Speaking Through Words: Kelly Tsai
A Siren and a Red Herring: How Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai Spoke
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has made a living of speaking through words, a passion cultivated as a young teenager in Chicago that later transformed into a full-on professional career.
At the age of 14, Tsai’s life was profoundly changed by a high school English teacher who introduced her to the world of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the legendary birthplace of the Chicago poetry slam. By the time she was in college, she was no longer competing in poetry slams but instead hosting her own after being prompted by a floor-mate who edited the campus literary magazine. At a Unitarian church that doubled as a vegetarian restaurant called The Red Herring, Tsai began her own open mic tradition.
It was at these open mics that she met the women who would join her in forming Sirenz, an all-women of color spoken word group. Sirenz was spurred to perform group pieces by the presence of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator and the constant threat they posed to people of color in the neighborhood.
Rather than performing singular pieces, Tsai says, Sirenz was focused on doing group pieces because “[Sirenz] was about what people can do when they come together.” Spoken word artists, she explains, are so different in the ways they do their craft, whether in their writing or rhythmic styles, word choice, content of their pieces, etc. Bringing these distinct personas together was about creating a whole new experience for people.
The Little Red Book: Your Story and My Story
In college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she graduated in 2000, Tsai studied urban planning and comparative literature. She volunteered as a legal advocate and worked part-time as substitute shift counselor at a domestic violence shelter starting her freshman year. It was at this shelter that she began to think more concretely about how “to support people at their most vulnerable,” developing the kind of community-based activism that would characterize her later work.
Post-graduation, her history and her present melded together with her inclusion in Mango Tribe, an APIA women/genderqueer spoken word poetry theater collective, and the result of a concerted effort to combat the lack of representation of Asian American females in the arts. In addition to the collective, Tsai continued to compete solo in poetry slams and work with nonprofit organizations, helping youth entrepreneurs and youth leaders attain better education opportunities.
In early 2004, Tsai broke out onto the national stage when she was cast in the TV series Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry. Her first piece, which she calls one of her “root stories” — titled “Little Red Books” and later re-titled “Mao” — drew from a direct autobiographical experience, something Tsai says is quite common in her works.
Her emphasis on history, on discussing through her works “things not only in [her] autobiography but all of those sociopolitical and historical forces that brought [her] to this moment,” stems from a true desire to highlight the incredible stories yet unrevealed within the APIA community. Later that year, Tsai was cast in “We Got Issues,” a young women’s hip hop theater and civic engagement project, which brought her to New York and coincided with her transition to a full-time spoken word career.
Fast-forwarding nine years, Tsai is now one of the preeminent spoken word artists in the APIA community. Her new piece, “Formosa,” recently debuted garnering audience and community acclaim. Among the issues the piece deals with are body image, beauty, identity, and nation, all beautifully woven together and inspired by the history of the manufacturing of Barbie dolls in Taiwan
When asked about her inspiration for “Formosa,” Tsai explains that all of her characters struggle with ideas of agency and constraint on their choices – just as a woman preparing breakfast for her children in modern-day Brooklyn or a young girl sleepily making her way to classes on the Upper West Side or an elderly woman brewing tea for her husband in Queens does each day.
“That, to me, is real,” she states. Perhaps there are different standards of beauty or different contexts for the struggles, but “[the characters] are all still grappling,” and by putting them all on stage, there is “one moment in the universe – we’re together.”
And for Tsai, it is about more than simply articulating issues that APIAs face; it is to also ask the questions why and how. Why do these rich stories and vibrant experiences go unheard and unnoticed? How can we begin to understand ourselves more by reaching into our own histories and seeing the intersections with other people’s histories?
Most importantly, Tsai questions: “If I’m not interested, how is anyone else going to be interested?” She leaves listeners with provocative inquiries, untold stories, and the knowledge that she may have just found the secret to success in her field: passion.
Passion is what drives Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai to seek out the gems in the APIA community, what pushes her to write beautiful poetry that leaves audiences reeling and wanting more, and what makes her an APIA role model, a leader, a visionary.