Artist Tracking a North Star: Playwright Elizabeth Wong

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Welcome to the charm, intelligence, and unconventional magic that are part of the playwright Elizabeth Wong.  In a continuing series illuminating the lives of women theatre artists, I explore her life and literary journey.

When I think about her, the words idiosyncratic and distinctive come to mind.  She writes important stories that wrestle with ideas about culture, governmental politics, identity, fame and infamy, and a multitude of other topics for which she feels passion as an artist.  While she has had writing commissions, the bulk of her work is that of an original artist who grasps character and story without borrowing from history’s glorious Western male writers.  Some examples of this are plays such as Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Kimchee & Chitlins, China Doll, and Dating & Mating in Modern Times.

In addition to her playwriting, Elizabeth is a director, theatrical producer, and social essayist; and has shared her literary acumen with younger generations of artists as a professor.  Elizabeth is a dyed-in-the-wool, working playwright, one who has been applying her craft over decades and continues to create with vigor.  Fearlessly and with a commitment to authenticity, she writes original plays and expands her journey to the global scene as well.  She navigates these pathways with charm and kindness for the artists with whom she interacts.

While we always have supported each other’s work in a discipline that is often unwelcoming to female voices and the voices of people of color, we had the opportunity to collaborate and deepen our ties on a project with Silk Road Rising called The DNA Trail.  Not only was I able to witness Elizabeth’s artistic creation vis-à-vis the play that she wrote for the collaboration, but I also observed her work ethic and collaborative spirit with the other playwrights working on the project (David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jamil Khoury, and Lina Patel).

The Early Years and the Dream of her Father

Because Elizabeth’s mother was pregnant with her when she emigrated to the United States, her mother likes to say that Elizabeth was born on an airplane.  The very image of that seems appropriate to Elizabeth’s dynamic aura.  In reality, however, Elizabeth was born as a Gemini in a hospital in South Gate, California.  She was reared in a corner store called the Golden Star Market in Huntington Park.  Her father had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in electrical engineering, but the military-contract-rife World War II era did not engage him, so he became a grocer like his father before him.  She and her little brother Will strove to help at the store.  Her brother would push cans (sometimes backwards) onto the shelves.  Known by customers as the “worst cute bagger,” Elizabeth bagged groceries, but was too young to realize that it isn’t a good idea to put bread and chips at the bottom of a bag.  Her father never scolded them for their youthful efforts.

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[Elizabeth and her brother Will]

The death of her father had a deep impact on Elizabeth.  At the age of five, her childhood as she had known it permanently shifted.  At the end of a fun night with neighborhood children playing hide-and-go-seek, Elizabeth heard a loud thump and then heard her mother screaming her father’s name.  Elizabeth watched as paramedics wheeled her father out on a gurney; the next time she saw him, he was lying in a casket.  The young Elizabeth had trouble absorbing and processing what death meant.

“I had nightmares about needing to dig my dad back up,” she said.  “I thought he was still alive, buried alive.”

Elizabeth feels that the loss of her father influenced her towards writing; in fact, it was something in her DNA when later a cousin told her that her father’s true ambition was not to be an engineer, but a journalist.  She accepts this legacy wholeheartedly.  “It makes perfect sense,” she said.  “I thought I was living my dream, but it’s actually the dream of my father.”

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The artist-to-be was getting an experiential education at the Golden Star Market.  Elizabeth heard many different languages and accents among the customers, which inspires the presence of them in her plays.  “I love to explore the interactions and intersection between cultures,” she stated in an interview with me.  She remembered the first time that she met a Black person, which also happened in the Golden Star Market.  That encounter informed a scene in her play Kimchee & Chitlins.  Early, she began to learn about the diversity of humanity.  “My early plays reflected the world I grew up in,” she stated.  “I lived the American melting pot, and it was friendly.”

Elizabeth and Will were close even with regards to their arrivals in this world.  At birth, they weighed about the same and were born about the same time.  “It was like we were twins but born one year, twenty days, and one minute apart,” she said.

Elizabeth’s mother had her hands full raising a family.  She worked long hours, kept the apartment clean, and shared her love with her children.  Unlike many Chinese mothers, as Elizabeth noted, her mother wanted a girl, not a boy, so she celebrated Elizabeth’s birth, telling her later, “Girls take care of you when you are older, and I wanted to dress you up like a princess.”

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[Baby Elizabeth as her mother’s princess]

In reflecting upon her journey, Elizabeth considers the experiences in her upbringing that inspired the future artist.

Her father’s scholarship and ownership of many books and vinyl records were big influences on Elizabeth (she knows the words to the Rodgers and Hammerstein music canon).  After her father died, his books and records became even more a part of her life.

“I would sit surrounded by his books and earnestly pretend to read them,” she recalled.  “I think it was a way to remain connected to him.”

In the books’ margins, she found many notations from her father in his own handwriting.  Over the years, there were snippets of memories such as her father calling her “Bee” or “Yellow Rose.”  While she tended to gloss over things “with a broad patina of rose colors,” she said that her father’s notes were starkly straightforward about the truth of a fatherless upbringing by a single mother, the life he had led before becoming a father and husband himself.

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The Immigrant Daughter’s Sandwich: Human Being/Daughter/Artist/Liaison to American Culture

Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother (her PoPo) was a significant support in her life.  In the Wong family’s multi-generational home, she was a second mother.  An immigrant from China, she added maternal structures to their lives, such as waiting for the Wong children after elementary school and walking home with them.  “She even let my brother and I visit every public phone so we could reach into the slot and check for forgotten change,” Elizabeth stated.

This maternal support was needed because Elizabeth’s mother, a widow in her twenties, worked three jobs to ensure the family’s financial stability.  She had to sell her husband’s belongings and struggle with an uncle who cheated her out of her inheritance.  Elizabeth recalls secretly recording her mother and uncle on a reel-to-reel tape as her tearful mother begged for a fair share for her family.

That incident triggered Elizabeth’s protective instincts.  From that point forward, she became her mother’s shield to the complicated world.  At a young age, Elizabeth had to rise above being a child and help her mother with paperwork, forms, and documents; she was her liaison with the world.  The behavior of her uncle – her father’s brother – in his dismissive and poor treatment of Elizabeth’s mother, ignited in Elizabeth the need for social justice, particularly for women, an interest that continues to find its way into her artistic creation.

Despite the family betrayal and the financial hardship that they often faced, Elizabeth’s mother also strove to make life enjoyable for her children.  “After Sunday dinners, my mother’s idea of fun was to go for a drive after a home-cooked meal,” Elizabeth recalled.  During the week, Elizabeth prepared TV dinners and had fun “smashing all the Chinatown cockroaches that fled the oven.”  The playwright reminisced about her odd adventures spiritedly.  She loved the drives and the smashing.

There was societal education, too.  Elizabeth’s mother took her children to Skid Row, the public library, and the book-mobile.  She encouraged them to study hard and reveled as her daughter checked out the maximum number of books.  “Back then, I loved fantasy and science fiction, and books about animals like ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web,’” Elizabeth said.  Calling herself a “bookish egghead,” she spoke about her love for Nancy Drew mystery novels.  Elizabeth loved books so much that she saved her milk money and went without lunch at school in order to be able to purchase more of them.

When her family lived in Chinatown, the book-mobile was her favorite escape.  The library was supposedly a safer place (“better to be in there than to get beat up,” she surmised), but it was actually at the library that Elizabeth and her cousin were accosted.  A group of elementary-school-aged Latinas led by a middle school girl assaulted them in a library, introducing Elizabeth to the “F” word for the first time in her life.  She didn’t know what it meant at first, but she learned quickly.  Bothersome, too, was the fact that girls of color were attacking other girls of color.

New words were gold.  While the “F” word wasn’t at the top of her list, Elizabeth did like learning other new words.  “I was always trying to use them, but, having never heard them uttered before, I often mispronounced them,” Elizabeth noted.  Her love affair with new words nearly was aborted by an English teacher who told her to stop using big words.  At the time, the admonishment hurt her feelings, but today she hears that voice in her head sometimes and it motivates her to write plays with economy.  She feels that gives her audiences “terra firma.”

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[Elizabeth in high school as the girl most likely to succeed]

You Are a Playwright

Elizabeth’s writing was informed by other experiences, too.  For her twenty-fifth birthday, her then boyfriend gave her two gifts: a new red bicycle and a meeting with Truman Capote.  Capote signed a first edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for Elizabeth, including the words, “Keep writing!”  After a round of a happy birthday song, Capote told her that he liked to write prone and on yellow-lined legal pads, and that “he always tried to write simply, like a ‘clear country creek.’”  She loved that he pronounced “creek” as “crick.”

Another celebrated encounter for Elizabeth was with the late August Wilson, whom she met in a New Haven, Connecticut, stationery store.  At the time, she only had written as a journalist, so she was awed to meet an actual playwright.  The encounter inspired her to quit her journalism job and give herself “the gift of one year to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.”  She did tell Mr. Wilson of her aspirations and he made a declarative statement: “You are a playwright.”

Elizabeth then wrote her first play, a one-act called “The Aftermath of a Chinese Banquet,” about a dysfunctional family.  The play garnered her a place in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.  “August Wilson ignited a fire that still burns to this day,” Elizabeth said.  She jokes that she wrote her first play “because I didn’t want to make him out to be a liar.”  She didn’t.  He was right.

What Are You?  Native SoCal Beach Girl!

Culture is a complicated animal.  Are Asian Americans Asians who happen to also be U.S. citizens (sometimes) or are they Americans who happen to be of Asian descent?  Elizabeth defines herself as an American of Chinese descent.  Of course, that hailing confuses some people who have trouble understanding that someone who looks like what they think Asian people look like can’t be an American.  “When people ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I know they are referencing my heritage,” Elizabeth stated.  She said that, even as people asked the question, they were uncertain because she tanned so easily.  “I could be mistaken for many Asian phenotypes, even African American, Native American and Inuit, but I always responded, ‘Los Angeles’ as my answer, or I’d just say I’m a native SoCal beach girl, which invited further conversation and investigation.”

Even though Elizabeth grew up in Los Angeles, she didn’t see the Pacific Ocean until she was a teenager.  Her mother only drove on surface streets, so Elizabeth’s world was as wide as her mother’s ability to read street signs.  That small world and the fact that so many asked her the “what are you” question became ingrained in Elizabeth’s DNA.  “That innocent question was/is the insidious catalyst for a long-held feeling of being the outsider, of not belonging,” she said.

Elizabeth’s mother moved her family from Huntington Park, California, to Chinatown so that PoPo could live in a community where Chinese languages were spoken.  For Elizabeth, however, the move caused her feelings of isolation to worsen.  Chinatown didn’t feel like her community either.  “I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere or was accepted anywhere,” she said.

There was one place, however, where she felt she belonged and was accepted – the world of literature.  Young Elizabeth took refuge in books.

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“The library was a sanctuary, a place of adventure and discovery,” she recalled.  She loved the smell of old books and the sound of a new book’s spine cracking as she opened it to read it.  “I would peruse the stacks, find a book title that interested me, read the first paragraph, and, if it was a great first paragraph, I’d check the book out,” she said.   What was important were stories that validated her existence.  “I was seeking a friend in those books,” she declared.

Her zeal for reading led her to the other community in which she felt she belonged – the theatre.  When she found a life in the theatre, she could “breathe and find out what it meant to be me,” she stated.  She discovered the meaning of home and community, and a greater ease and understanding of her Chinese heritage.  She learned to accept herself.

Suzie Wong?

When you have what most U.S. citizens think of an Asian face, how does one navigate the pigeon-holing and marginalization that can occur from that view?  When she was working as a journalist, Elizabeth found that she was shielded by her professional purpose.  Even though many Whites called her “Suzie Wong” after the character played by actress Nancy Kwan in “The Wonderful World of Suzie Wong,” Elizabeth enjoyed being a journalist first, with questions about her identity being relegated to second status.

Once she began writing plays, that shield was lost.  She said that, in order to create a place for herself in the theatre world, she had to adopt a cultural perspective.  “To stake my own claim, in my early work, my artistic Copernican view is always Asian female-centric,” she said.   She even embraced the “Suzie Wong” moniker as a sign of her own comfort with who she was, not what other people thought she was.  As many writers of color note, the predominantly White media watch-dogs them to try to intimidate them to write only from their personal cultural perspectives while, at the same time, chastising them for doing so; viewing their efforts as not authentic, or ignoring them altogether in favor of other’s views of their cultural realities.  (I believe such actions are not only the work of the media.)

Elizabeth’s Asian, female-centric view insinuated itself into her work.  She devised stories that included people who looked like her and used variations of her name in her plays.  In her early work, she explored gender issues such as female workplace experience including the glass ceiling, women questioning convention, pigeon-holing of women, and other issues that can generate long-term headaches.  She sought to explore limitations placed on women by societal circumstance.

“Slay the stereotypes!” she exclaimed.  “Define womanhood beyond the niche!”

