Creating Space for Asian American Stories

APIHC closing keynote features poet and author Ocean Vuong and actor, producer and musician Arden Cho.

APIHC keynote speakers 2021
Clockwise from upper left: Ocean Vuong, Arden Cho and Ariel Santikarma. (William Atkins/GW Today)
May 02, 2021

By Willona Sloan

A keynote event Friday with Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American poet and author, and Arden Cho, a Korean American actor, producer and musician, capped GW's Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration 2021. The month-long celebration featured a diverse range of programming that showcased the history, culture and accomplishments of the Asian and the Pacific Island community.

Ariel Santikarma, a GW senior majoring in anthropology, moderated the keynote event via Zoom, as Mr. Vuong and Ms. Cho tackled topics including the rise in violence against Asian Americans and the importance of pushing for more stories by and about Asian Americans in publishing, TV and film.

Mr. Vuong spoke of his experience publishing his critcally acclaimed debut novel, “On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.” Written as a letter from a Vietnamese American man to his mother, the novel explores issues of race, class and masculinity. The author had concerns that his story wouldn’t appeal to white audiences.

“The machine that is the publishing world moves always toward homogeneity because it has premade systems that create a rubric for what success is,” said Mr. Vuong. “A publisher might say, ‘We haven’t seen anything like this before, and, therefore, we shouldn’t do it.’”

For Asian American writers and writers of color in general, it’s important to resist acts of erasure, he said. “Before you even get in the door, [they’ve] folded their arms against you,” Mr. Vuong said. “It’s not about making something according to their needs. It’s about finding your inner resources to tell the stories that are important to you and your community.”

Mr. Vuong, who was the recipient of a 2019 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and also authored a poetry collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” is an associate professor in the Master of Fine Arts program for poets and writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

He offered advice for writers seeking to tell their own stories.

“It’s about being prepared to defend your ideas,” Mr. Vuong said. “When you go through the meetings and when you go through these spaces, you have to be prepared to answer and illuminate and literally defend yourself.”

The more prepared you are to articulate your ideas, “the stronger your chances of surviving as an artist in this world,” he said.

Ms. Cho said that growing up, the lack of Asian American representation on television and in film made her feel invisible.

“I became an actor, mainly, because I grew up never seeing Asian Americans on TV, or if we did, you could name them on one hand,” Ms. Cho said. “If we were represented, it was so stereotyped that you feel so frustrated, you feel so trapped, you feel like you don’t belong.”

Ms. Cho, who is best known for her role as Kira Yukimura on MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” also played Emily Choi on NBC’s “Chicago Med.” In addition, she is a singer-songwriter and formerly served as the CEO of the watch company Leonard & Church. While she enjoys being in front of the camera, Ms. Cho has started to work behind the scenes to open up new avenues for Asian Americans in the industry.

“When you first start in this industry, you have little to no power,” said Ms. Cho. “Even now I feel like I’m just starting to enter a point in my career where I’m producing and creating things where we get to actually have some creative control, and, hopefully, we get to shape three-dimensional characters that have a stronger identity and better representation.”

Ms. Cho hopes to see more young Asian Americans make their way in the arts. She cautioned that the field isn’t all glamourous fun. It’s hard work, she said, full of rejection, long hours and years of struggle.

“For any career that is creative, [my] advice would be to do the work, to study, to be the best at whatever your craft is,” Ms. Cho said. “If you love the arts, and if you have a passion for it, you just have to go for it. You have to do something you love.”

The keynote was sponsored by the Asian American Student Association, Chinese American Student Association, Hawai’i Club, Japanese Cultural Association, Kappa Phi Lambda Sorority Alpha Beta Chapter, Korean Cultural Organization, Philippine Cultural Society, Sigma Psi Zeta Sorority Pi Chapter, Taiwanese American Student Association, Vietnamese Student Association and the Multicultural Student Services Center.

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