“Make It New”: Creativity and the Workshop Model

The following is a familiar scenario to most writing teachers: Each time a student brings work to the class, the poems are all similar and share the same faults. When the student is confronted with these faults, whether, say, an overuse of generalizations or sentimental language or obscurity, the student clearly balks at the criticism. He may respond, “This is my style of writing” or “This is the type of poem I want to write” or “X read this and said it was wonderful” or “If I revise this I’ll lose the original impulse for the poem, my true feelings” (or any other number of defensive remarks). An argument may ensue where the teacher tries to bring to bear his or her superior knowledge of the craft and tradition and articulate more clearly the failures of the poem.

All the while, in this dialogue, the student either grows more defiant or sinks in a morass of emotions–self-pity, embarrassment, anger and resentment, self-loathing, feelings of failure. Whatever happens, it’s clear the student does not want to revise the poem to any great extent. And the question of whether or not the student knows how to do this is moot. The desire is not there, so what good is any exposition on technique going to do?

What is the primary source of this impasse?   Is it merely a lack of knowledge or learning or experience, all of which the teacher possesses to a greater extent than the student?

I would say No, the primary source of this impasse is psychological. And this impasse, I believe, stems from a faulty understanding of creativity and the writing process. One way to understand this impasse is to imagine what is going on in the head of the student: If this piece of writing is not working, then that means I may be—or am surely—a failure as a writer. I have no potential. I will not succeed.

A different approach: This poem may not work. It’s an experiment. I am one step closer to the answer. I am just starting to discover my potential as a writer. This discovering is a process, whose end neither I, nor my teacher, can predict. What I do have control of is this: I can learn to write differently and in new ways. I can experiment more. I can learn new techniques. I can continue on with the process.

 

The structure of the workshop model tends to encourage an approach to writing that stresses performance and product. The student often feels as if the presentation of her work to the class is a performance. She is producing a product that will be judged by her peers, and she wants that judgment always to be positive. This dynamic is increased in a writing class or MFA program where students feel especially competitive with each other.

Given this dynamic, the student will feel pressured to present only that work which she is comfortable with and which she feels will be regarded as successful. She will be less inclined to experiment, to try something new, to present work she is unsure of. She will be more afraid of failing or appearing foolish. She will stay with the tried and true.

Such a dynamic is not an atmosphere that fosters creative growth. The best businesses—especially tech businesses—understand this. But I wonder how many writing workshops are conducted with such an understanding.

 

While writing workshops can teach students important critical skills, what the workshops often fail to deal with is the nature of the creative process. In my teaching, I start with certain basic premises about creativity:

1) The unconscious is always more creative and complex than the conscious mind.

2) Techniques serve to occupy the conscious mind so that the unconscious mind can be left free to create and bubble up to the surface.   Thus, though techniques call attention to formal elements, their ultimate purpose is to provide access to the unconscious mind. They do this in part by enabling creative “accidents”.

In this way we should not look at techniques as intimidating benchmarks or standards, but as tools to help us in the creative process.

3) Writing is like a chess game between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind makes the first move, and the unconscious mind responds. Beginning writers are often more attached to the first move of the conscious mind. They often don’t see–or refuse to acknowledge–where the unconscious mind is leading. They want to cheat, to have the conscious mind control the whole process. The reasons for this are often psychological. In part, the beginning writer is afraid of what the unconscious mind is revealing.

4) Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language to express what the unconscious knows but does not have the language to express.

 

The student who does the same poem or story over and over believes he has only one voice. That, the student says, is my true voice. That is me. In this way, the student underestimates his own complexity.

Beyond this, partly as a result of the critiques they receive in the workshop model, beginning writers will focus on micro issues in their revising—changing a word or a sentence structure, line by line attention. They often avoid trying to radically rethink or re-conceive their work, to find a totally different approach or voice, to take the whole thing apart and try again.

But in our writing, breakthroughs often come less from small revisions or critical evaluations than from the discovery of a new voice; this voice is one that was previously repressed, often for various psychological reasons. At times this discovery may come through switching to a new form and even a new genre.

I’m a firm believer in Jungian psychology as useful model for the creative writer, the view that our psyches through the lens of polytheism rather than monotheism. Viewing the psyche as a multiplicity is far more useful than viewing it as a unity or even a Freudian division of superego, ego and id. Such a Jungian approach recognizes that we all contain a multiplicity of voices inside our heads, a pantheon of inner gods. Whatever religion we may profess, our creative impulses are polytheistic and poly-vocal (and thus, also multicultural).   Rather doing the same thing over and over, creativity comes, in part, from unleashing these different voices, from diverse approaches.

As I’ve said before here, many gods, many voices.

Viva for the Losers! or What My “Tiger Dad” Couldn’t Teach Me

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”–James Joyce

“Do it right the first time is insane advice. Nobody does anything…INTERESTING…right the first…or the twenty-first….or the forty-first…time. Doing the new means screwing around, trying stuff, and messing stuff up….again and again and again. That is…WASTE.” –Tom Peters

Growing up I fit soundly into the stereotype of the model Asian American student.

