Artist of the Week Serena Yang ’23

Serena Yang ’23 is from New York City. She is our very first artist of the week who is a writer! Yang is in OASIS, on the editorial board of Small Craft Warnings, and hosts a WSRN radio show. She is also an ORAA board member and an IC intern.

What kind of art do you do?

I’m a writer, poet, and slam poet. I still struggle with calling myself any of those things though because –– and I think these insecurities are pretty common for artists –– I’m always struggling with feeling like I’m not producing enough material, reading enough, or being enough in general — whatever that means. I don’t write prolifically at all and feel bad about it all the time, but I’m trying to recognize that the work of writing involves so much more than the moments when you actually have a pen on paper. I normally end up with only four or five pieces of prose and poetry a year that I’m truly happy with, and I think that’s okay. Sometimes I need to sit on a short poem for a long while, and sometimes I can finish writing a short story in one night. 

What kind of writing do you do?

I started with writing mostly creative nonfiction, then in the past two years I started writing more poetry and some short fiction, and I also started to get involved in the New York City slam poetry scene. Right now, everything I write, as much as I try to avoid it, is in some way about girlhood, migration, queerness, intergenerational relationships between women, or folk tales and mythology. Everything is also somehow about coming of age.

How did you get started with writing?

I always liked creative writing even when I was little, and maybe I had some far away dream of being an author or something like that. But it didn’t feel real to me in that no one around me wrote seriously –– growing up, I didn’t have any adult, or even teenage example of a “writer.” Nobody guided me on what to read. I’ll forever be grateful to the English teachers who encouraged me in middle school to take myself and my writing seriously, who somehow convinced me that writing has a certain power and that I could maybe find a way to harness it if I wanted to. I think for immigrant kids or second-generation kids that’s really special. The first creative work I wrote outside of class assignments grew directly out of my summer experiences in China with family that I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. It was right at that time that I started to be really drawn to writing, so while my teachers were encouraging, I think I necessarily gravitated to writing because I needed some way to negotiate my identity and articulate my experiences. It was validating and comforting to craft complete, coherent narratives at a time when I began to feel a little unmoored. Now I think of writing as a constant exercise in meeting myself, wherever I may be. My writing is a site of self-negotiation, the first witness to every revelation or crisis. It’s a safe place for me to explore identities, futures, and truths about myself that I am maybe not ready to face in the real world yet. 

How has your home/community environment affected your writing and art?

I owe a lot to growing up in New York City! Without the city, I don’t think I would’ve been able to explore what it meant to be an immigrant writer as early as I did, and I definitely would never have gotten into slam poetry. In junior year of high school, I showed up at a preliminary round for the New York City Youth Poetry Slam on a whim — very clueless, very nervous, and very out of my depth. I didn’t know anything about slam, I knew a total of zero people there, and in a way all of this was very freeing. Somehow I made it to semifinals, then to finals at the Apollo Theater. Slam just instantly made me so happy that I didn’t want to let the feeling go. It was unlike anything that I had ever done before, since I always shied away from anything that might lead to me embarrassing myself in front of an audience. I think I was very lucky that slam season, since there is always luck involved in the results of any poetry slam. It was really empowering to do well at something that no one, including myself, had ever expected me to do. I was the only Asian poet, or one of two, in most slams and open mics that season (and the next). At times this was uncomfortable and alienating, but it made me think about my positioning in the literary world. It challenged me to understand why I write, and to unlearn white, male, cishet, imperialist notions of what “good” writing is, and what “good” writing is for. I grew the most as a writer, and probably as a person too, during that year I spent immersed in New York City’s youth slam world, and I feel endlessly grateful to the beautiful people there who made it possible. I owe that world so much of who I am today, and I think this is one way in which I, an immigrant writer, was able to build my own literary lineage.

What is “A tiny grain of sand”?

“A tiny grain of sand” is a WSRN radio show I run with my roommate Ashley! We play all genres of music by Asian American, Asian, and Asian diasporic artists. We try to have a topic for each episode, and sometimes we succeed! We’ve done an episode on lofi Asian artists, an artist spotlight on two of our favorites, ZHU and Japanese Breakfast, and a packed episode on K-Pop in which we covered everything from our favorite early 2010s hits to the xenophobic language around K-Pop to the frequent anti-Blackness and cultural appropriation in the industry.

The name of the show comes from what is widely considered to be the first album of Asian American music ever released, a folk album released in 1973 called “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America.” The song “Yellow Pearl” goes, “A grain, / a tiny of grain of sand / landing in the belly of the monster.” I first came across this album and its accompanying written statement maybe in 2017 or 2018, and this is what I mean when I say that sometimes I sit on an idea for months, years. And even though I’m not a songwriter or a musician, I consider this album and Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William “Charlie” Chin to be part of my literary or artistic lineage. 

How has your experience as an Asian American affected your writing? What about your experience with AALFY?

AALFY is the Asian American Leadership Forum for Youth! This conference is actually where I watched Franny Choi’s slam poem “For Peter Liang” back in 2017, and if there exists a start point at all of my interest in slam poetry, that’s definitely it. I eventually became part of AALFY board and worked on the conference for two years. It was a formative experience for me as an activist and as someone interested in Asian American studies, and for me those two things are inseparable from my identity as a writer. Writing, and art in general, is central to any social movement, and it’s the very fabric of any community. I really believe in working at the intersection of art and social justice, and I think I will always be writing from that position. 

I’ve been working for over a year to launch and maintain a literary magazine, “Parallax,” for emerging Asian American writers and artists, but this is very much a work in progress.

What other activities do you do? How do they possibly relate to art?

My activist and organizing work is inseparable from my art. I don’t believe in writing or any art being created or consumed in a vacuum. As a marginalized body, my art is necessarily politicized, and it’s up to me to wield that as resistance, as power. I’m always aware of the very real power of words –– there’s nothing in the world that can touch you more intimately than words can.

Rachel Lapides

Rachel Lapides is a sophomore from New York City studying English and Psychology. She loves plants and is slowly turning her dorm room into a garden.

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