Elizabeth, for example, confronts this in her play China Doll, as an actress struggles for success in Hollywood.  In her play Kimchee & Chitlins, an ambitious television reporter swims with sharks in the newsroom.  In Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Elizabeth tackles a coming-of-age story about a U.S. cub newspaper reporter and a young Chinese student discovering life; and the fact that they are shaped by their families, jobs, partners, and places in which they live and work, to the extent that it may be impossible to be masters of their own fates.

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Elizabeth still sees gender as an important theme.  Noticeably, she pointed out, drama critics rarely mention issues of gender vis-à-vis a play.

“You have to make history or be mowed down by it,” Elizabeth said.  “Gender has always played a part in the architecture of my work and my thinking even though most reviewers don’t ever mention what seems obvious to me.  And it’s how my work transcends being fixed to a particular social upheaval, whether it be the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Black boycott of Korean bodegas. I think if my plays achieve a timelessness and longevity, the answer is tied to gender and a yearning to belong.”

Often people talk about artists catching the theatre bug.  For Elizabeth, the introduction to theatre was like that.  “I was hooked right away,” she admitted unreservedly.  “I heard the call to theatre.”  Part of that call was seeing Equus at the now-defunct Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood.  A high school Jewish American friend Joyce White took her to see the play and they had seats on stage.  “It was like being in a jury box,” Elizabeth said.  For Elizabeth, something magical happened on stage, something that engaged both her mind and heart.  “Yup,” she said, “by the gills — hook line and sinker.”  She barely could bring herself to leave the theatre after the performance.  Over the years, she saw other theatre magic such as Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, and Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box.  “I always lingered in my seat, the last to leave,” she recalled.

The Life of the Mind

Elizabeth knows that the artistic life is a tough one.  “Aspiring to it is too scary to contemplate,” she said.  However, in Elizabeth’s view, seeing as many plays as possible is important to that process.  She found inventive ways to see numerous plays over the years, but experienced a tremendous transformation when she saw her first Asian American play.  “I saw Wakako Yamauchi’s play And the Soul Shall Dance and saw people who look like me with profound problems that weren’t me and yet were,” she said.  “I was so moved.”  Seeing similar cultures of people on stage as characters exploring challenges that Americans of Asian descent face was powerful for Elizabeth.

The audiences in attendance to see the plays were equally as powerful.  She saw playwright David Henry Hwang, someone she had seen at high school debate tournaments.  She recalled his wonderful debating skills.  “He was a formidable debater with his partner Gleam Davis, and it was a certain defeat to go up against them,” she said.  “David’s success with [his play] FOB made me believe that our stories, our faces could live in the mainstream world and be accepted by that world.”

When she decided to follow her artistic interests, her brother was her biggest supporter and a severe, no-holds-barred critic.  “He’d say things like ‘That’s boring’ or ‘This is stupid’ or ‘How dumb is that?,” Elizabeth reminisced.  “He wasn’t always diplomatic, but I trusted his Everyman point of view despite his balls-out honesty.” She remembered, after a workshop reading at the Mark Taper Forum of her play Kimchee & Chitlins and a Taper reading of her play China Doll, that her brother spoke to her as if delivering a mantra: “Don’t listen to all those people giving you advice. Stop trying to please everyone.  Stay true to yourself.  You know what you are doing.”

Elizabeth’s last journalism job was with The Hartford Courant.  When she resigned on an April Fools’ Day to take a year off to write plays, her mother wished it was just a holiday prank.  To appease her mother’s concerns, Elizabeth decided to enter graduate school.

“If there’s one thing Chinese people value, it’s education and higher learning,” she said.  “My mom dreamed I would be a lawyer or a doctor, so I was already a sorry disappointment, and highly unladylike for choosing to be a journalist.  Journalists ask questions and my mother believed that ladies don’t ask too many questions.”  Elizabeth, however, says she is not “lady-like” and emphasizes that she likes asking questions.

“I always ask questions,” she declared. “I’m good at asking questions. I love learning new things.  Seeing new things.  Experiencing new things.”

When she dedicated herself to a year of writing plays, her mother asked why she was “throwing it all away.”  At the time, Elizabeth said that she couldn’t answer that question.  “I can hear her fear in my head,” Elizabeth said.  “I hardly could blame her. To a woman who worked three jobs her whole life, a writer’s life looked like sloth. Thinking looks like laziness! Who could blame her fears for my future?”  However, playwriting is far from idleness.  It is a rocky ride, but Elizabeth said she’s tried to convince her mother to “be Zen with the ups and downs of my artist life and be cool with my stubbornness.”

Part of the challenge of being an artist is finding ways to carry on in a sociopolitical environment that throws a lot of speed bumps one’s way.  An artist must stay motivated.  Elizabeth acknowledges that she contemplates giving up often, even with successes, productions, and the glory of opening nights at the theatre.  “I enjoy it all for about one hour and then I’m onto the next writing project,” she said.

However, time is a great teacher.  “I’m better now at living in the present and enjoying the moment, even stretching out the moment and the enjoyment,” she said.  What keeps her going?  The passion for stories that are yet to be written.  “All I know is I still have stories to write,” she said.  “I’m motivated by some weird, unseen, ineffable feeling I can’t quantify, let alone explain.”

Along with these ethereal motivations, artists must find ways to sort out the financial demands of life.  However that is sorted out, the ethereal motivations remain and are louder than anything else.  “I can tell you that, whenever I try to get a normal job, the Universe won’t let it live long in my life… and all I’m left with is the blank screen and the dancing cursor calling my name,” Elizabeth said.  The blank screen and the blank page, however, are the writer’s call to action and Elizabeth Wong answers it potently.

Writing an original play takes genuine artistic muscle.  With adaptation, there is a story on which to hang your transposition.  It’s like getting on a train at Point A and riding to Point Z without having to work hard (don’t fall asleep).  However, when you’re writing an original play, you must exert blood, sweat, and tears to create and build your own characters and stories.  No, there is no train with a specific destination to ride.  There are no traits of historical characters to use as (yes, a different metaphor) ingredients.  You must start from scratch.  It’s hard work, not that adaptation isn’t, but adaptation provides a recipe and, with original work, there is no such thing.  Blank page, blank screen; may the gods and muses be with you.  For such reasons, playwrights like Elizabeth are true treasures of the genre.

Elizabeth is a playwright who not only succeeds at being a brilliant artist, but who also strives to be the best human being she can be and to attempt to make this world a better place.

“At the heart of it, I’m just trying to understand what makes life worth living, how to have a worthwhile life, how to be happy,” she stated.  “And if I’m honest, I want to change things, hold up a mirror, do my part to make things better than I found them.”

Working towards artistic success is one thing, but creating original theatre motivated by heart, mind, and soul – something that enhances one’s humanity and the world in which one lives – is altogether a different matter.  She calls her playwriting a “call to action,” and it is a call that Elizabeth continues to answer with resoluteness and vibrancy.  “I like it when people have conversations about my work in the parking lot on their way home and maybe are motivated to do something,” she said.

The Two Faces of Drama: Cry and Laugh

Along with wanting to have an impact on the way that audiences think about a given subject, Elizabeth also wants her work to entertain.  “I like to make people laugh through their tears,” she emphasized.  “Pretty simple really.  Making people laugh is a way to disarm, to unclench the fist, to find commonality, and the surprise that lies inside.”  Through her writing, Elizabeth hopes to reveal truths about human nature and ask the question, “How can we do better?”  She feels that, through comedy, people can build community more expeditiously.  “I think comedy helps reveal our common humanity,” Elizabeth noted.  “And it’s healing.  Laughter is good medicine.  That is the prescription I am scribbling when I write a play.”

Motivations come from diverse sources.  Elizabeth described uncommon gods and goddesses that organically feed her writing spirit.  “I lay fruit at the feet of the Goddess of the 4 a.m. Wake-up Eureka,” she reflected.  “Also, I pay homage to the God of Internalized Anger.”  In the early days of her writing journey, Elizabeth said that injustice in society and the internalized anger that emanated from it were ardent muses.  As her journey continued, she felt that those feelings sometimes paralyzed her and finding the comedy in life’s sometimes tragic circumstances allowed her to blend her stories into original plays that had something important to explore, but also entertained.  “To get unstuck, I write to sort it all out through the filter of the comedic lens,” she said.

Moreover, she noted that this sorting it out isn’t something to procrastinate about.  “There’s no time to waste,” Elizabeth declared.  She expressed that a writer must write and not behave as if they have all the time in the world.  “I came to know the preciousness of life via the mortality of loved ones so early in my life,” she stated.  “Time is a fleeting thing.”

Art in Action

Elizabeth describes her art as her citizenship in action.  She said that it allows her to be a useful human being as she strives to advocate change through story.  Her art and activism combine in a potent way that inspires her audiences.  As an example, she mentioned her play, Code of Conduct.

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“I took on the challenge of writing about Guantanamo Prison in order to pull back the rug, to implore the audience not to avert their gaze; to look at this open wound, acknowledge it, and then ask the hard questions,” she explained.  Last year, Elizabeth also accepted a writing commission from East West Players to write about undocumented students in a play called Tam Tran Goes to Washington.  “Both plays incorporate my love of music and a sense of humor to help me rip off the bandage fast,” she said.

The Fountainhead

While muses come from various sources, the foundational muse for Elizabeth is her mother.

The reasons for this are numerous: “her story, her hardships, her triumphs, and how she overcomes them; how she forgives while never forgetting, how she bore the cruelties of war; the sacrifices she made coming to the U.S. in an arranged marriage, leaving behind her true love, bearing the stigma of being labeled as a gold-digger and treated so unfairly by my paternal family.”

Describing her mother as a pretty young widow “saddled with two babies,” Elizabeth said that many potential suitors considered her mother to be bad luck.  “I admire my mom’s strength and fortitude, and her compassionate, forgiving, light-hearted nature,” Elizabeth mused.  She marveled at her mother’s ability to be able to continue to find humor in life despite the tragedies she faced.  Her forgiving nature is something that Elizabeth finds inspiring and tries to re-create.

“Within hours, she forgives transgressions,” Elizabeth stated with admiration.  She called this a “Buddha nature.”  “In my writing I try to dissect how my mother turns no to a yes, a frown to a smile, and pain into triumph,” she said.

Art and Life

Sometimes audience members are surprised to find out that playwrights also may have other jobs that help them pay the bills.  Usually, they are not writing jobs because that, Elizabeth affirmed, can diminish one’s acumen for the art and craft of playwriting.  Still, however, audience members are surprised.  Perhaps it’s like finding a favorite actor waiting on one’s table at a Los Angeles restaurant.  Yes, the individual is a fine actor, but auditioning and securing employment on a television show or film may not be constant.  Not that the bill-paying work is easy, but Los Angeles has a lot of restaurants.

For Elizabeth, the bill-paying job once was in retail.  When her play “China Doll” was in New York City at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Elizabeth was working in a store in SoHo.  With astonishment, a customer accosted Elizabeth because she recognized her from the “China Doll” opening night talkback.  “Are you the playwright?” the customer asked.  “I was at your opening night!”  She surged on to tell Elizabeth how the play moved her.  As Elizabeth thanked her for coming to the play, the customer awkwardly shifted to retail mode and asked if she could try on an item.  Although Elizabeth was embarrassed by the intersection of art and economy, she then felt embarrassed for being embarrassed.

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“The SoHo event is a memorable experience because the customer was so surprised to find a playwright ringing up the sale,” Elizabeth shared.  “People don’t know that they are surrounded everyday by amazing humans doing beautiful things.”  At the same time, she noted that “doing beautiful things” is not solely in the realm of artists.  Addressing the rigor and commitment that retail salespeople face, Elizabeth stated, “Nothing humiliating about an honest paycheck.  Nothing humiliating about a survival job.”

She said that the experience taught her not to take herself too seriously.  She said that, with regards to another event, the same opening-night talkback and reception deepened the lesson of humility.

“An audience member came up to me and chastised me, saying my characters were callow and my politics too facile,” Elizabeth recalled.  “And, a second later, a different audience member gushed, saying the play moved her to tears.”  That is the nature of creating art.  As the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure.  Elizabeth described it as a hit in the head with a brick at the same time that a compliment showers you in gold dust.  “I learned to accept both the insults and pats on the back with equanimity,” she said.  It also taught her that an artist must value her own consideration and judgment of her creations.  “If I achieve my artistic goals for a play or if I do not, my own opinion is my true barometer of success.”  To many success may mean money or being produced at a theatre considered to be “it” by the dominant society, but to Elizabeth it means making an impact on an audience with a coalescence of meaningful reflection and entertainment.  It is not the reviewer’s consideration that is of importance to a genuine playwright, but the attainment of an artistic endeavor, measured by the artist and her audiences, not civilians.

Harkening back to her awareness that every artist must find a way to create and pay the bills, she noted that, while she had many female playwright colleagues during graduate school, most have “defected to other media because they couldn’t make a living just by working in the theatre.”  The hope is that these women writers keep writing plays, too, but, as most of us know or will learn, reality bites.

Elizabeth can’t stress enough the importance of audience in the playwriting experience.  In her very first production, a workshop of her play Letters to a Student Revolutionary at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Elizabeth was struck by the palpable power of the audience, particularly as a first-time playwright.

