Why You Need to Pick up A Pen/Brush/Camera

When Jeff Daniels’ documentary about Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer was scheduled to be shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2009, the Chinese consulate requested that the film be withdrawn. Festival organizers refused. In response, a number of Chinese directors pulled out of the festival and hackers—posting the Chinese flag, among other actions—managed to shut down the festival website.

Not only did the Chinese government disagree with the content of the film, they did not want the film to be shown at all. This incident brought to mind what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie has called “the danger of  the single story.” Adichie says:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Adichie argues that people hold in their minds a single story of a place or a people, and that is not only wrong, but also dangerous. Adichie mentions her American college roommate asking to hear some of Adichie’s “tribal music” and being confused when Adichie pulled out Mariah Carey. The roommate had only a single story of what being African meant.

In the case of the Kadeer documentary, the Chinese government was attempting to define the single story of the Uighur people and quiet the other stories that might emerge—stories that would illuminate to the world the struggle of the Uighur population, stories that would allow others to see their humanity without the veil of the Chinese government’s single story. And once others saw that these people were just like them, and that their struggle was perhaps similar to one the viewer was engaged in—what might happen then? What can understanding another’s voice do in the struggle for liberation?

No wonder the government insisted on the single story.

This idea of the power of stories is also something we can think about in terms of Asian Americans in the media.

In 1984, a Utah-born American named Gary changed his name to Gedde and took the role of a character named Long Duk Dong in the teen movie Sixteen Candles. Long Duk Dong was an exchange student. He was the stereotypical Asian nerd, in high-waisted pants and an argyle sweater, his hair parted neatly on the side. He spoke with a heavy accent of indeterminate origin and said things like, “No more yankie my wankie. The Donger need food.”

Long Duk Dong is a man who never dies. I have seen him in many incarnations over the years—last summer, in fact, I saw him as a flamboyant Chinese gangster with a high-pitched voice leaping naked out of the trunk of a car in the movie The Hangover.

We must consider how images like this—when this is the “single story” a non-Asian may have of Asian Americans—may affect the political and social treatment of Asian Americans.

Furthermore, the idea of one story applies to the story of Taiwan as it is told in America. In 1937, Time proclaimed Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and his wife Madame Chiang “Man and Wife of the Year.” Later, Chiang Kai Shek—as leader of “Free China”—as opposed to “Red China”—was considered a special ally of the United States in its fight against communism. Taiwan was called America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” There was a single story of Taiwan, which made it possible to ignore the decades of martial law, and the suppression of human rights and democratic movements.

I can’t help but wonder how the history of Taiwan might have changed if there had sooner been more voices—like journalist Henry Liu, who wrote critically about the KMT and was subsequently murdered in 1984 in Daly City by gangsters connected to Taiwan’s government—who were courageous enough to put forward stories that challenged the dominant one.

When my novel Water Ghosts, about a small Chinese farming community on the Sacramento River Delta,  was being sent to publishers in New York in 2008, I received the following rejection:

I just acquired an Asian historical novel a few weeks ago, and while the two novels are very, very different from each other (in other words, I don’t see them being competitors in the wider marketplace), it would be hard for me to publish two such novels set during the same time period on the same list here—I’m worried they would be viewed too similarly by our sales force.

The editor was saying, delicately, that the only real similarity between the books was their “Asian-ness,” and there was room for just one of that kind of story.

Things are changing—in our own community, we boast an array of amazing people working in media—but I still look forward to a day when there are so many stories that we can’t even contain them under the label “Asian American,” when there are so many crowding voices that we will push our way off the single shelf allotted to us.

Whoever has the power can control the story—but we should remember that the converse can also be true: whoever tells the story can have the power. This task is not only for the artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and writers of our community.

As an audience, too, we must demand these stories; we must fight for these stories. We all need these stories—not because they are Asian American stories, or even American stories, but because they are our only hope of seeing the world as it truly is.

[This piece is adapted from a talk given February 6, 2010 in Santa Clara, California as a lead-in to a special presentation of the cast & crew from Formosa Betrayed.]

Leave a Reply