Saturday, February 13, 2010

Interview with Diaspora Poet/Performer/Artist Li Min Mo

Interview with Diaspora Poet/Performer/Artist Li Min Mo
By Doug Holder

Li Min Mo has had a long, nomadic journey as an artist. Born in China, she has lived in many locales, including the Lower East Side of Manhattan where she cut her teeth as an artist. Mo now resides in Cambridge but is a valued member of the Somerville-based artist group the “Streetfeet Women.” She has taught drama, storytelling, and history to children and adults for many years. She holds an M.A. in Theatre and Education from Goddard College in Vermont and an M.F.A. from Emerson College in Creative Writing. In the sixties she worked with Peter Schuman’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, as well as other cutting edge dramatic groups. She has written a memoir "Spirit Bridges" that recounts her childhood in China to her forays in the Lower East Side of New York City. I spoke with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You endured incredible hardship; from your childhood in China to your time on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It has been said:” What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Is this true for you?

Li Min Mo: I actually think that statement has one shade of the truth. Because of my condition, (I was diagnosed with Narcolepsy when I was 18), I became very depressed. Then the doctor prescribed amphetamines. Back then nobody knew a lot about them. I had to school and work a part time job. I walked around like a drugged fool. I don't think that made me stronger just confused and depressed.

DH: Well out of adversity comes art.

LMM: Well, if you have art. If you are passionate and committed to art...which I am. I am because I know this is the vehicle where my "other" part of me...that is not going to express itself. And I don't think a lot of people see art this way. I don't make a lot of things because objects are not the way I do art. I create art because this will make me whole. So there is another part of myself that can't explain things....I do express myself when I paint or tell a story, for instance.

DH: Your mom was quite artistic.

LMM: My mom was a formidable character. She qualified as a super mom--because she was doing so much. She slept five hours every night had jobs in factories and went to school on weekends.

DH: Why did you and your Mom leave China?

LMM: My dad was arrested by the communists back in 1949. And subsequently he was executed by the government. They wanted to "educate" my mom, or brainwash her. My mom knew that this was not where she wanted to go. Basically she told them "I can't be changed. I am going to remain decadent." So they knew she wasn't going to go through the transformation a revolution requires. They told her she could leave--later we landed in Hong Kong. She had a wonderful job as a writer there. Ever since we left China my mother wanted to come to America. She felt America would give her the best break to raise her kids. I think for us she made the sacrifice. She gave up her writing career and profession, and the community of writers. It took her eight years to get here--and we wound up in New York. My mom kept a journal--she wrote her whole life.

DH: You wrote the opening of one's self is the hardest work the artist undertakes. Explain.

LMM: I think when I look in the mirror what I see is just one face of mine. I also know there is another part of me that is not in the mirror. When you write about yourself you have to write about all these layers. It's like peeling an onion--it makes you cry. It's like taking off your clothes in front of everyone. I can never see my own back, but if I am writing about my back I am forced to look at the imperfection. When you write and write well, you share these scars.

DH: You are a member of an artistic group of women writers the "Streetfeet Women.” Can you give us a little history of the group?

LMM: Mary McCullough and Ellen Harap founded the group. Its former name was the Streetfeet's Children's workshop. In the early 80's I was hired to work with children in the Mission Hill section of Boston, creating a summer art program, as well as producing plays. Our group was doing a lot of theatre. Eventually we went to Africa because we heard there was a women's conference being held there...this was 1985. Before that we raised money to travel to Africa, and wrote our own theatre piece together--we created an ensemble. From there we created and nurtured our own writing. We got together once-a-month. Our first anthology came out in 1998 "Laughing in the Kitchen"--we used to meet in each other’s kitchens. Before that we published small booklets: "On the Road to Beijing." was one such booklet. We chronicled our travels. We travel less now--we all have families and grandchildren.

DH: Can you talk about your involvement with the Bread and Puppet Theatre in the 60's. It had a very political mission, no?

LMM: Peter Schumann, the director of the theatre, started it in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was living there at the time. I was babysitting for a filmmaker and she introduced me to Peter. Peter decided to attach my face for his masks for his play against the Vietnam War. So my face became the face of the Vietnamese people. People would wear my mask in marches and in theatre productions. I did quite a bit of writing about Peter's work because he is quite the genius. He currently has a play at the Boston center for the Arts.

DH: China is an emerging power--or has already emerged. Do you think it will have a major impact on the literary world?

LMM: I think Chinese respect writing. Now that more people are educated writing and literature will be more prominent. The government is afraid of writers. They are afraid of what writers say. I don't think there is a good chance they can shut the country off to literature.

DH: Do you think your mother would want to go back to China now if she was alive? Would you like to go back to live there?

LMM: I don't fit there. I am the artist in exile. Right now it is hard for me to blend in. I think my mother would have liked to go back though.

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