The PEN Pod: On Filipino American Activism and Journalists as Storytellers with Michi Trota
Michi Trota is the senior editor at Prism. She has worked as an editor in publishing and communications for over 25 years, with a background in journalism and both critical and creative nonfiction. She’s also a five-time Hugo Award winner, British Fantasy Award-winner, and the first Filipina to win a Hugo Award. She is the editor-in-chief of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America—the first person of color to hold that position. We spoke with Michi on The PEN Pod to discuss the timely and crucial topics Prism concentrates on, including access to abortion care for women in vulnerable communities; journalism’s role in connecting issues throughout history; and the importance of the Fillipino community’s role in activism and American life. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Michi is up until the 21:22 mark).
We recently spoke with your colleague at Prism, senior reporter Tina Vasquez, about the mission of Prism, movement journalism and what it means, as well as some of the stories that you all have been covering from the front line of the ongoing pandemic. Can you tell us more about the work that you do at Prism, as well as what investigative stories you all have coming up?
At Prism, I’m the senior editor, which means that I am managing primarily Prism’s very robust freelance program. I go through pitches, working with freelancers to develop and refine their pieces for publication. I also work heavily with two of Prism’s staff reporters—Anoa Changa, who anchors our Electoral Justice vertical, and also Carolyn Copeland, who often covers issues related to racial justice and culture. I really enjoy doing work at Prism as an editor, because journalism is still a form of storytelling, and it means that I’m here not to tell writers how to tell their stories. I’m here to help them tell the story that they want to tell, to refine their work, and to help it be in its best possible presentation when it goes into publication, and I’m working with writers on issues of narrative focus, structure, and voice.
When I spoke with Tina, she had just, at that point, published the story about workers at UNC and the lack of COVID protections that were going on there. You mentioned the Electoral Justice vertical, as well as focusing on issues of racial justice. What other stories are coming up that you all are excited about?
Well, anything that Anoa works on I’m always really happy to read, because her work is just so deeply versed and explores what it means to view election issues—not just in terms of a horse race, not in terms of some sort of win or lose. It’s really looking at the issues, and how all of these things have a lot of context and much deeper roots than we’re actually aware of. So, the work that she does—just in general, anytime it comes out—I’m always happy to see an article from her. With what Carolyn does—with carving out a beat for herself within culture writing and looking at racial justice—it’s making sure that we’re viewing issues through a lens that does not ignore the fact that race absolutely has a lot to do with the policies that we have, the way that they are executed, who gets to benefit from them and who doesn’t.
“Women in very vulnerable populations are absolutely discussions that we need to be having, because this is not the first time that we have been here with this kind of moment—with access to abortion care. It’s really important for us to look at not only what we did when we were here before, but how we can move forward.”
Some of the things that I’m really excited to see is freelance writing, because it means that we get to work with a wide array of writers. We have a chance to work with folks who are very heavily in activist spaces and have a lot of really great stories to tell, but aren’t attached to a particular publication. We get to pull in people from a lot of different perspectives.
We have a piece coming up from Laura Jiménez, who’s the executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and working with organizers based in Texas, Florida, New York, Virginia. She’s writing a piece on how the pandemic is affecting Latinx communities’ maternal and reproductive health, and access to care. So, those are some issues that are clearly really important and very timely right now, and it intersects a lot with some of the work that we have done. We have a piece coming from Kamyon Conner, who is the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund. She will be giving us a piece looking at the complexity of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy, particularly regarding abortion rights and gender justice, with the context of how the courts haven’t always guaranteed access to abortion care, even post-Roe v. Wade, and how this is going to affect women of color in particular. Women in very vulnerable populations are absolutely discussions that we need to be having, because this is not the first time that we have been here with this kind of moment—with access to abortion care. It’s really important for us to look at not only what we did when we were here before, but how we can move forward.
That sounds incredibly important right now for so many reasons. I love the point you made earlier about journalism really being about storytelling, which I think is interesting, because we’re always talking about stories when we’re talking about developing news items and things like that. But there isn’t, I think, for most laypeople, the idea that this is actually a narrative that you’re helping to shape as a journalist. I think it is really important, especially in light of the ongoing national conversations.
