Driving Music

Melissa Li and Kit Van's Good Asian Drivers tour is unleashing powerful queer spoken word and folk songs across the country.

August 1, 2008

AS A TOURING PERFORMER, I know that maxing out your credit card renting a Ford Aerostar so you can burn up the roadways is no easy task. You need a big supply of Mylanta and the ability to drive from Minneapolis to Missoula in 10 hours.

Transgender slam poet Kit Van and lesbian folk rocker Melissa Li have those magical powers. They've taken their Good Asian Drivers tour from Boston to Vancouver, Canada, with stops in cute college towns, Wisconsin cafes, gay bars in Billings, MT, and the "secret Asian communities in Texas" that Li laughs about. Their vision: bringing grass-roots queer Asian spoken word and folk music to the masses.

Yan and Li hatched their plan to dominate the nation's roadways in early 2007 while backstage at The Gated Lounge, a monthly queer Asian and Pacific Islander cabaret in Boston. Both have been mainstays of Massachusetts' queer and Asian performance scenes since they were teenagers. "I'd always wanted to tour the nation and one day I told Melissa and she was like, 'Yeah, me too,' and literally the next day we were planning it out," recalls Yan on his cell phone from Vancouver, as he and Li were driving to an interview at Shaw TV, "the multicultural television station."

The duo wanted to check out queer and Asian communities in all 50 states and bring their own fierce stories to the mix, whether it was in the San Francisco Bay Area or small-town Wisconsin. "People [we've met on tour] say it's amazing to see queer Asians performing because there aren't that many of us, and in the Asian community, art is still not seen as a career path," Yan says. "For me as a trans person, my voice is not often a voice that is heard, so a lot of people we play for are saying, 'Wow, I've never thought about a lot of issues you're bringing up, or known a trans person before.' "

This is not a new experience for Yan. After he publicly came out as transgender last year in Sampan, a Boston-based bilingual Asian newspaper, people started stopping him on the streets of Chinatown. "These were people from my parents' and grandparents generation telling me that I was brave, which really took me by surprise. I hope that other queer Asians see and hear stories like that and take comfort in knowing that our community can and will surprise us."

Both Van and Li are deeply rooted in Boston's Asian American communities and cultural networks. They have been involved with Boston Progress, an Asian American politicized arts collective that organized the 2005 Asian/Pacific Islander Spoken Word & Poetry Summit, a biannual national gathering for APA poets and spoken word artists, and East Meets Words, one of the few APA monthly open mics in the city.

So far, their tour gigs have been co-booked by queer and Asian college student groups, but Li and Van have also performed at queer youth drop-in centers and shelters in red states too. In Montana, they played at gay bars where they were the first queer Asians the community had ever seen.

"We played at The Loft, which is the gay bar in Billings, and we were the only Asians there. But everybody was so sweet and came up afterward to talk to us-they were really appreciative of our coming, and we got to hear their stories too," Van says.

Seeing videos of Li playing guitar to accompany Van's intense poetics feels sweet. You can feel the love the two have for each other and their energy and drive to connect with the audience. The next minute they're staring into each other's eyes and crooning a duet together in a queer Asian version of a Phil Collins video, and I'm cracking up as hard as if I was in the audience.

Why the name Good Asian Drivers? "It just made sense because we're driving across country, and we also wanted something that confronted a stereotype about Asians in a fun way," Van says. "We were making T-shirts, and we Googled it first because we didn't want to make something that someone had already done. It was shocking, because every other T-shirt with that phrase had something incredibly offensive, like 'Chinese men, go back to driving rickshaws' or 'Student driver' with 'Student' crossed out and 'Asian' put in."

Not only has humor helped Van and Li combat stereotypes, but it also got them through futile attempts to find vegan donuts in North Dakota and a Bank of America in Vancouver. Though slated to end in July 2007, Van and Li extended their tour through October 2008, inspiring (and humoring) other queer Asians in even more college towns and tiny villages across the country.

Who knows? Maybe their tour will encourage more queer Asian poets to rent a hot pink van and take to the streets. Move over, Ani DiFranco. Good Asian Drivers is coming to a truck stop near you.

For more information, to send love notes, or book them, hit up www.goodasiandrivers.com.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer Sri Lankan writer, poet, and the author of Consensual Genocide, regularly performs her work throughout the country and is the co-director of Mangos With Chili, the annual queer and trans of color road show. Visit www. brownstargirl. com for more information.

LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA jumped at the chance to cover the Good Asian Drivers tour. "Talking to queers of color who decide to make their own cultural institutions always makes me giddy," the Oakland, CAbased Sri Lankan writer and performer said. Perhaps this is because two years ago, she co-founded her own queer and trans people of color cultural institution, Mangos With Chili, an annual performance road show.

The author of the poetry collection Consensual Genocide, Piepzna-Samarasinha also writes for Bitch, Colorlines and Make/Shift.

Magazine Section: