices you have made or to the direc-
tion you have taken does not necessarily lead you to
renounce them for the next time. On the contrary,
precisely because of such reactions you may want to

persist and come back to them yet in different ways.
In my case, the contact also allows me to live out the

demystification of intention in filmmaking. With the
kind of interaction I solicit from the viewers — asking
each of them actually to put together “their own film”
from the film they have seen—the filmmaker’s intention
cannot account for all the readings that they have medi-
ated to their realities. Thereby, the process of indepen-
dent filmmaking entails a different relationship of creat-
ing and receiving, hence of production and exhibition.
Since it is no easy task to build one’s audiences, the
process remains a constant struggle, albeit one which I am
quite happy to carry on. Viewers also need to assume
their responsibilities by looking critically at the represen-
tative place from which they voice their opinions on the
film. Ironically enough, those who inquire about the
audience of my films often seem to think that they and
their immediate peers are the only people who get to see
the film and can understand it. What their questions say
in essence is: We are your audience. Is that all that you
have as an audience? {laughter}. If that is the case, then I
think that none of us independent filmmakers would
continue to make films. For me, interacting with the
viewers of our films is part of independent filmmaking.
The more acutely we feel the changes in our audiences,
the more it demands from us as filmmakers. Therefore,
while our close involvement in the processes of fundraising
and distribution often proves to be frustrating, we also
realize that this mutual challenge between the work and
the film public, or between the creative gesture and the
cinematic apparatus is precisely what keeps independent
filmmaking alive.

Visual Anthropology Review Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992 91


I HAD A SPECIAL, ALMOST EROTIC, relationship with my stationery when I was
young. I collected stationery items the way other kids collect dolls or action
figures. “Really I must buy a pencil,” Virginia Woolf said, without warning,
before rushing out the door to begin her peregrination through the wintry streets
of London. I would have related to her urgency. I too felt passionately for the
lead pencil, as long as it was a thin lavender mechanical pencil with a Hello Kitty
bauble clasped to the tip with a delicate silver chain. And erasers too, scented
raspberry or vanilla, molded into plump pastel wall-eyed Sanrio critters. I adored
my erasers so much I had to repress the urge to bite their heads off. I was careful
at first, gently brushing the bobbed feet against my notebook. But once my eraser
was spoiled with graphite, I ruthlessly rubbed away my errors until all that
remained was a gray dusty nub of face with one sad punctuation of an eye.

For some reason, I was a target in church camp, where the Korean girls my
age ostracized me out of their room, claiming all the beds, saying they were taken
even if they were not, so I was forced to bunk with the younger girls in the next
room. One early morning, I was betrayed by my beloved stationery. I opened up
my Hello Kitty diary, which I’d left unlocked, and saw that someone had
inscribed, on the first page, in neat cursive that must have been written with a
mechanical pencil: Ketty, go home.

The Korean girls I knew were so moody they made Sylvia Plath seem as dull as
C-SPAN. Some were from L.A.’s Koreatown, wore fake Juicy Couture, applied
makeup like Cholas, and spoke in the regional creole accent of FOB, Gangsta,
and Valley. “Bitch, what are you looking at? Are you a lesbo?” asked one girl
named Grace when she caught me gawking at her white ghost lips outlined in

black lip pencil. Later, I tried to look up lesbo in the dictionary and was relieved
that I couldn’t find it.

Because I grew up around bad English, I was bad at English. I was born in
L.A. but wasn’t fluent until the embarrassingly delayed age of six, maybe even
seven. Matriculating at school was like moving to another country. Up until then,
I was surrounded by Korean. The English heard in church, among friends and
family in K-town, was short, barbed, and broken: subject and object nouns
conjoined in odd marriages, verbs forever disagreeing, definite articles nowhere
to be found. Teenagers vented by interjecting Korean with the ever-present fuck:
“Fuck him! Opa’s an asshole.”

The immigrant’s first real introduction to surviving in English is profanity.
When my cousins came over to the United States, I immediately passed on a
cache of curses to them to prepare for school. My uncle said he used to start and
end all his sentences with “motherfucker” because he learned his English from his
black customers when he was a clothing wholesaler in New York. My uncle, a
profane and boisterous man, has since returned to Seoul and keeps up his English
with me.

