Features Published 10 October 2018

“To ‘be in context’ is a luxury”

Director Ailin Conant and playwright Dipika Guha are working on new play 'The Art of Gaman'. Here, they discuss ideas of belonging, immigrant experience and Japanese-American history.
Dipika Guha

‘The Art of Gaman’ in performance at Theatre503. Photography: Helen Murray

Ailin Conant: We are here discussing Dipika Guha’s new play, which follows the story of Tomomi, a Japanese woman who moves to America just before Japanese Internment in the 1940s.

Dipika Guha: The play came out of ten minute play commission from the Women’s Project in New York. It was a very specific commission to respond in particular to a building – City Center theatre in New York City. City Center in New York used to be a shriner temple (they were a kind of masonic group who wore small fezes – it’s where some of the culturally appropriation imagery in the play come from). It was to be performed with four other pieces from other decades. I was assigned the 1940’s.

When I get an assignment like this I am most interested in the stories we don’t know so well. I wrote the short play before the last American election, but Islamophobia had been rising in America for a while. I started thinking about other moments in history when people had been targeted due to their ethnicity – which is something that has, of course, come to full fruition under the Trump administration and the Supreme Court deciding to uphold the Muslim ban.

Japanese internment was the first thing that came up when I looked into the 1940s in America. I was interested to learn that this history was not only unfamiliar to me because I didn’t grow up in America, but a lot of Americans on the East Coast weren’t familiar with it either.

My partner is half-Japanese and half-Jewish. In my research I learned that his grandmother actually married a man she’d never met before to avoid being interned. He was a Japanese minister in New York. He came out from New York and married her. And they went back to New York and had what I think was a very happy marriage! So that story stopped being so useful to my playwriting!

But I took the seed of that story: what would happen if you married a man you didn’t know.

The first image I had was of a woman throwing a fish into the air and at that point I didn’t know what the story would be about.

AC: Had you heard the Japanese Legend of Taki Nobori, about a carp swimming up a waterfall to turn into a dragon, at that point?

DG: No.

AC: Wow – that’s amazing that you had that image then. I was really excited to be given the play – as an American, as a US emigrant to the UK, and as a visual director because the play is so beautiful. When I first read the script and saw it was about a Japanese American immigrant lesbian, I thought that’s probably why I’ve been given the play – because I’m a Japanese American immigrant lesbian. But Lisa Spirling (artistic director of Theatre503) hadn’t known any of those things about me – except that I am an immigrant! It was really serendipitous.

You say it started in the 1940s but I love that it actually spans an entire lifetime and ends in 2010. It looks at one woman’s life and asks how do the socio-political movements of any given period and all the things that are happening in our external context shape and form us? Because we have these identities that we don’t chose. They’re affected by the political landscape. And I found that fascinating. My mother was a first generation Japanese immigrant to America and I’ve grew up seeing her shaped by that identity her entire life. And for me the play really resonates. She’s really been the biggest reference. Every time I look at the character I think of her life and think wow. I think of the relentlessness of living outside your context. There’s a lot of imagery of the desert, and of sand, and of sand stuck in gills, and of air, and water, and of breathing water. And this very elemental feeling of what does it mean to be out of sea. Which is really powerful.

Another thing that is really great about actually rehearsing and staging the play and what has emerged is how carefully you’ve placed references to the current moment, and how the theme of being “on enemy territory” translates to now. Like there’s a movie called The Sheik referenced in the play a lot. It’s subtly written in and doesn’t necessarily jump off the page when you read a stage direction like, “orientalist music plays”, but when you actually get into tech rehearsals and you hear a 1940s American take on what Middle Eastern music sounds like, it’s a very powerful thing to viscerally experience it, as opposed to just read it. And to have that really clearly in the play that way, you necessarily feel the moment now, in our current political context of Islamophobia in the West, and what the play is saying about how we treat and present difference.

DG: I think it’s amazing you say how difficult it is to live ‘outside of your context’ because it feels to me that to ‘be in context’ is a luxury as an immigrant. It’s so rare that you are read 100% correctly by the majority culture that you’re in. And I come from several backgrounds: I grew up in India, I lived in the UK, then I moved to US, so what ‘in context’ even is is probably a lot of things for me. It’s really interesting to think about the unspoken stresses on immigrants. We’re very conscious of the legal battles and the conscious prejudice. But the unconscious stress of living out of context is not only true for Tomomi (the protagonist) because she’s an immigrant. But also, true because she’s a woman in a patriarchy.

AC: And a woman who falls in love with another woman, in a heteronormative context too. I feel so lucky this piece came my way. Every play I’ve initiated or created has been about on some level about homelessness. And I wonder if that’s a human thing or it’s an immigrant thing. I do think there is some truth to the saying that ’when you’re an immigrant, you are never home.’ And significant how Tomomi finds home (although I don’t want to give it away!).

