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I've polished this anger and now it's a knife

A Conversation

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Leah Jing McIntosh and Rosabel Tan speak together about forming Slow Currents, an international writers’ workshop which brings together eight early-career writers from Aotearoa and Australia. Launched in 2022, the first iteration of the program includes Bryant Apolonio, Cher Tan, Chris Tse, Elizabeth Flux, Hasib Hourani, Nathan Joe, Rose Lu and Saraid de Silva.

In 2022, The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center invited the workshop to co-curate and present a series of events at the 2023 Asian American Literature Festival, under the theme ‘Ghost World’. Bringing diaspora writers from Australia, Aotearoa and the United States into dialogue with one another, these events and installations sought to explore the ideas that haunt us, the state of the literary landscape in each country, and the work that makes our hearts race.  

In July this year, after nearly a year of planning, the festival was abruptly cancelled by acting director Yao-Fen You just three weeks before it was due to occur. At the time of writing, the Smithsonian have still failed to offer a reasonable explanation for their decision.

Such institutional violence against Asian diaspora has a history in America, Aotearoa and Australia, but so does resistance to such violence. In the conversation below, Leah and Rosabel speak to the resistances that informed the development of Slow Currents, and reflect on how their experiences with The Smithsonian has re-shaped their thinking.

Rosabel Tan: There’s a unique serendipity that defines our collaboration, because it was forged in the pandemic. You were the last stranger I met before the world changed.

I first encountered Liminal in spring of 2018, and knowing there was someone out there, working on a similar project—it was enough to keep me going.  I think it was a month before we went into lockdown that I slid into your DMs for the first time, saying I was going to be in Melbourne, and would you like to meet

Leah Jing McIntosh: I can be shy, so in a way I’m surprised that we met at all—maybe it was the summer mood. I remember that as we parted, you gave me some work that you’d made with other Asian diaspora artists in Aotearoa. This gesture—such a gentle gift—stayed with me.

And then the pandemic—and then, everything—and then, in early 2021 I was approached for potential project funding, with the proviso that we would have to work with an international organisation. Initially, the funding body suggested organisations from Tokyo, or from Seoul. But such a pairing didn’t quite make sense. I was interested in coming into dialogue with other Asian diaspora. So I messaged you.

RT: What I appreciate was how gently we allowed ourselves to shepherd the idea into existence: how we gave ourselves time to understand our respective headspaces, our ambitions—all the things that might’ve been easy to rattle off in 2020, but had changed quite profoundly over the past year. Slow Currents was borne in and shaped by a moment where so many of us were talking about how we wanted to do things differently.

LJM: We were refusing to be complicit with a world that asks so much of writers and artists. In the arts, funding bodies often require a tangible outcome; there isn’t much support for just working on one’s craft. Of course, this makes sense when thinking about public money; it’s important to have an outcome, something to show.  But I’m not certain that this pressure always makes for the best work.

RT: It’s sad. Those prescribed outcomes so often serve short-term reporting needs that fail to have artists at the heart. They’re transactional. I mean, they’re bound by the financial year! And ultimately they’re defined by how artists contribute within capitalism, rather than how artists can be supported and fostered—whether by creating space to be curious, to deepen relationships, or to work towards structural change.

LJM: So, the workshop became a way to refuse the pressure that is placed on writers to produce; to create a space that allowed for writers to work on and take time with their craft.

I think, too, that we were also refusing to be complicit with a world that thinks so little of us. It is difficult to forget the weight of rising anti-Asian racism. In that first year, the fear of the virus felt inextricable from the fear of rising racial violence.

There’s this part from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of Peace (2003), which I think about a lot. She writes—In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A friendship. A community. A place that is the commons. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment. I think we really wanted to create space outside of the mounting vitriol.

RT: And to create a space where we could be defined not solely by that trauma, but by our collective imagination and aspirations—and to do this across oceans, in a way that could hold our many different experiences.

Even though we’d decided this program was for early-career writers, this meant different things to us because of where our respective literary landscapes were in their evolution. To me, that felt exciting: creating this space for transnational exchange that honoured the contexts in which we were operating, allowing for that multiplicity and shared understanding.

