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Margaret Rhee: Body Maps: A (digital/real) Asian American Feminist Poetics

On Body. I was recently invited by poet and academic, Margaret Rhee, to participate in an Asian American Women Artists Association event titled, "Body Maps." Intuitivitely, I knew my work did indeed belong in such a production; the Pinay body has been contested space for centuries, now flung into commerce globally as a service item. This is something I have been writing against for a long time now, from decades ago, as evidenced in my earliest, teenage spoken word rants about the "Singapore girl."

What I did not know how to articulate calmly at the time was the mass media perpetuation of that undifferentiated Asian woman body in service and subservience, and the religious, military, and economic conquest of the "Orient," which necessitate our subservience. What I was also intuitively grasping at was the many ways in which poetry and art could intersect with issues of social justice. These days, as I have been teaching in a Jesuit university, that's become integrated into my every day.

That said, I have invited Margaret to tell us a little bit about the conception of Body Maps. What follows is her response to me:

[Image by Monica Ong]

“On pornographic sites, the body, as real as it can be, is in fact what is being offered; its gender and race are not only legible, but the main draw. What it sells is not just flesh—digital or “real”—but more precisely the underlying histories and myths that such bodies invoke.” — Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu

Upon the eve of finishing up this short blog post, I am reminded of my own cartography. Today, I walked alongside a street in Berkeley, CA, on my way to yoga practice. I passed by several local stores: hipster coffee shop, typewriter joint, and two heavily curtained “Asian massage parlors” along the way. At yoga practice, I thought about those massage parlors, how women who look like me are most likely working in them. When I was 18, many of my Asian American friends found new jobs in a local massage parlor. I’ve heard the horror stories of oppressive and objectifying conditions. These stories trail along the boundaries of my own body. At yoga, I tried not to think about it when sitting cross-legged on my mat. I tried my best to find my heart’s center, open my chest, and to breathe.

Why Body Maps: A (digital/real) Asian American Feminist Poetics?

Today’s route in Berkeley serves as a personal, political, and poetic answer to the question.

In particular, for Asian American women the body “invokes” “underlying histories and myths” whether in massage parlors, yoga studios, or on pornographic websites as theorist Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu writes above. We can think of the body (digital or real) as a field, space, a location where oppression names and constrains and where freedom resides—our vulnerable human bodies.

How to remap, reclaim, and rewire our bodies?

As an feminist, poet, and scholar, I am deeply invested in fostering Asian American feminist visions through visual and literary mediums. When asked to curate a literary event for the wonderful non-profit organization Asian American Women Artists Association, I was thrilled at the possibility to suggest a gathering that would embrace both visual and literary feminist explorations of her Asian American body. I wondered how might Asian American feminist artists & poets respond to the plethora of digital images and material realities that seemingly define our bodies in “real time” and cyberspace?

I was interested in how the Asian American body can be figured and imaged—alternatively.

What dreams of (and through) our bodies do we possess?

What happens when we share these dreams and imaginings?

Body Maps is a collective response from an amazing group of established and emerging Asian American feminist poets and visual artists. As a curator, I hope the event will provoke further feminist exploration and provocations on her Asian American body through the language of poetry. In particular, my familiarity of Asian American feminist discourses prompted my proposal of an experimental, multi-ethnic, queer centered literary event in order to counter “normative” Asian American feminism that can oftentimes obscures alternative perspectives and libratory routings. I was interested in re-visiting Asian American feminism in our digital age through visual poetics. I hoped to counter these mainstream ideas of her Asian American body by not only responding to them—but as Barbara Jane Reyes’ second collection Poeta En San Francisco suggests—re-orient by creating an alternative cartography.

Earlier this year, I had posted the preliminary title Body Maps to the dismay of a few fellow poets, isn’t the Asian American female body objectified enough? they asked. The responses (a few but worthy to note) reminded me of how much and how important it is, for Asian American feminists to reclaim our bodies.

I am interested in exploring the pain, the sexual, the beauty, the mystery, the ugly of her Asian American body. Multi-ethnic. Inter-generational. A multitude of utterances deep from our guts.

The current times of increasing violence upon Asian American female bodies suggest for me, an urgency of returning to the body for remapping and redefinitions, for artistic and political combustion.

For Body Maps, we have a multitude of evocative interventions within the “discourses” of Asian American feminism. For example, Bay Area performance artists Celeste Chan and Jezebel Delilah X will perform a special dance movement poetic piece on the Asian and Black female body. Jai Arun Ravine will read poetry through a trans-masculine Asian American feminist perspective. Bonnie Kwong will show her sensual poem-video Wishbone.

Our entire line up includes established and emerging Asian American feminist poets and visual artists. Fierce. Political. Poetic.

Barbara Jane Reyes
Leah Lakshimi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Jean Vengua
Celeste Chan and Jezebel Delilah X
Debbie Yee
Monica Ong
Rona Luo
Kim Tran
Jai Arun Ravine
Bonnie Kwong
HaeTae and Margaret Rhee

The event is free and held at La Pena Cultural Center Thursday evening, May 10th. Donations will be accepted and given to Asian American Women Artists Association and our community partner Banteay Srei, a vital organization that serves Southeast Asian young women in the East Bay. Banteay Srei is dedicated to providing the tools and support necessary for young Southeast Asian women and girls that are at-risk or are being sexually exploited in the Bay Area. As a curator, it is important that Body Maps build and support solidarity and awareness around the social issues of her Asian American body.

“Body Maps” is an Asian American feminist exploration, poetic celebration, cartographic journey, in which, I invite you to join us.

Originally Published: April 24th, 2012

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...