Transcript: The AAFC’s Rachel Kuo on the multiplicity of Asian American communities

Featuring the Asian American Feminist Collective. Photo credit: Marion Aguas for AAFC


This is a companion interview to The Slant’s e-mail interview with the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC), originally published on November 16, 2018. For more stories featuring Asian American leaders like the AAFC, subscribe to The Slant’s weekly newsletter.

In the wake of the 2016 election, community organizers Julie Kim, Tiffany Diane Tso, Rachel Kuo and Senti Sojwal started an event series highlighting Asian American feminism. Since then, that event’s evolved into the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC), a group providing public events and resources to “provide spaces for identity exploration, political education, community building, and advocacy” — including its first zine.

“Rather than specifying particular groups, for this initial zine we wanted to really point to the multiplicity of Asian American community,” Kuo told us over the phone. “Wanting to draw attention to all the ways this identity is lived, and it’s lived really unevenly across the scope of inequalities. What does that mean to articulate centering or decentering Asianness as the only call to community? And if we’re going to use it as the call how do we center those who are most affected or impacted by systems of oppression?”

We caught up with AAFC over e-mail, and had a longer interview with Kuo over the phone. Read our e-mail interview on The Slant, and read our interview with Kuo below.

What’s your background, and how has that influenced your involvement with the AAFC?

I feel like with the background question, there are so many places to start.

Intentionally vague.

Coming into the AAFC in a more recent history—I’m in my 4th year of a doctorate program. There are a lot of times where I gained a lot of access to languages and theories and frameworks but yet they’re not applied or grounded in anything more usable beyond the scope of academic work.

For me, being able to get involved with the AAFC and do a more collaborative form of knowledge production — given that academia is also isolating and prioritizes the individual—but to be able to do collaborative and collective work [lets me] bring those kinds of frames and ways and formats to help other people or bring other people into [them]. [It lets me] think through what are the political frames in order to do solidarity work.

Also for me, most of us in the collective and a lot of our base are people in their mid-20s or after, so we do have college students. But we do have folks who are now working, and are no longer in the setting where there are immediate organizations or groups to be part of. [They’re] trying to find ways to get involved and do this kind of process of growing, thinking, learning and practicing, in these new modes of adult life. Access to different resources at work, access to different knowledge for political purposes.

I am someone who in college did Asian American associations and a lot of those, and that’s kind of how I got there.

Did you go straight into the graduate program after graduating college?

No, in college I did a journalism program. I didn’t do any critical race theory or feminist theory. It wasn’t part of a mandatory curriculum for me. We fought for that as students of color, like, how do we build curriculum like that into journalism programs? Other kinds of programs that aren’t liberal arts per se. After college I worked more in multicultural student centers at universities, like at U of Wisconsin for a while. I thought I really wanted to get an MA in media strategy.

There’s this coming into identity that is very cultural — it’s about making visible culture and representation and now shifting the stakes of that — the political weight, what does it mean to be represented. What more is there that we can ask for and fight for?

Zines have a radical history, but aren’t exactly mainstream. What made that the best medium to distribute AAFC’s ideas?

Originally before it was a zine, one of the things we had wanted to do was to create a manifesto or statement. That’s also rooted in the history of the formation of a lot of Asian American political groups and also groups of color that we drew a lot from. The release of an external document that states the beliefs, values, mission, and to be able to articulate all of these different things, as well as a brief history. It came from this desire for a manifesto or political statement — what we do, what we value, what we believe, what are our commitments, that came from a lot of history of groups—particularly Black feminist groups like the Third World Women’s Alliance and those kinds of histories.

We started a Google Doc with different things, and the way that I contributed was when I was thinking about my dissertation proposal and how I was thinking about racial and political positioning of Asian Americans vis-a-vis a lot of these different power structures and systems to try to begin to articulate that through the manifesto. We did some rounds of drafting and opened it up on social media.

This was before the AAFC as it is in its digital presence was established. It was more this nascent, after all the events that had happened, to be like, “well, what does an Asian American feminist agenda look like?” So we had opened up that call. A lot of different people made edits and added comments. A lot of those comments just provoked a lot of those bigger conversations, like what is in terms of destabilizing Asian Americans — not destabilizing but challenging — what is its usefulness?

Like in the 60's it was this political moment, and at that time and with the historical context the unification of Asian Americans made sense. In the current moment I believe it still does make sense, but I think it requires a different interrogation. Given the current context of what that means to use that as our call to unity and the kind of people who are centered, excluded, included, etc. So there was a lot of that conversation.