“Their applause washed over me like a wave,” she said.  “I had never received an acknowledgment like that before.”  She said that she relished that first moment of recognition because it was appreciation from strangers.  Learning that she wanted to be understood via her playwriting, she also realized in that instant that “I had been invisible before that moment.”  In that production, she also met an Alvin Ailey Dance Company performer, actress, director, and screenwriter, the late Elizabeth Fong Sung, who became her good friend and also was a friend of this playwright.  (Elizabeth Sung passed away in 2018 at age sixty-three.)

The Female Playwright in a Male Theatrical World

While Elizabeth Wong navigates the world of theatre with aplomb, she is confronted with what she terms as the “deafening” reality of the challenges that women playwrights face in being produced in the U.S. theatre.

“Look no further than any season anywhere,” she challenged.

However, she pointed out that such misogyny is not exclusive to the theatre.  “The misogyny is pervasive in every facet of our society,” she exclaimed.  “It’s as if men hate their mothers!  Perhaps they were weaned from the breast too soon or not soon enough. Perhaps the resentment comes because they didn’t suckle at the breast at all.  Perhaps it’s jealousy because women can bear children, the ultimate in creation.”

It is an interesting thought that women are often second-class citizens in U.S. society (other societies as well), but yet all men are born of women.  An ideological quandary indeed.  Elizabeth wondered if the source is not the men born of women, but the women themselves.

“Maybe mothers with their own self criticisms and self-loathings teach their children this misogyny themselves?” she wondered.

Still, she sees some degree of change in U.S. society, be it with regards to women or, one of the other supreme ideological quandaries, race.  “I’m glad to live in a time when a biracial man can be elected president (biracial Black-White President Barack Obama), when more than one strong woman sits on the Supreme Court, and that the #metoo movement is calling attention to what women have had to live with and put up with,” Elizabeth declared.  “It was buried under the proverbial rug, so just acknowledging the gaping open wound is a start.”  With dismay, she noted that “Wrong and immoral have been normalized and institutionalized, and in our current climate, reinforced… so it’s no wonder that misogyny has been an accepted cultural norm.  Given these circumstances and the circumstances of history, Elizabeth stated that she applauds “brave women stepping forward, speaking out, and telling their stories.”

Elizabeth acknowledged that many women playwrights may have learned from plays written by men, of course often because the mainstay of published and produced plays to learn from were male-written plays.  However, good plays come from all sources – including women and people of color – so enlightenment for playwrights like Elizabeth means embracing marginalized voices with the same respect with which non-marginalized voices are embraced.  Elizabeth also extends this consciousness into her teaching.  “In the classroom, I am equal opportunity,” she said.  “I am ready to be impressed by the brilliance of all students, male and female and non-binary.”

Reflecting upon my long-held desire to uphold women playwrights (not just women, of course, but they often need intentionality in a field that historically has marginalized them), Elizabeth addressed the need for women playwrights to support each other through mutual validation, particularly in public forums and essays – and, in education, also in readings lists for syllabi.

“It’s stacked against women playwrights,” Elizabeth stated.  “We get trotted out during women’s month and, in the case of writers of color, heritage months.  What about the rest of the time?”  She pointed out that theatre reviewers exacerbate the problem by focusing “on the personal, never the politics.”  Often, I have found that the focus on politics is on their view of politics, so that the truth is obscured in critical misconstruction.

Despite the hurdles that women and playwrights of color face, Elizabeth Wong continues to navigate the theatre world with achievement and fulfillment.

“I’ve managed to live a life in the theatre, steadily, under the radar,” she mused.  Her desire is that more audience members can experience her plays and her “cock-eyed view of the world” and explorations for social change.

Amused with the ups and downs of a life in the theatre, Elizabeth declared, “I continue because I’m an idiot.  When I’m in the quiet of my thoughts, I hear a voice saying ‘You aren’t done yet’ and I think maybe I’d rather be a forest ranger or a marine biologist.  But I get lost in the woods and I get seasick in a boat, so I figure, I’ll stick to writing plays.  I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.  And I’m definitely not done yet.”

photo - matchabook - elizabeth wong 2019 - #12

I WANT YOUR MONEY

The fast buck does not lure Elizabeth.

“I write what I want,” she said.  “In the past, I’ve walked away from high-paying TV shows.  I take commissions only if they challenge me personally, have a social justice component, and are fun.”

Elizabeth’s definition of “fun” isn’t in the dictionary; she has fun when there are writerly problems to solve.  For instance, she was commissioned by Honolulu Theatre for Youth to adapt an oral tradition, Filipino bedtime story about the Ibong Adarna, a songbird “whose song makes people fall asleep and whose precision poop turns people into stone.”  A musical for young and family audiences, the original story involves a child trying to catch the bird by cutting his wrists and pouring lemon onto the wound to stay awake.  Well, that didn’t seem appropriate for the projected audience so Elizabeth had fun coming up with a proper solution.  “After months of thinking on this and no solution, the answer came to me in the dead of night: the character should just snap a rubber band on his wrist” instead of slashing his wrist.  “Finding solutions like than is my idea of fun,” she affirmed.

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[Elizabeth in India]

Not only is Elizabeth passionate about women’s voices in the theatre, but she also feels enthusiastic about the voices of people of color in the theatre.  While more women and people of color have picked up their pens or are poised at their keyboards, Elizabeth feels that their desire to respond to the human condition, which she feels is at a crisis point, is stymied by the fact that theatres are not dealing with all dimensions of that crisis beyond “lip service.”

“The emergency is real,” she avowed, “and the crisis is approaching critical mass, so theatres must respond with velocity and courage… or die.”

She said that theatre producers often discuss how they can attract more people of color to the theatre.

“Lip service isn’t enough,” she stated.  “One play by a playwright of color every other season will not cut it.  If you want to sustain the theatre, you’ve got to serve up new perspectives, new stories by playwrights of color and women.”

She said that is one of the easiest and most straightforward steps that theatres can take to be truly relevant.  When theatre producers tell her that their older audiences don’t want to watch plays by women or people of color, Elizabeth responds with her view that those audiences “don’t want theatrical pablum either.”  “Theatres should stop serving up re-hashes of longings for the good ol’ days when white male privilege wasn’t a question,” she said.  Calling this approach “colonialism porn fantasy,” she said it’s a definite way to bore audiences rather than engage them.

[Elizabeth with me and others (including Wakako Yamauchi, Momoko Iko, and Jeannie Barroga) at a book signing for Roberta Uno’s “Unbroken Thread,” University of Massachusetts Press, 1993]

Humanity First and True Gifts

Even though Elizabeth’s 1040 tax form states her occupation as “playwright,” she said that, in reality, she’s a juggler.  Along with writing, directing, traveling, and teaching, “I take care of my mother,” she expressed with openness and commitment.  “I lift and tote for her and I still read all her paperwork; she’s still sharp and mostly hale, but I am her resource and her support system as she is mine.”

Three years ago, Elizabeth’s mother lost her only son to lung cancer and Elizabeth lost Will, her only brother.  When he struggled with cancer, Elizabeth also integrated his care into her life.  “I was there for him as he had always always, always been there for me.”  Not only did she cook special meals for him, but she also prepared juices.  Consumed with her brother’s healthcare for three years, she read numerous articles about cancer nutrition and alternative cancer treatments.

While juggling all those activities, Elizabeth also kept writing and working day jobs to support her writing.  “I balanced it all by marrying work with art and play,” she said.  “If I was away from home at a theatre, I’d always try to go horseback riding, paddling in a kayak or canoe, spelunking in a cave or exploring a lava tube.”

Also a golfer, Elizabeth often asked theatres at which she was working to ask a board member to invite her to play a round of golf.  She was motivated by a need to be in nature.  However, life’s demands also influenced her choices about work.  “I’d take jobs that kept me closer to home and refused jobs that took me away from home, or I’d shorten the periods I was away.”   The artist also grew as a human being.

photo - matchabook - elizabeth wong 2019 - #10

[Elizabeth and Will]

Elizabeth has found that the most important aspect of learning to be a better human being – indeed, even caring about being that better human being (thanks, Elizabeth) – is to be more present in her relationships.  She said that she credits her brother for this life lesson.  She remembers the intricacies of caring for him: fussing with medications, rearranging his tray, cleaning, cooking, shopping.  “He’d tell me, ‘Hey, stop doing things.  Just be with me,’” she recalled.  “OMG, he was so right.”

Now, she said, her objective is to just be with people, to be as present as possible.

“That’s the true gift,” she said, “and the gift that I now more readily receive.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs courtesy of Elizabeth Wong.

Photograph of Anna May Wong: “Femme Fatales/ Anna May Wong.”  Web. www.noirwhale.com, 27 Aug 2012, via vintagebeauties.tumblr.com. D/L June 30, 2019 @ https://noirwhale.com/tag/anna-may-wong/.

Photograph of image of “Kimchee and Chitlins”: A poster designed by Fox Smith for a production of “Kimchee and Chitlins,” Directed by Elizabeth Wong.  D/L June 30, 2019 @ http://www.elizabethwong.net.

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Demolition

There are those who do not give

a second thought to aging buildings.

They only see the flaws:

wrong essence, outmoded style,

decay, rust, and the wear and tear

of simply staying alive.

 

They cannot appreciate the original design

that speaks of the beauty of the bygone,

different materials, different construction;

it is an eyesore to them, an obstacle

to the shiny, new, impersonal thing that

they have ordered, next-day delivery.

 

It is abominable that mothers must die,

the whole art of unconditional love

having to be re-invented each time.

I love every crack in your walls,

every line that others see as fissures,

your closed windows stuck for years,

your aching bones that tell a story.

I am listening.

 

I have told many of this love,

but they do not believe in it.

Like literature, they dismiss it.

If it isn’t on television, it isn’t relatable.

All they want to do is tear you down

to build something else that

cannot weather the storms that come.

I stand outside the fence, teeth clenched,

hands fisted in helplessness.

 

Your stones come tumbling down,

the facade revealing the inner spaces

that I only glimpsed in dreams,

but I knew were so very there.

Many things happened here yet

slowly they disintegrate into dust.

 

I must tell someone how wonderful

you are.

 

Can they ever understand?

photo setsuko okaasan & velina with head on shoulder 2018

The Art of Breathing, Writing, and Living: Curiosity, Creativity, and Caring

The medical doctor and playwright Anton Chekhov once said that knowledge is of no use unless you put it into practice.

To give you an idea of how an artist can endow the word “practice” with deeper meaning, consider Marianne McDonald who when asked, “Why write?” instantly answers, “Why breathe?”  She inspires me to write about artists of our time whose hearts beat to different drums.

Dr. Marianne McDonald is someone who has harnessed intelligence, heart, literary acumen, and artistry and put them into practice.  Many are blessed with those gifts, but write only one book or play a decade (and give to the homeless without ever having to look in their eyes).  Not Marianne.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #1

Dr. Marianne McDonald

She has earned three university degrees, published countless books, written extensively, raised six children, lost a child, mothered other “children,” learned multiple languages (twelve), tolerated boyfriends and husbands, traveled widely, and given generously – heart, mind, body, and soul.  Not content merely to talk about life, she activates it, particularly through her writing.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #2

Dr. Marianne McDonald in childhood

When as a child one has a personal nurse to comb your hair and dress you, it would be easy to give into such comforts, disguise those as the laurels of life, and let life float you forward fancifully.  Marianne, however, chooses neither to rest nor fear complication.  Indeed, she grabs life by its horns, and rides its every kick and rear with buoyancy.

As her home page illuminates, Marianne is involved in the “interpretation, sharing, compilation and preservation of Greek and Irish texts, plays, and writings.” Recognized as a historian on the classics, she has received numerous awards and accolades because of her works and philanthropy. As a playwright, she has authored many modern works based on ancient Greek dramas in modern times.  As a teacher and mentor, she is sought after highly for her knowledge of and application of the classic themes and premises of life in modern times.  In 2013, she was awarded the Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Classics, Department of Theatre, Classics Program, University of California, San Diego (joint program with University of California, Irvine [UCI]). As one of the first women inducted into the Royal Irish Academy in 1994, Marianne was recognized for her expertise and academic excellence in Irish language history, interpretation and the preservation of ancient Irish texts.  As a philanthropist, Marianne partnered with Sharp to enhance access to drug and alcohol treatment programs by making a $3 million pledge. Her donation led to the creation of the McDonald Center at Sharp HealthCare. Additionally, to recognize her generosity, Sharp Vista Pacifica Hospital was renamed Sharp McDonald Center.

Marianne also has been honored with Greece’s Order of the Phoenix (1994) and Italy’s Golden Aeschylus Award (1998); and been inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame (2008).

