How do we use writing and information to build community and democracy?
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
I was draped with leis from friends and writing students — pua kenikeni, pikake, red ginger, song of India, orchids — and I felt warm in the community’s fragrant embrace. I was doing a book reading and signing in Hawaii, and all my friends in that town showed up. And since it is a small town, everyone knew each other somehow.
Novelist Tom Peek, author of “Daughters of Fire,” introduced me and moderated a lively conversation that traversed continents, history, family, writing, and community. I learned how to teach writing from Peek, and so we talked about the power of writing to create oneself and to create community. And while we were there, we made sure to connect more people.
Similarly, the Indian American writing community has been coming together these past few weeks, in concern after the stabbing attack of Indian American writer Salman Rushdie at a reading in upstate New York earlier this month. Since 1989, Rushdie has been the target of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemning him to death for alleged blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” He lived in hiding for over a decade, but in recent years has begun coming out in public more and more.
Poet Usha Akella recalled on Facebook how Rushdie walked into Matwaala’s 2019 literary festival unannounced and sat quietly in the corner to enjoy the readings, but then graciously stayed for photographs and autographs. She wrote about his goodwill and down-to-earth persona. “He came as a lover of words not as one of the most celebrated writers.”
Another group of Indian and Indian diasporic writers were brought together by PEN America to commemorate India’s 75th anniversary of independence. Suketu Mehta writes, “In this time when country after country is turning its back on democracy, India has to be an example to countries around the world, this beautiful dream of nationhood expressed in the Hindu scriptures as ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ — the whole earth is a family. We should all be rooting for this incredible experiment in multiplicity to work. As goes India, so goes democracy.”
To help Asian American communities become fully engaged in American democracy, many Asian American advocates are centering healing justice as a core strategy. A new report looks at how disinformation is being used to create divisions in Asian American communities: “Power, Platforms, & Politics: Asian Americans & Disinformation,” by Asian American Disinformation Table, a coalition of organizations anchored by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).
“Disinformation is explicitly designed to expose the frictions, fault lines, and tensions within and across our various diasporic communities while also working to deplatform us from democracy and create divisions with other communities of color,” the Table writes. “That is why we must connect the process of monitoring Asian American disinformation to power building to return trust, consensus, and accountability to our community narratives.”