Jude Narita is an actress, a playwright, and the star of the one-woman-show Coming Into Passion: Song for a Sansei. The show weaves together a set of uncannily real impressions, ranging from a Filipino mail order bride to a backtalking sansei adolescent, to create a portrait of Asian America that is sad, shocking, and side-splittingly funny. A. Magazine.'s Anita Chang gave Jude a chance to take aim at some of her pet peeves.
You could just start by talking a little about yourself -- what it was like growing up Asian.
That's interesting, "growing up Asian." I think I just grew up -- in a fairly white neighborhood. I think a lot of how you grow up is affected by what you see around you. When you're a child, or a young adult, you're especially affected by television. When I was growing up, there were no Asians on television, nor was there any sense of pride of being Asian presented in the media. I was telling somebody else that I couldn't work with an accent when I first started out as an actor. Even after I'd been acting and studying for years, I never did an Asian accent. In my mind there was something distasteful about that, 'cause if you heard an Asian accent on television or in film, it meant something bad. It was the enemy, it was sneaky, evil; it was somebody who is going to torture somebody, or somebody you couldn't trust, or somebody who was stupid -- or a prostitute. There was nothing good about an Asian accent. That's a simplified way of putting how I felt.
You grew up in California?
I grew up in Long Beach, California. There's an Asian community there that's been networking for a long time -- and I was never involved in it. I'd be at home, and there'd be these meetings at the house -- y'know, the whole house would be full of Asians and I would just say, "Hi, guys." I felt that I was an artist and that politics didn't concern me. What I've learned since then is that politics is your art. Your art consists of your morality, your ideals, but definitely your politics, which is basically just your perception of the world: what's right in the world, what's wrong, and how it should be. Without that, you have no self-definition. So, I'd say that I sort of backed into growing up Asian.
You mean, you came in touch with your Asian American identity a little later.
Well, I came in touch with it not by default, but sort of with everybody else pushing it in my face -- saying that I couldn't go out for this or that part, because it wasn't an Asian character. Look around, and you'll run into Asians at every level in business, and every level in life. For them to be portrayed on television as, basically, three things -- newscasters, which is very recent, villagers, which is also very recent, and prostitutes, which is how it's been -- that's misrepresentation. Not to be able to act for years; to feel like, when you see something, that you could do it better...If you're not allowed to act, when the opportunity comes up to act in something, even though it's crap, you might do it. Where do you draw the line? You want to act, and you begin to feel like the part might not be that bad. But within the full context of the things, maybe the part is damaging. Maybe it's irresponsible to do that part. Where can the actor who hasn't worked in a year go?
It's a real short step from being told that you can't do what you love the most because of what you look like, to hating what you look like, to hating yourself. Those are very short steps.
How did that affect you?
I read a lot of plays during my student years; I was looking for a monologue, and I couldn't find one that meshed with what I looked like, whether it was Asian or not, that had something contemporary to say. So I wrote one, and I got such good feedback that I started writing more. It was by accident that I turned what was up until then a detriment, how I looked, into something that was part of the weaponry of an artist. The total arsenal of the artist. It changed my whole outlook on everything. It brought me around to "being Asian," not only being proud of being Asian, but being like a bullet about it. Being like a bullet from a gun about being Asian, as far as "Just get out of my way. Don't try to stop me." People respond to that and respect it. They don't want wishy-washy, middle of the road stuff. They want "X." Be defined. State your philosophy and don't be afraid of offending anybody. If people choose to be offended because they choose to misinterpret it, that's their problem. But if you're putting out something that is honest and reflective of reality, then that is not in and of itself offensive. There are things in reality that are distasteful, that can be dark. Talking about them doesn't mean that you've created them.
Do people refer to you as an "angry artist"? How do you feel about that?
Anger is a justified part of what feeds the artist. I don't think an artist should be driven by anger, but I really think it's a part of it. It's a package deal, and anger is in there. Anger and inspiration and love and compassion. It's like volcanos; volcanos aren't evil. Volcanos are how the earth is building itself again.
Do you have any concerns about the direction in which Asian America is going?
