A snapshot of ISSUE Project Room’s creative collaboration between Jasmine Gibson, Fana Fraser, Sokunthary Svay, and Annie Heath
I’m a dancer and a writer of poems, prose stories, essays. As part of my curatorial platform at ISSUE Project Room, soft bodies in hard places, I dreamt of being able to bring artists who work in these mediums together for some new experiments in collaboration. This vision manifested in spring 2019 with very peak summer solstice, a project presented in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
I hold a lot of reverence for deep study of form and medium. Craft is a precious thing. But it’s sometimes made too precious, too rarefied. I asked two dancers and two poets to work together, play, create new work. Performer and performance maker Fana Fraser worked with poet Jasmine Gibson; dancer and choreographer Annie Heath worked with poet Sokunthary Svay. These commissioned projects wouldn’t yield in material, dripping in polished certitude. A couple months of working together couldn’t possibly produce the same kind of work honed over years and years. But this snapshot of a nascent process was just as compelling and important.
On June 18, 2019, AAWW hosted a short reading and craft talk with the artists: in addition to Fana, Jasmine, Annie, and Sokunthary, storyteller Stephanie George provided astrological readings for the artists; and writer Jean Lee was commissioned to develop a piece in response to this project.
On June 21, 2019, ISSUE Project Room presented the performance works Fana and Jasmine plus Annie and Sok have been building together. Annie and Sok shared This Mother|land Fabric, a collaborative performance considering the “weight that we wear on ourselves” and different contexts of heaps of fabric thrown around the space. Fana and Jasmine shared Fana + Jasmine; in the program note, they write “Ours is a practice best left undefined, and only to be embodied.”
I was really taken by how the two pairs approached the themes of the solstice, the space at ISSUE, and the conceit itself to build such different performance works. I invite you to read pieces of writing generated over the course of this process. If you’re curious about the performances, I’ll say (needlessly) that they happened live, the night of this year’s summer solstice. Even if you watched the video, would it be the same as what you felt that morning, when the Earth was as its highest tilt from the Sun, when we shifted from Gemini to Cancer season? very peak summer solstice arrived in moments past but processes continue. I hope you might get the chance to experience something more, something live from these artists.
by Annie Heath and Sokunthary Svay
“Portrait of a Cambodian Lady”
by Sokunthary Svay
by Fana Fraser
by Jasmine Gibson
“very peak summer solstice: reflections on home, rituals and remembering”
by Stephanie George
A textual collaboration between Annie Heath and Sokunthary Svay
A belly expands and protrudes
Pushing out resting fabric
Trying to give more
I take in more air, so hoping to grasp
Beat myself into the ground
Into unforgiving cement
No amount of stretch can alleviate
Panic in open space
What makes me love myself more?
Feeling the cold wood floor
Warm with my heat
I give myself love—
Think it means
Harsh criticism, endless physical effort,
Be ruthless to myself
Let me nurture my brutality
How can I lose myself more?
I wonder how people search
for something inaccessible
How to rip open a coarse wall
In the quiet black
Going back through an archived mind
Filled with shelves, empty pages
I wonder about capacity
That cavity that needs filling
It’s easy to pick at your face
Leaving skin on the ground.
It’s satisfying to watch your insides come out
My resting face is empty
The skin between one nostril connected
To form a soft landing spot
Mouth magically sewed together.
Lipstick is hard to wear.
I don’t wear lipstick anymore.
by Sokunthary Svay
My mother would bend her fingers back till they were perpendicular from her wrist. She said that Khmer girls would begin training at an early age to begin making their fingers pliable for the mudras required in Khmer classical dance, also known sometimes as “apsara dance,” inspired by these Hindu deities of the clouds and waters dancing all over the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat and its neighbors in the city of Siem Reap. It seemed unearthly to bend the fingers back that way.
Each gesture, inherited from the Indian mudras, represents an idea or image and therefore to do a set of gestures can tell a story, thereby the apsara dance becomes a form of storytelling. It is likely the “leaf” mudra that my mother was speaking about in the anecdote. Thinking about the way the young Khmer female body conforms to the shape of these deities, bending and molding the bone, stretching to accommodate the work, I recall the various forms of labor taken on by the Khmer female body where performativity (certain acts and their labors) comes to define the diasporic Khmer woman. The Khmer dance gestures denote aspects of pastoral, field labor in their storytelling.
What of the Khmer Rouge women in propaganda about the agrarian utopia? What of that body, forced to conform to communist ideology, forced to smile, to marry and reproduce?
What then to make of these women in this Khmer Rouge propaganda photo, arranged so purposefully in a tiered semi-circle? The front row is clear enough—a young woman smiling while looking at an earlier issue of this Communist magazine. Meanwhile, the picture is a bit more unclear with the back row, where the women are not smiling as much, less enthusiastic. What of these differences in front of the photographer, and the emotional labor these young Khmer women must put on in the form of smiles and compliance for the larger vehicle of the regime? This is not in their service (as it were) aside from a job they must perform in order to stay alive, and certainly to maintain and/or gain favor with their unit leaders. What other labors are they performing that we are not seeing? How many of them have already been forced to marry and procreate in order to provide the next generation of the Khmer Rouge labor force? What other bodily functions of the Khmer woman worker under this regime have been institutionalized to serve this labor movement?
