Process Blog #1: Kristina Wong Writes about Uganda. Shit Gets Complicated.
July 10th, 2014 → 1 Comment
Greetings from Montalvo Arts Center!
I’m currently an artist-in-residence here for two whopping months. This is truly the dream of “A Room of One’s Own” that Virginia Woolf described. I get my own private loft to live in, my own dance studio, I hike in the Redwoods every morning, and a chef makes us a delicious dinner every night. It’s everything my haters groan for.
I am in the midst of pounding out a draft of “The Wong Street Journal”– my new show premiering in 2015. I worked with a microloan organization in Uganda as part of my research for this show. And as a total surprise, while out there, ended up recording a rap album with locals that is still played on the radio in Northern Uganda.
When I proposed the show several years ago, I had no idea specifically what I was going to find. I just knew I was tired of talking about myself and my own mania in my work. My identity, Asian American women’s mental health, cats, living without a car in LA and everything in my past shows– these had long since become myopic topics.
Without completely depersonalizing myself in my art, I needed to take an ambitious shift.
At this stage in an Asian American artist’s career, perhaps the next step would have been to go to China, a country that my grandparents immigrated from but that I myself have never been to. I could have made a show about awkwardly making my way through China’s rapidly changing economy, following my grandparents’ footsteps, coping with my lack of Chinese fluency, and for the finale? A poetic “East meets West” rumination filled with flowery orientalist detail about my ancestors and incense.
Instead, I jumped the shark. I decided to go to Africa where I’d learn about global economics and delve into the ever expansive politics of global poverty. Subjects I never got the chance to study in school but was curious about. And somehow, I’d churn out a show that was informative, poignant, and fun to watch….
Before I left for Uganda, here were some of the questions I was interested in exploring:
- Whereas my past work has always illuminated my own identity as a marginalized person in America, what would happen if I went somewhere, where I was suddenly in a place of privilege? How would my narrative change? How would that lens filter that experience abroad?
- Do microloans work? How do they work if everyone in the area is poor? Do people who receive microloans do better at the expense of people who have not received loans?
- Does ending poverty in developing nations mean abandoning small business/ small farming practice and everyone going corporate?
- How do we end global poverty?
- How much does “performing poverty” a self conscious performance of the poor to the people they seek funds from?
- How do I take the issue of global poverty and filter through my trademark humor without diminishing the depth of the issue?
- How do I find humor in this show that doesn’t come at the expense of mocking African people or poor people? Where does the smarter humor lie?
Instead of clear cut answers to any of these questions, I returned from Uganda realizing:
- America has a fucked up way of looking at Africa. Period. For starters, we keep referring to any of the 54 countries as “Africa” as if it’s a monolithic whole of orphans, chaos, starving children, warlords, and HIV. Like any place on earth, there’s a lot more going on than what we see on TV.
- America has a fucked up idea of charity. We associate alleviating poverty with giving food and clothes to “needy” people, rather than look at investing in education and small business, and invest in the power of poor people to self direct their own lives. (There are a great deal of Ugandan people who are working hard to improve their lives. There are organizations founded by Ugandan people to improve the lives of their communities. We never get to see Uganda being their own saviors, instead, we only see their suffering and see ourselves as their saviors.)
- In Uganda, I’m considered a “Mzungu” or white person. There is no instant solidarity they have with me as a fellow person of color– that’s an American construct.
- Even in my best attempts to be culturally sensitive, I was very guilty of being being a bad American. In re-reading my own documentation of the start of my trip, I managed to offend myself!
- With my new found whiteness came a lot of expectations, and a lot of assumptions about what I had to offer. Did I mention I am in the process of opening a music studio in Uganda with the rappers I met?
- America sustains the same poverty it attempts to alleviate.
- I have no idea how to contextualize this experience without it sounding “problematic” in some way. If I set a full context, I risk being mistaken for an amateur ethnographer of Uganda. If I don’t explain enough, my American audiences bring their context for what they think I experienced with them and leave with simplistic conclusions.
- With Activist “Call-out culture” being the mob mentality it is across social media, there’s no way I’m not getting micromanaged and slighted for how I present my truth. I went to Uganda naive, and while I didn’t learn everything, I’m more informed now than when I got there. But the soldiers of call-out culture will fire at me. I will be critiqued for my naiveness. I will be held responsible for every white audience member that leaves my shows not understanding the depth of what I did or did not present. I already anticipate being labeled as “antiblack,” “white apologist,” and the good old fashioned– “racist.” The only way to avoid call-out culture, is to join the mob and call out others for their internalized misogyny, racism, privilege. For some reason, if you are the one calling-out others, it makes you exempt from fault. And since I’m not interested in spending my time antagonizing activists, looks like I have no choice but to use humor to try to shed light on an extremely complicated situation most Americans ignore.
Who else is dealing with this material?
I asked Facebook a few months ago if anybody knew of a memoir written by a person of color, who was not black, who had traveled through Sub-Saharan Africa. Essentially, I was wondering if there was a story about someone navigating Asian American identity, not via life in America or in Asia, but in Africa. The few suggestions I got were of Indian writers. One was Stringer written by a reporter in the Congo. While his writing was rich, it was mostly journalistic with not too much reflections of his own identity. The other was In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh, set in Egypt. I haven’t read it yet but am not sure how much help it will be.
I know I’m not the only Asian American writer to write about traveling in East Africa. But I can’t help but wonder if the reason why I have not received memoir suggestions of Asian Americans in East Africa is because the Asian Americans who’ve been there don’t want to be subjected to a firing squad of critics when they write honestly about their own moments of naivete, and the moments they had to unlearn privilege they didn’t realize they had.
Every one person show is different. Some I’ve created on my feet in front a director. Others I’ve scripted then rehearsed.
Earlier this year I did several “Notes-in-Process” shows around the country just to get my arms around the material. I did an improved “Show-and-Tell” Powerpoints of my experiences. Some had super hilarious moments. An hour was not enough time to even get through my time in Gulu.
Now, I’m writing from top to bottom, a memoir style recollection of everything that happened. It’s been 3 straight days of writing and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I leave for Uganda. Writing is just so tedious sometimes. How do novelists do it?
I have different artist friends visiting me up here in my process. My friend Greg from LA (who has “Wong” tattooed on his leg) is a choreographer who will come up for 2 days and get me on my feet a little since I’m mostly writing. Other solo artists, scholars and presenters are coming through to hear me read. And at the end of the residency Emily Mendelsohn, a theater director and former Fulbright fellow in Uganda, will come up to dramaturg and get me ready to preview 30 minutes of this for the Out Of Bounds Festival in Austin, TX on August 30!
I have to keep returning to my artist statement: I want to challenge myself to make the impossible. It’s easier to destroy than create. Easier to incite misery than find joy. My job is not to “fix” the wrongs of the world with easy answers, but instead, to further complicate the question by making the invisible—visible, and hopefully, creating some space for public discourse.
I also know I’m totally procrastinating because I wrote this long process blog and picked out pre-show music for a show not scripted yet.