Especially now there’s also the thinking about Asian American Pacific Islanders, and what is the navigation of that history? A lot of that came up in the document as well. The original document that’s not in the current zine, there was a goal to include history. And originally the history was started in the 60's because of politicization, but Asian Americans have been organizing prior to that. And because history is nonlinear, there are so many moments that contribute.

It’s hard to build it all in, but I think the attention to history and narrative and storytelling and the questions, like what is history and whose history — there’s also the family history that is very much part of feminist politics, that collaborative process of learning from different people, and the debates and questioning of language and history, and all of that was this really productive process. We named that in the zine to be like, there’s so many ways in which coming up with a shared language is really useful, but yet in so many ways that language is really complicated, messy, it leaves things out, all of that.

In terms of wanting to do a zine, the zine as a format and thinking about it as a media object — yes, it’s radical history, and there’s a lot of creative potential. You can bring in different media forms like illustrations and poetry, and there’s a creative dynamic.

But you’re also limited by the economy of the page size, and it’s something that you’re going to print. It’s not going to be 100 pages because of the physical manifestation of it. It allows us to put forward that vision in something that’s compact and easy to read.

We also have a lot of references to books on it, but I think with reading, books alone can be really hard. We thought about what would be easy and quick for someone to read and take something away that doesn’t require a huge time investment, and to be able to articulate with clarity the kind of complexity of the politics in a way that different people can access it and talk about it.

I do think because some of the language leans towards academics, there’s all these different moments of, “how do we translate these politics in ways that people at different moments of their life, and at different moments of understanding their experiences and their politics, can look at it and be able to draw some kind of connection to it, and think about how to manifest it in some kind of real way?”

Going from the collaborative Google Doc with lots of comments and suggestions, what was your process into breaking that down into the final product we have now? I imagine it’s hard to bring this product that was subject to a lot of different opinions and experiences to this final artifact.

Part of that process was articulating what the takeaways were. The tricky thing is, there are competing definitions. How do you maintain inclusivity, given that the way identities are named and categorized shifts, and people identify with them differently?

There was something, also, that we didn’t want to do in listing everything. Because that approach to intersectionality isn’t often the kind of way that it can be best practiced. With having that intersectional framework in mind, we were like, okay — there’s different systems and structures that are being named. If that’s the case, then what are some of the commitments that we can articulate and bring forward?

Thinking about anti-Blackness and settler colonialism as a broader way to make sense of for Asian Americans, how are we positioned within that, alongside that? And for different folks, who will identify with those? How do we make sense of how our politics are and why? How do we articulate that commitment?

With feminism, the kind of commitment [to] folks who are women, fem, gender non conforming, trans, queer — having something that articulated the commitment of what specific frames around undoing patriarchy and centering queerness and destabilizing categories of gender and sexuality that have been really colonialist from the beginning.

Having some way to articulate that for us was trying to figure out how to translate these comments and suggestions into ways that we could identify political commitments that people can say or make and prompt a way of planning action and events to turn to to be like, “Does this kind of work embody the kind of commitments we’re trying to make?” The other piece was sitting down and being like, “What has this process helped us learn even in the process of collaboration?”

One thing we appreciated was the inclusion of LGBTQ Asian Americans, who comparatively are underrepresented in Asian American discourse. Are there particular groups you set out to represent when you started the zine?

For the zine, first, the ways we were thinking about it was, there have been spaces for conversations about, “What does feminism mean to the Asian American community?” But even the call of the collective being named that and the zine saying “what does it meant to build an Asian American feminist movement?”—we hoped our audience would identify as Asian American and feminist. And [that they] would find a way to connect with this document to think about what does this political document move forward as we think about our own positionality within that.

Rather than specifying particular groups, for this initial zine we wanted to really point to the multiplicity of Asian American community. There’s a lot of conversation right now about ethnicity — who is and isn’t represented, et cetera. But within that and across that there’s the question of class, and socioeconomic status, everyone has different relationships with the state in terms of citizenship, immigration, refugee status. All of that gets processed or understood which creates a different set of experiences — and religion, gender and sexuality, all of these various pieces really make up what the Asian American community is.

There’s also a question of intergenerational politics. For the beginning of building a movement rather than focusing on specific arenas of representation, we’re calling attention to the multiplicity of Asian American communities and the different considerations in order to identify the needs of those who are most impacted by state violence, systems of colonization, imperialism, and how we account for being in the U.S. as this empire that has ramifications. Wanting to draw attention to all the ways this identity is lived, and it’s lived really unevenly across the scope of inequalities. What does that mean to articulate centering or decentering Asianness as the only call to community? And if we’re going to use it as the call, how do we decenter those who are most affected or impacted by systems of oppression?

What have responses to the zine been like so far?

