Over the years, I have worked with various international scholars – women from India, Egypt, and Algiers – on their post-graduate explorations of plays written by women, both White and of color.
The communications raise many topics, some of which motivate my thoughts about writing and about being a writer.
I was asked about the canon of dramatic literature in the West and the position of Asian American drama vis-à-vis that canon.
The “canon,” as it often is thought about in the Western world with regards to dramatic literature, generally means, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, a “…list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality.”
There are a few subjective words in that definition. For example, what does “permanently established” mean to various groups of people? Furthermore, what does “highest quality” mean to various groups of people? There is a 17th Century English proverb, “”One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” popularized in the Western expression, “One man’s trash may be another’s treasure.” These sayings take into account human subjectivity. Thus, the term “canon” is complicated, and cannot be exclusive of dramatic literature written by women or by people of color. Once that exclusivity is demanded consciously or otherwise, the word is just dialect for the privileged.
It remains true that many White European American scholars with regards to dramatic literature define “canon” to mean plays written mostly by White men and before the 1960s. In fall 2017, I was presented with such a list at the university at which I am employed and was stunned that so little inclusivity had been embraced in creating a list of 100 plays that contemporary university students ought to read. I amended the list with the names of women playwrights and playwrights of color who created plays after the 1960s; they were included, but highlighted in red so that readers would know that they were an afterthought and not a part of the original formulation.
For such reasons, I know that Asian American dramatic literature continues to face challenges in being considered a part of the U.S. canon or Western canon of dramatic literature. I think that it is incorrect to say that Asian American dramatic literature must impose itself upon that canon. It is the creators of the canon itself who must think more broadly, deeply, and inclusively. Plays such as the works of Wakako Yamauchi, which came before my work in drama, deserve to be remembered. For example, her play And the Soul Shall Dance should be established permanently as being of the highest quality – and as representing important dimensions of U.S. history and life.
While my play Tea is one of the most produced works about the Japanese female experience in the U.S., I never have sought to impose it upon the Western canon. As I reflect upon its position, I would surmise that many U.S. citizens, even those who consider themselves well versed in dramatic literature, probably do not know of the play. Those that do most likely relegate it to a marginalized arena – what the U.S. often dubs as “Asian American drama,” distinguishing it from the mainstream drama that they are taught to believe is the only genuine voice – or at least the only one worthy of permanent establishment and the labeling of “highest quality” – in Western drama. I know that a play like Tea and the U.S.-Japan history that it reflects, as well as its impact on the Asian Diaspora, African Diaspora, White European Diaspora, Latinx Diaspora, and Native American Indian Diaspora, should be read and/or seen by anybody who is not a multiethnic Asian (particularly one of African descent). Whether or not Tea is considered to be in any Western canon – and I think it never could be because its author is female and a multiethnic, multicultural person of color – it addresses aspects of history and identity to which an inquiring mind would want to be exposed. Moreover, Asian Americans and Asian Canadians continue to grow in number so that the North American continent should be opening itself up to stories in dramatic literature that have something important to say about life beyond the year 2000 — and beyond the tips of their noses. Certainly, there are plays that do not have a lot to say, just as there are a lot of books, poetry, blogs, television, and film that do not have a lot to say — and that is true in mainstream production as well. However, do not let their sparseness cause you to bypass explorations that may shed light on our shared universes.
One also has to question the notion of “ethnic” drama versus “White” drama. U.S. society often utilizes terms such as “Black cinema,” “Black theatre,” “Latino theatre,” “Asian Cinema,” etc., but how often does one hear the term White cinema or White theatre? (I smell marginalization. I smell exclusion.) U.S. society must face the fact that “U.S/American cinema” or “U.S./American theatre” is no longer solely White. Any theatre or cinema created in the U.S. is “U.S./American.” Ethnic terms as descriptors are fine, I suppose, but often it seems that they are being used as ways of diminishing such literature or separating it from the White mainstream. Besides, often the terms are not accurate. For example, often my work is labeled as “Asian American.” Of course, it is Asian American and Asian and Japanese, but it also is a lot of other things – African American, Latin, Native American Indian, White European American, female, and global. To not say all of those things is to reduce reality to a comfortable categorization that allows people to go to sleep at night without a sleep aid.
Tea remains an important play that I wrote when I was young to explore a part of U.S. history that was ignored by the mainstream, including by educators. When I was older, I adapted it into a musical – Tea, With Music, motivated by the inspiration of artistic colleague Jon Lawrence Rivera. Then I adapted it into a novel, called Tea. After its first workshop in 1984 at the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco and its professional world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987 in New York, the play continues to be produced around the world. In 2013, the musical version was nominated for best book of a musical by the Los Angeles’ Ovation Awards. I think that is a first-rate journey for any play to be taking.