Not that I had thick glasses and a pencil holder in my white shirt and looked like one of the bit players from “Revenge of the Nerds.” The Asian math-science geek nerd was an image I very consciously tried to avoid.* Indeed, in my high school years, I adopted a look I thought at the time to be incredibly hip, and which could put Austin Powers to shame: striped bell bottom pants, a bright pastel shirt, a paisley scarf worn like an ascot, and my father’s old army jacket.

Still, despite my appearances, deep down, I was the classic grade grind, a nerd at heart. It took me a long time to realize the restrictions of this model, a long time to understand that there were things I needed to learn that a successful report card could not teach me. This included a crucial lesson in my becoming a writer–the value of failure.

That there was any value in failure was something I would have scoffed at when younger. For me, from grade school on, failure was unimaginable, unthinkable. Like a good Sansei (third generation Japanese American) son, I’d imbibed my Nisei (second generation) father’s admonitions on work and school and grades to the point where I felt a constant pressure to get straight A’s. At the kitchen table, my father would go over my report cards, remarking on the one A- or B+ that marred my record.

This type of thinking and training worked for me—that is, until I hit English grad school where I ran up seven course incompletes and was told to take a year’s leave of absence (as mentioned in my previous blog).

So there I was, the embodiment of the stereotypical Asian American student, a grind, a young man who went into tests thinking I should get an A because I had studied twice as much as any other student. And now I was being drummed out of grad school. A washout. I was humiliated, depressed, wondering what would become of my life now that, at twenty seven, I was deemed a failure.

 

Shortly after I flunked out of English grad school, I began to teach in the Writers in the Schools program. Gradually, like Kenneth Koch and others in such programs, I came to see that teaching poetry writing to young children involves quite a different approach from those I experienced as a student in an English Lit Ph.D. program. Rather than presenting writing as foreboding and forbidding, with an emphasis on standards and the literary canon, I needed to help young students feel comfortable with the process of writing. Through my teaching and reading books on creativity in science and business, I learned some general conclusions about the writing process:

1.  Attention to the “rules” hinders the creative process.

Though I first came upon this notion when teaching poetry to young people, I soon realized this attention to the rules meant more than the rules of grammar or spelling.   This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn these rules or other rules or techniques. As an adult I didn’t worry about the rules of grammar or spelling because I had learned them. (Well, actually that’s a lie. I don’t worry now about spelling because I have a computer and spell check does the work for me.)   What this does mean is that worrying about rules you are just learning and, at the same time, creating a new work is too difficult a task. Separate the tasks. Don’t make your brain do two things at once. When you’re creating, your unconscious needs to follow its own course rather than worry about rules.

2.  In writing, the creative mindset is one that is relaxed and loose. It involves a willingness to travel anywhere, to entertain whatever comes up. It can be helped along through work beforehand gathering images, ideas, material, etc. so that you don’t feel you’re starting to write with only a blank page before you. Instead you have the sense that there’s a vast array of materials you can draw from.   You have to adopt an attitude of openness to whatever language comes forth.

3.  Creativity comes through a willingness to experiment, to make mistakes. It involves what others might call waste or failure. But Thomas Edison remarked that no experiment is a failure; it taught him what didn’t work, and that brought him one step closer to an answer.

4.  What hampers creativity? A pressure to be perfect, to get it right every time. A pressure to produce a product, to perform to a grade. A pressure to never do anything foolish or outré, anything risky. In other words, the exact mindset I’d learned as an A student—to get everything perfect—was a recipe for writer’s block.

Or, as William Stafford put it, the key to writer’s block is “lower your standards.”

 

Where does language come from? Our unconscious.

Thus, when the conscious mind decides to write, it is the unconscious mind that sends up a sentence.

But then the conscious mind, the critical mind, the A student mind, the get-it-perfect mind, says, “Well, that’s not good enough.” Depending upon who you are, your conscious mind might add, “That’s so far away from Garcia Marquez…” or any other writing hero you might use as a critical standard setter. And then, another part of your brain might add your parents or family members saying, “This isn’t serious real work, this is a waste of time.”

A bit daunted, your unconscious tries sending up another sentence.

“Not good enough,” says the conscious mind. The other voices clamor in with their jeers.

A third sentence. Criticism, rejection.

By about the fourth or fifth sentence, your unconscious mind shouts back, “Screw you, I’m not going to work for you anymore.”

Hence, writer’s block.

 

Imagine yourself getting up before two groups and speaking.

In the first group is a committee of tenured English professors and administrators who think everything great was written in the distant past and who want to prove creative writing is a waste of time.

In the second group are the people with whom you feel most comfortable speaking, your partner or spouse, your best friends.

With which group will you be more articulate? With which group will speak to more easily, more naturally, more eloquently? With which group will you be more likely to let your personality break through?

The second group, of course.

So why do writers think if they imagine themselves writing to the first group, that will make them better writers?

Banish that first group—the censors—from your writing room. Do not listen to them. Stop wringing your own throat. Lower your standards.

When you sit down to write, there’s nothing you can do that will make you smarter, more talented, more interesting, sexier, more learned, more prepared. You are who you are at that moment. You can be no one else.

