The author and filmmaker behind Americanese discuss race representation, masculinity, their different media, and reaffirming Asian Americanness
By Alec MacDonald, Special to IMDiversity
I have to say, it really doesn’t get much better than this year’s Chicago Asian American Showcase. For its eleventh annual running earlier this spring, its organizers rolled out two weeks worth of fresh and vibrant film, literature, music, and art. For those craving innovative creative expression with an independent flavor, the Showcase – as has come to be expected – offered a virtual buffet to choose from.
The festivities officially opened with the Midwest premiere of the highly anticipated Americanese. In attendance to promote the film were its director, Eric Byler, and author Shawn Wong, who wrote the book on which it was based (the homonymically-titled American Knees). As a special treat, I had the chance to sit down and chat with both of them about their featured work and about Asian American artistic production in general. The following are excerpts from our extended conversation.
How It All Started
Early on I asked Shawn, who is a professor of English literature at the University of Washington, to explain what prompted him to write the book.
Shawn: There were a couple of reasons. I have two answers: there’s one that’s more public, and there’s one that’s more private.
I had written about 100 pages of the book, and it just sat there. It was about 1992 or 1993, I wrote about 100 pages, and all I was interested in doing was writing about a conversation. I wanted an Asian man and woman to have a conversation. And so the first twelve pages that I wrote was just a conversation about an Asian man and Asian woman talking about their relationship.
And as I was writing it, I realized that they were talking about breaking up. And also describing who they were, and how they couldn’t be what they wanted to be to the other person. Because I had been reading a lot of stuff in Asian American literature and I just thought, how come we’re just missing this scene? So that’s what I wrote, I just wrote this twelve page scene. And then I wrote about 100 pages, I wrote this sort of funny scene where they meet, and I didn’t really know where to go with that, and I put it down. I was pretty happy with it, I just didn’t know where to go with it.
And then my wife Vicky was diagnosed with cancer… and in that process, you just feel helpless. She’s going through chemotherapy, and surgery, and you don’t know what to do. You just try to take care of her… People were bringing over cancer books for us to read. And I thought, this is stupid. It’s like, “What, we don’t know enough about it already?” Well-meaning people; they just didn’t know what to do either. And she wanted to take her mind off of it. And so we watched old movies; she wanted to read funny books; in between treatment, we went to Hawaii; and just sort of tried to live our lives. And that’s when she said, “Why can’t you write a book I can read at the beach one day?” And I thought, well there’s something I can do.
And so I actually gave the 100 pages to my agent in New York, and she sold it to Simon & Schuster. I had a year to write it, and that gave me a goal and a deadline, as a gift. And the book might seem to have kind of a political intent, because it’s about race and identity, and those are things that I’m concerned about – but you know, it was really written for her.
It gave me something to do, and I wanted it to be funny, and also there’s a lot in there about what I was going through at the time. Parts about the mother and the father, Wood and Helen, are sort of about me and my wife. Parts of me are Raymond, parts of her are Aurora.
And at the same time I was also teaching… I had a lot of students at that particular time when I was working on the book who were hapa. Or they were Chinese and Japanese, or Filipino and Native American; the whole class was sort of mixed Asian identity. And they basically said, “Where are the books about us?”
On the Page or on the Screen: Words Versus Images
After Shawn and Eric proceeded to describe how the book became a movie, we talked about the contrast between the two different forms in which they told this story.
Eric: One thing that I realized when I read Roger Ebert’s review from yesterday was that all the things that Shawn said explicitly in the novel (because you can, in a novel) got boiled down to things that were implicit in the film (because you can, if you want to, be explicit in a film, but I think that there’s a cost). And I think in the film I’m taking Shawn’s themes and showing them, rather than saying them – sometimes in very subtle ways that I didn’t expect everyone to understand. But in Roger’s review, without having read the novel (I mean, I’ll ask him next time I see him, but I doubt Roger with all the things he has to do had time to read the novel before he watched this; if he did, this is completely irrelevant) but somehow, he watched the film and he was able to un-stuff all of Shawn’s novel (just like you know that StuffIt Classic thing you use in a Mac to send something really big over the Internet?). He un-stuffed the novel from the movie, and it was a perfect translation from the themes that Shawn was talking about in the novel.
