Philip Kan Gotanda by David Henry Hwang

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Emily Kuroda and Sala Iwamatsu in Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo. Photo courtesy of Southwest Repertory Theatre.

I first met Philip Kan Gotanda in 1978, when we were both musicians who had also written our first plays. For two years, we concertized together, performing original compositions based on our experiences as Asian Americans. Philip put down his guitar and I my electric violin many years ago, but we’ve remained friends and colleagues over the years. From the rich soil of the Japanese American experience, he has produced a stunning body of work, in which the pains and joys of one community illuminate the humanity of all. He has achieved success as both a playwright and an award-winning filmmaker. His plays range from a musical, The Avocado Kid, to the surrealistic Bullet-Headed BirdsThe Dream of Kitamura, and Day Standing On Its Head, to his hilarious exploration of Asians in Hollywood, Yankee Dawg You Die; and the moving family dramas, Song for a Nisei Fisherman and The Wash, the last of which became a film for American Playhouse. I interviewed Philip as his new play, Ballad of Yachiyo, was in rehearsal at The Joseph Papp Public Theater. Our talk was simply one more installment in an ongoing dialogue which we’ve enjoyed over the past two decades, one I hope will continue for many more.

David Hwang This is a play based on your family history. Can you tell me how you came across this bit of history, and why you decided to make it into a play?

Philip Gotanda It’s one of those secrets that popped up in the course of a dinner conversation. No one wanted to talk about it, and the more they didn’t want to talk about it the more intrigued I became. I set out to find out more about this aunt who had died under mysterious circumstances at a young age. There wasn’t much. I took a trip to Kauai and found two photographs, one of her just before she died, and the other of her funeral. I spent two days in a Japanese cemetery looking for her headstone, but I was never able to find it. It was like searching for something that was connected to my family, to my own history, but not knowing what the story would be like. I just let it surround me and feed my body until the story was ready to be written.

DH Your plays, Song for a Nisei Fisherman and The Wash, have characters based on family members who you know. Is this the first time that you’ve dealt with a family member you’ve never actually met?

PG Yes, but it feels the same. After you’ve thought about a character long enough, they separate from you and become their own entity, they’re no longer a person you knew or didn’t know.

DH That happens with me too, but I sometimes find an advantage in writing something based on a person I know, it helps me hear their voice immediately. Was this harder for you in terms of getting started?

PG Actually, I didn’t think about it, but that’s true, it took me about nine or ten years to eventually write the play because I couldn’t find her voice. Not until a couple of years ago, when my wife Diane went into the hospital—it wasn’t serious, but I stayed with her, and during the course of a night I was able to find a voice that became the first draft of the play. I did have a hard time because it wasn’t grounded in a real person. Eventually, I just let my body absorb and absorb and then abandon it, and at some point it just came forth. That’s the way I like to write.

DH The structure of Yachiyo is interesting. It has a number of themes that could be considered naturalistic, blended with scenes that seem impressionistic, some of which derive from your reinvention of Japanese art forms. Did you write in bits and pieces?

PG I don’t like to work that way, but it did come in bits and pieces, and as a consequence different parts of the play are, form-wise, distinct.

DH You’ve worked with the director, Sharon Ott, for a long time. Like any long relationship, it’s had its ups and downs. I know you guys went through a particularly difficult period about three or four years ago. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, and how you resolved it? Any lessons you learned about what it means to be moving into a more pluralistic society?

PG I don’t know if our relationship mirrors anything other than our relationship and our journey. It’s one of these things where you think you know each other, but as you delve into certain areas, especially in a society such as ours that is so racialized—as you get closer and you’re willing to name things, to point out differences and to say exactly what you mean, you begin to find that you actually aren’t talking about the same things. We were seeing different things. It was very Rashamon-like. We realized we were either going to say we can’tcommunicate—we’ve tried to talk about things that are rather sensitive in nature—race, culture, cultural appropriation—and we can’t sit at the table together, it seems as if we’re worlds apart. Or, and this is what we did, we decided that we’d spent so much time working together, we’d travelled together so long, why not see if we could sit down again and try to pinpoint what was no longer working. And what we came up with was that you really have to figure out a vocabulary to name certain things that sit between you, and know that in some form you’re actually kind of talking about the same thing. The other person is, to some degree, seeing what you’re naming through your eyes. That’s not very easy now, especially in terms of cultural vantage points. There are many areas you just won’t agree upon. And when you come to those areas you have to figure out how to negotiate them. And that’s what you do, you negotiate them knowing that you’re not going to agree. Because what you come up with together is also worthwhile. That’s how you move ahead. And that’s where we are now.

