The political is personal

Juliana Hu Pegues. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
Juliana Hu Pegues. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Some people become artists because that is where their talent lies. Others do it because they have something to say. There are those who can’t quite put the reason into words. And then there’s Juliana Hu Pegues.

Intentional artist, intentional Minnesotan
After activism that included protesting outside the opera “Madam Butterfly,” which portrays Asian women as passive and submissive, and the play “Miss Saigon,” notorious for its racist and sexist stereotyping of Asians, Hu Pegues says members of the local Asian-American arts community “invited me to become an artist … I identified as an Asian-American writer.”

Hu Pegues was new to the Twin Cities in those days; she’d arrived here in the summer of 1992 as part of an anti-racism community organizing effort after a cross was burned in the yard of a family on the east side of St. Paul. She planned on her time here as a detour, on her way to her “destiny” in San Francisco. “I was coming out, I was biracial and bisexual,” Hu Pegues recalled. “[I thought] San Francisco was the place I needed to be.”

The longer Hu Pegues stayed in the Twin Cities, the more she liked it. “The irony was, I found in the Twin Cities what I thought I’d find in San Francisco … there were lesbians of color organizing, and the beginning of a Pan-Asian arts renaissance.” She decided to stay put.

Travels with Juliana
The Twin Cities was a long way, both literally and culturally, from Hu Pegues’ origins. Her parents met in Taiwan when her mother, who’d gone to secretarial school, landed a job as a secretary at Pan Am and then married her boss. Hu Pegues was born in Taipei in 1969 to a Chinese mother and a white American father. The family moved to Singapore, where her younger sister was born, before moving to her father’s native Alaska, where her brother was born and where the family settled.

In Juneau, Hu Pegues’ father worked for the state government; she remembers her mother studying for her citizenship exam while she “took care of other people’s children,” and then doing office work. Today, she works in an independent bookstore.

Hu Pegues’ mother has had a strong influence on her. “Though she was raised as a Catholic, I remember my mom saying that the pope was not a woman and therefore had no business talking about a woman’s body,” Hu Pegues recalled. “When I announced, as a pre-teen, that I didn’t think I wanted to get married, but I wanted to have a daughter, my mom said, ‘Good for you.'” Her father was “kind of silent” on the subject.

Her mother transitioned back to Buddhism during Hu Pegues’ childhood. “Taiwan is a secular Buddhist and Taoist state in the same way the U.S. is a secular Christian state,” she explained. “People may visit Buddhist temples yet worship Taoist deities.”

As her mother began to observe Buddhism, Hu Pegues remembers statues of both Buddha and Jesus in the house. “Mom got a jade Quan Yin (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) pendant that she wore along with a crucifix,” she recalled. “Quan Yin was heavier and hung over the crucifix, knocking it askew. A few years later, the crucifix disappeared.”

Her mother wasn’t the only strong female influence on Hu Pegues. “My dad really looked up to his mother,” she said. “After his parents separated, his mom raised nine boys on her own.” Her grandmother, Hu Pegues said, “believed in women’s rights before there was a name for it.”

Personal identity
Hu Pegues, a straight-A student and class valedictorian, won a scholarship to the University of Redlands, a small liberal arts college in southern California. “The way school is structured, what we’re taught is disempowering.” She illustrates her point with an experience that happened in a class at Redlands. “It was an older white professor, his research area was archaeology in Mexico. ‘You,’ he said, pointing at me-I didn’t have a name-‘You are so lucky because you could pass for Mexican.'”

Another example she cited was a paper she wrote for a biology class on eco-feminism. “It came back with everything circled in red. I cited Robin Morgan as a source and her name was circled with a note, ‘Who is this? Is this a credible source?'”

After two years Hu Pegues moved to Seattle, planning to take a break for the summer. She never went back. “I wanted to be in a big city. In Seattle, I wanted to talk about race, about feminism.” She lived in a house with five other women and worked as a cook in a collective vegetarian restaurant. “I was not quite out. I still had a boyfriend, he had grown up in Alaska too. He was a very sweet guy, he ended up moving to Seattle to be with me.”