I often am asked why persons of mixed heritage find a place for their creative expression in dramatic literature, especially immigrant-kindred persons whose mixed heritage includes Blackness. It certainly is an unlikely path.
For me, as noted, the preferred term for an individual who has many ethnicities is “multiethnic.” In my case, given the fact that my parents were from different countries, I also am multicultural.
Even though I wrote my first play when I was eleven years old, the year that my father died, I do not know why I became interested in writing plays. There were no writers on my mother’s side of the family in Japan, except for a distant uncle who was lethally poisoned at a banquet celebrating his journalistic promotion. On my father’s side, there were no writers, but my father told me that there was an Irish relative who was a singer. While my cultural identities foreground my Japanese and Black ancestries, I also am Blackfoot Pikuni Indian, Latina, and, I have learned, a little bit Irish and Scottish, but I think that may have come from U.S. slavery plantations and the rape of Black slave women. I also am female, which is another identity marker in the U.S. and, I daresay, other nations. So, being of such complex identity, the desire to write plays is one that I must consider with regards to my literary voice. I remember an Asian American actor once said to me, “Gee, you don’t look like a playwright” and I said, “Gee, you don’t look like an actor.” Today, playwrights and actors look a little bit different than what your Wheaties may be telling you.
The second thing that I must consider is the unlikelihood of a multiethnic, multicultural, immigrant-kindred, female voice finding ground and making progress in a Western theatre world that is largely patriarchal and White European. That I would have two plays Off-Broadway right out of graduate school (Tea at Manhattan Theatre Club and American Dreams at the Negro Ensemble Company) rendered me a bit speechless. Having grown up in U.S. schools that marginalized immigrant families, neither did I expect that two Off-Broadway institutions would embrace my work nor that these productions would be the fountainhead for a viable literary career.
As I reflect upon my writing, I know that my background – both ethnically and culturally – enriched my outlook with an organic interest in what happens when a new entity enters an established arena. That could be a new person in the neighborhood, a new person in a new family, or a new person in a new country. I innately was interested in the impact of a new environment on an individual who simply wants to survive. That thread is present in almost everything that I write. Perhaps, beyond my multiethnicity, multiculturalism, or female-ness, that is something to which many can relate. Perhaps that is why my very different voice found a place in the theatre and sustains in the theatre.
In my plays and stories, magical realism manipulates the continuum, ghosts intermingle with living human beings, time is discombobulated, and cultures coalesce and collide. In some of the stories, suicide and suicidal ideation are included because they are a part of the legacies of humanity that are a part of my life journey. So, this is all quite natural to me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In fact, suicide and suicidal ideation are part of every culture; that means that every Diaspora is affected by them. Perhaps in each culture, the motivations for them differ; perhaps not. Events of suicide or attempted suicide that occur in my plays and other writings are not meant to transmit a meaning to any audience or to comment upon any culture. They are ingredients in the characters that I develop. I try to create them with consideration, breadth, and depth, however, I am not perfect and, therefore, my creations cannot be. We strive and hope.
The use of Japanese cultural notions is embedded in the Japanese cultural dimension of my being. I can no more separate them from my being than I can cease to drink water or eat food. They are just there, carefully planted and seeded by my mother, who was raised by a Meiji Era mother in southern Japan. This is connected to the representation of spirits and magical realism in my stories. All these elements are not exploitations, but simply interwoven into my multicultural being. As with any other artist, many of the galvanizers of my artistic creation stem from within. Certainly, many of these elements may be important in Japanese literature and drama, but they are equally as important in Japanese Diasporic literature and drama, particularly when the artist is of native Japanese descent herself. Upon seeing my play Calling Aphrodite, Mr. Kazuo Kodama, the former Honorable Counsel General of Japan of Los Angeles, paralleled my work in drama to the work of Isamu Noguchi in fine art. Of my work, Mr. Kodama remarked that I have a “unique lens… as a Japanese American of mixed parentage” that is “an asset to Japan-U.S. relations at all levels” because “people can come to see a connection between our two nations that not only exists in documents and organizations, but which is a living, organic relationship, exemplified by and embodied in individuals like… [Houston].” Yes, organic. It was a part of my life before I lived in Santa Monica, California.
In my stories, time always is fluid. As William Shakespeare says in The Tempest, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come…” That is part of my thinking, that everything that has happened before our time has some degree of impact on what is happening now. As we often hear, if we forget history, it will come back to haunt us. The other part of my thinking emerges from how I was asked to consider time when I was growing up. In the Japanese literature and legends to which I was exposed and in the stories that my mother shared with me when I told her about the stories in my head, I understood that there was no boundary of any kind between the natural and supernatural worlds. I also understood that the life of the mind sometimes can be very real. Given those factors, the nature of time in my stories is not conventional or constructed, but organic to the needs of the characters and the world of the stories.
Photographs by Leilani Houston and Velina Hasu Houston. All rights reserved.