The Nikkei Genealogical Society (NikkeiGen) promotes, encourages, and shares Nikkei genealogy through education, research, and networking. NikkeiGen’s general meetings are open to anyone who is interested in researching their family trees, learning more about their Japanese roots and heritage, and participating in group discussions and networking.
NikkeiGen was founded in 2013 by Melinda Yamane Crawford and Susanne Mori. Both are genealogy buffs, and Crawford was already a member of the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society. After attending two workshops on Japanese genealogy together—including Chester Hashizume’s “Discovering Your Japanese American Roots,” held twice a year at JANM—the two friends saw a need for a research and networking group specifically devoted to Japanese American family histories.
NikkeiGen meetings occur approximately once a month from January to October, with the location alternating between JANM and the Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS) in Burbank. The meetings tend to be informal and energetic, revolving around a shared enthusiasm for genealogical research. Friendships are quickly formed as participants share stories and exchange ideas and resources. Meetings can also include special presentations, trainings, and focused discussions on topics of interest. In addition to the monthly meetings, NikkeiGen offers workshops and participates in events, such as the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage.
The next NikkeiGen general meeting will take place on Saturday, July 23, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at JANM. Meetings are always free, but RSVP is required. To RSVP or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit facebook.com/nikkeigen.
On May 17, the Japanese American National Museum partnered with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to host a National Youth Summit on Japanese American incarceration in World War II. Over 3,600 students and teachers from 36 states and three countries tuned in to the live webcast of the event! In case you missed it, the program is now archived and available to watch online.
In addition to the panel discussion here in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum and its webcast, we also hosted a simultaneous web chat where students enthusiastically checked in and asked some very thoughtful questions. There were so many questions that we were not able to answer all of them during the time allotted. Thanks to this blog, however, we now have a chance to follow up with our curious viewers and answer more of their questions.
JANM’s Curator of History, Dr. Lily Anne Welty Tamai, was on hand to answer questions about the Japanese American World War II incarceration.
Caroline asked: How were Japanese Americans treated differently from Jews during this time?
Dr. Tamai: The World War II experiences of the two groups were very different. Technically, both the Nazi and the American camps were concentration camps, meaning they were used “for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, or political opponents.” However, after the war, the term “concentration camp” became associated most strongly with the Nazis, who used their camps to systematically execute Jews and other minority groups. Although Japanese Americans were imprisoned without due process, the War Relocation Authority camps were NOT death camps—they met the prisoners’ basic needs for food and shelter and allowed them to work, go to school, and live with their families for the most part.
The DC Area asked: What happened to Japanese Americans who resisted incarceration?
Dr. Tamai: There were several acts of resistance against the incarceration, which led to arrests and four subsequent Supreme Court cases (Gordon Hirabayashi 1943, Minoru Yasui 1943, Fred Korematsu 1944, and Mitsuye Endo 1944) that questioned the constitutionality of various aspects of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. In the first three cases, government authorities misled the court by exaggerating the military’s estimates of the security risk posed by Japanese Americans. All convictions were overturned 40 years later thanks to the leadership of the Nisei and Sansei generations, who achieved historic court victories that paved the way for the Redress Movement. This in turn led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted a formal apology and reparations to Japanese Americans.
Caroline asked: Did any other Americans try to stand up for Japanese Americans’ rights?
Dr. Tamai: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American community was perceived to be allied with Japan and thus, it was extremely unpopular to stand up for them. Several notable people did, however.
Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego, wrote many letters to her former students who were incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center. For more information, see Joanne Oppenheim, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006). There was also a Mexican-Irish teenager named Ralph Lazo who decided to show his support of his Japanese American friends by joining them at Manzanar during the war.
Ralph Carr, former governor of Colorado, welcomed Japanese Americans who wished to resettle in Colorado after the war—an unpopular move that cost him his bid for the US Senate. American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) also gave public support to Japanese Americans who were resettling. San Francisco–based civil rights attorney Wayne Collins helped nearly 5,000 Japanese Americans reinstate their US citizenship after they had been coerced into renouncing it. He also served as defense attorney for Fred Korematsu, Mitsuye Endo, and Japanese Latin Americans who had been extradited from Latin America and imprisoned in US Department of Justice camps.
Anonymous asked: Why didn’t they send Japanese Americans back to Japan?
