“Miss Saigon Lies” posts from the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon campaign have been making the rounds on Tumblr lately, and this got me thinking about Encanta and whether I am telling lies in my play too.
In particular, it got me thinking about what my responsibilities are when I write a story that represents a group of people I’m not part of. The writers of Miss Saigon were presumably white and wrote a “truthful” and “historically accurate” play about a Vietnamese woman in a relationship with an American soldier. I’m Black and writing an outright fantasy play about Latin@s that is based off of Latin@ cultures in the same what that Avatar: The Last Airbender is based off of Asian cultures.
The tendency I’ve noticed is for people to fall back on their good intentions while characterizing any form of critique as, “You just don’t want anybody to write about anything different!”
Which is bullshit, of course.
So let’s talk about what I was trying to do with this play and the potential pitfalls for representing Latin@s in roles where their Latinidad is neither a focal point of the plot nor a joke about how “Mexicans” don’t speak English, have a bunch of babies with different baby daddies, and don’t know how to act.
Everyone who’s followed this story from its beginning can recall that Encanta started as pretty much an AU Swan Queen fanfic where Emma Swan is Black and Henry is absent. There were also influences from Moonstruck and from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. But through every incarnation of this play, I wanted magic and romance and sexytimes in a story that did not take place in Yet Another Faux Medieval European Setting and did not focus on The Lives and Times of Cishet White Folks. I wanted LGBTQ people of color front and center in the story.
I also wanted the freedom to be able to invent and imagine a fantasy romance that took place in a world that looked and sounded very different from your typical Tolkien knock-off. At the same time, I didn’t want a generic fantasy romance stripped of all cultural markers. I can’t remember what made me say, “These characters are Latin@.” I’ve always known that Katrina would be Latin@ because in my fantasy where things like money and time are no object, Lana Parrilla would play the fuck out of this role, and it seemed odd to sort of ignore or bypass the fact that being Latin@ is a huge part of her identity. So asking, “What if I centered the story on Latin@ LGBTQ people?” was a natural extension of that process.
But that still opens up a lot of questions about my responsibilities as an artist when portraying a community I’m not part of, even in a work of pure fantasy. Even though the setting of Encanta is completely made up, the play itself was written in the real world by a real person and will require real people to put it on stage. So it got me thinking about things like:
- Is Encanta a story that needs to be told? By me? Now? Why?
- Am I doing Latin@s a disservice by using a mish-mash of Spanish and English instead of making the play completely in Spanish?
- How do I avoid reinforcing the stereotype of oversexed Latinas with while also not playing into the tendency of mainstream arts and entertainment to desexualize LGBTQ people?
- If I approach an ethnicity-focused company or festival with this play, should I represent it as a Black play because a Black person wrote it, or a Latin@ play because all the people on stage would be Latin@?
- What does it mean when I wouldn’t be asking these questions at all if I just made Encanta all about white people?
What about you? When you’re writing, reading or watching a story about a community that the creator (whether you or someone else) is not part of, what are some things that you ask? What are some things that you look for? How do you react or respond when you find or don’t find certain things?