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“Making His Muscles Work For Himself”: An Interview with David Henry Hwang

“Making His Muscles Work For Himself”: An Interview with David Henry Hwang – Asian-American playwright

Bonnie Lyons

Raised in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb by a first generation, Chinese American fundamentalist Christian family, David Henry Hwang wrote and directed his first play, F.O.B. (slang for “fresh off the boat”), which explores the tensions within and between recent and assimilated Chinese immigrants. F.O.B. won an Obie when it moved to New York in 1980 and since then many of Hwang’s plays, including The Dance of the Railroad (1981), Family Devotions (1981), The Sound of a Voice (1983), The House of Sleeping Beauties (1983), Rich Relations (1986), M. Butterfly (1988), and Bondage (1992), have addressed issues of individual identity, group identity, and as he explains in this interview, fluidity of identity. Hwang’s most famous play, his Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, exposes Western attitudes toward Asia by deconstructing one of the most powerful and seductive images of the Orient, Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. Far more than contributions to ethnic theater, Hwang’s plays provide brilliant and complex analyses of the politics of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The following interview took place on September 7, 1996, a few months before his most recent play, Golden Child, opened in New York.

BL: You’ve written in many styles and many kinds of plays. Do you see anything linking all your work? What about the issue of identity? Autonomy and community?

DHH: It’s probably true that all my work in some sense confronts the issue of fluidity of identity and explores the idea that who we are is the result of circumstance, the result of things that are not necessarily inherent but instead come out of our interaction with our contacts. Many of the plays suggest that if the contact changes, the individual becomes a different person, so to speak. Much of my work is about Asian-Americans, but even in the plays that aren’t, you can trace that theme of fluidity of identity. The notion of community vs. the individual is interesting; it’s not an idea I’ve really thought of before in relation to my work. As an Asian-American whose parents are immigrants, one of the dilemmas I feel most strongly in my own life is trying to figure out that issue. I was raised with a mentality that was concerned with group identity and about doing things for the group. But I was also raised as an American, which is essentially about individual identity. So I know that personally the issue of the individual vs. community has been a struggle for me, so it would not be surprising if that came through one way or another in my plays. But it’s not actually a theme I’ve ever set down and traced through.

Do you tend to look back at your body of work and see aspects that you didn’t see earlier?

If I compare writing plays to raising children (perhaps I’m inclined to that analogy since my wife and I have an infant!), I’d say that while you’re in the process, there’s not a lot of time or inclination to reflect on how your parenting style has changed while raising different children. Rather than look back, I’m more interested in focusing on what’s next.

How does your interest in fluidity of identity relate to the current notion of the self as theater or self as performer?

In many of my plays there is at least one character playing some role, whether it’s a predetermined role that exists in literature like Gallimard playing Pinkerton in M. Butterfly or Steve in F.O.B. playing Gwan Gung. The characters take on various mythologies and try to find themselves in relation to those mythologies, almost as if the search for identity is so difficult and complex that it is easier to hang your hat on a preestablished identity and try to have that become you or you become that thing.

Some critics have said that many of your plays can be seen as confrontations between two opposing forces or two opposing characters in which the seemingly weaker one triumphs. Do you agree?

Most of my plays do have an ideological duality to them; M. Butterfly has a series of them. Golden Child, my most recent play, is a real change–it’s my first real ensemble play. But I don’t think it is always the case that my plays follow the pattern of the weaker one triumphing over the stronger like Pinter’s servant becoming the master. In The Dance and the Railroad, for instance, it’s more an issue of the two characters trading positions. But the two positions are not defined relative to one another in terms of power in the same way Pinkerton and Butterfly are defined. Switching places is a very common aspect of my work, and I’ve been conscious of that when I set out to write them. Golden Child develops the Chinese vs. Christian theme that was in Family Devotions and Rich Relations. I’m not entirely satisfied with those plays; this is my attempt to trace back the roots of the Chinese/Christian conflict. It’s about my great-grandfather who converted to Christianity in China in the 20s and the effects of his conversion on his three wives. The conversion obviously created a conflict, so in a sense Golden Child ends up being an ensemble piece about the opposition between Christianity and ancestor worship in terms of dualities.

So the big change with the new play is that it’s an ensemble piece?

I think there are four good female roles and one strong male role and that the characters are more developed than in my earlier plays. About four or five years ago I decided that I had developed my ability to write plays with interesting structures and interesting ideas but that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the detail that gives characters full human richness. So with this play I consciously set out to be more Chekhovian.

