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Rape Is/Not a Metaphor

Not upon, over, at, or near, rape is not adjacent to anything. It is the thing.


Editor’s Note: The following essay is part of the notebook #WeToo, a collection of work published both in the Journal of Asian American Studies and in part here on The Margins. Together, this body of work provides language and theory for lived-experiences of sexual violence in what is usually dismissed as privileged, unafflicted model-minority life. The #WeToo collection is edited by erin Khuê Ninh and Shireen Roshanravan. Accompanying the series on The Margins is artwork by Catalina Ouyang.

The following essay includes mention of sexual violence and rape culture. Please take care while reading.

Read more from the series here. And continue reading work from the full collection in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian American Studieswhich you can purchase here  



  1. Let us start here, with a singular, (un)forgettable, and all-too common event: I was raped. I was in my late twenties and he was twelve years my senior, a prominent Asian American artist and activist. 
  1. Although I may not have been cognizant then, but certainly upon reflection since, the sexual assault and my rapist’s subsequent stalking hastened my departure from national Asian American arts and activist spaces and into my current academic trajectory. I am now a professor who studies and teaches on race, indigeneity, gender, and sexuality.
  1. Sometimes the mind/body split is wanted, a reprieve.
  1. Is it too late to provide a performative land acknowledgement? How to tell the story of rape while occupying Native land? This is, this was, this occurred on Dakota homelands, which is itself a violent absenting. Consider this foreshadowing.
  1. In the aftermath of the rape, I turned to an anti-carceral form of response and protection: two dozen friends and activists signed on to a letter validating that I was sexually assaulted and committed to protect me from the man who had raped me. This community-based restraining order proved ineffectual, however, and my rapist proceeded to harass me at national activist and arts gatherings for the next several years. 
  1. Tell me I am brave, I dare you.
  1. Even my strategic transition to academia was all for nothing: imagine my palpable alarm, rage, and dread to learn that at my first time presenting for an academic conference, the Association for Asian American Studies, he would also be attending, on a noted activist panel.
  1. I am hesitant, but disclose to my advisor that I am a survivor of sexual assault. I ask my advisor if I should prepare a statement asking my rapist to leave if he shows up at my panel. She tells me that would be unprofessional, and instead we focus on staying calm and practicing my paper.  
  1. How does restorative justice fail us, in idea and practice, when what is restored is the larger Asian American community, above and over the individual? 
  1. I am approached by an editor to share my community restraining order for what will become the excellent anthology The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities.1 I have just returned from an Asian American activist conference where my rapist kept showing up at all the panels I attended, and I ended up being escorted to and from different rooms, the bathroom, and the water fountain. I never respond to the invitation to submit and they don’t follow up.
  1. Spare me your indignant anger against my advisor. Now that I’m a professor, I might do the same. Not to professionalize a student but to spare them the response.
  1. This happens on at least three occasions after I become a professor: a student comes to my office and discloses that they have been assaulted or harassed within an activist community. I pull a copy of The Revolution Starts at Home off my shelf to give to them. 
  1. Does one story of sexual violence matter within seemingly larger formations and calls for social justice? 
  1. In the years my rapist stalked me, he repeatedly contacted me over phone and mail, announcing that my politics were liberal and separatist and demanded that I engage in criticism/self-criticism with him in order to overcome my bourgeois tendencies. He stole my address book and contacted my friends. He showed up at panels I was on, workshops I presented, and started making my hometown a new base for his artist residencies. In the years my rapist stalked me, after community accountability had failed, I never considered getting a legal restraining order. 
  1. When is my body my body my body?
  1. Complicating the feminist intervention (and condition) that the personal is political, experiencing sexual assault is at once emblematic and constitutive of larger structures of dominance but also remains a site of personal violence that cannot be fully apprehended by a systemic framework. Such a political or explanatory maneuver enacts a further elision and violence compounding the original site of injury. Rape is, therefore, always and never structural, at once and impossibly a metaphor for other violences. 
  1. Before the rape (because that is how I now view my activist history, before and after the rape), I worked for a year as a sexual assault educator for San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR). At the beginning of my presentations to middle and high school students, I made sure that they understood that rape is not sex, rape is an act of violence. San Francisco is also where I first met my rapist, he was headlining an event at the Women’s Building and I was volunteering.
  1.  Sexual assault is a fundamental aspect of colonial violence, a historical legacy wherein women’s (and some men’s and many children’s) bodies become the site of conquest. The 1937-38 Imperial Japanese Army’s invasion, occupation, massacre, and torture of 300,000 Chinese residents of the city of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War is known as the Rape of Nanjing. 
  1.  Rape is a tool. Politics are a weapon.