Uncle: What is the word? The word when you have lice down there.
Niece: Crabs?
Uncle: Yes! Crabs. I have learned a new English word—crabs! It is what I

had once.
Niece: …
Uncle: It is not what you are thinking. I did not get it from a whore.
Niece: How’d you get it?
Uncle: Military service. It was so easy to get the crab. There were no

bathrooms, only hole in the ground. We had to shave so we had no hair down
there. A terrible time. Once we tied a man to a tree and left him there.

English was always borrowed, from hip-hop to Spanglish to The Simpsons. Early
on, my father learned that in America, one must be emotionally demonstrative to
succeed, so he has a habit of saying “I love you” indiscriminately, to his
daughters, to his employees, to his customers, and to airline personnel. He must
have observed a salesman affectionately slap another salesman on the back while
saying, “Love ya, man, good to see you!” But because there is no fraternizing man

or slap on the back, his usage has an indelicate intimacy, especially since he
quietly unloads the endearment as a burning confession: “Thanks for getting those
orders in,” he’ll say before hanging up the phone. “Oh, and Kirby, I love you.”

I did not actually use my mechanical pencils so much as line them up to admire
them. My mechanical pencils, in pistachio, plum, and cotton candy pink, were
wands of sublime femininity that had to be saved for later. The longer I saved
them, the more unbearable became my need to use them. But still I denied
myself, because the exquisite pleasure was the mounting longing for them rather
than the gratification of that longing. One has an overwhelming desire to eat what
is cute, writes Sianne Ngai, and therefore cuteness is ideal for mass
commodification because of its consumability. Cute objects are feminine,
defenseless, and diminutive things, provoking our maternal desires to hold and
nuzzle them as I had with my mouthless Sanrio erasers. But they can also unlock
our sadistic desires to master and violate them, which is why I probably held off
using my stationery in order to ward off my darker instincts.

Eventually, I gave in. I clicked the tip of my mechanical pencil, which
snipped out a nib of lead. Because I had no interest in writing when I was young, I
drew. I drew girls that looked nothing like me. I was at first a poor draftsman,
outlining the U for the face, then filling in eyes that were lopsided dewdrops, then
roofing the face with hair curls as coarse as bedsprings. But over the years, my
technique became refined, and I could decently draw the anime girls I adored.

I took pleasure in drawing the eyes because I, like everyone else, fetishized
anime eyes, those bewitching orbs engorged with irises of snow-flecked sapphire
and thatched over with the inkiest lashes. How huge and innocent those anime
eyes, how meager my own slits. But the nose eluded me. I could not get that
snubbed peck of a nose right, no matter how much I practiced drawing it. I had
the misfortune of inheriting my father’s pronounced nose that in profile looked
like a 6. When I complained about it, my mother protested it was a royal nose,
but the kids in church called out the truth in their basic English.

“Why do you have such a big nose?”
“Big nose.”
I drew peck after peck on sheets of paper, wasting reams so I could pin down

that perfect nose. Once I dreamed of anime girls soaring up and down on pogo

sticks, their pigtails a nimbus of curls, their tartan skirts aswirl, their enormous
eyes cracked with light. I looked up in time to see a girl arc up in the air and then
rocket straight down for me—to pogo my nose down to a button.

I am now in the habit of collecting bad English. I browse, a gag site
that uploads photographs of mistranslated English from East Asian countries. The
images are separated into signs (“Please No Conversation, No Saliva”), T-shirts
(“I feel a happiness when I eat Him”), and menus (“roasted husband”). The most
viewed image is a cartoon ad of a popular sweet tapioca pearl beverage with the
caption “I’m Bubble Tea! Suck my Balls!”

I steal these lines and use them in my poetry. Take the phrase “I feel a
happiness when I eat him.” It has all the traits of a surprising poetic line. A
familiar sentiment is now unfamiliar because chance has turned Error into Eros.
That needless “a” is crucial since it tweaks the tone into a slightly sinister
animatronic pitch while indicating that the lover is not awash in happiness but
feels happiness at a remove. Like an extra tooth, that “a” forces open a bead of
uncertainty, or cold reflection, while she takes into consideration her happiness.
She is not sure why she is happy, but she is, as she eats him.

One day, I was browsing through the T-shirt category. I happened upon an
image of a young Chinese boy innocently wearing a shirt branded with the word
“Poontang.” This photo triggered my own memory of the time I arrived in
elementary school wearing a Playboy Bunny T-shirt. I had completely forgotten
about it. Thinking of that memory, I was made sharply aware of the people who
were taking these photos: backpackers traveling through Korea, Taiwan, Japan,
and China—white and Asian American tourists. Outsiders who were at home
treating the natives like they were the outsiders.