Accept who you are, accept your words.

You have to be the reader who welcomes your language. You have to listen to whatever language your unconscious mind comes up with, whatever sentences that happens to drift into your consciousness.

If you allow the unconscious to speak, it will keep speaking; it will lead you to places your conscious mind could not imagine. For the unconscious mind is smarter and far more creative than the conscious or critical mind.

Writing is a process. Enter into the process, let it unfold.

 

* It took me years to realize how this reaction was related to negative racial stereotypes and my own internalized racism (c.f. Where the Body Meets Memory).

 

Portrait of the Young Artist as Failure–or, What Is Wrong with the Workshop Model

I was twenty-seven, in my fifth year of study in an English Ph.D. program, when the director of the program called me into his office.

At the time I had taken a few creative writing classes and written a handful of poems, three or four of which had been published in minor literary magazines. Recently I had been one of two student readers fronting for a featured local poet at an on-campus reading series. The featured poet was my age and had published over four hundred poems. I had no idea how he had managed to do this—either his prolific output of poems or his massive publications. Most of my poems were short surrealist lyrics, much in vogue at the time. Except for a poem about my grandfather’s tiepin, a gift handed down to me by my father, I had not written anything concerning my identity as a Japanese American or the history of my community and my family. At the time I feared such subjects might mark me as a minority writer, would relegate me to a second-class literary status.

LastIncantationsCover

But it wasn’t my meager poetic output for which the head of the English grad program was calling me into his office. It was my scholarly output, which was even more meager. I had by that time racked up incompletes in seven courses. Though I had first drafts of the papers for these courses, I seemed unable to finish them.

I can still remember the face of the director, a balding middle-aged Bellow scholar with black thick lensed glasses. He was wearing a plaid shirt; his corduroy sports coat with leather patched sleeves was draped over the back of his chair. Around us rose shelves of books. Examples of what I myself would never write.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend your teaching assistantship,” he said. “Take the next year off and see if you can finish some of your incompletes.”

I left the office devastated and in despair. How would I support myself without my assistantship? Where would I find time to finish the incompletes? I couldn’t even finish them when I had financial support.

When I entered graduate school I had thought that I would one day become a poet-scholar, teaching at a college campus, like a couple of my professors in undergraduate school. Clearly though I was not going to become either a poet or a scholar. My career had ended even before it began.

 

I’m in the process of writing a book on creative writing.   The principles invoked in the pages of this book come out of my own journey as a writer. I am a poet, a fiction writer, a creative nonfiction writer and memoirist, a playwright and performance artist; the writings here—spanning thirty years–reflect what I’ve learned as a practitioner and teacher of these different genres.

Though I write now in various forms, my start as a writer, as seen in my opening here, was hardly propitious. Like many beginning writers, I suffered early on from a massive writer’s block. It was in solving that block that I came to understand certain crucial aspects of the writing process.

Much of what I learned derived from asking a simple question: What does it mean to be creative?   This seems, in retrospect, an obvious and fundamental question. Yet it was a question absent from my early literary training.

All across the country, over the past few decades, hundreds of writing workshops have sprung up–at universities and colleges, in high schools, at community centers, at arts organization.   In them, the students learn many things, but often the main thing that is stressed is the development of a critical mind, the ability to criticize your own work and the work of others. The student is taught how to tell a good poem from a bad poem, to articulate why a story doesn’t work, to recognize when a character is underdeveloped or the plot of your novel doesn’t click.

As a result of this focus on the critical function, most workshops are designed along the following model: A student hands out a small sample of their writing to the members of the workshop; a week or so later, they proceed to tell the student what is good and bad about her piece. The question of what the student is to do next with her writing—the process of new creation and revision—is then left up to the student.

Given this model, what many workshops teach are critical, not creative, skills.

 

Occasionally, besides the critiques of student work, the teacher will bring in examples of work she finds to be excellent, and students are taught standards—that is, the tradition, who the great writers are–and through this study, presumably, they will learn how to write like these writers. The student learns to be serious with her own work, to measure it against the great works of the past; she understands that the tradition and the standards she has learned place demands on her, and those demands are to be honored.

But when the student sits down at her paper or at her computer screen, when she faces the blank page, all those great writers, all that tradition, all the critical skills she has learned, become a weight upon her shoulders, a tourniquet upon her psyche, a gag for her mouth. Nothing she has to say, nothing she will write, will live up to those standards. And often, not surprisingly, she finds that the most difficult part of her task is simply sitting down to write and continuing to write on a regular basis.

For such a writer, the workshop model has created or increased her writer’s block, not solved it.

Black (and Other) History Month

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

As it’s Black History Month, I’ve been watching various documentaries and films about the history of African Americans in this country.  Though many of these go over familiar territory, I still find myself being jolted awake to some aspect of history I haven’t been aware of or simply to the force of that history.  At the same time, the echoes of African American history strike me with parallels to the present, with examples of how the past is indeed prologue.  Is present still.

