Wrong kind of Asian, wrong kind of work
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called Stages of Resistance. The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks.
When I was kid, I dreamed of being a film star (obviously). And in those fantasies, I pictured my adult film star self as having white skin. This didn’t at the time strike me as weird or odd in any way. It was a fantasy. She wasn’t actually me. She had her own name and everything. This wasn’t a dream of being white. This was a dream of being a film star.
But of course actually, it is COLLOSSALLY weird and twisted. The reason I pictured myself with white skin in my youthful fantasies of being a film star was not because I didn’t see brown faces on screen - I was brought up with my Dad’s favorite Hindi movies - but because the films I loved (often Hollywood, generally western-centric) were overwhelmingly white. I had to imagine myself in a whole other body to even dream being part of it.
The art I make has never been described as “black work” or “asian work” or “female work.” It’s never been defined by others in relation to my ethnicity or gender; which is great, right? Because personally, I’m way more an advocate for normalizing difference than the othering of certain stories and representations. But then, how does my difference become acknowledged and visible, as part of the story of artists of color?
Who cares? Why does it matter?
A good friend of mine is a TV Researcher and fellow Doctor Who nerd. He told me how one of his team - a young black man - talked effusively about the impact of seeing Mickey Smith as a regular character in the first series of New Who, because Mickey Smith wasn’t defined by being black. He was simply: a black man. In a mainstream, popular, sci-fi fantasy. It’s what made this young guy feel like the TV industry might be open to him.
And I’d recommend watching Riz Ahmed’s Channel 4 Diversity Lecture to parliament. There’s loads to hear in what he says, including the point that if people don’t see themselves valued in mainstream culture, they will “switch off and retreat to fringe narratives… In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s the next James Bond right? Have you seen some of those Isis propaganda videos, they are cut like action movies. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they are valued?”
I’m not a terrorist.
I’m not in an arranged marriage (and nor is any of my family).
I’ve always had a struggle to claim my voice in the work I make. I’m not an actor or a writer. Our UK theater industry is still very writer-focused and it’s rare that the voice of a director is recognized as co-authoring the work. I’m rarely acknowledged as an artist of color, because my work doesn’t fit the identity or issue-led mold of “black” work. I’m really happy my work is produced and programmed outside of culture-specific programming contexts, but I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the fact careers like mine are not more visible as part of the wide and varied story of theater makers of color. Is it because there aren’t many of us with careers like mine? Well then, all the more reason for me to step up and shout: that work which is informed by a non-white perspective does not necessarily have to be about urban struggle or curry.
Because if what we identify as ‘Black’ work is only work which explores ‘Black issues’ or autobiography; it becomes easier to assume that all other work is White work - whether it’s led by artists of color or not.
Speaking of which, let’s just talk about the term “colorblind casting.” For the record, this is a BAD term (and I don’t mean in a good way). It’s a bad term because it suggests we shouldn’t see color; we shouldn’t see difference. It’s a bad term because it suggests assimilation. And because of the majorly white structural bias of our theater industry, this inevitably means assimilation into whiteness. So it can come with as many good intentions as you like, but it’s a bad term. We have to notice and embrace the differences – not ignore them – in order to be inclusive.
And that means noticing difference as a subtle and individual thing. Not a genre. It’s hard to express how pervasive the idea of what it means to be an authentic artist of color is, and how destabilizing and isolating it can feel to be an artist of color who does not fit that mold. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about whether I should use more explicit autobiography in my work, or whether I should look for issue-led plays to direct, even though that’s not where my artistic enquiry naturally leads me. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to hear that when the artist Vanessa Kisuule asks her contacts where all the Bristol theater makers of color are, my name doesn’t come up. I can’t tell you how downhearted I get when a colleague asks me if I can think of any artists of color we should recommend to some scheme or other, and I have to remind them that I am also an artist of color. I can’t tell you how angry it makes me when a producer states in a meeting that “there are no black people here” WHEN I AM IN THAT MEETING; and they explain it’s because they didn’t want to single me out, and I know it’s because I’m familiar to them, and they sure as hell wouldn’t have failed to acknowledge a person of color in that room, if they didn’t know them. These inattentions come from the best intentions – not to see me as other – but all they do is assimilate me and reinforce the othering of those who are not yet assimilated.
“Does every person of color have to be a race scholar?” This is one of the questions from Selina Thompson’s Race Cards installation. It’s the question I chose to take away with me when I saw it at In Between Time 2017 (I didn’t get to write it down so I hope the wording is correct, but at any rate it’s the question I took away with me). It’s a question I’ve wrestled with most of my life, because I wish the answer was ‘no’, but life constantly tells me otherwise. Thinking about it more deliberately over the last few months, I reckon the most positive response would be for me to try to better understand what sort of race scholar I am. Which will certainly be more rooted in science-fiction than academia; more rooted in England than Sri Lanka; more rooted in culture clash than tradition.
I had a conversation with the singularly awesome Zahra Ash-Harper a few months back, where she noted a difference in her experience of talking with people of African/Caribbean heritage and people of Asian heritage when discussing race consciousness and personal/political identity. She’d noticed less interest (and sometimes active resistance) amongst Asians to developing race consciousness through looking into history or cultural tradition. I totally recognize that resistance in myself. It’s what makes me recoil from titles like Daughters of the Curry Revolution (which if it didn’t have that title would more clearly be read as a frighteningly honest autobiographical story about class and privilege); or A Brimful of Asha, which – although I’ve heard is a pretty self-aware show - I couldn’t bear to even contemplate seeing because its title and publicity image reaffirm so many of the ‘hilarious’ fucking Asian stereotypes I feel I’ve been fighting all my life.
It’s not a problem that these artists choose to signify a general “asianness” in the titles. It’s great that there’s pride in that… but each title is also a frame that shouts ‘ASIAN THING’ and invites you to view the work through whatever your ASIAN THING lens might be. And in my experience, most people’s ASIAN THING lens is pretty damn limited - in part because we see such limited headline images associated with asianness (sari, curry, terrorism, religion, bollywood, terrorism, curry, terrorism).
At what point do our stories get to be universal?
At what point do universal stories get to be authored by us?
I’ve wanted to write about this for YEARS. I’ve bandied around the phrase ‘wrong kind of asian, wrong kind of work’ for ages as shortcut to my sadness at having to fight so hard to be seen as an artist of color because a) I’m very definitely middle class (though only one generation away from working class) and b) I don’t make issue-led or autobiographical work. But it’s not sadness or anger that’s made this difficult to write about: it’s shame. Does the fact that I don’t make work that places identity front and center basically make me a “kalu sudha?” That’s Sinhalese for ‘black white person’ aka coconut aka banana aka many other depressing put-downs.
But I need to get over it and make my story more visible. Because I’ve got a voice and a career in this business – and I want more different people to influence our culture not just at the margins, but all the way through. Because if you want to make art about loneliness in the far future, or from the way that cities sound, or 'what if you found a crashed sled on christmas eve?', or about other people, or whatever curious theme might fascinate you, you can do that, whoever you are. You can bring your perspective and it can be your work.
Selina Thompson talked to me recently about this book: A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand, which explores the nature of identity from a diasporic perspective; about the question: where are you really from?; and about how, if you are of diaspora, you can never have a good enough answer to this question.
It’s perhaps why, as an artist, I’ve never been that interested in authenticity. Honesty, sure – but authenticity? That’s a slippery one for me. I am who I am and that’s the truth. It is my work even if it doesn’t look like your idea of what my work would probably look like. Brown is not a genre. *high five* anyone else who gets to tick: Asian British – Other.
This article was originally written for and published as part of the Sleepdogs Notebook.