APA: Reading Across the Acronym

by Craig Santos Perez

Beginning in the late 1970s, several congressional resolutions, public laws, and presidential proclamations led to the establishment of “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month,” a celebration every May to honor Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for their contributions to the United States.[1] In addition to the term “Asian/Pacific American” (APA), other names (and acronyms) have emerged to designate this coalition, including “Asian Pacific Islander American” (APIA), “Asian Pacific Islander” (API), and “Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI).

The APA identity has been an important coalition within literary, artistic, and academic spaces. Literary journals and publishers (such as The Asian American Literary Review, Amerasia Journal, Asian Cha, The Lantern Review, and Kaya Press), literary organizations (Kundiman, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Loft Literary Center, and Kearny Street Workshop), and educational spaces (the Department of Asian American Studies at UCLA, the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies program at the University of Michigan, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center) have all supported the APA movement. Many scholars (including Hsuan Hsu, Paul Lai, Cathy Schlund-Vials, Brandon Som, Margaret Rhee, Timothy Yu, Keith Camacho, Erin Suzuki, Richard Hamasaki, Susan Najita, Dean Saranillio, Barbara Jane Reyes, Candace Fujikane, and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis) have written about APA literature. In 2004, scholar Davianna McGregor guest edited a special issue on Pacific Islander Studies for the Journal of Asian American Studies. In her preface, titled “Weaving Together Strands of Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Interactions,” she wrote: “There are many strands of historic interactions between Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Americans on Pacific Islands and on the American continent that can be woven together to enrich the tapestry of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies.”[2] More recently, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) 2015 conference focused on the “role of Asian/Americans and Pacific Islanders in the construction of space, race, and the trans/national imaginary.”[3]

Despite the rich interweaving of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, there exists a parallel unravelling and disaggregation of the APA designation. In 2002, a debate within the AAAS about a possible name-change for the association to include Pacific Islanders highlighted one major issue: Pacific Islanders were often subsumed and invisible within most spaces that claimed to be inclusive of the Pacific. Two important essays explored this debate: Vicente Diaz’s “To 'P' or Not to 'P'? Marking the Territory Between Pacific Islander and Asian American Studies,” which appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies (2004), and J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s “Asian American Studies and the ‘Pacific Question,’” which appeared in the anthology Asian American Studies after Critical Mass (2005).[4] Furthermore, scholars have pointed out how the relationship between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has often been fraught. For example, Amerasia Journal published a special issue in 2011, titled “Transoceanic Flows: Pacific Islander Interventions across the American Empire,” guest edited by Keith Camacho. The main editors of Amerasia Journal, David K. Yoo and Arnold Pan, noted in their introduction: "While such terms such as ‘Asian Pacific American’ and ‘Asian American Pacific Islander Studies’ are inclusionary in their nature, they also point to the complications and complexities of creating coalitions, communities, and disciplines that bring together diverse groups of people with different and even divergent interests, experiences, and social positions.”[5] Many Pacific Islanders have advocated to disaggregate the “P” from the “A,” to create Pacific Islander-only organizations, and to situate Pacific Islanders within Native American and global indigenous contexts.[6]

Personally, I have devoted many years to creating spaces for Pacific Islander poets and articulating a Pacific space within indigenous contexts. Part of my motivation is genealogical: my predominant heritage is Chamorro, the name of the native people of the Marianas archipelago in the Western Pacific (specifically, I was born and raised on the southernmost Marianas island: Guahan (also known as Guam). Over the past decade, I have edited several anthologies and special issues of Pacific Islander poetry, organized many Pacific poetry events in California and Hawaiʻi, and co-founded the only small press in the U.S. dedicated to Pacific Islander poetry, and I currently teach Pacific Literature at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. Beyond these Pacific-focused activities, I have also chaired the AWP Indigenous Writers Caucus, presented several times at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference, published work in indigenous literary journals, and delivered a keynote address at the Indigenous Book Festival in 2014, and I currently serve on the editorial board of the University of Arizona Press’ Sun Tracks series, the longest-running indigenous publishing series in the nation.

Despite my deep rootedness in creating Pacific spaces, I also deeply believe in the APA coalition. Part of my motivation is, again, genealogical: I am Filipino on my father’s side. My education in Asian American poetry began when I studied with Truong Tran at the University of San Francisco when I was an MFA student. Then, as a doctoral candidate in the Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, I studied Asian American literature and theory with Dr. Sau-Ling Wong, one of the most prominent scholars in the field. Since then, I have collaborated with, and been supported by, many of the aforementioned APA organizations, literary journals, and scholars. One way I tried to give back to the community was by writing reviews of books by APA poets, including Barbara Jane Reyes, Bruna Mori, Paolo Javier, Oliver de la Paz, Padcha Tuntha-obas, Sawako Nakayasu, Ivy Alvarez, Brian Kim Stefans, Lee Herrick, Myung Mi Kim, Jenny Boully, Tao Lin, Jose Garcia Villa, Brandon Shimoda, Cathy Park Hong, Sun Yung Shin, Sesshu Foster, and Hoa Nguyen.[7]

I am grateful that my own interwoven heritage and literary, editorial, and academic experiences have situated me at the intersection of Asian American and Pacific Islander poetry and community. This context informed a short essay I wrote in 2012 for The Best American Poetry blog during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, curated by Kenji C. Liu. I titled the piece “Reading Across the Acronym” because it encouraged fellow Pacific Islander writers to read Asian American poetry in hopes of strengthening the APA movement. I even included a substantial list of Asian American poets and anthologies that have inspired me. Despite our differences, Pacific Islander and Asian American poetry have many themes in common, such as culture, identity, migration, food, hybridity, belonging, citizenship, war, memory, militarism, colonialism, tourism, climate change, and intergenerational relations. Moreover, several Pacific Islander poets are also of Asian heritage.

