What possesses an intelligent person to move halfway across the country to pursue an interest in writing?
I figured it was okay; I could manage it. After all, my mother left everything that she knew behind when she came to the United States from Matsuyama: her family, her friends, her culture, her customs, her food, her country. If she could manage that, then surely I could move 1,500 miles in the same country? Sea turtles swim over 10,000 miles to lay their eggs in the sand of Grenadian beaches, so half a continent was nothing. Go west, young woman.
Moving to California was a frightening prospect, especially as someone who wanted to be a playwright, especially as someone who was deeply multiethnic and multicultural (this was before the “multicultural diversity” movement took hold in the U.S.; my home with my mother was the only place in the world where my multiethnicity was an organic given and I didn’t have to explain myself to everybody who was curious or intelligent enough to discern difference and ask). Despite the hurdles that I knew I faced, I felt compelled to go. Besides, I had been accepted into a graduate program at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), so my innate need to invest in academic progress and to do well motivated me to pack my car and drive to California. American success with Japanese values. Taking a train, bus, or plane would have been easier because I would have been taken away by something other than my own recognizance. I, however, had to drive away in the new car that my mother had given me. I had to get behind the wheel and drive away from the only human being – my mother – who believed that it was a brilliant thing to be multiethnic and multicultural. Anywhere else, I knew that the “what are you” questions would come, or that people would feel that they could make presumptions about my identity and interact with me on the basis of those presumptions. The latter process was and is one that I discern clearly; I hear the gears of such minds grinding against each other, trying to make sense of what they think they see and behaviors that don’t quite mesh with their erroneous presumptions. Noise pollution. Still happens. Frequently.
So, there she was, a lovely and brilliant Japanese female immigrant with tears in her eyes, bowing as I backed out of the driveway. As I drove down the street, away from her, away from everything that she had given me, she ran into the middle of the street and continued to bow to me. That bowing said more to me than a thousand hugs and kisses. That bowing spoke of a love so profound and generous, a love that I needed to store in my gut to face the complexities ahead. What she didn’t know is that I was crying, too. I knew I was leaving a safe place for a tricky frontier. I knew that I had to have my wits about me at all times. Definitely still do. I didn’t know that I was leaving her behind to age without the benefit of my daily love. We resolved to talk every weekend, although we ended up calling several times a week. There was no Skype; long distance telephone fees were expensive, but we more than managed. Life had never been easy; it was about to get a lot less easy. Still, I had to go forward, away from her, away from the small town in which I had been reared, away from my father’s grave that I might never see again, away from Kansas, away from the Midwest, onto California. I gave away all my sweaters. Upon arrival in California, I wished that I had not because the evenings proved to be chilly. I bought new sweaters. I wish that getting rid of other kinds of chill were as easy as putting on a new sweater. They were not.
I was not the first human being to come to California to pursue an artistic career. I know that many others far more intelligent and creative than I am probably were possessed in similar ways. For that artistic interest, I left behind the woman I loved – my mother – and the comforts of our multiethnic Japanese home to come to California, a place where there were more multiethnic Japanese like me, but also multiethnic Japanese and multiethnic Japanese Americans who did not understand multiethnics who also were of African descent. Inside my home in Kansas, my multicultural way of life and my multicultural perspective were integrated organically into our existence. Outside of that home, I was an anomaly in almost every ethnic group. I was never genuinely multiethnic, Asian, Black, Brown, or White; I was never “enough” of any of those groups to be counted as one of them. That was okay because that lack of belonging was beneficial to my writing. When one does not fit into a group, one has a lot of time to be alone to write. Moreover, there is only one thing to do, to rise, as the poet Maya Angelou stated. Those artistic secrets were the foundation of my life as an immigrant to California.
Writing and belief that one has something to say were the fuel that carried me across the country. That and my family continue to fuel me today. There was also the belief that I would find mentors – or they would find me – who would help me to cultivate my writing so that it would not just be my beliefs, but true plays. I was fortunate enough to find those mentors.
