“Art is a vehicle to tell the truth in a way that may not be obvious”: Q & A with poet and author Bao Phi

Call & Response had a conversation with poet and author Bao Phi about listening, engaging, and the future.

Bao Phi is an award-winning Twin Cities-based spoken word poet, author, and children's book writer, as well as an arts administrator and single co-parent father. He was born in Vietnam and came to the United States with his family as refugees when he was a baby. He was raised in Minneapolis, where he currently lives with his ten year old daughter.   

C&R: Is there an object or a practice (sacred or mundane) that gives you solace in right now? Is there something or someone who gives you hope?

BP: I come from a poor refugee family that fled war to come here – just recently, when I was helping my mom run errands, she reminded me of this. She still lives in the house she raised me in. As an adult and a single co-parent, I was looking for a place to live for me and my child (time spent 50/50 between me and her mother) at a time when the housing market was ridiculous, and I was competing against dual income households for the same properties. That I found reasonably affordable housing, after two years of looking, is a minor miracle. So as I set in shelter-in-place, my surroundings are a reminder what to be thankful for. And if there’s one person who gives me hope, it’s my ten year old child. She’s sensitive, and humanity often frightens and saddens her. Despite that, she remains bright and hilarious.

C&R: Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, writes: “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth–in other words, to silence.” Where is your head, and your heart, in relation to the rhetoric, to our habits, and to the silence that falls when the hard truths of calamity come into focus?

Well, institutional racism, exploitation of resources, and xenophobic nationalism have always existed, the pandemic is just the most recent excuse in history for people to exercise their bigotry in a blatant manner. Whether verbally or physically. And even so, there is a silence around it. A dismissal. Speaking for myself as an Asian American, I feel that our people are so used to being gaslighted in discussions of race that we do it to ourselves. The pattern that I see, pandemic or not, is that we don’t talk about Asians unless Asians are the ones being problematic. Of course, that’s necessary, because no one is above criticism. But I do think it bears parsing when, say, a perhaps not very well thought out op-ed from Andrew Yang gets a lot more attention, from Asians and non-Asians alike, than, say, SEARAC’s in-depth report on APIA boys and men, or any historical analysis of the hate crimes on the rise against us right now. Or that the acting President of the United States is obviously trying to scapegoat China for this pandemic, and since Asians in America will always be conflated with Asians overseas, Asian Americans receive none of the benefits and all of the backlash. And again, this is just the recent example. This is a pattern – Asians are either invisible, or we’re a problem. It’s always pissed me off.

C&R: What does solidarity mean to you? In your work?

BP: To listen critically, to engage critically, to work with a community first mindset, to speak out only when I feel my opinion is missing from the discussion rather than to hear myself talk or to participate in the theater of allyship. Learn, grow, discuss, challenge, change. To move away from the idea of an “exceptional” activist, away from the temptations of being considered an exceptional “Asian”, and more towards a deep community solidarity.

C&R What/who have you read, seen or listened to recently that really blew you away?

BP: Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, both blew me away. Danez Smith’s newest poetry book, Homie, and Ed Bok Lee’s newest poetry book, Mitochondrial Night, are excellent. I loved Minh Le’s Green Lantern, and always excited to see Thi Bui’s new work when it pops up online anywhere, in particular, her recent work on deportation. I’m looking forward to Natalie Diaz’s newest poetry book, as well as Valeria Luiselli’s newest novel, Lost Children Archive. Junauda Petrus’s The Stars and the Blackness Between Them. The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Marcie Rendon’s two mystery novels.

C&R: Does truth still matter in a “post-truth” age? What role does art play in relation to the truth?

BP: Truth always matters. But whose truth, and when? And to what end? What I love about art is that it is a vehicle to tell the truth in a way that may not be obvious. And when you do that, I believe the message sticks with people for much longer.

C&R: There is no shortage of apocalyptic thinking these days. But what if we could fill the future with visions of light instead? There is a Sikh prayer that asks, “what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Seeing this dark moment instead as the prelude to a rebirth of sorts,  what would the world look like in 50 years if you could imagine and bring that future into being? 

BP: What would be great is a more sustainable, equitable future. That the bottom falls out for the oil industry which pushes the world towards development of clean, renewable energy. Equitable redistribution of wealth. Reparations for Black and Indigenous folks. An understanding of how racist xenophobia is rooted in structural, colonialist, imperialistic structures that directly effect Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern, and Latinx/Chicanx people. Greater empathy for humanity. Less posturing, more growth. Less rhetoric, more discussion. And flying cars. Or maybe flying bicycles?

Mural on the Plaza Centenario from Pangea’s Lake Street Arts! Program. Mural created by Goodspace Murals. Photo by Meena Natarajan.

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