Nellie Wong: Feminist revolutionary and poet to visit Australia

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Australians are in for a treat this spring! Revolutionary feminist poet and organiser, Nellie Wong, will visit for five weeks.

Nellie Wong, who currently resides in San Francisco, is a leader with both Radical Women (RW) and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). She served for many years as the organiser for the FSP branch in the Bay Area.

Oakland origins. Nellie was born in 1934, the first U.S.-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. Nell and her six siblings grew up in Oakland’s Chinatown. Most of the Chinese immigrants worked as domestics, washing laundry, canning, sewing and operating small herb and food stores. During World War II the Wong family worked in a Berkeley grocery store. The internment of their Japanese American neighbours had a profound impact on Nellie and her developing understanding of racism against Asian Americans.

After graduating from high school, Nellie went to work as a secretary at Bethlehem Steel. Nellie reflects on this period: “Unions did not exist in most of the places that I worked. A secretarial perk in the form of lunch with the boss on National Secretaries Day was the norm.”

In her mid 30s, Nellie returned to study. She remembers: “It was damned exciting for me to finally go to college for the first time. Here I was, a mere secretary, so I thought, going to school!”

“Meeting Radical Women at San Francisco State in the early ’70s was pivotal to turning my life around. And, of course, learning about our history as women, as working people, as people of colour, as agents of change, radical change… I never knew such a socialist feminist organisation existed.”

Poetry with passion. It was during this period of her life that Wong also began creative writing. She credits her feminist classmates with encouraging her writing. A male professor had once told her to throw away an angry poem she had written. One classmate told her, “You don’t have to listen to him!”

Nellie Wong is now a widely published poet. In 1977 she published her first collection of poetry, Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park. Her other titles are The Death of Long Steam Lady (1986) and Stolen Moments (1997). Her work has appeared in approximately 200 anthologies and publications. Excerpts from two of her poems have been permanently installed as public plaques on San Francisco Railway. She has also performed her work widely, including in Cuba and China.

No longer alone. Nell reflects on the exhilarating change in her life. “I’d been a joiner in high school and as a young woman. Groups like the Oakland Chinese Bowling Club attracted me. Becoming an active part of a political women’s organisation opened up opportunities that I’d not been aware of: those of speaking out, debating and making decisions and organising to get what we need. That I had a role in making things happen appealed to my once-private self, which led me to become the first organiser of the Women Writers Union that began at San Francisco State.

“Learning the history of RW radicalised me further while I studied and continued to work as a secretary at Bethlehem Steel. A fighting women’s organisation — how powerful, how exciting, how revolutionary was that?”

Decades of organising. Nellie is a veteran who delights in working with and developing new organisers. She is also a leader of the Comrades of Color Caucus (CCC) a body comprised of members of colour within both RW and FSP. With Yolanda Alaniz, Wong co-edited Voices of Color: Reports from the Front Lines of Resistance by Radicals of Color. The book, published by Red Letter Press, is an optimistic anthology by writer activists in the CCC. It also contains an introduction by Wong and Alaniz documenting the history of the CCC, a unique innovation in multi-racial organising on the Left.

Nellie is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, an anti-war activist, an advocate of freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, an anti-Nazi organiser, an opponent of police abuse and has years of hands-on experience mobilising to stop anti-abortion bigots. She is looking forward to meeting and working with you!

Fashion Violence from the Toes Up

Nellie Wong

“When I was growing up in Oakland’s Chinatown in the 1940s and ’50s, movie screen sirens and photos of white models in teen and fashion magazines and on billboards awed me. My sisters and I certainly did not look like any of them, but we tried.

We plucked our eyebrows, powdered our faces, and squeezed our feet into four-inch high heels, dancing beyond midnight and going to work in offices. I understood little what I was doing to my feet. Ill-fitting heels caused my feet to sprout hammertoes and bunions. I was willing to suffer for beauty. Somebody else was telling me what I should look like and that was fine with me.

During the second wave of the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s, my rebellion emerged. The Civil Rights Movement and the outpouring into the streets of black, brown, Native and yellow students and working people awoke our consciousness. Women of color, in particular, not only opposed the Vietnam War, but also began to define for ourselves what race, sex and sexuality were about.

Five other Asian American feminist writers and I founded Unbound Feet. We performed our own work on college campuses and community centers throughout California. The name, Unbound Feet, represented freedom and movement, recognizing that our foremothers had experienced a thousand-year-practice of foot binding in late imperial China.

I was aghast when I learned that U.S. women today are getting cosmetic toe-amputation surgery to fit into the skimpy, pointed-toe shoes. When the story broke in the New York Times, I saw it as a horrifying example that profiting off women’s bodies continues de rigueur. Cutting off one’s toes to fit a pair of high-fashion shoes? Incredible.

Amputation, I learned, is a misnomer for the procedure. Amputation of the toe does not actually occur. The toe is cut open, some bone is removed, and the toe is sewed back up. Voila! A woman’s feet fit the pointed-toe killers, and the designers and stores make money.

Fashionista or not, every feminist should cry out in outrage.