Born in Chicago on January 2, 1937, Marianne achieved a 1958 B.A. in Classics and Music, Magna cum Laude, from Bryn Mawr; a 1960 M.A. in Classics from the University of Chicago; and a 1975 Ph.D. in Classics from UCI.  She went to school at Chicago’s Convent of the Sacred Heart and finished her secondary education at Chicago Latin School; during these years, she developed a fondness for Latin, Greek, and classical antiquities of the Greco-Roman world.  She now makes her home in Rancho Santa Fe in a house full of Old World furniture and Tibetan influences.  There is the sweet smell of incense, a harp, and beautifully decorated rooms that reflect the eye of someone who cares about aesthetics, comfort, and literature.  Outside the house, in a garden created by the home’s four sides, live Marianne’s beloved peacocks and peahens.  Because neighbors complained about the child-like noises they make, Marianne had to give up most of them.  That is sad to me because they reflected the beauty, grace, and magic that is part of Marianne’s view of the world.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #3

Dr. Marianne McDonald’s peacock and peahen from her homepage

McDonald’s life-long teaching as a classics and theatre professor primarily has been at UCI and University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  As a visiting professor, she has served at Trinity College, Dublin; University College Dublin, University College Cork, Dublin City University, and the University of Ulster in Coleraine.  Her publications include more than 250 books, translations, plays, poems, and articles.  As an actress, she has performed in numerous Greek plays.  As a scholar, two of her projects the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (a computerized compilation of Greek literature that McDonald founded and funded at UCI) and the Thesaurus Linguae Hiberniae (computerizes Irish literature no matter the language of the source material).

When I met Marianne, I felt a visceral connection with her as a human being.  I was invited to speak at her class at the University of California-San Diego via her then teaching assistant, Antonia Glenn).  I spoke about my play Kokoro (True Heart).  On that day in La Jolla, California, I found a true heart in Marianne.  Not only is she a writer and professor, but she also is a feminist, animal lover, spiritualist, organic intelligentsia, multiculturalist, U.S.-Japan being, and parent.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald and her beloved pets

Over the years, that truth of our human connection has flourished.  My Japanese mother always said that the soul is in the gut; I feel connected to Marianne with that kind of depth.  As artists, we support each other.  We have co-edited a book, The Myth Strikes Back: Medea Plays by Women, which recently was published.  We care about each other’s plays.  We celebrate and bemoan the politics of U.S. society.  Always, we discuss motherhood and our offspring.  The fact that Marianne is a prolific writer and intelligent feminist who is courageous in thought and deed inspire me constantly.  The fact that she is a true friend restores my faith in contemporary humanity.  She is a resilient person who cultivates resilience in others.

For the first five years of her life, Marianne was reared on a yacht.  During storms, she recalls dodging falling items and crawling to get around.  Not having sea legs or being seasick weren’t allowed in the McDonald yacht-hold.  There was childhood on the sea and then there was land.  Her father, Eugene Francis McDonald, said to her, “Land is a place to which you tie your boat.”  At six, Marianne shifted to that land and tied her boat into living a life of the mind where writing is paramount and the rest of life demands to be heard.  She began to strike that delicate and daunting balance.  No easy feat for an artist in the U.S., particularly a female one.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #5

Dr. Marianne McDonald as a child aboard the family yacht

Her father, who grew up in New York City, dropped out of school and became family patriarch at age twelve to support his family.  He wanted her to be fearless and expected her to know the land.  He taught her how to shoot, hunt, and fish.  From shooting, he lost his hearing in his right ear and she lost it in her left ear.  In those days, there was no protective gear to preserve their hearing.  After going deaf, her father established Zenith Radio, utilizing shortwave sets to broadcast Inuit songs to Australia and to outfit the U.S. Navy during World War II.  On that basis, he created the Zenith Radio Corporation.

Sometimes his loss of hearing was an asset.  Marianne said that, at home dinner parties, he placed “boring people” on his right; Marianne does the same on her left.  (If you have ever been seated to her left, pause for a moment of reflection.)  Her father also was a drinker and smoker, coupled with her concert pianist mother who was a drug addict.  When her father passed away in 1958, he left a large fortune to Marianne, along with a collection of gifts that broadened her interest in Ireland and in philanthropy.

Despite good fortune, Marianne had lack in her life at its outset and lost other valuable things along the way.  Her mother didn’t want children and never let Marianne forget it.  She often reminded Marianne:

“I went to the pits of hell giving birth to you.”

Even though her father wanted a son and got one when Marianne’s brother “Stormy” came into their lives five years after her birth, Marianne remained her father’s favorite.  After she married and began her family, Stormy committed suicide.  He called her and said that everybody was after his money and that he could only trust her.  Then he was gone.

“I wish I could have talked him out of it,” Marianne stated.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #6

With brother Stormy holding snakes in Canada, one of their homes

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #7

With brother Stormy and (behind them) a friend

The delicate and daunting balance of a literary soul often was challenged by Marianne’s parents.  When she was twelve, her mother parked her in movie theatres “so she could meet her lovers.”  Marianne noted that her mother kidnapped her and her brother “to sell us back to my father.”  Her father had to drag them from her mother’s car.  Despite these problems, Marianne’s mother gave her the gift of music, for which she is grateful.

“She let me hear her beautiful music,” Marianne reminisced.  “She often played in concerts and I still can hear compositions.”

At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, nuns provided Marianne with sanity and love that was free from alcohol and drugs.  The nuns encouraged her to read, which continues to be an avid activity.  Her father encouraged her scientifically, giving her a chemistry set at an early age.

“I did dangerous things…explosions and separating mercury from mercuric oxide,” she recalled.  “How I survived is a miracle.”

Her survival was laced with freedom from alcohol and drugs, a freedom that extended into her adult life.  As noted above, she founded the Scripps McDonald Center and then the Sharp McDonald Center for drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #8

Dr. Marianne McDonald

Beginning her family was challenging for Marianne.  She had thirteen pregnancies and six children, who, as a group, look like what she calls “a United Nations gathering.”  Years later, one of the six, at age fifteen, took her own life, but under different circumstances than Marianne’s brother had faced.

photo matchabook marianne six children

Dr. Marianne McDonald’s six children

“Of course, losing a child causes more pain than anything else in the world,” Marianne said.  She wrote a poem about her departed daughter called “Aftermaths.”  Here is an excerpt:

matchabook marianne's poem 12-03-2018Marianne’s daughter died while Marianne was on a trip to Washington lecturing on Greek tragedy.

“She was staying at a house with some boys I’d forbidden from mine, and they found a gun which they passed around playing Russian Roulette,” Marianne said.  “She lost,” she continued.  “They were all high on LSD, the one drug they knew I never tested for.”

But Marianne’s life goes on, after Greek and real-life tragedy.  Her artistic energies are galvanized by her students (she has supported more PhD students than anyone else in her department at UCSD) and people who create exciting theatre.  I am honored that she includes me in the latter category.

Marianne creates theatrical excitement of her own, such as her Trojan Women, which was produced by the Old Globe Theatre; and a project rich with social justice with regards to color, culture, gender, and sexuality, her Medea, Queen of Colchester (an adaption of Euripides’s Medea) that explored the infamous heroine as an African drag queen of color.  In investigating themes of women subjugated by the men who love them but love power more, Marianne coalesced numerous dimensions of identity.

“The actor playing him/her said it was the first time he’d worn heels,” Marianne said.

For the theatre, she also penned …and then he met a woodcutter, which was named Best New Play of 2005 by the San Diego Critics’ Circle; and Medea: The Beginning, performed with Athol Fugard’s Jason: The End.

Her interest in theatre continues to be galvanized by the same motivators.  She loves theatre, but has no favorites (“That’s like asking what child is your favorite,” she mused.)  Her hope for those who live the life of the mind is that they reflect and “ask what’s wrong with the world we live in.”  In other words, she wants artists and scholars to be inquisitive and courageous.  She feels she sees less and less of that today.

Theatre, however, thrives in her veins because “it reveals truths in wayward ways…you continue thinking after you leave the theatre,” she stated.  She hopes that, rather than being driven by greed, artists create out of a desire to illuminate truth and cultivate change.

Some of Marianne’s numerous books include:  Terms for Happiness in Euripides, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978; Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible, Philadelphia: Centrum, 1983; Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage, Columbia University Press, 1992; The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Indiana University Press, 2003; The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, Edited with J. Michael Walton, Cambridge University Press, 2007; and Dancing Drama: Ancient Greek Theatre in Modern Shoes and Shows, book chapter for Oxford Handbook on Dance and Theatre, edited by Nadine George, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #9

matchabook marianne final caption 12-03-2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photographs courtesy of Dr. Marianne McDonald and Dr. Bridget McDonald.  Used with permission.

 

 

 

What Holds Up the Air

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover the nearly perfect cup of tea.  You savor the flavor and the feeling it creates throughout your body. You feel it seeping into every molecule of your being as it lifts your soul above and beyond the trivialities of life. It’s a brilliant moment.

photo yamamoto san with me in kyoto by riverside 2015

-Kyoto, Japan, 2017.-

Despite that brilliance, however, you know that, sooner or later, the tea will be gone and the only remnants of that splendor will be what you retain in your mind.  You must cultivate that splendor because there will never again be a cup of tea like that one.  Certainly, some, if you’re fortunate, may come close to approximating it, but not truly.  Its distinction was one that connected with you in a visceral, unique way that will not repeat itself in the same way ever again.

When my daughter was eleven months old, a Japanese American woman colleague in the arts called and told me that an extremely shy, but incredibly gracious man from Uji, Japan, was an admirer of my work and wanted to meet me.  In town (Los Angeles) for a short time, he was staying in Little Tokyo.  Would you please call him, she asked, he’s too shy to pick up the phone and call you, so, if you don’t call him, you two won’t meet.  Even though I had a high regard for this colleague, I hesitated.

After all, it was an awkward request.  I wasn’t enamored of the idea of calling up a perfect stranger and scheduling a meeting with him.  My friend, however, noted the man’s deep and genuine interest in Asian American literature; and stressed again the depths of his shyness.  Shyness.  Reserve. Yes, this was familiar to me, especially the Japanese kind.  I had been withdrawn in grade school and had to take assertiveness training classes to find ways to balance Asian reserve with Western wherewithal.  When my daughter grew older (four), her shyness would be so intense that, if we had guests, not only would she close her bedroom door, but she also managed to move her large dresser against the door to ensure a proper blockade.

I decided to call a friend, a Japanese woman dramatist, Yuko, to attend the meeting with me.  After she agreed, I called the Japanese gentleman and made arrangements to meet.  On the phone, his voice was quiet and polite.  This eased my apprehension.

We met at Mitsuru Café in Little Tokyo:  my friend, my eleven-month old daughter, the Japanese gentleman, and me.  The Japanese gentleman was Iwao Yamamoto.

photo yamamoto san #3 with yuko & leilani first meeting 08-11-2018

-Mitsuru Cafe, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, 1997.-

Fourteen years older than I, he had been one of four brothers reared by their mother, a Japanese widow. As we began to converse, we realized that something special connected us.  It was the beginning of a twenty-one-year friendship that ended on August 4, 2018, when Yamamoto-san passed away from a rare, but aggressive form of cancer. Truly, his death stunned me.

Of course, I knew he was aging, but many of my Japanese friends live into their late nineties or over 100; certainly, I understood the nature of loss because I had lost my father at the age of eleven, and because of my mother’s aging and the reality that death is a part of life. I knew Yamamoto-san was ill, but I had been assured that the kind of cancer he had was treatable.  I suppose I found solace in that; some odd kind of creative evasion, I guess.

For five years, he had been troubled by an encroaching, diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, he told me, “Remember our friendship and how much you mean to me in case I forget you in the future. You are my best friend.”  I feared for what my friend would lose, but part of that fear was motivated by what we would lose.  What is it that we truly fear when we see loved ones sinking into dementia?  Is it a selfish fear of oneself and all the brilliant experiences one shared being forgotten?  Is it loss, period?  I am not certain, but what I am certain of is that absorbing and processing it all makes me quite sad.

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-In Yamate, 2015-

I held Yamamoto-san in my heart and will continue to do so, but I suppose one always feels one could have been a better friend, loved better, and spent more time together.  The last time I saw him, he insisted on joining me at Kyoto Station as I was leaving Japan.  We already had shared a meal and viewed the cherry blossoms I love so well, but he insisted on meeting me at the station to bid adieu again.  He told me that he had been enjoying riding his bicycle with his wife, Mari.  Recently, he had been struck by a car and momentarily lost consciousness.  In that moment, however, he seemed fine, although frail. His other adopted family member, Mikiko, and I noticed his frailty and feared together.  Yamamoto-san told me to hurry back to Japan so that we could see each other again.  He feared he would die before we had that chance.  He was correct.

For the last twenty years, I have visited Japan annually.  Last year, I decided to travel to England to interview Japanese women living in the United Kingdom.  When thinking about that decision, I wondered if, instead, I should return to Japan again so that I could see Yamamoto-san.  I envisioned myself taking the train to Uji, and visiting Mari and him at their home. I thought, If I wait a year, will he remember me?  Thinking that it might be salubrious for me to travel to England with my English husband, I chose the West over the East.  Balancing those two utterly different dimensions is the bane and glory of my existence.  That choice is now something that I will never forget.  Yes, I plan to return to Japan next year.  It, however, is a year too late to see Yamamoto-san again. Moreover, Japan will not be the Japan I have known without him.

