Location, Location, Location

FEB 27, 2019

by Celine Song

In the audience of playwright Edward Albee’s memorial service in 2016, listening to his venerable friends talk about him lovingly on a Broadway stage, I wept. My career as a playwright had begun in the summer of 2012 at a barn in Montauk owned by Edward, where I was invited to stay as a writing fellow. I met Edward there. I met my white husband there too.

Now that Edward had died, it felt like a world was dying with him: not just the Great White Playwright, but also the Great White Play. The whole room could feel it. My white husband could feel it. I could feel it. The loss was devastating.

At the time that Edward died, I was writing a new play, Endlings. This play was about these women called haenyeos (해녀, “sea-women”), elderly female free-divers in South Korea. Haenyeos have been included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but they will soon go extinct because there are no heiresses to their way of life. Just like Edward, when today’s haenyeos die, a world will die with them: a tradition that is over a thousand years old will abruptly come to a halt.

But this loss won’t be mourned in a big Broadway theater. Looking around at this memorial service in this incredible Broadway house in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by all the most important white theater people in the country, I wept and thought about how much real estate determines our possibilities, not just in life but in death. Even as we are being eulogized, we are victims of location, location, location. Edward got to be who he was because he dropped out of school and made it to New York just in time for the avant-garde. My grandmother got to be who she is because she made it across the line to South Korea just as her country was being ripped apart by a war it didn’t start. Real estate.

As I wept for Edward, I started wondering if there was anybody else in that room who knew somebody like my grandmother, a woman who is not a haenyeo but who has survived 90 years of Korean history against all odds. I started thinking about how funny it was that even though my grandmother and Edward Albee were almost the same age—they were born at almost exactly the same moment in history at opposite ends of the globe—I never once thought of them as peers. They were separated by a world of language, a world of history, a world of real estate. They belonged in different universes entirely. Picturing the two of them in the same room together—eating dinner, talking, sharing stories about being old—seemed absurd.

And yet, just by existing, I had made it happen. Here I was, mourning Edward, thinking about my grandmother, and in a way, I had snuck her into a space that history had seemingly closed off to her forever. Just by living my life, just by being me, I had performed a bit of magic. Whereas before, being the only Asian person in rooms like this might have made me feel isolated or inferior, now it made me feel immensely powerful: I was collapsing two universes onto each other, ripping open the fabric of spacetime.

I’ve immigrated twice in my life: from Seoul to Toronto at the age of twelve and from Toronto to New York City at the age of twenty-three. I write in English. I changed my name from Ha Young to Celine. Growing up, I felt insecure about my accent and my loose grasp on English grammar. For a long time, I felt insulted when someone described me as Asian, even though I am, obviously—I didn’t want anybody to notice. The non-Asian gaze on an Asian body is full of hateful, poorly informed stereotypes thanks to a severe lack of authentic Asian representation in Western media. I wanted the world around me to forget that I was an Asian, because it hurt too much to be seen. It made me feel ugly, unloved, and powerless. So I aligned myself with whiteness and patriarchy, both as a person and as an artist. I wrote “white plays,” the kinds that I thought might impress someone like Edward Albee.

Endlings is a play with a large cast, three older Asian women in leading roles, sweeping monologues, and multiple sets (including a literal ocean). I’ve even written myself into the play as a character, taking up space, taking on power, speaking my own language, pretending to be no one other than my grandmother’s granddaughter.

Endlings is the first play that I wrote without any thought toward how it would be produced or what it would do for my career. It is the play that taught me not to care about what the artistic directors and literary managers would say. It taught me to care only about the words that made me feel good when I put them on the page: 언니 (un-nee, literally “older sister,” affectionately used by women to describe any woman older than the person who is speaking). 할머니 (hal-muh-nee, grandma). 우리 이쁜이 (ooh-ree ee-ppun-ee, my cute little sweetheart).

This play is as idiosyncratic and multitudinous as my identity. I do not feel as Korean as the haenyeos in my play, even though I am indeed Korean. I do not feel entirely Canadian or American either, even though I am indeed both of those things. My favorite foods are things most people don’t know how to read or pronounce: 간장게장 and 갈비찜. I play 화투 (hwa-too, a Korean card game) with my family in Toronto, and I translate everybody’s bickering for my white husband. I grew up drinking both Iced Cappuccinos from Tim Horton’s and bubble teas from the Chinese-run mall where my parents operate a store. I watch Korean television, and I write for American television. Who I am cannot become a Halloween costume, a painting on a wall, a vacation photograph, an item on the menu, a body to treat as an object. Who I am is a story that only I can tell, in my own voice, as my own author.

America is afraid that immigrants are going to change what it means to be American, and the truth is that we will. We always have. We immigrants throw into question the accepta-ble power structures in a society, because we are transformers. We are metamorphosis. We are gods and animals and forces of nature. We put Edward Albee and my grandmother in the same room together at the same little table—and there’s nothing you can do about it. It already happened. All I had to do was exist.

This play is most dear to me, because it taught me how to just exist as I am. It gave me the wisdom to be myself.

Celine Song

Celine Song is the playwright of Endlings. Her other plays include The Feast, Family, and Tom & Eliza. She is currently a staff writer on Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” and developing a project for television with Diablo Cody and Beth Behrs.

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