Dr. Tamai: By 1942, nearly two-thirds of the Japanese American community had been born in the US, making them US citizens. Although most had family members who were still in Japan, many had never even been there, and therefore going “back” was not an option. For the first-generation Japanese immigrants who made up one-third of the community, many had already established themselves in the US—they were legal residents; they owned businesses, farms, and homes; and their children were American citizens. The US government was not in a position to deport an entire ethnic community.
During the first part of the program, students heard from JANM volunteer William “Bill” Shishima, who talked about his childhood incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The students responded very positively to his story and asked him a few more questions via the web chat.
NadeShot asked: What was it like saying goodbye to your friends and not knowing when you would be back?
Bill Shishima: It was very short and sweet. Basically, we just said goodbye and we didn’t know where we were going or for how long.
Cate asked: Did the formal US apology help you at all emotionally?
Shishima: Yes, I was shocked that the country said that they were sorry we were incarcerated during the war. It takes a great country to admit a wrong to their citizens. I donated my $20,000 reparation money to the Japanese American National Museum, which exists to tell the Japanese American incarceration story so that it will never happen again!
A huge thank you to everybody who participated in this year’s National Youth Summit! In closing, we’d like to leave you with a link to the rap song we played to kick off the program. It’s called “9066” and it’s by “Kamikaze” Kane Tenorio. You can listen to it here. You can also read about Kane and his family here. Enjoy!
JANM is excited to welcome a new neighbor to its campus. Last fall, following nearly two years of preparation, Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) took up residence in our Historic Building, located across the plaza from the museum’s main building. Founded in 1989, GFBNEC is dedicated to the legacy of World War II American veterans of Japanese ancestry. For the last several months, they have been hard at work fixing up their new offices and installing a new core exhibition, The Defining Courage Experience.
On the eve of their Homecoming Celebration on May 28—an all-day affair that will include family-friendly activities, food, music, and programs—JANM sat down with GFBNEC’s Exhibit Manager, Chris Brusatte, for a brief interview.
JANM: Why is it so critical for future generations to know the story of Japanese American soldiers during World War II?
Chris Brusatte: History repeats itself. This year’s presidential campaign is just the latest example of why we need to remember our history and why we need to prevent our country from giving in to fear, hatred, and prejudice.
The Japanese Americans of World War II—soldiers, their families, those who protested against the government, and others—all acted with courage in the face of bigotry, injustice, and hatred. They stood up for themselves, for their families, for their communities, and for their country—the United States of America. They proved how wrong it was to treat them so horribly.
This must be taught to all future generations, so that we don’t mistreat Arab or Muslim Americans, LGBT Americans, recent immigrants, or any other group that might far too easily be construed as an “other.” The lessons from this history must prevent similar injustices from happening in the present and in the future.
JANM: What is the significance of setting up your new home in JANM’s Historic Building, the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple?
CB: We always tell people that this building is our number one artifact. And that is putting it lightly. The powerful aura that the building holds still takes my breath away. It is an aura tinged with both sadness and remembrance, bittersweet in the way that it symbolizes the history of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles.
As many of your readers might know, the temple was built in 1925 as the first facility in Los Angeles designed specifically to house a Buddhist place of worship. Sadly, during World War II, local Japanese Americans were ordered to assemble outside the temple to be bused away to incarceration camps. The temple held many of these families’ belongings during the war years, keeping them safe until they could return. It still gives me goose bumps to think that generations of kids will get to learn about this powerful and important history in such a sacred place, right where it actually occurred.
JANM: Can you explain the concept and design of your new Defining Courage exhibition?
CB:The Defining Courage Experience is a dynamic, engaging, and participatory exhibition that teaches modern audiences to act with courage and character in their own lives. It does this by teaching them the history of the Japanese American World War II experience and how its message can relate to our world today. Through hands-on activities, both high-tech and tactile, visitors learn about the courage, perseverance, sacrifice, and character of the Japanese American soldiers and others during World War II, and they learn how to apply these virtues and personality traits in their own lives today. Our exhibit design team, Quatrefoil Associates out of Maryland, has done a great job building an extraordinary exhibition that includes activities both historic and modern, action-inducing and thought-provoking.
JANM: Please tell us more about how this new exhibition came together.
CB: This exhibition is the creation of literally a thousand people. Our staff traveled to seven cities around the country in the early stages of concept planning, drawing together scores of people in each community. Once back in Southern California, we convened dozens of scholars, dozens of teachers and educators, and scores of high school and college students.