English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer
language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the
nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor. When I lived in Seoul for
a year in 2005, I too snapped photographs of the Engrishisms that plastered
storefronts like bad wallpaper. But I was also disturbed by how much
globalization has led to English cannibalizing Korean. Reading a sign in Hangul
characters, I slowly sounded out an unfamiliar word, only to realize that the word
was lipo-suk-shen. A friend told me that teenage couples preferred saying “I love
you” in English rather than the Korean equivalent because they thought it was a

truer expression of their love.
Apparently, Asian children innocently wearing profanity-laden T-shirts were

at some point an Internet meme. I found images of a young girl wearing a sweater
of Mickey Mouse giving the finger; a kindergartner wearing a sleeveless “Wish
you were Beer”; a forlorn boy sitting on the bleachers in a “Who the Fuck is
Jesus” sweater.

I thought, I have found my people.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my
heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of
English their rallying cry—who queer it, twerk it, hack it, Calibanize it, other it
by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to
make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so
its dark histories slide out.

In the essay “Other: From Noun to Verb,” the poet Nathaniel Mackey draws
a distinction between the noun other, which is social, and the verb other, which is

Artistic othering has to do with innovation, invention, and change, upon
which cultural health and diversity depend and thrive. Social othering
has to do with power, exclusion, and privilege, the centralizing of a noun
against which otherness is measured, meted out, marginalized. My focus
is the practice of the former by people subjected to the latter.

Mackey borrows his title from Amiri Baraka, who aptly defines the history
of white musicians profiting off of black music as turning “a verb into a noun.”
For instance, swing, the verb, meaning reacting to music, was a black innovation,
before white musicians stole and encased it in the commercial brand Swing.
Mackey demands we wrest back the white man’s noun and return it to a verb by
“breaking into” the colonizer’s English and alchemizing new words out of local
vernacular. My own method of othering English is to eat English before it eats
me. In that process we might eat each other like a scene out of Park Chan-wook’s
film Oldboy, where a man marches into a sushi restaurant and orders a live
octopus, which comes whole and slithering on a plate. He tries to stuff the entire
octopus into his mouth but it’s too big. The cephalopod covers his whole face

while cinching its tentacles around his head so that he can’t breathe. Eventually,
he passes out.

On good writing days, I am the octopus.

My mother’s English has remained rudimentary during her forty-plus years living
in the United States. When she speaks Korean, my mother speaks her mind. She
is sharp, witty, and judgmental, if rather self-preening. But her English is a crush
of piano keys that used to make me cringe whenever she spoke to a white person.
As my mother spoke, I watched the white person, oftentimes a woman, put on a
fright mask of strained tolerance: wide eyes frozen in trapped patience, smile
widened in condescension. As she began responding to my mother in a voice
reserved for toddlers, I stepped in.

From a young age, I learned to speak for my mother as authoritatively as I
could. Not only did I want to dispel the derision I saw behind that woman’s eyes, I
wanted to shame her with my sobering fluency for thinking what she was
thinking. I have been partly drawn to writing, I realize, to judge those who have
unfairly judged my family; to prove that I’ve been watching this whole time.

Pity the Asian accent. It is such a degraded accent, one of the last accents
acceptable to mock. How hard it is to speak through it to make yourself heard. I
am embarrassed to say that I sometimes act like that white woman. When I phone
in my order to a Chinese restaurant and the cashier doesn’t understand me, I
repeat myself impatiently. When I call Time Warner and reach a representative
with an Indian accent, I am already exasperated because I heard that Indian call
centers barely train their employees. I have a theory that Seamless was invented
so Americans don’t have to hassle with immigrant accents. Automation will
replace Indian call centers for this very reason. Machines will flatten the accents
of nationalities already flattened by English.

I have noticed that a new TV Asian accent has emerged, an accent used by no
Asian except for Asian American actors onscreen: this accent is gentle, sitcom-
friendly, easy listening. I have a hard time with the rare Asian American sitcom
on offer, since they are so pandering and full of cute banter. But then, I’m of the
extreme opinion that a real show about a Korean family—at least the kind I grew
up around—is untelevisable. Americans would be both bored and appalled. My
God, why can’t someone call Child Protective Services! they’d shout at the screen.

