Jasmyn Choi ’22 vividly recalls when her Korean-born mother was pulled over by police in Los Angeles 12 years ago. Rather than speaking to the driver, who had broken English, the officer leaned into the vehicle to question 8-year-old Jasmyn instead. Jasmyn, after all, had “perfect” English.
“I’ve always dealt with the particular trauma of strangers diminishing my mother’s intelligence because of her accent,” Choi recalls. “I tremble in anger thinking of the times she’s had her voice stolen from her. We both sat in the car in oppressive silence, yet it was comforting because silence is all we have been trained to know.”
Growing up in a white flight suburb, Choi grew accustomed to overt and covert racism, and most recently, tried to comfort her mother’s insecurities about not feeling safe due to comments made about the “Chinese virus.” As Asian women, Choi says, “the depth of our pain is an immense chasm from which to fall deeper and deeper into. We are trapped in the eternal, isolating birdcage of ourselves.”
Choi, however, has found a coping mechanism to escape from her lifelong trauma—writing and literature. Through words, Choi— who admits to having a book hoarding tendency—is able to find her own space for recovery which fundamentally changes the way she navigates through society.
“Literature offers a space of compassion, of rage, of solace, and unadulterated feelings that don’t have to be justified or dignified in front of a white, male gaze,” Choi said. “Asian women have a place to scream from the bottom of their lungs—grating, piercing screams that feel like symphonies in my ears. I’ve held books in my hands the way I’ve held bodies during protests, warmly and tenderly. Literature is a vessel for education and action—a space for safe identity formations and space where the narrative can change to address our particulars.”
Choi’s love for literature recently led her to be named a co-recipient of Wesleyan’s Shu Tokita Prize, established by friends and relatives of Shu Tokita ’84. The $1,500 prize is awarded annually to a student of color majoring in literature, in area studies, or a language major with a focus on literature, who demonstrates financial need. Students submit a written essay to apply for the award.
Shu Tokita ’84, who passed away in 1989 from leukemia, received a BA in English literature from Wesleyan and an MA in Japanese literature from Tsukuba University. The prize seeks to reflect Tokita’s interest in literature and is focused on supporting students of color, for whom the study of literature, Tokita’s family and friends felt, is often considered a “luxury.”
During a virtual reception on June 23, prize co-recipient Jada Reid ’22 also shared her experience using literature to cope with the hardships of being a student of color. Reid, an English and African American studies double major, is biracial, but was raised by her “white side” of the family.
“I often felt very like excluded and confused about my own racial identity, and so that’s why literature was the place where I could create my own existence,” Reid said. “I’m very invested in sharing my personal experience. [Through] literature, the world is recreated, and … that’s the place where you can re-imagine certain possibilities that may not feel possible.”
In her most recent creative work, Reid wrote about different versions of herself using biracial characters. She shared the work with her mother, knowing that it could possibly cause tension. Instead, it led to a deeper mother-daughter connection.
“Usually I share with her what I am studying, and sometimes it’s frustrating [to explain] because she’s not there with me, but this was one of the first moments where I felt like we were sharing my love for literature,” Reid said. “It finally felt like we were in the same place. She could see how my entire self went into those stories and I felt like that moment was very indicative of the power of literature.”
The Shu Tokita ’84 Memorial Prize Committee includes Amy Tang, associate professor of English; Alice Hadler, (retired) senior associate director of the Fries Center for Global Studies; Marguerite Nguyen, associate professor of English; Demetrius Colvin, director of the Resource Center; Teiji Kawana ’84; Daphne Kwok ’84; and Yoshiko Samuel, professor of Asian languages and literatures, emerita.
“The Prize Committee was greatly impressed with how candidly and eloquently Jasmyn and Jada wrote about the profound impact that studying literature has had on them,” Tang said during the prize reception. “Both Jasmyn and Jada described, in different ways, how they view literature as a crucial and vital space where they could see their own identities and concerns reflected and affirmed, especially in the face of the ongoing erasure and violence experienced by communities of color in the United States. We are delighted to be able to support their passion for literature, and their commitment to making such experiences accessible to other students of color.”