DH You and Sharon were able to work through this process honestly because you had a previous relationship. You had a certain amount of trust in reserve that you were able to call upon in this difficult situation. Most people don’t get to that point with someone of another race.

PG It’s much easier to walk away. Since we can’t even begin to talk about the same thing, since our takes are so radically different, why even try? Now we’re seeing if what we come up with is comfortable for both of us, and if it helps the material.

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Philip Kan Gotanda. Photo by Carol Rosegg. Courtesy of The Public Theater.

DH Anna Deveare Smith once relayed this comment that she had heard: The great racial divide of the 21st century is going to be between whites and Asians on the one hand, and African Americans and Latinos on the other. This suggested that the whole notion of Third World solidarity was going to break down. How do you feel about that?

PG I happen to think things are a lot more complicated. What we’re looking at on the surface may play out totally differently. It’s too early to make that call. I don’t think anyone understands the Asian Americans’ place amidst this white and black culture. There’s something very specific to being Asian American that other peoples aren’t getting, and we haven’t learned how to define it, even amongst ourselves. We’re the Other. We’re always the Other, we can be here forever and we’re still foreign. We’ve impacted the culture, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth generations and still, you walk down the street and someone will look at you, and you will be foreign. That is what disturbs me.

DH Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, that’s the particular burden we bear. The world has been defined by the East/West axis. There were great civilizations in Asia; there were great civilizations in Europe. There’s been this power struggle over the past 700, 800 years between the East and the West for dominance and each has always seen the other as its opposite. Therefore, there is a tendency for Westerners to define themselves in relation to their difference with Asia, which is different from being discounted, in the way that Africans have been.

PG What about this long tradition of the West, of speaking on behalf and as the interpreter of the East. Even now, I’m puzzled by this idea. There’s a very strong trend for whites to write stories about…

DH Yeah, this geisha novel that just came out by a white guy. And there’s Snow Falling on Cedars

PG They make assumptions about Asian Americans and it’s a popular and acceptable thing to do, to speak on behalf of us. Why is that?

DH I think whites feel that they can identify with us more closely than they can with blacks.

PG Why is that?

DH There’s always been a schizophrenia in the way the West looks at the East, and vice versa. But it seems like a battle of relative equals. We’re the adversaries for the West, whereas whites want to believe that blacks or Africans are inferior. A lie promulgated to justify slavery. So it seems to me that the sort of racism that Asians deal with is qualitatively different from the racism that African Americans deal with. I tend to feel that what Asians feel is closer to traditional anti-Semitism: These people have too much. They’re too smart, or they’re not playing by the rules. It’s that kind of enviousness, which you see European civilization’s feeling about Jews throughout history. I don’t know if that explains why it is that white people feel they can write for Asians.

For my money, there are times that I see something done by a non-Asian and it’s good, and I like it. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was written and directed by non-Asians and is more of an Asian American movie than say, the movie version of M. Butterfly. I finally saw The Crimson Kimono the other day, which I thought was great too. Every now and then something comes along, that’s why it’s hard to categorically rule it out. I haven’t read Snow Falling on Cedars. My gut response is that it rubs me the wrong way. But at the same time, it’s unfair to pre-judge the work.

PG I don’t think it’s unfair. Most of the stuff that I’ve read by non-Asians writing about Asian Americans in particular has been bogus. It’s a false voice. However, I did read Snow Falling on Cedars, and I liked it. I thought he was able to capture a world, and certainly some of the Japanese American characters were pretty well wrought, which surprised me. I kept thinking, how does this guy know so much? Is he really close to this world? But obviously, he is someone who has really done his homework. To me, it’s always been a matter of: Do your homework and be committed to the extent that you can capture that world. I think I’m open.