Yes, I have many memories of Yamamoto-san: participating in Gion Matsuri together, the dense crowds floating our bodies along the streets as if we were at sea, the air so thick in that kind of rarified Japanese summer heat that makes one feel as if one is breathing chawan-mushi; attending Daimonji at the culmination of Obon, drinking cold mugi-cha while sitting on a blanket in northern Kyoto, visiting Nara and Hiroshima, walking among the deer on Miyajima, and going to Mari’s calligraphy exhibit at Kyoto National Museum.  In Nara, Yamamoto-san and I were deeply amused when two Japanese women looked at us with disdain and one declared, “I am so tired of seeing older Japanese men with their Filipina wives!”  At the Kyoto National Museum, Yamamoto-san introduced my daughter, my son, and me to dignitaries as Nikkei-jin and did not bother to explain our multiethnicity.  To him, the Japanese Diaspora was diverse, and Yamamoto-san reveled in being genuinely inclusive.

photo yamamoto san with kodomo 2001? in kyoto

photo yamamoto san gion matsuri 1999

Even with the best tea, sooner or later, it is gone.

I suppose that is part of the reason why it is so special: that ethereal quality; it is there in the moment, it happens, and then it vanishes.  Theatre shares that same beauty, that ethereal quality that allows one to enjoy it in its breathing reality and then it is gone.  You are the bearer of its essence.  Love and friendship demand the cultivation of that essence.

Besides giving me unconditional love and embracing my Nikkei and multiethnic heritage without question long before being of mixed ethnicity was fashionable (or at least topical), Yamamoto-san adopted me as family.  Indeed, he was what some might all an “O.G.” Japanese.  In the United States, O.G. seems a familiar enough colloquialism. When I was walking our family’s two Shiba dogs with my husband, a man stopped watering his lawn to stare at the dogs, “Are those gigantic Shibas?” he asked with a look of bewilderment.  “Yes,” I said.  I explained that the dogs were standard-sized Shibas and that the tiny Shibas that have become so popular in the U.S. are “mame-Shibas” or bean Shibas, miniature forms of the standard.  “Oh,” he said, “you have O.G. Shibas!”

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-Kiyoshi Houston with Kenta and Koji-

What is an O.G. Japanese? Like many Japanese of my mother’s generation and the generations that preceded and followed it (Meiji-Taisho-Showa), Yamamoto-san lived his life with reserve, grace, broad-mindedness, and heart. When I visit Japan today, I find traces of that in many people, but I also encounter many contemporary Japanese who perform Western culture with such panache that they have transformed into a new Japanese being that doesn’t have time for pre-Heisei cultural ways.  It reminds me of the onnagatta in Kabuki theatre. As most know, Kabuki theatre is comprised only of male actors.  The onnagatta is the male actor who performs female roles.  He does this performance of femininity with such excellence that many say he is more womanly than cis-gender females.  Like the onnagatta in Kabuki, sometimes many contemporary Japanese seem to be more Western than Westerners.

With regards to Yamamoto-san, however, he was purely O.G. Japan and I feel so fortunate to have shared a special bond with him.

When he retired from the faculty of Ritsumeikan Daigaku, he asked me to write an essay about his departure from the academy and the work that he had accomplished over the years. I did so happily; it was called “Ties That Bind.”

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-“Yamamoto” tea from Uji, Japan-

Every year, Yamamoto-san sent me new tea from Uji.  It commemorated an afternoon that we had spent in Uji having tea and talking about life. Every time I look at tea, I think of him.  Today, I drink the tea that he sent me last April.  I drink it in his honor, in his dearly beloved memory.

Another ritual of friendship we had was to send each other autumn leaves or pressed blossoms. Because of my love for cherry blossoms, he sent me different varieties.  They were like poems to me.  Sometimes we sent maple leaves.  I liked to find interestingly colored leaves.  A few weeks ago, I found a beautiful leaf that looked as if it had been painted gold and burnt orange.  I pressed it into a book to send to Yamamoto-san.  I never sent it.  It wasn’t ready yet.  I should have sent it anyway.

If there is an “other side,” he is one of the first persons I will seek.

 

 

photo yamamoto say orrizante kyoto 2016

-In the Kyoto International Hotel, 2017-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photographs except maple leaves by Kiyoshi Houston, Leilani Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston.  All rights reserved.  May be used with permission.

Maple leaves photograph credit: Emmon.  “Autumn Foliage: the Magic of Maples.”  Web. www.bombayoutdoors.com.   Downloaded on August 11, 2018 @ http://bombayoutdoors.com/garden-ideas/autumn-foliage-maples/.

 

 

 

The Literary Challenge: Multicultural in a Monocultural World

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.

photo japan taken by vhh #7

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Onward.

 

photo japan taken by vhh #3

Photographs by Leilani Houston and Velina Hasu Houston.  All rights reserved.

‘It’s Like Porn: You Know It When You See It’

Race is an awkward topic.  The term was created by the government to categorize different kinds of people with an ease that benefits governmental procedure.  Even the multiethnic community has been plagued by it with the moniker of “mixed race.”

There’s that four-letter word again.  Hard to avoid it.  I, however, prefer ethnicity.  That’s how I better understand the rich veins of a person’s composition.  “Race” tells me very little.  I often wonder why so many think it’s the proper badge to put forward in so many instances.  We also should reflect upon what motivated the creation of race.  Here in the United States, the arm of the government that oversees “race” is an office that concentrates on management and budget; hence, perhaps the true desire to manage ethnicity efficiently as “race.”  Despite the fact that the term “race” is a governmental invention, it also has become entrenched in daily usage.

Let’s face it, however: it manipulates ethnicity into a category.  I have no race (“other” implies being different from ones already noted – so that means “other” is secondary, an afterthought to what is noted first).  I do not fit into any of the racial categories proffered by the U.S. government; moreover, I am not going to check boxes for four ethnicities and allow the U.S. government to calculate my “race” in its myopic view; that is an algebra that discriminates against my multiethnic culture.  Because that is what I am, at all times: multiethnic.  Always multiethnic.  I do not alter my ethnicity when I believe it will benefit me in a given situation.  Whatever your ethnicity is, that is part of my consideration of who you are – organically; it means more to me than whatever race the government says you are.  In fact, there is no race when I think about a person’s identity; I think of their ethnicity.  I remember a post-play talkback at Syracuse Stage.  A woman who might be termed as White by the masses connected with my play about Japanese immigrant women in international, interracial marriages because her grandmother was an immigrant from Germany, which means that she is German American.  I do not think about her as being White and me being Other.  I think of Germany and what impact its culture has on her life.

This is my husband.

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He looks like what the Western masses might call White and, indeed, is White with regards to how those masses put forward the concept of “race.”  In fact, in the Western mass eye, he possesses that brand of Whiteness that is deemed unquestionable because it is British Whiteness.  It is for me, however, the former descriptor, not the latter, that helps me to understand his navigation of life.  In our home, we talk about ethnicity, not “race.”  I know many make a distinction, opting to invest in the governmental invention of race, but I think more organically.  To me, my husband is not White, but ethnically English, Scottish, and Welsh – mostly English, he says, in the European perspective of defining identity by nation.

Many people whom I know who perceive themselves to be White say that I think about “race” a lot, that I am “sensitive” about “race.”  Having such a view is a luxury in our society, not one that people of color get to possess unless that color is invisible to the Western mass eye.

Naturally, I think about ethnicity a lot.  Every time I walk out the door and strive to navigate society, I am “raced” by just about everybody.  They will not always own up to this “racing” (or e-racing, as the case may be) because they fear intellectual miscarriage.  Who wants that?  It is much easier and perhaps prudent on their parts to dismiss “racing” people by saying that such people simply talk about race too much, that those people are merely sensitive and it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the problem of “race” that permeates society, particularly in the U.S.

I am proud to say that I do think about ethnicity a lot.  Unquestionably, I have no choice because, when I look in the mirror, my reflection stares right back at me in a complicated, take-no-prisoners kind of way.   Good on destiny.

I have thought about ethnicity even more since the #metoo movement began.  That is because the #metoo movement illuminated gender ugliness, which for me even more brightly illuminated ethnic ugliness.  I realize, however, that U.S. society, a place where the “race” problem has grown into gargantuan proportion, is not yet ready to deal with ethnic ugliness, if it ever will be.  Focusing on gender ugliness takes the heat off the former.  If people speak out against gender ugliness, which they should and must, then ethnic ugliness can be put on the back burner and those speaking out can have their consciences marked as morally correct in society, which indeed they may be.  However, ethnic ugliness remains seething under society’s surface: police brutality against self-perceived and societally perceived Black and Latino Americans, immigration violence against people from what the U.S. administration deems as undesirable countries (is there a theme here?), Black and Brown people followed in businesses because they are assumed to be shoplifters, Black and Brown people going into meetings and assumed to be in the wrong place because, Oh my god, how could they possibly be in a position of authority; and so on and so forth.

Often, people of color are not in positions of authority.  No matter how much our society talks about equity and inclusion, it often does not walk that talk, especially in corporations and institutions.  Often, society shovels equity and inclusion into a wheelbarrow called “diversity” and dumps it in a place where it will not be recycled.  When a character in a play recently produced in a Los Angeles-area equity theatre proclaimed that diversity is a dirty word, several White audience members applauded and one said, “Bravo!” It was disquieting.

Despite the fact that I grew up in the U.S., I was raised with Japanese values; not the kind that exist in Japan today, but Meiji-Era Japanese values, the kind with which my mother was reared by my Meiji Era-born grandmother.  Due to that, I developed a way of being that simply does not cut it in the U.S.: when bad things happen to me because of my ethnicity, I sweep them into the recesses of my consciousness and move forward with a smile.  The problem with that is reflected upon in biracial Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dream Deferred”:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?…
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?” 2

If one buries negative ethnic experiences internally, they accumulate and, at some point, must shatter.  Because I am a writer, my ignitions can occur in journals or in a blog like this rather than me getting a machine gun and bump stock and mowing people down, like that man in Las Vegas and his awful actions.  No, I will not go down that route, although some, figuratively speaking, have done that to me.  Take note that there are many people of color who, despite ethnic ugliness in their lives, also choose not to go down that route.

Here is an example of just how ugly racism can be.  This happened to two Black male university students.  About five years ago, they expressed their concerns that a White professor frequently called them by each other’s names.  Sadly, he could not tell them apart.  They reported that, while the professor knew the names of White students in his class, he did not know their names.  When one of the young men explained their identities to the professor, the professor came and asked for my help, stating that he had two “angry Black boys” in his class.  He did not stop to think that he had done something that had created the Black men’s disappointment – what he called their “anger.”  It seemed that any questioning of his lack of knowledge of their names or his inability to discern their distinct identities meant that they, not he, were lacking in decorum.  This kind of scenario happens repeatedly in U.S. society: anti-Black behavior occurs, Black people respond to it, Black people are seen as being “angry” (or, Lord have mercy, racist themselves).  It is a convenient methodology.  Imagine how I feel when I go into the faculty club on the campus where I teach and the hostess thinks I am someone else in that “they all look alike” tradition.  She does not mean to insult or diminish me, but….  It is interesting to experience individuals trying to guess what I am; it’s like watching them trying to reach a destination without GPS.  Micronesian? Tongan? Samoan? Filipina? Sri Lankan? Indonesian? Black?

Walk a mile in my shoes.

In my shoes.

A mile.

Sensitive about “race”?  You betcha.

The mirror and experiences foisted upon me by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people force me into being sensitive about race.  That, however, does not mean that race is not problematic and that racism doesn’t exist.  Maybe one grows sensitive because of repeated incidents of ethnic unkindness, especially if one lets the impact of that ugliness fester inside.  Sensitivity may be a symptom caused by racism, rather than a weapon for Whites to use against people of color.  Maybe the response to the accusation of sensitivity is, Yeah, why don’t you help eliminate the things that force that sensitivity into being? (#methree)

When I am confronted with racism, I experience stress that manifests in physical health problems such as urticaria, edema, and eczema. One says about allergies that sufferers have a sensitivity to certain allergens; they have a sensitivity to things that make them sick.

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Racism makes me sick.

Yes, I deal with traffic, office politics; profiling police, faculty and staff, students, administrators, neighbors, store personnel; people cutting line, a total lack of lines, noisy airports, people thudding your head when taking their seat in a theatre and not even noticing that they hit you, paying bills, the weather, unfriendly assistants, hostile medical office workers, slow service, etc., just like everybody else. I have the distinct pleasure, however, of also dealing with racism. “Race” may be a construction, but its “ism” is organically wired into the DNA of those who practice it, often without knowing that they are.  The application of it is subtle, sometimes insidious, but, as a university leader once said, it’s like porn: you know it when you see it.

What I have is not sensitivity, but instinct – survival instinct.  It is similar to being sensitive to allergens.  Sometimes when I look at a new food, it triggers my instincts and I know I should not eat that food; I know it will make me sick.  That is how it is with racism: when I see it or the possibility that, in a certain kind of environment, it might raise its head, I know to avoid that kind of environment.  If you are allergic to peanuts, the last thing you do is eat them ad nauseam.

I was reared to keep my head down and carry on, but I realize, especially living in the West, that you cannot carry on for too long or the cumulative effect can be annihilating.  I have to protect myself.

