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To Sit on Sidewalks (A Conversation with Wang Ping)


To Sit on Sidewalks (A Conversation with Wang Ping)


“To sit on sidewalks, to look into the eyes of the man shaking his giant red canister like a toy then shooting the orange mist into our faces and we sit, our eyes burning, our hearts tearing but we sit, in this silent storm, to tell the truth of this system that robs us to the bones, in NYC, California, Oklahoma, Boston, Minneapolis, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Beijing, Shanghai, Mexico, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, this systematic looting of our sweat and words and tomorrow”—Wang Ping (from “This Is Not Violence”)

Much of our documented and undocumented human history is based on stories about exploration and discovery. From hunter-gatherer to space traveler, people have achieved their greatest success in discovery and survival when working together in communities, looking past perceived differences and limitations, while imagining immense possibilities. Be that as it may, our shared history is also rife in conflict, greed, and the desire for power, with narratives that exploit the emotions and fears of our global citizens, and reinforce the belief in the “other.” Without the “other,” the perpetual movement to destabilize a region, exploit that region’s resources, and maintain population control might appear nearly impossible, even with increased technology and violence.

Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves is the telling of the migrant explorer’s story for survival. Packed with voices of the dead, Ping’s book reminds the reader how sacred each laborer’s life is in the face of unjust labor practices. Each person is more valuable than their labor, even when multinationals, banks, and political institutions act otherwise when implementing and forcing their policies on the general public. Ping reminds us that “all life is precious, all feelings are valid, be it a tree, a mouse, a human, be it poor or illegal.”

When asked about what the reader should come away with after reading Ten Thousand Waves, Ping replies, “‘Ten Thousand Waves’ is the title poem of the poetry book, and set the theme for the whole book: immigration, migration, labor movement around the globe, human struggle for a better life, dignity, love and joy in the waves of misery and destruction.”

The struggle that combines migration and survival has existed since early hominids dared to explore dry grasslands and savannas. Migration is quite natural, but often met with violent resistance and exploitation. We have seen this resistance and exploitation throughout the Industrial Age and in our current form of globalization. Today, in the United States, immigration is a political hot topic. The flames of hate and division are fanned by media and political rhetoric, which is counterproductive to our natural state of migration. Ping contends, “Humans, like birds, migrate for food; unlike the birds, we also migrate to expand our minds. America is made by immigrants, has been thriving because of the migration. Each immigrant is a hero to this culture. America should acknowledge and celebrate those brave hearts, not condemn, exploit or deport them.”

But, instead of celebrating, far too many times we see children demonstrating in Washington DC with t-shirts that read “Don’t Deport My Mom.” This is an unfortunate and unhealthy disconnect we have for each other that allows for the separation of families, cultivates isolation, and destroys community.

For years, many poets and artists have observed and responded, through their art, this dividing conflict between those in power and the migrant laborers who have been unjustly oppressed. Regarding the history of Chinese poets and their shared responsibility and voice in the political landscape, Ping argues “as cultural and spiritual pioneers, foot soldiers and leaders, Chinese poets were always the first to be arrested, prisoned, beheaded in every political upheaval throughout Chinese history. Just look at Liu Xiaobo who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Poets are dangerous to corruption, lies, and oppression, as it has to tell truth, as Aristotle said, ‘history tells the past, but poetry predicts the future.’ Poetry is the foundation and essence of living, as Confucius told his son when he whined about why he had to study poetry every day: without poetry, how can we live?”

In terms of how Ping’s observations of current events influence her own writing, she states, “As a poet, I keep myself wide open: eyes, ears, mouth, hands, heart, to all the joy and darkness. It keeps me wide awake, but also renders me vulnerable, but there’s no other way to do it if one wants to be a poet, a true poet who is not afraid of seeing and feeling and telling truth.”

It is that vulnerability and sensitivity that moves the poet and other artists to risk everything to counter the destructive behaviors of global leaders and give voice to the voiceless or dead, to create in an environment so polluted in destruction, and to confront both the exploitation and the devalue of human life.

In terms of seeing the common denominator regarding labor practices in China, the breaking of unions and the increasing prison population in the United States, and the struggle of the impoverished everywhere, Ping claims “the common thread is capitalism, corporation…China and America are becoming more and more similar: the political and economic structures, the bank system…all very similar with different names: communism, democracy, freedom, censorship, brainwash…The only difference is in China everyone knows we are censored and lied to and no one believes a word from the government; whereas in America, people think we have freedom and democracy while we are brainwashed to the core. Awareness is the difference.”

Of course, awareness can be a difficult and tedious prospect when considering that a poet’s audience tends to be far less in number than the awaiting audience that receives the rhetoric pushed by politicians and aired by mainstream media. Even so, the poet continues to observe and respond, because to cease creating is to stop acting in accordance to her or his own nature. In this way, the poet is very much like the migrating bird in search for food. Their actions are rooted in survival.

When questioned about how the poet or anyone is able to find hope in an ever-increasing violent world, Ping answers, “Be conscious, aware, awake, fearless, fierce, to speak up at any cost, with great beauty and skills, to form allies one by one, thousands by thousands, millions by millions, till the whole power structure breaks and rebuilds.”

Wang Ping was born in Shanghai and came to USA in 1986. She is the founder and director of the Kinship of Rivers project, a five-year project that builds a sense of kinship among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers through exchanging gifts of art, poetry, stories, music, dance and food. She paddles along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, giving poetry and art workshops along the river communities, making thousands of flags as gifts and peace ambassadors between the Mississippi and the Yangtze Rivers. Her publications include Ten Thousand Waves, poetry book from Wings Press, 2014, American Visa (short stories, 1994), Foreign Devil (novel, 1996), Of Flesh and Spirit (poetry, 1998), The Magic Whip (poetry, 2003), The Last Communist Virgin (stories, 2007), all from Coffee House, New Generation: Poetry from China Today, 1999 from Hanging Loose Press, Flash Cards: Poems by Yu Jian, co-translation with Ron Padgett, 2010 from Zephyr Press. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (2000, University of Minnesota Press, 2002 paperback by Random House) won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities. The Last Communist Virgin won 2008 Minnesota Book Award and Asian American Studies Award. She had many multi-media exhibitions: “Behind the Gate: After the Flooding of the Three Gorges” at Janet Fine Art Gallery, and “All Roads to Lhasa” at Banfill-Lock Cultural Center, and “Kinship of Rivers” at the Soap Factory in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Great River Museum in Illinois, Fireworks Press at St. Louis, Great River Road Center at Prescott, Wisconsin, Emily Carr University in Vancouver, University of California Santa Barbara, and many other places. She collaborated with the British filmmaker Isaac Julien on Ten Thousand Waves, a film installation about the illegal Chinese immigration in London. She is the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Council of the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, the Bush Artist Fellowship, Lannan Foundation Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and the McKnight Artist Fellowship.


About the author

John Casquarelli is the author of two full-length collections: On Equilibrium of Song (Overpass Books, 2011) and Lavender (Authorspress, 2014). He is a Lecturer of Academic Writing at Koç Üniversitesi in Istanbul, as well as the Managing Editor for Lethe Literary and Art Journal. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.

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