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Emily Kuroda as Okusan and Yunjin Kim as Yachiyo. Photos from Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo. Photos by Patrick Bennett. Courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theater.

DH I want to ask you about writer’s block. We’ve all been through…

PG When did you have your writer’s block?

DH Between ‘82 and ’85, I didn’t write anything. And your writer’s block was four years ago, I remember talking to you at the time. How did you get out of it and what do you think it was about?

PG I think, in fact, that it is what’s supposed to happen. You’ve invented a world and learned a facile way of allowing these things to come out of you in a way that’s structured and formed. And if you travel that road enough, use the same sort of architecture, it gets stale. You have to break the model. You have to figure out a way to reinvent yourself. I have to do that about every ten years. At the time, I thought it was the end of the world; looking back on it, I realize it’s just part of the journey. For me it was a matter of going out and deconstructing myself, ripping myself apart and seeing what would happen. And gradually finding little things that began to interest me, and building on them until I felt that without even knowing it, I was doing it again. In some ways it had all the stuff that I had had before, but it felt fresh. How did you work your way through it?

DH Gosh, it’s hard to really say how it happens, you sort of live your life…

PG You stumble along and things happen all around you…

DH Yeah, and then you put something together. I wrote Rich Relations to get out of the block, and then very soon after that came M. Butterfly. But I do believe that you have to redefine yourself every few years as a writer. And to some extent, even though I’m pretty active now, I feel like that’s what I’m presently going through.

PG Really?

DH Yeah. I’m a bit bored with what it is that I’ve been doing. And as you know, that’s not a good thing for a writer to be. Although so far it hasn’t actually stopped me from putting words on the page, I feel that I’m also simultaneously trying to figure out…I just want to do something different.

PG I’ve always viewed you as being a facile writer. You once said to me that your problem isn’t that it stops coming, but rather you’re not sure whether what comes out is good or not.

DH The artistic content of my work has always been intertwined with my professional ambition. So, at this point in my life you could say there’s a part of me that’s engaged in trying to figure out how to follow up M. Butterfly, and I’ve been involved with that for almost 10 years now. It’s not the best impulse artistically, but on the other hand, that ambition, the desire to build on a career, has been with me from the beginning. And it puts an extra little spin on everything that I do.

PG I’m just the opposite. Every time I try to marry my ambitions with the work, I get into trouble. When I do my work I have to let whatever is there come out; let it be seen and judged on its own terms. And, it doesn’t necessarily get me, in terms of my ambitions, where I would like to be, but that’s fine. I accept it because I realize I can’t do it any other way.

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Sab Shimono as Papa and Yunjin Kim as Yachiyo.

DH Speaking of ambition and success, I read this quote from Wayne Wang in Variety, he’s promoting his movie Chinese Box with Gong Li and Jeremy Irons, and he said, “I grew up on movies like The World of Suzie Wang and Love is a Many Splendored Thing. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a romance between an Asian woman and a Western man in a movie…” We have both worked with Wayne, we knew him when he was a community worker, but that’s a really weird statement. How do you think mainstream success changes us?

PG I don’t know Wayne that well, but we’ve shared the same space quite a few times. I have a feeling he was misquoted, because we know that that is the norm; to see a Western man and an Asian woman. I do know that you have to, every step of the way, be careful about the choices you’re making. Because as you make them they change you, and you start to lose the ability to see the world in the way you might have seen it before. You literally become transformed in toto. If you go along with the commercial machine thinking, “I’m just going to do it to get the money, I’m not going to get changed…” Well, I don’t think you can do that.

DH I agree with you, but I also feel that it’s not a question of whether you change, it’s a question of how you change, because we all change. I don’t want to see the world in the same way that I did when I was twenty, I want to see the world now that I’m forty. It’s more a question of how we negotiate those changes, to maintain some consistency with the person we were before.

PG I think this has to do with the way you and I go about our work and our lives, how we found what works best for each of us. In a very literal sense, your whole body, your being, is transformed. You have to be careful, you build your life, not only your work.

