This past summer we were excited to have awarded April Wen (Yale College Class of 2017) the Tina E. Yeh Community Service Fellowship. Each year the fellowship committee seeks to provide financial support to a student (or recent graduate) pursing direct service in the Asian American or Asian Canadian community in Northern America. Through the fellowship’s support April was able to work with the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York this summer. Please see below for her reflection of her summer experience:
April Wen September 20, 2016 Tina E Yeh Fellowship Summer 2016
Reflection on the Asian American Writer’s Workshop
First, I would like to express my gratitude to the Tina E Yeh Fellowship and the team that has dedicated its funds to support of Asian and Asian American students working for their communities. As the 2016 recipient of the Fellowship, I worked at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, located in my hometown of New York City. For 10 weeks, I was one of two Digital Media interns for the Workshop, though my responsibilities extended beyond those initially outlined for the position. This did not come as a surprise to me, given my previous summer’s experience working at another New York City nonprofit, in film. On the contrary, at the outset of the summer I was excited to take my reflections on the flexibility of a nonprofit internship position, and apply them to specific, self-directed projects for the Workshop. Those are the projects I would like to reflect on for the Tina E Yeh Fellowship, because that was the work made most possible by the generosity of the Asian American creative communities and people I met.
One project that I worked on over the summer was the formation of a library committee, which convened for the first time in recent Workshop history, at the end of the summer. Having visited the Workshop only once prior to interning, I found the physical space extremely memorable in its content: literature and nonfiction by Asian and Asian-American writers, lining and bursting off three walls. I was still in high school during that first visit to the Workshop, and at the time recognized its potential for anyone thinking about Asian-Americanism. That was the impetus for organizing the Library Committee–––to set in motion the life of the Workshop library as a catalogued lending system, as opposed to an enigmatic room full of curated books that primarily doubles as an event space. I contacted members of the previous, but never realized iteration of the Library Committee; gathered current and past interns; librarians and library scientists affiliated with the Workshop; and friends interested in Asian-American literature. Jyothi Natarajan, the Managing Editor of the Workshop’s online literary magazine, and I met every other week to draft short and long term goals for the library. The short-term goal was realized in the form of the Library Committee’s first meeting. For one long-term goal, of forming an independent library network, I researched independent book-spaces in New York City (book sellers, reading rooms, specialized libraries) and gathered those contacts into a spreadsheet that was passed on to the current semester of interns. I also drafted a personal essay-proposal for a New York City independent library network, as someone who benefited from public libraries while growing up in the city, but knows how formative a curated affinity space like the Asian-American Workshop can be––especially for young people looking for resources to navigate issues of identity and artistry.
The Workshop was a monumental turning point for me in these two intertwined regards. The seed for my current thesis project, a play about a mixed-race black woman rethinking herself as Chinese-American, germinated while I was at the Workshop. During work breaks from graphic design and social media, I would peruse the bookshelves at random for inspiration and theory. More importantly, the more I was in that space, the less I centered whiteness as my reference point for how to be an effective writer. It was my first time I was immersed in Asian-American writing and writers who came to the Workshop for frequent events, and the consequence of that immersion was the freedom to be “myself,” and to no longer attempting to speak to an entire “Asian American experience.”
One of my responsibilities as an intern was to pick up the Workshop phone. On the line was a publicity manager for Theater at Sundance (a surprise to me, as Sundance is known as a purveyor of American independent film). Aaron wanted me to help publicize a free performance of a play by Christopher Chen titled Caught. What was an ordinary promotional phone call catalyzed the discovery of an entire artistic community, at the center of which was Chris Chen, a mixed-race Chinese-American playwright. I attended the free performance of Caught and met with Chris to talk about our mutual interest in Chinese-American psychology, media theory, and meta-narrative. He was extremely generous with his writing advice, and sent me several of his unpublished plays. After seeing Caught at La MaMa theater in New York, and getting a sense of the audience’s support for the production during its talkback, it became palpably clear to me that creative producers are working as a community to help each other with issues of race and identity. Their collective recognition–––both explicit and felt, on my end––– of the exclusivity of the American literary landscape was a boon to my sense of self-trust, especially in the early stages of my project. Though I am no longer working at the Workshop, that truth has remained with me as I continue to work on my senior thesis play, and remain in touch with those who have helped me along the way.
I want to thank the Tina E Yeh Fellowship, the AAAYA, and their networks of support for me this whole way: Karmen Cheung, Sue May, Rocky Chin, Solan Liang, and Patricia Takemoto. I thank the Fellowship for making possible this highly formative and unforgettable turning point of a summer, and hope that it will continue to do so for other student members of the Asian-American community.