There will never be a movement in the U.S. that decries ethnic ugliness with the same fervor that it has confronted gender ugliness.  Lynchings, Jim Crow, police profiling and brutality, or even being an artist and scholar whose intellect and very right to exist in academia is questioned too frequently are not enough to make U.S. citizens say, Enough already, #methree.  In fact, I have found that the very people you think get it may be the first to say you have a “sensitivity” about “race” and/or that you talk about it too much.  That is not sympathetic or helpful.  In fact, it is the opposite of helpful because then the naysayers can applaud and construe that to mean, See? Even THEY think she’s out of line.

I refuse to stand behind a line drawn in the sand by people who resist ethnic progress. Thankfully, my world is far from that, full of individuals who are European American, African American, Asian, Asian American, Latino American, Latina American, Native American Indian, and multiethnic.  I will stay in what I perceive to be my lane and do my job.  I do not make assumptions about who people are, where they belong, what they might do, or what they might dream based on the color of their skin – even if they make such assumptions about me.  I cannot, however, grin and bear it as my ancestors demanded.  It is a new day.  My sensitivity to the scourge of anti-Black racism cannot be twisted in an attempt to turn it against me or e-race it by shouting SENSITIVITY as if it’s a four-letter word.  Please put those torpedoes away.

When you are what the Western mass eye considers as White you don’t have to worry about “race.” Of course, there may be exceptions — like the White male visiting Grenada, a nation that is eighty-seven percent Black, who believes that Black Grenadians are being racist towards him because he gets treated like everybody else.  In the U.S., he is used to being treated better than everybody else; he is used to being treated in a privileged way that he may not even know accompanies just about his every move in the U.S.  Without that privilege, he feels a lack in people’s response to him; they are supposed to uphold him.  What is wrong with them? he fumes.  Yes, such a man may think he has to worry about “race.”  In fact, he even may think he is being bullied, harassed, and simply not treated well because he is not special.  I understand, but time’s up.

With allergic sensitivities that make you sick, there are medicines that can be taken to help you feel better — antihistamines and, if that fails, steroids.  With other sensitivities, there are no prescriptions or over-the-counter remedies.

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Anthony Bourdain said, “Walk in someone else’s shoes…. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Give me your shoes anytime.

May I give you mine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREDITS

1 – Photograph of Peter Henry Jones and Velina Hasu Houston. Property of Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

2 – Hughes, Langston. “Dream Deferred,” Web. www.poemhunter.com. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 @ https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dream-deferred/.

3 – Urticaria. Web. www.hivespictures.org. Retrieved on June 14, 2018 @ http://hivespictures.org/Hives-Rashes-Pictures.php.

4 – “Old shoes in the grass.” Web. www.publicdomainpictures. Net. Retrieved on June 14, 2018 @ https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=95749&picture=old-shoes. License: CC0 Public Domain.

A Writer’s Journey, Part II

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.

photo ajisai by vhh 2017 - Version 2

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.

Resilience

He never wanted me to be afraid of anything.  Turtles, water moccasin snakes, half-inch long black ants.  Nothing.

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My first memories of him being sick was when I was around seven years old.  I think he was around forty-nine.  While living in a small Alabama town most likely taught him firsthand about racism in these United States, I think he already learned about it personally when he saw his uncle swinging from a tree, lynched by White Alabamans.  At the age of twelve, he learned even more as he faced the death of his parents.  With two younger sisters in tow because he didn’t want them to be farmed out separately to distant family members, my father moved to Brooklyn and began working as a driver for a wealthy White woman.  Because of this, the stuff of “Driving Miss Daisy” was known to me long before Alfred Uhry’s theatrical exploration.

I was eleven years old when my father died.  His short presence in my life gave me certain gifts and diminished other aspects of my life.  His long absence in my life is not something that I think about on a day-to-day basis, but at intervals and deeply.  I wish I had known him better.  I wish he had lived longer so that I could ask him questions about the roads that he had traveled.  In any event, his long absence taught me that people can grow up without their fathers, but not without strong, loving mothers.  I had and have that.

Neither are my parents the Ozzie and Harriett/Norman Rockwell variety nor the comfortable, color-coded couples that one sees in monoracial narratives in plays, on television, in films, and in commercials.  No, not only did my parents look different, but they also were different ethnically and culturally.  One was an internal immigrant – that is a Black/Brown person in a White European American country – and the other was an external immigrant – someone from a country other than the U.S.  My earliest memories are of gazing at my parents and wondering why they looked different, spoke different languages, liked different foods, and practiced different customs.  They wanted me to be aware of all these distinctions; it was a lot to learn, but, the older I grew, the more fortunate I felt to be exposed to so much.  My parents’ differences piqued my curiosity persistently, not only about them, but also about me.  When I was five, I asked my father why he was chocolate and why my mother was vanilla.  From the looks on my parents’ faces, I don’t think that they were ready for that question quite yet.  My father purchased a carton of Neapolitan ice cream, which contained vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry stripes.  He pointed out the stripes to me in a metaphoric way, as if they represented the different colors of cultures of which I was comprised.  Then he blended the stripes into a brown cream.  That, he said, was me.  Then he asked if I could separate the mixture into distinct colors.  Of course, I could not.  It tasted better to me anyway, that blend and the smoothness of differences having become one.  He said that’s how I should live my life.  And I do – an edge-less, borderless blend.  Yes.

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My father liked to go to Lake Kahola, a lake near Emporia, Kansas.  Part of it was a deep recess full of water moccasin snakes.  Another part consisted of shallow waters rushing over limestone and shale, spilling into a waterfall.  The water was so low that I could lie down and have it wash over me.  I’ve never been able to duplicate that feeling in my life.  At first, I was afraid to swim in the lake because of the snakes, but my father assured me that they did not want to eat me and that the joy of swimming in a fresh water lake would be the only thing on my mind.  He was right.  I loved swimming in Lake Kahola.  Those were the years when I still loved to swim, before my first stepfather rubbed my face in the sand and destroyed my desire to swim.

When my cat Mimi had kittens, I was playing with a friend down the street.  I was six.  My father came to retrieve me.  We sat side by side as Mimi, a beautiful orange tabby cat, delivered her tiny babies.  As this miraculous event occurred, my father explained to me what was happening.  He held my hand as we watched Mimi clean each kitten.  The kittens blindly scrambled to drink milk from Mimi.  The witnessing of Mother Nature at work and my father’s careful pleasure in sharing the experience with me was a gift.

I appreciate these things about my father.  Despite the fact he had served in the U.S. Army, something that he did because there wasn’t a lot of choice for a poor African American in the 1930s, and despite the fact he was a fisherman and hunter, my father had a poetic nature that enlarged my view of life and living.  I wasn’t an attractive child – not Japanese enough and not Black enough, I guess – and my multiethnic hair frightened my father (he cut it off when my mother went into the hospital when I was five), but he often said to me, “Don’t worry, Pumpkin, you’ll be interesting.”  That was my childhood hope, at least to be interesting.  In order to be interesting, I wanted to know as much as I could about everybody and everything that crossed my path or that came near enough that I sought it out.  That included asking my father a lot of questions, even though I wish I could have asked him more – perhaps more telling, intelligent, and in-depth ones.  Nevertheless, my father had brilliant responses for my many questions.  For example, I was curious about why the sunset often was ablaze with orange.  He had a ready answer for that, “The angels are baking cookies.”  Now, even though I know the scientific explanation for orange sunsets, when I see them today I think of one thing:  my father baking cookies with the angels, the ovens burning and bright.  Today, he is joined by Eugene, the beloved father of my friend, June.  Yes, yes, reality has its explanations, but I can’t help thinking of those two men, both of whom married Japanese women, up in the skies making cookies.  Probably chocolate chip.  The good kind that you can drink with Sencha.

Another memory I have of my father’s poetic nature was the music that he played.  He had Spanish music, the soundtrack to “My Fair Lady,” jazz, and classical music.  On our spinet piano, he played songs such as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” or “It Had to Be You.”  When he played them, he sang.  He had a clear, strong tenor voice.  Engaging me to sing with him, I learned to love the combination of piano and song.  From an early age, I studied piano and voice, inspired by my father’s love for both.  Many years later, it fascinated me that my son, Kiyoshi, gravitated toward concert choir and jazz choir vocals in high school (he remains friends with his choir director) and that my daughter, Leilani, was drawn to a children’s choir at an early age, too (in fact, that interest led her to meet someone who remains a good friend of hers to this day).

My memories of the hospital where my father was admitted when his PTSD worsened are gray.  I remember that, if you were under the age of fourteen, which I was, you could not go to the upper floors.  That’s where my father was, a fifty-two-year-old man lying in a bed on an upper floor, knowing that he was dying, knowing that he was leaving behind an immigrant Japanese wife and three multiethnic, multicultural children.  He must have been frightened and sad, but also, I hope, hopeful.  I desperately wanted to see him.  I thought the rule for those of us under fourteen was cruel when one’s parent was dying.  However, there were no exceptions.  So, my mother went upstairs while I sat in a waiting room with my sister.  Unlike most waiting rooms, it seemed designed for younger children to wait in while their mothers went upstairs to watch their fathers fighting for their lives.  It was not a happy place.  The curtains were drawn and I could see dust particles in the beams of light that peeked through curtain splits.  At the time, PTSD was not a bonafide illness, so the men suffering on the upper floors were simply considered failures who had not been able to handle the rigors of combat.  The large waiting room contained several circular sofas made out of carmine Naugahyde and a television at the front.  I don’t even remember what was on that television; I just remember sitting on those circular sofas waiting for news, news that I believed would be bad.  Death seemed bad at that time.  It seemed unthinkable.  However, I knew that it was coming.  I knew that my father would not be around long.  He seemed so old then, but, of course, he was young.

As my father’s condition worsened, he was sent to another military hospital in Topeka, about an hour away.  Even though my mother had no knowledge of driving in the U.S., much less on a highway, she and I drove to Topeka to visit my father for his birthday.  I had become eleven years old and a week later he had become fifty-three years old.  The day before our trip, I came home from school to find my mother sitting on the piano bench.  She looked stunned and very tired.  When I asked her what was wrong, she said that the hospital had called her to tell her that my father had passed away.  Since then, the month of May has been quite reflective for me.  First, there is my birthday, then a week later my father’s, then a week later the day of his death.  Even though I felt that something bad was looming, the actual fact of his passing away made me feel as if a knife had been stuck in my gut and turned.  At the hospital, my mother grew dizzy and fainted.  There was some formality of acknowledging my father’s identity, of looking at his body and nodding.  That was left to eleven-year-old me.

In the week that followed, I helped my mother talk with insurance companies, county and city officials, and the funeral home.  I helped her make sense of U.S.  society.  Because my mother was unable to face the task of a deluge of information coming her way and needing contextualization in her cultural view of the world, I went to the funeral home to select a casket for my father.  I looked at many caskets, and learned the difference between a casket and a coffin.  Remembering that he liked the color lavender, I chose a lilac-colored casket.  Would he like it?  I wondered.  Does it matter?  I thought.  While the mortician seemed to like my choice, he looked at me as if he thought that our family couldn’t afford it.

There were about sixty people at my father’s funeral.  It was open casket – a U.S. ritual that I find rather peculiar – so there he was, propped up in a suit and made up by the White mortician who clearly knew very little about how to manage the pigment of a person of color.  My father’s skin had a strange orange hue to it and his lips looked as if there were wads of cotton stuffed behind them.  His chin jutted out and his head was at an awkward angle, as if he was trying to see what was behind him.  Filled with a gritty sadness, I wanted to rub off the make-up and adjust his head.  The feeling that it was all over rushed through me.  “It” was a fairly all-encompassing thing.  It seemed to include our lives in the small Kansas town in which we lived, our link to any and all things U.S. American, and our nuclear family.  That’s when the aforementioned regret began: I began to feel sadness about not having more conversations with my father about the roads he had traveled in the first half of the twentieth century.

I have been without a father for many years.  When he died, my mother decided that we would return to live in Japan, but then chose not to because she feared the racism that we might face as a multiethnic Japanese family that includes African lineage.  She also thought about moving to California, where she thought that multiethnicity would be more acceptable.  However, we did not move there either because she felt that, despite the state’s racial diversity, anti-Blackness was still a problem.  She decided to remain in the small Kansas town where we existed because it was familiar and at least geographically  manageable, never mind its lack of political, cultural, and ethnic diversity or its lack of tolerance for those things.  There were just enough good people – genuine friends and true teachers – who made it possible to exist, if not live.  It was 1969.  My mother was a non-White immigrant.  How resilient she was.  I knew it then, but I truly know it now.