With this essay, I want to flip the list and now recommend Pacific Islander anthologies and poetry collections that I hope Asian American poets will read and be inspired by. First, a series of anthologies: Lali: A Pacific Anthology (1980), Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English Since 1980 (1995), Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English (2005), Varua Tupu: New Writing from French Polynesia (2006), and Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English (2010). Second, a selection of books by well-known Pacific writers from throughout Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and the global Pacific diaspora: Jully Makini’s Civilized Girl (1981), Grace Mera Molisa’s Black Stone (1983), Keri Hulme’s Strands (1992), Deep River Talk: Collected Poems of Hone Tuwhare (1994), Teresia Teaiwa’s Searching for Nei Nim’anoa (1995), Sia Figiel’s The Girl in the Moon Circle (1996), Haunani-Kay Trask’s Light in the Crevice Never Seen (1999), Kauraka Kauraka’s Taku Akatauira / My Dawning Star (1999), Konai Helu Thaman’s Songs of Love: New and Selected Poems (1999), Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka (1999), Imaikalani Kalahele’s Kalahele (2002), Tusiata Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2005), Sage Uilani Takehiro’s Honua (2007), Serie Barford’s Tapa Talk (2007), Brandy Nālani McDougall’s The Salt Wind / Ka Makani Paʻakai (2008), Mahelani Perez-Wendt’s Uluhaimalama (2008), Emelihter Kihleng’s My Urohs (2008), Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984) (2009), Steven Edmund Winduo’s A Rower’s Song (2009), Albert Wendt’s The Adventures of Vela (2009), Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Fast Talking PI (2009), Courtney Sina Meredith’s Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick (2012), Karlo Mila’s Dream Fish Floating (2013), Lehua Taitano’s A Bell Made of Stones (2013), Grace Taylor’s Afakasi Speaks (2013), Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s Coconut Milk (2013), Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’ Proposed Additions (2014), Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation (2014), Audrey Brown-Pereira’s passages between i(s)lands (2014), Daren Kamali’s Squid Out of Water (2014), John Puhiatau Pule’s The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem (2014), Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014), Kiri Piahana-Wong’s Night Swimming (2015), Hinemoana Baker’s Waha / Mouth (2015), Penina Taesali’s Sourcing Siapo (2016), Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter (2017), and The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (2017). I have also created a playlist on my YouTube channel featuring Pacific Islander spoken word poetry, interviews, TED talks, performances, and documentaries which I hope you will listen to and appreciate.

I believe that the APA coalition can strengthen our respective groups while at the same time respecting what makes us distinct. One essay that inspired this belief is Paul Lyons’ “Wayne Kaumualii Westlake, Richard Hamasaki, and the Afterlives of (Native/non-native) Collaboration against Empire in Hawai‘i” (2010). Lyons describes the friendship and literary collaborations between a Pacific Islander and Asian American writer who both lived in Hawaiʻi. Lyons highlights how Hamasaki and Westlake’s “friendship and dissident artistic projects...figure one example of a mode and space of what might be called Native/non-native collaboration against Empire within the arts. Such collaborative friendships have a history in Hawai‘i, become a usable inheritance, and have an uncanny power to continue generating effects.”[8] To me, collaboration against Empire is exactly what we need to confront the dangers posed to Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans by the violent forces of militarism, colonialism, racism, and neo-liberal capitalism in the 21st century. I hope this address will provide the resources and inspiration to read across the acronym, interweave our stories, and reinforce our solidarity.


[1] See the official website of Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
[2] Davianna McGregor, "Weaving Together Strands of Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Interactions,” Guest Editor's Introduction to Journal of Asian American Studies 7 (3) (2004): vii.
[3] See the official website of the Association for Asian American Studies.
[4] See Vicente M. Diaz, “To ‘P’ or Not to ‘P’? Marking the Territory Between Pacific Islander and Asian American Studies,” Journal of Asian American Studies 7 (3) (2004): 183-208; and J. Kehaulani Kauanui, “Asian American Studies and the ‘Pacific Question,’” Asian American Studies after Critical Mass, edited by Kent A. Ono, 2005: 123-143.
[5] David K.Yoo and Arnold Pan, "Relearning the American Pacific." Editor's Introduction to Amerasia Journal (Transoceanic Flows: Pacific Islander Interventions across the American Empire) 37 (3) 2011: vii.
 Today, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association is much more important to Pacific scholars than AAAS. At the same time, Asian American studies scholars are becoming more interested in “Asian indigeneities,” “Asian/Indigenous relations,” and “Asian settler colonialism.”
[7] See links to these reviews on my website.
[8] Paul Lyons,”Wayne Kaumualii Westlake, Richard Hamasaki, and the Afterlives of (Native/non-native) Collaboration against Empire in Hawai'i.” Anglistica 15 (2) (2001).

Craig Santos Perez is an indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is a poet, scholar, editor, publisher, essayist, critic, book reviewer, artist, environmentalist, and political activist.

This “literary address” is part of a series of 20 addresses commissioned by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Association for Asian American Studies. Penned by leading Asian American (and in this case, Pacific Islander) poets, writers, playwrights, graphic novelists, and literary scholars, the addresses assess the state and future of Asian American literature and offer a wide-spanning re-imagination of its place and consequence.