  1. Iris Chang, a Chinese American journalist and historian, wrote the first book-length study of the Nanjing Massacre, breaking a fifty-year academic silence on the event. Seven years after the book was published, Chang committed suicide, with family and friends alternately citing mental illness and the stress of her research material.2 
  1. If I can’t let go my history, will you think me crazy? 
  1. Iris Shun-Ru Chang grew up in Champaign, Illinois, where her parents taught at the University of Illinois. In 2017, Yingying Zhang, a young Chinese woman and visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, was kidnapped and murdered by a white male graduate student who subsequently attended a vigil for the missing Zhang. Illinois state slogan (1955): Land of Lincoln. Illinois: a haven, a grave.
  1. My rapist is an award-winning artist. I’m talking National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation. My rapist is one of those down Asians who is tight with the Black Panthers. My rapist is a revolutionary, a Marxist Leninist feminist with the correct political line. Right on.
  1. Am I allowed to call him mine? Chances are, given statistics and the whisper network, he is not mine alone.
  1. I am sitting on the floor of a Brooklyn living room, surrounded by the rest of Mango Tribe, an Asian American and Pacific Islander women and trans performance collective. It is the day after the run of our show at a settlement house theater on the Lower East Side, and we are proceeding with a short business meeting. One member has recently been approached by my rapist to collaborate on an arts project, and a heated conversation ensues. Some mangos are opposed, citing community rumors that he has harassed and abused women. Other mangos counter that it is wrong to judge someone based on speculation, that leftist men of color have long endured a history of bad-jacketing. And so we go, back and forth. Until I say, me, me, I am one of those women. 
  1. One of the signers of my community letter attends an art opening for my rapist. She finally admits this to me because he uses the occasion to berate her into telling me to contact him. She tells me it was important to attend as an Asian American.
  1. I really shouldn’t be using the present tense. My rapist passed away fifteen years after he raped me. The New York Times wrote an obituary. 
  1. But the past is still present, for me.
  1. Two decades after the rape, while I am teaching a new book on Asian American activism, his name appears, a black slash on white. Students continue the discussion, but I freeze and grow still, a small winter in my own body.
  1. To this day, there are older leftist men who mention him in my presence, with a knowing wink and nod. A lovers’ quarrel. A bad break-up. 
  1. Yes, we dated. Here it is: we dated for a little more than a month. We did not live in the same cities. We broke up. I broke up with him. He visited me sometime after, on the pretext of working on a book together. He told me that it would be easier to write the book together if we were dating. I said no. He said we could be fuck buddies. I said no. He raped me. Part of why this is hard to write: I didn’t resist. I didn’t fight back. Frozen and still, I wintered in my own body. Part of why this is hard to write: he was the first man I dated after many years with women. This is not how I want to tell my transition from lesbian to bisexual. I still don’t like this word, bisexual. I prefer queer.
  1. While we are dating, we meet his sister for lunch. When my rapist goes to the bathroom, she tells me two things, sandwiched around a question. I like that you don’t wear makeup. Is he nice to you? Sometimes he is not nice.
  1. Taking my cue from erin Khuê Ninh, who argues against Asian American feminist treatment of rape as epiphenomenal, “its violence interesting only as illuminating a structural base, so to speak, of other violences,”3 I wish to dwell on the embodied after of quotidian sexual violence to consider the possibilities for transformative justice through sensorial rather than structural methodologies.
  1. You know I don’t trust you what’s the catch catch catch
    Don’t you fucking touch me I will gnash gnash gnash
    Cause I am an old phenomenon
    —Thao & The Get Down Stay Down 
  1. Epiphenomenon. noun. 1. any secondary phenomenon. 2. (pathology) an additional symptom or complication arising during the course of a disease. 3. (philosophy) an effect of primary phenomena, but cannot affect primary phenomenon. As in, rape stems from colonialism, but cannot affect it. Ain’t that a kick in the head?
  1. The title of this piece serves as an allusion to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s assertion that decolonization is not a metaphor, and that for non-Native people of color in North America specifically, our visions for liberation cannot gloss the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples and lands.4 I take stock of not only where I was at in my twenties, but where I am at now, my research and teaching located at the intersection of Asian American studies and Native and Indigenous studies.
  1. Let me begin again: I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, on the traditional and unceded lands of the Tlingit people. Most of the racism I experienced growing up as a child and teen was misidentification, bigots mistaking me for Native. Rocks thrown. Epithets hurled. Once a man threatened to sic his dogs on me. None of this makes me Native, though, or erases my participation in settlement, occupation, and Native dispossession. I picked up a rock and aimed it back at my assailants, screaming, “I’m not Native!” as if that was the offense.
  1. Why this matters to me, or what I’m trying to say, again, is that gender and race are inextricably linked with colonialism. Rather than the explicit attacks, other more intimate misrecognitions linger in my memory. With my white father, I was often asked if I was adopted. Once, my dad’s co-worker thought I was my father’s mistress, reading our familiarity as illicit and adulterous. More than once, when I was watching my younger brother, someone mistook me for his mother. In all these encounters, the racial and gendered assumptions—Native paramour, Native teen mom—left me confused and ashamed. Let me repeat: none of this makes me Native. I am trying to tell a story about rape while occupying Native land. 
