Local writers are getting their nerd on tonight at the Lowertown Reading Jam's Where No Brown Has Gone Before: Nerds of Color Read Nerdy Works, an event organized by Tish Jones and curated by Bao Phi. Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, Shannon Gibney, May Lee-Yang, Phi, and R. Vincent Moniz Jr. will be having some fun while offering a critique of nerd culture through the lens of race and ethnicity.
Phi says he was approached by Jones, the overall curator of Saint Paul Almanac's Lowertown Reading Jam, to put together an evening of work. He thought it would be fun "to do something different." Since he's been working on his book, which is a zombie novel, he decided that he'd like to have a nerds of color reading.
Nerdiness, he says, is a topic that is near and dear to his heart. Phi grew up in the Philips neighborhood, and as a child spent hours at the Franklin Library pouring over Greek mythology and the legends of King Arthur. He played Dungeons and Dragons, read comic books, and was a big old nerd in general.
He says that he sees tonight's event as an opportunity to "connect with other brown nerds," especially since there aren't a lot of platforms or opportunities for artists of color to do stuff together.
The zombie novel that Phi is working on is based off of Revolution Shuffle, a short story he wrote that envisions a zombie outbreak in America. While the source of the outbreak is unknown, opportunistic politicians blame it on Asians. All the Asian and Arab Americans are incarcerated in a prison that ultimately attracts the zombies to them. In the story, two Vietnamese Americans try to break all of the prisoners free.
The short story was originally going to be included in an Asian American anthology edited by Walidah Imarisha (of Good Sista/Bad Sista), who Phi says bonded with him over being brown nerds interested in progressive leftist science fiction. He'd been kicking around the idea for a zombie short story, and the anthology was the perfect opportunity to write it. The publisher fell through, unfortunately, though they still hope to publish it. Meanwhile, another group asked Phi if he'd be interested in the story being turned into a pinup for Shattered, an Asian American comic anthology.
Also reading work will be May Lee-Yang, a multi-genre Hmong American artist; Shannon Gibney, an instructor at MCTC who Phi bonded with over discussions of race in science fiction; Rodrigo Sanchez Chavarria, a father and spoken-word artist who has a deep love of Transformers and comic-book heroes; and R. Vincent Moniz Jr., a Native American spoken-word artist who, like Phi, is from Philips and into comics and "nerdy stuff."
While Phi is a proud nerd, he also recognizes that there are issues of race that come up in different nerd genres. For example, in science fiction, there will sometimes be African American characters, but not their culture. "The future sees African Americans as a token," he says.
Phi says that futuristic novels and movies often envision an Asian superpower, but never deal with what happens to Asian Americans within that context. Other genres have different issues. For example, in fantasies such as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, black people are often shirtless and on horseback, appearing barbaric.
While Phi says there's room to criticize these genres, that doesn't mean he doesn't love these stories and shows. "There are times where nerds as a group can be very protective," he says. "I totally understand that; they always feel ostracized. I've criticized Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, but I still enjoy it. We have to be critical of the things we love, but that doesn't mean we don't find pleasure in them."