Years ago you said, “I’m not interested in subtext or subtleties. I’m more interested in creating layers of a structure that have reverberations, one upon the other.” Is your new play a kind of repudiation of that earlier position?

Yes, I’m trying to make up for what I now perceive as a certain deficiency in my work. I want to continue to grow as a writer, and character complexity is the area I have consciously been focusing on.

Elsewhere you’ve said that “except for a little more equal opportunities in theater” you were “loath to set out an aesthetic or political agenda” for other people. Do you have an aesthetic or political agenda for yourself?

Because I work with Asian themes and material I’ve become involved in various cultural debates like the Miss Saigon controversy that you can call a debate over multiculturalism or political correctness, depending on how you look at it. I think I’ve probably become an old-fashioned 60s integrationist. I’ve become rather antinationalistic and antiseparatist in my middle age. I’m in a mixed marriage and I have a biracial child. In my earlier years I agreed with the nationalistic argument that one shouldn’t be assimilated, that it is pathetic to try to mimic the white man. At this point in my life I would say that the argument against assimilation wrongly assumes that culture is static. It doesn’t make any sense to me; culture is what people create at any given time, culture lives and changes. So I think it’s accurate to say that while society is going to change me, I am also going to change society. In a model of dynamic assimilation we’re constantly moving to create culture, and this I think essentially has been the history of America with the exception of certain groups that have not been included. To expand on the model of dynamic assimilation and to include all the excluded groups is perhaps my personal political agenda these days.

Your own political thinking has gone through three stages: an early, unquestioning assimilationist position, then a stage of isolationism and nationalism, and now your current thinking about dynamic assimilation. Do you think young writers have to repeat the same three stages?

People are always going to have to work through issues, the question is what they have to work through. And that has a lot to do with the particular context of your time. When I was in college it was the birth of the isolationist/nationalist period, and that was the car I got into to begin this journey. Nowadays it seems to me college-age people recognize the importance of race but also see that it is not the whole picture. That seems to me to be a different place from which to start than it was in the 70s.

A critic has said that you have “the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller.” Do you see yourself as a dramatist of American public life?

I don’t see my work as consciously pursuing public themes like Tony Kushner’s. I’m more caught up in my own perhaps self-indulgent personal journey. My own journey happens to have a public dimension to it in that it deals with some of the issues that the country is involved in right now. But I don’t approach it from that direction; my personal concerns happen to spill over into the public arena.

The characters in your first play F.O.B. were in their twenties, that is, around your own age. Has it gotten easier to write about older characters as you’ve gotten older yourself?.

Because my work is personal, the plays tend to focus on characters that are about the same age I am. Even the great-grandfather who is the center of Golden Child is about the age I am now. The real problem is different. For example at this point in my life, if someone asked me to work on something that involved high school kids I’d have a problem. I don’t know what it is to be a high school kid in the 1990s.

Your plays have been quite sympathetic to women characters and aware of sexism and gender issues. Any idea why?

I grew up with a lot of strong women. One of the funny things about being Chinese-American is that everyone else believes that Asian women are submissive and defer to men. My mom and aunt were both exceptions to that, and if everybody is an exception, then clearly something is wrong with the general rule. Traditional Chinese culture is really oppressive towards women; at the same time, growing up in a Chinese family, experientially you feel you are part of a matriarchy. I don’t think Chinese women are victimized by their oppressive circumstances; I think they figure out a way to survive powerfully within those conditions. I grew up in a fundamentalist background; it was something I had to rebel against and get out of. Because of that I have been really sensitive to any kind of fundamentalism and have a kind of instinctive recoil. It seemed to me that if I was going to write about Asian characters and try to affirm their value vis-a-vis white culture, I would have to look at the entire picture, which involved me as a man trying to regard women with the same respect I would like white culture to regard me. It has never made sense to me to separate racism and sexism. Maybe that’s the explanation for what you flatteringly call my sensitivity to women and gender issues.

In The Dance and the Railroad Lone says about the workers, “They are dead. Their muscles work only because the white man forces them. I live because I can still force my muscles to work for me.” I thought that was a very powerful statement about the desire for autonomy and metaphorically spoke about many of your characters’ desire to have their minds working for themselves rather than being controlled by cultural forces or other people’s ideas.