DH Well, there’s “the personal is the political.” Conversely, the political is the personal. Whatever personal choices you make are going to have some bearing on your politics. I’m in an interracial marriage, I have a Eurasian son, and that affects the way I see and analyze the world politically. And is it better? Is it worse? It’s simply different, it’s a choice.

Let’s talk about your films. You’ve made a few successful films as a writer and director, and in one of them you were the lead actor…

PG They’re short films.

DH What’s your next film?

PG Gioconda Smile. I’m going to shoot it as soon as I get back—around March of this coming year—in San Francisco. I’ve been trying to raise money for this other film, Otto, I took out to Sundance for the screenwriter’s and filmmaker’s labs.

DH Can you say what Gioconda Smile is about?

PG It’s about a man who is emotionally dead inside. He discovers he’s dying, and he sets out to change his life. And small choices send him on this strange journey, where he wins a free ticket to Uzbekistan. He brings an odd young man back with him who forces him to change and become something very different from what he was. Ultimately, he learns how to live. And thus, by knowing how to live, he can finally die. The central character, Harry, is very attracted to Mona Lisa’s smile and he’s not sure why.

DH And have you cast?

PG Yeah. Sab Shimono is going to play the central character.

DH There’s a group of people who figure pretty consistently in your artistic life. Is that a conscious goal of yours?

PG It hasn’t been, but I do like to be comfortable when I work. I like to make sure that people understand my work and I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining it. I’ve never felt it was worthwhile to put up with a person’s ego or bad temper. If I work with a person and I like them and their work, and they understand my work, then I’ll work with them again because it’s easier. And since I offer them the opportunity to do things with their craft that they aren’t given a chance to do elsewhere, they’ll make themselves available. You and I know that in theater it’s hard to get good actors, experienced actors, to give up the T.V. pilot or film to be in a play.

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Yunjin Kim as Yachiyo and Greg Wantanabe as Willie Higa.

DH To some extent I feel that it was easier to cast these plays ten or twenty years ago, because people were younger, and weren’t as interested in having Hollywood careers. Now they’re more accomplished and there are more opportunities.

What do you feel you can do as a writer/director in film that compliments your life as a playwright?

PG It’s a whole different track. For example, I’ve decided I’m not going to direct theater anymore. It takes up a hell of a lot of time, and if I’m going to direct, I’ll direct film. Theater will be where I write. I’ve divided the two up: In theater, some other person finds the money and produces it; and in independent filmmaking, I have to go out and raise the money. I have to put it all together. I know you’re asking about the art part of it, the aesthetic approach.

DH That was the question, but this is all relevant.

PG Trying to make a film work is really, really hard. I have to allow more space in between the points of logic in film. It has to breathe a lot more, and not be quite so tight in how the plot points and narrative fall together. A lot of theater does not work in film, they’re very different mediums. Especially this idea of space, allowing things to breathe, so that they almost happen on screen as if you’re not realizing that things are fitting together. And slowly, slowly they gather…

DH I have this term, “The tyranny of verisimilitude.” What I find with film is that it’s difficult to be metaphorical. On stage, because of the curtain rising, it’s a living room but you know it’s not a living room. Whereas in film, you have this kind of fly-on-the-wall feeling, like you’re seeing something that’s really happening. And so it feels more literal or naturalistic. That metaphorical approach on film can work, as in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. But it’s very rare, and it’s hard to pull off. Is play-writing still interesting to you?

PG Very much so. That’s the fun thing for me right now, I enjoy both. I’m writing and making films exactly the way I want to. It may be a 45 minute film and be seen only on a film festival circuit, and that doesn’t bother me at all. I still take tremendous satisfaction and get very excited about the fact that this is my film, my vision. And for theater, I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write about and I’ve been able to find theaters to produce them.

DH You sound very content and excited about what you’re doing.

PG I am. It’s not jump up and down, it’s simply that I like my life. I get up every day and I do my work. I do art. That’s all I do. I like doing my work, sitting in cafés drinking coffee, watching movies, and then writing and creating. That’s a simple life, and it’s a good one.

DH Your play, Day Standing On Its Head, seems to suggest that one cannot keep living in the glory days of Third World Movement politics.