Yes, these are the stories that we are telling about ourselves, and that are supposed to be not just giving us information about the things that are happening and what’s going on; it’s also shaping the way that we understand that information, and the context in which we place that information. Journalism isn’t just a report—it’s not just a dry who, what, where, when. The why is extremely important, and it is something that journalists, I think, have always known, but we don’t talk about it as much. When you want people to read what you are writing about—when you want them to be interested in the information you’re trying to give them—it requires telling a story. There’s always a narrative arc—there’s a beginning, middle, and end to all of the things that we talk about.
Journalists are not here to tell people what to think. We’re not just telling them the pieces of information that they should have, we’re trying to tell them why they should think about this, and how it fits into the larger context. None of these things happen in isolation. I think that one of the things that Prism’s reports really make sure to always include is the idea that these things that we write about—these stories that we tell about the pandemic, about the election, about immigration—all of these things don’t happen in isolated bubbles. They’re all deeply related to each other, there are a lot of intersecting causes. It only hurts us if we try to deal with them as if they’re separate, and as if it’s the first time we’ve ever come across these issues.
“Journalists are not here to tell people what to think. We’re not just telling them the pieces of information that they should have, we’re trying to tell them why they should think about this, and how it fits into the larger context. None of these things happen in isolation. I think that one of the things that Prism’s reports really make sure to always include is the idea that these things that we write about—these stories that we tell about the pandemic, about the election, about immigration—all of these things don’t happen in isolated bubbles.”
Regarding stories from the larger context and highlighting communities that, perhaps, don’t get that spotlight a lot of the time, October is Filipino American History Month. Can you tell us more about the symbolism of this month taking place in October, as well as the importance of spotlighting the API experiences beyond the coastal regions of the country?
Oh, this is something that means a lot to me, because, obviously, I’m Filipina. I was actually born and raised outside of Chicago, not in Chicago—it’s very important for me to make that distinction. As much as I love living in the city now, I’m from the western suburbs. My parents came here from the Philippines—my tatay, my dad, was actually a teenager in the Philippines during World War II, so he grew up with some very different experiences. My mom came here in the ’60s, she was about 21 years younger than my tatay. So, the perspective that I understood about what it meant to be Filipino was deeply rooted in growing up in the Midwest, in a very white suburb. There were not a lot of other Filipinos in the neighborhood, or that we even really interacted with, just by virtue of geography, where we were.
With Filipino American History Month, I did not even realize until several years ago that it’s relatively new. The U.S. Congress only recognized October as the month to celebrate Filipino American history in 2009. So, it is barely a decade old. It actually overlaps with the National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 15—that goes all the way back to 1968. Before that, the National Hispanic Heritage Month was a week-long celebration. So, this is one of those things where it reflects how Filipinos have been very much apart from the fabric of American life for a very long time. It hasn’t really been until recently that a lot of mainstream news, mainstream culture, has actually started looking at Filipinos, and what it means for Filipinos to be part of American culture.
This overlaps a lot with what we’re seeing in the election right now. Filipinos are considered under the umbrella of Asian Americans—the ethnic grouping of Asian Americans. Asian Americans are right now the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. There are over 11 million Asian Americans who are eligible to vote this year—that’s over five percent of eligible voters in the U.S. We are the only other major racial or ethnic group of naturalized citizens, not U.S.-born, to make up the majority of eligible voters in the U.S. So, it’s really important not just for outside communities to pay attention to who Asian Americans are, but it’s also really important for us to have conversations within our own communities about what it means to participate in civic life, and why it’s important for us to do so.
As Filipinos are very aware, the influence of American government goes very far back with us. It has been very deeply involved with shaping culture and governments in the Philippines—the Philippine islands were a colony of the U.S. for a very long time. I didn’t even know until I got to college that there had been such a thing as the Philippine-American War, where Filipinos were striving for independence from American occupation. Filipinos make up a huge portion of the healthcare industry in the States. Right now, more than ever, I think it’s very important for us to have these discussions within our communities about what it means to be active. The Filipino American National Historical Society is the organization that pretty much runs the Filipino American History Month, and they have a lot of suggestions for activities and topics of discussion for 2020. I think they’ve chosen an extremely important and relevant theme—the theme for this month is “The History of Filipino American Activism.” There are so many things that we have not really heard about in the story that we tell ourselves about the fabric of American life, and who is involved in shaping American history.
