Kundiman, the national nonprofit dedicated to nurturing writers and readers of Asian American literature, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. The organization has provided safe community to Asian American authors through its annual retreat, online classes and workshops, readings, events, and regional networking groups across the United States. Cathy Linh Che, Kundiman’s executive director since 2016, recently discussed Kundiman’s history, the needs of its constituents, and how she intends to lead the nonprofit going forward. Che is also the author of the award-winning poetry collection Split (Alice James Books, 2014) and coauthor of An Asian American A to Z: A Children’s Guide to Our History (Haymarket Books, 2023).
Could you give us an account of your experience with Kundiman and a summary of its history?
I learned of Kundiman in 2007 during my time in the MFA program at New York University. I was an MFA candidate in poetry, and while there I met R. A. Villanueva, a poet who introduced me to Kundiman. He was a fellow at Kundiman’s very first retreat in 2004 and shared with me that it was an instrumental part of his journey as a writer. I was invited to participate in Kundiman’s reading series, curated by cofounder Joseph O. Legaspi, who always made sure to have a blend of emerging and established writers. After applying more than once, I was accepted as a poetry fellow in 2010 and returned again in 2011 and 2013. In 2012, two things happened: I won the Kundiman Poetry Prize, and I answered Kundiman’s call for a part-time communications consultant. I have been with Kundiman ever since.
As for the organization, Kundiman has shifted internally from having an all-volunteer corps to hiring paid, full-time staff with specific roles and responsibilities to carry out its programs and mission. A core program is the annual retreat. It’s the only retreat for Asian American writers of its kind that I know of. From our earliest days, our retreat was modeled after Cave Canem, whose cofounders mentored and encouraged our cofounders, Legaspi and Sarah Gambito. The first retreat was composed of eighteen poets, many of whom are still with us and actively writing, publishing, teaching, and doing all kinds of amazing work in the community.
Has Kundiman changed its work or focus since 2004?
One major change is genre. From 2004 through 2014, our retreats were only for poets. While tabling for Kundiman at AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference], fiction writers would come up to me and ask about applying, and I would have to turn them down. This helped us to clarify a need still unfulfilled, so we inaugurated a pilot program—a weekend fiction intensive. Through both the magic in the room and the feedback we received, we realized this space for a fiction community was something writers really needed. So in 2015 we welcomed both poets and fiction writers to our annual retreat. We also expanded to include workshops in creative nonfiction and food writing. It was important for us to be able to nurture these writers who could speak from a culturally sensitive space.
We’re also now offering online classes across genres. We had always wanted to offer online classes but weren’t sure about the best platform. Then at the beginning of the pandemic, Zoom became more widely available, and we were able to meet the needs of people who were previously without access to a supportive community.
How has your artistic life influenced your approach to leadership and your work with Kundiman?
I wanted to create a workplace where people felt like they had enough time and space to write. If our mission is to nurture writers and readers of Asian American literature, it’s important to recognize that the staff, who are also writers and artists, are part of that community and deserve to be cared for. I believe in abundance. To make time feel more abundant, we’ve instituted work policies that allow for reading, art making, and being a person with a life outside of work. I am a writer first—I was raised as a writer in community with others. That community is something I believe in wholeheartedly, just as I believe in our mission wholeheartedly.
What do you see as the immediate needs of Kundiman’s writers and readers?
People have a deep hunger to see one another in person and to gather safely around writing. Aside from our retreat and classes, we also have ten regional groups: nine across the country and one international group. They’re organized by regional chairs who plan a minimum of four events annually. These include readings, workshops, salons, even mini retreats. The hunger for safe, local in-person gatherings is strong right now.
We’re also trying to address the opacity of book publishing. We have been providing free panels on finding an agent, working with an editor, and understanding publicity in order to demystify the process of getting a book into the world. It’s also important to note that the literary arts field is extremely underfunded. It’s a system built on scarcity and tokenism. What writers really want is the ability to live whole, fulfilling, creative lives without feeling like products. Writers have a deep desire to not have to live a life in which one’s art is compromised by market demands.
I’ve always admired Kundiman’s core values of generosity, inclusion, and courage. Driven by these values, how do you see Kundiman moving into its twentieth year and beyond?
There’s more work to do with other communities of color. We’re in the process of developing what I consider a “Super Friends” group, composed of organizations that serve writers of color. It’s very easy to become atomized, and while it’s amazing to be in a space meant for Asian American writers, it’s also important to be in solidarity with other communities of color. Right now we’re trying to imagine what’s possible.
What else excites you about Kundiman’s future?
We’re excited to publish a “prose takeover” with Joyland featuring fiction and nonfiction works by twenty Kundiman fellows in the magazine. We’re also looking forward to pursuing an oral history project and further developing our archives. Additionally we’re planning an Asian American literature festival alongside other Asian American literary organizations. Right now we’re in talks about what that might look like and what funding is in place to make sure it happens.
How can people support Kundiman moving into its twentieth year?
We encourage Asian American writers to join one of our regional groups to build local community where they are. Our retreat applications are open through January 15. Writers applying to the retreat is helpful, along with forwarding the information to anyone they think might benefit from such a program. We also offer online classes in winter, spring, and fall.
Other ways people can be supportive: donating to Kundiman to ensure we have a future that is as abundant and robust as possible. For readers we have a Bookshop.org page of our fellows’ and faculty’s texts that people can check out. Overall, recognizing that being a good literary citizen means showing up for one another, reading and teaching each other’s books, writing book reviews, sharing others’ writing over social media, checking out and requesting books at libraries—all this work helps to build a strong literary ecosystem. These are all activities that give us a way to write ourselves into the world, and I think this is something vital that everyone should participate in.
What would you like to leave Poets & Writers Magazine’s readers with?
As we enter an election year, I’d like to remind everyone that the work of imagination is necessarily a creative act. If we can creatively imagine a more just world, a world where people are not just safe and protected, but also have lives that are full and abundant, then that guides how we all as readers, writers, and lovers of literature can enact change. I think people can easily feel very disheartened and helpless, but community is an antidote to helplessness. The development of a community is an essential way of thriving, so I encourage anyone who feels lonely or who can’t find spaces for themselves to think about the cofounders of Kundiman, Sarah and Joseph, who felt this loneliness and wanted to do something about it. They found each other, and they invited other people in. So I would say, if you have this urge to create a space for yourself and others, then I would encourage you to do that.
Correction: In an earlier version of this interview, Che stated that Kundiman would be publishing a twentieth anniversary issue with Poetry; Kundiman is no longer planning to publish an anniversary issue with Poetry.
Megan Kamalei Kakimoto is the Japanese and Kanaka Maoli author of the story collection Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare (Bloomsbury, 2023), a USA Today national best-seller. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and is a visiting faculty member in fiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles.