Tarfia Faizullah on Contemporary Asian American Literature

Brooklyn-born poet and author of Seam, Tarfia Faizullah speaks at the Phillips as part of the Asian American Literature Festival on July 28. As a featured writer, we asked her a few questions about her work and the state of contemporary Asian American literature.

Tarfia Faizullah

What do you think having an Asian American literature festival means to the broader Asian American community? What does it mean in regards to the state of Asian American literature?

I think it’s always interesting to get folks of different generations, heritages, life experiences, talents, and perspectives into the same space at the same time, because it shows us what is possible, and how far we have already come. Some of the folks who will be there have provided, in decades past, the initial momentum and ambition that have helped newcomers blaze their own wondrous trails through the world of arts and letters. We have much to learn from each other, and we shouldn’t be content to merely maintain our own individual silos of experience—I’m excited about how different we all are from each other, as well as where we overlap and intersect. I hope to eavesdrop on as many conversations as I can! In all seriousness, this is an opportunity to add another point of view to our own, and to find enjoyment in each other’s company, which I don’t think should be underestimated as a potentially powerful tool of change. I just took another look at the lineup and schedule for the festival, and frankly, it means a time spent listening to, and being around, extraordinary and extraordinarily decent people who have a lot to share.

What do you want festival attendees to take away from “Tea with Tarfia”?

Registers of Illuminated Villages, Tarfia Faizullah. Releasing in March 2018.

I have so many fond memories of listening to my mother and her friends speaking intimately and openly to each other over tea. I was often surprised by how deep and vast the conversations could be. Sometimes, my mother and her friends would challenge each other’s perspectives, and it would lead not necessarily to agreement, but to understanding, which actually seems more difficult to achieve. My mother is still close with those friends, and I still return to and value the insights I got from just listening to the way others think. I appreciate that informality can lead to surprising and surprisingly deep forms of connection and intimacy. I’m hoping we’ll learn something fascinating about ourselves and each other in all sorts of delightful and unforeseen ways, and I’m hoping for laughter.

Also, these days, I’m often the one in the hot seat, so I’m excited for the chance to ask others what their current and primary concerns are. My hope is that folks who come will experience the pleasure of spontaneous, connective, and candid conversations, and that we’ll all leave with insights that may aid us in sorting through and better understanding the nuances of our own lives and the lives of others. Basically, I’ve always secretly maybe wanted to host my own talk show, and this is my chance! We’ll have tea! And I’ll have lots of questions.

Are there any themes that permeate throughout your work?

I would say there are certain obsessions that keep choosing me—memory, its fallibility/flexibility—time, basically, and how to express the strange music of all this pain and love and sorrow and joy.

On Stage with The Migration Series

From left to right: Desmond Bing, Nora Achrati, Natalie Graves Tucker, Jeff Allin, Derek Goldman (director), James Johnson, and Craig Wallace. Rehearsing Terrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “In Constant Pursuit” inspired by Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundred to travel north. Photo: Kelley Daley

In conjunction with the recent exhibition People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, the Phillips commissioned five local playwrights to create one-act plays in response to five specific panels in The Migration Series. The plays were presented twice as staged readings last fall, and on June 26th, 2017, the staged readings were recorded in the galleries alongside the artwork with the original cast and director.

The five plays address issues such as immigration, migration, racial tensions in America, and familial relationships. Filming the readings in the galleries, among the 30 panels The Phillips Collection owns, made for an interesting and meaningful atmosphere for the recordings. Read interviews with the playwrights here.

Recording “#51” by Laura Shamas, inspired by Panel no. 51: African Americans seeking to find better housing attempted to move into new areas. This resulted in the bombing of their new homes. Photo: Sarah Corley

Videographers Rob Migrin and Shaun Mir set up the scene for the recording of Annalisa Dias’s “A Legacy of Chains” while director Derek Goldman looks on. Photo: Sarah Corley

Painting to Painting: Finding Familiar Faces

While working in Texas last month, I had the good fortune to visit the Dallas Museum of Art. I found a few paintings that reminded me of works from The Phillips Collection, and thought they made nice pairings.

Robert Henri, (left) Dutch Girl, 1910/reworked 1913, 1919. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1920 (right) Dutch Girl Laughing, 1907. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 1/4 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase

In the summers of 1907 and 1910, Robert Henri traveled to Haarlem, The Netherlands, where he painted many portraits of the local people, including these two works which may be the same sitter. Henri described young Cori here as “a little white headed broad faced red cheeked girl…always laughing.”

Edward Hicks ,(left) The Peaceable Kingdom, between 1845 and 1846. Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 32 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1939 (right) The Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1846-1847. Oil on canvas, 24 x 31 1/8 in. Dallas Museum of Art, The Art Museum League Fund

Edward Hicks painted more than one hundred versions of this subject, which illustrates his favorite biblical passage—Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 11:6-9), an allegory of spiritual and earthly harmony.

George Bellows, (left) Emma at the Window, 1920. Oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 34 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1924 (right) Emma, 1920-1923. Oil on canvas, 63 x 51 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase

Between 1911 and 1924, George Bellows painted eleven portraits of his wife, Emma Story Bellows (1884–1959). The works from the 1920s were created in Woodstock, New York, where the couple summered. These mature portraits reflect Bellows’s admiration for the Old Masters, Thomas Eakins, and contemporary color theories.

John Marin, (left) The Sea, Cape Split, Maine, 1939. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 29 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1940 (right) Bathers, 1932. Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 28 1/2 in. Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated

After establishing himself in the 1920s as the world’s foremost watercolorist, John Marin began painting oils in the 1930s. These paintings reveal Marin’s renowned ability to capture his immediate impression of a powerful seascape along the rocky Maine coast.

Renée Maurer, Associate Curator