All of these people helped plan our exhibition from the very beginning—the themes, the content, and how we should lay out each activity. This exhibition truly was created by a village. But mostly, I have to thank my coworkers at Go For Broke and the exhibit design firm of Quatrefoil Associates. This core team was incredible, working with passion and intelligence and creativity to bring this unique exhibition into reality.
JANM: What can we expect from the new interpretive center in the coming months and years?
CB: We hope to keep our exhibits up-to-date using modern news pieces, through a collaborative effort with ABC7 Eyewitness News. Each day that you walk into the exhibition, you will experience something new. In the long run, we hope to bring this exhibition to communities around the country, through some sort of traveling exhibit program. We will also be constantly holding public events, such as lectures and veterans’ programs, in our facilities. We are so thankful as well to the staff at the Japanese American National Museum, who have already been so helpful with collaborative programs and events!
Go For Broke’s Homecoming Celebration takes place this Saturday, May 28, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Event admission is free and no RSVP is necessary. Admission to JANM will be “pay what you wish.” For more information, visit goforbroke.org.
Although today’s cultural landscape is much more diverse than it was 20 or 30 years ago, with a broader array of viewpoints represented in popular media and fine art, artists and writers of color still find themselves struggling to achieve as much visibility as their mainstream white counterparts. Recent events such as the celebrated launch of Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American network sitcom in over 20 years, and the lively dialogues that took place around the #OscarsSoWhite controversy reveal that cultural diversity is still an evolving and hotly debated topic in this country.
In 2015, the #LITinCOLOR initiative was launched as a way to spotlight the works of writers of color, particularly those of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. Three small, well-respected publishers based in Los Angeles—Kaya Press, Tia Chucha Press, and Writ Large Press—came together to “bring attention to vital voices of color and social engagement in literature.”
After years of publishing innovative works by a diverse spectrum of authors, the #LITinCOLOR initiative gave them a distinctive way to branch out and reach new audiences by hosting readings and other events in a variety of locations. The founders credited recent grassroots movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks for inspiration.
This coming Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m., join us for a special #LITinCOLOR event, held to coincide with the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, taking place this year in Los Angeles. An evening of readings by poets and novelists from various communities and generations will celebrate the invention and imagination of writers of color who seek to represent realities that lie outside of the mainstream imagination.
Featured writers will include April Naoko Heck, author of the poetry collection A Nuclear Family; Naomi Hirahara, author of the forthcoming mystery novel Sayonara Slam; traci kato-kiriyama, founder of Tuesday Night Project; Leza Lowitz, poet, author, and translator of Ayukawa Nobuo’s America and Other Poems; Japanese-New Zealander singer-songwriter Kat McDowell; David Mura, poet and author of The Last Incantations and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei; and Gene Oishi, the renowned Nisei journalist who published his first novel, Fox Drum Bebop, when he was in his eighties. Fox Drum Bebop is the winner of the 2016 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Creative Writing in Prose.
Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of participating on the planning committee for the 2016 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance program. I joined representatives from the Japanese American Citizens League (Pacific Southwest District), the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, and others at JANM to organize the annual event which gathers members of the community to reflect on the enduring legacy of Executive Order 9066. That directive, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the forced removal and incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.
The program was held last Saturday before a standing room only crowd at JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. Entitled Is It 1942 Again? Overcoming Our Fears and Upholding Constitutional Rights for All, the program honored the courage and perseverance of the women, men, and children who were incarcerated during World War II, while challenging the audience to apply the lessons of Japanese American history in today’s context. Following recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, American Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arab Americans, and refugees attempting to enter the United States have been the target of hateful acts and caustic rhetoric—a chilling echo of the Japanese American experience during World War II.
A distinguished set of speakers eloquently addressed this year’s theme. They included: event emcees Bruce Embrey (Manzanar Committee) and traci ishigo (Japanese American Citizens League); JANM Vice President of Operations and Art Director Clement Hanami; Anthony Marsh of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that courageously opposed the World War II incarceration; and Maytha Alhassen, a Syrian Muslim American Provost PhD Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Congresswoman Judy Chu warned the audience, “Because of the Japanese American camps, we know just how far the country can go if we let hysteria and scapegoating get their way.” She continued, “Let us make sure that what happened to Japanese Americans never happens to anyone again in this country.”
