It will take more than one film about crazy rich Asians to change the landscape of Asian American media representation, said Kristina Wong.
Instead, she said a wealth of diverse stories must be told to achieve such transformative change. Wong, a performance artist and UCLA alumna, is one of four panelists in Thursday’s Luskin Lecture Series panel titled “Dawn of a New Day: Asian American Women Who Are Changing Media.” She joins actress Tess Paras, director Grace Lee and writer Fawzia Mirza to discuss how they utilize their platforms to create social change in the world. Mirza said the panel will be a chance to discuss some of the challenges and truths about their work.
“What I always hope is that whether it’s by virtue of hearing something I said, or a story I’ve shared, or anyone else that is on the panel has shared, that we feel that there’s room for us and that our voices matter,” Mirza said.
Each of the panelists approaches the matter of social change in a distinct way, specific to their mediums and experiences. For Wong, she said her voice and focus shifted after Donald Trump’s election, leading to a new manifestation of her desire to create change. As she considered ideas for new shows, she became interested in the idea of running for an elected position and crafted a show titled “Kristina Wong for Public Office” about the idea of campaigning. After developing the show, she later ran for public office herself and won a seat on her neighborhood council in Wilshire Center Koreatown.
Both Wong’s performance and role as a council member allowed her to focus the conversation on singular issues and led to crossover between the two. Wong has been working with undocumented immigrants through the UCLA DREAM Resource Center to create a theater piece about their experiences. She then invited some of her theatrical collaborators to speak at the neighborhood council meeting, where she introduced a community impact statement to support the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Wong said her previous work was meant to subvert reality, but when reality became so ridiculous, she had to adapt.
“I can’t, as an artist, outdo politics because artists and politicians have switched jobs,” Wong said. “They now create the shock and spectacle that has us questioning reality and we now have to reclaim the quiet place with social change and truth.”
That truth is something Paras seeks out in her work, asking questions and looking at the world to craft compelling human narratives. In her own work, she explores mental health and Asian American identity, as she did in her short film “The Patients.” Paras believes taking broader issues and focusing them into an understandable narrative helps people connect with topics on a human level.
“At our very basic level as humans, we’re able to understand stories and narratives more than we’re apt to looking at a bunch of facts and coming together for a large, logical conclusion,” Paras said. “We’re able to take some of those ideas and break them down on a human level. … I think art is crucial in social change.”
Conscious of the role art plays in societal and personal change, Mirza said her first short film was crucial to her survival and coming out story. She said identity is central to the lens she uses to tell her stories, and her work conveys her own perspective as a queer, Muslim, South Asian, Pakistani woman.
“My work and my identity are kind of inextricably connected,” Mirza said. “I am always the gay Muslim one. Whatever it is, it’s always from that lens because that’s my lens and I want more of that lens out there.”
As artists work to expand the perspectives depicted in media, Paras says it’s crucial to tell and discuss responsible stories about underrepresented communities that haven’t yet been told. Storytellers also need to consider the audience and what they want to see. Personally, Paras said she often felt ignored as an audience member and said the media need to consider people who don’t feel like stories have been made or told for them.
The diverse stories audiences seek are out there – they just need to be told, Wong said. She added that telling a wider range of stories can give power to existing narratives and also reduce the burden of representation. Rather than expecting characters to represent the entirety of a demographic or community, Wong hopes those who attend the panel can be inspired to live and tell the countless stories that have yet to be told.
“We literally could be the first ones out there doing things,” Wong said. “But people should be confused by what we’re doing because we’re breaking ground. And we should be doing things that no one’s ever heard of before.”