by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 27, 2012
08:07 AMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: David Henry Hwang
(page 1 of 5)
Prolific Chinese American playwright and three-time Pulitzer prize nominee David Henry Hwang , 54, visits New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas June 28 with Chinese American novelist Ha Jin to participate in an Ideas forum on "The U.S.-China Literary Landscape," at 5:30 p.m. in the Yale Art Gallery. Best known for the plays M. Butterfly (a 1988 Tony winner for Best Play and 1989 Pulitzer nominee) and Chinglish (soon to be a major motion picture), Hwang hit the ground running in 1980 with his first play FOB, which moved from his Stanford University dorm to development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford's National Playwrights Conference to a run at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, eventually winning an Obie. In his 30-year career he's moved easily from drama to comedy to musicals to opera to work to movie screenplays, with much more to come.
What does the title of this Arts & Ideas forum mean to you?
Well, I think that there's a certain amount of fluidity between work that comes out of mainland China and work that comes out of so-called "greater" China—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore—and work that comes out of the Chinese diaspora. And I think it's interesting to compare all these, and talk about what these works have in common and what is very different about them.
And I'm appearing with Ha Jin, and he's a particularly good example because I'm an American, essentially. I was born in Los Angeles and I don't speak Chinese, but I'm very interested in Chinese issues. He's the opposite; he was born there and came here. So I will be very interested to find out—even though I've met him before—what we have in common.
You mention the fluidity of work coming from mainland China, "greater" China and the Chinese diaspora. Can you give us a taste of what you mean by that?
I think that there are certainly stylistic differences. Plays I've seen that are from the mainland come out of a different literary tradition. So if you compare them to Western plays, they might feel like European plays of the 1940s and '50s. Or, they come out of a much more root-culture Chinese tradition, with a lot of references to local issues and cultural phenomena that people who don't live there don't understand.
Can you talk about this in terms of the regional differences we might find in the U.S., or is it just so different . . .
I think the regional differences in the U.S. are a pretty good analogy, actually. Because there are also things that the works have in common—an understanding of the centrality of family in Chinese life, of obligation and the struggle between individualism and doing what's best for the group—which is not as strong a theme in Western literature these days.
What literary tradition, would you say, does Ha Jin represent?
That's an interesting question, because oviously he grew up there, and he came to the States with English as a second language. And yet, he writes in that second language like Nabakov did. Personally, I feel he's been able to take a John Cheever type of exactness and attention to detail and apply it to—well, a number of things—but particularly to stories about life in China. So it's this very interesting fusion of East and West.
Your appearance with him is scheduled in conjunction with a production of King Lear staged by the Contemporary Legends Theater. Have you seen that?
I have not, and I don't really know that theater, so I don't know that I can comment on that right now.
If you were to ally yourself with one of the literary traditions we were just talking about, what would that be?
I've always just thought of myself as basically being in the American tradition. There's a lot of immigrant literature, a lot of literature about self-invention and identity, which I feel my work is pretty consistent with. Lately, I've also begun to feel that maybe I have more in common with Chinese writers than I thought I did. It's interesting to me to have people who are Chinese nationals—when I've done works that were set in China—come up to me and say how accurate the work feels to them. Maybe there was stuff I absorbed through my parents that I didn't realize I'd absorbed? Anyway, I know a little more than I thought I knew.
Is there a particular work of yours that has reflected that continuation of tradition?
At the moment, because I just did Chinglish on Broadway—and it happens to be a bilingual play—that's the one. Right now, we've been dealing with the similarities of that plot and the current scandal involving Bo Xilai in China. Newsweek asked me to write a piece about it. It does make me feel like maybe I know some things. Those would be interesting to discuss in the session at Arts & Ideas.
Remind us about the Bo Xilai case.
He was a Communist party leader in the city of Chongqing. His wife, Gu Kailai, has been arrested and now confessed to murdering a British businessman. He's been stripped of his party standing, plus his kid, who's at Harvard, has been fighting to defend himself for leading too lavish a lifestyle. The story's been dominating the news from China for more than a month.
Everything that I read about you indicates that you are the pre-eminent Asian-American dramatist in the U.S. How much of a mind-blower is that?
There are times when the Asian American label has been really attractive to me, and times when I've run away from it. At this point I just know that everyone gets labeled to some extent. When you think of David Mamet, you think of a particular type of play. So I just think, "Hey, I'm obviously an Asian American playwright, and to say I'm pre-eminent just means I'm good." That's satisfying.
It would just be scary for me to think, "They consider me pre-eminent."
Yeah, but it only refers to a specific area. I'd rather that people just think I've been able to make a career of this.