DG: Because is home also a luxury in a way? Something a lot of people take for granted. As an immigrant, is there a heightened consciousness around where you feel a sense of belonging?

AC: Absolutely. Also – and this in terms of the current moment; We talk about Brexit, we talk about extreme xenophobia of cultures where we’re in a poorer society where there are many people of many identities living within a country that starts to form itself ‘in opposition to’. All of a sudden, you’re splitting yourself because you are British and you are Muslim. And I am American and I am Japanese and I am British. I’m all of those things. So when countries start to fight and battle-lines start to get drawn, that splits you down the middle as a person. Because you stop fitting. And you stop belonging.

DG: Yes. And it’s a kind of violence that is inarticulate to a large degree because I think the impact on our human bodies physiologically when you’re told again and again implicitly that you don’t belong – it kind of renders you mute. Because it’s an implicit accusation that is being made: you are being criminalised in a way for being more than one thing. And because it’s so under the surface of our conversations (increasingly more on the surface) we don’t have the language to combat it even. I think this play is an expression of that internalised trauma.

AC: And the battle for home, the battle for definition of what Britain is right now (and to the same extent what America is), is interesting because you have people that fundamentally feel like they don’t belong. If you are sat here trying to reclaim your home, if you’re trying to ‘make Britain great again’, if you’re trying to plant a flag, that also indicates that to some extent you feel pushed out or you don’t belong. That is at least a shared experience. Shared in different ways, but common to everybody on all sides of any kind of battle-line. And that’s something I’ve been wrestling with and trying to understand further. And – as much as Tomomi as an immigrant has all of these, almost insidious and constant ways of feeling like she doesn’t belong – in order for people to be pushing back against her in that way, there must also be a way in which people of different identities that are more ‘British’ or ‘American’ (in the context of the play) are pushing back on her. They are also feeling that same feeling of displacement, and of not belonging. Whether that’s a class thing or…

DG: That’s also under-articulated as a short hand for what ‘our’ cultural values are (whether that’s Britain or America) and what are those ‘cultural values’ that are not just ‘human values’? I don’t know! What do cultural values stand for that immigrants are disobedient of? Is it language? What does that even mean? Why is it a threat to have more than one language in your body? I think I don’t understand why multiple identities are a threat. I think because of the way I was raised I only see that it makes you more open to have more than one way of looking at the way. I don’t understand the fear. It’s almost as though to have more than one identity is to dilute some ‘essential’ identity, which I think is a false construction and undermines how multifaceted we are as human beings.

AC: I love that meme that went around going something like ‘ 20 cookies exist on the table, the ‘banker’ takes 19 and gives 1 to working class, and says ‘The Immigrants are trying to steal half your cookie’. When you’re in a system that’s fundamentally broken and something is not working but you don’t have the broad analysis of all the reasons for that and somebody tells you whose fault it is, it’s very easy to be vulnerable and susceptible to that and to conflate things that don’t need to be conflated. It’s a tactic that has been used consciously and subconsciously again and again throughout history.

DG: That it’s economic?

AC: That’s my lens, right. Some people have the lens of gender that they’re really sensitive to; some have the lens of identity. I’m interested in how human society and systems are shaped by individual psychological responses to the human condition. I feel like humans are creatures prone to addiction and we’ve created this tool that can be infinitely useful and is therefore infinitely addictive to some people. Money can be translated into literally any material thing. So wealth addiction is a thing. It’s a natural thing, and because of the way it functions, it spirals: people who get addicted and focus on generating money will continue to find ways of taking more and more than they need, while the people who either aren’t addicted and therefore have non-material values, or who weren’t born privileged enough to even begin to play the game, or both, will find themselves in a system in which it is increasingly harder to live a free life and get their basic needs met. It’s a system that gets top heavy and spirals out of control.

DG: The question is ‘when is freedom threatened?’ and then ‘why?’ And it’s really good to point to economic privilege as a way that that’s displaced on to the conversation about identity when it isn’t fundamentally about identity.

AC: I love that Tomoni is a miser! I adore that. I recognise that in myself, in my mother, in anybody that has been in situation where they have been out of control. It’s a way you can gain control of your life and circumstances. I think it’s really apt. I’m really excited as it’s such a powerful play. It speaks on so many levels: our generation, and our parents’ generation, and also projecting us into the future as well.

DG: For these themes to be held in the theatre – which is fundamentally a shared space is really not accidental, that we as immigrants are trying to create home in a different way. Not just for ourselves but for everybody. It’s a way to take control.

The Art of Gaman is on at Theatre503 until 27th October. More info here.

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Dipika Guha is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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