An Open Letter to Anyone Who Will Listen (#SAVECITYUMFA)
May 6, 2015 § 6 Comments
Ira Sukrungruang writes today on his reactions to the #savecityumfa campaign and the dwindling support for arts and humanities on many fronts:
I was taught to always keep my emotions in check, to not speak out, to watch but not act. I was taught to blend. This, my Thai mother said, would keep me safe. This, she said, would help me go far in the world. Keep quiet. Keep level-headed.
But the last few weeks have made it hard for me to heed my mother’s advice. Hard to stand and watch and not say anything. I find myself with an urge to scream at this world that has let me and my friends down. This world that has broken its promises. This world with its racial injustices and its devaluation of the arts.
To this I say: What the fuck?
It’s all I can say.
I am robbed of any ounce of intelligence. Any ounce of patience. I have found myself out of rationality. I am tired—I’m sorry, Mother—of watching.
Because I love this world. Because I breathe this air. Because the hurt of many is my hurt. I absorb it like a sponge. I carry it in this fleshy body. This body that feels every punch, every rock, every fire, every charged word of hate, every pronouncement that what I do, what I care about has no value in this new world we live in, this new world that cares more for numbers and commerce, forsaking the very thing that makes us feel.
Art. Voice. Expression.
We have become an unfeeling culture. We have become a finger-pointing culture. We have become a culture of moral judgement, as if there is one and only one way to be in this world. There is not. There are so many wonderful ways of being. It is what makes this world beautiful. A man marries a man. A woman, a woman. A single parent raises a child. A man becomes a woman. A woman, a man. A boy chooses to be a writer, a painter, a singer, instead of a scientist, a doctor, a CEO. When my mother first came to America, she remarked on the open spaces everywhere in this country. “America is so big,” she said. “There is room for the world here.” There is. There should be.
And yet, I find myself always defending my place in this world. I see colleges close doors to the arts. I see severe cuts in the humanities. I see English Department budgets shrink. I see businessmen decide what is right for education. A colleague at the English Department I work at in Florida said the other day, “This won’t change. They don’t care about us.” And then it happened. The feeling I got when I was a child, when I was being bullied for being Thai and fat, the feeling of helplessness that numbs the entirety of me. The feeling of picking at a scab until it bleeds. That same feeling is happening now. This feeling of being undervalued and unnecessary and unwanted. Bullied.
When I voice my concerns, I am placated. I am given a generous nod. An of course, of course. A sentence in the passive voice that claims no ownership. Your concerns are being looked at. A thank you for bringing this issue to light. And then nothing. And then I feel, as soon as the door is closed, that they are saying, Here is another minority bemoaning fairness. Here he is playing the race card. Here is another writer fighting for uselessness. Here he goes again with art matters.
This is what the powerless feel. Placated. When the courts rule unjustly. When university humanities programs get cut.
So we rage. So we fight.
So we say, Don’t placate me. Don’t placate us.
This last week, among all the other going-ons in the world, among riots and earthquakes, a small international low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong got axed for incomprehensible reasons–City University HK MFA. This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western cannon. The faculty, which I’m lucky to be part of, are truly stellar writers and teachers. They care. They believe the willed word can fill the fractures of the earth. They believe wholeheartedly that the writer matters still in this world, that her voice can affect change. Story. Poem. Essay. It’s what we teach. It’s what we do. These students, these writers, are vital to the life of global literature. This program bridges the East and West. These students are impassioned. They want. The program’s closure is reprehensible. Short-sighted. Unwarranted. Just plain stupid.
But here is the thing: Has it stopped the students from writing? Has it stopped the students from raising their voices? Has the administration stifled these young and loud cries?
They sing loud.
They write louder.
We are writers! they say
We matter! they say.
Give us back our program! they say.
I admire them. Applaud them. Love them. It’s one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher. It’s not about publication. Not about accolades. It’s about being heard. Damn it, it’s beautiful.
Their heart is my heart. Their voice is my voice. I raise it with them. I stand with them, though I am 8000 miles away. I’m here. In every respect.
I we—don’t ask for much. We ask to be listened to. We ask to be included in the conversation. We ask that you care for what we do and what we’ve added to the community. We ask that you do not placate us.
Most of all, we ask for fairness.
We ask for fairness here, too. In America. In Ferguson. In Baltimore. In the places and communities many have forgotten. We ask for justice. It seems obvious, a no-brainer. We ask you to listen.
I’m tired of stifling my voice. I’m tired of remaining quiet when everything I love is evaporating. A program. A country. People. Art.
I owe my life to this country. This country gave my immigrant parents jobs. This country provided a suburban home in the Southside of Chicago. This country offered me an exemplary education. For this I am indebted. It’s hard not to echo the sentiments of James Baldwin in moments like this. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
I was born on June 23, a couple of weeks before America’s bicentennial, when the country celebrated its break from a ruthless and unjust monarchy. When the citizens of this country sought to be heard. When a document read: We the people… We. We. We. We must become the we again because we live in a world of separation, where power is decided by color and wealth and greed. My criticism is not aimed at America. It’s aimed at humanity. Because we are part of it. I am part of it. I can’t go on without voice.
So hear me. So hear all of us. Our voices—interlaced, interwoven—are powerful.
With so much love,