You may have heard of David Henry Hwang. You know, the man with three Tonys on his shelf and over forty works in theatre, film, and television under his belt. The man who gave us M. Butterfly, FOB, and Chinglish. The man who has very well become the face of the Asian-American presence in the entertainment and arts industry and a source of inspiration for young, aspiring, Asian-American artists. Wonderfully candid and earnestly introspective, David Henry Hwang shares with us his thoughts on art, activism, and being Asian-American.
An Interview with David Henry Hwang
by Jo Chiang
Jo Chiang: Throughout your career, you have been both activist and artist, sometimes even acting as both at the same time. How do these two identities intersect for you in your life and work?
David Henry Hwang: I started writing at a time when the term “Asian American” was fairly new, and identifying as such implied a progressive engagement with political and social issues. That has been the soil from which much of my work has sprung. As the years have passed, I’ve worked on many projects that have not explicitly addressed political or social themes. But even in those cases, I’ve continued to seek opportunities to challenge my audiences to see the world differently. So for me, the identities of artist and activist are pretty much one and the same.
JC: How has your identity as an Asian-American impacted your experience working in the theatre industry?
DHH: At the beginning of my career, I thought being Asian American helped me, because I was writing about a subject relatively new to the American theatre (despite the impressive and inspiring work of so-called “first wave” APA playwrights such as Wakako Yamauchi, Frank Chin, C.Y. Lee, and Momoko Iko). Then there came a middle period where I felt hemmed-in by the “Asian American” label. Once I started to do both Asian and non-ethnic-specific work, however, I found myself in the fortunate position of having the freedom to write about any subject in which I was interested. At this point in my career, I think the only limitation of being an Asian American playwright is that some theatres, particularly in parts of America that hasn’t historically had a large Asian community, tend to shy away from producing my plays, for fear they can’t cast them (which has never actually proven the case).
JC: Many young Asian-Americans struggle with not wanting to be defined solely by their race while at the same time not wanting their experiences as a cultural minority to be erased. How do you find the balance in your life?
DHH: I feel I’ve struggled with the exact same issue throughout my life and career. In some sense, we want to acknowledge our heritage, without being defined or pigeon-holed by it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s useful to think of cultural background as one factor in a myriad of influences that make us who we are – important, but not solely defining. Culture is family writ large. Just as our family backgrounds predispose us towards certain attitudes and behaviors, so does our culture. We can choose to reject these early influences, or accept them, but they will always be one part of our past.
JC: What do you think we can do as activists and artists to educate others without alienating potential allies?
DHH: I think it’s important as artists to remain humanistic at all times. Being humanistic as artists means that we create characters as rich and three-dimensional as possible; I believe that’s the best way to battle stereotypes, which are essentially bad writing. Being humanistic as people means that we recognize the three-dimensionality of our audiences, whether they are potential allies, or even staunch opponents. It also means listening, and remaining open to being educated by others, even as we try to educate others.
JC: What advice would you give you and up and coming Asian-Americans who want to go into the arts?
DHH: No one knows what’s commercial, no one knows what critics or audiences are going to like. In a way, this is a good thing, because it forces us to fall back on creating work we really believe in, and walking artistic paths which are journeys of self-discovery. If we do that, then everything else – commercial or critical success – becomes merely icing on the cake. The approval of others should never be the cake itself.