AlisonRohParkAlison Park

Alison Roh Park is a writer and performer. In 2006, she received an Artists and Performance in Action (APIA) Residency at the Asian Arts Initiative and created and performed a solo show, A Magpie Sang on the 7-Train. Her work has appeared in The NuyorAsian Anthology and Yell-Oh Girls! She has performed, competed, and educated at venues and campuses across the continental U.S. She currently lives in Queens, New York.

How would you describe your family and your first experience wth the arts?

I was very lucky in many ways to have grown up in Queens. I had both of my parents growing up and two old older siblings. I grew up in a very ethnically mixed neighborhood-primarily Latino and South Asian. I was blessed with a public school education where I interacted with kids from different cultures and backgrounds and classes. I was exposed to many things, and my creativity was encouraged and nourished by several teachers who fostered those environments in their classrooms . . . Both of my parents supported me, whether it was by buying me journals or taking the time to look at the little things I made. My mom even took me and my sister to art contests when I was a kid. From junior high school on, I remember my dad being really supportive of my writing.

I started identifying as a poet and a writer when I was as young as14 or 15. I remember going to an open mic at the Langston Hughes Public Library in Corona, Queens when I was 14. I was a very angry, upset, rebellious, tumultuous teenager, but my father took me to that open mic. I sometimes clashed with my father but I remember he was there with me that night. That's my first memory of performing among strangers. It felt natural, but it was also kind of exciting and new at the same time. I knew that I was performing, that I needed to put on a show and please the crowd, but it was also raw and intimate for me.

How do you identify yourself as an artist?

My identity as an Asian American is very closely linked to my identity as a poet because my first artistic community was with other APA artists at the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York, when they were in the basement of the Gap [clothing store] on St. Marks Place. That was the first time I was around Asian people who intentionally recognized that they were Asian and they were fostering an artistic community. So the two have always been very closely linked for me. As a youth, I read work by Bamboo Girl and other writers whose art was their identity. So when I got to college it felt natural to use the arts as a way to engage other young Asian people into their social identity and organizing.

Racial identity isn't two-dimensional; I wanted to use my art to share my identity as an Asian American woman from a working class community. My work spoke about domestic violence, unhealthy relationships, and gender oppression and how I experienced those things as an Asian woman and a person of color. In terms of using it for campus organizing at Fordham, I wanted to create spaces where Asian kids could see other Asian kids doing cool things to begin feeling comfortable identifying as Asian. Since the ‘90s, spoken word was becoming a really exciting medium to engage and interact with young people. Emcees were getting big, too, I remember. It was all so new and exciting when I was in college.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

One of the first things that struck me about Philly was how racially segregated it was. I still think it is, and Philly's economic reality is stark. And while the poverty and class inequality are everywhere, I feel like in Philly they very visible. I was living in the Art Museum area, near I guess what they're now calling Francisville or Brewerytown. Philly really challenged my identity as an Asian American woman. I was literally on the cusp of a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood. And I remember thinking, "Where are all the Asian people outside of Chinatown?"

I felt isolated as an Asian person and very isolated as an artist because I hadn't come across any arts events. So when I first attended an event there, I knew how important the Asian Arts Initiative was. AAI felt like home because of my experience at the Writers' Workshop-it was wonderful to find community. And that's exactly what I thought when I went to that first event-"Wow, this is community." People knew each others' names, they were cracking jokes and having a good time. I ended up staying in Philly for four and a half years, and I was able to build there. The community arts scene in particular in Philly is really rich. It has a lot of history and a lot of amazing players and so much potential still. I definitely have very fond memories of people I met in Philadelphia.

It was really crazy, actually, how I first heard about the Asian Arts Initiative. I was working as a trainer for a domestic violence agency when I first moved to Philly. Immigration issues have a huge impact on some survivors of domestic violence, and I was doing community relations work and working with a lot of coalitions. And also as the only Asian staff member, I think I became the "go-to" person for all things Asian. Somehow AAI's newsletter ended up on my desk, and I was about to throw it out because and it was in a pile of stuff I'd gotten over the months, when it fell on the ground and opened onto a picture of F. Omar Telan, an artist who I had known since high school in New York. I called the Initiative and it ended up Omar was working there. And that's how I found out about the Initiative.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

It's true that any environment in which art is nurtured is going to create change. To have a group of youth creating art together and making connections between their stories-that's change. The Artists' Exchange was a good way for me to connect the two, use my art and use this community of Asian artists to explore issues of gentrification, displacement and racial tension locally, but it was with a national group. It would have been amazing to see something intentional around addressing Philadelphia's racial dynamics. I don't mean addressing my own issues-but addressing racial tension and class in Philadelphia, particularly geared towards organizing the Asian community through the arts. Even though there was an artistic community that shared similar experiences via their racial or ethnic identity, it didn't feel like much was happening politically to use art as a catalyst to open up a discussion in the Asian community at large, outside of this group of young Asian artists.

Can you describe a show or project at AAI that had a lasting impression on you?

The Artists and Performance in Action residency I did at AAI was a really wonderful experience for me, and putting together the show, the culmination of the residency, was probably the biggest challenge I've ever had artistically. I had never had a stage to do whatever I wanted to do for the amount of time that I had for the show. It forced me to look at myself, particularly because I might be called a seasoned artist but I really wasn't. I've always worked full-time and I've never been a professional or full-time artist, and it was really difficult for me to find opportunities. So it was just amazing to have an opportunity to challenge myself artistically and to simultaneously lend credibility to my art-to have been an artist-in-residence.

My show was called "A Magpie Sang on the 7 Train." The significance is that magpies are very iconic in Korean storytelling, culture, superstition and folklore. And I had recently gone to Korea to visit family for the first time in a long, long time, and there was something mystical about the experience for me-to be in the context of the stories I was told as a child. I took that experience and juxtaposed it with my upbringing in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world. It was like juxtaposing two parts of my identity.

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