Two Asian American poet-writers, highly visible in the San Francisco Bay Area as Trotskyist-feminist leaders, are drawing heavy fire from a variety of opponents equipped with a ready arsenal of racist, sexist, and anti-Trotskyist weaponry.
But San Francisco Radical Women has launched a swift counter-offensive to expose the insidious, Stalinist-style politics of the slander-mongers.
Nellie Wong and Merle Woo are staunch advocates of democratic debate in the Left, and united struggle for the rights of all oppressed people. This principled stand for a dynamic multi-issue approach to world politics has netted them the fury of opportunists.
Woo and Wong were attacked in Black Scholar and Contact II for their militant speeches last February at “Left Write: A Unity Conference of Writers on the Left.”
The Left Writers Union, which formed in San Francisco at this “unity” conference, has also targeted them for abuse.
Throwing down the gauntlet. In the opening panel of the Left Write Conference, Nellie Wong addressed the topic, “How does writing arise from our communities?” She extolled the courage of Asian Americans trying to live in a society “which has historically oppressed us because of our race, our sex, our sexuality, and our labor.”
She stressed the equal and crucial importance of the struggles of women, workers, gays, and people of color.
Wong cited Mitsuye Yamada — a teacher and feminist writer incarcerated in a World War II concentration camp for Japanese Americans — and Carlos Bulosan, Filipino writer, worker, and radical. Wong quoted from Bulosan’s “If You Want to Know Where We Are”:
We are multitudes, the world
over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements,
in skies and seas and rivers, in
our numbers increase as the
wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger,
disease and death.
Said Wong, “Asian Americans, like other oppressed people, cannot afford to bathe in the complacency of individual pursuits without regard for the community. Our writing arises from and through political struggle.”
Merle Woo’s searing speech to the workshop on Asian American writing condemned the capitalist system which thrives on racism, sexism, and heterosexism. “Every word we utter is a political act,” she said, “and every silence is a political stance.”
When we write our experience, said Woo, “We are not airing dirty laundry, but exposing issues, criticizing attitudes, making public the wrong done to us as Asians, as women. We are showing what courage went into our struggle to not only survive, but to live with dignity.”
She called on radical writers to make the key connections among different struggles that will create international unity among the oppressed.
Sexism and racism on the Left. Several reviewers of the conference attacked Wong and Woo’s Trotskyist feminism with a classic display of male chauvinism and racism.
The speeches, they barked, were “self-indulgent” and “bitter.” Conyus, in the Jan-Feb ’81 Black Scholar, singled out Wong for calumny. He accused her of a “weak presentation that was filled with individual attitudes toward her own work.” Yet Wong had not once referred to her own eloquent, revolutionary poetry!
Wong was not only too personal, she was “too broad,” complained Conyus with lofty illogic. It seems she addressed the connection between various Asian American communities, and Conyus couldn’t follow this.
Moreover, he railed, her speech was full of “pop images … lacking in answers to serious problems that affect the Chinese community.”
This is typical anti-feminist, anti-gay gobbledegook. Conyus wants to hear about Blacks and male workers, period. Women and gays, especially if they’re Asian American, should stay in their assigned places. Their concerns are trivial, of course.
In the Spring ’81 issue of Contact II, published in New York City, Garrett Lambrev blasted Wong’s “self-affirmations” as “immature,” betraying “barely disguised hostility.”
He also derided Woo’s speech as full of “bitter feeling that Third World people spend their lives trying to prove they are human.”
The “bitter,” “hostile,” and “immature” epithets reveal the critics’ unwillingness to acknowledge the depth of the oppression of women of color, and their right and responsibility to speak out about it. The sexist references to their feelings as inappropriate is one more shabby attempt to discredit Woo and
Wong, and suppress their militancy. So intent was Contact II on sidelining Wong that it identified by name every speaker on the panel but her. She was simply the “last speaker.”
Shut up if you disagree. The racism, sexism, and homophobia faced by Wong and Woo was unfortunately not limited to post-conference reviews.
Free expression had been stifled during the Left Write Conference itself, as the Stalinist-Maoist attitudes of its organizers dismissed the rising leadership of women — especially those fighting multiple oppression in the workplace.
And a barrage of insults was lobbed at the most oppressed writers there. Panelist William Mandel stated that a dockworker who had spoken was the conference’s only authentic working-class representative. This hackneyed formulation neatly excluded Wong, a secretary, and Woo, a teacher.
Panelist Diane DiPrima wanted to know “what gays have done lately for the Left.” She exemplified the refusal of much of the Left to acknowledge the homosexual revolt as a political issue. She should have asked, “What has most of the Left done lately for gays?”
A gay man who criticized one conference speaker for demeaning gay oppression was told to keep quiet because criticism is “divisive.”
Cradle death. Another victim of the conference’s Stalinist-Maoist malady is the Left Writers Union itself. Organized as a result of the conference, it has been unable to develop beyond the chronic vacillations of its petty-bourgeois intellectual orientation.
Its founding goals were to fight the right wing, U.S. imperialism, and oppression based on race, class, sex, and sexuality. But when put to the test of defending Wong and Woo — the Trotskyist socialist feminists — the so-called Union failed.
At first, the Union voted to send a letter criticizing the reviews to Conyus and Lambrev. But the Union reversed its stand, taking a sham vote at a meeting when Wong/Woo supporters, a majority of the membership, were not present. A later move to reinstate the letter was ruled out of order and its supporters were called “hysterical” and told to shut up.
The lack of democracy, and contempt for women of color, precipitated a split. The radicals resigned when it became apparent the Union’s only objective was to protect the elitist ideas of a few members and to silence all dissent.
In an open letter to the community on June 21, San Francisco Radical Women publicly charged that the Left Writers Uniori, by refusing to defend Wong and Woo, had rejected the opportunity to build a united front among women, gays, and people of color. The letter accused the Union of choosing the path of letting racism go unanswered, and perpetuating sexism and heterosexism.
Unity means non-exclusion. Unity on the Left will never arise from the Stalinist-Maoist canard that class struggle excludes people of color, women, gays and/or Trotskyists. A united front must demonstrate commitment to eradicate every type of oppression rooted in capitalism.
Courageous feminists of color, like Nellie Wong and Merle Woo, are the leaders of the struggle for true unity — a unity based on mutual solidarity and ordained to draw in millions to the revolutionary army that is to come.