Janit Von Saechao
Writer & creator
Janit Von Saechao
Janit Von Saechao (she/they) is a writer and creator whose work (and presence) is an embodiment of their ancestral pride and their resistance to the erasure of their community. In this Spotlight, Janit shares with us the rich history and resilience of their indigenous roots and what it means to be a part of the Southeast Asian diaspora.
A self-proclaimed “fat, brown Iu-Mien and Khmu femme,” Janit fiercely carries their family and community with them - both as a badge of honor and as a source of continuous learning and self-exploration. Strengthened by the layers of their identity, Janit is a role model for living wholly and authentically.
photo courtesy of Lara Sidhu
Tell us about yourself and your journey to writing.
Let me first start off by saying, I am not a poet, I just got a lot to say. You'll find this line in my personal IG bio, and I repeat it now because it still rings true from the moment I allowed the words to leave me. As someone whose creativity journey has been in constant fluctuation as a result of many things including mental wellness, I found poetry out of necessity, in the same ways I found my love for cooking and crafting. Writing has been a crucial pillar in supporting my survival and guiding my journey towards radical self-love. Words granted me safety in moments where everything around me felt impossible. In constantly having to navigate trauma-saturated environments in a fat, brown, queer body, most times, my words were all I had. I know that this storytelling is a tradition passed down through my ancestors who were also never fully safe in their own identities, so I understand that my words are reflections of centuries of suppressed mourning and denied rage, but also proof of intergenerational healing and greater hope for my people.
What is one of your favorite poems and why?
"UGLY" by Warsan Shire. I cried when I first read it. As a child of refugees and the first American born, non-male child in my family, it was like staring at myself in the mirror for the very first time when this poem found me. The word "ugly" is now one of my favorite descriptors.
Asian identities are often conflated into one monolithic identity. what is your experience like as an indigenous southeast asian person?
Wow, where do I start? Haha! I'll preface this by saying that if we were in a room together right now, I'd be loud as hell with my answer, so just know that this is a very passionate and personal subject for me. Being both Iu Mien and Khmu means that my concerns for my people look less like focusing on fighting for more representation in mainstream media or combating the model minority myth (although they're both valid issues and inherent to my work), and more like knowing that my life's work must be dedicated to making sure my people and everything about us that is brilliant and special, survive through colonization, and forced assimilation, and sexual and relationship violence, and war trauma, and the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline, and the list goes on.
My community is still dying as a result of the unspeakable violences that we've endured for years upon years as indigenous people. And the heavy erasure that occurs because of this notion of a monolithic Asian identity is actively threatening the survival of our cultures and traditions. It means that I am urgently and thoroughly obligated to making sure that our narrative is heard and the world knows we exist so that we can finally get the support we need to thrive as entire communities. And it means constantly bringing my identity as an Iu Mien and Khmu person into every space I enter and being open to doing the labor of educating, even on my days off. It's a big, beautiful burden. Also, for clarification, rather than woman, I identify as non-binary. That, in itself, comes with complexities I am still finding words for.
In your bio, you mention that you are "striving toward artistic and cultural preservation for my peoples." how do you honor your history and people?
Honor is a huge thing in both my cultures, and more often than not, it shows up as performative and self-sacrificial. But honor without truth is nothing for me. I think I do this through existing authentically and honestly as I am able. And by returning to what I've always inherently known as a result of my indigeneity. I carry my ancestors with me and in doing so, I live in their light and through their stories of survival. Even still, it took me a very long time to realize that the only true honor I could ever offer my people is through first honoring myself. And sometimes that has looked like living in resistance to the very same traditions that have informed our ways of life for centuries, like our heavily-fortified systems of patriarchy and gender-based violence. So sharing those truths, even with all of the pain and ugliness and shame that comes with them, is the only choice I feel that I have if I am consciously considering the future of my community.
Did your parents ever talk about their experiences of being refugees and immigrants? What was said, or not said? what was your reaction when you found out? what is your reaction now?
I was raised in a very intergenerational household with 5 different parental figures - my great grandmother, my grandparents, and my then-teenage parents, all of who endured violence and war-trauma. While growing up they were never explicit in describing their experiences, however I inevitably felt the weight of their trauma daily in all the ways that it seemed to dictate our lives. My grandparents were workaholics and staunchly Christian, always ready to openly reject all Iu-Mien traditional practices for perceived salvation. My mother was a single provider for my two sisters and me into her late 20s as my father dealt with incarceration and deportation, finally returning to us after nearly a decade of being in the system. There was a significant amount of pain, and for myself, shame surrounding my family's story because I always knew that our dynamic was in no way close to normal or even in reasonable proximity to reflecting your average American household. But I also didn't know until well into my young adulthood that we were not the only ones going through those struggles. I found out much of my history through learning from others, but also through returning to the people I loved with the same questions, year after year, and being open to receiving their words whenever they were ready to offer them. There are still many pieces to our greater narrative that I am missing, but I'm blessed to be able to say that I have arrived at a place where I'm able to speak and inquire openly with my family about their stories. And I am always filled with awe and appreciation.