Largely been really positive. It’s been really helpful to have people that we all really look up to as different thinkers and contributors to other organizations and writers who have found the zine really helpful as a resource. Overall the response has been that it’s a really useful resource, which is the goal of “how is this usable beyond a pretty thing that people have?”. People have found a usability of it in terms of the language, the definition, the commitments, and also the reading list. Which is also incomplete but it’s a starting place for people to be directed in different ways of accessing information.

How did you curate the reading list, and is there a next step in starting conversations with folks who are going through the list?

Originally this started as an event series two years ago with Asian American feminism in the age of Trump — that was the first event before it was a collective. It was an Asian American feminism series. There was the histories and politics and organizing iteration of that event series, and a group of people started compiling this collaborative resource of books, articles, et cetera. And a lot of people also did have different academic backgrounds, so they had access to different journal articles, like older historical books and more contemporary literature and things like that. We have a list that includes definitions and short descriptions of the books, but we consider that a living document that people are always adding to.

A lot of this is what a group of people have read and found meaningful. The direction that we want to go with that is to get more feedback from people who are reading it to share how these texts have been helpful or meaningful to them, since right now it’s just summaries or descriptions on that page so more contributions of additional resources can be compiled.

It’d be really nice to start reading lists and reading groups because I do think that reading should be a more community practice to talk through things. In the future those are things that could be envisioned and there’s a lot of initiatives in NYC more generally around reading groups and lists that are geared towards social movements.

So there’s this question of what does it mean for Asian American feminists to read these texts together, what does it mean for Asian American feminists to read Black feminist thought, to read texts written by Grace Lee Boggs, to read all of these things and to be able to sit, commune, discuss and then think about what these ideas look like in practice in a movement.

Just tracking the downloads of the zine in our newsletter, we see that the zine has struck a chord. What do you think made now the right time to launch AAFC and produce your zine?

Right now we’re in a moment that’s leading up to the November election, there’s a lot of different pieces — what’s going on at Harvard in terms of affirmative action, all the discussions about CRA and media, there’s a lot of cultural critical conversations happening. Politics, and not just policy in terms of politics, but community dynamics, and how particular issues and debates are being carried out.

The launch of this zine in the fall also becomes this moment where people who have been having these conversations now have this resource and language that they can use and share and circulate. Or for folks who are maybe just coming out of thinking about media representation as the end goal of justice to also then have a document to then think — when people do have debates about media representation of CRA and class, there’s these components of the history of class formations, and how Asian America is structured, and how all of these connections are also linked to transnational dynamics of movement mobility and migration that then is the background context that shapes the debate about a film. How do we make these meaningful connections between culture and politics and social movements?

We hope the zine does a triangulation for people who are accessing what it means to be Asian American and racial justice issues that impact Asian Americans in a way that helps put into frame all the kinds of connections that can be made.

You alluded to the future vision of the zine and getting to include more history. What else are you thinking in terms of what you want to do next?

There’s a two-part thing. One of the things in the zine is this mission that we really want — this question around, “what were your entry points into Asian American feminism?” That’s a large question about “how do we think about our personal histories and experiences and stories to make these connections?”

Right now we have a submission theme around first times: the first time you came into feminism or the first time you came back home — all using this first or this memory to draw out a personal narrative around how people come to who they are and come into politics. We’re accepting submissions for those and that will be something that lives online, and the hope is the next iteration of the zine will be more focused on histories.

The part from that initial manifesto doc that isn’t in this iteration is that question of when we think about Asian American feminist history, what are some of those? I think there are now histories that people do know about and draw on, so wanting to have the zine again be a collaborative thing where people who are historians or writers can contribute a snippet of the history or timeline that they know a lot about. It’s not going to be comprehensive but it’ll be a mix in terms of people who will contribute to that as well as a mix in terms of the stories or excerpts of the first times, as these are part of our Asian American histories too as we think about our parents, our grandparents, our travels, our homes, all of these are tied to history and these present moments have a past story to them. The next iteration will be focused a lot more on history.

I will say even the process of as it lives online — it seems like more like a real thing — it’s real in terms of this website and this presence that is established. I think as someone who has spent some time in the archives around the different Asian American feminist groups that have emerged, that question of what the vision and mission is is always building.

And I think that my dream as this builds is that it does continue to evolve. But I think that question of in the zine we put Asian American feminism as an ever evolving practice and our hope is that it does actually get to do that — evolve and change and transform. And as it grows and moves that is what the community puts into it.

Rachel Kuo (she/her) is a scholar and educator teaching and writing about digital technology and racial justice. She is currently a PhD candidate at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and part of the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies. Find her on Twitter @rachelkuo.