But what was really rewarding is that somebody who’s not Asian, who’s a brilliant writer in his own right, and certainly a student of the human condition, was able to glean something so specific and so personal and so unique to these characters and to the Asian American experience and type it down – probably in a huge rush, because he writes three reviews a day. Incredible.
Shawn: It’s true. I was reading his review sitting in a coffee shop at Marshall Fields. [And I thought to myself,] “Wow, he got it!” He’s actually talking about the substantive stuff about race and identity, which is hard for anyone to talk about. And he’s actually talking about the film structure and the storytelling in the film, and then he’s tackling the hardest subject possible to write about, which is race and identity. And he does it.
And then at the end of his review, he says, “well, you might think this entire movie is about race and identity after I’ve been going on and on, but it’s really this [story about romantic relationships].” It’s actually quite a brave review, because instead of just saying well, [Americanese] deals with race and gender, he actually sort of explores the subject too in an intelligent way. And nobody talks or writes about race in a completely intelligent way.
Alec: Is it easier to deal with race through film than it would be through literature?
Eric: I think it’s easier in literature. [And] I think it’s easier in documentary film than in narrative [film].
See, for me – and I think a lot of movie watchers share this perspective although they might not realize it – you have to believe that the characters you’re watching on the screen are real people, more than maybe any other medium… There’s a necessary suspension of disbelief, when you’re watching a film, and once an agenda starts to present itself that supersedes the will and the individuality of the characters, it starts to feel like instead of watching a world that’s real and dynamic and complex, you’re watching one person’s perspective applied evenly to every character. So when you have an issue like race, that is so powerful and so meaningful (and it’s so easy to have a strong viewpoint on race, as I certainly do) it’s tempting to bend your characters to make a point.
For instance, if your point is that racism is bad, and you have a character who you’ve decided is a racist, it might be tempting to depict him in only negative ways. But that limits the scope and the breadth and the complexity of your story to a degree that somebody could sort of lean back and keep one eye on it and make a sandwich, and eat a sandwich, and still get it. And I like to tell stories that are more complex than that, that engage the viewer in sort of decoding the characters, offering them characters who hide more than they show. And so you know, when I’m dealing with race and racism in Americanese, I’m trying to present all the complexities, and all the antipodes, and the devastating failures and the small triumphs that really exist for people – that people really live. As opposed to a hyperbolic dramatization intended to sell a point.
So, it was a really fine line to walk (because Shawn’s novel is so overtly political, and so overtly commenting on race and gender and racism) to find a way to do it in the film that was going to disguise Shawn and disguise me as manipulators of the world, so that we could still address those themes, but only through the characters, and only through the characters doing things that are true to the characters.
Shawn: What I tried to do in the book was, in the first half of the book it’s sort of lecture and discussion. Raymond is getting into it with Aurora about who she is, and Brenda and Jimmy have these much larger roles in the book telling their point of view. And then all the jargon and education training ends after the first half, and essentially I’m asking the reader in the second half of the book to use all of that cultural literacy that I’ve given them… what are you going to do with all that information I gave you? And here’s the story about these people, Betty, and Raymond, and Aurora, etcetera, and now I want you to see who they are, but I also want you to call them by their right names, you know: Asian American.
The Politics of Representation: Asian American Audience Response
Later on in the conversation, Eric revealed his observations about the expectations of Asian American audiences regarding artistic production that comes from out of their own community.
Eric: Every time an Asian American filmmaker comes out with a movie, there are Asian American people all over this country who say, “Oh my god, we finally have an opportunity to say, ‘blank’.” And the ‘blank’ is their own personal agenda. And then when the movie comes out and it doesn’t achieve the voicing of their own personal agenda, they can be disappointed at times.