The characters are often clinging for security to a certain identity based on a stereotype or literary archetype and simultaneously trying to go past them to something that is more personal and individual. In act 3, scene 2 of M. Butterfly when Song disrobes, Song is really trying to say, “Look at me, get past the make-up, get past the archetype. You were in love with me.” Now Song is doing that for somewhat egotistical reasons, but he is trying to get to something personal.

Some of your plays such as Family Devotions and Rich Relations seem concerned with American materialism and class. Do you consider class and materialism central concerns in your work?

I think I’ve chickened out a bit on the issue of class and race. The English are obsessed with class; we Americans are obsessed with race. Race and racism have allowed white society to perceive itself as classless, because it is classless in relation to the black underclass.

As an Asian I’ve had to deal with racism, but it’s qualitatively different from what African-Americans face; it’s more like anti-Semitism. That puts me in a strange position in dealing with class, because as an Asian American I can’t transcend my race but I can transcend my class. I am upwardly mobile in a way that is difficult for African-Americans. In Rich Relations and Family Devotions obsession with class status seems to be part of Christianity; the characters who are interested in Christianity are also very interested in material status. I think that functions to some extent as a critique of the religion and exposes some of the hypocrisy. In a lot of my plays, including F.O.B., a desire to be upwardly mobile dovetails with abandonment of cultural roots, and so desire for status turns out to be a signpost of general abandonment of principles.

In one of your introductions you talk about F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions as your trilogy on Chinese-America. Do they represent three stages–F.O.B, as a repudiation of self-hatred; The Dance and the Railroad as a positive embrace of ignored aspects of a culture’s history and cultural forms; and Family Devotions as a complicated grappling with the issues of the past, tradition, and remembering?

I agree with your characterization of F.O.B. and The Dance and the Railroad. I’m not entirely happy with Family Devotions. It sets out some questions, but I don’t know that it’s really able to answer those questions, so I can’t talk about it with the same assurance.

You dedicated Family Devotions to Sam Shepard among others. Any special reason?

I started writing it at the Area Playwrights Workshop he was giving; the exercise was to create a set and then create the characters who lived in that set. That’s where I wrote the first two or three pages of Family Devotions and then I just kept on writing. So partially the dedication is a response to his inspiration, but I also think there are some similarities between my play and Buried Child. I’ve been a pretty blatant thief in modeling various plays on work by other playwrights. For example, The Dance and the Railroad is modeled on True West. And M. Butterfly is the Shaffer model.

And your new play?

Probably, The Three Sisters. I guess it’s the three wives now! And in terms of its being a memory play with a narrator it’s like The Glass Menagerie. In The Glass Menagerie the narrator plays himself at a younger point in his life, whereas in my play the narrator plays his own great-grandfather in the scenes from the 20s.

Do the three generations of Family Devotions represent your reading of the typical Chinese-American immigrant pattern–the first generation is tied to the past whether u false sense of the past or not, the second generation repudiates the past and accepts American values, and the third generation tries to come to some accommodation with the past and with America?

I think that’s a pretty general sociological pattern for most American immigrant groups, but my own personal pattern is more complicated because I am not actually third generation. Even though my parents were immigrants, they chose to assimilate to a large extent–so they were like the first two generations in a way. My whole personal political development is largely a reaction to the fact that my parents did assimilate. If they had been more traditional and tied to the root culture, I would probably be a completely different person.

In recent years you’ve written screen plays us well us plays. Can you talk a bit about your career as a screen writer?

Since M. Butterfly my play output has been quite slim. I think that’s because I was living in L.A. and writing screen plays. Now that I’m living back in New York I feel like I have a better balance between my playwriting life and my screenwriting life.

Do you take your film writing as seriously as you do your plays?

It’s hard not to take film writing less seriously because it’s so easy to lose control of a film script. Pictures get changed when they come out and others don’t even get made. So much of the process is out of your hands as a writer. I appreciate L.A. as a way to support my family and to have something to do between play ideas, to keep my muscles going, but because I have some control over my plays I can’t help but take them more seriously.

Was your decision to move back to New York related to the fact that you grew up in the L.A. area and your family is there, and a need to define yourself as a separate person?

Possibly, but I really think my desire not to live in L.A. has less to do with my family and more to do with trying not to get caught up in film writing.

I understand that in high school you were a musician and star debater. Do you think those early interests have affected you as a playwright?

