I’m writing to survive

Two poems poured out of me right when I was about to sleep. So here they are for anyone who needs it.

take care 
mag-ingat ka

two words that usually means
drive carefully —— don’t speed
watch where you walk —— look both ways before you cross

two words uttered by mothers
whose children hurry to leave
wave away the worry once again

two words to chase away the spirits
a chant
a talisman
a prayer
that follows us home

They’re both pretty raw, but so am I.

Tell me——
How do we protect each other?
Cradle each other’s life
Like our own heartbeats
Hold each other tight to the chest like armor
How do we make space for each other?
Give without reward or recognition
Unwind the strings meant to strangle us

Tell me——
How do we protect our immigrant mothers and grandmothers?
Their backs sacrificed for cash and 2nd generation dreams

Will they ever tell us
They had a bad day at work?

Tell me——
Will you/we listen?

Neuroses of an Asian American writer

I subscribe to The New York Times, but I must confess I often quickly scroll through the daily morning email that arrives in my inbox then delete it. But on this particular day, as I was clearing out my inbox, something caught my eye: near the bottom, a short blurb about The New York Times Magazine cover article featuring Steven Yeun. I guess you could say I’m a fan of Steven Yeun, although I’ve never seen “The Walking Dead.” But I tend to read his interviews because I find him to be particularly articulate and introspective about being a Korean American actor. (While he was born in South Korea and I was born in the Philippines, the experience of growing up in both countries and in primarily white areas in the US is something we have in common.) His answers don’t sound rehearsed; you can sense that he’s trying to figure it out just as we are. What makes “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun” different from other articles I’ve read is how it began, with the writer, Jay Caspian Kang, discussing the neuroses of being a writer or artist in the US who is not white.

“I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on. The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face,” Kang says.

What a punch to the gut. It threw me back to several moments in the past 18 months since I started to work on Yappie: The Musical when I questioned whether I could adequately and authentically capture a voice and experience that was not entirely my own, whether I had a right to, and ultimately, moments of disagreement among the creative team about who exactly I was writing for, which resulted in me writing a rap battle a la “Cabinet Battle #1” from the musical, Hamilton.

As a spoken word poet, my work has always been and continues to be grounded in my own experiences. On occasion I have written poems that tackled issues I cared about like human trafficking, women’s rights, immigration, and more. But I usually did not write in another voice, let alone create characters based on real people or experiences. So, I never really had to ask myself if what I was writing came from an authentic place. Because it most likely always did. Until I started to write the book and lyrics for an original musical.

Kang continues, further ripping apart my chest:

“There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?”

“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement.” I listened to Kang say this sentence and I read it over and over. Kang struck at a truth that wanted to escape from my mouth in a conversation with a friend the other day. I was expressing my frustration with the way we talk about race in America, our inability to hold multiple truths at the same time, and the kind of oppression Olympics we seem doomed to repeat. I wasn’t making much sense, but maybe that was the point—to just spill the thoughts out on to the pavement and sort it later.

Then Steven Yeun in this interview said it all: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Cue the screaming into the void. Decades of it. Of trying to insert yourself into conversations, into positions of power. Of jumping as high as you can, waving your arms in the air, waiting to be noticed so you’ll know you exist, too.

Maybe it’s the isolation talking. And I don’t mean just in the past year. I’ve been isolated from other Asian American writers and artists for a long time now. We’ve also changed as people and I wonder if any of them is questioning who they are in the same way I seem to be. Through my writing, Asian American Studies courses, and relationships with friends, many of whom are Asian American, I figured out my place in the world, how I am perceived, who I am outside of that perception. I had reconciled what it meant to be a daughter of an immigrant and being one, too. I remember thinking once, after writing several poems about mother-daughter relationships that I had no need to write any more of them because there was nothing more to say. I thought the same thing about my racial identity. I spent so many years claiming I belonged here, that this is my home that I never imagined I’d ever feel any different.

It was naïve to think I wouldn’t come back to these questions again, that my answers would not waver. Right now, I don’t know where home is. I don’t know if any of my writing will matter apart from being an act of self-preservation and survival. I feel like I know myself and yet not well enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently. Maybe the same. Maybe we’re bound to question everything and know nothing. What I know right now is that I don’t want to feel like I have to start from zero. I’ve spent too many years building up my confidence to have to do it all again because I can’t make sense of these changing, conflicting thoughts and emotions about writing, purpose, identity, and belonging. Making the decision to quit my job 2.5 years ago without a job lined up so I could start graduate school and pivot my career and life direction was already starting from zero. It was yet another reinvention. Maybe that’s it: I’m tired of reinvention.