Those agendas vary quite a bit, but there’s one very powerful one that Americanese doesn’t quite give voice to. And that is the ultimate model minority aim, which is acceptance. More specifically, the acceptance of Asian American men as a part of the fabric of this society — [men who have been] so systematically excluded from mainstream media to this day.
So now we have Raymond Ding in the novel: a ladies man, almost a womanizer (that’s what Brenda accuses him of, I think there might be four or five woman that he sleeps with in the novel). And so those people who have this agenda, [they claim that] finally we can say that Asian men are virile, sexual, charismatic and charming – all the things that white men are. We can finally show that we can dress up in their clothes, and we can appropriate their version of masculinity.
And to a lot of Asian Americans, that is our ultimate goal. To show we can dress up like them, and be like them. We can be just like you – isn’t that what the model minority myth is all about? Where mainstream culture says, “Hey, there’s a place right next to us. It’s almost as high, your chair will be almost as high, and that’s the best you can do. And all you have to do is follow these little rules: be a model student, be a model minority, be a model prisoner. Follow the rules and you will be next to us.” And that carrot is something that Asian Americans chase their entire life.
And so Americanese comes out, and a lot of Asian Americans say, “We’re so close, we could just grab it! And if everyone in this movie behaved as if they were white, we would have it… All the movie stars that are in this, all the white people who are going to see this, we would prove we’re white, we’ll prove we’re as close to white as they’ll let us be.”
And yet there are performances in Americanese that are very, very Asian, very Asian American, that don’t suddenly throw off our own culture in order to burrow into another. In particular with the performance of Chris Tashima: he does not feel the need to appropriate another culture’s standard of masculinity. He is a man and he knows he’s a man, and he doesn’t have to overtly declare that with a lot of performative bluster. He has poise, he has confidence – without needing to demonstrate that.
That doesn’t necessarily make for the most conventional portrayal of a hero in a movie. And there are other actors that I could have chosen who are very good at behaving just the way that a white actor might have behaved in those situations. And maybe those are the kinds of movies we’ll make ten years from now, and it will be more authentic to make those kinds of movies.
But if you want to tell a story about a man who’s forty five years old who probably grew up before the time we decided that racism was bad, and whose role models were men who probably are a lot more Asian than people from our generation are, then he’s going to have some of that Asian masculinity – which is just as valid. And the thing is, which is more empowering to our community? To say, “Hey, we could be just like you; look, this is our actor who could act just like you,” or to say, “We don’t have to be just like you; we can be who we are, and this is our actor, and he’s behaving the way he is”? And that has been an interesting discussion that we’ve just begun to have.
Reaffirming What It Means to Be Asian American
As we wrapped things up, we returned to the issue of how Asian Americans can cultivate more liberating conceptions of identity.
Alec: Are there other ways in which identity gets solidified, specifically thinking about what it means to be Asian American, [both as an individual] and then also in a community sense?
Eric: …I think we can model ourselves after – if we’re going to be a model of something – the African American community, who never had the choice of passing for white… Without even questioning whether they were going to come ride alongside the white people, they formed their own identity. And I think that’s something a lot of Asian Americans really, really admire. And I certainly do.
Shawn: What was the question?
Eric: How do we throw it back in their face: “Take your passing for white, take your model minority, and shove it”? And find positive ways to create our own identity.
Shawn: I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole career, is to give people options. Rather than limiting the options to one or the other; here’s a whole set of options. And all those can provide you access in some ways without sacrificing who you are.
People always ask me the same question Eric gets: “Well you know you’re a great writer; what about writing something that isn’t about race?” And the implication is that that’ll make you an even better writer if you can do that. And I go, well, you know, that’s not me. I want to explore these values, and each time I want to explore them in completely different ways. I want to keep pushing the envelope.
Other Recent Readings of Interest