News & Ideas

Layered Narratives in the Papers of Helen Zia

Photo by Bob Hsiang

Asian American Activist and Author Sees Collection as Part of Larger Story

Helen Zia, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is a writer whose life experience—construction worker, autoworker, community organizer, civil rights activist—defies easy sorting. She is the former executive editor of Ms. Magazine and the author of Last Boat out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution. With her papers bound for the Library, we asked her to ponder what researchers might find, and illuminate, in the stories the collection tells.

Q: Why is the Schlesinger Library the right home for your papers?

I’ve conducted research at many different archives over the years for my own work as a writer. I’ve had an opportunity to appreciate the level of skill and resources of all kinds required for a well-run, accessible archive. For my papers, of course, my baseline questions involved whether there are resources to process, digitize, store, maintain, and make accessible new collections, and the convenience of the location for future researchers. There are a number of archives that generally meet those criteria, but then I learned, through my friend Jeannie Park Radcliffe ’83, that the Schlesinger had developed their special collection of African American women’s archives that includes materials from Angela Davis, Patricia Williams, June Jordan, and many others—and was planning to create an Asian American women’s collection. That clinched it for me. I hope that my papers can be part of something larger as well, where researchers can delve deeply into the vast diversity of Asian American women’s lives.

Q: How closely are you reviewing the material before sending it to the Library?

A: I am roughly screening my materials according to what can be sent now, what materials I may still need to refer to for future projects, as well as materials of a more personal nature that I would like to take time to read before sending, such as correspondence or journals. I already have a rough idea of how these materials have been packed away, but I am taking quick, almost random looks at files as I pack them. Because of COVID-19, I’m packing these materials myself, including writing each shipping label and hauling heavy boxes to the shipper, bit by bit. In some cases, I have to repack my papers into better shipping boxes. While I never envisioned having to do this myself, it does give me more time to take some quick scans of what I’m packing. Had “packers and movers” from Schlesinger been able to do this, I would not have been able to poke through these boxes.

Q: Has the experience of organizing your past made you think differently about the arc of your life and work?

A: It would be an overstatement for me to claim that I am “organizing” my materials for the archivists, to whom I must apologize now for the daunting task they will have in putting my papers into some kind of order. And since I am still in the process of shipping materials, I can’t say that I have been able to reflect on what this mass of “stuff” says about the arc of my life. But what I can say is that the numbers of boxes I have, for example, on a topic (such as domestic violence) versus another (such as anti-Asian hate crimes) is interesting to me.

Q: What emotions has the experience provoked?

A: Right now, my main emotions center around letting go. That’s a big one because I’ve lugged these materials around every time I’ve moved, which is a lot in my adult life. There are also all the mixed emotions on finding photos, correspondence, even materials I’ve written about things that I have completely forgotten. Those are wow moments.

Q: When a researcher writing about the broader Asian American experience seeks out your papers, how will what she finds surprise her?

A: Researchers will find, in my “Asian American papers,” a wide range of topics—Black nationalism in America‘s South, sexual orientation and lesbians, radical movements of the ’60s and ’70s, female genital mutilation, media diversity, apartheid in South Africa, hate crimes of all kinds, including femicide—as well as weird and whimsical doodads that I’ve collected. I think there will be plenty of surprises that may evoke a “Gee, why is this here?”

“Intersectionality” is a word that often gets bandied about to describe the multiple dimensions of identity and being that we all inhabit because humans are much more interesting and complex than fitting into a few check-off boxes. I think that’s true of my papers as well—that they will reveal a wide range of interests and perhaps unexpected dimensions. At least I hope so.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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