Ever since I started writing poetry seriously, I have used English inappropriately.
I played with diction like an amateur musician in a professional orchestra,
crashing my cymbals at the wrong time or coming in with my flute too early. I
used low diction for the high occasions, high elocution for casual encounters. I
wrote a companion poem to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” as a salesman’s pitch;
wrote an epic narrative poem in my own invented pidgin. I wanted to pull all the
outside Englishes inside and drag inside English outside. I wanted to chip away at
the pillar of poetry. More than chip. I wanted to savage it. But what did I expect
to find as I savaged? Was it sufficient enough to break English to point out how
ill-fitting it was?

My grandmother used to watch the old dating show Love Connection
religiously. She didn’t understand English at all, but she still found it uproariously
funny to watch two people talk at each other on the couch. Laughing along to the
laugh track, she’d turn to me to see if I was laughing, then turn back to the TV to
laugh some more. That canned soundtrack, echoed by my grandmother, was a
hollow cave of sound that sharpened the cheerless tension in our household.
While she watched, I sat, vigilant and ears pricked, increasingly agitated by the
laugh track’s annoying demand that I join in. My home was a provisional space in
which the present was always wasted in dreaded anticipation of the future. I
always knew when my mother was in one of her moods, though I never exactly
knew when she’d strike, so I waited and waited until I heard her shriek my name
at the top of her lungs, which was my cue to leap up and slam all the windows
shut so our inside sounds wouldn’t leak outside.

As a poet, I have always treated English as a weapon in a power struggle,
wielding it against those who are more powerful than me. But I falter when using
English as an expression of love. I’ve always been so protective of making sure
that my family’s inside sounds didn’t leak outside that I don’t know how to allow
the outside in. I was raised by a kind of love that was so inextricable from pain
that I fear that once I air that love, it will oxidize to betrayal, as if I’m turning
English against my family.

How far can I travel harvesting bad English before I’m called a trespasser? While
I have borrowed from Hawaiian Pidgin and Spanglish in the past, I would think

twice before using these languages now. When the film Crazy Rich Asians
premiered, the twittersphere called out as “blackface” the actor Awkwafina’s
accent, an accent not far removed from the K-town one I heard growing up in
L.A. It never occurred to me that those K-town girls were doing blackface. I
thought they were just talking the way other teens around them talked.

At the time of my writing, this country has seen a retrenchment of identities
on both sides of the political spectrum. The rise of white nationalism has led to
many nonwhites defending their identities with rage and pride as well as
demanding reparative action to compensate for centuries of whites’ plundering
from non-Western cultures. But a side effect of this justified rage has been a
“stay in your lane” politics in which artists and writers are asked to speak only
from their personal ethnic experiences. Such a politics not only assumes racial
identity is pure—while ignoring the messy lived realities in which racial groups
overlap—but reduces racial identity to intellectual property.

When we are inspired by a poem or novel, our human impulse is to share it
so that, as Lewis Hyde writes, it leaves a trail of “interconnected relationships in
its wake.” But in the market economy, art is a commodity removed from
circulation and kept. If the work of art circulates, it circulates for profit, which
has been grossly reaped by white authorship. Speaking on this subject, Amiri
Baraka offers an invaluable quote: “All cultures learn from each other. The
problem is that if the Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from
Blind Willie, I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in
Jackson, Mississippi.”

We must make right this unequal distribution but we must do so without
forgetting the immeasurable value of cultural exchange in what Hyde calls the
gift economy. In reacting against the market economy, we have internalized
market logic where culture is hoarded as if it’s a product that will depreciate in
value if shared with others; where instead of decolonizing English, we are carving
up English into hostile nation-states. The soul of innovation thrives on cross-
cultural inspiration. If we are restricted to our lanes, culture will die.

Rather than “speaking about” a culture outside your experience, the filmmaker
Trinh T. Minh-ha suggests we “speak nearby.” In an interview for Artforum,
Trinh says:

When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first
thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and
those who populate your film: in other words, to leave the space of
representation open so that, although you’re very close to your subject,
you’re also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or
on top of them. You can only speak nearby, in proximity (whether the
other is physically present or absent), which requires that you
deliberately suspend meaning, preventing it from merely closing and
hence leaving a gap in the formation process. This allows the other
person to come in and fill that space as they wish. Such an approach
gives freedom to both sides and this may account for it being taken up
by filmmakers who recognize in it a strong ethical stance. By not trying
to assume a position of authority in relation to the other, you are actually
freeing yourself from the endless criteria generated with such an all-
knowing claim and its hierarchies in knowledge.

