Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative: Envisioning Radical Futures in APA Religions

Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, PhD (Loyola Marymount University) and Shyam K. Sriram, PhD (Canisius University) reflect on APARRI 2023 and APA religious futures.

Imagining a Future for APA Religions and Communities

The Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative (APARRI) held its 2023 conference June 20-23. The exciting conference program included a keynote address by cartoonist Gene Luen Yang, award-winning author and illustrator of many comics and graphic novels, including American Born Chinese (2006). Additionally, scholars and activists of Asian Pacific American religions gathered for multidisciplinary conversations around the theme of “Envisioning Radical Futures in APA Religions and Communities.”

For us, envisioning radical futures in APA religions and communities has been quite difficult; our worldview is marked much more by dystopian pessimism than utopian futurism. A cursory look the dynamics of the current US GOP primary race, for example, highlights the extent to which religion in the American public sphere is dominated by White Christianity. Khyati Joshi highlighted this recently in RNS where she looked at resistance to Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy among Christians and Republicans. For a party that places faith front and center, Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith is not the kind such voters want to endorse. The extent to which so many Americans conflate faith and Christianity is but one of the many reasons for our deep pessimism. The rise of harassment and violence against APA persons and communities, our ongoing invisibility in the academy and society, and the mainstreaming of White Christian nationalism make us wonder whether there will ever be an APA reality that isn’t marked by marginality, liminality, and coloniality.

However, one initial vision of APA religious futures has its roots in the mushroom. We aren’t imagining the fungal infection depicted in The Last of Us, but rather the remarkable nature of mushrooms to, yes, grow in shit. Not only does fungus as a decomposer break down the dead and lead to new life, it transforms and redistributes nutrients. Fungus breaks down all manner of natural and natural-derived substances, even toxic ones like oil and plastics, and has great potential for environmental healing. Under the fruiting body of the mushroom is a vast root network called the mycelium, which is in a symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationship with plant roots. It is the mycelium which breaks down substances; the mycelium also filters water, promotes soil health, communicates with plants through electrical signals, and transfers nutrients to plants.

Of course, mushrooms are also vital in Asian and Asian American religions and cultures. From their importance in cuisine, to their role in health and healing, to their significance in religious practice, mushrooms cross our worlds and remain full of significance in our lives. Mushrooms provide the setting and lens for Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms (1994), a novel about the multiplicity of Japanese Canadian life and the ongoing negotiation of “authenticity” in our partial and fragmented memories. There is never just one way of being Japanese Canadian, but a chorus of ways tied in unseen webs of mycelial–and, in the novel, telepathic–connections. Mushrooms continue in the imagined future, as well, showing up, for example, in Larissa Lai’s 22nd century pandemic-ridden world of The Tiger Flu, where mushrooms and their mycelial fibers are woven into the narrative to signal the web of life that continues through violence, rupture, and dislocation. There is the healing mushroom gauze and mycelium substrate the is essential for the healing work of grooms to the starfish, on the one hand, but the contrasted atom bomb (with its mushroom cloud), on the other.

A Future Beyond Marginality and Liminality?

However, in envisioning a radical future, what lies beyond marginality and liminality? What are APA religions and communities–are there APA religions and communities?–in a future possible world without a hegemonic center with which we are in constant negotiation? We frankly do not know and remain deeply suspicious of what the future holds. In a world of “nones” and “dones,” even in our Asian American religious communities, we feel responsible to make some kind of claim about the significance of APA religions but remain wary of seeming to reinforce White Western appropriative and neocolonial practices of cooptation.

What world is possible without White Christian hegemony? In the process of dismantling White Christian supremacy, are we dismantling ourselves, our APA ways of being in the world, our creative paths of flourishing in the borderlands and on the margins? We are more than the normative definitions of geography, religion, and empire that sadly still encapsulate the study of religion. The East, Far East, Southeast Asia, Middle East, South Asia, Asia Minor, Central Asia … And the acronyms that struggle to capture our identities—Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA); APA/ APIA; Middle East, North Africa, South Asia (MENASA); and South Asian, Southwest Asian, and North African (SSWANA). Who do these Orientalist terms serve? Only the Occident and White Christian hegemony, which continue to shape our academic disciplines, engendering the disciplinary silos that affirm a 21st-century version of divide and conquer.

