Playwright Yilong Liu Explores APIA and LGBTQ Identity

This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.

Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.

Portrait of Afong Moy. Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?

Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.

On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.

JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?

YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.

Playwright Yilong Liu

JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?

YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.

So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.

Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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