I turned to the modular essay because I am only capable of “speaking nearby”
the Asian American condition, which is so involuted that I can’t stretch myself
across it. The more I try to pin it, the more it escapes my grasp. I tried to write
about it as a lyric poem, but the lyric, to me, is a stage, a pedestal from which I
throw my voice to point out what I’m not (the curse of anyone nonwhite is that
you are so busy arguing what you’re not that you never arrive at what you are). I
admit that I sometimes still find the subject, Asian America, to be so shamefully
tepid that I am eager to change it—which is why I have chosen this episodic
form, with its exit routes that permit me to stray. But I always return, from a
different angle, which is my own way of inching closer to it.

If I’m going to write nearby my Asian American condition, however, I feel
compelled to write nearby other racial experiences. Students have asked me,
“How do I write about racial identity without always reacting to whiteness?” The
automatic answer is “Tell your story.” But this too can be a reaction to whiteness,
since white publishers want “the Muslim experience” or “the black experience.”
They want ethnicity to be siloed because it’s easier to understand, easier to brand.
Ever since I started writing, I was not just interested in telling my story but also in
finding a form—a way of speech—that decentered whiteness. I settled on bad
English because, as the artist Gregg Bordowitz said about radical art, it bypasses
social media algorithms and consumer demographics by bringing together groups
who wouldn’t normally be in the same room together.

You can’t tweet bad English. If I tweeted a line from my poem, it would sink
like a lead balloon. Bad English is best shared offline, in a book or performed
live; it’s an interactive diction that must be read aloud to be understood, but even
if I don’t quite understand it, those chewy syllables just feel familial to me, no
matter the cultural source, which is why it brings together racial groups outside
whiteness. But bad English is a dying art because the Internet demands we write
clear, succinct poems that stop us mid-scroll. If you want to truly understand
someone’s accented English, you have to slow down and listen with your body.
You have to train your ears and offer them your full attention. The Internet
doesn’t have time for that.

So as long as it lasts, I want to write nearby Rodrigo Toscano, who pulls his
Spanglish phonetic syllables apart like taffy (“tha’ vahnahnah go-een to keel joo”)
or LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, who recombines black slang, Japanese, Spanish,
Chamorro, and Tagalog into a remastered Afro-Futurist song (“…bubblegum
kink / a Sheik’s interloper. / A radical since 1979. / a brujo. A tommy gun. A
werewolf.”). I can’t speak for the Latinx experience, but I can write about my bad
English nearby Toscano’s bad English while providing gaps between passages for
the reader to stitch a thread between us.

Wu Tsang is a half-Chinese trans artist who has a long, feminine face and warm
brown empathic eyes. She ties her hair in a topknot like a modern dancer and
wears loose oversized tank tops that bare her toned, sinewy shoulders. She looks
otherworldly and earthy at the same time, like she could either be a woodland
sylph or a sincere RA talking about the importance of safe spaces.

In 2012, Wu made a documentary, Wildness, that begins with tracking shots
of L.A. at dusk, the most magical time. Shadows are liberated, adding depth to a
city otherwise flattened by the oppressive sun. Against the sky’s phosphorous
pink glow, streetlights awaken, at first softly, but then, as darkness descends, their
white beams become so eerily incandescent, empty streets look like airstrips for a
UFO landing. Strip malls recede into night and neon signs come to life, from
storefront Helvetica to the art deco hieroglyphs that grace the tops of hotels. I see
illuminated the verdigris terraced crown of the iconic Bullocks Wilshire tower
right outside Koreatown. My mother had a friend who worked the jewelry
counter, so she visited often, sometimes dragging me along. I recall being
surrounded by white women in various stages of undress while my mother tried

on pants in an open dressing room. Then, in 1992, looters broke into the building,
leaving a confetti of broken glass on its travertine floors, and the department store
closed for good.