But no voice was more essential to the program than that of longtime JANM docent and Heart Mountain camp survivor Bill Shishima. Bill recalled his early childhood years spent near Olvera Street in downtown LA, and the grocery store and hotel his father operated there before being forced to leave them behind during World War II. Bill’s vivid description of the years that followed transported the audience to the foul-smelling horse stables of Santa Anita Race Track, where Bill’s grandparents stayed, and to the incessant dust storms of Bill’s eventual home, Heart Mountain camp. One by one, Bill recounted the traumas and indignities of everyday camp life—the degrading lack of privacy, the barbed wire fences and armed guards, the confusing and ominous loyalty questionnaire, and the promising student body president who volunteered for military service to prove his patriotism and was then killed in Europe.
Bill concluded his remarks by reminding the audience of the “fragility of civil liberties in a time of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.” He received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Next week, Big Trouble in Little Tokyo welcomes director Justin Lin to the museum for a tenth-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, followed by a panel discussion. Below, JANM Vice President of Programs Koji Steven Sakai reflects on Lin’s influence.
When I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, there were zero Asian Americans on television, in movies, or in music. Okay, that’s not completely true, but it isn’t that far off. In fact, I remember playing G.I. Joe and turning one of the bad Asian ninjas (Storm Shadow) into one of the good guys.
Later, when I was thinking about becoming a screenwriter, I wasn’t sure it was possible since there wasn’t really anyone in the film and television world that I could point to and say, “That’s who I want to be like.” I didn’t believe it was actually a viable career, because if it was, why weren’t there more Asian Americans doing it?
It was around this time that three things happened in the world of Asian American pop culture. The Mountain Brothers, the first Asian American hip hop group signed to a major label, released their first album, Self: Volume 1, in 1999. They weren’t just a gimmick either; their album was an instant classic. Then, in 2001, Chinese American rapper MC Jin won seven freestyle battles in a row on BET’s Freestyle Friday. I tuned in at the end of every week to watch him, mesmerized by his skill. Finally, in 2002, Better Luck Tomorrow, the first feature film by Taiwanese American director Justin Lin, came out. It was one of the first Asian American movies bought by a major company.
All three of these pivotal moments made me think I could make a career in the arts. But since I’m a screenwriter and producer, Justin’s accomplishment was especially meaningful to me. For once, there was someone I could emulate.
Justin has gone on to become one of the most successful Asian American filmmakers working today. And even with his success, he continues to support the Asian Pacific American community through his blog/YouTube channel YOMYOMF (You Offend Me You Offend My Family) and by always casting Asian Americans in major roles.
He has been an inspiration to me, and I would argue that he has also inspired an entire generation of Asian American filmmakers. For all of these reasons, I am honored to bring Justin Lin to JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, where he will participate in a panel discussion following a 10th-anniversary screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the first of four films he directed in the highly popular Fast and Furious franchise. This event, which is part of JANM’s Big Trouble in Little Tokyo series, will take place on Thursday, February 4, at 7 p.m.
Today, there are many more Asian Americans who are visible in popular culture. But I would argue that they all owe a gesture of thanks to pioneers like the Mountain Brothers, MC Jin, and Justin Lin, who helped make things a whole lot easier for those who came after them.
For more information about the screening or to buy tickets, click here.
Koji Steven Sakai is the Vice President of Programs at the Japanese American National Museum, where he has worked for over 12 years. In addition to his work at the museum, he has written five feature films that have been produced. Most recently, his debut novel, Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies, was released by Luthando Coeur.
The Civilian Exclusion Order poster, which announced the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry, is seen at left. The full text can be read here. Take a close look at this document and consider some of the euphemistic words used by the government—”non-alien,” “evacuation,” and “temporary residence.”
In 1942, these posters were placed in public areas all along the West Coast of the United States. With an average of seven days’ notice, thousands of individuals of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in American concentration camps without due process. Many of these individuals were United States citizens. They could only bring with them what they could carry and their lives were irreversibly disrupted.
In 1983, the artist Qris Yamashita created a silkscreen poster titled Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo. Inspired by the Civilian Exclusion Order, this work looks critically at the language used, and makes notes to draw our attention to certain words and phrases, helping us to consider what they really mean.
