Jade Cho grew up scouring the libraries and schools of Oakland, California, looking for narratives that reflected her own: a third-generation, Chinese-American female desperate, but unable, to communicate with her ancestry. Years later, Cho credits this desire to honor her grandparents as one of the major influences behind her pursuit of poetry and her first book "In the Tongue of Ghosts," which is scheduled to be available in August.
"I wanted to find myself in the books I was reading," Cho told NBC News. "The majority of what I saw in Asian-American literature was older writers reflecting on their experiences as immigrants or the children of immigrants, navigating assimilation. I think these stories are necessary and important, but they didn't reflect me or how I grew up — monolingual and already assimilated, with a deep sense of wanting to be able to speak Toisan. I had the privilege of living in an upper middle class white community, but as a result also felt alienated from both my white classmates and majority 1st/2nd generation, working class Asian-American classmates."
Cho first became involved in the Bay Area's poetry scene after attending a Youth Speaks open mic in high school. "It was the first time I'd seen a space where there were young people my age who were also folks of color, young women, queer and trans folks, working class folks talking about their experiences growing up in the Bay Area," Cho said. While at the time Cho was too shy to perform or even share her writing with friends, she continued returning to the space, and later joined Cal Slam — the University of California, Berkeley's spoken word club — while attending the school for her undergraduate studies. It was then that Cho's lifelong desire to articulate her own story won out, and for the first time, she began sharing her poetry publicly.
"I was originally scared out of my wits attending writing workshops but it was an extremely welcoming and nurturing space," Cho said. "I really got into it and by having that community and that consistent, collective writing space I was about to put together my first poems and eventually start reading at open mics."
Throughout college, Cho performed with these two nationally-competing slam teams and in 2013 won best political poem" and "best writing as a team while representing UC Berkeley at at College Unions Poetry Slam. In one of her most memorable performances, Cho let her passion for social justice take center stage as she spoke in front of 1,000 people at Youth Speaks' annual show, "Bringing the Noise for Martin Luther King, Jr."
Her library of work ranges in topic from her intersecting experiences about body acceptance, social justice, race, internalized racism, and power and privilege. By sharing her own experience in order to fill a gap, Cho is resonating and connecting with other young women.
this body has survived all my wishing
to transform it away
to make it alabaster and hourglass
to live some other body's task [...]
— an excerpt of "affirmation i."
Cho, who turns 24 on Tuesday, has been published in "Namjai: A Tribute to Bay Area API Poets," "The Offing," "Third Woman Pulse," and in 2014, cofounded Ghostlines — a Bay Area-based collective with fellow Cal Slam alumni with the mission of supporting other artists using their crafts to benefit the community. But mostly, she jokes that they founded it as a space to keep writing and collaborating after they aged out of Cal Slam.
Her fellow Ghostlines co-founder Natasha Huey called Cho's work an inspiration. "Jade's writing is the truth, never exaggerating for embellishment, but rather, precisely peeling a moment down to its pit," Huey told NBC News. "Jade is a fierce advocate for all people. She inspires me to walk the talk of social justice and be thorough in my approach to curating, writing, and editing. Jade inspires me to be honest. Both in my writing and with myself."
Following her graduation from UC Berkeley in 2014, Cho began working full-time on the coordinating team of the Student Learning Center Writing Program at the university, where she provides tools and guidance to students pursuing both academic writing and personal narratives. She has also released her book of poetry "In the Tongue of Ghosts" — a four-year project published by Youth Speaks' printing press, First World Press. She admits to hating some of her older poems, but credits the book with giving her the space to go back and find compassion for her past self.
"To young Asian Americans, I would say your stories and experiences and what you're going through are valid and they really matter," Cho said. "For my younger self, I felt disconnected from other Asian Americans. I struggled with internalized racism and not liking myself or how I looked because of white beauty standards. I saw huge racial and class divides in Oakland and felt outraged and helpless. All these things sparked a curiosity in me and a desire to write as a way to figure out why these things were happening — and to eventually critique and challenge."
The book is a collision of art and activism, and will be available in August on the Youth Speaks website. "In The Tongue of Ghosts" has been a slow evolving passion project started when Cho was 19 and has evolved into a vehicle of communication with her ancestors — specifically her dad's parents, who she wasn't able to speak with growing up.
"When I think about honoring ancestors, I think about how there have always been Asian Americans fighting for justice and collective liberation like the 1960s Asian American Movement and people like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs," Cho said. "I think of my duty to continue that fight and ensure my work as an artist and educator be conscientious within that legacy, whether producing writing that challenges white supremacy or showing up for Black Lives Matter.I have a deep desire to honor the folks who came before me even though I couldn't literally speak to my dad's parents. I try to speak to them in the poems that I write."