That’s how we kicked off the program: with Dr. Gilbert Caluya and Dr. Manying Ip exploring the histories of Asian diaspora communities in Aotearoa and Australia, and grounding us in the reminder that ‘Asia’ itself is a colonial construction.

LJM: It felt really important to begin at home, before we looked outwards, inviting the Americans—Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hua Hsu, Charles Yu, among others—to run writing workshops.

In the workshop, it became clear that as Asian diaspora living on colonised lands, we share somewhat similar embodied experiences—and as such, we didn’t have to waste energy explaining, or having to fight for the most basic cultural competency. So though sharing work requires vulnerability and generosity, it felt very easy from the beginning.

RT: One of the questions we grappled with when we were designing the second year was whether we would repeat the program with a different cohort, or if we’d take the same cohort and evolve the program itself. We decided to give our energy to the latter, because so often programs like this fall into the trap of wanting to go wide, rather than deep. And there are benefits to that, but we wanted to invest in artists for the long-term, and to create space for the development of enduring relationships.

It was around that time that The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center invited us to be part of their 2023 Festival.

LJM: It was so exciting to be invited; to begin to envision what an expansive international Asian diaspora writing community could look like. It is difficult to articulate the immensity of loss that comes with canceling such a vital community event.

RT: You know what’s wild? I can’t believe we were on a zoom together when that email came through. The fact that we were actually together when I idly opened it and was like, “What the fuck?”

LJM: We had been planning the festival for a year, and had accounted for other failures—missing out on funding, or the entire workshop contracting covid, or whatever. But the cancellation of the entire festival, so close to the date, did not seem possible.

RT: Because we trusted the institution. It feels naive to say that now. We trusted that they would act with integrity with the very communities they claim to serve. The fact that they are still failing to offer any explanation for the cancellation speaks volumes to where their priorities lie. It still shocks me.

LJM: I’m reminded of an essay you wrote a while ago—I love this line—forget the glass ceiling, there’s asbestos in the walls.

RT: As someone who works outside of institutions, it’s admittedly much easier for me to say we need to rebuild from the ground up. But there are people trying to reimagine from the inside, and it feels important to recognise those efforts as well. The team we were working with at The Smithsonian—curators like Adriel Luis and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis—have been guiding lights for me, in terms of reimagining a curatorial practice that centers and nourishes community and creates space for intersectional solidarity.

LJM: So even though the Smithsonian could cancel the festival, they will never truly own it. Witnessing the Asian American community come together, outside of the institution’s reach, to create a new and uncancelled festival, was really special. To be part of it more so. Asian American writers in DC who knew we were arriving gave us such a warm welcome, programming us into local events—alongside local poets at DC bookstores, and also at the Kennedy Centre, which was truly astounding.

RT: It’s been special to be part of that broader collective organising, and to gain a deeper understanding of the machinations that underpin this genre of institutional violence—and an understanding of when to act, and when to take a step back.

Lawrence always shakes his head whenever I say we look to the States as a kind of future-gazing exercise: to see how our Asian diaspora creative communities might evolve, generations from now. He says but we look to you, and to the ways we honour and work with our Indigenous communities.

If we think of these past months as a form of clairvoyancy, I’m left gazing inwards. I’m thinking about how we hold people both within and outside our own communities accountable, and how we do that without ego. With love. I’m thinking about the ways in which class inequality complicates and entrenches violence, and what needs to happen now, before that gulf widens to the extent that it has in the States.

LJM: There is so much work to be done. But, too, there is so much in the work that is already occurring. It feels lucky.

RT: I’m thinking about how we keep dreaming across oceans, because the possibilities we unlock when we’re listening, sharing, and collaborating internationally feel immense.

LJM: A line from the last poem read at the uncancelled festival seems a good way to close. It was raining quite hard that night, but the room was completely packed out with writers and strangers and friends. We stood, listening, to Adriel Luis read a line from Cathy Linh Che—I’ve polished this anger and now it’s a knife.