by Jaq Nguyen Victor
My personality is intense and playful, like whimsical lightning. Would it surprise you to know that I am a therapist? Usually we think of healers as steady, soft-spoken souls, full of gentle sacrifice and patience. Or, at least, I do. Sometimes I feel like the rainbow-colored sheep of the counseling psychology field. But 2017 has been a year of embracing the flavors and textures of me that stray from the stereotypical image of a therapist. And I owe immense gratitude to the Work That Reconnects (WTR) for guiding my path towards self-celebration.
Today, I am the Founder and Director of Dig & Demand (D&D)—a radical training program for queer trans 1st, 1.5, 2nd generation diasporic Vietnamese artists. Its mission is to dig deeply and demand daringly for the collective threading of our resilience. The name “Dig & Demand” sprouted from a seed inside my heart during my 6-month WTR training for people of color at Canticle Farm. Two glorious human beings, Barbara Jefferson and Adelaja Simons, facilitated our cohort, which was the most emotionally vibrant and safe group that I had ever experienced in my life. From then on, I became determined to bring the WTR back to my Vietnamese community, namely at its queer and trans intersections.
So I watered this seed for the next two years, with my mentee at my side, Trang Tran, who is also the Founder of QTViet Cafe. I created a curriculum rooted in eco-justice, trauma-centered drama therapy, and liberation psychology. Trang applied for a Wellness In Action (WIA) grant for us. Then in the Spring of 2017, we launched Dig & Demand at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), sponsored by the Alameda County Behavioral Health Services (ACBHS). It was nothing short of a dream come true.
We then conducted interviews with different leaders in the queer trans Vietnamese (qtViet) community. Allow me to share excerpts from our conversation with organizer Tracy Nguyen.
What are you digging for in your life?
“I’m digging for authenticity. I think in a world where we’re inundated by politics, ideology, people, and just like so much information, it’s hard to know what’s real. And so I yearn for it.”
What are you demanding?
“So easily are we dismissed by our parents. I think about what it will look like to finally sit in a room together and talk about the hard topics, talk about the complicated histories, talk about the politics that divide us. Even while we’re organizing on the streets, our parents are at home voting a different way.”
What do you know about the qtViet community?
“When you navigate your life in ways where you always have to be a fraction of yourself, the moment where you get to be whole, together, and everyone is experiencing together that wholeness, it just creates these multiple layers of comfort, happiness, and extremely rooted validation of who you are. And in that moment you get to be whatever you want.”
Next, we held a focus group and orientation session to harvest even more feedback about Dig & Demand from the community. Here is what we found out.
What was your experience of the Dig & Demand curriculum?
“All the times when we talk about oppression, it can feel really heavy. But we were able, through the puppets, to talk in a different way. It felt like uplifting to talk about oppression, if that makes sense.”
“I’m used to sitting around groups that are trying to do this. But there’s just no balance. And it was really, really wonderful to be able to laugh.”
“I just want to talk about this with my parents. But I don’t know how to say it in Vietnamese or how to explain. But this gives me a different perspective to learn about other stuff that I wouldn’t in the community.”
Why is Dig & Demand needed?
“I think it could be a therapeutic way for all of us to process current things together. Oftentimes I find myself at work, just reading the news, not sure how to bring it to the work that I’m doing.”
“It’s like Intentionally carving out space to build up people’s creativity. That doesn’t happen for us. Creativity is one of the few things that we have to claim for ourselves and is in our power.”
“it just allows us to have a space where we don’t have to compromise ourselves, and that’s very vital to survival, yes.”
After that, we gathered a crew of qtViet participants to embark on this journey with us. Over the next 10 weeks, plus 1-weekend intensive, and 2 rehearsals sessions, Dig & Demand grew in a soil that was unique, intimate, safe, uncharted, and most of all, playful. The WTR spiral model very much guided us. But I added culturally affirming goals, like building up our vocabulary for expressing our emotions in both Vietnamese and English. I incorporated multimodal art interventions, everything from sand tray to puppets. I even introduced an embodied form of improvisational play called Developmental Transformations (DvT). I invite you to watch this qtViet evolution here: https://vimeo.com/221643896
The Spring 2017 cohort for the Dig & Demand program culminated in 2 final performances. One in San Francisco at Mission Cultural Center sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC), and the other in Oakland at Eastside Arts Alliance sponsored by QTViet Cafe.
In San Francisco, we turned the theatre into a vibrating cube of anti-capitalist energy by declaring “I love you!” again and again. It was such a simple, yet subversive act. In the words of one of the participants, “The most important thing that I came home with after this whole process was this super novel idea of one’s worth as a human not being conditional on anything.”
In Oakland, we blurred the lines between hard work and play, Vietnamese and English, even performers and audience members. In the words of another participant, “Growing up as a refugee and having parents who were immigrants, always on survival mode, there was no room for emotions and intimacy. As a result, I always found sanctuary in my intellect and my mind. What this space helped me do was deliberately and intentionally live in the heart space and communicate without language, or in a different language.”
On a personal note, it was powerful to have my mother present at our shows. There’s something about authority figures for me and the gut reaction to hide my whimsical lightning-like therapist self. But I managed to do it, despite a stomach full of nerves. I stepped out on stage, and I revealed myself capable of directing a crew of qtViet artists as stewards for our collective liberation. It was also incredible to have my mother be so vocal and unabashed about celebrating me as her queer and non-binary trans Vietnamese-American child. What a truly magical and unforgettable experience of intergenerational healing. You can watch all the warm fuzzies from San Francisco here: https://vimeo.com/223079582 and Oakland here: https://vimeo.com/225361503.
Allow me to end this story of whimsical lightning in gratitude. I bow to my WTR community in playful humility. Thank you for offering me a deep sense of belonging and allowing me to share Dig & Demand with you. Keep a look out for our Fall 2017 cohort! We are expanding the program to focus on diasporic queer, trans, people of color (qtpoc)! If you would like to learn more, please email [email protected].
Jaq Nguyen Victor is a Vietnamese, queer, non-binary trans, and neurodivergent artist, healer, and activist based in the Bay Area. Currently, they are finishing a M.A. in Drama Therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies. They received a 2017 Soma Award for “Outstanding Activism” from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a 2015 nomination for “Best Featured Actress” by the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle. To see more of Jaq’s work, visit www.JaqNguyenVictor.com