I’ve been struck by the courage of the Freedom Riders and civil rights activists who faced prison, violence and the threat of death in their efforts to overturn segregation.  At the same time I can’t help but be aware that there are so many Republican backed measures now in state legislatures designed to keep certain portions of the population from voting, particularly the young, the poor and racial minorities.  I’ve been struck by the fortitude and dignity of Jackie Robinson as depicted in “42,” his courage to not fight back and how his efforts led to the desegregation of baseball and other professional sports.  And yet, I can’t help but see the ways President Barack Obama, literally the most powerful man in the world, still acts as if he too must have the courage not to fight back, not to say what he truly believes, not to speak directly about race.  The restrictions of being “the first African American” in many ways still hold (and certainly the myriad attempts to de-legitimize his Presidency rise from the same deep well of American racism).  And then, on another level, I can’t help but see the arguments launched against Michael Sam as the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft as echoing many of the arguments against Jackie Robinson’s presence in professional baseball.  Prejudice speaks the same language.

To me, Black History Month is alive, a breathing presence in my life.  As an Asian American, I feel that history is my history too, and my writings stem from that history and from the specific history of African American literature.

And yet, how often do we hear whites say, Why do we have to keep going over the past?  We’ve come so far.  Things are not like they were.  Why don’t you people let these things go?

I often think that being a person of color in this country is like being the one person in a dysfunctional family who refuses to be in denial about what has gone down in that family, who remembers the traumas and abuses of the past, who saw and still sees the elephant in the living room.  Yes, that one person sees the truth of the past, but seeing that truth comes at a cost.  In a way, that one person is carrying the truth of the family’s pain and abuse for all the other members of the family.  The rest of the family refuses the burdens of carrying their portion of the truth.  And the one person who sees and tells the truth ends up feeling ostracized; that person is the crazy one, not the rest of the family.

But what happens when a sibling or spouse or parent goes into treatment or therapy and then comes out of denial and also acknowledges the truth?  Suddenly the person who has been declaring the truth of the family feels lighter, less burdened.  That person feels affirmed, less crazy, more sane.  Someone else has acknowledge the truth; the person is no longer alone.

In general, America, and not just white America, goes about its business as if Native Americans do not exist in the present, as if the portions of our history regarding Native Americans are long past.  But if you are a Native American, especially a Native American on reservation?  Certainly, you know you are alive, and you know the rest of America in many ways, wishes that you were dead, because if you are dead, America doesn’t have to deal with the fact that all of us are living on stolen land, land stolen by means of genocide.   As a Native American you live with the results of that history every day; the whole reservation is a result of that history, is evidence of that history.  How can you forget that history?  And if you did try to forget that history, who would you be?  Who would be your ancestors?  To forget that history would be to forget the people who came before you and made your life possible, would be to live as a ghost unattached to anything that your father and mother and grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents lived through.  That is the price the rest of America wants you to pay to become part of America.

At this point in history, white America can’t even get rid of the racist moniker of a pro football team.  How can white American possibly deal with the true history of what America has done to Native Americans?

And yet, what would happen if we all did remember that history, what would happen if we all did acknowledge that history?   What would that look like?  How would that change this country?

As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead.  It is not even past.”  Forgetting history is a political act.  Remembering history is a political act.  There is no neutral non-political position towards history.  A country that would pay reparations for slavery is a different country than one that has not done so.

The German critic Walter Benjamin observed that history is most often the tale of the victors.  In other words, history has traditionally served those in power.  To change history, to tell the tales left out of our histories, to remember the history we want to forget—that does not serve those in power.  And that is why many white people want to forget history.  They want to keep the spoils of that history—both materially and psychically.  They do not want to be burdened by what people of color carry.  They want us to continue to be their psychic sherpas.

THE PSYCHIC SHERPA

Everyone knows the image of the sherpa who hauls the tools and supplies for the leader of the expedition.  How this leader will be white, the sherpa dark.  An Englishman, a Tibetan.  The one known, the other anonymous.  The one lightened of burden, the other bearing the burden of both.

Yes, we understand this job in its physical sense.

But does it mean to serve as a psychic sherpa?  To carry the unpleasant emotions and memories of another?  For one person to be weighted down by darkness, depression, madness, so the other may be lighter, happier and sane?

Do people of color carry in our psyches the memories and burdens of our history so that whites can live in amnesia–without the burdens such memories entail?  Do we take in realities whites do not have to see and thus take up?  And how does all this affect the mental energies we must put out in order to function in our lives?

Separate.  Unequal.  The realities, the history, we carry.

(from The Last Incantations, my book of poetry out in March, 2014 from Northwestern University Press)

The Problem With Miss Saigon (or how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical)

I am writing this essay in response to the Ordway Theater’s decision to bring back Miss Saigon a third time to the Twin Cities.  The Ordway Theater has taken this action despite numerous protests and criticism of the musical by the local Asian American community.  The twenty-year history of the Ordway’s indifference and disrespect towards our community and its leading artistic and activist voices is perhaps without parallel in recent Minnesota cultural history.

            The offensive and problematic nature of Miss Saigon stems from its plot and its characterization of both the American and Vietnamese characters.  The Ordway and many white American audience members seem to have trouble seeing this.  But for many Asian Americans, the egregious stereotypes in this musical are patently obvious.

