May 14, 2009

API* Heritage Post #14: Preserving History

It's funny how we have to search for our collective histories in the dusty corners of second-hand bookstores (which is where some of the old-timer API* literature heads first found John Okada's classic novel "No-No Boy"), or in the fading stories of elders and first generations of immigrants (like the oral history projects that have documented in pieces what early life for Asian immigrants was like), on the falling walls of the first immigrant detention centers (poetry carved into the walls on Angel Island), or even by dumpster diving in Chinatowns to preserve original signs from the and artifacts from the roots of our communities here.

We're always forced to look to the margins, and nowadays, with the cannonization of "Asian American History" and "Asian American Experience" by the academic elite, we sometimes have to look to the margins of these margins to find real stories, real talk, real struggles. So much of what people do - everyday struggles, victories, cultural evolutions, micro-movements, are lost in history. The act of documenting is in itself an act of filtering and valuing different things, casting aside and away some things or keeping them in boxes because a linear narrative is easier than the complex and often contradictory one to write and to use for whatever purpose we have in mind.

But what's lost in that process? How many moments, connections, and transformations don't make it into the books? It's not simply about the need to see yourself or the things you know in these historical accounts of times we've been through, but because the personal stories, the small steps, are what future generations can latch onto: the big movements and red-letter-days are few and far between. As they've said over and over about the Civil Rights movement, for example, it took a lot more than the iconic, memorialized moments (what broke the camel's back: one straw or the thousand that came before it?) to create what happened.

In our inability to really take the time to capture these things, and because every day is potentially full of moments worth documenting, are we building the stories to carry the next generation forward, or just singular narratives that simplify what has really happened in our time? Living in the margins (of the margins) do we run the risk of losing the complexity and varied intersections of these times in API* communities and community building altogether?

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