10 years later: Tracing remnants of an artist life

The first Sulu DC show. Basement of St. Stephen’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, Washington DC.
November 21, 2009.

Two weeks ago I was part of the 10 Year Tribute + Retrospective of the AAPI Community of the DMV presented by DC APA Film via YouTube live. Christian Oh, President of the Board of DC APA Film and co-founder and former Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, reached out to me in August about recording a video for the event. (At the time, Kollaboration DC was the DC branch of the Asian American talent competition.)

We’ve known each other for 10 years now, first meeting in person at a restaurant near George Washington University’s campus. I was co-director of Sulu DC at the time and he had just started Kollaboration DC. Both organizations had similar missions and visions—to nurture artistic growth and to increase the visibility of Asian American artists. One was a talent show competition, the other a monthly showcase of artists in a variety of artistic disciplines. Cousins, you could say. Our audiences went to their shows—I even performed in the first one as a guest performer along with spoken word poets, Gowri K and Alex Cena, who is also a Sulu DC co-founder. Quite a few performers from the competition eventually featured at Sulu DC shows.

That period of time from 2009-2013 was truly extraordinary. You could sense the urgency and the hunger for spaces in which we could bring our whole selves, build community, and just have a grand old time. For many DC transplants, especially those from the West Coast, Sulu DC was a little bit of home. For those from the rest of the US, Sulu DC was a home they didn’t realize they had been searching for.

I’ve been reflecting on these years a lot in the past year. First, when I was writing my application essay for graduate school (MA Arts Administration), and then in leadership class my first semester. There are times I am weary of always thinking about it because it’s been so long since I was immersed in it and let’s be honest now, memory can’t be trusted completely. Even in this post I get the sense that I’m romanticizing that time.

One particular night stands out in my memory. It’s not from a show, but a year or so after I left the organization. I was drinking wine outside a bar with a friend in Fells Point. I shared what I had been thinking for a while but didn’t want to admit: I don’t want the best of what I have to offer to be behind me. The fear that I wouldn’t somehow do bigger and better things after Sulu DC consumed me for a while. It’s part of why I didn’t write and perform for years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tuned into the live stream. Within a few minutes I found myself squealing in my room at remembering certain performances from the first Kollaboration DC competition. We were all so young. We believed we could make a career as artists. The world felt so open and endless then.

Prior to writing this post I took a look at my twitter account, which I last updated in 2015. Aside from photos and Facebook statuses, it’s the only evidence of my life back then. I stopped writing in a journal during that time and I lost all the blog posts when I discontinued my website (I know, I’m still very sad about it). What a busy little bee I was! In DC 2-3 times a week, a Sulu DC show here, a college show in Georgetown, rehearsals and meetings, hosting open mics. (Oh, and I was terrible at twitter. It was a bunch of tweets about “en route to the city” like anyone was that interested in where I’d be next. Who did I think I was? A rock star?) I was living that artist and artist manager life. I wasn’t tired yet, just eager to share my poetry and do whatever needed to be done to produce our shows. I certainly had the heart, the drive, leadership instincts, and some skills. Even more important, I was surrounded by such a supportive network, who were still there even after I left.

Now 10 years later, I am a lot more intentional, more self-assured, more forgiving especially of myself, and still angry. In the video above you’ll hear my response to what I hope to see in the next 10 years for AAPI communities. Here’s what I didn’t say but I’m saying it now. That we never have to hear the question, “Where are you from?” ever again.

“Where Are You From” written and performed by Alex Cena, Gowri K, and Jenny C. Lares. 2010.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie: The Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

Fierce Women I Know

Today I woke up angry, annoyed, frustrated–at waking up late, not being able to sleep earlier than 4 am, for procrastinating on grad school assignments, at being corrected in a work email by someone outside of my department whom I’ve never met, for not cleaning the house. For feeling so out of control of even simple, daily behaviors like sleeping early or reading a book out on the deck for 30 minutes.