In Kansas, I experienced my first playwriting mentor, Norman J. Fedder, who was from New York. At UCLA, I was lucky enough to find a second in Theodore Apstein, an immigrant from Russia; he passed away at the age of seventy-seven while enroute to see his granddaughter perform in a play. Other professors at UCLA were not so welcoming to me or to my voice. They discouraged my desire to write about Japanese women – one of them telling me to write for a “whiter” audience. I gave him the benefit of a doubt and asked him if he had said “wider,” but we both knew that he had not. That same professor stated that my desire to write about Japanese women was “ridiculous” and asked that I be expelled from UCLA. He attempted to do so by giving me the lowest grade possible, so I think that he was rather surprised when my thesis play began to garner awards across the country, including two national first prizes from the American College Theatre Festival and Kennedy Center. Once I left UCLA, I never spoke to that professor again. When he passed away, I didn’t take part in any memorial service. Another professor asked to borrow my Japanese music. Of course, I let her, but she never returned it.
During those years, I also was gaining an education in life. I had a gay roommate who didn’t fit any of the stereotypes that people sometimes had about gay men. Personally, I liked who he was regardless of his sexuality. He didn’t imbibe in alcohol or take drugs. Sometimes he liked to go out onto the social scene, but not frequently. He believed in being on time for work and never took a sick day, so when he disappeared and his boss called to inquire about him, I knew that something was terribly wrong. I called several police stations and hospitals. Finally, I found him. He had taken the largest dose of Phencyclidine ever recorded in Los Angeles County and was in a coma. Since he didn’t take drugs, I found this news rather surprising. I visited him in the hospital and read to him. Many people came to see him in the beginning, but that number tapered off as his coma persisted. Sometimes when I read to him, he would wiggle his little finger. That gave me hope that he was alive in there somewhere. When I told his mother about his condition, she asked me what I expected her to do. Then I found out that she had married his former lover. Eventually, my roommate would wake up from the coma, but, a few years later, he would die from the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). In the early years of the AIDS crisis, AIDS was called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency or GRID because it was believed that AIDS was confined to homosexuals. As health care and society wrestled with AIDS and the myths surrounding it, I watched many of my gay friends die. One moment I was having tea with a friend and petting his gray tabby cat; the next moment, I was at his funeral. Spending time with those men taught me so much about love, faith, and hope; and their deaths represented another education in how to confront death. My father had died when I was eleven and now so many friends were dying in my early twenties. Devastating, but, okay, I choose to keep exploring; the experiences made me stronger.
During these years, I also was developing as an artist. Prior to having a run of productions at several regional theatre companies, I had a few experiences at what are called ethnic theatre companies. For many years, I was not to revisit those ethnic theatre companies; my literary career was built at mainstream theatres. However, those early experiences were educational from both artistic and ethnic perspectives. I was the horse of a different color for both Asian American and Black theatre companies. My multiethnicity was something that they could sell, but, despite drawing me into the fold, they did little to treat me as a human being. I was always a commodity, never an individual. I was their diversity, but they were too busy trying to be the diversity for White theatres. One of the theatres attempted to bill a workshop production as a world premiere while another theatre didn’t pay me royalties for a production. Given my upbringing, I said little about the anti-Blackness that I encountered at Asian American theatres or about the anti-mixed race behaviors that I experienced at Black theatres. What was ironic to me, though, was that theatre artists of (monoracial) color who challenged mainstream theatre that did not include them so easily turned around and excluded multiracial people of color. Now some ethnic theatres finally are embracing multiracial individuals, but seldom those with African heritage. Part White, yes; part Black, no. Still, I suppose progress is progress, by any measure. One is expected to maintain a smiling visage when people behave in such ways or they turn around and say that you are the difficult one. One of the theatres said to me, when I informed them that a major Off-Broadway theatre wanted to produce the world premiere of one of my plays, “Oh, you’re selling out to Big Brother now, huh.” Selling out to Big Brother? Well, “Little Brother,” so to speak, had offered me nothing but marginalization. So, yes, massah. I had been invited to a party and was attending. Thank you, Lynne Meadow.
Those experiences taught me that having a unique voice was a lonely journey, but my mother taught me to learn to appreciate silence. There was something to be mined from it. When I sat in the backyard with her and gazed at the new moon, no words were said. Poems filled my head in that silence. The return of silence made me feel as if I had won a grand prize.
