arts p10 1

Courtesy of Netflix

October 30, 2019

QUE | What If I Don’t Want to Tell ‘Asian’ Stories?

Print More

When I was pitching my thesis to a professor, she suggested, “Have you thought about working on something about yourself?” I asked for further elaboration, and she said, “You know, something about your family, your upbringing, your identity. It could be interesting.”

I am sure she had no malicious intent, but what I didn’t want to tell her then and aim struggling to tell you now is that I don’t want to. Not because my story isn’t interesting — it sure could be — but because I fear that it could be interesting for the wrong reason. Yes, I know that playing the diversity card could probably get me places, but those places may not be where I want to go.

For example, this year at Cannes I had an epiphany. After watching one after another film from the Global South, I noticed how weirdly similar they felt; the landscape is often depicted as a spectacle, and the people’s struggle a mere plot point. The void of authenticity is hidden under the beautiful cinematography and polished script. I was talking to a friend about this sense of misalignment and he laughed, “Have you paid attention to the credits? Do you know where all these films get their funding?” Then everything suddenly made sense. Of course films backed by European money won’t feel authentic — they are catered for the festival circuit with a predominantly Western (read: white) audience. Certain things are expected of the filmmaker regardless of their intent or interest. At the Cine con Cultura Latinx American Film Festival a few weeks ago, someone in the audience pointed out the current dilemma of Latin American cinema is that a lot of films are only “Latin American in name.”

Politics of inclusion is tricky. While I welcome the idea, the practice is often flawed. In his new comedy special Right Now, Aziz Ansari joked that “newly-woke white people are exhausting!” Performative allyship, in my opinion, is no better than outright racism. To quote Ansari again, “I appreciate the support…but sometimes I’m a little suspicious.” Just like how predominantly white institutions like to put up stock photos of multiracial groups on their websites, I wonder if these well-intended actions only perpetuate the existing system by pigeonholing minorities into telling identity-centric stories.

Toronto-based artist Joshua Vettivelu told a story of an unpleasant anecdote in a talk. When they were applying to a selective grant at the beginning of their career, someone told them, “Oh honey, you’re brown and gay, you’ll get it.” I have heard similar comments more than I would ever need to, but these people might just be right. Would To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have been made if it starred a white protagonist? Does Crazy Rich Asians really deserve a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes? Is Ava Duvernay an objectively good director? I have my answers but I will let you ponder on them. 

Vettivelu mentioned his Iranian friend who swore never to use a Persian carpet in her work. I fear that I, too, have this tendency of going towards the other extreme, of running away from my identity. In my solo performance class, people always bring in autobiographical pieces, while I find myself almost struggling not to do so. I’ve done re-enactments of interviews and adaptations of poems but talking about my background terrifies me. I don’t want to talk about how my grandpa escaped a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution or how I haven’t talked to anyone from my family since the past Chinese New Year. I don’t want to talk about how showing affection to a woman got me in strange situations in Prague. And I don’t want to talk about how hard it is for me to get a work visa because I am not American.

Yes, my identity inherently shapes the way I interact with others and the world, but I just hope the fact that I am a queer Asian woman isn’t the only reason people are drawn to my art. I want to counter the expectation that artists are supposed to mine their trauma, if not their own then their family’s, their country’s, their culture’s.

Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at rque@cornellsun.com. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.