Filipinos were part of the farm workers’ movement—they were involved in the Hawaii sugar plantation strikes and anti-martial law movements. There have been a lot of movements—particularly among progressive younger Filipino and other Asian American activists—on working in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with Indigenous and Native sovereignty issues, civil rights and voting rights, all of these things. We have always been here, but there has been a tendency to erase our participation, because it serves the narrative of America to have Asian Americans occupy the space of the model minority—of being able to use us as a wedge against other ethnic and racial groups by pointing to us and saying, “Well, they could assimilate, why can’t you?” There’s often a lot of ignoring the part that much of this assimilation has happened forcibly, a lot of this assimilation has happened because the U.S. government consciously removed barriers that were in place, preventing Asian Americans from becoming more active participants in American life. All of these things are important to talk about, and I love the chance that I have—as an editor at Prism—to be able to bring more of these stories and contexts into the discussions we’re having about the things that affect us today. Immigration, COVID—all of these things are absolutely important to talk about within the acknowledgement of these contexts and histories.
“Filipinos were part of the farm workers’ movement—they were involved in the Hawaii sugar plantation strikes and anti-martial law movements. There have been a lot of movements—particularly among progressive younger Filipino and other Asian American activists—on working in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with Indigenous and Native sovereignty issues, civil rights and voting rights, all of these things. We have always been here, but there has been a tendency to erase our participation, because it serves the narrative of America to have Asian Americans occupy the space of the model minority—of being able to use us as a wedge against other ethnic and racial groups by pointing to us and saying, ‘Well, they could assimilate, why can’t you?’”
Lastly, because we are a literary podcast, we have been asking people who come to speak with us what they’re reading, watching, listening, or otherwise turning to during this moment for comfort or context. I’d love to get your thoughts on what you’re reading right now, or what you’re looking to otherwise.
I’m trying to read fairly diversely across genres, because I read so much in science fiction and fantasy, and there are a couple of things that I’ve read lately that I’ve very much enjoyed different reasons. I deeply enjoy Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex series—it’s light and fluffy, but also deeply sincere and funny. It’s about what it means to cultivate female friendships, and to have honest relationships while you are going out and doing things like being a superhero, fighting demon-possessed cupcakes in the middle of San Francisco. I highly recommend these books, and all of the main characters in them are Asian American women. I really love the dynamics that Sarah brings into these stories, they are so much fun. It’s the thing where I keep waiting for The CW, or for Netflix, to jump on adapting these books, because they would look so fantastic.
I just finished reading Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, and it’s been a long time since I’ve really found horror that I’ve deeply enjoyed. I went through my Stephen King phase when I was a teenager, but it’s been a long time since that time kind of work has really grabbed me, and his book was just deeply unsettling, but also really gorgeously crafted. It’s fascinating to look at particularly a genre story, a horror story that is very much about the experience of being Blackfeet—being from a Blackfeet tribe in the Americas—and how a story in America does not have to be centered around white people, or have anything to do with white folks at all. It’s just really amazing. Also, I could not turn out the lights when I was done reading it, and I’m never looking at elk the same way. I would highly recommend reading that.
Kay Jamison’s books are not necessarily a source of comfort in the way I go to comfort food, but they’re a comfort in that they are stories that I read about people going through extremely traumatic and difficult situations, but they find ways to hold on to their humanity and recreate community. They still manage to connect with other people and possibly make a difference, whether it’s on a save-the-world scale or on an individual level. I think that’s one of the things that I love about working in science fiction and fantasy, on the one hand, but also working in journalism at a place like Prism at this time.
When you look for stories about how we have survived these things before, there are many populations in the United States for whom the apocalypse has already happened. They are already—we are already—living in a dystopia. It’s just that, for folks who have been insulated by privilege, that awareness that the apocalypse has already been here, the dystopia is here now—that awareness is penetrating that protective bubble that a lot of people have been in before. What matters is that we are looking for stories that tell us not just what is happening, but how we can navigate through this and still find a way to build something better on the other side, and maintain our humanity and our empathy for each other.
That is the challenge right now—how we salvage what we can, while looking out for one another and, as you said, maintaining our humanity and our connections to one another.
Can you tell I’ve been watching The Good Place a lot?
I need to catch up with the latest season, actually.
Have tissues for that very last episode. It’s not awful, it just made me feel a lot of things. So, definitely have Kleenex for that last standoff.