An Anthem for Asian Americans

Isabel Franco  //  May 15, 2024

An Anthem for Asian Americans


Joanna Ho’s We Who Produce Pearls, is a poetic ode celebrating the richness and diversity within Asian American communities. It also serves as a reminder of the struggles, joys, and triumphs of this community that is intended to instill empowerment and bring pride to readers. As part of our celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, read more about Joanna’s writing journey and what she hopes readers will take away by reading our interview with her below. 

What inspired you to write We Who Produce Pearls?

The idea for We Who Produce Pearls came through my editor, Clarissa Wong, at the height of COVID, in the middle of the recent wave of anti-Asian hate rhetoric and violence. She shared the idea of a book of Asian American history, in the vein of The Undefeated, and I remember I felt a great weight settle into my stomach and it didn’t leave me for the next year as I researched and wrote the book. I felt inadequate as a scholar and artist to take on a book of this significance, but I also knew I wanted to try. At the time, all I knew was that I didn’t know anything and that the book would take on its own shape only after I dove deep into research, learning history I’d never learned before about my own community.


Each verse in the book references figures, events, and movements in Asia and across the Asian diaspora. What was your writing approach to making it all come together?

I spent a year researching the history of Asians in America; I read books, watched documentaries, visited historical sites as much as possible. Then as overarching themes began to emerge, I locked myself in a cabin to organize my notes and write a draft. I wanted to highlight two ideas: the Asian American community is diverse and complex but has many parallel and shared experiences and similarities; we have always used our voices to rise up against injustice and work in solidarity. To convey the first idea, I sorted key historical points from across the Asian diaspora into similar “buckets” (i.e. court cases fighting for rights, violence enacted on our communities, examples of solidarity across communities, etc) to show our shared experiences. From there, I labeled each “bucket” and arranged them into an arc. Then I got stuck and wasn’t sure how to actually write the book!

What is the significance of pearls in the book title, We Who Produce Pearls?

When I got stuck, I went back to the poetry carved into the Angel Island Immigration Station looking for inspiration. I found a poem with a line that reads, “Now I gaze at distant clouds and mountains, tears forming like pearls” and the book opened up before me. After some very nerdy time spent researching actual pearl formation in oysters, the title and central motif of the story began to take shape. Pearls are created when an irritant - a grain of sand, for example - settles on the tongue of an oyster, causing pain. The oyster then coats this irritant with layers of saliva that solidifies in crystals that eventually forms a pearl. Like the oyster, the Asian community has endured much injustice in our ancestral homelands and in the Americas at the hands of imperialist and colonizing powers, yet we are not defined by our pain. We have used it to find our voices, to build community, to gather our strength and power - to create pearls of our own.

How did you collaborate with illustrator Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya to capture the histories, struggles, and strengths of Asian Americans?

Poor Amanda received two versions of the manuscript: a clean version, and a version with a paragraph of historical references after every line of the text. I really wanted to honor Amanda’s creative process, to stay out of her way as she created art. And, I wanted her to know that each line of the book was inspired by so many parallel points of history across the Asian diaspora in the Americas. I wanted her to know what I intended, what inspired me as I wrote the words. From there, I knew she would work her own brilliant magic.

What challenges did you encounter while writing this book?

The process of research was challenging because it was incredibly emotional. I went through stages of rage, grief and pride. Rage at the sheer amount of history that has been all but erased from modern memory and collective knowledge. Grief at what might have been had we all known this history already; how might we work together in greater solidarity, with greater clarity and confidence knowing how connected we are? Then ultimately pride in understanding the ways the Asian community has always risen up and fought for justice, not just for ourselves, but across historically marginalized groups as well. The emotional labor of learning and writing this book was a lot to hold.

Towards the end of the book, you include guiding questions with their starting points as an invitation for readers to explore the cultures and histories of the Asian diaspora. Why did you feel it was essential to include this resource in the book?

There is so much history that inspired every word, phrase and stanza on each page of this book, and I knew most people wouldn’t recognize all the references because this history of Asians in America has been scrubbed from the narrative of this nation. It was important to me that this book serve not only as a call to action, but also an invitation to begin or continue learning these stories. Understanding our shared history is a step in coming together across complexity into greater unity. My hope is that this book is one way people can find their way to the past so that we might reimagine a more liberated future together.

What do you hope all readers take away after reading this book?

I hope that readers come to understand the shoulders we all stand on, whether we are Asians in American or not. We are from a powerful lineage that has always fought for justice and liberation and we hold tremendous power and possibility. We can truly pin our truths to the heavens in constellations that guide the seekers of tomorrow.