Cathy Linh Che is Executive Director of Kundiman, a national organization dedicated to nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian American writing. Through her work for Kundiman, Che has helped build a space for Asian American writers to read and write what they want and find resources for mentorship and community, which they often lack.
Che is also the author of Split, a collection of poetry that has won numerous awards—including a Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies. The poems in Split are about, among other things, sexual abuse and the trauma of warfare, generations of family in Vietnam and the USA cartwheeling through damage and closeness. The poems work together to invoke cyclical triggers.
Not long ago, I spoke with Che in person and by phone. We discussed the burden of representation, what the term “Asian American” means outside of stereotypes in American culture, and how to build literary communities that represent yourself as a writer.
The Rumpus: There are many creative writing programs cropping up in the United States and around the world. Some cater to specific groups or genres. What do you think makes a good program or workshop?
Cathy Linh Che: A good creative writing program ought to care about its writers. It should consider what type of writers are welcomed into the space, and which faculty are best equipped to serve this set of writers, and it thinks hard about creating a space where all of its writers can truly thrive.
A bad workshop or program might presume that good writing springs forth from a white male canon. It might, through its structure, encourage viciousness, competition, and ego. It might be a space where instructors and administrators abuse their power in some way, or continue a tradition of rewarding voices that have been given ample power while diminishing voices that have historically been oppressed or silenced.
Kundiman was founded by Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi in 2004 as an alternative to the creative writing programs out there. Modeled after Cave Canem, a home for Black poets, Kundiman set out to create a nurturing but rigorous environment for Asian American writers, where they feel seen, heard, inspired, and are encouraged to take creative risks––in a community that receives them generously and celebrates their successes.
Rumpus: Do you think the idea of safe spaces exists mostly for white people to feel safe? I almost never feel safe in academic spaces; I wonder about the need to only engage when the space is safe.
Che: For me, a safe space is not one where workshop participants disengage from discussions about race, class, or citizenship because it’s uncomfortable. I think a safe space is one of deep listening and deep caring. I wonder if you would feel safer in an academic space if you felt truly heard and seen. I think that would be a game-changer.
Kundiman exists as a space specifically for self-identified Asian Americans. At the Retreat, you don’t have to worry about appealing to a white peer or professor. The gaze shifts to one that centers Asian American conversations. Many at the Retreat have shared histories of war and colonization, immigration, adoption, being mixed race, being first generation, or second, or third generation. When we gather together, new kinships are forged.
One of the most thrilling Kundiman retreats I attended was my third and final retreat as a fellow. There were five Vietnamese American poets there that summer: me, Duy Doan, Tiffanie Hoang, Paul Tran, and Ocean Vuong. Five may not seem like a large number to most, but it was stunningly important to me. I’d not had a community of Vietnamese American poets-peers until that summer!
When we found each other, we immediately bonded over Paris by Night, cải lương. We squatted, spoke in Vietnamese, imitated the voices of our mothers. I gave a reading as a graduating fellow, and it was the first time reading Vietnamese aloud that I had four people in the audience who know exactly what I was saying. Ocean gave my graduation toast and said, Em mến chị. Again, only five people in the room understood what was said, but I heard it and it struck me at the core. I couldn’t help but tear up. I felt that I’d gained a new kind of family.
Rumpus: How do you translate the Vietnamese in your poems when you give a public reading?
Che: I don’t. I think that sometimes the Vietnamese can only be fully understood as Vietnamese, and not in translation.
When I write, my primary audience is someone who occupies my exact same language and identity space. I’m not concerned with explaining myself, because those who don’t understand Vietnamese can understand the language around it, or they can look it up. I’ve seen my parents labor over dictionaries their whole lives to decode letters from government officials––I think English-speaking audiences can do the same for my parents’ words.
Eduardo Corral’s book Slow Lightning mixes English and Spanish, and he doesn’t italicize one or the other, and he doesn’t translate. He doesn’t want to give one language primacy. The person who is going to access this the best is someone who knows both languages. I think about access from my parents’ perspective. They might not understand the English as well, but they will definitely understand the Vietnamese in my writing––and since I write so much about their lives, they have a different, more intimate kind of access.
Rumpus: Other languages have more ways to say keep quiet. I was raised by my parents to keep my head down and not complain. Have you ever had to deal with an upbringing that made it hard to make yourself feel visible and be heard?
Che: Yes, absolutely. In my family, I was taught to stay quiet and was punished for speaking up. My mom once praised a family friend, who said, “Before I utter a single word, I swallow it seven times.” As a young person, I didn’t have an outlet, so I wrote to keep myself company.
Rumpus: How has the intentional process of self identification opened up a space for writers who many not fit the stereotypical Asian background?
Che: I think it’s important to acknowledge that the term Asian American is constantly shifting, changing, and growing.
The term Asian American was coined fifty years ago by two UC Berkeley student-activists, who, inspired by the Black Power Movement and the protests against the Vietnam war, sought to unite the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino students on campus. Asian American was conceived as a coalitional identity.
In the last fifty years, the term has grown to encompass other ethnicities and groups: South Asians, Southeast Asians, West Asians, Pacific Islanders, mixed race Asians, Asian adoptees. The term will probably continue to evolve over time as the diaspora continues to change, and by giving space to writers who self-identify as Asian American, we hope that we are opening space to future voices to come.
Rumpus: Do you have any anecdotes or experiences to share from organizing the most recent Kundiman Writers’ Retreat?
Che: At the first Retreat in 2004, people didn’t know what would happen! People were so hungry for a space they didn’t have in their own lives. Many of those first fellows are still participating fully as Kundiman alums—Ching-In Chen, R.A. Villanueva, Margaret Rhee, the list goes on.
Now, there are people who will say, I’d always known this was a space for me, if I needed it one day. That is stunning to our co-founders.
Last year was the first retreat where neither co-founder was there; it was entirely run by a group of alums. It was lovely to see that the retreat would go on in with the generosity of spirit that the co-founders have so lovingly given it. It makes me happy to see Kundiman, as it was intended, will continue on.
Rumpus: How does serving as the Executive Director of Kundiman serve your interest as a writer? Have you felt you always had the talent to be both a writer and an activist/organizer?
Che: Community is the most important element of my writing these days. My community keeps me writing, and I hope that my work at Kundiman keeps others writing. Right now, I have a biweekly phone call with a friend Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, and he’s been super helpful in motivating me to continue my manuscript about my parents’ experiences as refugee-extras on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
I love so many things about my role at Kundiman––I am a fellow myself, so I receive support and celebration from community members all the time. I see myself as part of collective, rather than being the leader of an organization. We have regional groups across the country and continue to find ways to support as many writers as we can by empowering fellows to take on organizing roles, so that they can be ambassadors, or sites of welcome, locally.
Rumpus: What are some of the activities Kundiman is organizing this year?
Che: We celebrated our 15th Retreat this summer! In addition to the Retreat, we are also organizing our inaugural Youth Leadership Intensive, for Asian American high school students. The next Kundiman Poetry Prize winner will be selected this summer, and that’s thrilling!
This past May, for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we put on Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons for Asian American Literature and collectively added 20,000 words to Wikipedia. I’m very proud that we edited the hideously offensive List of Asian American Writers page, which is now, thankfully, a growing list of Asian American writers, and not a list that assumes that Asian American means East Asian American.
We also have an ongoing Asian American Food Writing initiative, which included a daylong Food Writing Intensive lead by New York Times food critic Ligaya Mishan. In the fall, we will partner with Winter Tangerine for online workshops, and The Racist Sandwich Podcast will be sharing out writing on food by Asian Americans. (Shout out Kyle Lucia Wu, Dan Lau, and Rebecca John on staff, who keep us going). In the fall, we are partnering with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center for a series of videos called A Day in the Life of Queer Asian America.
We continue to partner with Cave Canem and CantoMundo to put on Afro-Asian and Asian-Latinx solidarity readings. And we are reaching out to organizations, presses, and festivals that serve people of color to listen and learn and find collaborators for a writers of color festival in 2021.
Featured photograph of Cathy Linh Che © Margarita Corporan.