I can remember exactly how I felt the first time I saw Porgy and Bess and fell in love with the music and the story.
So I asked my mom, “Is there a Chinese Porgy and Bess?”
She didn’t think so. I felt a little left out so I got myself the sheet music for “Summertime” and learned to play it on the piano. And each time I did, I looked into the mirror hanging behind the piano and saw myself, a little Chinese girl humming this beautiful song and hearing Ella Fitzgerald’s voice in my head.
I wondered if the composer, George Gershwin, had written music for other stories, maybe something that had people in it that looked like me. He didn’t. Later on, people would tell me that most stories have basic universal themes and can be everyone’s journey.
My brain understood that. My gut did not. But I was a kid and believed that was the way things were and you just went along with it.
What really happens
I didn’t realize how much I wanted to point to a character on stage and say, “That’s me!” I wanted to see, hear, and feel a story that rang true for me. I wanted to root for a real person and see myself in their experience. I wanted the world to see it would understand me.
Of course that didn’t happen. Not even when my parents took me to see Chinese opera movies in Chinatown where every one of them became a blur of rapid fire Chinese, kung fu fighting and monkey kings wreaking havoc on a mountain. In Saturday morning Chinese school classes, I read primers printed in garish colors on rice paper that featured illustrations of Chinese people next to verbs and nouns.
It sent a message. My story is about mythical ninjas and people pointing at things.
I didn’t bother to try out for my school production of Tom Sawyer. Me, Becky Thatcher? I couldn’t see myself in that role. Every superhero I drew was a blond Supergirl. The good guys, Cinderella, Marilyn Monroe... they were blondes. Dark hair, dark skin was Boris & Natasha, Snidely Whiplash. Chinese music that I shared with my class was “interesting folk music”, not classical music. And the classical piano music I was learning was dominated by a closed circle of composers, all men, all European, all dead. Without a word, I knew my place.
But I still wondered.
If the stories we share are everyone’s journey, shouldn’t the heros and heroines look and sound like everyone?
Is there room in piano repertoire for other people to create music to be respected and loved?
Why couldn’t I try out for Becky Thatcher?
What we can do
Many years ago, my sister took a trip to my mother’s home village in China. “Mom’s name was not in the family book,” she sputtered furiously. “So, if her name isn’t in the book, guess what - our names aren’t in the book either! We don’t exist.”
The explanation was, even though my mom has 18 brothers and sisters and a couple of concubine stepmothers, the book only listed the names of the male children. Now, are you going to tell me I don’t have a story worth telling?
That did it.
How many more places can I be invisible, non existent?
I am sure my sister wanted to throttle someone for this terrible omission and out of respect for her elders, she bowed, smiled and hopped on a plane to New York ready to raise holy hell about it.
Meaning, she called me. “You’re a writer, do something about this!”
What I did
I wrote a story about my family. In my mind, this is the beginning of my family book in America from one of the newest members of this large family. Rabbit Mooncakes is a picture book that shows many of my aunts, uncles and cousins celebrating the Harvest Moon Festival in Queens. To this day, they still argue over who is who, no, you’re the chubby one, I’m the one in this picture, that’s me on the right of Auntie #5.
It is everyone’s story. Female and male children, aunts and uncles, concubines, first & second wives, library boys governesses and a grandfather whose presence was larger than life.
Exclusion does not right past exclusion. An incomplete story will not complete itself.
I learned a great piece of wisdom from a copywriter who said that copywriting is the art of persuasion on paper.
And the best way to do this is to enter into a conversation that is already happening in your reader’s head. Listen respectfully, offer a story or another way to be curious about something and then be still, let the reader sit with what you have to offer and make a decision. Any other approach would be akin to beating up a customer to sell a used car.
Isn’t that powerful? Awakening an awareness to something new without force, creating a space for reflection and leaving the reader with the agency to come to a new understanding on their own.
This helped me to create something meaningful that does a few things: a story you can recognize yourself in, an experience that builds your confidence, and opens new ways to be curious and creative about the things you care about.
What about you
We are all creative beings by nature. What we share is a lifetime of experiences and emotions. The stories only you can tell are waiting to be heard by someone else. Someone who wants to feel that they are not alone.
If that person is you, be bold and share your story.
I can’t wait for a new Porgy & Bess.
About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.