Although today’s cultural landscape is much more diverse than it was 20 or 30 years ago, with a broader array of viewpoints represented in popular media and fine art, artists and writers of color still find themselves struggling to achieve as much visibility as their mainstream white counterparts. Recent events such as the celebrated launch of Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American network sitcom in over 20 years, and the lively dialogues that took place around the #OscarsSoWhite controversy reveal that cultural diversity is still an evolving and hotly debated topic in this country.
In 2015, the #LITinCOLOR initiative was launched as a way to spotlight the works of writers of color, particularly those of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. Three small, well-respected publishers based in Los Angeles—Kaya Press, Tia Chucha Press, and Writ Large Press—came together to “bring attention to vital voices of color and social engagement in literature.”
After years of publishing innovative works by a diverse spectrum of authors, the #LITinCOLOR initiative gave them a distinctive way to branch out and reach new audiences by hosting readings and other events in a variety of locations. The founders credited recent grassroots movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks for inspiration.
This coming Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m., join us for a special #LITinCOLOR event, held to coincide with the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, taking place this year in Los Angeles. An evening of readings by poets and novelists from various communities and generations will celebrate the invention and imagination of writers of color who seek to represent realities that lie outside of the mainstream imagination.
Featured writers will include April Naoko Heck, author of the poetry collection A Nuclear Family; Naomi Hirahara, author of the forthcoming mystery novel Sayonara Slam; traci kato-kiriyama, founder of Tuesday Night Project; Leza Lowitz, poet, author, and translator of Ayukawa Nobuo’s America and Other Poems; Japanese-New Zealander singer-songwriter Kat McDowell; David Mura, poet and author of The Last Incantations and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei; and Gene Oishi, the renowned Nisei journalist who published his first novel, Fox Drum Bebop, when he was in his eighties. Fox Drum Bebop is the winner of the 2016 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Creative Writing in Prose.
Recently a friend took me to experience Tuesday Night Café, an Asian American grassroots entertainment event held in the Aratani Courtyard of the Union Center for the Arts. I didn’t think I’d last through the three-hour-long evening of amateur and open mic acts, but much to my surprise, I found myself riveted to the very end by the event’s quality and variety. There were slam poets, folk singers, dancers, and even a female rap artist, and every one was excellent and had something unique to offer.
I was amazed that such a thing existed right under my nose here in Little Tokyo without my knowledge, so I did some research. Tuesday Night Café is actually the oldest currently running Asian American open mic event in the country. Launched in 1999, it is the flagship program of Tuesday Night Project, an Asian-American volunteer-based organization. Each Café begins with three open mic slots, followed by a curated program. TNC has been named to several Top Ten lists by such publications as USA Today and LA Weekly.
TNC is currently organized by Sean Miura, Producer and Lead Curator, and Quincy Surasmith, Communications Manager and Associate Producer. Quincy graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email so we could learn more about the project.
JANM: I was truly impressed by both the quantity and the quality of talent that I saw on display at the last TNC. How do you find so many amazing acts?
QS: I think it’s a mix of people (artists, organizers, and other community members) connecting folks to our space and us making sure we build the kind of space where these amazing performers feel encouraged and safe and have the opportunity to really shine. We also do our best to get out to other spaces and events in the city, such as Sunday Jump in Historic Filipinotown, Common Ground in Santa Ana, and Kollaboration, to name just a few—supporting them and building bridges with their organizers and artists.
JANM: When curating the Tuesday Night Café, what are the criteria that you use?
QS: We look at each show holistically; each program is a careful balance of people with different disciplines, experience levels, artistic content, and identities/backgrounds. We also want to set a tone that Tuesday Night Café isn’t just a handful of open mic slots nor an “established stars only” showcase, but a place where everyone can experience those beautiful fleeting moments of raw, outside-your-comfort-zone, heart-palpitatingly earnest connection with someone’s words, voice, movement, emotion, sound, and story. Creating a positive space for the performers helps both emerging and seasoned artists feel comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and using our space to grow.
JANM: I imagine many TNC performers go on to successful careers in show business. Any famous alumni you care to name?
While those are a few of the successes we celebrate, it’s important to note that Tuesday Night Project is less about celebrity and more about artists in process, trying things, collaborating, and creating their own respective paths. We want to celebrate each career as each person finds their own understanding of success, famous or otherwise!
JANM: TNC is 17 years old this year. Can you reflect on some of the changes and accomplishments that have occurred over the years?
QS: I’ve only been in the space since 2009, but in that time, I’ve seen a noticeable shift from a word-of-mouth, come-because-you’re-connected-to-someone, heard-about-it-through-the-community-grapevine project to a known-entity, internet-searchable, come-for-the-opportunities-to-perform kind of audience and space. This means a lot more people are coming in fresh; a significant portion of the crowd are first-timers at each show! But it also means that people are coming who don’t yet understanding who we are and what we’re about, so it’s even more important that we’re really clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
JANM: What is your vision for TNC going forward?
QS: I’d love to sort through our archive footage and photos to reconnect with and share our history, build more partnerships, and strengthen our online presence. Ultimately though, it’s not about growing Tuesday Night Project into some huge expansive brand for its own sake. We share art to build and bridge communities; validate and highlight diverse Asian American voices and stories; create safe, positive space; and at our core (as our Director/Co-Founder traci kato-kiriyama will gladly remind us), cherish people as each others’ greatest resource. Everything we’ve done and continue to do is with constant mindful consideration of those intentions.
Tuesday Night Café runs from April through October each year, taking place on the first and third Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The last two Cafés of 2015 will take place on October 6 and 20. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch their live feed.