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“If you want to be a writer, you should give back to writing by reading the work of others. Together we can write our own story, our own history, so that it is not written for us.”: My Conversation With Katie Hae Leo

This is your lucky day, dear reader.  Because I missed you so much over the long weekend, I want to continue the conversation with you this fine Tuesday.  Below is my chat with Katie Hae Leo, who shares her thoughts on writing and her new play Four Destinies.

Enjoy.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: So, what’s it like being a freelance writer?  It sounds very romantic.

Katie: On one hand, being a writer is as natural as breathing for me.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt more comfortable expressing myself in writing than speaking.  I love words, and I love the act of putting words together on the page.  Every word has a unique energy, like a human body, and when you put two words next to each other, they create a chemistry specific to those two words, just like two people might have a chemistry all their own.  I can get very nerdy about choosing just the right word to say exactly what I want to say, or looking for a surprising word that can break open and question how we think about an idea.

So, writing to me doesn’t feel like work.  When people say they can’t wait to retire ‘cos they hate their jobs, I feel for them.  I can’t imagine not writing.  I’m grateful to be able to do what I love.

On the other hand, writing well is also really hard work.  For me it requires long, uninterrupted stretches of time that allow me to really focus and get into the zone.  The stuff I write when I first sit down is usually just a warm-up, just stream-of-consciousness that will eventually lead to something more intentional and shaped.  It’s the discipline required to shape your thoughts into something fresh that makes good writing.  And, just like with any discipline, it takes practice and faith.  That’s the hard part.  Not judging yourself, trusting that you have something to say, listening to your instinct, balancing your vision with the needs of your audience or reader, all that is hard.  And, it doesn’t pay very well, so it helps to have a day job (or a partner who has a day job)!  Being a “starving artist” may sound romantic, but in practice it can be a drag.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: That was, hands down, the nerdiest response we’ve ever had on LGA.  Nicely done, Katie!  Moving on.  Your new play looks fantastic!  I’m looking forward to seeing it.  Would you mind talking about the play’s origin, what you hope to accomplish, etc.?

Katie: Thanks!  Four Destinies was inspired by my friend Kim Park Nelson, a Korean adopted scholar who observed that many Korean adoptees she’s met were told by their parents that they were “destined” to come to their particular families.  Also, as a child Kim remembers wondering what would’ve happened if she’d gone to a different family and a different child had come to hers.  Is it really destiny that shapes our lives, or just basic random luck?  Over coffee one day we brainstormed the idea that became the first act of this play–one adoptive family and one adoptee character who happens to be played by four different actors.  The structure of the play allows the audience to see what would happen if, in fact, a different child did end up in that family.  It also allows the play to consider different kinds of adoptees, not just Korean, and how their presence in the family subtly alters the dynamics.  The repetition also lends itself to humor, sort of like the film Groundhog Day.

As part of my research for writing the play, I took one of those mail-order DNA tests that were popularized in Time magazine and on Oprah a few years back.  As an adoptee who hasn’t been able to find birth family, it was very tempting to think I could unlock the secrets of my genetics by just spitting into a test tube and mailing it to some lab.  But, when I got my results back, it didn’t reveal anything particularly useful or surprising, which just reinforced for me the absurdity of my situation.  So, I decided to weave that story into the play, as well, through the character of Katie Leo, who’s a playwright.

In terms of what I hope the play accomplishes, I first and foremost want to tell a compelling, amusing, and multi-layered story.  I want to entertain the audience and make them laugh.  I want them to recognize something in the play that relates to themselves, no matter who they are.

And, I want to represent the adoptive experience in all its complexities to the best of my ability.  This play is unlike other plays I’ve written in that I really wanted to address adoption as an experience.  It’s a non-linear, non-naturalistic play, meaning it doesn’t flow in real time and doesn’t follow one story, like, say, Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie, or even Angels in America.  That said, I’m not trying to speak for anybody’s point of view on adoption other than myself, which hopefully is made clear at the beginning of the play.

Most of all, I just want this to be a fun evening that gives the audience a lot to talk about over drinks afterwards or on the drive home.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Awesome.  What advice do you have for aspiring creative writers?

Katie: Write.  I know that sounds coy, but it’s the plain truth.  Writers need first to write, every day or as often as possible.  I think it was E.M. Forster who said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”  You may have a ton of great ideas in your head, but until you sit down to write them and shape them into something, you’ll never know their potential.  Writing is like building a muscle; you’ve got to work it every day to see results.

Also read.  Period.  Especially other Asian American writers.  So many of us were never taught the Asian American canon, but it’s a long, rich body of work just waiting for all of us.  When I discovered writers like David Mura, Li-Young Lee, Myung Mi Kim, or Marilyn Chin, I felt recognized, I felt located.  And, there’s an impressive, growing body of writing by Korean adopted writers, like Jane Jeong Trenka, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Sun Yung Shin, and Lee Herrick, just to name a few.  So, start with those names and then branch out into other writers of color, LGBT writers, diasporic writers, post-colonial writers…  If you want to be a writer, you should give back to writing by reading the work of others.  Together we can write our own story, our own history, so that it is not written for us.

And finally, get involved with your community.  Find out what’s going on around you.  Talk to your neighbors, attend meetings, work with youth, mentor, give when you can, but also practice self-care.  A writer needs a room of her own, and she needs her community.  Your community will inspire you and feed your work, and you won’t feel alone in this world.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Word…  And to you, dear reader, if you live in MN, I strongly encourage you to go see Four Destinies, which runs from October 15-30 at at the Mixed Blood Theatre.  I would also strongly encourage you to attend the community forum on adoption that Mu Performing Arts has organized in support of the play.  The forum, moderated by Soojin Pate, will be held on Sunday, September 25 at 4:30 p.m. and will feature Oh Myo Kim, Shawyn Lee, Shanda Stracek, and Robert O’Connor.  If you have questions, please feel free to contact Randy Reyes at randy(at)muperformingarts.org.

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