Jerry Park recently commented on the power that comes with “centering Asian Americans in our scholarship.” It breaks free of the “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” trifecta and challenges our understanding of “the religion-secular binary.” So, in an attempt to offer an alternative imaginary, our vision of a radical future is ginger, which has been cultivated for over 5000 thousand years across Asia. It has a somewhat mysterious origin, as it does not grow in the wild. Like the mushroom, it is highly valued for its versatility in cuisine, health care, and healing. Also, like the mushroom, ginger crosses Asian, Pacific, and Asian Pacific American imaginations. Ginger can drive away the kappa yokai in Japanese folklore. The ancient Chinese medical text Classic of the Materia Medica notes that prolonged raw ginger consumption removes bad odors and allows one to communicate with the spirit-world.

Ginger is a rhizome, a rootstalk that buds and grows outward, without a center point. If cut, it simply continues to form nodes, bud, and grow outward. It is very difficult to destroy, as it can grow from any cut piece. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss in A Thousand Plateaus, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing” (p. 25). Rhizomatic existence is distinct from arborescent existence, a Western epistemological mode that follows a tree-like vertical hierarchy, from grounded roots, to unyielding trunk, to branches that are reliant on one system of order (p. 16 – 17).

The rhizome is the ideal metaphor for Asian Pacific American religion precisely because it breaks free of the binary of Eastern versus Western religion. For instance, a rhizomatic understanding of religion provides an unequivocal intellectual space for the study of Islam and Asian Muslim identities that no longer must be awkwardly placed sometimes in the canon of Eastern Religion OR Western Religion. If Deleuze and Guattari cite James Joyce and Frederick Nietzsche as exemplars that shattered language and knowledge (p. 6), respectively, then can we even comprehend the structured implosion of religious studies when its structure snaps out of arborescence into rhizomatic freedom of ideas?

Transforming our Futures

In envisioning our radical future, we need to abandon arborescent thinking. Instead, let’s reimagine ourselves through the ginger, stretching backward, forward, and sideways, without center, without margin, without hierarchy. We split, we grow, we change, and somehow we are still a part of the rhizome from which we came; but in the uncentered, multiple growths of our rootstalk, we are altogether something else at the same time.

Seen through this lens, APA communities and religions are both made up of their histories, oppressions, and triumphs without being essentially defined at their core by them–after all, we have no core, no foundation. Our religions and cultures emerge within Asian and Pacific contexts without having a static beginning, center-point, or essentialized root system there. We are an assemblage of persons, communities, religions, and practices without center, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; an assemblage that flows across time, borders, and space, characterized not by any essential reality or common history. Like a rhizome, we are everything, everywhere, all at once. We may be wounded, cut, and split; but we are multitude: strong, resilient, and very, very difficult to destroy.

As a final note, we should say that fungus also grows without beginning, end, or center point. So, if there is hope for a radical future, we return to the mushroom to show us the way. We must reject an arborescent imagination, and grow outward, resisting essentializing and linear ways of practicing our religions and cultures. We must dismantle White Christian hegemony, its center, and its norms, but we do not install a new center with ossified roots and a centralized trunk. We must engage with Asian Pacific American religion as rhizomatic and as Deleuze and Guattari might say, a “multiplicity, that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object” (p. 8). We must lean into our multiculturality and multireligiosity through collective, horizontal, and symbiotic ways of being. We must both grow in, and transform, the shit.

Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. She specializes in comparative theology and interreligious dialogue, with a focus on the intersections, multiplicities, and ambiguities of religion, gender, race, ethnicity, and power. Tracy is vice president of Feminist Studies in Religion, Inc., and Catholic co-chair of the Los Angeles Hindu-Catholic Dialogue.

Shyam K. Sriram, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Canisius University (formerly College) in Buffalo, NY. He previously taught at Gonzaga University, Butler University, the College of Charleston, Georgia State University, Morehouse College, and the University of California at Santa Barbara where he received his PhD. His primary foci are American politics and religion; his research and teaching interests meet at the 4 Is: immigration, identity, India, and Islam. He has published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Political Research Quarterly, and Journal of South Asian Diaspora and is currently preparing a textbook manuscript on refugee resettlement under contract with Cognella.

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