Music really helps in terms of developing structure and dramatic growth, and jazz in particular helps with theatrical improvisation. As a jazz musician you get used to peaks and valleys and tensions–and these same things occur in theater which, like music, is a time art. And my early interest in debate no doubt contributed to my theatrical interest in the opposition of ideas and the interplay of ideas in many plays.

Years ago you said that you felt the best education for a playwright is to see and read all the plays one can. My question is, what do you think the value of seeing a play is as opposed to reading a play?

Seeing a play is always better because theater is meant to be seen. In a way, reading a play is a substitute for seeing it in the same way looking at a photograph of a building substitutes for studying the actual building.

That brings me to the issue of interpretation–do you think a director’s responsibility is to try to embody the playwright’s vision or to provide the best evening of theater, even if it means altering a text?

With a new play it seems important that the director try to convey the vision of the playwright. But with my own work, after a play is established, on the record so to speak, I’m actually curious to see what other people can do with it. There have been all sorts of odd productions of M. Butterfly around the world. In that context, I’m providing a kind of raw material and then the director shapes the clay into a vessel that interests him or her. And I find it interesting to see what else can be derived from the work.

You’ve said Maria Irene Fornes was one of the best teachers on earth. What made her so? And has what she taught you influenced how you teach other younger playwrights?

I’ve always been comfortable with my intellectual side and skittish with my emotional side. Emotional repression is part of my legacy as Chinese. And Irene’s insistence on unlocking that and on giving a lot of freedom irrespective of formal structures was extremely useful to me. Through her exercises, and Sam’s to some extent, I was able to access my subconscious in a way that enabled me to give life to my characters. I don’t teach very often, but when I do, I teach out of that school as well. The way to find out whether you are a writer has to do with what happens when you start to access your subconscious.

Do you remember any exercises in particular?

One I like is a written version of that old acting exercise in which you sit there and say everything that’s happening to you right at that moment–“I hear the air conditioner, I see that white wall …” That’s the first half of the exercise. In the second half you have to pick a literary or historical character in a particular time and place and write those sensations from inside that character’s mind. Ideally what you end up with is a monologue something like that boy’s in The Curse of the Starving Classes when he talks about hearing his father come home. That’s an exercise I give a lot and I think I made that one up myself.

You were unusually successful as a playwright at a very young age. How do you think that early success has affected you?

The good part is that early on I was inoculated against success and failure. I’ve had the taste of success off-Broadway and a taste of failure off-Broadway and writer’s block and all those things. In the last seven or eight years a lot of those same things have been replicated on a larger scale, on Broadway. My early success and very mixed career allow me not to get too excited about any of these things, to recognize the ebb and flow of a career and to know that you have successes and failures. On the down side, an M. Butterfly-size success is a relatively rare thing in the theater, but there is always the desire to equal or top that. That kind of success can’t be planned for or even aspired to really, but the desire is probably always there.

You’ve been something of a spokesman for the Asian-American community. Do you find that a burden, an opportunity, or some combination of the two?

Different times it’s been both. One part I reject is the idea of being what I call the Official Asian-American, the assumption that I or Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston or any one person can give everyone else a quick primer on what it is that Asians feel. Obviously any person can only speak for himself or herself. But if my visibility can be useful to illuminate or contribute to a social conversation, then I am satisfied with having the opportunity and responsibility.

At one time you said that you felt pressure from both sides of the Asian-American community. From the right for airing dirty laundry in public, and from the left for being too “whited out.” Has that changed over the years?

Pressure from the right has eased off because of the success of M. Butterfly–it’s something like “If the whites like you, we have to like you too.” Some leftist people have accused M. Butterfly of perpetuating negative notions about Asians, male emasculation for instance. Some people are unhappy that I have this Asian guy on stage in a dress for two acts. And certainly I’ve been criticized for inappropriate use of Chinese mythology. Nobody likes to be criticized, but the debate over my plays seems to be useful for the Asian-American community. It allows Asian-American audiences to define themselves in relation to a particular artist by either rejecting or accepting that person’s vision. They can say, “I like The Joy Luck Club but I don’t like David’s work” or vice versa. My work like Amy Tan’s or Maxine’s can be used as a way of thinking about Asian-American culture. And those kinds of comparisons are useful to undermine the notion of the Official Asian-American voice.