Wu had recently moved to L.A. to attend art school at UCLA. Almost
immediately, she found a community at a bar called Silver Platter, which flashes
its name in ice-blue neon on the corner of Seventh in Westlake, a Latin American
neighborhood. For decades, the local Latinx trans community gathered at the
Silver Platter, hosting talent shows, dancing with Mexican cis men in cowboy
hats, and drinking four-dollar champagne. The bar itself is unexceptional with its
scuffed checkered floor and vinyl chairs. But at night, the bar transforms when
the women sing in their best taffeta. Some of them have the faces of sad
childhoods, which they cover up with mascara and chandelier earrings. Erica,
who is interviewed, said her father in Mexico beat her with his boots for being
too feminine, but the real hurt, she said, was the shame of being beaten in public.
Eventually, she ran away, riding north atop a freight train nicknamed “the Beast,”
so called because untold numbers of stowaways had been maimed or killed falling
off it. Then she crossed the border and made it to L.A. and the Silver Platter,
where she found refuge away from her violent family, the border police, and the

Wu and Erica are especially close, though Erica doesn’t speak English and
Wu doesn’t speak Spanish. Still, they understand each other, claims Wu. “My dad
didn’t teach me how to speak Chinese, but that missing piece was how I became
close to people,” Wu said. By that she means that she was raised learning that
love need not be verbal but can be expressed through touch, food, or shared
nightlife where, like Swan Lake’s Odette, she and Erica can truly reveal

Silver Platter is so special Wu wants to share it. She asks the bar owners if
she can throw a party every Tuesday night. They agree and embrace Wu’s other
friends, most of whom are black and brown, although to the local trans women,
they’re educated, assimilated, and therefore “gringos of all shades.” The Tuesday
party is called Wildness, and attracts queers and artists from all over L.A. Wu and
her friend Ashland host absurdist live drag shows, like a soprano singing an aria
while pulling beads out of someone’s butt. The local women at first feel out of
place, overwhelmed by these cool queers whose idea of camp is avant-garde
rather than old-school glamour, but then they grow to love Wildness. As Wu
hoped, new families are formed.

Since the 2016 election, I had forgotten how play too can be a form of resistance.
The precarity of trans life must be exposed but so too its subversive revelry. In
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz
wrote, “We must enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in this
world. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the
negative and toiling in the present.” Art is to dream, however temporarily, of this
not-yet. But how do we create these hidden worlds now when social media
uproots these secret utopias to the surface almost immediately and the world in
which we now share art and poems is under the algorithmic eye of tech

Wildness becomes too crowded, invaded by dumb hipsters. L.A. Weekly runs
a transphobic and condescending review of the bar. Wu’s guilt that she is a
gentrifying force overrides the tone of the film, a guilt that taints all her virtuous
intentions. Eventually, Wu stops having the parties in order to protect the fragile
ecosystem of the bar. The last shot is of the local trans women and Wu having a
picnic to prove that their friendship is ongoing despite the fact that Wu’s parties
almost ruined the bar as a sanctuary space. But I become hypercritical once I
smell the artist’s guilt. I admit my hypercriticality comes from a selfish place,
since an artist’s guilt is a contagion that I want to swat away so it doesn’t infect
me. Did Erica and Wu’s friendship last past the making of this film? Did Wu
establish a free legal clinic for the Latinx trans community in order to really
effect change or to absolve her own guilt? Due to the success of her film
Wildness, Wu’s career skyrocketed and she won a MacArthur Genius Grant.
Should she share that money with the women?

When I was growing up, black and brown kids were casually racist. Korean kids
were casually racist. It didn’t hurt so much when a nonwhite kid called me slant-
eyed, because I had a slur to throw back at them. I can’t think of a blameless
victim among us. But it would be wrong of me to say that we were all on equal
footing, which is why I can’t just write about my bad English next to your bad
English. In my efforts to speak nearby, I also have to confront the distance
between us, which is challenging because once I implicate myself, I can never
implicate myself enough. The distance between us is class. In K-town, Koreans

worked the front and Mexicans worked the back. I made a friend whom my
mother said I couldn’t play with, and when I asked why, she said it was because
she was Mexican. The horror of it was that I told this friend. I said, “I can’t play
with you because you’re Mexican,” and she said, “But I’m Puerto Rican.”

In his book White Flights, the writer Jess Row says that “America’s great and
possibly catastrophic failure is its failure to imagine what it means to live
together.” Row contextualizes this insight by reflecting on white postwar novelists
who erased their settings of “inconveniently different faces” so that their white
characters could achieve their own “imaginative selfhood” without complication.
In thinking about my own Asian identity, I don’t think I can seal off my imagined
world so it’s only people of my likeness, because it would follow rather than
break from this segregated imagination.

But having said that, how can I write about us living together when there isn’t
too much precedent for it? Can I write about it without resorting to some facile
vision of multicultural oneness or the sterilizing language of virtue signaling? Can
I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt
others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands
absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without
demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin?

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