“It matters what you’re going through right now. It matters where you’re at right now and that’s vital in the room.” – Poppy Liu
Activism can be emotionally and physically exhausting. It’s protesting, it’s calling state representatives, and it’s keeping one eye on Capitol Hill even though both eyes should be focused on making dinner. In 2016, Poppy Liu, a Chinese-American activist, actor, and poet, was over-worked by the city. Although she revelled in her community and work, her life force was being drained. The exhaustion prompted a three month long trip to Rio De Janeiro where she would recover, realign her priorities, and escape the smells and sounds of New York City.
At 2 years old, Poppy’s family moved her from China to suburban Minnesota where she would live until the age of 14. That’s 12 years of exposure to American (read: white) culture. “I didn’t see representations of myself in the world, in a way that represented me or how I felt. And, as is the immigration story of many folks, assimilation and learning Whiteness was a part of my growing up.”
The compulsion to assimilate into white culture initially held her back from one of her greatest passions, poetry. “Finding a lot of women of color poets was a really big thing for me. For a long time, I thought poetry wasn’t a world that was mine. But looking back, it was because all the poetry I read was like White male poetry. So of course I was like, ‘uhhh I don’t know if this is my world.’”
Her efforts to excavate her voice from the smothering blankets of heteronormativity and Whiteness have come in the form of decolonization. “Most of it’s undoing stuff, undoing the voices in my head, of how I think I should appear to the world or what I should look like or what I should be doing. When we take out all these voices, the only thing that’s left is just you. When you’re just you, it’s rebuilding with your own voice in your head and not eighty-thousand other people’s voices in your head as well.” This process started when she was young through participation in dance, language, and theater, but it really began to flower during college. “It was the first time I was introduced to the vocabulary needed to talk about all this stuff.” During college Liu was introduced to feminism and intersectionality. Where as before her journey “was deeply personal and they felt very specific to just my personal journey.”
Liu has also been pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the production company she founded Collective Sex, whose mission, according to their website, is to decolonize storytelling by selecting “stories with messages around positive social change, ending silence or evolving our consciousness,” while celebrating “intersectional femme, queer, POC and immigrant identities,” and utilizing “a creative process that is joyful, non-binary, healing and collaborative.”
Collective Sex makes a point to detach themselves from the cold and normalized idea of professionalism. “We had this idea too, that in the professional world, professionalism is closed” said Liu regarding the production of her film Names of Women (2016) a story about women and their interactions with abortion.“We really celebrated people coming in as full humans and being. It matters what you’re going through right now. It matters where you’re at right now and that’s vital in the room.” Unique in comparison to most film crews, Names of Women was shot by a culturally diverse team, completely absent of men.
What’s often overlooked in activism is the emotional toll it takes. At best, the suffocating smog of oppression gets partially cleared away in the morning; at worst, it’s something you choke in throughout the day. “Sometimes it’s about the fight or how to work for something and having to ‘ugh!’ and it’s always this tension thing. I think that on the other side of that is radical joy, that that can be a deeply deeply disruptive and radical tool.” Being curious, living with wonder, freedom, and ease, and representing yourself honestly and joyfully, are as essential to her activism as to her work with Collective Sex.
Poppy Liu’s creation of Collective Sex is a breath of fresh air for those who share the struggle to find a diverse and welcoming space. That’s what activism is about, letting the appreciation you have for your own individuality seep into your compassion for others.