“You can write what you know without writing the literal occurrences of your own personal life.” Playwright Jean Tong is over her work being read as autobiographical.
weeeird how when white men make shows their characters get to be metaphors but when "diverse" creatives put out a "diverse" story reviewers/audiences 10000% assume PERSONAL BIOGRAPHY even though that's never stated. ever. WEEEEEEIRD.
— jean tong (@jeantong_) May 9, 2018
The irony of beginning an essay that purports to contradict critics and audiences’ assumptions about whether my content is biographical by talking about me while quoting myself is not lost on me.
Hungry Ghosts, which I wrote and premiered at MTC earlier this month, drew from the MH370 disappearance, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad financial scandal, and some experiences of the Malaysian diaspora living in Australia.
This final strand, which primarily emerges through the character played by the inimitable Jing-Xuan Chan, was referred to (by an esteemed critic on this very website), as drawing on “diary-like reflections on [my] personal life”. TimeOut suggests that the character Jing-Xuan plays is my “avatar”, while an ArtsHub reviewer thought it was “the journey of the student that would have been wonderful to see more of, to delve deeper into her conflict, her divergent lives and the families that each home offered”.
Despite little evidence in the form of a published memoir or public confirmation that the character or story is biographical, this assumption was nevertheless presumed. Although only the bare minimum was included by way of story—just enough to hold the theatrical event together—the expectation and desire was that that one had entered the realm of the Good Suffering Traumatised Immigrant/Queer/Disabled/Colonised story.
The implicitation underlying this desire stems from audiences, critics and programmers alike being trained to believe that these are the only stories“diversity” brings with it. Broadly, institutions that weigh up the risk of gaining new audiences without alienating old audiences reach for the Good Suffering Traumatised Immigrant/Queer/Disabled/Colonised stories, because they can be consumed without disturbing the status quo.
These stories are not for questioning but for consumption. They allow those with power to feel good about their ability to empathise with this deeply empathetic story, for those in comfort to exercise their pity gland. These audiences didn’t come for the good art – no, that’s for the other nights, the normal nights. Tonight, they came for the memoir, the confessional, the truthful revelation; tonight’s is a condescending excursion for the Of Course We Should See It, It’s So Important Art.
(White) critics and audiences continue to consume “diverse” stories as memoir, but these are not the only stories we have. Memoir can be politically subversive, fascinating, and powerful – just like any other form. But just because a story is made by someone “diverse” – even if the story involves a person that might sound or look like the creator – it doesn’t make memoir. You can write what you know without writing the literal occurrences of your own personal life.
We know this from the way universal stories have be attributed to many white male artists who are assumed to speak universally instead of about merely about their personal white male experience.
That any story can have the audacity to be truly universal at all is a whole other essay, but that we attribute universality to stories about white/cis/male/non-disabled people but only specificity to diverse artists stems from this flawed idea, which is rooted in a lack of imagination about what we are able to fathom.
What this assumption says is: we (white/cis/male/non-disabled) can know all, but you (diversity) can only know your own.
Which brings me to this very website about criticism, to talk about…critics. Specifically, white critics.
The bulk of published, official, commercial criticism comes from white people. The most quoted arts editors/reviewers/critics with the biggest names, which inspire the most fear, rage, and respect, are white people. (For now).
Your responses are the lasting public response to an otherwise transient art-form that is seldom able to speak of itself after the fact with any authority or supposed objectivity. And when you suggest that a work is biographical when you have little or no reason to do so, what you’re implicitly suggesting is:
I see this as a personal, specific, unique experience of the playwright – I see them as able to articulate this from their own being only, because I cannot fathom that they might Make Stuff Up, because I can only fathom the experience of Diversity as Factual, never Metaphorical, and never as a Fictionalised Event used to explicate a larger Thing in the world. Diverse creators are here to show us how it really is for them, and that is all Diverse stories are here for.
What you’re saying is: the creators of diverse stories can never be confounding, abstract, or ambiguous because they are not sophisticated enough, complex enough, or imaginative to make work that isn’t literal.