This portrait to the right seems simple enough. Out of context it appears to be two young field laborers holding freshly cut rice stalks. In the context of the photo above and what we know of the Khmer Rouge regime, this is another performance through smiles. These young women then become tasked with physical, hard labor (the work days were absurdly long with little food in the case of soup with rice grains) to pose and expect emotional labor here as well. Who is watching? The world, the photographer, the unit leaders of their province. In some ways a larger form of surveillance is taking place, the policing of their emotive expressions.
The term for childbirth in Khmer is Chlong Tonle, which means “crossing the river.”
I’m interested in the way the aforementioned bodies perform, first as mudras from inherited religion, then institutionalized by the Royal National Ballet as Cambodia’s classical dance, to becoming a rite of passage to bend and construct the fingers for young Khmer girls. Then there is the performance of happiness, pride, satisfaction, and success for the audience of the Khmer Rouge brochure. This performance becomes a facade of protection against any backlash. Could one wrong expression have severe consequences? Recall that the surveillance is not just in the photo, but families were turned against each other during this time in Cambodia. Young children were brainwashed and made to become spies, turning on their own families (called chhlop).
The chhlop were performing allegiance to Angkar, the all-seeing, panopticon often referred to (and threatened to workers) as a pineapple, with its eyes all over, seeing everything.
My mother retired last year from her job as a room attendant at the E* Hotel in Times Square. She has worked there for over twenty years. She has seen Times Square during its gritty time, with the old train cars full of graffiti. My father likes to tell the story that when he was asked where he wanted to resettle, he said “put me where they have jobs. I want to work.” He’s never been shy about wanting to work. Our family had government assistance briefly but eventually my parents both found some jobs. My mother’s first job was to make pigs-in-a-blanket at a factory in upstate New York. She was pregnant with my younger brother, while I was a toddler and my older brother with vision issues. Her working meant that she couldn’t be with us. I became comfortable with the Auntie, “Auntie 5C” we called her (that was her apartment number). She watched us for many years; my younger brother, Jammy, contracted tuberculosis from her. We became close to her sons. One of them became a bit too close with me. My mother took us out of Auntie 5C’s home after that. The need for work put a strain on family relationships and certainly exasperated mental health conditions.
We were taught at a young age how to lie. It was several years before my mother was actually full-time at the E* Hotel. Before that, she was on-call. I remember many morning watching her sit by the phone at 7am as I got ready for school, hoping to get work for the day. Meanwhile, she had a part-time job as a janitor at the World Trade Center (before the first bombing). Unfortunately, the hotel job wanted her to be available and she was terrified of them calling her while she was at the other job. So she taught us that if we received a call for her while she was out working, we were to say she had “gone to the store.” This act of lying, this performing for preservation of future labor opportunities was something I nearly forgot in all these years.
Once my mother looked at my hands and predicted that I would come into lots of money, based on the merging of two large lines toward the bottom of my palm. Then we looked down at her calloused hands, her dry fingers with the skin peeling off. They were evidence of chemicals used in cleaning the hotel rooms (including their bathrooms) and the heat of the glue gun as she glued the fabric of the bows onto the French barrettes. If love is labor, then she has given her society and family the mightiest love. Belabored.
I neglected to mention that we did a bit of sweatshop labor in our own home. Sure the money was cash and it was done at home, but this was one of my parents’ other jobs (so you could say that my mother worked three jobs at once at a certain point in her life to sustain us). In Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto by Eric Tang, he refers to this home sweatshop labor by Khmer refugees in the Bronx as the “neo-plantation.” We did piecemeal work where a fellow Asian, normally Khmer or Chinese, would bring us large black plastic bags filled with fabric, clips, and thread to assemble bows. There was a bit of manipulation of various fabrics to make them in the shape of ruffles or bows, a particular skill that my mom seemed best at so she did that particular work. The rest of us were enlisted to do smaller things like separate the fabrics and lay them out for her to easily grab, or to take tubes of fabric (which are sewn inside out) and use a chopstick to turn them right side out. There was one time when we joined with another family in folding little toy hammock, then stuffing them into boxes. Thinking about some of these hair bows, they went for anywhere from $5 to $10. We were being paid about $3 per fabricated dozen. The living room would be filled with so much fabric you couldn’t find the floor. “Vacations” from school meant staying home to watch tv and help with this work, or to go to a Khmer wedding, which would be likely in Lowell, Massachusetts or some other New England area where Khmers had resettled.
Mother quickly learned which tourists gave the best tips. Those from certain European countries were the cheapest and those from these other countries did not. Some were particularly rude. She learned which relationship with which guests would be more profitable. These tips meant extra money brought home that she would use to buy extra food for us. It seemed the danger of hunger took at least two decades to slowly forget. She yelled at us once for opening a bag of chips she had just bought. We opened them slowly and quietly after that for fear of her (misplaced) temper.