Even though I didn’t have a name for what I witnessed in my mother during that time period, I yearned to have it, too.  Resilience?  Strength?  Fortitude?  Years later as she began to age, I saw those things giving way to a fear and sadness that deeply pained me, too.  However, there was no remedy.  She was aging in a society that had never welcomed her or her multiethnic family; aging is hard enough without all that extra friction.  It, however, wasn’t going anywhere, so she continued to sludge through the quick sand.  I knew this stage of her life had come after an incredible immigrant resilience, and I was determined – and still am – to pave the way for her.  It isn’t always easy.  Being so much my mother, so much that Japanese woman from Matsuyama internally, but looking phenotypically different than your average Japan-Airlines Japanese face, I constantly find it challenging to pave the way for her (or for myself, for that matter), but that does not and will not stop me.  My mother’s resilience galvanized my entry into adulthood: I didn’t need to get married.  I could have children on my own.  I could grow old alone.  I could pursue my art without compromising my personal artistic vision, which is by no means commercial or mainstream.  Thankfully, I have managed to be successful on many of those fronts.  I did fail on the marriage matter, but I didn’t marry until later in life.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I married another immigrant.

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I loved my father.  He was a good man.  However, I grew up without his presence.  I didn’t have a choice, but, nevertheless, I grew up guided by one parent, by my mother, an immigrant from Matsuyama, Japan.  That inspired me and continues to do so.  In my heart, however, my father remains.  Living near the California coast, I view a lot of beautiful, tangerine-colored sunsets.  They bring to mind one thing:  the angels are baking cookies.  Is my father wearing an apron?  Does he taste the cookies the moment he takes them out of the ovens?  Does warm chocolate ever get on an angel’s wings?  Are there oven mitts?  Who eats the cookies?  I know he’s smiling, smiling with his eyes as he always did.  Save a cookie for me.

 

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1-“North American water moccasin.”  Web.   www.snipview.com.  Retrieved on March 8, 2018 @ http://www.snipview.com/q/North_American_water_moccasin?alt=North_american_water_moccasin.

2-Family photograph, to be used with permission only from Dr. H. Rika Houston or The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust.

3-Family photograph, to be used with permission only from Dr. H. Rika Houston or The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust.

4-“Hobbling Like An Old Woman (Recipe: Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies – Take 1),” Oven Lovin’ Runnin’, Web.  www.kcapogrossi.wordpress.com, Mar 21, 2013.  Retrieved on March 7, 2018 @

https://kcapogrossi.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/hobbling-like-an-old-woman-recipe-chewy-chocolate-chip-cookies-take-1/

 

A Writer’s Journey I, 1967-1979

I was eleven when I wrote my first play.  Truly, I did not know what a play was, but, in some respect, one can be fearless in one’s pre-pubescent ignorance.  Throughout my elementary school years, I wrote poetry which, at the time, was some sort of necessary expression that I felt compelled to write.  I know now that it was nothing but juvenilia; however, when one is a juvenile, what else can one produce even if one thinks it is important at the time?  I thought that because I experienced something or felt something deeply, it was a poem.  It, however, was not.  I understand that now.

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There were a lot of comings and goings at my elementary school because it was located about two miles from a military base, which meant that soldiers (sometimes called G.I.s, which means Government Issue or “doggies,” which was a civilian epithet that, in my eyes, was on the same level as the N word) constantly were on the move being stationed here and there and, if they were married, taking their wives and children with them.  Those wives were significant to Kansas school children because often they brought their talents to the schools as teachers.  One such military wife taught at my elementary school for one year.  I do not remember her name and, therefore, have no way of tracking her down, but she changed my life.  As the multiethnic daughter of a Japanese immigrant, I faced many challenges such as being dark-skinned in a society predicated on Whiteness, being a female, being of mixed heritage, being Japanese culturally in every way possible but being in a mixed ethnic and dark body, wanting to be a writer, and wanting to be the first in my family to attend college.  In my way of seeing things, however, challenges are things to be leapt over, not impediments.  That military wife/school teacher was an important key to unlocking the doors that so many closed before me.  (Doors are meant to be opened.  Knock first, but if nobody answers – particularly after repeated attempts – open it and walk through; you do not need a big stick.)  Her encouragement helped me overcome challenges and open doors.

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The military wife/school teacher was White with short, medium brown hair.  She liked to wear sweaters during the winter.  They were monochromatic, V-necked sweaters and she always wore a shirt underneath it, the collars of which were gently laid on top of the inner shoulders of her sweaters.  With soft, brown eyes and thick, manicured hands, she shook my hand warmly if she passed me in the hall.  Always, she acknowledged me, human being to human being.  She was not my teacher, but she actually took the time to read my poetry.  I was so surprised.  I thought that perhaps she was a White liberal reaching out to a poor little immigrant child, but she in point of fact liked the poetry and discussed it with me.  I was gob-smacked.  After reading a poem about my Japanese mother leaving the port at Yokohama on a ship, she encouraged me to write a play.

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“What is a play?” I asked.  I never had seen or read one.  (Years later, I would learn that there was a community theatre in my town, but they only produced plays by White authors and usually musical theatre.  I had no contact with that theatre whatsoever, not then and not now.)

The teacher gave me three plays by Anton Chekhov to read (The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and The Seagull).  I was ten years old.  In a year, my father would pass away.  Once I began reading those plays, a vista opened in front of me.  The Cherry Orchard evoked my grandfather’s persimmon orchard near Matsuyama, Japan.  Furthermore, the giving way of the old order to the new in Chekhov’s play also reminded me of what happened to my grandfather when Japan was defeated by the Allied Powers at the end of World War II.  In Chekhov, I had found a writer, son of a serf, and doctor who in some ways understood the road that my family had traveled in a way that nobody in my United States’ education ever had understood or wanted to understand.

img_2809.jpg

4

It was at that moment that I began to think about something that the late Jorge Luis Borges said of his own early view of his life, “My destiny was literary.”  (I do not mean in any way to compare myself to Borges, nor do I speak out of a sense of hubris, something that a college professor and friend, the late David Hacker, would ask me years later as he mused, “Hubris works, sometimes.”  I say it with the same understanding that encourages me to drink a glass of water on a thirsty, hot day.  I only had dabbled in the literary prior to that moment.  When playing with neighborhood girls, I persuaded them into acting out a version of Cinderella that I revised into what I would now call early feminism.  I never acted in it, but observed with keen interest and, sometimes, directed, although I prefer the outside and often insightful perspectives that other directors bring to my plays today.)

There were two other teachers who were kind to me during elementary school:  Phyllis Jones, my first grade teacher; and Dorothea Barr, my fifth grade teacher.  When I was in my thirties, I was invited to the small Kansas town in which I grew up to present a poetry recital at the local library.  In the audience, two women stood at the rear – Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Barr.  I was touched by their support; both have passed away.  When I was in the first grade, I walked home to have lunch with my father.  Usually, I enjoyed lunch with my mother, but, on this day, she had a doctor’s appointment and asked my father to provide lunch.  I looked forward to spending time with him, but it was not to be.  Long suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and its related effects, which included alcoholism, he did not hear me when I came home.  Upon returning to school, I encountered Mrs. Jones and she took me to the cafeteria to share a lunch of apples and biscuits.  Regarding Mrs. Barr, she often protected the children with Japanese mothers because, frankly, there were a lot of American children who ostracized us and yelled epithets at us.  In that respect, she was the kind of U.S. citizen that let me know that immigrant Americans had the same rights as U.S.-born Americans, and that they should be treated with civility.

photo-samantha-stevens-in-witch-clothing-1960s.jpg

5

And then there was Samantha.  Yes, Samantha Stevens.  Even though my father had purchased a color television when I was seven years old, we were not allowed to watch it whenever we wanted.  He made an exception with a show called “Bewitched.”  At first, I said to myself, “It’s about a White suburban housewife.”  I could not fathom what that had to do with me, but, as with most things in the White patriarchal society in which I was raised – including my education in U.S. schools – I opened the door and went in.  I made it mine, incorporating myself into worlds that were a hundred degrees from my life experience. Immediately, I grasped why Samantha Stevens was relatable to my journey.  Like me, she was an Other among conventional entities.  She was a witch in a world that either did not know about her true identity or that expected her to keep it concealed.  She tried to do so, but, frequently, could not.  Her true identity emerged in ways that destabilized the conventional entities in her world and the conventional society in which she existed, a society that had no tolerance for difference of any kind.  For me, that was relatable in terms of being a person of mixed ethnic heritage in a world full of people who prioritized a monoracial/monoethnic identity and also being a female of African descent in a White patriarchal society.  I understood the tensions that she faced in being herself when that very organic nature was considered an abomination to most of the rest of her society (other witches being the exception and sometimes even her husband Darren Stevens when it was to his advantage that she exercise her true identity).  Since there were no other characters of mixed ethnicity of African descent on U.S. television, Samantha, despite the fact that she was White, stood out as a marginalized anomaly because she was not a “mortal.”

After I finished reading the plays, the military wife/school teacher encouraged me to write a play.  She said it could be a one-act play, just thirty minutes long.  I reflected upon what I would write and, by the time I came to terms with a commitment to do it, her husband was ordered to Germany and she departed.

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6                                                              7

I began writing the play, but then my father’s illness worsened.  Since the end of World War II, in which he had fought in the Pacific Theatre (interesting terminology, not mine), his PTSD eroded him both psychologically and physically, and he drank more whiskey to drown out the demons.  Eventually, his entire being collapsed and nothing was left.  After his death, I was a pariah to most of my Kansas schoolmates, those same U.S. citizens.  They did not want to come to my birthday party, which I no longer felt like having anyway (my birthday was May 5 and my father’s was May 12; he died a week after his birthday).  Moreover, they did not want me at their birthday parties and no longer wanted to play with me.

The solitude turned out to be a gift.  I finished my first play.  My sixth grade teacher, the third teacher who was kind to me, James Hosler, had a reading of the play.  I moved on to middle school and returned to writing poetry.  Their encouragement was integrated into my DNA.

During middle school, I wrote a couple of plays, but I was growing up during a time when society’s sociopolitics had no interest in or tolerance for the equity, diversity, and inclusion of non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual voices.  In high school, four teachers encouraged my creativity; three were White, one was Black.  I wrote a play about a female spinster and a traveling saleswoman.  We had a reading of it in one of my classes.  The theatre bug had not bitten me, as many like to say.  Rather, it always had lived in my marrow and was rising to the surface to drive me toward my destiny.

photo green tea cup 2012

8

It also rose to the surface because my life was unlike the lives of most of my peers.  Multiethnicity and immigrant status aside, there was also the matter of tea.  As my Japanese friends and relatives have said to me, “All tea comes from Asia.”  I say it, too.  So, when my Kansas friends asked me if I liked sugar in my tea, I was perplexed.  Tea, after all, was a beautiful amber-green color and sugar should never touch it.  In my house, my mother would have tea with her friends at a table full of tiny, beautiful dishes that contained a variety of foods, both savory and sweet.  They were not American foods, but things like o-tsukemono, oshitashi, kinpira gobo, narazuke, natto, and other Japanese foods in bigger, beautiful dishes such as o-den, maki-zushi, o-mochi or oshiruko; and parboiled ika with a paste of miso, chopped green onions, and chili paste.  Because there were no grocery stores, my mother and I prepared these items from scratch.  (When I was around five years old, a Japanese woman and her American husband conducted a survey to ascertain how many Japanese women lived in the area because they wanted to open a Japanese grocery store.  They told me that they had counted 700 Japanese female immigrants living in the Fort Riley, Kansas, area.  This was the first spark for what would later become my play Tea.)  Fundamentally, having tea in this way and engaging with the Japanese female immigrants around that tea table was like a blood transfusion to me.  I felt their joys and pain so deeply, so personally.  As it flowed into my DNA, I knew that it was as important to me as breathing.  It further fortified me for the necessity of going into the outside world and facing all the closed doors; so many closed doors, some of them shut in my face just as I was about to cross the threshold.

9

As the daughter of a Japanese immigrant, studying anything artistic in college was out of the question. Along with my sister, I was expected to make my mark in a “more realistic” way.  What that way might be was never discussed at my high school; I did not receive any advisement or college preparation, just a high school diploma (although several White teachers suggested to me that I should aspire to be a custodian or behind-the-scenes secretary [because someone with my skin color would never be placed at a front desk]).  Nevertheless, I dreamed.

My mother was alone at the time.  My sister had moved into an apartment and was working.  I yearned to go west, perhaps even move to Japan, but I was not about to leave my mother alone in a small Kansas town.  Being of a darker color than she, I knew firsthand what the vagaries and specifics of racism could do to the human heart, mind, and soul.  So I stayed with her to run interference with regard to U.S. society.

photo velina and setsuko 2007 tudor house cropped

10, 11, 12

I attended a local university, which allowed me to spend a lot of time with my mother, including staying at home with her for long periods.  In addition, if there was a university break, such as spring break, which was so popular with White and/or wealthy college students, I took my respite with my mother.  When I was nineteen, she met the man who would become my stepfather.  Eight years her junior, he was an African American Catholic who never had been married and in whom I felt I could put my trust.  He had conservative ideas about ethnicity and sexuality, but a little time with our family and his mind expanded, which included embracing my gay male friend and my first boyfriend, the platinum blond son of a farmer/postal worker and poet from a small Western Kansas town in which people of color were entirely absent (and out of sight, out of mind; if there were any such people in that town, I never saw them).

The time at the local university was enlightening.  I served on the Mademoiselle magazine College Board, an experience that instigated an interview with Honey Bruce, the widow of Lenny Bruce, who became a friend until her death.  In addition, I served on the university’s newspaper, which was an interesting sociopolitical venture.  For the paper, I covered a certain meeting on campus.  My supervising editor, who was White, purposefully told me that the meeting started thirty minutes later than it actually did so that I would be late.  Once I caught on to her racist strategy, I was able to recover (Equal opportunity?  What the hell is that?  Nothing affirmative about that supervising editor’s strategy.)  The work on the Mademoiselle College Board led to me writing a feature for the Kansas City Star professional newspaper.  The paper named me the graduate most likely to succeed.  That accolade was kind and unexpected, but the life of the mind was calling to me to the arts.

My last winter in Kansas provided me with added multiculturalism when I visited London with a group of theatre students from the local university.  One of those students was Anne Lacy.  We had a memorable trip and it gave me time to get to know her better.  Her grandmother lived in London, which was an added dimension of who she was and is.  I saw Alec Guinness on stage as well as several other plays.  The one I remember most is Filumena.

photo velina and anne in london 1979

13

As my mother’s life settled into her new marriage, I began to dream again about moving west.  I did not want to go to Japan anymore, fearing the anti-Blackness that existed and still exists in that country in too many places.  I wanted to go to California, even though I knew that anti-Blackness would exist there as well.  In some way, however, I believed that it would not be as bad as Kansas or urban Japan.  In college, I had majored in communications, although I had taken so many classes in philosophy and theatre that I could have gone a bit longer and finished a triple degree, but I was ready to migrate.  In the vein of my Japanese culture and immigrant perspective, I aimed to go to law school, but I took a playwriting class from the brilliant and kind Norman Fedder, a Jewish American writer from New York, who nurtured my literary destiny.  Encouraging me to build my “house” so that the Big Bad Wolf could not huff and puff and blow it down, he motivated reflection:  I wondered if my writing and me as an artist would ever garner the attention and respect that I felt every hard-working, fruitful artist deserved.  In his class, I wrote a play called Switchboard that was recognized by the American College Theater Festival.  That awarded me with a dramaturgical conversation with Robert Brustein (I was to meet him again several years later and he did not remember me; I would meet him on two other occasions and he still did not remember me).

The critical attention stimulated my destiny, but it was an afternoon discussion with my mother over tea and maki-zushi that invigorated me and sent me walking toward it.  I was twenty-one years old.  She said that I was old enough now to know that my grandfather, her father, had committed suicide and that she had discovered the body.  We talked about the years before the war in Japan, my grandfather’s anti-Western sentiments, the Allied bombing of the area in which my mother lived (there was an army uniform factory nearby, making her hometown a target for fire bombs; her personal experience with those fire bombs occurred when hundreds of her schoolmates were killed and she barely escaped death herself).  She also wanted me to know about my grandfather’s shock at Japan losing the war, my grandmother dying prematurely from a breast wound inadvertently caused by a “son” (who actually was the child of my mother’s sister), and the fact that my grandfather’s youngest daughter – my mother – had fallen in love with a Yankee, a Yankee of color, and planned to marry him.  The family history that my mother revealed to me struck deep chords.  These were stories that I was compelled to explore, perhaps starting with my Japanese grandfather and the challenges with which he was faced at the end of World War II as the old order of life gave way to a new way of life without his country, his wife, and his youngest daughter.  I resolved to be the explorer.

14, 15

Catapulted into my destiny by these revelations and encouraged by Doc Fedder and his colleague Joel Climenhaga, I headed to Los Angeles to pursue a master’s degree in playwriting from UCLA and any thought of a law career was put to rest permanently.

A playwright began her journey.

photo pasadena playhouse ikebana rehearsal 2000

16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREDITS:

1 – The left eye of Velina Hasu Houston at age five.  Family photograph.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

2 – Velina Hasu Houston at age five.  Family photograph.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

3 – Velina Hasu Houston’s mother.  1953.  Tokyo, Japan.

4 – The cover of a book of Chekhov plays, this one “4 Plays & 3 Jokes,” Translated and with an introduction and Notes by Dr. Sharon Marie Carnicke, Hackett Publishing Company.  Gifted to me in 2010 by the author.

5 – Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, 1960s.  Web.  www.hollywoodlady.tumblr.com, Oct 17, 2015.  Retrieved on February 8, 2018 @ http://hollywoodlady.tumblr.com/post/131353131681/vintagegal-elizabeth-montgomery-on-bewitched.

6 – Parents of Velina Hasu Houston.  Family photograph.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

7 – Parents of Velina Hasu Houston.  Family photograph.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

8 – A cup of green tea.  Photograph by Velina Hasu Houston.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

9 – Velina Hasu Houston at age sixteen and at age twenty-one.  Family photographs.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

10, 11, 12 – Velina Hasu Houston and her mother.  Family photographs.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

13 – Velina Hasu Houston and friend Anne Lacy Johnson in London, 1979.

14, 15 – Velina Hasu Houston and her mother.  Family photograph.  All rights reserved.  Use subject to permission.

16 – Rehearsal photo, “Ikebana” by Velina Hasu Houston, The Pasadena Playhouse, 2000.

 

 

The Humanity of Hybridity

I cannot sanitize history.

Especially when it comes to the history of mixed ethnicity in the United States (U.S.), which I am certain (fairly) began long before Thomas Jefferson repeatedly sexually assaulted his multiethnic slave, Sally Hemmings, leading to her bearing six of his children.  Thomas Jefferson, a writer, never wrote about Ms. Hemmings, but did argue against the mixing of the races.  It is ironic that one such mixed race product, Barack Obama, became president of the U.S., and another such mixed race product, Meghan Markle, is about to become part of the royal family of Britain when she marries Prince Harry in May 2018.

photo quarters of sally hemmings 2018-01-23 jpeg1

Having grown up in an area where there was a lot of behind-the-scenes mixing of the races in romantic liaisons of one kind of another, but a lot of racist, anti-Black dogma practiced in public, I was astounded that the U.S. would elect President Obama or that Britain’s royal family would not be up in arms about one of their members marrying a woman of African descent.  (When I was in high school, if White students were seen walking the halls with an African Americanx student, White teachers would call their parents to report this “indecent” activity as if it were a public health hazard.)

When I read articles in the British press about Prince Harry’s upcoming nuptials, I frequently see the term “biracial.”  I do not see the terms “half Black” or “of African descent,” although I read an account of her mother being “visibly Black.”  This was said with regard to Markle’s White half-sister, “When asked if her bi-racial sister is conscious about the weight of ‘a different ethnicity coming into the royal family’ and her future children” she stated, “‘I can’t really speak to that. She may or may not be. She is definitely confident not only in herself as a woman but in her relationship with Prince Harry and love that they have. So I think that should speak for and carry them and everything else. And that being said it almost seems a non-issue.’”2

photo megan markle 2018-01-23 jpeg3

Believing that race or ethnicity can ever be a non-issue is a luxury that I do not have.  Yes, I am confident in myself as a human being, woman, daughter, mother, artist, and teacher; and I am confident in the love that I share with my family and husband (who is White and a native of England), however, I do not believe that the “weight of a different ethnicity,” especially with regard to Britain’s royal family, will not be felt.  Clearly, the media already sees it as having heft and consequence or the word “weight” would not have been employed.

The love aside, the fact that a biracial person of African descent is marrying into Britain’s royal family and that a biracial person of African descent was President of the United States of America are important milestones in the cultivation of harmony among the races, at least in the Western world.  Having experienced a great deal of disharmony among the races when I was growing up in Kansas, these moments arrive with surprise and pleasure.  I welcome the evolution, although I know that there are many who do not.  In Kansas, I had the distinct joy of witnessing the outcomes of a variety of ethnic, African-descent blends, such as German and Black, Italian and Black, French and Black, Austrian and Black, Filipino and Black, Korean and Black, Japanese and Black, Vietnamese and Black, Thai and Black, and others.  The Afro-European offspring were beautiful to behold and represented the bridging of two distinct races that theretofore had been embroiled in a rather messy nexus of sociopolitical links.

In U.S. society today, there are also a lot of Afro-European unions including marriages.  A key one is the marriage of Star Wars creator George Lucas and Melody Hobson, Chair of the Board of Directors of DreamWorks Animation.  Their biracial daughter, Everest, is Lucas’ only biological child.

photo george lucas and melody hobson 2018-01-23 jpeg4

Software mogul of Norton Virus, Peter Norton, is pictured here with his wife, Gwen Adams, who is a Black Caribbean Islander.  His first wife, Eileen Norton, was African American; and they share two biracial offspring.

photo peter norton and gwen adams 2018-01-23 jpeg5

Tennis star Serena Williams now is married to Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit.  They are new parents to a biracial daughter.

photo serena williams and alexis ohanian 2018-01-23 jpeg6

Stone Philips, a U.S. television reporter and former co-anchor of Dateline, is married to artist Debra Phillips.  They have one biracial biological child.

photo stone philips and debra philips 2018-01-23 jpeg7

There are many couples that include one Asian or Asian American partner and one Black partner, such as Billy Dee Williams and his wife Teruko Nakagami Williams, Wesley Snipes and Nakyung Park, Terrence Howard and Mira Cristine Pak, and Pelé and Marcia Aoki; and other interracial couples such as the British writer Ruth Prawer Jhabwala (Merchant-Ivory collaborator) and her Indian architect Cyrus Jhabwala, now both deceased; and President George W. Bush’s son Jeb Bush and his Latina wife Columba Bush.

Interracial coupling is no longer a rarity or something to be relegated to a dank, brick room while one rails in public against the mixing of the races.

According to a Pew Research Center study, “Of the 3.6 million adults who got married in 2013, 58% of American Indians, 28% of Asians, 19% of blacks and 7% of whites have a spouse whose race was different from their own.”7  More than one-third of Asian American women marry people who are not Asian American.  Attitudes toward interracial marriage, while shifting more slowly, are also trending downwards.  Just four years ago, only “9%… said this trend was a bad thing for society, and 51% said it doesn’t make much difference.”8

While Latinx peoples are the fastest growing population in California, Asian Americanx peoples are the fastest growing population in the U.S., with the fastest growing section within that group being multiethnic Asian Americans.

My family has been mixing races for generations, especially on the U.S. side of the equation.  My perspective is multiethnic and multicultural.  I embrace people of a multitude of cultural backgrounds because it is in my DNA to do so.  Given this, I think sadly on the sexual assault of African American slave women that led to miscegenation among the Black population of the U.S.  Today we have come to a new place in ethnic relations, a time in which people from different ethnic backgrounds come together out of choice, love, and ethical courage.  My family includes numerous ethnic heritages – Japanese, Black, Native American Indian, Cuban, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, German, Scottish, Canadian, Argentinian, and many more.  These threads enrich us all.  Certainly, they have educated and continue to educate me.  For this I am thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

[1] Danielle, Britni.  “Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.”  The Washington Post.  Web.  www.washingtonpost.com.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @ https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/sally-hemings-wasnt-thomas-jeffersons-mistress-she-was-his-property/2017/07/06/db5844d4-625d-11e7-8adc-fea80e32bf47_story.html?utm_term=.9934ad749d86.)

[2] Griffiths, Emmy.  “Meghan Markle’s half-sister Samantha Grant denies falling out with star.” Hello.  Web.  www.hellomagazine.com.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @ https://us.hellomagazine.com/celebrities/2017102343389/meghan-markle-half-sister-samantha-grant/.

[3] Joshi, Priya.  “Meghan Markle couldn’t afford to fix her car before hitting the big time in Hollywood.”  IB Times.  Web.  www.ibtimes.co.uk.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/meghan-markle-couldnt-afford-fix-her-car-before-hitting-big-time-hollywood-1608281.

[4] “George Lucas, Wife Donate $25 Million To Chicago Private School.”  CBS.  Web.  www.sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com.  Retrieved on Decmeber 28, 2017 @ http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/02/25/george-lucas-wife-donate-25-million-to-chicago-private-school/.

[5] “Peter Norton and Gwen Adams.” Web.  www.justlikemecouples.blogspot.com.  Retrieved on January 23, 2018 from http://justlikemecouples.blogspot.com/2009/03/peter-norton-and-gwen-adams.html.

[6] Adejobi, Alicia.  “Serena Williams’ fiance Alexis Ohanian has a ‘hunch’ on the gender of their baby,” A*List, Aug 2, 2017.  Web.  www.ibtimes.co.uk.  Retrieved on January 23, 2018 from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/serena-williams-fiance-alexis-ohanian-has-hunch-gender-their-baby-1633215.

[7] 8th Annual JED Foundation Gala.  Zimbio.  Web.  www.zimbio.com.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @ http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/0qdW4H8UDaD/8th+Annual+Jed+Foundation+Gala/3uivtvSUSzZ/Stone+Phillips.

[8] Wang, Wendy.  “Interracial marriage: Who is ‘marrying out’?,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2015.  Web.  www.pewresearch.org.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @ http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/12/interracial-marriage-who-is-marrying-out/.

[9] Wang, Wendy.  “Interracial marriage: Who is ‘marrying out’?,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2015.  Web.  www.pewresearch.org.  Retrieved on December 28, 2017 @ http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/12/interracial-marriage-who-is-marrying-out/.