As American citizens of all races and colors march in protest of police brutality and racial profiling this summer, the publication of local poet Patsy Asuncion’s collection, Cut on the Bias, offers a message of peace, inclusion and an account of the deep pain of growing up with two separate identities in such a divisive climate.
Born to an Irish mother who left when Asuncion was just 1 year old, Asuncion was raised in inner-city Chicago by her Filipino father who had immigrated to the United States in his 20s and taught her that blending in as much as possible was the best way to ensure her security.
“My father wouldn’t teach me his language, because of the extreme prejudice against Asians right after World War II,” says Asuncion.
In her poem “Pigmentocracy” she writes about the whitewashing of people of color through the idealization of white skin and Western facial features.
“There is a billion-dollar industry in lightening products for blacks and for Asians,” she says. “Everyone wants to blend in with the white god. As a high school and college student, I’d go lay out at the beach and pour baby oil on my skin with iodine in it so I could get dark. And my father had no idea what I was doing. He wanted me to be light. He didn’t want me to stand out.”
She likens his fear to what Arabs face in America today: “Blend in or you’re a danger.”
Her father served in the U.S. military in a segregated Filipino unit that was sent back to the Philippines to fight the Japanese, earning him his naturalized citizenship. She says he felt pressure as an immigrant to do well in this country and worked very hard. “He thought he was doing right by me,” she says. But she did not receive the affection she craved.
“He was a shadow,” Asuncion says. “He wasn’t approachable. It wasn’t until years later I realized he was living in a foreign country, always on guard. I never got him until toward the end when I chose to take care of him out of love and devotion. I’m starting to unravel that mystery and see who he was: a loving father who protected me no matter what.”
To cut on the bias in either cooking or sewing means to cut at an angle, or slant. “I always felt different,” Asuncion says. “Cut on the Bias refers to my bias, my slant on the world from being biracial.” The collection includes poems about her family, her experience of the world as a child and reflections on the current state of the world—particularly war and the abuse of women—with hope for peace and healing.
But her hope is not a passive one. On the fourth Wednesday of every month she hosts an open mic at The Bridge PAI, where she encourages members of the community of any age, gender, race, economic background and ability to share their stories, poems, songs, comedy and performance.
“At the Bridge, it’s really, really important to me that it’s a safe space for diversity,” says Asuncion. “In Charlottesville there’s a lot of art but not always a lot of mingling of different artists.”
When Asuncion moved here three years ago, she wasted no time seeking out and connecting with local spoken word poets and performers. She attended a Verbs & Vibes open mic where she read a hip-hop poem called “Grandma’s in the House.” “I went there looking for my community,” she says.
The next year she started her own open mic at Bon, which then moved to C’ville Coffee, and has now found its home at the Bridge. “I knocked on doors,” she laughs. “I have no shame. The Bridge is perfect. It’s a well-known place, the location is accessible to 250, and we have the same vision to involve the community on a grassroots level.”
An activist first, she sees poetry as a way to use language to find common ground. And while she has always written and was once a traveling singer-songwriter, as well as the principal for two art schools, she has honed in on the practice of writing since retiring and connecting with other writers in Charlottesville.
On July 22, she will give a reading at Rapunzel’s in Lovingston on the theme of “home,” before and after which her friend, Ukulele Katie, will play and sing old tunes from the 1920s-’50s. You can also find Asuncion hosting the open mic at The Bridge on July 27, at the Senior Center on August 1 leading a support program for caregivers and at WriterHouse on September 8, with two other women artists of multicultural heritage.
In her spare time, Asuncion is hard at work on another collection of poetry.
“The working title is Room for Rent,” she says. “It’s about how everything is transient. It’s wise to not hold on to things that we can’t, to realize that everything is fluid.”
In other words, this too shall pass. But in the meantime, we can come together with our differences and our pain, and listen to each other, a profound action toward affecting change.