Anne Ishii: Massive Talent

This week’s portrait has an extensive and varied background. Anne Ishii is the executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, a multi-disciplinary community arts center in Philadelphia that engages folks in creating and presenting art that addresses Asian American experience and effects positive change. She is also a writer, editor and translator who works specifically to achieve visibility and recognition for art related to gender and sexuality issues in the Asian diaspora. She attended the University of California-Santa Cruz and studied French and then Columbia University to obtain a master’s degree in Japanese Literature, but decided she wanted to sell it, not write about it. Ishii has been published extensively in venues such as Slate, the Village Voice and Guernica. Finally, she volunteers at SAGE and takes various stages, for fun. 

Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Los Angeles, went to college in Santa Cruz, did grad school in New York and stayed there doing some publishing and venture marketing strategy — basically representing queer and feminist artists from Japan, in fact mostly gay artists. It’s still a huge passion for me. I do a lot with queer comics, and I have a background as a writer and editor. I moved to Philadelphia when I started as executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative in 2018.

In the United States, people tend to lump races and ethnicities together as a monolith and don’t think about the separate factions. Folks group Africans, African Americans, and people from the Caribbean together and say we’re all “Black” no matter where we come from, and that seems to happen to Asian folks as well. I read an interesting article that you wrote about the discrimination your mother faced within the Asian community. 

I don’t remember which column you mean, but yes, it could be a challenge. I identify as Asian American. My mother’s culturally Japanese but ethnically Korean, and she and her siblings faced a lot of discrimination as a result, which was very formative in the way I process my own identity. The phrase Asian America was developed to speak to that melding together, the way we are racialized, and how people confuse us with each other even though we have varied behavior and traits. Homogenizing doesn’t really do any of our cultures justice, but the spirit of the phrase was so we could stand in solidarity with each other — that we are brothers and sisters in crisis. If somebody calls me a Chink, I’m not going to say, hey, I’m not Chinese, I’m going to say, hey, that’s racist. It’s getting the community to respond as one. There are so many aspects to it. I think about it a lot, you know, intersectionality, and how we all work together. You mentioned the Black community, and I also think of the Latinx community who face the same challenges. Freud has a phrase, “the narcissism of minor differences, ” about how people create conflict over very minute differences because they’re anxious about how similar we are in every other way. That “to see one’s neighbors reflect and mirror oneself too much threatens a person’s unique sense of self and superiority.” So we find the smallest things to nitpick over and turn them into big conflicts. This isn’t exactly the same, but I think about my mother being raised in a place where it’s like, “We have so much in common, why does this one thing invalidate me?” 

What were you like as a child?

I was gregarious. I’m definitely an extrovert. I was always talking to strangers and trying to make everybody laugh, which may have been a response to how isolated I felt. I was raised in a very strict home; we didn’t have a lot of neighborhood friends. Because of limited English, we were closed off, but that prompted me to be more sociable. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be in the spotlight somehow. I wasn’t a ham, but I liked to be in places where I could be seen. I played piano and was in the drumline in the marching band. I actually went to college as a music major, though because of that practical parent voice in my head, I graduated with a degree in Literature. I figured as a writer I could at least find work in publishing. 

What was it like growing up in Los Angeles?

I was raised in a mostly Japanese context back in the ’80s. It was during the bubble economy when it was all about Sony Walkmans and Toyotas, which was great from a Japanese perspective but horrible from an American perspective. I would hear “Jap, go back home,” and I was physically bullied for my dad supposedly “taking everyone’s jobs,” which was hilarious because my dad was a struggling small business owner with a little car part store. He was a bit of a serial entrepreneur; he had several failed businesses, but that one seemed to sustain us. My mom worked in the office until they divorced. As a single mom, she’s had every job — cashier in a deli, store clerk, she worked in a bakery, you name it. 

Any siblings?

I had two sisters. I now have one. I was 6 years old when my younger sister passed, and it was pretty traumatic. It was my first memory, but I’d blocked most of it out until I became a mother myself. 

I read about it in the piece you wrote called “Florence” about her and the hardships your mother faced. 

Yes, my sister died at age two. She suffocated, and it was given a SIDS classification, and when that happens without explanation, people raise eyebrows though it’s not really uncommon. But unfortunately, the mother is the first one questioned and investigated. My mother had to deal with the death of a child and the scrutiny that came with it. We were followed around by a social worker for a year. As a mother now, I can’t imagine the pain she went through. My surviving sister and I are really close; we talk every day. It’s amazing the bonds that are formed out of trauma.

How did you get involved in the queer community?

I’ve always found myself in the gray zones. In my early writing career, I did a lot of work as a translator. There was so much amazing gay fiction out there, and I kept waiting and waiting for someone to publish it. It wasn’t happening, and then I had an ah-ha moment and realized that I needed to stop waiting for someone else to do it. So I created my company, Massive Goods and began working with gay artists, and yeah, it just went from there. 

I heard you describe yourself as “bendy.”

[Laughing] Yes! I tended to have relationships with men who identify as gay, so that’s my bendiness! 

Like me, as a writer, it seems you get to learn about a variety of topics. One article you wrote was about the influence of Japanese influencers on fashion. Tell me more. 

It’s so fascinating to me how so much has crossed over. For instance, bomber jackets were very popular with Americans during the war. Let’s take a second to appreciate that. Bomber jackets made trendy by Japanese fashionistas being worn by bomber pilots while bombing Japan. The phenomenal irony of it all. The value of vintage denim was entirely created by the Japanese market, which has to do with the American occupation and some weird postcolonial false nostalgia. [Laughing] The remains of colonialism often turn into strange cultural artifacts that often then cross back over from Japan into mainstream fashion. 

I understand you’ve also done work as a standup comedian?

[Laughing] I don’t know about work — that would imply I ever made any money from it. It’s more that I’ve done an open mic night here or there and hosted a few events. 

If someone wanted to know what the Asian Arts Initiative is all about, what would you tell them? 

We’re a community-based arts organization in Chinatown, and we’ve been around since 1993. We were founded as a coalition of Black and Asian poets responding to some of the tension and fraught relationships between the two communities that were happening at the time. We’re an artist-led initiative designed to respond to social issues. Our motto is to build community through the power of art, and we encourage art practice at the intersection of justice and creativity. What are the social ways we can engage artists, and what are the artistic ways we can respond to social issues? 

I read your response to the recently proposed budget cuts to Philly’s arts, where you said, “The arts are not some corsage in the lapel of the city’s newsletters. We are your city.”

Yes, there’s an unnecessary distinction between the arts and community services, but they’re the same thing. When the city says things like, “The office of arts and culture will cease to exist,” the lack of delicacy around the elimination of an entire system indicates that they have absolutely no clue what the arts and culture mean to the city. We are the heart and soul of the city. If you have to reduce budgets, we understand, but don’t say we’ll “cease to exist” — that’s heinous. We understand the need for funds for health and wellness, but why is the police budget being expanded by 50 million dollars, but they’re cutting arts funding, which is half of one percent of police and fire.

And they forget that dealing with violence and racism through the arts gives people an outlet to express themselves and that police don’t always need to be involved. 

Yes, and face it, a lot of communities are never going to call the police. They’re going to call their community leaders. They’ve had negative experiences here or come from places where the police are not the friends of the people. And of course, we know how dangerous it can be for Black and Brown people to interact with the police. That’s something I think that gets lost in the city. Your standard of safety is not our standard. 

One of the reasons I contacted you was that, unlike many of the Zoom events that I’ve been attending and enjoying, AAI seems to go the extra step to engage people. 

I appreciate you for noticing! Of course, like everybody else, we’re shifting a lot of our programming onto the internet, but we feel it’s still really important to have that tactile experience, so we’re coming up with ways to be more interactive. We have a pen pal program where working artists send you hand-drawn postcards; we’re working on creative packages with art kits for our middle graders in our out-of-school programs, but I think the favorite so far has been our fundraiser that we did recently. People who participated were sent a box with snacks from local Asian American restaurants and goodies from local businesses to open during our online party. It went really well because we’re all suffering from computer fatigue. Ee kept it mercifully short. It was a 40-minute program, and we got great feedback from the event. 

I just signed my mother up for the pen pal program! I’ve been to AAI for film screenings, what are some of the other programs you do when not on lockdown?

We’re a site based organization, so we have a building on Vine Street where we do events and programming. We have an after school program. There’s a gallery where we feature mostly emerging artists; we provide studio space for artists and have a robust theatre program. We try to keep space for all artistic disciplines, from music to visual art to theater and films. And we have a lot of special events around things like, International Womxn’s Day or Pride Month or Asian American Heritage Month, which is this month, etc. Once this is all over we can be there to help people navigate the emotions of what we’ve all been through — to tell the stories of the fear and uncertainty in people’s lives. There has been a lot of anti-Asian backlash because of COVID-19, and we’re coming up with a way to memorialize what’s happened. 

Our community is already comprised of a lot of people who are coming from situations, often in war-torn regions, where they’ve faced near-death trauma prior to coming here — some who have faced starvation and brutality. And now, they’re facing verbal harassment and implied bias, which may seem light after what they’ve been through, but it has an accumulative effect. Our work is to help people tell their stories and to encourage and guide people to speak up. Not to just take the abuse but to find ways to deal with and put an end to it.

I saw that you had a Zoom panel on racism with Nydia Han on May 15. What were some of the things that came up?

There was a lot of concern in the commercial corridor about the devastation to small businesses in Chinatown. They were already experiencing the effects as early as December and January. But a lot of the discussion was about how historically this community has faced these types of issues before. From the Exclusion Act to the Internment Camps, there’s been a long history of institutionalized racism against Asian Americans. The most interesting thing I heard was research presented that found that when there’s an economic crisis, bias incidents from the white community against Asian people go up, and when there’s a threat to national security, biased incidents from white folks against brown folks go up. It was interesting because this is the first medical threat that we’ve faced like this in my lifetime. And since it also has an economic effect, bias against Asians is on the rise as the study predicted. 

What are some of the programs coming up for AAI?We’re doing a “Come to Your Census!” program hosted by Laos in the House. That’s going to be a lot of fun, and we’ll be adding new things as we go along. Our Facebook page is the best place to get up-to-date information: