Meet the three queer women of color headlining Mission Creek Festival’s lit section this year

MCF: Michelle Zauner

Thursday, Apr. 6, 5:45, Hancher Auditorium, included with pass

MCF: Shelley Wong

Friday, Apr. 7, TBA, free

MCF: Camonghne Felix

Saturday, Apr. 8, TBA, free

Shelley Wong, Margarita Corporan / Michelle Zauner, courtesy of Mission Creek Festival / Camonghne Felix, by Alexa Starry

Camonghne Felix, Shelley Wong and Michelle Zauner are among the most innovative writers working today and all happen to be queer women of color which, historically, may have kept them from the spotlight.

Zauner, frontwoman for the band Japanese Breakfast and guitarist for Little Big League, became a household name in the literary world with the release of her 2021 memoir Crying in H Mart (AA Knopf). Reviewers praised her use of language and vulnerability as she documented the bereavement experienced surrounding her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death.

In a 2022 interview with San Diego LGBT News, Zauner said she had difficulty finding a place among queer musicians, adding, “I hope in ten years it’s not such a shock to see a queer person of color making music.”

Author and Chinese immigrant Xixuan Collins of Bettendorf said she doesn’t often see women of color headlining literary events, and openly queer artists even less. “I think [headlining Felix, Wong and Shelley] would be seminal,” Collins said. “On the other hand, it’s still Iowa.”

Outside of Des Moines and Iowa City, Collins said she has noticed little representation of marginalized people on the scale of a large festival headliner.

Quad Cities artist Jenna Isbell spoke to the importance of seeing oneself represented at arts festivals in particular, in both rural and urban communities.

“I would be shocked to see three queer women of color headlining the conferences I go to,” they said. “If I wanted to see myself, if I want to see something other than cis-hetero white men, it almost has to be off the beaten path, and smaller. Most of these big festival spaces are really unwelcoming.”

Bronx-born Camonghne Felix has some experience finding her voice within traditionally white, heteronormative systems. She spent her first years after college in politics, serving as a communications strategist and speechwriter for former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. She was also in charge of communications for Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Felix’s debut poetry collection, Build Yourself A Boat (Haymarket Books, 2019), was longlisted for the National Book Award.

Much of Felix’s work wrestles with feelings of “otherness,” not exclusive to race, gender or sexuality, but also delving into life with trauma and unanswered questions. In a 2022 essay for The Cut, Felix discusses the impact of representation on those who are othered.

“I can admit that I was still moved by the poetics of what representation could mean, by the endless metaphors it offered up about Blackness’ survivability and resistance,” she wrote. “But what I discovered is that representation is, fundamentally, a metaphor.”

Shelley Wong’s work also deals with being outside the mainstream. She uses atypical formatting and sensory experiences to illustrate her experiences as a fourth-generation Chinese-American artist.

Wong has taught creative writing at Ohio State University and her first full-length book of poetry — As She Appears (YesYes Books) — was released in 2022. It too was longlisted for the National Book Award.

In the decade she spent writing As She Appears, Wong was navigating the poetry world in addition to her mixed identity.

“[Y]ou’re up against the larger culture, the larger society of systemic oppressions of women, LGBTQ folks, and Asians — especially now, we’re seeing it more visibly, but it was always there,” said Wong in an interview with Ploughshares. “So I think for me, I wanted to kind of convey these different histories and distortions and erasures and speak to how that can affect the psyche and self-consciousness.”

This literary side of this year’s Mission Creek Festival also includes performances by Michael Torres, Zoë Bossiere, Joe Wilkins and Lauren Haldemann, and a book fair including dozens of independent presses. The festival’s mission of championing “independent-minded musicians and writers” and promoting “voices across ethnicities, cultures, and experiences” appears to be alive and reflected in its artists.

Sarah Elgatian is a writer, activist and educator living in Iowa. She likes dark coffee, bright colors and long sentences. She dislikes meanness. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 317.