PG That play mirrored what I was going through. It was right around the time of the L.A. uprisings. Third World politics and perspective were so much a part of my life, that formative time when I was going to college—Chicanos, African Americans, Asians all struggling together. It was very hard for me to realize that that model didn’t apply anymore; it no longer worked as a way to understand the world. I always felt that the Third World Movement empowered me. I felt very much a part of something, something that was changing everything in America. And that it would change made me strong. Suddenly, I felt powerless because I now had no way to understand the world. I had nothing to hold on to, and that for me was very terrifying. Especially if you’ve lived for such a long time feeling like you knew, you understood…

DH It was almost like losing a religion.

PG Yeah. I was shifted from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican view of the universe, where you’re no longer the center of the world.

DH And do you feel that that shake up—ultimately has been good for you, artistically?

PG It’s provided me with growth in the way I view the world, my politics. You build on ideas, and you make them fit your body and the way you view the world. I’d made them such a part of this tight thing I’d built—everything had to shatter. And that allowed me to rebuild in a manner that was more in concert with what was happening in the moment, as opposed to what was happening five, ten years ago.

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Lane Nishikawa as Hiro Takamura and Yunjin Kim as Yachiyo.

DH You and I are sometimes considered second wave Asian Pacific American playwrights. The first wave being Frank Chin, and Wakako Yamamuchi and Monoko Iko. Do you keep track of third wave Asian Pacific American playwrights? Is there someone that you’re particularly attracted to as a writer or playwright?

PG Not off the top of my head. But that should be understood within the context that I’m not impressed with myself either. I don’t see anyone that’s doing something new and real that I don’t understand, but speaks to something that’s happening in the moment. There are a couple of Japanese American filmmakers on the cutting edge, Jon Moritsugu and Gregg Araki, who are doing things that are radically different. I find that exciting.

DH Now Gregg Araki, as far as I know, does not identify himself particularly as an Asian American filmmaker. His identity is more in the gay thing.

PG But I look at his work, and whether he likes it or not, there’s a certain lineage that he carries inside of his genes. I feel certain things about his work.

DH The quality of the next generation’s work does not necessarily hinge on whether or not they identify themselves as Asian Pacific Americans. Someone like Araki, who’s not seemingly interested in the issues that we were interested in, still feels like the next step in this evolution.

PG That’s my sense too. In fact, if they’re tied in too closely to what you and I are doing, then they’re not the next wave, they’re not the really big jump that I think you and I are looking to see, that would make us sit up. It makes sense that the next grouping is the one that denies what we, the generation before, have done.

DH At this moment, a lot of the major Asian American theaters seem to be in trouble. AATC in San Francisco doesn’t have a season, East-West Players in L.A. is suspending staff salaries, Pan Asian in New York has this budget gap. If some of these traditional theaters go, do you think that the mainstream theaters will pick up the slack, or do you think that new Asian American theaters will spring up from the next generation?

PG I know that funding is a major factor and some of these theaters are having a hard time, but I think there is something else happening too, that in fact that model has run its course. What it speaks to and what it represents has had its day. The ideas that they’re putting forth aren’t as relevant as they were twenty years ago, and perhaps it’s only the natural evolution that these theaters should die off and that something else will come in its place. I sometimes feel like we’re trying to prop something up that isn’t meant to be propped up anymore. It did wonderful, amazing things, you and I grew out of it. But now there needs to be something that allows a newer, younger, fresher vision to grow. Whether the bigger theaters will pick up the slack, I’m not sure. But I do believe that, as with Gregg Araki and Jon Moritsugu, they’ll surface. If there is anything worthwhile to say, there are windows of opportunity. People will look at it if you’re Asian American, whereas before that wasn’t the case. Now there’s a much better chance of starting something new and knowing that you’ll get a certain amount of attention. If the ideas are good enough, and relevant enough, and of the moment, they’ll flourish.

A Tony and two-time Obie winner, David Henry Hwang’s plays include FOB, The Dance & the Railroad, M. Butterfly, and Golden Child, the last of which will open on Broadway in the spring of 1998.

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Originally published in

BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

Read the issue
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