- Voices Rising: Asian Canadian Cultural Activism
One of the latest in an emerging body of research in the field of Asian Canadian studies, Voices Rising provides a valuable and timely history of Asian Canadian cultural activism. Divided into two parts, the book demonstrates the pivotal role that cultural activism plays in defining the often contested political category ‘Asian Canadian.’ The first part, ‘Mapping Asian Canadian Cultural Activism’ reviews familiar theoretical debates within the field: the political significance of culture, the emergence of cultural activism, and recurring themes of identity, memory, diversity, and gender. The second part, ‘Voices,’ consists of interviews between the author and a selection of important cultural activists. Collected and transcribed between 1997 and 2004, the interviews span numerous artistic disciplines – from theatre, dance, and music to writing and painting – and are organized in three chronological sections: ‘Emergence’ details the inception of cultural activism in the 1970s, ‘Cross the Threshold’ addresses the flurry of activity in the 1980s and 1990s, and ‘Moving Ahead’ investigates contemporary movements and speculates on future developments. Readable and revelatory, the interviews are easily the strongest research contributions of this study, identifying key activists and outlining touchstones for the movement such as controversial protests against ‘Campus Giveaway,’ a documentary produced by W5, and the Writing Thru Race conference. Assembled together, they provide an illuminating resource for scholars and new activists alike on the origins of the movement, connections between groups, and issues that continue to animate them.
The interviews, however, contrast startlingly with the objectivity of part 1: subjective in tone, they tend to wrestle more directly with the theoretical material than the author’s actual introductory discussion does. The book’s split – and issues arising from that split – stem from its simplifying structure and are manifest in ways besides tone. While it makes sense to organize the study in two parts, the author risks falsely dividing theory from practice by neglecting the links between them. Ironically, despite the author’s own partiality to such a division, the interviews themselves often do not support the split. As Li herself observes more than once, alongside those cultural activists who reject the alienating elitism of theory are those who are academically trained. The academy plays a fascinating and, at times, ambivalent role here: although [End Page 414] it serves as introduction to the theory that activists sometimes reflect in their work, it is also just as often repudiated by the author as irrelevant for the movement. That the book and author are products of such institutions – echoing, in other words, the fraught entanglements between theory and practice, academy and activism – remains uninterrogated. Indeed, given the influence of theory and purchase of the academy acknowledged implicitly and explicitly in the book, Li’s treatment of theoretical context would benefit from a more nuanced engagement with the debates she introduces.
Alongside Li’s insistence on division where there are also connections (theory vs. practice), is a tendency to overlook tensions in her concern with continuities. If the former is reflected in the study’s binary structure, the latter is most evident in the chronological arrangement of material. Given the book’s central concern with reconstructing a history too long neglected, even at times wilfully forgotten, there are compelling reasons to adopt a chronological approach. Such an approach need not be developmental, however. While laudatory, attention to the triumphs of cultural work and tenacity of cultural workers needs to be balanced with the equally important story of not only obstacles still in place but also conflicts between groups. Indeed, several of the book’s most resonant subtexts – notably the relationship between Asian Canadian and Asian American movements as well as that between academy and community – allude to the very conflicts that Li nonetheless skirts. What we have instead is painstaking reconstruction of the movement’s triumphs, which, at times, seem prematurely celebrated. Reserved for another volume, perhaps, are the setbacks, productive tensions, even failures that challenge Asian Canadian activism. Li’s enthusiasm for historicizing a movement, proclaiming its continuities, and celebrating its accomplishments is the impetus for this study. And...