Last month, Oriental DreamWorks held its Brain Trust Summit in Shanghai. The third edition of the annual event, each year ODW brings international storytellers including writers, actors, comedians and visual artists to China. The focal point of their visit is always an open-house forum at the ODW studio. The bigger Chinese studios pretty much all work with US talent on some level, but ODW is the only one to my knowledge that brings Hollywood writers and creators to China for non-profit educational events.
This year, the forum centred on the theme “Stories Without Borders”. It was a cosy affair with about 80 guests on the night, but it featured a lot of good stuff which I thought deserved to be shared with a wider audience. I’ve written up a few of the more insightful comments below.
ODW CCO Peilin Chou, Adele Lim, Sheng Wang, Grace Lin, Jade Chang, Andrew Law, ODW Director Development Justin Huang
The forum was hosted by ODW Director of Development, Justin Huang, who also led the event organisation. The five speakers, all Asia-American, were:
– Adele Lim. A TV writer & producer. The showrunner and executive producer on The CW’s Starcrossed. Lim recently wrote the screenplay adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians for Warner Bros and has also written for series dramas including Las Vegas, One Tree Hill, Private Practice and Lethal Weapon.
– Grace Lin. A New York Times bestselling author and illustrator who has won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Tingand a National Book Award Finalist for When the Sea Turned to Silver.
– Sheng Wang. A writer and standup comedian whose TV appearances include Comedy Central Presents, Totally Biasedwith W. Kamau Bell and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. A Top Ten Finalist on Last Comic Standing, Wang currently writes for the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
– Jade Chang. Author of The Wangs vs. the World, named a New York Times Editors Choice as well as a Best Book of the Year by Amazon, Buzzfeed, Elle, and NPR, and awarded the VCU/Cabell First Novelist prize.
– Andrew Law. A writer for NBC’s The Good Placeand HBO’s Silicon Valley and previously for Late Night with Seth Meyers. As an actor, he has appeared on 30 Rock, recurred as Owen on HBO’s Looking and currently appears on HBO’s Divorce.
Q: What are the characteristics of a globally relatable character?
You’re always asking yourself: what does this character want and what is motivating them to get what they want? Every good story starts from a place of emotion, because otherwise, you’re just talking about plot, about story moods. Without the motivation, without the root cause of why emotionally they want to go from Point A to Point B, it’s a pointless story.
Q: From where do you draw inspiration?
The trick is trying to find something that is super original and true to yourself, but completely relatable to an audience full of people. You hear comedians telling the same jokes over and over but how do you find an original take on something that we’ve all experienced before? It’s about honing in on your own specific attitude towards everything you are observing.
When you listen to other people’s experiences, you realise that the breadth and scope of human experience is infinite. People are so unpredictable. Even when you think you know what they’re going to do, or what they’re going to think, they always surprise you. When people tell me an interesting story, I am filing it away in my head. There are little details about what people do that you keep in this trove and then you use it to breathe life into the characters that you create, whether they are humans or pandas or aliens… and people can always sense when it’s true.
There’s this old adage of “write what you know”, but I think instead you should write what you want to know. Do you want to know more about a story that you heard?
When it’s a world you have to live in for so long, writing what you want to know is a form of wish fulfilment. I give my characters jobs that I wish that I had.
Sometimes you need to step away and take a break rather than just keep hammering at the same thing. You actually have to live your life in order to have experiences which you are able to draw from.
There are a lot of struggles to being a writer, but one of the major benefits is that nothing truly bad can happen to you that doesn’t have a latent benefits to your craft. Heartbreaking breakups, disease, death – it’s from the harshest reality and grief that the best inspiration comes, because you are truly moved. You can really turn something that is a terrible tragedy into something that brings light into somebody’s life.
In America, for a long time, it was really difficult to try to get stories out that are about immigrants or people of colour that weren’t stories of pain and sorrow. The only stories that publishers wanted to buy were stories of slavery, of my grandmother’s foot binding, of how I felt like I couldn’t fit in. But I had another story that felt was so much more true to my life, in which I felt like I was central to the story of America. I didn’t feel like an outsider, I didn’t feel marginalized. I knew many other people also felt that way. I always want to write about the world as it is, but in a way that I haven’t seen expressed yet. It’s a way that I am living, that my friends are living, the way people around me are experiencing the world, but somehow publishers haven’t bought those stories yet.
Q: The word “border” has taken on a different meaning in 2017. As creators that by birth exist between the East and the West, has this affected the way that you tell stories?
I actually feel any opposition is excellent for art. It makes me want to punch through that wall and blow it open even more. It raises a sense of rebellion in me.
As a storyteller, you want to give a voice to the disenfranchised. In America right now there’s a feeling that, particularly women, have been largely silent about some of the struggles we have been through and the men who have been ignorant or complicit in the things that have been done to women. Within the country and throughout the world, we feel like we have to communicate our ideas and sort of push through. When you push your ideas forward there are going to be kindred spirits on all sides of the world.
As an ABC, I haven’t always felt like I belong to one group or the other. I think a lot of other ABCs feel that way as well and it can be quite isolating…What is interesting is that nowadays, in the current political climate, people want those accounts from you. I see this curiosity about people of colour and women as a reaction to some of the things that are happening in the news. People are voting with their curiosity, where they are watching stories that they may not have been interested in in the past. Instead of seeing “otherness” in people, they’re seeing a new and interesting experience that they want to relate to.
Q: Do you think that in 2017 there is still such a thing as female stories versus male stories?
