“I am made of war and that means so are you,” Bao Phi writes in Thousand Star Hotel, his vulnerable and evocative new collection of poetry that examines race, class, love, and violence in his own life and in Asian-American communities. Phi was born in Vietnam, a country his family fled when he was only three months old. They settled in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood, where Phi frequented the library because while money was tight, borrowing books was free.
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All that reading paid off: As a spoken-word artist, Phi would go on to win regional and national slam-poetry awards. His 2011 authorial debut, Sông I Sing, got a rave in the New York Times. The single co-parent of a seven-year-old daughter is also making his debut in children’s literature this fall.
During our interview at the Loft Literary Center, where 42-year-old Phi is the program director, he is thoughtful, articulate, and errs on the side of being serious. When he flashes the rare smile or lets a laugh loose, a dimple emerges on his right cheek. The mustachioed and goateed Phi frequently pushes his black-rimmed glasses back into place as he speaks. Tattoos peek out from the sleeves of his black hoodie. The intellectual badass dutifully answered our questions on everything from family ties to Asian-American activism to Facebook, a conversation so extensive we’ve had to trim it here.
City Pages: Readers will likely glom on to the anger and violence in this book, but there is also a lot of love. How did you balance those themes?
Bao Phi: This has been an interesting dynamic of my career; I’m kind of known for anger. I think part of it is we think in binaries in our culture in America. What’s good, what’s bad. Hate, love. Those are seen as opposites when really those things collide and are rooted in one another.
I feel like I’ve always written about these things, but the most attention I’ll get is about the anger. I think the idea of an Asian-American male who is angry about racism is unusual to a lot of people. It’s not unusual to me or my community, but to other people it is. When we reduce people to what makes them curious to us, we miss part of their humanity. With the new book, there’s definitely that balance where I’m writing about anger, love, oppression, and violence because I’m a human being. We, as human beings, encompass the range of all of these things.
CP: You mention a Valentine’s Day issue of an “alt-weekly” in one of your poems. What’s the story behind that poem?
BP: First, I should contextualize it. There are a lot of breakup poems in this book, but most of them are not about my most recent ex-partner, who’s the mother of my child... but that one is. We had been together for a long time and we decided to break up. We cohabited for a while, and decided not to share the news with the world until it was right for us. By complete coincidence, two weeks later, someone from City Pages wrote me, saying, “Hey, we’re doing a Valentine’s Day issue and we’re reaching out to couples that we know and we want to do this cute story about how you met.”
Asian-American intellectual-art couples are kind of rare to come by in the Twin Cities. There was a part of it that was like, “Wow. An alt-weekly is actually paying attention to an Asian-American couple. Too bad we broke up.” [Laughs] It was a collision of all of these things: the race and gender politics of relationships, both within and without, then the irony of all of it happening on a human level.
CP: Did you do the story or not?
BP: No. We didn’t say why we didn’t do it, but we recommended other couples.
CP: You also write about your parents in this book. How has your perception of them changed from when you were younger to now, as an adult and a parent yourself?
BP: I was literally born during the war but I’m too young to remember a lot of the terror my older siblings and my parents remember. I’m in this weird space where I was physically present but I don’t have memory of it. I went from that to being raised in Phillips. As a kid, I didn’t understand any of it. All these people – from different races – were racist towards us, were hostile. My parents worked their asses off, but we were poor. There’s no guidebook, no representation, no inkling of how an Asian person – a refugee from a war – could find their way in an urban, poor, working-class neighborhood. Added to that, we were the first large, visible Asian population in Minnesota and bearing the weight of that expectation and discrimination.
I knew things were hard for them, but in the context of what I know now, it’s unimaginable. They’re trying to raise six kids in the hood in a country where they barely speak the language. Unlike immigrants who have some preparation or capital to come here, they had nothing. Now, raising a child, my daughter’s facing similar issues, in terms of class and environment and not learning anything about Asian-American history. A lot of our struggles tend to be invisible. My parents are an embodiment of that.
CP: How do your parents feel about you writing about them?
BP: My parents still live in Phillips. They have no internet, no social media, no computers, no smart phones. They know that I write about them. They hope that I do it with as much integrity as possible. They hope that I’m not bringing trouble to myself or my family. I take that and I try to be as compassionate and as respectful as possible. I think that they know, to a certain extent, that I write about them with a certain degree of protection.
CP: What’s it like raising a young woman in this culture right now?
BP: It’s terrifying on so many levels. There’s the racial part of it, where it’s both discrimination of her based on race and the invisibility of her culture. I think she’s lucky in that she has me and her mother, even though we’re not together anymore. Her mother teaches in race, gender, and queer studies at the U. I am who I am. So she’ll be able to get knowledge and encouragement of Asian-American issues at home, but that’s very different from learning that with your peers.
I want to say this very clearly: She’s in Minneapolis Public Schools. She has lovely teachers and caregivers. This is not their fault. They’re underpaid. They’re wonderful, open people. The public school system in this country has zero Asian-American history in it. It is vitally important – not just for my daughter but for her classmates – to understand Asian-American history.
In classrooms, maybe public schools will celebrate “Chinese” – and I put Chinese in quotations – New Years. They don’t talk about exploited labor in this country. They don’t talk about how we were part of labor movements, how we were a part of the struggle for civil rights. We are continually left out.
CP: Why do you think that is?
BP: The two ways Asian-Americans are seen is we’re either model minorities who pull ourselves up from our bootstraps and don’t face racism, and therefore racism doesn’t exist – and that’s completely false. Or Asian Americans are leeches where we benefit from other communities of color and don’t give back, which is also false. You see how that becomes a binary.
I want to be very careful here. Asian Americans should not be above criticism and we have participated in oppressive systems against other people of color, but that’s not all we are. We’re seen as just leeches and problematic but when we were actually historically present and contributors, we’re invisible. That’s why it’s so important that people get that education.
The invisibility of Asian American history and contributions to social justice are so invisible that they’re invisible even to Asian American activists. I’ll meet Asian American activists who think they’re the first generation to be leftists who align with black people and black struggle. I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? You guys haven’t done shit.”
I’m really against exceptionalist activism: “I’m the righteous one and everybody else from my community is problematic. But I’m the good one.” That type of grandstanding doesn’t interest me. It’s exhausting.
CP: You frequently post photos of, and anecdotes about, your daughter on Facebook. Are you ever concerned about how visible she is online?
BP: Absolutely. Part of that is an ongoing discussion with her mother. Maybe it’s an illusion, but with Facebook, there are privacy settings. Most of the stuff I do about my daughter is not public. The stuff that is public, like when I talk about her with the press, I try to be very careful. It’s a constant discussion and negotiation about boundaries that me and her mother talk about. As she gets older, we also try to talk to her about it, too.
CP: You’ve done a lot of work at the Loft around spoken word. What gets expressed in spoken word poetry that doesn’t get expressed in the written format?
BP: Part of it is just the distance between you and the audience. You put a book out there, and part of the beauty and the drawback is that it’s out in the world, you have no idea what’s happening to it. When you’re reading in front of an audience, it’s like you’re sharing the work in a space that is very urgent and present.
People can have an immediate reaction and come and want to talk to you. You kind of know who’s in the room. You have the potential to convey, through your performance, things that you can’t do on the page, or things that are different when they’re encountered on the page. I think the performance of it, the presentation of your work, is as much craft as the writing of it. It’s just a different skill set.
IF YOU GO:
Bao Phi, Thousand Star Hotel
The Loft at Open Book (Performance Hall)
7-9 p.m., Wednesday, July 12
$10 ($5 for members)
The Loft Literary Center
$10; $5 members