By Mike Dillon
For Northwest Asian Weekly
A few weeks after the Biden inauguration, a Japanese American friend was accosted in an Everett pharmacy by two fellows who told him to go back home. In his case, that would have meant the small town in eastern Washington where he grew up.
These Covid-scapegoating days remind the rest of America that Asian Americans, and other targeted populations — depending on the hallucinatory mood of the moment — live downstream from a toxic flow.
“Hate is a lack of imagination,” British novelist Graham Greene wrote. Among other factors, hatred, like war, is the spawn of an inner dearth, which our right-wing outrage machine unflaggingly fills and profits from. I believe it was Hannah Arendt, chronicler of authoritarianism, who chillingly observed that people who believe anything will do anything.
In February 2020 Raven Chronicles Press, a Seattle-area non-profit, published a powerful anthology, “Take a Stand: Art Against Hate” that expands the universe of the moral imagination. Editors Anna Balint, Thomas Hubbard and Phoebe Bosché, well-known in Northwest literary circles, produced an urgent book for our times.
I had thought, naively, that the anthology’s urgency would recede after the election. I was wrong, of course. I know now that “Take a Stand” is more necessary than ever. The salvific pulse of human decency beats throughout its 368 pages, featuring 117 writers and 53 artists, ranging from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet to young voices from the streets.
Before turning to books, Raven Chronicles published one of the best, socially-conscious literary magazines in the country. For nearly three decades, numerous Pacific Northwest writers, poets and artists with Asian roots appeared in its pages, including Koon Woon, Shawn Wong, Sharon Hashimoto, Mira Chieko Shimabukuro, Mayumi Tsutakawa, Holly Yasui, and a host of others.
“Take a Stand” takes on hate in all of its manifestations, as in a wonderfully succinct poem from Edward Ahern in which he nails hate as our “most pernicious consort,” and concludes: “It flourishes despite agonized exterminators,/an eye we refuse to pluck out.”
These lines from Seattle’s Lawrence Matsuda, dedicated to Ivanka Trump, a Jewish convert, confronts entitlement with a karmic mirror: “Ivanka, in a different time and place,/you and your children are squeezed into/cattle cars destined for Nazi death camps…Religion is your crime.” Matsuda was born inside the Minidoka prison camp during World War II. Ancestry was the family’s crime.
Here’s the entire, devastating poem titled “Threat” by Kathleen Stanik: “Somewhere/in a detention center/along the southern border/a janitor removes rosaries/from the trash,/photographs them/so they will not be forgotten./Discarded, it was said,/for the safety of the others.” The facing page features a photograph by Tom Kiefer: a humble, confiscated wrist rosary lies on a black background; the rosary shines out of the soul’s darkest night, its luminosity more durable than officialdom’s rote cruelties.
The last poem in the anthology, by Ellery Akers, “Any Moment There Could be a Swerve in a Different Direction,” turns to the environment, another target of the morally abridged. “There was a moment when shooting egrets for feathers became wrong./ There was a moment when the Wilderness Act/changed the lives of billions of blades of grass.” Akers imagines a better way of being: “A swerve smells astringent, like wind off the sea;/ it tastes red, the way Red Hot peppermints burn in your mouth.” Her poem ends with “it looks like a coyote, crossing the freeway to go home.”
I think of my Japanese American friend, a tireless activist for human dignity. He was in the Everett pharmacy that day to pick up medicine for a mutual friend, who is white, and who has a terminal condition.
I realize “Take a Stand: Art Against Hate” has a shelf life with no expiration date. But my friend’s life reminds me, as I am reminded by “Take a Stand,” that the best angels of human nature are as strong as our times demand.
And our times are making deep demands.
Mike Dillon is former publisher of Pacific Publishing Co. in Seattle and is on the Raven Chronicles Press board of directors.