By Abraham Ferrer
I have never before organized any sort of spoken-word event…at least not to my memory. Having organized hundreds of screening events over the years, many of them centered on foregrounding Asian Pacific American and Asian international cinema artists, the idea of pulling together a program with so many more moving parts (ie: live, breathing people, rather than a film print or digital file) was a novel experience, to say the least. Thus, organizing the special At First Light public program “REFLECTIONS/REFRACTIONS: 10 Works Inspired by ‘At First Light’” at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at JANM was scary but infinitely rewarding.
The Sept. 19 program brought together ten artists — and two musicians — who were invited to select an image from the current “At First Light” exhibit that inspired them to create an original written work to perform in front of a live audience (sadly, one of the ten artists, Koji Sakai, was called away due to a family emergency and could not participate). From poetry to short fiction, and from diaristic journal entry to memory-piece, the artists brought to the gathering exceptional works that, when paired with the equally evocative images they were inspired to write about, offered a tantalizing glimpse into the ways through which still images inspire other forms of artistic expression.
Channeling the spirit of Asian American literary pioneers including Carlos Bulosan, John Okada, Lawson Inada, Al Robles, Maxine Hong Kingston, and countless others whose writings partly inspired this program, the literary artists chosen to participate in “REFLECTIONS/REFRACTIONS” represented a “new guard” of Asian American literary talents. From “old hand” Amy Uyematsu, whose letter to renowned poet Lawson Inada, “Dear Lawson” (as read by stand-in Taiji Miyagawa) provided a stunning yet intimate overview of a movement as related from one friend to another, to Teresa Mei Chuc’s succinct and touching “On the other side of the ocean,” the evening accommodated a wide range of voices and perspectives. Taiji Miyagawa’s moody, bluesy upright bass workout suitably framed his selection, a portrait of elderly activist Mrs. Ishibashi (whose husband gave name to the vanguard Little Tokyo Peoples’ Rights Organization), while Eric C. Wat broke from the activist tenor of many of the photographic selections to ponder the isolating effects of suburbanization and displacement in his selection of a boy flying a kite along his Marmion Way neighborhood, accompanying “A Boy Named Sue,” excerpted from his forthcoming novel Swim.
The other literary artists’ works spanned the wide spectrum of both activism and community-building, from Miya Iwataki’s ode to the Asian American Movement as recounted in her piece, “Spirit of the 1960s and ‘70s: A Snapshot,” to Kenji Liu’s power-of-place offering, “Letter to San Pedro at First St., 1972.” Novelist Naomi Hirahara, like Eric Wat, examined community displacement and empowerment through the magic of Super 8mm in her piece, “Super 8: An Ode to the Alan Hotel,” while Irene Suico Soriano and Stan Yogi observed the impact of multiple generations as an agent of community legacies in their respective works, “Variations of Living” and “Hakujin Equals American, Oriental Equals Us.”
As if channeling the spirits of VCers past and present, it was left to Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Dom Magwili to remind the audience of the mutual power of the spoken word and moving image. Traci’s “To The (Old)(post-) Young(Future) Bloods (before I die without telling you)” gained its inspiration from an image of former VC Executive Director Linda Mabalot to riff on the ways in which “activism” and “community-building” melded with the nurturing of a newer generation of activistas and community builders. And to close the program, Dom leveraged “FSN 1972,” filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura’s massive reimagining of VC co-founder Alan Ohashi’s panoramic street-level portrait of Little Tokyo’s most famous thoroughfare, to drive home the themes of “home” and “place” in his banjo-driven piece, “Young Forever.”
And holding things together throughout the evening was the steady hosting of longtime VC friend Sean Miura, lead curator and sometimes-host of the long-running Little Tokyo institution, Tuesday Night Café, to bring a sense of gravitas to the evening.
As the third of four public programs complementing the At First Light exhibit (a fourth, “Dawn of a New Day: Asian American Women Who Are Changing Media” is slated for Oct. 17, in JANM’s Aratani Central Hall), Visual Communications has found itself moving away from film screening programs for the time being. Mostly, this seems like a good thing — as a prelude to VC’s 50th Anniversary activities starting April 2020, the spotlight has rightfully been focused on the power of the still images contained within VC’s Asian Pacific American Photographic Archive to capture a moment in time, and to inspire action. It has been a good time to remind one and all of the power of those images and artifacts. And thankfully, this next-gen set of Asian American literary masters proved more than up to the challenge.
The literary program “REFLECTIONS/REFRACTIONS” was organized by Visual Communications as a program of the VC Founders’ photographic exhibit At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America, May 25 through October 20, 2019, and presented by Visual Communications and the Japanese American National Museum. Sponsors: The George and Sakaye Aratani Foundation, California Arts Council, and The California Wellness Foundation; media sponsor: The Rafu Shimpo.
A special “thank you” to the VC and JANM staffs, to Eddie Wong and Amy Uyematsu for their inspiration in conceiving this literary event, and finally to all the artists whose written works and still images were showcased in this program.