Who gets to tell the story?
A decade ago, I started on my first novel. (Spoiler: it’s still unfinished.) It was to focus equally on two main characters, a Māori mother and a young NZ-Chinese doctor. It came time to submit my first draft for feedback and my Master of Creative Writing tutor was blunt. “You can’t write a Māori character, you’re not Māori.”
My tutor went on to explain, kindly, that unless I did a lot more research so that I understood kaupapa Māori, and got good insider advice, I’d be better off culling the Māori character. She said I ran the risk of falling into easy stereotypes, and that she and the other tutors felt readers would be more engaged if I refocussed on, say, the relationship between the young Chinese doctor and her immigrant mother.
I still feel the echoes of the emotion that swept me. Indignation: wasn’t I a writer, and therefore able to imagine my way into anyone’s shoes? Anger: those chapters with my Māori mother character were based on real life people I’d met in the hospital, and I thought I’d portrayed her sympathetically. Also, I remember silently screaming ‘cliché!’ (I mean, talk about stereotype. People’s relationships with their mothers in a first novel, um yeah.) But I bit the bullet, binned half my chapters, rewrote the novel and got a B.
Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself a newbie theatre writer. I was pretty lucky with my timing; there were fewer NZ Chinese voices at that time (2008) and I attracted a lot of interest in my work, even though I was as clumsy as you’d expect a beginner to be. It wasn’t long before I realised that words such as ‘authenticity’ and ‘diversity’ came with a loaded meaning when used by funders and programmers. I also realised that what they expected from me, wasn’t 100% what I wanted to write. But if I didn’t write what they expected, then my chances of getting it to the stage were much lower. The old catch-22 of any ‘ethnic’ writer.
So I did what people wanted and wrote stuff about having a migrant background and trying to figure out who I was. I was/am passionate about exploring these topics, but there were many others – love, loss, and politics – that I put on the backburner because I believed they wouldn’t get the same attention coming from someone who looked like me. And of course I dug my own grave. Soon enough I was known as that Asian playwright who wrote about identity. A familiar trope that I’ve been trying to break out of ever since. (Recent realisation: even though many of my pieces are written from a female perspective, I have never been labelled a woman writer. Does colour trump gender?)
I also started noticing that so-called ‘ethnic’ pieces being programmed were not, ahem, particularly ‘ethnic’. One take on a Chinese fairytale for children was written by a Caucasian woman, directed by a Caucasian man, and the creative team was Caucasian too though they did make an attempt to cast people of Asian or part-Asian heritage. The resulting mess was a pastiche of general ‘Asian-ness’ coz, I mean, we all look the same anyway. For example, a Chinese princess dressed in a pink kimono, conversations that I assume were delivered in a deliberately stilted way because the speaker was ‘foreign’, paper dragons running around for effect, and so on.
The reviews fawned over its “authentic folk-tale atmosphere” and called it an “exotic holiday treat”. In retrospect, this show may not have been as terrible as I remembered. It was just the disappointment of having a whole lot of money spent on a show which, to me, did not take care with their research and seemed to fetishize my culture. At least they made an effort with the casting. Not so many mainstage productions - but I’ll save that rant for another time.
And so what if I don’t like it and other instances of cultural appropriation? Audiences and critics did, it sold well, does my opinion even matter? Am I just being sensitive and oh too PC? Shut up and just write.
Earlier, my first full-length play, Lantern, a drama centering on the lives of a family of Hong Kong Chinese immigrants and their struggles to assimilate, had made its debut. The review the next morning can be summed up as: ‘Huh?’. It was my first ever theatre review. I wandered around Wellington crying for days after that. My wonderful, good looking lead actor comforted me by holding my hand in public and pretending he was my boyfriend. Although other reviewers were kinder, it’s fair to say that this first experience scarred me and made me wonder whether anything I’d ever write from real life experience would be treated as more than exotic spectacle. Luckily since then I’ve been proved wrong.
From my conversations with other practitioners, it’s a common experience to be treated as the mouthpiece for any and all [insert ethnicity here]. Heard that one about the brown person in the room being expected to speak for all brown people? It’s the same if you’re yellow. As writers, we feel ‘expected’ to write on certain topics and conform to certain stereotypes in our writing. One recent audience member chastised me for not mentioning racism in the play she saw; I replied that if she’d seen the other ones, she could have had plenty of racism.
When Oryza Foundation staged its ground breaking collection of NZ short plays, Asian Tales (2008), someone (another ethnic playwright!) questioned the ‘Asian-ness’ of some of the works. The reply was that they were works written by Asian New Zealanders, how much more ‘Asian’ did you want them to be? It’s not as if Chinese walk around in real life talking about how Chinese they are (though we do sometimes, amongst friends with dumplings or when there’s a demoralising relative in town.) These accusations of not being ‘cultural enough’ come from inside our community as well as outside, and experiences like this are all too common.
I find myself reticent to push the audience out of their cultural comfort zone, even though arguably that’s my job. Maybe that’s from my experience with my first play. But cultural acclimatisation is possible. When Lantern was remounted six years later, it got rave reviews even though the story hadn’t changed. I’m sure that was due to the creative team, but I also wonder whether the audience/critics had evolved in what they were ready to see.
On the flip side, we are envied for being able to ‘play the cultural card’ when it comes to funding applications. Yes everyone, it’s super cool to be Asian! Until it isn’t. Although there are well publicised incidents of ethnic forgery overseas, we haven’t, I hope, come to this in NZ yet.
Cultural appropriation is a loaded term. I won’t attempt to out-wisdom the many writers who have already delved into the complexities; this wonderful recent Guardian piece had me wanting to print it in its entirety onto T-shirts and wear. I love all of it, but I love this from Naomi Alderman: “You have to try to do it well. You have to be familiar with whatever tropes might apply to your character… Do better. Treat your characters as human beings. Write them as people not ideas or stereotypes.”
It turns out my Creative Writing tutor was right. I hadn’t done enough research for my novel. I had assumed I knew enough but my eye, for all its ‘experience’, was still an outsider’s one. I had simply used lazy stereotypes. The second time I wrote a Māori character, I was much more nervous, a good thing. For The Ferryman character in my play/opera The Bone Feeder, I asked the actors (four to date) to tell me if I was f**king up. They in turn consulted with their whakapapa, and I also checked in with Māori cultural experts. The character has been written differently in every production but when the actors feel good about playing him, I feel relief.
So who does get to tell the story? Taken to its natural conclusion, the people whose story it is need to be involved in its telling. Devised theatre does this, but I’ve tried a different tack with my newest piece. Dominion Rd The Musical is about cultural appropriation; it asks who gets to tell the stories about a place. We realised early that we needed to involve the Dominion Rd community directly, so while much of the show was written for a professional cast, our team worked with a community chorus of 17 for the workshop, getting them to input on their characters and stories. The majority have stayed on to be in the show that opens this week. When we showed this as a workshop piece to an audience of industry influencers last year, a common refrain in the foyer was ‘I’m blown away by the diversity!’ (Ah, the D word.)
You know what? I’d love to make work in a world where a show like this doesn’t stand out. Where what’s outside the theatre is reflected in the stories told on stage, where writers are encouraged to do due diligence, and where more and more voices are given the skills and power to tell their own story.