Your mother’s family were born-again Christians and you had a fundamentalist background. When did you leave those beliefs behind? And was it wrenching for you?

It was during my sophomore year of college and, yes, it was very difficult. Being an ex-fundamentalist is like being an ex-Catholic. There’s a lot of guilt involved and on some level you fear you’re going to hell. On the other hand I have to say that breaking away was one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. It really was something I had to do to get my muscles to work for me. But because my family was monolithically Christian, I thought it would separate me from my family forever.

Was your rejection of Christianity related to the idea of Christianity as a tool of white imperialism?

In retrospect I might be able to justify it on that level, but the real reason for leaving was much more personal. It was the rejection of a kind of fundamentalist mindset. The rejection of the idea that there is immutable truth that needs to be reached and then preserved. For the same reason I am opposed to the idea of an immutable Asian-American identity. My rejection of fundamentalist thought parallels my belief in fluid identity.

Years ago you said that the most exciting professional moment of your life was when you got the call from the O’Neill Theater saying they wanted to put on F.O.B.. Did the day M. Butterfly won the Tony and One Thousand Airplanes had its first trial performance surpass that?

That was a big day! But the thing that is so striking about the O’Neill acceptance is that the hardest thing is to get your foot in the door. Once you do that, you may or may not get a Tony, but all things are possible. And nothing is possible until the door is open. Moreover, the O’Neill acceptance was a huge surprise, because so many plays are submitted and so few are chosen, whereas with the Tony there are only five nominees, so I had a 20% chance.

Can you talk about your work on the film version of M. Butterfly?

I tried to find cinematic equivalents for the stage devices, but none of that made it into the actual movie. The movie is simply naturalistic.

Was that a great disappointment?

As a playwright I’m used to having my words be somewhat sacrosanct, but what happened with the film was pretty typical for a screenwriter. Whether the film would have been more successful if the director had followed my suggestions, who knows?

Can you talk about the influence of Maxine Hong Kingston and Woman Warrior on you and your work?

It was reading Woman Warrior that made me feel that I could find my own voice. As an Asian-American, she was the first author who spoke in a voice that seemed special, directly related to me. Before reading her work, I didn’t think it was possible to write about my own parochial concerns; they didn’t seem to have a place in literature as such. I really credit her with enabling me to believe my own concerns could be made into literature.

More than many playwrights, you’ve incorporated music and dance into your work. Are you still interested in total theater?

I am definitely still interested, but right now with Golden Child I set myself the challenge of trying to move an audience just with my words. I grew up with a kind of disdain for naturalism and kitchen sink plays, but seeing The Heiress was a real revelation to me. Golden Child has a slightly odd bookend structure and there’s doubling in the play, but basically the body of it is a fairly naturalistic play set in China in 1923.

Early in your career you seemed interested in the importance of holding on to one’s cultural traditions but of late you seem concerned with the idea that traditional societies were based on political and social ideas that are not attractive to you. Do you think you feel a conflict between honoring the past and progressive ideas?

That’s one of the things Golden Child is about in fact–how to interact with the past in such a way as to make it useful to us now. Neither ignoring the past nor idealizing the past is useful in trying to better oneself or one’s society. And how can we look at the past realistically since we don’t know what really happened. We can only try to interpret the past through the filter of our current perspective. In Golden Child family history functions in the same way as scripture, or mythology, or literature. It’s only important as it is able to be interactive and reinterpreted by people who are alive. That’s the way the ghosts of the past serve us.

Doesn’t your belief in the importance of reinterpretation go back to your rejection of fundamentalist thought? It seems to me the impulse of fundamentalism is to resist the possibility of reinterpretation.

Yeah, that’s a very good point. Golden Child suggests there is no objective knowledge of history and that each generation searches for its own truths.

I understand you directed the original performance of F.O.B. and also a revival of that play put on after M. Butterfly. How do you feel about directing, and what was it like going back to your early work?

It had a kind of nice, nostalgic quality about it. It’s interesting to revisit yourself at an earlier point in your life. To some extent Golden Child is also that because the source material is a novel that I wrote when I was ten. This early novel was kind of the official version of my family history and Golden Child is like a revisionist version. F.O.B. has a special place in my heart, whether for sentimental or more substantive reasons I’m not sure. It still speaks to me, and it is nice to feel some kind of unity between different aspects of myself at different times–although that does somewhat belie the notion that identity is completely fluid.

So your first literary work was a novel not a play. Does the novel as a form still interest you?

The time required to write a novel is daunting to me. And I like the interface between the solitude of writing and the social aspect of being in production. There’s a nice tension in that for me.

Talking about Bondage you’ve remarked about the need to acknowledge ethnic differences and at the same time to be willing to go past them to “the human essence” and to “essential universal humanity.” I agree, but what would you say to those who insist there is no human essence or essential universal humanity–that those words are just codes for privileged white males?

As much as we’ve been talking about fluidity of identity and social construction of the self, I feel that there is something more, something we all share, something beneath all that.

Do you begin a play with a character or an idea or a scene?

Different plays develop from different seeds, but in general I like to know where I’m starting and where I’m ending. I like to think of writing a play as taking a roadtrip. I know I’m going from New York to Chicago; the fun part is finding the road to Chicago.

Do you think in terms of scenes?

Not much except right before I get to one. I generally just write from the beginning to the end. I write a scene, it ends and then I have to take an imaginative leap and ask, “What chunk of the road is this next area going to cover?” And then it becomes a scene. But it’s not a question of laying out the scenes before I start.

Albee has said, “A first-rate play exists completely on the page and is never improved by production. It is only proved by production.” Do you agree, and what is your attitude toward production?

At certain points in some of my plays I’m writing a blueprint, an invitation for the director to collaborate with me. For example, when Song takes off her make-up between Act II and III in M. Butterfly, that’s an opportunity for the director to do a cadenza.

Some playwrights have said they see playwriting as creative and acting as interpretive. Do you see it that way?

I think both are creative and interpretive. A lot of my work is interested in interpretation, and when an actor interprets or creates a role he or she is going through the same process that I went through writing. So I don’t see a big difference.

Has an actor ever revealed an aspect of one of your characters you were unaware of?

While I can’t think of an example right now, I’m sure it happens all the time. Just because I wrote a play doesn’t mean I think I’m the final authority on what this work is about. I wrote it, but that doesn’t mean I understand it better than anybody else. A good play like life itself is a matter of interpretation. When someone has a new interpretation of the work that feels right, then I learn something about the work and presumably something about myself.

Do you see yourself as writing for a particular audience? Do you think of audience at all?

My primary audience of course is myself. In terms of secondary audiences, I am interested in speaking to as many people as possible. Which because I am Asian-American can be misinterpreted to mean, “He wants to write for White people.” I want to reach as many people as possible–Asian, White, Black, whatever. My object is to communicate.

Do you feel a need to make Asian or Asian-American references clear to a non-Asian-American audience?

I’ve found that the more culturally specific you are, the more universal the work is. There’s no conflict between wanting to reach a large audience and being particular and culturally accurate.

Do you think there’s a sort of canon of great modern plays or modern American plays and if so, what’s included? Or put it another way, if you were teaching a course on modern theater, which plays would you teach?

I think one of the reasons I don’t teach is that I don’t want to deal with that question. Tony Kushner is teaching a class at NYU called “Plays That Have Influenced Me” or something like that. I’d be comfortable being subjective like that, and I can tell you what plays have influenced me and which plays I really like, but the idea of a canon implies something definitive.

Let’s say Tony backs out and David leaps in.

Well, if we’re talking about plays since 1960 there’s The Birthday Party, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Look Back in Anger, Amadeus. I’m thinking of a lot of Brits. Tooth of Crime and Buried Child, Glengarry GlenRoss and Joe Turner, even though it’s not August Wilson’s most successful play. Those are the plays that come to mind immediately.

What’s on your mind for the future?

My next work may be a musical. For contractual reasons I can’t say more than that, now. In terms of issues or themes, I’m interested in exploring masculinity, especially for Asian men. There’s a strange double bind that I describe in Bondage in which Asian men are perceived as wimps but also as oppressive sexists. So they have the disadvantages of being macho and none of the advantages. In the past because of my desire to be sensitive to feminist issues I haven’t affirmed masculinity, which as a construct can be pretty oppressive. I remember being at a conference at which someone said we really need more Asian James Bonds. To me that represents assimilation in the worst sense of the word. What interests me is exploring a way to affirm masculinity that does not rely on oppression.

Bonnie Lyons, professor of English at the University of Texas, San Antonio, has published interviews in The Literary Review and has co-authored, with Bill Oliver, Passion and Craft, a book of interviews with fiction writers

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