Christopher K. Ho and Daisy Nam

Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the arts (Paper Monument, 2021).

In January 2020, shortly before they went into lockdown, artist Christopher K. Ho and curator Daisy Nam realized that they were both independently pursuing projects related to letters: Ho a letter of apology to his former RISD students, whom he felt he had failed as an Asian American mentor, and Nam a program of live readings of existing letters of redress, including ones penned by Sylvia Wynter, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Angela Davis. The pair had met through a leadership group at Asia Art Archive in America focused on the model-minority myth and ways of dismantling it and were now turning to the rich possibilities of the epistolary format. What was originally a conversation over coffee ultimately led to Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the arts. Published by Paper Monument, the anthology offers intimate insights by a wide range of art workers, including artists Anicka Yi and Candice Lin, curators Howie Chen and Christine Y. Kim, critics John Yau and Dawn Chan, and scholars Anne Anlin Cheng and Marci Kwon.

WE HAD THIS IDEA that people would get to know one another through this project. Imagine a huge banquet where contributors to the book gather and converse over dim sum. At first, we thought there would be thirty guests, maximum. To our surprise, when we sat down and began counting the number of Asian Americans in the arts—including artists, curators, art historians, writers, professors, and designers—the list grew to the hundreds. This was really eye-opening for us, and it underscored that we’re not even that visible to ourselves, much less to others. Though we’re relatively involved in Asian and Asian American arts issues, we underestimated our contributions to, and the number of us in, the field. We ended up with seventy-three contributors.

Some we had known for years, even decades, yet it was our first time hearing them speak about their backgrounds, families, and racialized experiences. We tend to be able to code-switch easily and perform proficiently in the art world without touching on ethnicity. We often limit ourselves to artspeak, even among ourselves. It was exhilarating to read the letters as they came in. We thought, There’s so much more to talk about that we hadn’t because we were being “professional.”

We chose the format of the letter because it typically carries the sound of the writer’s voice. You can be vulnerable, intimate, and provocative all at once. A letter has an addressee—someone it is specially written for—and a signatory—someone who takes responsibility for the words. Of course, the approaches taken by the contributors really varied: Kenneth Tam wrote a birthday card addressed to his father, Vinay Hira shared a resignation letter from 2015, and Jesse Chun wrote to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services about her late grandmother.

The title Best! refers to the common written sign-off (“all my best,” “best wishes”). It’s also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the model-minority stereotype of excellence, familiar to many Asian Americans, which the letters here disturb. For Asian Americans specifically, you get it almost immediately; it’s obvious what the joke is. For others, possibly not so much. They may read it only as the sign-off of a letter or as something about writing to best friends. In a way, it was our way of articulating our audience.

We hope that Best! is just a start. It’s by no means comprehensive. When we began, we considered including Asians in the arts globally. We ended up limiting ourselves loosely to North America. The criteria had less to do with citizenship and more to do with time spent and educational or familial connections.

The term Asian American emerged from the 1960s, and now it’s colloquial and convenient but also something to go against. Josh Kline, for instance, questioned what it means for someone from the Philippines, which was colonized by the United States, to be defined as “Asian American.” In her contribution, Furen Dai revises and corrects a letter from former President Trump congratulating her on becoming a US citizen.

As clumsy as the term Asian American is, it carves out a nonwhite space that opens up possibilities beyond what we are expected to say, what we can say, and what we end up saying. There’s a sensitivity and understanding in how to talk to one another. Putting together the anthology entailed endless email exchanges—this all happened during the pandemic—and many, many phone calls, some of which we wish we could have recorded and included in the book. Every exchange was special. Even the conversations with those who said “Thanks for the invitation, but no thanks” contained nuggets and lessons that resonated and will remain with us.

Others focused less on the “Asian” part and more on the “American” part. And this year highlighted the challenge facing Asians in the United States of suddenly being visible, sometimes in the wrong way and not by choice. As we grouped the letters, we had a section we nicknamed “Fuck You, America.” It was filled with letters that questioned what it means to be American. We are American, but sometimes we don’t feel American.