I turned to writing and performing to calm myself. To channel energy into something positive and good and worthwhile. To remind myself of a time in my life when I was surrounded by an incredible community who helped me find my voice and sense of purpose. A community I’m not sure I still have as I have not nurtured it or been part of it for a while. A community I’m hoping is still there somewhere.

So here’s a little poem I wrote ten years ago that I rediscovered just last week. I wrote it for Creative Explosion, the first show I curated and hosted, and which celebrated Asian and Pacific Islander women.

The Fierce Women I Know

The Fierce Women I know
have fled countries carrying nothing
but the memory of their homeland on their skin.
 
They have outlived world wars
been bought, enslaved, persecuted
and denied the right to an education.
 
They have engaged in battles for their bodies
witnessed power corrupt their families
and felt the force of a fist against flesh.
 
The Fierce Women I know
have survived history's attempts
to break us down and wipe us out.
 
They use their strength to rewrite
what's miswritten about us
fighting slogans and stereotypes
stamped across our chests.
 
They roar from rooftops and cages
from City Hall to the steps of Congress
demanding equal access to resources.
For everyone.
 
Fierce Women know their own minds.
They call you out on your ignorance
and love you at the same time.
 
Fierce women know their own hearts
though doubts may set in once in a while.
We take on too much
but we take care of one another.
We cry out in unison when our spirits are broken
and wander alone, together until grown enough
to return home.
 
Fierce Women may hold grudges
but we remain critical and conscious
knowing the movement's beyond us
and the time and space we occupy.
 
My Fierce Sisters and I misbehave and play outlaw
Bound to nothing and no one but to who we are.
We are survivors, community organizers, lawyers,
students, poets, movers and shakers.
We are mothers, daughters, sisters, partners
Holding up the sky.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center also released CARE PACKAGE today, to help us all heal and live throughout times like these.

Workshop Performance of YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy

Two months ago I officially signed on to write the book and lyrics for an original musical about Asian Americans. As of today, we are 11 days out from the workshop performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy.

Hours before rehearsal last night I started to get nervous. My leg was twitchy; I felt my heart rate rise; I tried to control my breathing. The magnitude of this project and the urgency to get it ready by October 4 finally hit me. I’ve spent most of the past two months writing dialogue and lyrics; thinking about dialogue and lyrics (which come at the most inopportune time, like when you’re in the bathroom); editing scenes; reading scenes out loud; discussing scenes, themes, and dialogue with the creative team; reworking the storyboard; calling my sister at random times throughout the night to ask if a scene, situation, or line is funny; doubting my own sense of humor and ability to write humor; and staring at the blinking cursor on Microsoft Word for long, excruciating minutes.

I knew October 4 was coming, but I was focused on the script, trying to let a story unfold. A story I wasn’t too sure of when I first began to write it. A story I wasn’t sure I could write given my inexperience with writing plays and songs.

At some point in rehearsal last night, I hit my stride. I heard the actors breathe life into two new scenes I wrote this week, and I let myself be proud of it. I was proud of my work. Scratch that. I AM proud of my work.

Sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit. I know a lot of women who don’t; we just do the work and keep doing the work, praise or no praise. That’s not a cycle I want to continue, so I am taking up this space. I am embracing the compliments and assurances the creative team and cast send my way. I am owning this story and this experience and everything that comes with it. I’ve been full of excitement; I’ve been frustrated; I’ve been upset; I’ve silenced myself; I’ve procrastinated on grad school assignments because all I want to do is write this musical; I’ve let the doubts take over my day; I’ve been happy. And I am always grateful.

I am beyond fortunate to work with and be supported by the dream team of Roger Wu Fu + Bobby Ge + Donna Ibale. So many factors in our individual lives converged to bring us together. When I think about it, the machinations began last summer: an arts organization focused on AAPIs was in the works in which Donna was a founder; Roger and Bobby started their graduate program at Peabody; I quit my job. None of us thought we would be here right now, days away from the premiere of an original musical (maybe Donna). But here we are. And it’s exactly where I want to be.


Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, what she wants, and what it means to be Asian American. Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth, and lots of laughs. 

Story by Roger Wu Fu, Jenny C. Lares & Bobby Ge

Book & Lyrics by Jenny C. Lares | Music & Lyrics by Bobby Ge

Directed by Donna Ibale | Produced by Roger Wu Fu & Donna Ibale

Tickets: $8 General Admission, $5 for college students, Free for JHU students/faculty/staff