             First of all, the musical romanticizes and distorts the nature of prostitution and human trafficking.  It would have us believe that in one night a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese prostitute falls in love with a white American adult G.I.  It then uses this pairing to create a so-called tragic love story.  That such a premise is ludicrous and, at best highly improbable, does not bother the creators of this musical nor the applauding audiences.  Nor does it seem to trouble them that the white American G.I. is committing an act of statutory rape.

            The real truth is: Prostitution is not a love story.  But by focusing on this love story, Miss Saigon ignores or slights the dehumanization and exploitation of prostitution and instead tries to romanticize human trafficking.  The musical ignores or slights the fact that this prostitution existed as a result of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.  It ignores or slights the fact the G.I. hero Chris and his fellow soldiers are exploiting and dehumanizing the Vietnamese women they take economic advantage of.

            If a seventeen year old white Minnesota girl was forced into prostitution and then claimed she had fallen in love in one night with a john who was a soldier from any other country—Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Nigeria, take your pick—would your average white Minnesotan believe her?  Would they look at this so-called love as romantic and tragically doomed?  Or would they label it for what it is—the sexual, psychological and economic exploitation of a minor?

            But according to Miss Saigon, when it is a white American G.I. and a seventeen year old Vietnamese girl forced into prostitution, what happens between them must be true love, must be a tragic romantic tale.

            One of the ways racism works is that it creates a moral code where the questionable actions of one race are somehow justified but where any similar action by someone of another race are seen as morally questionable and an indication of that person’s moral reprehensibility.  Miss Saigon traffics in just such a moral code.

            As it romanticizes human trafficking, Miss Saigon reinforces the stereotype of the Asian woman as prostitute.  One result of this stereotype is that Asian and Asian American women are constantly viewed as sexual objects in a way that affects directly how they are treated daily in American society.  At a recent public forum on the issues surrounding Miss Saigon, at least a dozen Asian American women spoke of the ways they have been subjected to objectification and humiliating offensive behavior by American males who see these women as no different from the prostitutes in Miss Saigon.  Just as the prostitutes in the brothel are there for the sexual delight of the G.I.’s and the titillation of the audience, so every Asian and Asian American woman in America is also there for the delight and titillation of any male who passes them by on the street or encounters them in public spaces.

            Miss Saigon is another in a long line of racist sexist depictions of Asian women, and the audiences who delight in the musical have no more qualms about this practice than the G.I.’s who hoot and holler at the crowning of a Vietnamese prostitute as Miss Saigon.  The musical offers no other substantial image of Asian women.  In Miss Saigon, the essence of the Asian woman is the prostitute.

             Miss Saigon also reinforces another racist tradition that comes out of the history of colonialism and imperialism.  In this tradition, the white male members of the occupying forces are always seen as morally superior to and more sexually attractive than any of the native colonized men.

            Chris, the white American G.I. has two women, one Vietnamese and one white American, who are love with him.  Yes, he impregnates a seventeen-year-old prostitute.  Yes, he abandons her (though in part because of circumstances beyond his control).  Yes, he loves two women and could be said to be guilty of bigamy.  But whatever his flaws, he is supposedly well-intentioned and full of love, and hey, he can’t be all that bad if both the Vietnamese Kim and the white American Ellen love him back.

            In contrast, with the two major Vietnamese male characters, neither the Eurasian Engineer nor the North Vietnamese soldier Thuy are worthy of love.  The Engineer is a venal, money hungry, soulless pimp, who clearly exploits women and takes advantage of Kim.  Alain Boublil, who wrote the libretto for Miss Saigon, claimed that the character of the Engineer pimp was “an actual Vietnamese type that many French and English journalist have encountered.” Really? What about shop keepers, soldiers, Buddhist monks and nuns, mothers, fathers, peasants, cooks, teachers, students, mechanics, dock workers, dress makers, artists, taxi drivers, rail workers, factory workers, news reporters, all the people and jobs that make any society possible?  Did Boublil’s journalists ever encounter any of these people?  Boublil’s remark says more about him and perhaps the French and English journalists he knew than it does anything about Vietnamese society.

            Thuy, the other major Vietnamese male character, is a Communist and so, in the moral landscape of Miss Saigon, is inherently evil.  Thuy also believes in arranged marriage, and so is evil (never mind that Chris visits a house of prostitution; this is merely an act he is bullied into by his fellow G.I.’s).  Thuy hates Kim’s child, because Tam is part white American, and so Thuy must be a racist.  Thuy tries to kill Tam, so he is a child murderer.  Given all this, no wonder Kim doesn’t even consider loving him.

            That all the major Vietnamese male characters are seen as thoroughly morally flawed and unattractive doesn’t trouble the creators of Miss Saigon nor many white audience members.  Such characters merely affirm racist assumptions about the Vietnamese and other Orientals: The gooks are neither as human nor as moral nor as sexually attractive as we white Americans.  The male gooks are particularly inferior, especially sexually.  The only good gooks are the women, and they are good because they are capable of loving and seeing the good of white American males and how inferior their male countrymen are when compared with the great white American male.  These gook girls are also really hot—they “love you long time”–though in the end, not quite as hot as white American women.

