A Conversation

What do you mean by ‘Asian’? by ‘Diaspora’? How are these terms used in your context? 

Sarnt: The word ‘Asian’ in this book matters as much as the word ‘Transform’; the notion of ‘Asian’ here is also deterritorialised, spatially unrelated to the Asian continent. The only link there is the temporal: our ‘non-belonging’ resides in the uncanny relationship with the fact that we are the descendants of Asian migrants in Europe; with histories full of violent displacements, traumatisation and economic exploitations. Our phenotypes and cultural backgrounds shared here have carried uncanny translative potentials – what is not quite European, not quite Asian; negotiating-defying any racial (and to certain extents, gender) categories – the roots of contemporary Anti-Asian racism, ramified during the outbreak of COVID-19. Asserting these creative potentials onto the European social networks (as social imaginary, not geographical union) is what the contributors have done: to expand communal possibilities and institutional accountability within-beyond the frame of ‘Europeanness’, and to practice ‘flexible’ citizenship; a citizenship deterritorialised from the state (as of European Union infrastructure: one is hardly bound to the nation-state, one is by birth anti-fascist).

Thao:  I see Asian Diaspora as a term that includes many different diasporic experiences and backgrounds. Often, certain communities that do not have access to resources such as language, academic discourse etc. are excluded in movement building. Here also comes the question of ‘unity’ or unifying Asian community organising – when does it make sense? I think it is crucial to complicate activism based on identity politics. Oftentimes, activist groups get so caught up in categories and forming a political subject that the rest of the agenda falls through. In community work specifically, I think it is necessary to expand the agenda beyond empowerment and engage in difficult conversations that might put feelings of belonging and togetherness in danger…

Rosalia: Really agree with Thao here, identity politics can at times become a very limiting cage (negative dialectics, setting oneself against the outside defined benchmark, colonial constructs of nation, ethnicity…) for us. Understanding community through the markers of identity has limitations and it creates all kinds of other boundaries. Collaboration and solidarities towards collective other futures provide a much more hopeful horizon. I like to turn to Boaventura de Sousa Santos here: “The decisive community of belongingness or identity has to do with sharing the struggle against domination. Knowing which side you are on is far more decisive than knowing who you are.” (The End of the Cognitive Empire: 151).

Annie: In a way, this is an opportunity to think beyond ‘Asia’ as geography or ‘identity’, but how ‘Asia’ can become a device or engine to think through global and urgent issues. Thinking through ‘Asia’ resituates the lens, rescopes the parameters and mobilises different alliances and coalitions across staid nationalist structures. ‘Asia’ in relation to new economies also catalyses a rethink of embedded neoliberal systems of value.

Farzana: To build on this framing of Asia beyond geography and identity, there’s also an invitation here for us to practice holding how language helps us travel but in and of itself is not a destination. How can we have a relationship to language that takes us towards liberation and not as words that bind/bound us, that instead help us continuously hone in, clarify and move towards each other? Perhaps a dynamic relationship to how we name things can also afford us the spaciousness to both locate, make explicit and also let go, move into, try on and find new ways. Can we hold ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian’ while giving ourselves permission to explore it and recreate it? 

JL: In our very first meeting we discussed the degrees of agency we have in self-determining the language and terminology we use. As Thao mentioned, there can be a pragmatism and political intention that comes with an umbrella framing like ‘Asian’ in order to unite different diasporic communities who may share a common set of struggles. I think it’s very telling that the turning point in mobilising the Asian American movement was the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese man mis-identified as Japanese in a racist attack. The recognition that it didn’t matter if you were Japanese or Chinese made Asian communities, who previously thought they had little in common, unite under the term Asian American. The problems of using the term ‘Asian’ or ‘People of Colour’ is that it can too often be used as a short-cut, which over time flattens experiences and marginalises specific communities. I think we’re all grappling with language that enables us to both connect across, as well as highlight our specific differences and needs; and that this is really a skill that requires practice. 

Why ‘Tools’? What kind of ‘Transformations’ are you hoping for?

Sarnt: Social transformation

Thao: To me, this means small steps towards change. Words such as ‘revolution’ and ‘activism’ seem so big. I think it is crucial to widen understandings of activism/spectrums of radicality and how acts of resistance can have many different access points and forms. I just recently discovered the podcast Movement Memos (https://truthout.org/audio/we-surrender-nothing-and-no-one-a-playbook-for-solidarity-amid-fascist-terror/). In one episode, grassroots strategist Ejeris Dixon emphasises how important it is to develop skill sets for conflict and coping that we can integrate into our everyday lives and within our communities, as this paves the way for transformational justice. She asks: how can we better differentiate between discomfort and abuse? I also have to think of Mia Mingues’ possible skill set on accountability, introduced to me by my dear friend Promona, which is another example of tools that help us to transform visionary rhetoric into everyday practices bit by bit. 