Yamashita’s work points out that the phrase “non-alien” really meant U.S. citizens. The United States government gathered and imprisoned its own citizens based on the fact that they were of Japanese descent. The government also stated that it would provide “temporary residence” elsewhere. As it turned out, the citizens were first held in horse stables that had been transformed into temporary detention centers, and then transported to hastily built barracks in remote, barren areas.
There is far more to explore in both of these pieces so feel free to take a closer look. The next time you’re in downtown Los Angeles, come to the Japanese American National Museum and see Common Ground: The Heart of Community to learn more about this period in our country’s history.
For more about the Civilian Exclusion Order as it relates to Executive Order 9066, read this past blog post that explains the difference between the two.
Arthur Dong is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. Back in 2005, he was hard at work on a project titled Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films. During the course of his research, Arthur learned of the existence of some reels of film from a title he had not previously heard of: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West. Following his source’s instructions, Arthur went to a building near San Francisco International Airport. There he found two reels of original 35mm nitrate negative film—the actual film that was in the camera when the movie was made in 1916 and 1917—and a 16mm print that was likely made in the 1950s or 60s. This was an incredibly exciting find. “But scary!” recalls Arthur.
Nitrate film was commonly used in the early days of moviemaking and up until about 1951. It is now understood to be highly unstable and extremely flammable. Proper storage and careful handling are required to maintain its integrity and prevent combustion. Nitrate burns at a temperature even higher than gasoline and once ignited, it is extremely difficult to extinguish because the combustion process produces its own oxygen. It also produces highly poisonous fumes.
Arthur knew the danger that nitrate posed. He contacted the Academy Film Archive, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents the annual Academy Awards). One of the archive’s intrepid experts agreed to drive up to San Francisco and bring The Curse back to Los Angeles for inspection and restoration. In addition to making safer film-based copies for long-term protection, the Academy Film Archive transferred all of the found material to video. (The original nitrate is now safely stored, as is the 16mm print.)
The two nitrate reels and some additional scenes depicted in the print are by no means the entire movie. Arthur and Academy archivists believe there were originally seven or eight reels; the ones found were numbered four and seven. So, what JANM will present is an incomplete movie. Despite this, one can easily follow at least some of the story, even though the film is silent and devoid of title cards. (The musical score is one that Arthur commissioned in 2010.) Regardless, the joy of seeing The Curse, which utilizes Chinese actors and Chinese interior décor, lies not in its plot but in its provenance. For Arthur, the film demonstrates “the contributions of Chinese Americans in the formative years of America’s film industry.”
Each year, the Librarian of Congress and its National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) select 25 films for the National Film Registry to showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage and to increase awareness of the need for preservation. There are currently 650 films on the registry, each deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Thanks to Arthur’s nomination while serving on the NFPB, The Curse was placed on the registry in 2006.
Come see The Curse of Quon Gwon on May 13 and learn more about it from Arthur Dong and Mai-Lon Gittelsohn and Dr. Greg Mark, two descendants of Violet Wong, Marion Wong’s sister-in-law who stars as the film’s heroine.
Founded in 1970, Visual Communications (VC) was the first nonprofit organization in the country dedicated to supporting the creation, presentation, and preservation of media works by Asian Pacific American people. On the eve of the 31st edition of their Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, taking place April 23–30, we checked in with Francis Cullado, VC’s Interim Executive Director, and Milton Liu, VC’s Director of Programs and Artist Services, about the state of Asian Pacific American media arts today.
JANM: The world of media arts has changed so much since 1970, and of course, VC has evolved along with it. What would you say are the most significant developments or changes that have occurred at VC in the last 10 years or so?
Francis Cullado: Widespread technological advances have empowered more people to become creative artists. At VC, we’ve developed our programs to utilize new technologies and processes to create digital stories. Gone are the days of expensive media, and with greater accessibility, we can create programs to capture and nurture digital storytellers.
Milton Liu: The media landscape has changed drastically in the last 10 years. Now, you can shoot a film on your iPhone and upload content directly to your YouTube/Vimeo page. Because of this, we’ve seen a surge of content that’s available through non-traditional channels, and a decrease in audiences for movie theaters and appointment television. For this reason, VC continues to focus on diverse year-round programs, such as the Armed with a Camera Fellowship for emerging artists and the Digital Histories program of short films created by senior citizens.
The Conference for Creative Content (C3), the premier entertainment media conference that happens as part of the annual festival, delves into a myriad of traditional and nontraditional topics with leading content creators and executives. For instance, past panels have included Sustaining Your Online Audience, Writing for Diverse Characters in TV, and Transitioning from Film to Video Games. Media continues to evolve and we understand the need for Visual Communications to remain at the forefront of this change.
