by David L. Eng
March 16, 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shootings. Six of the eight victims were Asian American women. That same week, in my course, “Introduction to Asian American Literature and Culture,” I asked my students if they could name even one Atlanta victim. They could not. Nor, for that matter, could I. So we did our research, and I will name them here:
The victims at Young’s Asian Massage were:
Daoyou Feng, age 44
Paul Andre Michels, age 54
Xiaojie Tan, age 49
Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33
The victims at the Gold Spa were:
Hyun Jung Grant, age 51
Suncha Kim, age 69
Soon Chung Park, age 74
The victim at Aromatherapy Spa was:
Yong Ae Yue, age 63
The question of loss and anti-Asian violence is never far from my students’ minds. Many of them have endured harassment on Penn’s campus as well as on the streets of Philadelphia, especially in the wake of COVID-19, “Kung Flu,” and the hate inflamed by that racial slur. Our class spent many hours of the semester studying the history of anti-Asian violence in both national and global contexts, which reaches from the nineteenth century to the present, as various Asian American scholars have chronicled (see, for example, this recent article by Mae Ngai). I was able to impress upon my students that while we must, of course, condemn local acts of anti-Asian violence, such as the Atlanta Spa Shootings, we must at the same time remain mindful of the fact, as Viet Nguyen has observed, that the U.S. State has been one of the greatest perpetrators of anti-Asian violence—for example, through its series of military interventions and partitions in East and Southeast Asia during the Cold War.
A few weeks later, toward the end of our semester, I encountered anew the enduring after-effects of these cycles of violence during a visit to New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. There, I had the chance to visit the installation “Grief Garden” by the young Asian American poet, Khaty Xiong, who is the child of Hmong war refugees from Laos.
What struck me initially about Xiong’s installation was the fact that it, too, was almost “lost”: “Grief Garden” was originally slated to open in April 2020 as part of the Refugee Series, led by then visiting scholar-in-residence Ocean Vuong, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Thankfully, it was eventually “resurrected.” Indeed, “Grief Garden” gave me the opportunity to “work through,” as they say in psychoanalysis, some of the experiences of loss and remembrance with which the exhibit seeks to engage.
Xiong’s installation—an immersive, spatial interpretation of her poem, “On Visiting the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens”—focuses attention on the relationship between personal and collective loss. In the poem, Xiong embarks on a journey into a botanical afterlife in pursuit of her recently deceased mother—Persephone searching for Demeter, in a role reversal of the Greek myth. In the installation, Xiong represents flora and fauna from the Conservatory, as well as the garden of her mother, who was a shaman and medicine woman in Ohio’s Hmong community. As they explore “Grief Garden,” visitors are invited to pause, rest, and reflect. They are also encouraged to write messages to lost loved ones on paper replicas of various plants and animals and then to hang these missives on any of the three garden trellises framing the exhibit. As a consequence, loss grows, as if organically. For me, the effect of this cumulative grief was overwhelming.
Written in numerous languages, many of the messages in “Grief Garden” were penned by young people who, as their missives indicate, have already endured great loss and pain. Perhaps for this reason, Xiong’s installation brought me back to my own coming-of-age in 1980s New York and 1990s San Francisco at the height of the AIDS pandemic. In the current era of Chella Man, Lori Lightfoot, Tom Daley, and state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, it might be hard for young people today to imagine the suffering, fear, and silence that enshrouded the demise and disappearance of an entire generation of gay men—before the widespread availability of protease inhibitors in the Global North for those with access to insurance and health care made HIV a “manageable” disease. But for my generation, the abiding rhetoric from the Reagan and Bush administrations, countless religious and civic leaders, and often kin and kith was to condemn these people and to insist that they “deserved” their fate.
We learn from Sophocles’s tragic heroine, Antigone, that the act of mourning retroactively confers meaning and value on the life of the departed. Public acknowledgment of loss and collective rites of mourning lay the foundation for the philosophical axiom, as Judith Butler (2004) has observed, that a life worth living is a life worth mourning. Many of the dead young men from my generation were revealed to be gay only posthumously; and, without legal rights, many of the partners and friends of the dead were barred from funerals and other rites of mourning of their lovers and chosen families.
In response to this suppression of mourning, the collective construction and public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt provided communal solace and emotional validation. First conceived in 1985 by a small group of strangers in San Francisco, the Quilt sought publicly to celebrate and mourn the lives of lovers and friends who had perished from AIDS: a patchwork memorial of thousands of names on panels stitched together to commemorate those whose lives others sought to erase, in part by refusing them public mourning. For me, the brilliance of the Quilt was its transformation of individual losses, private pain, and unacknowledged lives into a contingent whole, a giant tapestry for public display and collective mourning—an insistence that all of these lives had meaning and value, that they were all lives worth mourning. Moreover, as I explained to my students, the Quilt is part of the historical record of racist and homophobic violence that we continue to witness and endure today.
“Grief Garden” mimes the logic of the Quilt’s patchwork gathering. The loss of Xiong’s mother is associated with a larger history of violence, exile, and displacement of Hmong war refugees. At the same time, Xiong’s installation links her personal loss to the numerous other personal losses that visitors bring with them and, in many cases, leave tokens of, in the missives they hang on the trellises. How, Xiong asks in “From the Gardens of Our Grief,” “do we meet our grief and face it with confidence? In what ways can we nurture ourselves and each other while living under this current political climate?” “Grief Garden,” Xiong’s answer, becomes a botanical quilt of collective loss and witnessing.
In the same way that the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the grief work of Black Lives Matter, and the national campaign to “say their name” all demand public acknowledgment of disavowed losses and political action to address their causes and consequences, Xiong’s “Grief Garden” is a work of what Douglas Crimp called “mourning and militancy” (18). It reminds us that here, in the long wake of anti-Asian hate from Chinese exclusion in the nineteenth century to the Cold War refugee crisis to the contemporary violence of “Kung Flu,” we need collectively to cultivate more gardens of mourning and militancy. Without them, how will we ever help ourselves and our students overcome the invidious sundering of the private and public work of mourning?
Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso.
Crimp, Douglas. 1989. “Mourning and Militancy,” October 51: 3-18.