I don’t really believe that there is such a thing as a girl’s story or a boy’s story, except for in marketing and in our heads. I think they’re just labels we give stories but they’re kind of false.
Grace told a story about what her editor said when she proposed an Asian lead for her second novel:
He said there are three big reasons why the character shouldn’t be Asian: First, he said, we want this book to be read by boys and girls. If you make the main character a girl, boys will not read it, whereas if you make it a boy, girls might read it. Second, if you make it an Asian character, no-one but Asians will buy it because they will think it’s only for Asian people. That’s a very small market and you won’t make a lot of money. The third reason, which he said was the most important, is that if you come out with another book about Asian Americans, people will think you are only a multicultural, Asian-American author and illustrator. You do not want to be pigeonholed like that because your books will only ever be considered niche, only appealing to a certain section of the population. Nobody will want to read your books except for little Asian girls and you will never be a bestseller.
After the second book came out, which did turn out to be on Asian American themes, she explained:
I became “Grace Lin: multicultural author and illustrator”. Those kind of books are always in the back, they never get any promotion…It was only when that book won the Newberry Award that all of a sudden the readership exploded… The reason was because the label changed. Instead of being an Asian American book, it became a Newberry book, so people saw it differently and all of a sudden they loved it. We keep these labels in our heads so we think “this story is not for us”. If we could let it go, if marketing could let it go, we could get rid of all these unnecessary labels.
These labels are complete nonsense… A lot of the time you will get truisms dictated to you by executives and marketing people who are going off numbers, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. They decide that they need to cater to men aged 18 to 35 which only helps create this societal dynamic, which isn’t good for anybody. In TV there is this idea that “female stories” are softer and not as hard-hitting, whereas men’s stories are like “24” with lots of action where people don’t talk about their feelings. It creates all these false borders.
Jade, mentioned a story from Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
As the story goes, they didn’t make very many action figures of Rey because they didn’t think that little boys would want them and they didn’t think that little girls would watch a boy’s franchise. In fact everyone loved her and the stores sold out immediately so they lost out on all this money that they could have made. Even if you get the most experienced marketers who do a million hours of research you still huge missteps like that just because you’ve based that research on kind of outdated assumption.
When I first started doing stand up I refused to do any jokes that were about being Asian. I knew that when I got on the stage as an Asian American stand-up, which is kind of a rare thing, the audience wanted to hear me acknowledge that I was Asian. They wanted to hear an Asian joke off the bat and if I didn’t give it to them it would be awkward for a little while.
As artists we oftentimes just want to have the privilege to start from zero, to be a completely blank slate and just be able to tell a story. What is so frustrating is, because of the way you look, people immediately do not want to give you that right. They want something from you instead of you being able to give something to them.
Q: As Asian American cultural pioneers, do you ever feel a greater sense of obligation? Do you feel like you are one person speaking for many?
A question I’ve gotten a lot is “Do you feel a responsibility? Does it feel like you’re being pigeonholed? Does it feel like you can only write about Asian people?” The answer to that is “yes and yes, and it’s ok”. Yes, it’s hard for a first-time novelist who is Chinese American to get a book published that isn’t about Asian people. It’s almost impossible. I knew that was the case so I felt like, “alright I’m going to give you what you think you want and I’m going to do it in a way that I hope blows up in your face”. Does it feel like a burden? No, because I want to write these stories.
The pressure comes from the fact that, because there has not been a Hollywood movie with a majority or completely Asian cast, you feel that if you mess up in some way you are not going to be given an opportunity to have another movie like that made. Whereas if you were writing a movie about a white family and it messes up they can blame any number of things. They’re not going to stop making movies about white families in a way that they will if your movie doesn’t do well. But you can’t let that cripple or paralyse you. Because you are the first one, you need to hit it out of the park.
As much as it is a privilege, it is also a burden. When I began there are were so few Asian American books but so many Asian American families looking for these books. I wrote about my Mom in Taiwan, how she grew flowers on the roof of a 5-storey building. A mother came up to me, so angry, saying that they did not have 5-story rooms in Taiwan at that time. In her reality that was not her experience so she felt like I was betraying it. I get a lot of angry emails from people who say “why do you always draw your girls with the stereotypical Chinese haircuts?”, you know, like the bangs. I do it because that’s what I had and that’s what my daughter has. “Why are you characters always light-skinned Asians?” It’s because I have light skin. I always base it on my own personal story because that is what true to me. I can only write my own story, I can’t write their story. In children’s books, we talk about windows and mirrors. When you look at the book you can see and look outside and see all these new experiences, or you can see your own life reflected in it. So many people in the United States have been so hungry looking for a mirror. When they find one that’s kind of close but not exactly right, they get extremely angry.
Q: Many people say that western and Chinese storytelling sensibilities are incongruent, which is why the bridge between Hollywood and China is sometimes hard to cross. Do you agree with that and if so what a ways that we can try to cross it?
In the rest of the world there is this big exchange of ideas and information and cultures. Maybe the rest of the world is more receptive because we’ve had to be. I think the US market is a hard one to crack because they are used to being the centre of their own universe and can be incredibly self-centered. Like if they have to read subtitles, it’s too much for them, whereas for a lot of us, we grew up reading subtitles. It takes a little bit more effort to get Americans out of their comfort zone, but it’s absolutely possible to translate. You saw it with Bruce Lee movies. People thought it was impossible for an Asian, and we’re talking about the 70s when it was completely unheard of, but he did something that was so transcendent and so charismatic that you couldn’t help but show up for it.