Sometimes the act of writing can be therapeutic, helping the author as much as the reader. In these days of baffling chaos and unremitting strife, the creation of fiction, memoir and poetry can be the path to healing.
On July 25, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC) will present the second of two online writing workshops on Healing Around Race, with a focus on creativity and social justice. It's an opportunity to explore writing and sharing experiences about confronting anti-Black/anti-Asian racism.
Facilitated by Shizue Seigel, founder of Write Now! SF Bay workshops, participating artists include Eth-Noh-Tec kinetic storytellers Robert Kikuchi Yngojo and Nancy Wang, poet Jennifer Hasegawa, poet/KPFA journalist Dennis J Bernstein, and poet/musician Avotcja.
Program manager Akemi Chan-Imai explained that emphasizing social justice has been a priority for OACC. "We want to inspire cross-cultural, inter-generational dialogue and understanding (with a) focus on Asian and Pacific Islander arts and cultural programs," she said. "Unfortunately, since a lot of our programs rely on on-site space, we’re a little bit limited these days. But that also means that partnering with these (online) workshops is even more important."
Writer, activist and visual artist Seigel, a third-generation Japanese-American, has written a wide range of creative work and edited a number of anthologies on race, with stories emanating from her Write Now! SF Bay workshops.
Reached by phone, Seigel talked about the Healing workshops, noting, "After George Floyd, it became very clear that we needed to make the conversation about race."
She further described the vision of the workshop. "We're going to talk about how art and literature can be part of identity and activism. There's a lot of literature that seems disconnected from the issues of the day. It's almost as if activism isn't really literature. We believe that writing should express the totality of who we are."
"We all need to hear all of our stories," Seigel said. By writing creatively, "I'm hoping we can see each other as fully human." The workshop will include artist presentations, followed by a 20-minute session in which people will be encouraged to free-write their own reflections. The roster of participating artists brings an impressively eclectic array of storytelling styles to the workshop.
Avotcja is a poet, playwright, photographer, teacher and multi-percussionist. In performing her work, she has opened for Betty Carter, Susana Baca, Gema y Pavel and many other musicians. She has played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bobi & Luis Cespedes, John Handy and Nikki Giovanni, among many others. Her radio shows air on KPFA and KOO.
Together, Robert Kikuchi Yngojo and Nancy Wang create Eth-Noh-Tec’s signature blend of music, storytelling and highly stylized, choreographed movement that enhances and supplements the story. Their work draws from both ancient and traditional Asian stories, as well as stories based on their own lived experiences as Asian-Americans.
Dennis J Bernstein is the host and producer of Flashpoints, a political news show broadcast by KPFA and syndicated to community and public radio stations across the country. With Warren Lehrer, Bernstein is the creator of "Five Oceans in a Teaspoon," a book and multimedia project described as "visual poetry." Bernstein explained that Lehrer, "takes the spirit of the poem and deepens the meaning through the use of typeface. It’s like having your poetry orchestrated.”
"The news story is what I do every day, but the poetry is sort of the news story of eternity," he said. "And the poetry helps us communicate in a much deeper way. I love journalism, but sometimes you need something like a poem, that doesn't start in the brain but in the heart."
Jennifer Hasegawa is the author of the poetry collection "La Chica's Field Guide to Banzai Living." She has previously worked with Seigel and the Write Now! SF Bay workshop and found it transformative.
"It truly is a community-based writing workshop. It was a really good shock to my writing system that gave me a new view of what writing could be about.”
The online workshop is hosted by OACC in partnership with Write Now! SF Bay, UC Berkeley Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, and Eastwind Books of Berkeley. It presents an opportunity for the artists to convey their work at a time disrupted by the pandemic. Hasegawa was forced to cancel the tour scheduled for her debut poetry collection. Bernstein said he had about a dozen Poetry Month events canceled during April, while Wang said Eth-Noh-Tec lost about 27 gigs.
Through presentations by artists whose work largely focuses on racism and social justice, workshop organizers hope to foster healing. As Chan-Imai explained, "Art becomes a very important fixture to help us process chaos."
Hasegawa said, "I think a lot about being a writer, and specifically for myself as a poet, is about being a witness. It’s important to document what’s happening in the time, in the moment, not necessarily even documenting it for the moment, but documenting it for the future."
Noting that some Eth-Noh-Tec stories address injustices like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese-American internment, Kikuchi Yngojo said, " When we tell the stories, the social justice part of it is that our audience relates to it and by relating to it, a truth is underscored. When the truth is revealed, it has a healing aspect."
Wang added, "Stories are able to reach the psychological, mental, emotional and spiritual level of healing, which then can very much impact physical healing. Stories are a whole other way of communicating. It goes through the heart into the mind and then the mind into the heart. It’s pretty hard to separate those two."
As a Japanese-American, Seigel continues to chronicle her work with creativity and social justice. "Because we have been so shut out of the literary discourse, a lot of people don't really know who we are. They don't know the diversity of our experience. Unless we speak up, people are not going to form those rounded pictures of who we are."
Seigel said, "What I'm trying to do is get people to tell their own stories and tell their own perspective and not leave it to the designated people to fix things. It's not the leadership that's going to fix what's wrong with this country. It's all of us who have been sitting back, feeling dis-empowered." The Healing Around Race workshop will be hosted on Zoom and YouTube Live, with a sliding scale fee of $5 to $15. Visit https://oacc.cc/event/healing-around-race-workshop-2/ for details.