Breaking Out of Narrative Scarcity

05-11-2020Julia Y. Huang

Narrative scarcity always felt personal.

I first came across the term “narrative plenitude” while reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies. Even then, “scarcity” was what resonated. Given my background, it made sense. As an Asian immigrant not quite fitting into the usual first-generation immigrant mold; as a businessperson giving myself a cookie-cutter multicultural background so as to be more readily accepted; as a Taiwanese American growing up not in Taiwan, but in Japan; and as a non-Chinese American immersed, through education and politics, in Chinese culture — I constantly searched for stories I identified with, in vain.

There isn’t a lack of stories out there labeled “Asian American”. An entire 1987 issue of TIME magazine is devoted to Asian Americans, touting “us” as Whiz Kids. I was frequently asked to fill in the blank: If you are Asian American and you are not a… 1) Dentist, 2) Accountant, 3) Doctor (either academic or medical is fine, but preferably MD), your parents will freak out. I joked about how A- is an Asian F. I nodded proudly when told Asian cuisine is all the rage. I supported (and still do) the courageous Asian American activists, some of whom are my friends. I celebrated all Asian American accomplishments vicariously as though they were my own. The problem was that all these accounts, while compelling, felt one-dimensional and, even worse, made my own experience feel unsanctioned to be included as an official Asian American story. Then there was also the pressure to embrace all the stories out there told by “our own.” This led to my becoming aware of the importance of seeing more “people like us” narratively depicted.

A recent popular story featuring “people like us” that I could not identify with (for at least a couple of obvious reasons) is Crazy Rich Asians. When Constance Wu who played the protagonist made “narrative plenitude” term-de-jour after the blockbuster movie was released, it was Viet Thanh Ngyuen who provided context in his New York Times article:

“If and when we achieve an economy of narrative plenitude, a bad movie about Asian Americans will just be a bad movie. An excellent movie would be great, but a mediocre one will be no big deal. A mediocre movie about Asian Americans will not kill careers or be seen as a failure of and for Asian Americans, just as a mediocre movie by and about white people says nothing about white people.”

When Parasite was met with critical and popular acclaim, artist David Choe told me how his parents were overjoyed by the groundbreaking Oscar wins for the movie and Korean director Bong Joon Ho. His father, an immigrant who worked most of his life in the U.S., finally felt proud as a Korean American, through the accomplishment of this fellow countryman, albeit a total stranger. (The irony of his own son being a world renowned artist should not be lost here.) Choe concluded his story with sarcasm and a tinge of defeat, “And then the ‘Asian’ Virus happened, totally deflating the man.” One more instance where a single Asian story diminished another in the U.S., precluding us from telling multiple stories (good or bad) at the same time. “And then the ‘Asian’ Virus happened” is an unpleasant reminder of the “either or” conundrum in telling the Asian American story.

This “either or” situation — narrative scarcity — is paralyzing. When the window where the general public is paying attention to Asian American stories is open, if that happens at all, it closes quickly. This creates hesitance over whether we tell our stories or not. Sometimes, the best way to avoid shaming our name, our family, our country, our whole race, or even the population that simply looks like us, is not to tell the story at all. It’s better to conform, follow what is widely accepted.

But conformity will not break us out of the cycle of narrative scarcity. The only way to achieve an economy of narrative plenitude, as Nguyen mentioned in his article, is to not focus on telling a few exceptional stories, but many different ones, and, most importantly, telling them consistently and all the time.

Ideally, it wouldn’t matter when we tell our stories, yet May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month. Personally, I was never a fan. It felt like an easy way out, an excuse for both those who are and aren’t Asian Pacific American to cram all things Asian Pacific into that one month, so that the rest of the year is exempt. One month dedicated to a segment of the U.S. population gives the illusion of a captive audience. An audience that knows to pay attention (or act like it) for 31 days out of a year.

I have since come around to understanding the significance of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This month is a reminder that to break the cycle of narrative scarcity and the one-size fits all cookie-cutter mold, Asian Americans must speak up. And if the month of May is our opportunity to do so, then we should with aplomb. The increasing number of hate crimes against Asian Americans due to the origin of COVID-19 is a dire warning; we will never form an economy of narrative plenitude by staying quiet.

Which is why this year, Intertrend is tapping its in-house nonprofit Creative Class Collective to honor Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by kicking off a movement called Make Noise Today. It is one way of encouraging Asians to stand up, stand out, and speak up. The stories shared by Asian Americans from all walks of life through Make Noise Today are anything but one-dimensional. Each story shared builds an economy of narrative plenitude and informs the public at large on the rich texture of Asian American history, culture, and identity.

Poet and author Cathy Hong Park in her excellent book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning wrote:

“And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.”

I wish I can speak as eloquently on the importance of speaking up. Our stories must intersect and influence each other to make Asian American stories stronger in their impact, and so that they will not be forgotten. When we take our individual or collective stories out of the silo, we strengthen the discourse that is so needed at this moment to fight back against the rise of xenophobia and racial attacks against Asians. It is time to Make Some Noise.