Slam champion Sebastien Wen believes it’s his mother’s Irish blood that makes his prose sing.
“I don’t feel Chinese and I don’t feel Belgian,” he says in his spoken word poem “My Mother’s Howl” about his paternal heritage. “My mother’s howl, somehow I feel is home.”
An American-born, Canadian-raised son of a Chinese-Belgian father, who was born in Singapore, and a first-generation Irish mom, Wen will perform in an event called Mixed Voices Raised, part of the fourth annual Hapa-palooza festival that runs Sept. 23 to 28.
Festival co-founder Anna Ling Kaye invited Wen to perform at the celebration of mixed roots, arts and ideas after she saw a video of him performing “My Mother’s Howl.” Wen is a slam poetry competition champion.
“The way he shares his story is going to be very powerful and exciting,” she said.
Wen will share what’s shaped him alongside seven other storytellers that include CBC host Margaret Gallagher and band Delhi2Dublin’s Taryn Nayar, Sept. 24.
Kaye, now the editor of Ricepaper magazine, co-founded Hapa-palooza with filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns and teacher and community organizer Zarah Martz. Stearns and Kaye attended a hapa night attached to a Gung Haggis Fat Choy Chinese-Scottish fusion event and felt they needed something more.
“We’re really creating a festival that we all wish had existed when we were kids,” Kaye said.
“When I was growing up I didn’t even have vocabulary around what I was,” explained Kaye, who is of Taiwanese and Jewish heritage and raised in Asia. “It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that one of my friends said, ‘Oh, you’re hapa,’ and I remember it just was a distinct click.”
The word hapa, of Hawaiian origins, is a broad term for people who identify as having mixed heritage.
Kaye wishes she knew hybrid identity was something to be celebrated when she was young.
“And not something to be hidden or to be embarrassed about or to explain apologetically,” she said. “We really want to claim that space and allow people who are mixed to feel celebrated and confident.”
Hapa-palooza co-founders initially aimed to engage millennials, but Kaye’s keen a new awards night, Sept. 27, will connect with hapa elders as well.
One of the award recipients will be Governor General Award Winner and Canada’s fifth Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Fred Wah. This Hip Hapa Hooray event coincides with the Nikkei Heritage Museum in Burnaby’s opening of Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian, 100 per cent hapa photography exhibit.
“It’s going to be a really fun, splashy night,” Kaye said.
She’s pleased Hapa-palooza will offer a place for people to connect and exchange ideas in Chinatown throughout the festival. The headquarters at 230 East Pender St. will feature a Hyphen Art Exhibit, which includes acclaimed photographer Hana Pesut, and serve as a pop-up shop.
This year’s family day at Granville Island, Sept. 28, includes Compaigni V’ni Dansi’s Louis Riel Metis Dancers, a live performance by musician GreenTaRA, yoga and interactive art.
Hapa-Palooza also features film nights and a family-friendly dance.
Kaye says hapa is something with which people self-identify.
“They’re maybe Irish and British and it was such a big deal when their parents got together that they identify very much with the strife,” she said.
Kaye says providing a space for mixed heritage and hybrid identity to be explored and celebrated has struck a chord far and wide, with festival organizers receiving emails of interest from as far away as South Africa.
But you don’t have to identify as hapa to be hip to what Wen has to say. That’s why the writer enjoys performing poetry.
“You get such a profound connection, hopefully, with the audience in a way that is often lacking or less pronounced in other performance types,” he said.
The festival is now backed by a society that plans to organize hapa meet-ups, workshops and other events throughout the year.
“[It’s] the fastest growing youth demographic in Vancouver and North America,” Kaye said. “There are more mixed multi-ethnic youth than ever.”
Hapa-palooza is part of Cutlure Days, which runs Sept. 26 to 28.
For more information, see hapapalooza.com.