AAPI Heritage Month Special: 10 Questions with M. Martin

M. Martin is an Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies, Senior Fellow at the Tang Institute, and Director of the CaMD Scholars Program. She also serves as club advisor to Asian Women Empowerment, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and Andover Writers’ Alliance. From teaching her signature English elective on Asian American Film and Literature to bringing esteemed Asian American author Karen Yamashita to campus, M. Martin’s contributions to the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month can be felt around campus.

In 1966, when UC Berkeley sociologist William Petersen published the article, “Success story: Japanese American style” for The New York Times Magazine, seeding the idea of the “model minority” stereotype, at the exact same moment on his very own campus, Asian American students, faculty, and staff were mobilizing and agitating politically against white supremacy, protesting the war in Vietnam, and so on, fists pumping in the air, chanting and marching in the streets. A mere two years later in 1968, Berkeley Ph.D. students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee would coin the name, “Asian American” as a name for this radical movement…These months give us the opportunity to remember and reflect on these consequential moments that continue to have an impact on us today.

I have noticed a political awakening among students, a growing sense that their experiences and voices matter, that solidarity and allyship are sources of community and joy. Certainly, the way that anti-Asian hate was exacerbated during the first two years of the pandemic led to a sharper awareness of the need for activism, but even before the spring of 2020, on campus the emphasis from cultural celebration to education, awareness, and action had begun.

Okay, this might be weird, but I’m going to quote myself from a Phillipian article about last year’s AAPI month programming in which I said, “The more we speak up, the more we want to speak up, and the more we want to speak up, the more we speak up; it’s a momentum that’s going to keep growing. And what’s so great about it is that we’ve educated ourselves to be building solidarity internally and externally. That’s what’s so different about this moment—it’s not just about looking inward, it’s also about looking at our allies and looking at other people, other minorities and other communities of color and realizing we are all connected.” Seriously, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The opportunity to teach this course was a pure gift. I inherited it from Adrian Khactu, who left to take a position at Iolani School in Honolulu (insert green envy-emoji), who also inherited it from someone, going back, I believe, to fall term 2012 when the first iteration of the course was offered. The spring before was the term when the English department voted to eliminate their long-standing “core text and thematic structure” curriculum for the 300-level, which opened the possibility for diverse voices and perspectives, not without controversy. Courses like this one disrupt the idea that great literature worthy of study is a closed canon, and that certain media like film and graphic novels also do not belong in the classroom.

Everyone needs to see Alice Wu’s “Saving Face,” Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” and “Joy Luck Club” (based on Amy Tan’s novel), Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow”…Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” and Andrew Ahn’s “Spa Night’…[they’re] just the tip of the iceberg.

If I had to select one book it would be the novel “I Hotel” by Karen Tei Yamashita. Although it is ostensibly focused on a single decade (1968 – 1977) and a particular place (Little Manila and Chinatown, San Francisco), it also encompasses a vast scope and sweep of Asian American history, the Asian diaspora and transnational context of the Asian American experience. It also makes palpable the significance of Asian American history to American history and identity.

Affinity spaces like AWE provide community, a sense of solidarity, and there’s psychological and emotional empowerment in that feeling, but also they provide a structure and a means for other forms of empowerment of the political kind in which we can advocate for systemic change. They also provide a space for celebrating and understanding our own diversity within the group and as individuals, for diving into, exploring, and learning from our differences. Affinity spaces serve their members when they first and foremost acknowledge that we are not homogeneous in our ideas, experiences, desires, and so on.

I would say I am especially haunted by certain figures whose stories are both inspiring and enraging, like Anna May Wong, whose life and career in early Hollywood speaks to the depth of her talent and resilience, yet also to the crushing weight of racism and sexism Asian Americans faced and continue to face at every turn; figures like Cecilia ‘Celine’ Navarro, a young Filipina who immigrated to California in the early 1900s, a field laborer and mother of four when she was brutally murdered for speaking against a sexual predator who was also a leader of her community; and Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, born in 1865, who overcame incredible obstacles to become the first Indian woman to earn a western medical degree and who is buried in Poughkeepsie, New York…ordinary people[’s]…struggles to carve out a decent life, pursue their passion, these provide the figures to look up to.

I owe my own sense of self, my consciousness, to my experiences with these programs in college and graduate school and as a teacher in them who continues to learn and grow. Through these programs I met and the scholars, educators, activists, and friends who taught me to love and find joy in my personal idiosyncrasies and in my experiences as a mixed-race Asian American, as someone who grew up feeling not quite at home in the world, who didn’t know what to do with my outrage over injustice and inequity.

Esteemed author Maxine Hong Kingston once said in reflecting on her own Chinese American identity, ‘when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?’ This confusion is the identity journey we all undertake in the process of becoming who we are. Embrace your background and history, and equally embrace your particular story and individuality, your family’s individuality.

Editor’s Note: Jasmine Ma is an Arts Editor for The Phillipian.