Your instagram feels naturally authentic with several posts of your family. What has the response been like from your family and your community of your work?
My family supports me in the best ways they know how. I think a lot of the time, they are still trying to understand my vision and my dedication to the work, especially as it's purpose and significance aren't as easily explainable as, say, a doctor or a lawyer. But my grandmother, who is so cute, flipped through RECLAMATION (my first chapbook) when it initially arrived, and in seeing herself on the first page immediately said, "If I knew that you were going to include a picture of me in here to send to so many people, I would have given you a better one". She's always really excited to hear about my next project and brainstorm ways she can support. My community been incredibly supportive as well which I am also endlessly grateful for.
How have you unlearned what society labels as "beautiful" and what do you see for the future of body positivity and fat acceptance? how do you reaffirm this truth in your work?
It's taken a very long time for me to arrive where I am now in my radical self-love journey. Occupying my visibly fat, brown, hairy, acne-prone body for my entire life and enduring so many years of targeted micro and macroaggressions have brought me to many places. I've tried the diets. I've tried the obsessive workout routines. I've tried the, "at least I still have an hourglass shape" or, "at least my face is cute for a fat girl" mentality. All of it failed, crashed and burned, miserably. This time, last year, I decided to honor my feelings and stop wearing makeup on days that I didn't want to. Then I decided to stop shaving. And then I started to feed my body whenever it was hungry without thinking twice about it. I did all of this while also observing the ways that others were interacting with me. I was curious to see what the world would do with me the moment I decided I was no longer interested in putting on a performance for desirability. Many things changed, both inwardly and outwardly. I saw how it became even harder for people to see me as human or deserving of basic respect, meanwhile, for me it was the most human that I had ever felt. I was terrified. I thought, "if this is how the world reacts when we offer the realest, most vulnerable pieces of ourselves, how am I and people like me ever going to survive while honoring our truths?" The answer is ugly and hard. It's looked like me showing up to the hospital to be treated for a sprained ankle only to be handed pamphlets on obesity by my doctor. It's looked like being called white and snobby by family members for having boundaries for myself and my body that I was never afforded through childhood. It's looked like being denied job offers and work opportunities, even in so-called social justice circles. It's exhausting having to try and prove my humanity in my daily interactions, but I know that I would much rather be here, fully and authentically, than in hiding where I was before. And I've also had my community of close friends and loved ones who have held me so tenderly through all of it. I know that I am still here because of their care.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don't believe in body positivity or fat acceptance because both can exist while still upholding fatphobia. So until we begin acknowledging that there is an entire system in existence to make sure that fat people (especially fat qtpoc and woc) are continuing to be oppressed, I can't say that I see a sustainable future for the current movement.
At we, ceremony, We believe there is a special bond that unites people of color. Who are or were some of your role models in your life?
If I had a running list, I would never be able to read it off... Honestly, shout out to ALL the women, non-men, and femmes of color who continue to guide me to the truth that I am capable and brilliant and phenomenal and enough. My mother, my grandmother, my sisters, my colleagues, mentors, professors, friends. I am literally surrounded by divine beings. My loved ones are my role models.
how can we continue to support you and your work?
Keep up with my writing at littlelaosontheprairie.org! I release a new piece every two weeks and would love feedback, thoughts, questions, etc. Also, to keep up with my creative projects and stay in the loop about upcoming events, follow my work on IG @therefugeeschild or my personal page @janitvon. You may also choose to subscribe via my website, janitsaechao.com!
and lastly, one of the questions we ask all of our interviewees, what is one thing about your culture that people need to know?
The Khmu people are indigenous to Laos and the Iu Mien people are indigenous peoples of China. We have both faced generations of displacement and violence under the forced jurisdiction of outside governments and as a result of colonization and war. We have both suffered immense loss - of our loved ones, our land, our livelihoods and traditions, but we still have managed to make it this far. We are the forgotten peoples, the ones you could have gone your whole lives without knowing existed. And we are here. And we are still thriving through it all.