  1. This is not an attempt to make sexual violence against Asian American women or Indigenous women commensurate or even comparative but, rather, how we might trouble the intellectual and embodied connections between personal and colonial violence through Asian American and Indigenous feminisms and gesture to political possibilities that are formulated on horizontal relationalities rather than dominant structures. 
  1. We should probably return to the fact that I was part of an Asian American and Pacific Islander women and trans performance collective called Mango Tribe. The problematic settler arrivant irony is not lost on me, as someone who now teaches Native and Indigenous studies. Sure, to identify as a “tribe” may be a reclamation of sorts for Filipinx and Southeast Asian members who have endured the primitivist interpellation of American colonial and military violence. But, as a person of East Asian descent, I had no business using this word, let alone identifying with it.
  1. Native feminist and legal scholar Sarah Deer asserts that using the term “epidemic” to describe the astronomical occurrence of sexual assault against Native women is to depoliticize rape, to call such violence epidemic “is a fundamental misstatement of the problem…Rape in the lives of Native women is not an epidemic of recent, mysterious origin. Instead, rape is a fundamental result of colonialism, a history of violence reaching back centuries. An epidemic is a contagious disease; rape is a crime against humanity.”5
  1. Epidemic. adjective. (Of a disease) affecting many persons at the same time, and spreading from person to person in a locality. noun. 1. a disease prevalent among a people or community during a specific time. 2. a rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something. Use in a sentence: “Covid will not kill you as fast as a bullet.” – Black doctor at Black Lives Matter protest.6
  1. I am writing this during an epidemic a pandemic, a police murder, an uprising, trying to teach from home while also single parenting. My girlfriend, another professor, lives in another state, and we have not seen each other since the stay-at-home orders were issued, stranded for months between Minnesota and Illinois. News reports of anti-Asian aggression are on the rise. They all seem to be attacks on Asian American women. At a local light rail station, teens kick an elderly Asian woman in the head. Does any of this matter now that George Floyd is dead, because that is how I think of things now, before and after George Floyd’s murder.
  1. Epi- prefix. From Greek, the original meaning “upon,” “on,” “over,” “near,” “at,” “after.” As in epidermis, the outer layer of skin, not sensitive. If only this were true.
  1. Minnesota state motto: “L’Etoile du Nord” (The Star of the North), given this name in 1861 by first state governor Henry Hastings Sibley. The next year, Sibley would command army troops against the Dakota in the U.S.-Dakota War, a conflict that would end with the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men, the largest legal execution in U.S. history, and the internment of over 1,200 women, children, and elderly at Fort Snelling, a quarter of whom would perish over the long winter. Afterward, the Dakota were forcibly removed from the state, a violent absenting. Illinois state motto: “State Sovereignty, National Union.” Illinois nickname: “The Prairie State,” coined in 1842, as lore would have it, to capture the sentiment of arriving settlers viewing the boundless prairie.
  1. Settler colonialism: a haven, a grave.
  1. Fort Snelling, the first settlement in the territory of Minnesota, is also where Dred and Harriet Scott wed, and where they based their legal claim to freedom after being forcibly removed from the territory.
  1. Settler colonialism: a haven, a slave. 
  1. Not an epidemic, not an epiphenomenon. Native feminists insist that we understand the rape of Native women as caused by colonialism while Asian American feminists oppose using the rape of Asian women as the symptom of colonial violence. How to hold differential yet contemporaneous exigencies? Can my rape be measured by the Asian American transit from imperial subjection to settler diaspora? Here but not here. Not upon, over, at, or near, rape is not adjacent to anything. It is the thing.
  1. I have written this indebted to women of color feminisms, women of color feminists, and their our framework of narrative theorizing. I do not have the answers, or even a clear model for all I am trying to attend, messy and fragmented. I mean this to be provisional and provocational. As Michelle Cliff tells us, if I could write this in fire, I would write this in fire.7
  1. My Chinese name, Lu Feng, means like a phoenix. I would burn it all down, and let it rise anew.

Pictured above, by Catalina Ouyang, from the exhibition marrow:

crisis management (filling the space with syllables waiting for something to pass), 2019 
soapstone, plaster, symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast, abandoned chair, steel rebar, weaver’s cloth 58 x 16.5 x 16 inches


Notes

1 Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities (Boston: South End Press, 2011).

2 Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Margalit Fox, “Iris Chang, Who Chronicled Rape of Nanking, Dies at 36,” New York Times, November 12, 2004.

3 erin Khuê Ninh, “Without Enhancements: Sexual Violence in the Everyday Lives of Asian American Women,” in Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics, ed. Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018), 71.

4 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.

5 Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), x.

6  Dr. Lukmon Babajide, a resident physician at Rutgers. Quoted in Ankita Rao, “’Covid will not kill you as fast as a bullet’: Black doctors go from frontlines of pandemic to protests,” The Guardian, June 10, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/10/black-doctors-coronavirus-frontlines-join-protests-fight-racism.

7 Michelle Cliff, “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (Latham, NY: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), 15-30.