A garment worker at age 11 and a union organizer for eight years in the garment and hotel industries, Lora Jo Foo became a groundbreaking attorney representing low wage workers in sweatshop industries. She co-founded Sweatshop Watch and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. She is the author of Asian American Women: Issues, Concerns and Responsive Human and Civil Rights Advocacy, and has photographed throughout the United States and world. She has exhibited her nature photographs in galleries and at fine art fairs in the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives. Most recently she was the organizing director of a major California union. In 2004 and 2008, she was the National Voting Rights Protection Coordinator for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
Asian American Press had an opportunity to interview her recently before her upcoming reading on Friday, August 21, 2009 at 6:30 P.M. at the Loft Literary Center about her newest book, Earth Passages: Journeys through Childhood.
AAP: What inspired you to write your book?
LJF: Earth Passages is a book of nature photography interwoven with stories of growing up in poverty in the inner city ghetto of San Francisco's Chinatown. In 1989 when I wrote my first story from childhood, I did not have publication in mind. Rather I had an urgent need to remember events from childhood, to write about them, and in the process heal wounds from childhood.
At the same time I was writing my childhood stories, I was photographing. I took the first photograph I considered art in 1991. At first, I was fascinated with trees, particularly trees that grew through granite, clung onto hillsides and cliffs, or eked out a life in dry desert. After studying and re-studying these pictures, I realized that I was photographing my early childhood. Green Tree Among Hoodoos, the cover photograph, is a metaphor about young living things surviving harsh, barren environments.
Rainier Marie Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet that art is good if it is born of necessity and has its roots in the deepest place in your heart. Both my writing and my photography was born of necessity and came from the deepest part of me.
The writing of the stories and the photography went along separate parallel tracks. Sometime in the mid-90's when I realized both my writing and photography was telling the story of my early life and that both were healing me, I decided to publish this unlikely mixture.
I was also aware of the dearth of literature by Chinese American writers about growing up in poverty. And while there are political tracks about garment workers and their plight toiling in sweatshops, I wanted to tell the story of the kids of immigrant women whose overworked mothers were absent for most of the waking hours of their young lives. By telling my own story, I tell theirs also.
AAP: Can you talk about what challenges have arisen in embarking down the path of an artist and a community activist?
LJF: It took me over ten years to write the childhood stories and just as long to build a body of photographic work large enough to publish in a book. The stories were so long in the making because they were painful to recall and because I needed stretches of quiet and alone time to write them. It was challenging to find that quiet time because I was a civil rights attorney and organizer during those years, working the enormous numbers of hours that most all community activists work. I had to be far away from my political activism to get the stories to flow out so I eked out a story or two a year. To photograph, I had to also take stretches of time off. Fortunately, at the Asian Law Caucus where I worked, we had a great comp time policy so that if you racked up tons of overtime hours, you could take comp time off. I took full advantage of that. But I couldn't leave the younger attorneys and community advocates on their own for long so I'd tell them that while they couldn't reach me in the mountains, I'd try calling them each night when I rolled into a campsite if the campground had a pay phone. While I consider myself a damn good attorney and organizer because of the hours I've spent honing both skills, my creative writing and photography have not had the benefit of that type of time and attention.
AAP: We often hear about how people get their start in the arts, but not why they stay in it. What keeps you going these days? · Where in your new work are you really trying to push yourself, challenge yourself, risk something?
LJF: My photography was both a means of accessing childhood memories that were repressed, a means of expressing what was deep in the subconscious, and also a means of healing. The urgency to photograph isn't as great as it was in the 1990's. Now that I've done a lot of healing, I do not have to be out in nature photographing as much. If there's any truth to the saying that a tortured psyche creates great art, than my becoming more healthy has meant I have produced less art. When I photograph now, it comes from a different place and I haven't figured out yet what that place is. My photographs have changed over the years as I healed. I spent the first five years photographing in deserts of the Southwest. I found the stark simplicity of the desert what I needed for peace of mind and healing. As I healed, I could move onto photographing in the chaos of rainforest. Still, my photographs from the 1990's, though color photographs, were mostly monochromatic. In those years, I didn't photograph riots of color. I hadn't shed my Armored Amazon persona and I didn't photograph dainty flowers. In January of this year, I was photographing in Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh City during Tet where the markets were full of flowers and colors and life and I got carried away with shooting flowers. I am experimenting with photographing outside my box, outside of the themes that drew my ten years ago and worrying about whether there is still depth to my work.
I continue to write because I have more to say! My next book will cover my years of activism. It will be as difficult to write as the stories from childhood. Many people who have read Earth Passages are surprised at how personal and revealing the stories are. How vulnerable I've made myself in publishing these stories. Because these stories have helped me in the healing process and because they took place almost 40 years ago, they do not have the emotional charge today that they had as they occurred and as I was writing them. In writing about my years of activism – the years I spent as a shop steward in a unionized garment factory, scrubbing toilets at the St. Francis Hotel, as a litigator, as the national coordinator of the AFL-CIO's voting rights protection program, I will also write about my personal development and how the unresolved issues from childhood surfaced in unexpected and embarrassing ways that at times got in the way of the cause and the movement. It will be more difficult for me to reveal the weaknesses and dysfunction I had as an adult than the vulnerabilities of childhood. But I feel that it is important for me to continue writing so that other activists know to themselves the question: does the motivation for your activism come from a healthy place or a dysfunctional place?
Earth Passages: Journeys through Childhood consists of 28 vignettes and 53 color nature photographs, and tells the story of the author growing up in the inner city ghetto of San Francisco’s Chinatown – in poverty, in a housing project, at the age of 11 sewing in a garment sweatshop. In the girl's rare escapes into the woods she discovers a magical world so unlike the ghetto in which she lives. The stories from childhood are paired with color nature photographs taken by the author as an adult. Copies will be available on sale during the reading.
The reading is sponsored by Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (National Gender and Equity Campaign), AAPIP-MN Chapter, Full Thought Inc., and the Loft Literary Center. The Loft Literary Center is located at 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55415.