JANM: APA visibility in the media seems to be growing steadily, getting a big boost recently with the hit TV show, Fresh Off the Boat. What do you think are the important next steps for the community in terms of building and maintaining media presence?
ML: The next steps for the community are to keep pressing to have APAs not only in front of the camera, but behind it. Furthermore, the percentage of APA actors, writers and directors in TV and film still doesn’t come close to matching the percentage of APAs in the American population. Keep fighting to have APAs represented! People of color make up huge audiences that spend our money on film and TV—speak with your wallet!
FC: Keep supporting APAs in media, and keep demanding more! To quote our fellow staffer Abraham Ferrer, for every production highlighting Asian Americans “that crows about diverse casting, there are at least 20 more in which people of color simply don’t exist.” The discourse that Fresh Off the Boat has created and will continue to create has many complexities that revolve around race, ethnicity, and culture, and that’s great. But just because we’ve progressed to a point that is different from where we started, it doesn’t mean that it’s where we want and/or need to be.
For more information about Visual Communications and the upcoming Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, please visit vconline.org.
JANM has a long history of collaborating with East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe. Among other activities, the museum is proud to host A Writer’s Gallery, a semi-regular reading of new works by Asian American playwrights. On Thursday, March 19, East West Players will present a reading of Giovanni Ortega’s Iyakan Blues (The Criers), a comedy about a group of women who work as professional criers—people who are paid to weep at funerals.
On the eve of this latest collaboration, JANM reached out to Snehal Desai, Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at East West Players, and Giovanni Ortega, playwright, to find out more about the series and about Ortega’s play.
JANM: JANM began hosting A Writer’s Gallery way back in 1996. It now occurs roughly semi-annually. Snehal, can you talk about the significance of the series, and how it came about?
Snehal Desai: Lately, the series has functioned as an incubator—a place for the development of works we are considering as part of our season at East West Players. It is immensely helpful for our playwrights to have workshop time to develop their plays and then have a public reading of it, followed by a talkback. We have found that these readings really bring the community and audiences into the process of premiering a new work. The Tateuchi Democracy Forum is a perfect space for this kind of reading and the conversation that follows afterwards.
JANM: How do you go about selecting the writers who get featured?
SD: The writers and the works get selected in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are tied to exhibitions that are being presented at JANM, or they are inspired by dialogues currently happening in the community. Other times, a writer with whom we have a relationship will bring us a play that they are developing and want to read publicly.
JANM: Giovanni, is professional crying really a thing?
Giovanni Ortega: Professional crying is actually a real thing in different countries. It is still done in Chinese, Sardinian, Irish, and Middle Eastern societies, just to name a few. Mourners from Chongqing, China, and Taiwan were recently on the news. The 1993 Indian film Rudaali featured a character who cried at funerals, and going back further, there were professional mourners in Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Père Goriot. The basic concept behind crying at funerals is to allow the person who passed to have a good welcome on the other side. The extent of the wails and cries also shows the reverence and respect this person had while living.
JANM: What inspired you to write Iyakan Blues (The Criers)? Did you draw from personal experience?
GO: The initial inspiration for the play was the women in my family. I was raised by my two grandmothers, and then my mom after I moved to the U.S. [from the Philippines] when I was a teen. Growing up, I was always surrounded and influenced not only by my lolas (grandmas) but also their sisters and my aunts. They were all strong-willed women who had very distinct opinions about life.
Regardless of whatever adversity, burdens, and struggles they had to endure to survive, the underlying force was laughter to get through it all. I witnessed that this was their tool in survival, regardless of how difficult it got. One of my earliest memories was going to the wake of my Lolo [Grandpa] Tute, where tears and laughter went hand in hand. Having such experiences allowed me to realize that I can use the theme of death as a means to laugh, and writing this play was a great opportunity to do so.
There are also very few stories about the Filipino diaspora. There is so much more to our country than Imelda, beaches, karaoke, dancing, pancit [Filipino noodles], and poverty. Ours is a rich culture, not unlike the U.S. in its mixture of race, religion, and cultures. My own heritage being Chinoy (Filipino and Chinese) as well as Spanish and Native American is a testament to our variety. I wanted to share different perspectives that people have in regards to what being Filipino is.