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LenaSze_cropLena Sze

Lena Sze is currently a doctoral candidate in American Studies at New York University. A poet and cultural worker, she's worked at the Asian Arts Initiative, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Her poems have been published in A/P/A Journal and The Brooklyn Review, among other publications. Her involvement with the Initiative began as a participant in the Artists in Communities Training (ACT) Program where she got to meet artists whose thoughtful pedagogical practice met up with their passionate engagement with politics and a shared belief in art-making as possibility.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

The winter of 2000 into 2001, I was a senior at Swarthmore [College] and I think that I must have gotten a forward about the ACT program, the Artist in Communities Training Program. I decided it was such an amazing opportunity the way the ACT program was described. I was really intrigued by the Asian Arts Initiative's mission. And I thought, "If I get into this program, then I'd be able to really try to develop some pedagogical skills specifically around leading workshops, creative writing workshops/poetry workshop." I thought it would be a good chance to meet other kinds of artists in other disciplines who were also similarly interested.

So I got that e-mail, and then I replied and Magda Martinez was running the program and I came to the Initiative . . . on Cherry Street-it's so hard to believe it's gone! So I went and I had my interview, which I was kinda nervous about, with Magda in the back where Gary [San Angel] kept all his big screens and video equipment. I could hear all the teens from the Youth Arts Workshop running around. It was hard to concentrate. So I had an interview and I guess they took me on as one of the people in the program that year. So that was my very first exposure within the program. I forget how many sessions there were. But there were a number of sessions and the other people who did it the year that I went through ACT were Jane [Locke], who was a visual artist living in West Philly and a very cool woman who was originally from the [Pacific] Northwest; and Mytili [Jagannathan], who's still around and a wonderful poet; and Anula [Shetty], who was just so cute and smart and a film maker. It was a good experience, and I really liked the people I met through the Initiative. That's how I first came upon the organization.

I think that the full time staff when I was working at the Initiative was and continues to be amazing. . . So I just thought it was a very wonderful environment to be in and those were just the full time staff members. And then there were the teens like you [Chon Phoeuk] and Teena [Bounpraseuth] and Khanh [Le] and shoot - Mary [Seng] and oh, Tien [Duong] and Barbara. People like that who just had so much energy and grew up in Philadelphia, which I didn't, and so it was great to actually be around people whose experience of Philadelphia was not this more temporary or more transient one or more superficial one, but as the place where you had either been born or been raised . . . meeting all these people, doing these creative activities was really valuable. It was a collective that made it and continues to make the Initiative such an interesting place.

What issues do you care about in the APIA community?*

I think that there are some issues having to do with representation, like media depictions of Asians and things like that, which while they are important, I think get a lot of focus-maybe a disproportional amount of focus-in APIA media outlets amongst certain Asian American communities. Which I think is crucial but I also think that some of the issues having to do with really material implications on people's lives are harder to talk about.

Maybe it's easier to talk about someone saying offensive things about Asians on a radio station rather than some of the issues having to do with poverty. There are a lot of issues related to poverty, such as low wage labor that people have to perform especially if they don't have educational levels or English fluency levels that you often need in this country to get higher paying jobs.

Issues like detention and deportation of immigrants more broadly, not just Asian immigrants, that are really important and especially intensified after September 11 and the Patriot Act. There is a lot of profiling-racial profiling which I think is an issue that hits a lot of different communities within Asian Americans in the U.S. So a lot of South Asian and West Asian people are profiled because they fit a certain crude stereotype about what a terrorist looks like in this day and age. Which is really offensive and actually affects people's lives all the time in small and big ways. And there's also a kind of profiling manifesting from fear of the "rising dragon" or whatever-countries like China and India as threats to U.S. economic predominance in the world economic order. And I think thinking about those countries in particular as threats has implications on those diaspora communities in the U.S. So those are some of the issues that I think maybe should get talked about more within Asian American communities and then more broadly, but we don't as much as I would like them to . . .

I think using identity politics in the framing of issues-sometimes it's useful and sometimes it's not so useful. So thinking about things exclusively as APIA issues versus issues that affect everyone in some sense-even what I was saying about detention and deportation, obviously that affects immigrants-more immigrants that are actually not Asian than Asian . . . being held in ice-like facilities or private prisons, temporary prisons. But also the racial profiling issue is obviously an issue that came out of September 11 with new force but is not new. It's been a very old issue and especially for black men in this country.

So thinking about things narrowly only as APIA issues-I think that is really counter-productive to moving everyone forward in how to think and how to act about these issues. Even poverty- clearly there are a lot of poor Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the U.S., even though that's not the dominant representation of Asians. But that's not an APIA issue solely because there's obviously a huge number of poor and working poor people in this country. So that's an issue that sort of cuts across a lot of the boundaries that we set up in terms of categories. And so I think it's important and it's crucial to thinking about certain issues as having particular implications, finding particular ways that those issues may affect and not definitely affect APIA populations and bodies in unique ways. But it is also really important to think about the ways that there is a lot of overlap between those issues and other people's issues. Like I said, there are a lot of issues out there. We can all share our issues.

Do artists have a responsibility to address social justice issues?

Right at this moment I'm going to say no slash yes to the question of whether or not the artist has a responsibility to address issues affecting their community. I think it's hard to say what community or multiple communities an artist belongs to or feels that they belong to. So it's hard to even locate yourself within a community. . . But let's say that you can or you do identify with a certain group of people. Do you have a responsibility as an artist to address explicit political issues, or social issues, or personal issues? There are a lot of layers of what kinds of issues can affect certain groups. And I think artists on some level always do address issues. Maybe it's not specific to what community or communities they do identify as being part of. But it might be psychological or emotional or explicitly political. I think that a lot of artists already do that.

I think that there was a period, a stage in my life, maybe especially in college where I would have said "Yes, definitely" to that question: "Yes, artists should speak out about certain issues." And I still feel attracted to that answer because I do think that there's a tradition of high art-a kind of cultural elitism that art transcends actual people and actual things that affect people. And I think it's important to work against that tradition. But on the other hand, I think that there are a lot of artists who may be accused of not being political or not addressing issues affecting their communities . . . who are actually political and whose work actually does function in raising issues. So it can be done on a more abstract level. For me, it's about the intention of the artist or about how it's received by the audience or a reader.

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