What this presumption says is: we (white/cis/male/non-disabled) can know all, but you (diversity) can only know your own.
“I’m writing something for the first time that’s a little bit autobiographical,” this one extremely serious white woman once said to me after workshop. “I wanted to get your advice. You write about yourself all the time. How do you do it?” My characters were always young Asian American women or girls, but I hadn’t written anything autobiographical. Just like her, I had imagined my stories. I made them up. They were fiction. But to her, they were so obviously just an unimaginative extension of my already-limited self. I was just tracing my life and my identity artlessly into my stories.
Stop only describing the content in the work as if it’s there only as content.
Stop noting that things are biographical as if that’s an actual observation about the work.
Stop observing diverse stories onstage as if they are only presentational, because a work’s value exists in its critical view of whatever is being examined, in its commentary, in its surprises, in its contradictions.
Engage with “diverse” work the way it engages with the world – as a complex, sometimes ambiguous, dramatised version of whatever supposed story you think “we” are all supposed to come with.
That is, engage with the work the way all other “universal”, not “diverse” work gets to be considered.
When “diverse” creations consistently get tagged as biographical, regardless of the accuracy of that tag, the “biography” gets in the way of the critique.
That is, when the product isn’t created to be critiqued as biography, but gets sought out and thought through as such, what is there gets missed.
Hence: the “give me more personal tragedy” requests of “diverse” work, but also, “this is ‘good’ because it is revelatory”. Not because you recognise it as skilled, not because you recognise its artistic value, but because you recognise its confessional (consumable) value.
Here’s an offer. IF A ‘DIVERSE’ CREATOR MAKES SHIT ART, IT’S STILL SHIT ART.
Don’t condescend to us by not letting us grow as artists because we’re “good enough” as “diverse creators” but not really “good”. We’re good enough because we make good art and we’re here to make good art that bears complex meanings, stories that offer different interpretations, infinite possibilities. If I had a completely clear-cut argument that I wanted to make, I’d write an essay and publish it online, not spend a year and a half making a show about it.
Michele Lee’s play, Going Down (Malthouse Theatre), struck me as a scathing indictment of this through Natalie Yang, an emerging Asian-Australian writer struggling with the expectation the label of diversity places on her career:
NATALIE: I wasn’t born into Clifton Hill. My people were jungle people, they were a persecuted ethnic minority, they couldn’t afford shoes, they were skinny as village chickens. And I grew up in a commission house in Canberra. And I went to a shitty public high school with Lebanese gangster chicks, you dick-fuck!
MATT: So why wasn’t that in the book? Why wasn’t your reffo family and your bad-ass Canberra thug life in your book?
NATALIE: Fine! I won’t subvert anything!
I’ll just write a harrowing memoir about my Mum then, shall I? How many miscarriages do you want me to give her? Shall I have her raped as well?
This is a critical rebuke of the way “diverse” stories are expected to organise themselves for critics, audiences, programmers, and creatives alike.
Diverse artists cannot just make art, in the way white/cis/male/non-disabled people can make art about… whatever the fuck they want.
They are expected to demonstrate hardship. They must struggle. They must prove that shit was fucked up for them to get to where they are because otherwise the story does not inherently seem to have value.
But if we cannot make art, but only literal, biographical, semi-biographical confessionals, we cannot be critiqued for form. We can only continue to be named and observed and described. We can only continue to be subsumed into the long-practiced white habit of categorising diversity in order for us to be recognised at all.
Dear (white) critics.
Jean Tong is a writer whose work–tonally best described as “wry outrage”–makes explosive statements using dark humour and vivid imagery. Her previous work includes Hungry Ghosts (Melbourne Theatre Company), Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit (The Coopers Malthouse, MICF), and Anti Hero (Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance). She has also presented at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and published in Peril Magazine and Meanjin (Spike). In 2018, she was selected for Screen Australia’s Developing the Developer workshop, and for Film Victoria’s TV and Online Concept lab (Plot Twist).