             Another questionable racist equation in Miss Saigon undergirds the musical’s final scene:  In order for her bi-racial son Tam to live in America, and perhaps also because Chris has married a white American woman, Kim kills herself.  The musical—and the audiences who adore it—see this a tragic act of self-sacrifice, a cause for weeping (when I saw the musical the middle-aged white woman next to me was bawling her eyes out while I was experiencing a mixture of disgust and laughter at the absurd farce sweeping across the stage).

            What is racist about the way the musical frames Kim’s act of suicide?

            First, it plays on a long held assumption in the West that those in the East do not value life in the way sane Westerners do.*  Suicide is just an Oriental thing, you know, like that Jap harry-kirry (never mind that Japanese and Vietnam possess completely different cultures and histories; in the minds of racists, all Orientals not only look alike, they think and act alike).  You can see this assumption in the opera that Miss Saigon is based on, Madama Butterfly, a work by Puccini which charts a similar plot around a British sailor and a fifteen year old Japanese girl.  After the British sailor abandons her, after years of pining after him, she commits suicide in that work’s “tragic” ending.  The creators of Miss Saigon clearly had no second thoughts about transposing the plot from a work about a Japanese girl to one about a Vietnamese girl.  Thus, a tradition of Orientalism and racism is handed down without critical thought as if the “truth” about the Orient and Orientals were merely self-evident.

            Secondly, Kim’s suicide assumes that of course life will be better for Tam in America with his white G.I. father and his white wife than in Vietnam with his Vietnamese mother.  In this reasoning, it goes without saying that life in America is superior not just economically to that in Vietnam, but in all the ways that really matter, whatever they may be.  As evidenced by Thuy, the Vietnamese will be prejudiced against Tam’s bi-racial heritage while as a bi-racial Asian American, Tam will find himself accepted and cherished by all he comes into contact with in America; there Tam will never ever experience any racism like the kind he is already subject to in Vietnam (after all, Thuy, the symbol of the typical Vietnamese male, wants to kill him).  Many white Americans actually believe this assumption.  Of course, Asian Americans who have experienced the racism of white America have a very different take on the matter.  Similarly, many Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese transracial adoptees would also question the scales which see life as an adoptee in America as far superior to what life might have been like if they had grown up in Korea, China or Vietnam.

            In Miss Saigon’s equation between a life for Tam with white American father Chris and his white wife or life with Vietnamese mother Kim, clearly it is more important and it will be more beneficial for Tam to be with his white father.  Indeed, it will be so filled with benefits that life with his white father Chris in America will still be superior even if Tam’s Vietnamese mother kills herself.  In other words, being separated from his white American father Chris would be a far more significant lack than having his Vietnamese mother die.  After all, how much could her life be worth?  She’s Vietnamese.  How important could having a live mother be?  She’s Vietnamese.  Yes, it’s a tragic loss, but isn’t it noble of Kim to recognize how superior life in America is to life in Vietnam, how America is a place without racism in comparison to the racist Vietnam, how important a white American father is in comparison to a Vietnamese mother.  It’s this recognition of white superiority that makes her a tragic heroine.  It’s this recognition that makes her so much better and more noble than the Vietnamese around her.  It’s this recognition on her part that makes white American audiences weep for her death, which, though sad, is clearly necessary.

            But why is it necessary?  As Brecht instructed, let’s reverse the dialectic: Kim’s suicide is necessary for the white American audiences so that they can weep over her death.  Clearly, it is far better that white American audiences have a good cry than that Kim continues to live and be a mother to Tam.  It’s a small cost.  She’s Vietnamese.  In the end, she’s just a gook whore.  And the fact that we white audience members actually cry for a gook whore?  Well, that just shows what large hearts we have.  How we’ve obviously transcended racism.

            A good cry and a pat on the back and an absolution from racism—what more could a white audience member ask for?

             The original production of Miss Saigon became infamous for the yellow face casting of the white British actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian Engineer pimp.  That the Engineer was Eurasian was part of the justification for this casting.  The fact that no Asian or Asian American actors were allowed to try out for the part was justified by Pryce’s star status (so much for the open competition of the arts and art as a democracy of the imagination).

            In subsequent productions, the use of yellow face casting was abandoned.  But it should be noted that the creators of Miss Saigon clearly had no problems with using such casting in their original production.  And for many Asian American actors, that says a lot about how little the creators cared about, or were even aware of, the issues involved with the representation of Asians and Asian Americans on stage and in media.

            Today, any use of black faced casting—the playing of black characters by white actors—would not permitted.  If such casting did occur, the uproar from both blacks and whites would be enormous.

            And yet, as seen recently in The Last Airbender and in Cloud Atlas, it is still okay to use yellow face casting in major motion pictures.  The powers that be in the arts do not fear the reaction against this egregious practice when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans, just as the powers that be in the arts tolerate the continuation of stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans in ways that would not dare commit to in the representation of African Americans (which is not to say that stereotypes of blacks don’t continue to appear–I’m not suggesting African Americans don’t experience stereotyping or racism, or that Asians have it worse; I am suggesting that white people fear reactions and outspokenness from the Black community, and expect compliance and submissiveness from Asians).

            The Ordway Theater would argue that articles like the one I’m writing here represent calls to censorship.  In doing so, they fail to acknowledge that an organization makes choices all the time not to produce certain works; they make these choices because the works are not deemed popular enough or of sufficient aesthetic quality or because they are simply reprehensible.  The Ordway would never put on a musical where all the black slaves were unintelligent, immoral and in love with their masters or where all the characters were Jewish bankers and businessmen who were venal, money hungry and soulless or where the British colonial soldiers are depicted as far more moral and sexually attractive than the American colonists.  The Ordway would not present a musical based on W.D. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or some thirties Nazi film with stereotypes of Jews.  It would brand such works as artistically inferior, as lies not art, as dated and outmoded.  It would not call its refusal to put on such works censorship.  It would say not producing such works was simply the right thing to do.

            Apparently, though, the same rules don’t apply when it comes to works depicting stereotypes of Asians.  And that, folks, is racism, plain and simple–on the part of the creators of Miss Saigon and on the part of organizations like the Ordway Theater who produce this abomination.

Further background notes on Miss Saigon and the imperialistic tradition of racist Orientalist cultural productions:

             One defense that the Ordway Theater has proffered is this: By presenting Miss Saigon, the Ordway is simply performing the function of any producer of art—to spark a conversation about serious issues.

            Let me inform the Ordway Theater: Asian Americans have been having a discussion about racism in America long before Miss Saigon.  We have been experiencing racism in America long before Miss Saigon, and we didn’t need Miss Saigon to remind us that racism, imperialism, the romanticization of human trafficking existed in works of art about Asia and Asian America.  It’s insulting that the Ordway presumes we need a work like Miss Saigon to discuss these issues—or that Asian American artists and writers have not been sparking such conversations for decades.

            What the Ordway is doing is like coming to a community which has a long history of dealing with environmental problems and then sprinkling more pollution on the community and then saying, “Hey, you should thank us.  We’re sparking a conversation about pollution.”

             In contrast to most whites, many Asian Americans are painfully aware of the continued stereotypical portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in the media.  I grew up with figures of ridicule and buffoons—Peter the cranky houseboy in Bachelor Father, Hop Sing the cook in Bonanza, the yellow-faced Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed Japanese photographer fruitlessly yelling at Audrey Hepburn and her practice of ringing his doorbell when she forgot her key (and yet he is clearly sexually aroused when she dangles the chance of his taking her picture).  There was the evil genius, Dr. Fu Manchu, the slimy Ming the Merciless, leering after Dale Arden in the old Flash Gordon movies.

            The Asian women who appeared films were often prostitutes, geisha, bar dancers, figures of exotic and sensual and mysterious sexuality, hyper-feminine, giggly, and subservient.  The World of Suzie Wong, The Sand Pebbles, Sayonara, Full Metal Jacket.  By the end of the film many of these women came to adore the white men—often military men—who swept into their lives and romanced them and proved far more attractive and kind and generous and three-dimensional than any of the wooden, sullen, sexist, often violent Asian men the Asian women were trying to escape.

            None of this taught me that art or America was a democracy free of racism.  When Warner Oland played Charlie Chan in yellow face, mumbling faux bits of Oriental wisdom and solving cases, while Keye Luke played his bumbling, knock-kneed, cowardly No. 1 son, even I at eight understood the hierarchy: The lead role, the hero, would always be a white guy.  The Asian guy would be his second, his assistant, would be there for comic relief.

            Is it any surprise that such stereotypes, such racial hierarchies, affected the way I saw myself?  That such casting and portrayals made me want to disassociate myself from my ethnic Japanese background and my identity as an Asian American?  That I came to identify with the white gunslinger Paladin and not the Chinese messenger with his pigtail bouncing as he run through the hotel lobby shouting, “Terragram! Terragram for Mista Parradin.”  If you’re Asian, you can’t be the hero, you can’t be the good guy.  You can be sexy, you can’t get the girl if you’re an Asian guy.  Why don’t you just admit that’s the way things are?  Why don’t you just accept your inferior, secondary status?  We’ll all get along better that way.

            You might say that the times have changed, but really they haven’t.  9 out of 10 interracial Asian-White couples in television, commercials and films will be a white man and an Asian woman.  Just like Miss Saigon.

             I’m a third generation Japanese American.  Both my parents families were imprisoned in internment camps in World War II in desolate out of the way areas of the American western interior and the South.  They were kept behind barbed wire fences under rifle towers with armed guards.  Not one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned were ever convicted of any act of espionage.  Many, like my father and mother, were teenagers, or children.  The Japanese American families struggled to keep their community together, to keep their dignity, to continue to believe in American and the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, to see themselves as Americans.  That to me would seem to be the issues and the story of the internment camps.

            But Come See the Paradise and Snow Falling On Cedars, the two major motion pictures based on the internment camps, both center their plots around a romantic relationship—a white American man and a Japanese American women.*  When the Japanese American playwright Philip Gotanda was asked by the director of Come See the Paradise to work on the film script, Philip refused because of the stereotypical romantic coupling of a white man and an Asian woman and because historically very few of my parents’ generation married interracially.*  They were forbidden by law from doing so.  But Parker kept replying that this romantic pairing was simply the story he wanted to tell.  He was merely exercising artistic freedom.

            Parker likes to talk about himself as a workng class bloke.  He’s not like the upper class directors like Sir Richard Attenborough, he says.  So Philip said to Parker, “Listen, Alan, suppose I wanted to do a film about working class England in the thirties, during the Depression.  It will be a gritty film about working class life.  And I’ll have a white English actress play your mother and a white English boy actor play you.  But for you’re father, I’m going to have a Japanese guy.  Because, well, that’s the story I want to tell.”

            Parker reacted indignantly, “That’s not what I’m doing.  That’s not what I’m doing at all.”

            I’ve generally found that those who like to use stereotypes and racist tropes always find it reprehensible when someone else suggests the same for the community or ethnic or racial group those artists belong to.  But then racism always works with a double standard.  The racist doesn’t believe that standard is racist.  To him or her, that’s just the way the world is.  It’s just the story they want to tell.

            In its defense of Miss Saigon, the Ordway Theater has used just this reasoning: It’s just the story they want to tell.  The story can’t be racist because they don’t see the racism in it.  The Asian Americans who are protesting the musical simply can’t see the world as it is, can’t see the truth of this great work of art.

            But again, that’s another way that racism works.  One group, whites, ultimately hold the power and make the decision for the way things are run.  They believe they are in a position of power not because of an unjust and unequal system but because they simply know better.  The Ordway Theater has acted in a way that is in keeping with the imperialist history which undergirds Miss Saigon: Let the great white fathers and mothers decide things.  The good natives support us.  The bad natives, who don’t see our wisdom and truth, don’t support us.  But really, they don’t count.  After all, they’re the bad natives.

             One might ask where this emphasis on the white European/American male and the Asian woman as a romantic coupling comes from?  This nearly total inability on the part of white artists to imagine the reverse of this coupling—a European/American woman and an Asian man?  One might also ask why a coupling of an Asian woman and an Asian man might not also be equally compelling?

            As many scholars and as David Henry Hwang points out in his introduction to M.  Butterfly, this stereotype of the white European/American male and the Asian woman stems from the history of imperialism.  In the ideology of imperialism, it was assumed that the Europeans—and later the Americans—had a right colonize countries in Asia.  This right stemmed from the superiority of Europeans—and later Americans—a superiority which was not just political or military, but also cultural and religious.  In keeping with the sexism of the time, Europe—and later the Americans—were viewed as the superior male to the inherently feminine, and thus inferior, female Orient.  Thus, the symbol of the Orient–and later Asian—was the woman, and in this equation the Asian male was also seen as feminine or effeminate and, by sexist and racist logic, as inferior.  This whole racist, sexist ideology became part of the political, economic, cultural and sexual lens through which Europeans—and later the Americans—came to view their dealings with the countries of Asian and their inhabitants.

            Fuel for this racist, sexist ideology came from the military occupation of the countries of Asian by European countries—and later America.  Europeans—and later Americans—were more powerful and more masculine, and this is why they were able to defeat and rule over these Asian countries and their inhabitants.  The military of the European nations—and later America—was the instrument and symbol of this masculine racial superiority.  At the same time, since European military forces—and later American forces—were stationed as occupying armies in Asia, the soldiers required prostitutes to satisfy their sexual needs.  Thus, the prime interaction between the European—and later American—forces and the local population took place in brothels and with native prostitutes.  This was the lens through which the European military forces—and later the American forces—came to view the countries they occupied and the populations within those countries.

            Given the sexist, racist, and imperialistic history of this coupling of the white European/American male—a member of the military personnel—and an Asian female—a woman forced into prostitution by economic and political circumstances—is it any wonder many Asians and Asian Americans find this stereotype objectionable?  It’s a perpetuation of a sexist, racist and imperialistic ideology whose evils we should all recognize by now.

            Except, well, it’s really romantic, isn’t it?  And hey, Asian chicks are really hot!

            Miss Saigon and The Ordway ought to be ashamed of what they’re promoting.  But they don’t see the egregious nature of what they’re doing.  They’re still trapped in a sexist, racist and imperialistic ideology.  They’re still trapped within their own sexist, racist and imperialistic history.  And they don’t want to let go.


* The racist meme of the Oriental disregard for life can be seen also in movies about the Vietnam war, such as Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter, the latter where Russian Roulette is pictured as a Vietnamese national sport, a complete fabrication on the part of the filmmaker.

* This same plot focus is at the center of white American writer Gretel Ehrlich’s novel about the internment camps, Heart Mountain.

* Just as the Ordway refuses to hear local Asian Americans, Parker did not seem to see the problem when Asian American writer after Asian American writer refused to work with him.  I personally know four of these writers.