Of course, even with an Off-Broadway production and others in the mix, one has to pay the bills. I began working for a Boston-based public relations firm that deepened my education about race and ethnicity in the U.S. In addition to having anti-Black biases, most of the individuals who worked for that firm had anti-artist biases. I was subjected to, shall we say, interesting comments about the intellectual and business acumen of certain races and ethnicities; and other equally as interesting comments about artists and how they use companies and steal office supplies. If that were not enough, persistently, I was subjected to sexually harassing comments from a supervisor. When I reported this to the corporate office in Boston, it was suggested that I encouraged these comments. The comments worsened when I told the supervisor that I was pregnant. He commented that he had always wanted to have sex with a pregnant woman. I reported this to corporate. That office suggested that perhaps I had encouraged the comment by being pregnant. Eventually, the supervisor was fired and the firm’s employees became nicer to me, but I think it was only because the firm feared a lawsuit. At that time in society, few in any industry cared about how women were treated. We were too often seen as deserving sexual harassment, particularly if we were women of color who too many people feel are more sexualized than White women. All these years later, I still remember the snide glances and smirks of staff members and the supervisor hired to replace Mr. Sexual Harassment, a female who was better at harassment than her predecessor. I learned from that. Trust has to be earned. #metoo.
As my literary career evolved, I had the good fortune of having my plays produced at various regional theatres. I traveled around the U.S., visiting cities of which I had only heard. One of jobs was a commission with a theatre that proved insalubrious because the theatre didn’t really know what it wanted and, therefore, wasn’t happy with what it got. With the next commission project, I asked the theatre to approve a concept that I had for the play that it said that it wanted. They approved it, I wrote the play, and they still were unhappy. All the while, I was subjected to staff persons who treated me with disregard or outright hostility. The all-White and mostly male staff didn’t seem to appreciate having a woman of color as a guest artist with a commission. After all I went through including conceiving of a play, getting it approved, and writing it, the theatre actually asked me to give them back the commission money so that they could hire another artist. My agents were disappointed in this behavior. How, they asked me, could a theatre have an artist complete the assignment, but then want back the money that paid for that work? When I told my agents about the antipathy that I had experienced with the theatre’s staff, including a woman who wanted to write plays herself and indeed have that commission for herself, they understood how the theatre would expect me to work for free. Again, I learned. #metoo.
Instead of focusing on the hostility of a society that was not yet ready to be inclusive, particularly of a multiethnic, immigrant-kindred female artist, I focused on my own life and art. I decided to start a non-nuclear family. I decided that, now more than ever, I must continue to write from my own unique perspective, even if ethnic theatres and some exclusive White theatres did not want me at their parties. I gave birth to two wonderful children, Kiyoshi and Leilani; and I gave birth to plays, essays, poetry, and opera that was embraced and continues to be embraced by many. Persistently, I am appreciative of that embrace and, in my mind, bow a deep and enduring bow to those institutions and individuals.
My dream of becoming a writer manifested beautifully as my literary career unfolded nationally. Ironically, one of the places that I often did not work was Los Angeles, the city in which I lived. Social media was virtually non-existent in those days, so there were no platforms to reveal various productions across the country and around the globe, so I succeeded in silence. There it was again: silence. Later, when a former supervisor at the University of Southern California read my resume, she said, “I didn’t know you’d been produced at all these places!” She said it with shock and disappointment, as if she wanted to relegate me to a literary Siberia. No thank you. Not interested.
I write because I must. I thank every person, theatre, magazine, journal, opera company, and institution for honoring me with their attention and support. People of every color, gender, sexuality, and otherwise joined hands with me to allow art to live. That is a gift as good as moon-gazing and I am forever grateful.
I began a new phase of my journey when I developed a graduate program in playwriting for the University of Southern California in 1991. I found an institution that accepted me for who I am. Settling at USC encouraged me toward artistic work in Los Angeles as well.
Once again, I was driving toward a new destination. Green light. I choose happiness.
It seemed that everybody meant to be a part of my life’s journey had come along. But 2010 was yet another new beginning: new faces, new pathways, silver and gold…
Photographs: Velina Avisa Hasu Houston. Used with permission only.