Rosalia: I believe that there is a lot of power for change from the inside, and tools that offer various access points to different perspectives to undo inherent and naturalised interpretations bear a lot of potential for transformation, which starts in the mindset, as a cognitive gesture. I believe in a kind of change that happens in small, concrete situations, everyday interactions, the molecular revolution of step-by-step interventions by communities. I do not believe in the masculine idea of the violent upheaval, the idealistic yet detached from any kind of reality all over encompassing one-fits-all approach, defined elsewhere by others. 

Joyce: I agree with Thao. We do not only focus on high-profile public actions. The workbook addresses various strategies of resistance (both formal and informal, public actions and offstage strategies) to various forms of domination. Transformation includes both material changes as well as cognitive changes, and both collective strength and individual empowerment.

The Six Tones: What we also find great about the workbook as a project is how it invites ‘making’ difference. Changing from the inside takes time and demands patience. If we start from practices that are grounded in our everyday, such change can start to happen.   

JL: It feels like this is a common ground for us. It was actually Farzana who introduced me to the work of Grace Lee Boggs, an Asian American activist and philosopher, who wisely said “Transform yourself to transform the world”. Because what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. So when I think about ‘tools’, I’m thinking about practices that I can embed on a daily basis, which in turn shape the wider relationships, communities and structures that I am part of.


~it is the end of a day, a season, a way, an era

the change is tumult, terrifying and beautiful

we will never be convinced to be expendable.

I agree with adrienne maree brown who observed that we live in a changing world, change is the constant. We have to embrace it and take on what she calls “science fictional behavior” – to believe that “our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations…and to fight for the future”.

Farzana: At Healing Justice Ldn, we use the phrase ‘creating capacities for transformation’ because we know that to transform personally, communally and structurally requires finding and sourcing the capacities that enable that. It requires us to contextualise, meaning being true and appropriate to our realities and conditions, and how change happens here. Tools for Transformation is both fleshing out and giving body to the context and as well the capacities we need and can draw on. 

What isn’t yet in this workbook?

Rosalia: While this workbook is not representative of all the voices, initiatives, actors it still is constitutive of this broader movement towards other futures and gives only a glimpse into all the work that is being done, already, by so many. It is part of a larger process that is punctuated by this workbook but not defined by it. 

Sarnt: The dominance of UK/Northern EU-context doesn’t mean the erasure of other European contexts; we see this as a first step which could pave away towards other parts; other alliances to arrive once they know this ‘first step’ is made.

Annie: While many contributors are engaging from UK-European sites of practice, their practices are informed by lived diasporic experiences that are conditioned by legacies that span continents and generations. The complex positionalities expressed in the projects discussed here reflect these intricacies without attempting to homogenise or simplify – and themselves seek to energise beyond limited ideas of representation.

Litchi: I have to think of language, not just that of the different diasporas, but also the European languages which are in the centre of people’s lives. English, being the connecting language for this workbook, gives a clear sense of who sees this workbook and who doesn’t. I guess in many ways this is a welcoming challenge to think through how we can decentralise English in order to involve more people, whose voices and work are important, to partake as well. Or for us to partake in their conversation.

Farzana: Modalities of organising that can’t translate, be captured or drawn out/made visible easily on to the page. The feeling of community building, the messy work of nurturing new ways/alternatives, the relational commitment to engender trust.

Tools to Transform is a project initiated by Joon Lynn Goh & Annie Jael Kwan from Asia Art Activism, in partnership with Sarnt Utamachote & Rosalia Namsai Engchuan from un.thai.tled; Farzana Khan from Healing Justice Ldn; Thao Ho from DAMN* Deutsche Asiat*innen, Make Noise!; Dr Joyce Jiang from The Voice of Domestic workers; Litchi Ly Friedrich from House of Saint Laurent Europe; and Nguyễn Thanh Thủy & Stefan Östersjö from The Six Tones. In this first iteration we are thankful for the European Cultural Foundation’s Culture of Solidarity award, University of York and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), that makes possible the bridging of the contexts of London, Berlin and Malmo and the editorial team’s respective transversalities across Asia.