The Definition of a Tragedy: Race and the Imagination within 2018 America

It was 2008, and we were in the midst of campaign season, one we'd never quite seen the likes of before. A woman was opposing a Black candidate for the democratic nomination for the office of the President of the United States for the first time in history.

It was 2008, and we were in the midst of campaign season, one we’d never quite seen the likes of before. A woman was opposing a Black candidate for the democratic nomination for the office of the President of the United States for the first time in history.

Tony Kushner was giving an interview in Houston at the Alley Theatre. When he was asked to speak about the campaign, about this peculiar and particular moment in the United States, he said something I’ve never quite forgotten. I didn’t write it down, and so forgive me, it won’t be a direct quote. Kushner said that it was the definition of a tragedy to have this remarkable moment be one in which one underdog was pitted against another. He was a little bit sad to witness it occur in the same campaign.


This quote came to mind the other day when reading the various critical responses to the contemporary romantic comedy featuring an all-Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians, both formally via popular media and other news outlets as well as those informally published by friends and colleagues through social media.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the complexities of Asian representation this summer, how exciting it is to have Pixar’s Bao, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before featured all in the same season, after such a long absence.

I’ve been thinking about the criticism both Jenny Han and Celeste Ng have faced with regards to their portrayals of interracial marriages and relationships (especially those between Asian women and white men) on Twitter, particularly given what it’s meant for me to read them as a half-Asian and a product of an interracial marriage between an Asian father and a white mother.

I’ve been thinking about David Mura’s new book of craft essays on race and identity, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing.

I’ve been thinking of how much comfort East Asian bodies have derived from the representation depicted in Crazy Rich Asians, and how erased Southeast Asian bodies have felt from those same depictions.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s meant for Black bodies (at least, those who I’ve seen write about how it’s made them feel) to see Awkwafina’s Blaccent used as a mere trope for a sidekick character, especially for a film in which no Black bodies are present. [https://www.colorlines.com/articles/performing-blackness-wont-fill-our-asian-american-culture-deficit-op-ed]

But, mostly, I’ve been thinking about how few sincere Asian representations have existed on a Hollywood screen, and how much pressure is placed upon the few that do exist. And how that pressure, especially regarding Asian and Asian-American bodies, interacts with the historical legacy and pressure of the model minority myth and the pressures many Asian American children have faced from their parents and elders in order to succeed, in order to make something of the sacrifices their parents made for that very success.

When I read both Crazy Rich Asians, Little Fires Everywhere, and To All the Boys I Loved Before, I wouldn’t say I saw myself in its pages. Not exactly. I mostly appreciated how Crazy Rich Asians took on the trope of the romantic comedy, a genre I enjoy, for better and for worse, and intersected it with multiple Asian environments, languages, and cultural identities. Given that I am a half-Chinese/half-white queer artist who does not understand Mandarin but feels weirdly at home as well as an outsider whenever I am around it, it was strangely comforting, familiar in its partial foreignness. Just like in my own experiences with my father and his community, it was a little incomprehensible, a little recognizable.

Given that teen romances are often fantasy narratives, I related to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before‘s Lara Jean’s shyness and innocence, complicated by her sense of agency in the fake dating plot. Sure, she ends up with the jock, but to have an Asian girl made visible in such a white-centered trope historically felt like an act of resistance. Plus, she was half-Asian! I had so many feelings imagining the young half-Asian girls who would finally see themselves in such a candied delight. Not only that, but I loved an epistolary trope that wasn’t really about the letters, in the end.

Celeste Ng’s work made the intersection between white suburbia and Asian identity so rich, so psychologically complex. She dug deeper into the structures of race that surround these intersection in ways that really helped me investigate my own.

When I read Crazy Rich Asians, I wasn’t thinking, just yet, about what it would mean to make these bodies visible on a cinematic screen, and who would inevitably be reduced by this classist tale. I certainly never imagined Peik Lin with a Black affect, or as a character who would offer a comic relief. It was satire, and for me, it felt as if poking fun at the classism within an identity that often, at least in American film and television, doesn’t get to have more than one dimension. I truly hope its success will make it only that much easier to have multiple narratives featuring Asian America in all its colors, all its variations. But to have a film that reduces any character to a Black sidekick, or Southeast Asia to a Western-framed image relegated to opening doors and serving food to the elite, or the chosen pale-skinned class.

As Viet Thanh Nguyen states regarding the need for Asian Americans to have narrative plenitude:

If and when we achieve an economy of narrative plenitude, a bad movie about Asian-Americans will just be a bad movie. An excellent movie would be great, but a mediocre one will be no big deal. A mediocre movie about Asian-Americans will not kill careers or be seen as a failure of and for Asian-Americans, just as a mediocre movie by and about white people says nothing about white people.

The real test of narrative plenitude is when we have the luxury of making mediocre movies. And after having made mediocre movies, we would be rewarded with the opportunity to make even more mediocre movies, just as Hollywood continues to make enormous numbers of mediocre movies about white people, and specifically white men.

That is one measure of equality — the right to be mediocre and rewarded for it, rather than the demand, placed on Asian-Americans and “Crazy Rich Asians,” to be exceptional just to be seen. [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/crazy-rich-asians-movie.html]

This brings me back to Kushner’s statement that a tragedy, as he defined it, is when one underdog is pitted against the other. There was much I felt comforted in by the depiction of Asian and Asian Americans against the backdrop of the rom com, especially because it was the rom com, a light and fluffy pleasure ride that I had taken so many times as a young girl up through adulthood, with its cringe-worthiness. That even we didn’t have to be perfect all the time. But I became troubled by the way in which this depiction inevitably pitted East and Southeast Asians against one another. How could I sing this flawed film’s praises to the rooftops when my other brothers and sisters were being reduced in ways  all too familiar, yet via a Asian novelist and an Asian director, ever more impossible to ignore?

I found myself hoping for what Nguyen speaks of, that with more and more and more Asian-centered films, maybe we, too, could get to our own versions reminiscent of Black Panther and Moonlight.

Mura states in A Stranger’s Journey that “[I]f writing is a search for language, it is also a search for identity. We write to articulate who we are, to describe our sense of the world.”

As I think through my own ways of making the invisible body visible in these ways, largely through my work in queer Asian young adult/adult crossover fiction, it seems to me that as writers we need to give serious consideration to all the bodies we include in our texts, not just our main characters. Who is it we’re revealing to the outside world? What is it, exactly, we hope to articulate about who we are?