She would even perform for me the cleaning lady routine she had down: “HeLLO Sir, How ah yuu?” With a slight bow while in her body-length blue pinafore, her name stitched in baby blue. Her beautiful, toothy smile was the winning and final gesture, the added little bow in the aesthetic gift presented as the face of this hotel business.
The act of remembering this calls to mind the Cambodian American Memory Work as written in Cathy Schlund-Vials’ work. I agitate between the academic and personal, wondering how relevant and useful such remembrances are. I recall my time in Meena Alexander’s class with Dictee, and Antoinette Burton’s work essay on autobiography. I don’t mean to step in for my mother, nor speak for her. Instead I use my recollection, these fragments which I try to collate into a narrative, as a way spend time with the ways that labor have been invasive in her life and on her body.
*I am grateful for access to the New York Times archives of the New York Public Library’s Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.
by Fana Fraser
moving through discomfort, unease
boil your blood
rinse your gut
nourish nerves heart kidneys ovaries bones
standing on 2 feet or 4 or 1 or 3 or 5 or
spinning spinning spinninggg
crawl out of skin,
eyes mouth pussy anus
and soon sssaliva
cooing and humming
and laughing and maybe
s l o w r e m embering
Where am I now?
by Jasmine Gibson
Changing with the waxing phases of Pluto
Bodies bend to the alphabet letters on the fridge
Bone meets me here
Stone meets me where I cannot see you seeing me in the flesh upon stone
I cannot count the last time that I embodied this dexterity
Stone meets fat meets years of waste on laboring time and how
I’ve had nothing but time to seam myself into the hem of this historical moment
When the moon changes,
I bleed into the office walls of appreciation
Unequal pleasures begets unequal wages
It creates a train that follows me home and I don’t want to bring it home
very peak summer solstice: reflections on home, rituals and remembering
by Stephanie George
In the green house, on the top of the hill, with a storefront poking out, well past the goats circling in the front yard, I can almost see my grandmother. Kneeling on the ground, she is preparing to wrap the duckanoo. Eight-year-old me is entranced by how she gently wraps the pudding dish made up of sweet potato, coconut, cornmeal and plantain in banana leaves. After using the leftover stems to firmly tie the leaves into a neat package, she places it in the coal stove. I realize, now, this is the first time I am seeing an artist at work.
When memories like this wash over me, I wonder what they have come to teach me. My roots, my heritage, and my stomach–tugging on my tongue. It is often because I am using reason for something that requires intuition. I am naming instead of feeling. Observing instead of embodying.
For the second event in soft bodies in hard places, very peak summer solstice (vpss) I understood anew the ways in which the exciting challenge to blend, blur, and transcend at the nexus of words and movement required all of us involved to give birth to ourselves. To become both the eternal mother and child in our own stories. The event for which this project was named, the summer solstice, gave us rich material to contemplate.
In my letter to vpss attendees, I wrote:
“This summer solstice asks us about our relationship to the ancient, primordial and the yet to be revealed. The mumbling that predates poetic sensibilities. The gesturing and wandering that births movement. The joy that foretells celebration. We are here to bask in sweet summer. In the fullness of it, the cool nights swelling with hope and mornings ripe with sun-kissed daydreams. Always haunted that in a sweltering swing that same sun blazing can blister and burn.”
In my initial research, I wondered why the beginning of summer, a time so deeply embedded with the symbolism of the sun, would make its entrance under a sign ruled by the moon, Cancer. I discovered that the symbol of Cancer also represents the ascending and descending of the sun, it contains precisely the moment when the sun begins to travel “backward.” The why became less important to me and instead how we make meaning of tradition became more urgent.
A daughter, a granddaughter–a woman of women–a conjurer. One’s lineage and myths are deeply woven into the archetype of Cancer. For me, it’s remembering my people, they made their own furniture, they collected rainwater. People of the soil, they grew their vegetables and raised chickens in the farm out back. This is why the memories return. I am beckoned to remember there are resources and gifts available to me as heirlooms in my dreams. Rituals that can bind, recall and transform my present reality.
Why do we welcome this season so heavy with remembering, inhabiting, and protecting as the start of sweet summer? I think summer understands to be wrapped in the invisible labor of worship–love–is an entrance truly worthy of its presence. For my grandmother, each dish, at every meal, was a part of an unspoken project, one in which she was meticulously involved in crafting an experience of ‘home’ that stretches beyond the span of her life. From my mother’s hometown in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, I can trace a lineage of the feminine artistry that transcends the boundaries of time, place, and death to surround me.
When we consider the womanist, embodied, intergenerational, and transnational, we are reckoning with Cancer’s domains. It is beyond temporalities. It abandons linear progress in search of the waxing and waning of the moon. It remembers to revolutionize. It insists that the body can still feel, still remember, home. Home is where love is grown plenty like flowers, where tenderness is spread thick like jam. It is a place of radical imagination and possibility yet somehow is intimately familiar.