I think that Asians have started to disassociate...There's this one thing about Asians: it is important for us to be seen as individuals because we constantly get lumped together. We get collapsed together as Asians or 'Orientals' in any slur. It can be about driving -- bad drivers, anybody can be a bad driver. All kinds of people have cameras. A lot of countries make good cars. But what has happened in the media is that this hysteria that is being created where somebody has to be a scapegoat. And Japan happens to be the scapegoat, and what has happened is that Asian Americans are getting a backlash. Violence against Asian Americans -- this is being perpetuated by the media. By their misrepresentation of facts about the economy. Nobody's forcing anybody to buy anything. People are taking their hard-earned money, they're looking at the statistics, and they're asking people "What should I spend my money on?" -- whether it's an entertainment center, a camera, or a car. The thing that hurt the American auto industry is not Japan -- it was greed, management greed. That's what hurt it. No changeover in the factory line until it was too late. None of this is represented at all. This is dangerous. It's inflammatory journalism. And it feeds on this war attitude that has existed for generations -- as in, Asians have always been the enemy.
It's this love/hate relationship.
Right, right. It's the same traits that Americans are so proud of: "Build a better mousetrap." Or, "If you work really hard, you can succeed." My dad worked 20 hours a day when he first came over here. And yet, look at the Koreans, they're in trouble, what, because they cleaned up these delis and made them beautiful. And their families work in them, and they work long hours. Everything's presented in a positive light about white Americans and the negative aspect of the same characteristic, the negative name, if it's a non-white. The Japanese pilots who crashed and died in their planes were crazy, yet an American pilot who did that was a hero.
What I resent is that things are mocked if they're not white, like the Japanese management schools. People make fun of them, and yet they take the idea. There are American management schools structured in exactly the same way now, but that doesn't make the news. I call that misinformation and misrepresentation. It makes me very angry. I resent having qualities that people mock because of ignorance, of jealousy...economic jealousy and ignorance. I resent people being mocked because they are trying to speak a different language.
What are your suggestions for Asian Americans or any persons of color who want to pursue a career in art?
Well, you start with yourself and your feelings about things. You reach out, think, and wonder. What happens to you, to people you love, know and respect -- that's important. There are basic stories: you're born, you live, you marry, you love and raise children, you die. It's circumstance that makes the difference. When this guy told me, "Well, I'm writing this piece about this couple, and they're in love blah, blah, blah...", I said "Yeah, yeah. Are they Asian?" and he went, "No they're not, because I don't think I can get backing for it." I told him, "There aren't that many Asian writers. Let the white people write white, y'know!" And I guess I was so strong that he started backing out of the room -- "It was nice seeing you again, Jude," -- and he was out like a bullet. In the end I shouted out to him, "Well, at least make one of them Asian. Make it the woman!" But that was before I was really writing myself, and I realized that you can't ask or expect anybody else to do it for you.
What do you think about Asian American art? Is there such a thing? How about Asian American artists who try so hard to get away from being identified as Asian, who instead say "Just take my art for what it is"?
In the big sense, art is art, and I think we get into sticky waters when we say "Black artists" or "Asian artists." I think that, fundamentally, you're just an artist. Of course, your culture, your lack of culture, your identity, your sense of self-pride, your sense of self-hate -- they all combine to make your artistic statement. And at different times in your life, you have different levels of maturity as an artist.
Art is not elitist. Art is not "Guess what I'm saying," endure this culture, that experience, pay money and I'll make you feel like an idiot. Art speaks about the common things. It speaks about love, sorrow, dreams, desire, hope, regrets, and the human condition striving to become better. To become Godlike, in the sense that the artist speaks to something in everybody, and of course, people respond to different things; some respond to music, some to drawing, to the written word, to dance -- but there are universal responses. That's why there are universal images: poses of lovers, or of a mother and child. In any country, people know what they mean.
So where do you see yourself going?
I see myself always acting. I see myself continuing to write -- reluctantly, because writing is really hard for me -- in the sense of sitting down and doing it. I have to research, and ideas have to spark. And some ideas work, and some don't. The pieces that work well, and other writers will tell you this too, it's like something just shoots through you, through your hand. You're the tool, you're tapped into the source, and you just go "Thank you."
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