The renaissance of violence against our bodies from the toes up thwarts our very being as women, whether we are of color or white, immigrant or long-established. How can we wage the battles we need to wage for housing, education, healthcare, jobs when we are in bondage to ideas about who we should be that maim and kill? Fight the backlash against women — kick off those high heels and into the streets!”

Extract from “Fashion Violence from the Toes Up,” Freedom Socialist, March 2007

My Eyes Follow Them

My eyes follow them
Women in Burqas of gold, cream, blue,
Burgundy, women unseen, travelling
to a wedding party to somewhere
In Kandahar
How do I know that they are women
Except that only women wear Burqas,
Covered from head to foot with squares
Of opening, netted or crocheted,
Framing their eyes
And even in their embroidered beauty
The intricate stitching of the covers
Over their heads do not distract

My eyes follow them
Children in cotton in colors of birds
Their eyes fixed on the unseen viewer,
Their eyes follow the camera
Aimed at their foreheads, throats
The girls are not covered up
Like their grandmothers, mothers, aunts
Until one day as they approach
Womanhood, then too they would wear
Burqas, then too, they will remain
Invisible and still my eyes follow them

A woman hands a lipstick to her sister
Who runs a slash of berry red across
Her unseen lips because in their Burqas,
To these watching eyes
Beauty blossoms, beauty blossoms
In secret salons, in homes, where women
Carry out rituals, who teach
Girl children to read Arabic
Who resist the law handed down
By men demanding invisibility
As their right

My eyes follow them, the men hobbling
On one leg, their crutches become wings
As they rush in unison toward
A helicopter dropping prosthetics
Prosthetics in pairs floating
From parachutes, dropping
Onto the land, dry, barren
When one thump or hop
Could explode a landmine

My eyes follow the woman, a journalist
Named Nafas, in her Burqa
Disguised as the fourth wife
Of a man who rides with his family
Ostensibly to Kandahar
Nafas searches for her sister
Whose legs have been blown off
Left years ago in Kandahar
Who has threatened
To kill herself rather than live
Under control
Of the Taliban

My eyes follow them, the woman
Surrounded by her children
Whose hunger gnaws
At a sandwich made of grass
The father knows it’s only
A matter of time as winter descends
Over the land, as tons of wheat
Are hoarded by warlords
That death may be a gift
That death may be better
Than starving
These eyes absorb, penetrate
These eyes remember
The bound feet of my aunt
In Oakland’s Chinatown, this woman
Whose movement was restricted
From her girlhood in China
All the way to the United States
These eyes ferret the unknown
The hidden, the unseen faces,
Shapes of their jaws
Mouth, arms, bodies, legs
Of the women in Burqas
Whose passion for movement
Remains unknowable
Whose spirit thrives
At the thought of wheat
They could pound into flour
Who long for the sun
To find them unafraid
And daring, daring
To read the newspapers
Listen to the radio watch television
Walk the streets run the land
Dancing as women as sisters
Beckoning in the heart of darkness
As the eyes split open
Their ankles glistening with truth
by Nellie Wong

This poem was written in 2002 after Nellie Wong saw the movie Kandahar. Goat Milk, a blog edited by Wajahat Ali, originally published it. Ali, a Muslim American of Pakistani decent, describes himself as neither a terrorist nor a saint.

Immigrant women — defiant but not defeated

“Sneaking across the border. Coming in rickety boats across the water. Beaten, bitten by rats and violated by coyotes, snakeheads, and unscrupulous profiteers. Immigrant women from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, women from China and Thailand, women from Russia and Bosnia, women from Haiti, the Philippines, women from Iraq, from India, Pakistan, you name it. They’re here, they’re in Germany, they’re in Indonesia, they’re in Canada, and they’re in Algeria. Call it courage, call it survival, call it material.

But when our economy, the global economy, is downward spiraling, immigrant workers are scapegoated. Their labor is exploited. Without it the clothes we wear on our backs and the fruits and vegetables that we eat would be impossible. Their tasks involve consistent leadership and heroism.

At a time when the media is focused on women who represent the U.S. ruling class, we need to focus on why immigrant women, especially those of color, will risk life and limb to survive. Corporations go global to exploit the cheap labor of working people. Yet, workers from other countries who come here to the U.S. are supposedly stealing American jobs and causing the economy to sink. We know that this economy would not survive without immigrant labor, without our labor — of our hands and bodies and of our minds. Workers themselves are not to be blamed for the economy’s ills when our government fights the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Socialist feminism is inherently international. Women live through oppression every day, whether it’s a Mexican or an Iraqi woman who must scourge through garbage to find something to sell. Women struggle every day to find childcare or else they’ll lose their jobs. Women every day carry water on their backs to bathe and to wash their clothes.

The power of socialist feminism persists. As long as the Wall Streeters hold working women and men in contempt; as long as this system sends off women and men to fight wars in the name of bourgeois democracy and for profits; as long as wealth is in the hands of a few; as long as the environment is devastated; and, as long as capitalism convulses, the revolution is ours to make. It is our greatest duty. It is our greatest joy.”

Extract from “Women & revolution — alive and inseparable!”
a speech by Nellie Wong to Radical Women’s 41st Anniversary Conference, October 3, 2008

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