She began to become more political about her sexuality and race. During the year she lived in Seattle, she was an “anarchist-feminist.” A year in Maine followed, and then one in Boston, where she broke up with her boyfriend. “I needed to be with women,” she said.

During this time she began to experience some frustration over how others viewed her in a racial context. “My authenticity is as an Asian-American. In a woman of color context, I am asked if I am Latina or Filipina. Or, ‘Aren’t you Brazilian?'”

Women’s Prison Book Project
Hu Pegues became involved in women’s prison reform issues, and she and three other women founded the Women’s Prison Book Project. Hu Pegues had previously been involved in books-to-prisoners programs in Seattle and Boston, but she and her roommate saw a need for an organization with a distinct mission of providing books for women. Women prisoners, she explained, need different books than their male counterparts. “Men want legal books, books about political issues … they’re becoming politicized. Women need books around identity, novels. They’re interested in learning about how to advocate for themselves and health issues, because prison is such a toxic environment. And child development books, because a majority of women prisoners have children, and a majority of those were the primary or sole parent.

“We started out going though our book collections, asking friends for books they didn’t need. We started working nationally right away. We contacted other book projects.”

Dictionaries, Hu Pegues said, are the most requested item. Women use them in writing to those outside. “Connections, maintaining connections, is the thing these women have to fight hardest for. How does she stay part of a family, a community? Their primary mode of communicating is through letters,” she said.

The organization has, from the beginning, been staffed by volunteers. Hu Pegues’ involvement today is less intense than it was when she helped found the Women’s Prison Book Project 14 years ago, but she stays involved by volunteering at mailings and attending fundraisers. She is still passionate about the need for the organization-her eyes flash when she talks about how hard it is in some cases for books to get past prison censors.

Moving on
After getting the organization up and going, Hu Pegues did something for herself: She went back to school at the University of Minnesota. She also began organizing for her local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). After earning a B.A. in comparative ethnic studies, Hu Pegues did some work in curriculum development and was an artist-in-residence at several public schools. “I really love to teach,” she said.

She is planning on teaching (at the college level) being her next career. “When I teach writing, I want to deal with the notion of how young people are ‘other’-race, sexuality, gender, class. Too many writing classes are about how you’re ‘supposed to write,’ not about how to express what you feel. I think that’s what’s most important. We can always get to the spelling and grammar later. It’s important that they know ‘I am a thinking person. My thoughts are important to this world.'”

Today, Hu Pegues juggles graduate school-she is in a Ph.D. program in American Studies at the University of Minnesota-with activism and writing. Her political involvement and cultural identity have informed her work from the beginning. Her current play, “Q & A,” produced through Theatre Mu, has just finished a two-and-a-half-week run at the Mixed Blood Theatre. “Q & A” explores Asian-American issues of race and sexuality through a question-and-answer format.

She manages to have a social life, too. Hu Pegues’ partner of the last two years is a man. She admitted to getting some flack from some of her lesbian friends about that. “I have a couple of friends who sort of disappear when I have a male partner, reappear when I have a female partner. That makes me sad on a personal level.

“I am really open if someone says to me, ‘this gathering is only for women.’ My partner and I are not joined at the hip. But if I’m not invited because I’m with him … I’m not going to say, ‘I demand to come to your dinner party.’

“We live together. He’s Vietnamese-American. We are not engaged and we are not going to get married. He’s heterosexual, but he’s had to come out to his siblings, when they’ve asked ‘when are you guys getting married?’ that I’m bi.

“I’m not going to collude with the state. I couldn’t get married when I was with a female partner, so why would I want that privilege with a man?”

Hu Pegues dislikes what she sees as “‘the invisibility of being bisexual.’ If I’m with a woman, people think I’m a lesbian. If I’m with a man, they assume I’m straight. “I think it’s good to get people out of their boxes. Sometime I might say to my partner, ‘I’m going to the queer women’s potluck.’ But I can’t go if I’m not invited.”

Women’s Prison Book Project
WPBP accepts donations at Boneshaker Books, 2002 23rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404.
Paperback only.