Friday, May 22, 2009

T.G.I.F.: Helen Zia

I should begin this post by disclosing that I know the subject of today's T.G.I.F. (The Great Impossible Feat). But this is not why I've chosen to talk about Helen Zia today. Helen Zia is an Asian American activist par excellence. She most famously is tied to Vincent Chin--fighting for justice on his behalf. She was featured prominently in Christine Choy and Renee Tajima's excellent documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? (by the way, if you haven't seen this documentary, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT, although truth be told, it will be hard to find outside of indie video rental shops or college/university libraries).

The first time I met her was when she came up to me after I delivered a conference paper on R. Kelly and The Matrix called "From R. Kelly to Keanu Reeves: Asian influences in American Pop Culture" (to be honest, I'm not sure if this is the exact title, but I know that the title had both R. Kelly and Keanu Reeves in the title, which made people scratch their heads since this was an academic conference). I saw her walk into the room and was pleased that she stayed for our panel and then shocked when she came up to me afterwards and asked for my card because she liked my paper! You have to understand: I am a total academic geek. So Helen Zia coming up to me at the end of a conference panel and telling me she wanted my card would be the equivalent of having George Clooney or Helen Mirren coming up to you and asking you for your autograph--you'd be speechless (and I nearly was).

So why was I so thrilled? Because I want to be Helen Zia when I grow up. Seriously. This woman was a community organizer in Detroit back in the day when we had no idea what a community organizer was. She was on the front lines of fighting for social justice in the Vincent Chin case, but has also continued to fight for social justice for many causes, like women's rights (she was an executive editor at Ms. Magazine), queer rights, Asian Americans falsely accused of espionage, like scientist Wen Ho Lee (she helped co-author Lee's My Country Versus Me), civil rights (she has testified to Congress about racial impacts in news media) and the connection between race and gender (which came about from her research on women who join neo-Nazi organizations). She is also clearly in support of gay marriages since she was featured on the cover of the New York Times as one of the first couples to be married to her long-time partner Lia Shigemura in 2008 when California, for a brief and shining moment, allowed gay marriage in the state (she and Lia also married in 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed marriages to occur in SF City Hall).

[Helen and Lia at their 2008 wedding at SF City Hall]

Plus, she is the author of an incredible book: Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. I had the privilege of introducing Helen at a book reading at the latest American Literature Association conference.

When Helen talked about writing this book and finding a publisher for the book, she talked candidly about wanting to tell a story, private yet public, personal yet global, about Asian American experiences that reflected the reality of Asian American life, which means talking about queer Asian Americans and her own experiences as a lesbian and coming-out. And her book talks about gender, class, racism, and a host of other topics in an organic and empowering way.

Helen Zia continues to be a scholar and activist and journalist and a woman who wants others to be involved--like most recently with this video she did on behalf of AAPI Momentum encouraging APA people to get involved and volunteer the week of May 24-31 as part of AAPI Week of Service:

[Tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man]

Helen Zia inspires me to want to work on behalf of social justice issues; her dedication and devotion to multiple causes is admirable. Like I said, I want to be Helen Zia when I grow up. Which is why she gets the T.G.I.F. award for not just talking the talk but walking the walk of social justice as a life-long activist.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]


seitzk said...

Hear hear! She is a phenomenal activist and someone I really hope to meet one day.

Jennifer said...

Yes, I am a real Helen Zia fan, and I do hope you get to meet her one day. I don't want to put Helen on too much of a pedestal because she's too down-to-earth for something like that. But I think it's for precisely that reason--because she's such a normal, approachable, real person that her activism seems like something any of us can achieve and work towards.