A conversation with Nellie Wong & Merle Woo, poet-radicals
Karen Brodine
volume:  
volume 7
issue 1
Spring 1981

Merle Woo and Nellie Wong are gifted Asian American poets, affiliated with the Women Writers Union and Unbound Feet, two groups of San Francisco/Bay Area feminist writers. Woo teaches Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Wong is an executive secretary and San Francisco organizer of the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party. Karen Brodine, San Francisco poet and organizer of Radical Women, does the interview.

Karen: Growing up as Asian Americans, what experiences moved you toward socialism and feminism?

Merle: The way I saw my father treated; he was an Asian grocery store clerk who didn’t speak English well. Any work white men didn’t want to do — low-paid labor such as laundry and cooking — Asian immigrants did. The men were consequently stereotyped as “women,” supposedly obsequious, passive, and obliging. They were victims of racism and sexism.

I also felt the same powerful self-contempt that was drilled into my mother who was raised in a missionary home for Korean orphans. Her religion taught her it was evil to be Korean, evil to be a woman. And I saw racism at school. The nuns said, “Pray for Merle, her parents are pagans,” and they’d ask us, “Why don’t you all go back to Chinatown?”

Nellie: For my part, I grew up insulated in Oakland’s Chinatown. and didn’t directly encounter racism until I entered Oakland High School which was largely white and middle class. I went into cultural shock. Other students had clothes and cars, but as the children of immigrants, we were different. We looked shabby. The class differences were very naked.

My parents couldn’t afford an education for us all. My sisters had to work as waitresses and fight to go to school. It was assumed that my brother would go.

I, myself, have been a clerical worker for thirty years. I know that without clericals, Corporate America would come crashing down.

Karen: When did you first see yourselves as political persons?

Nellie: When I began writing poems, I realized I had definite ideas. My first professor told me I was “bitter, bitter.” Luckily I met strong women who said I had a right to write angry poems. Once a young Chicana wept to hear “When I Was Growing Up,” which is about the way media images make us all want to be white.

Merle: Teaching made me politically aware, fast. The Educational Opportunity Program doesn’t serve as many as it should; I learned how education is mostly for the few privileged people, how students are put down, how propaganda molds our experience.

Going to the Women Writers Union was the beginning of self-affirmation. I saw that my experience was necessary to others — that’s why the word socialism is beautiful. It’s a social thing we are doing — writing with other people and yet it’s still ours. The images flow back and forth.

I learned that we have no choices under the white ruling class. The Chinese were brought in right after the Civil War because cheap labor was needed. Coolie labor versus slave labor! It’s still the same.

The true oppression of Asians in America is glossed over. Racism is reserved for Blacks and whites; we’re used as buffers. Years ago, when my brother was in the South, he didn’t know where he was supposed to sit in the bus. In affirmative action, Asians aren’t really included.

Karen: What problems have you found in the mass movements?

Nellie: Sexism and racism. For Asians, in particular, there’s invisibility; when we talk it’s as if people don’t hear us. I’m active and vocal — abrasive, aggressive and assertive — but I’m treated as if white women put words in my mouth. And there’s invisibility in the feminist community — if I talk about class and race, then petty-bourgeois feminists think I’m not “sticking to the subject.”

Merle: And at the recent Left-Write conference, Nellie’s speech was ignored not only out of racism and sexism, but because she was too radical for them. Robert Chrisman, publisher of Black Scholar, who is sexist and homophobic, called for Third World unity above all-women could wait. Judy Grahn talked about “using lesbian separatism as a tool.” That didn’t scare them. But when a Third World woman talked about socialist feminism, about getting together and fighting everything together, and reminded them that sexism was at the heart of the system — that scared them. There are similar divisions on campus and in the Asian American community. The liberals are homophobic and sexist: they discount our group, Unbound Feet, call us “overemotional” when we make critical, radical statements. And they avoid struggle; they refused to protest the Charlie Chan film because they didn’t want “controversy”!

Karen: You’ve said, “Yellow feminists are at the core of change.” Please explain.

Merle: We’re fighting every single thing that has kept us down as women of color. The exploitation of all Yellow immigrants — that’ s race and class. And sexism cuts across everything, all over the world, and it goes very deep. Connecting these struggles means a lifelong commitment to ending the divisions, and the only way Yellow feminists can achieve this unity is through revolution — through socialism.

Nellie: When you’re a worker and a woman of color, you better understand the dynamics of capitalism. You know why they want you to feel small, insecure, insignificant, with no identity. As women leaders, we’re fighting for a collective goal, not just our individual careers.

Merle: We turn self-contempt into something else — into contempt for racism and sexism and class oppression, all those things that produced the self-contempt. We move out of individualism and work with people, help make them into leaders, because we need everybody.

Nellie: It’s adversity, being in the heat of the struggle, that moves us forward. Fighting gives me back my energy.

Clara Fraser says, “We belong to the world.” True. As Asian American socialist feminists, we never stop explaining and showing women and radicals and people of color how to work together. We keep breaking through the stereotypes.


Yellow Woman Speaks

by Merle Woo

Shadow become real; follower become leader; mouse turned sorcerer —

In a red sky, a darker beast lies waiting, her teeth, once hidden, now unsheathed swords.

Yellow woman, a revolutionary, speaks:

“They have mutilated our genitals, but I will restore them;

I will render our shames and praise them,

Our beauties, our mothers:

Those young Chinese whores on display in barracoons;

the domestics in soiled aprons;

the miners, loggers, railroad workers holed up in Truckee in winters.

I will create armies of their descendants.

And I will expose the lies and ridicule

the impotence of those who have called us

chink

yellow-livered

slanted cunts

exotic

in order to abuse and exploit us.

And I will destroy them.”

Abrasive teacher, incisive comedian,

Painted Lady, dark domestic —

Sweep minds’ attics; burnish our senses;

keep house, make love, wreak vengeance.