PRINCE & SCOTT
Prince Gomolvilas is a Thai American playwright. He also writes Bamboo Nation, an arts/entertainment blog, and teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC and the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute at East West Players.
Scott Heim is the author of three novels: MYSTERIOUS SKIN, IN AWE, and WE DISAPPEAR, which won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for best novel. Originally from Kansas, he spent a decade in New York City before moving to Boston, where he is currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.
Scott’s acclaimed novel MYSTERIOUS SKIN was adapted into a film in 2004 by Asian American director Gregg Araki. Now it’s also a play adapted by Asian American playwright Prince Gomolvilas and currently running through October 10 in L.A. at East West Players. Scott and Prince recently sat down at a Starbucks for an off-the-cuff chat about MYSTERIOUS SKIN’s Asian American connection and other related issues.
PRINCE: I wrote the stage adaptation of MYSTERIOUS SKIN—and I am of Thai descent. Gregg Araki wrote the film adaptation—and he is of Japanese descent. Seems like Asians really dig your work. What gives? Asian eyes are usually so squinty that most of them can’t even read.
SCOTT: I’ve wondered about that. The two guys who have recently optioned my latest book, WE DISAPPEAR, are also both of Asian descent. Maybe all of you initially thought “mysterious” referred to the mysterious color of skin? I don’t know. Seriously, my best guess at this coincidence would be that the book, at its heart, is about feeling foreign among others, seeking a sort of kinship with other “outsiders” —perhaps a feeling that a lot of Asian American kids have felt while growing up in an America filled with white people. Do you think it could have been that theme of “otherness” and wanting to belong that might have appealed to you?
PRINCE: What actually drew me into your novel initially was all the UFO and alien abduction stuff. When I was growing up I was fascinated—and terrified—by the topic. After I read Whitley Strieber’s “true” account of his abductions, COMMUNION, I was so scared shitless that I slept with by bedroom light on for like three weeks straight.
SCOTT: I was a UFO freak, too. UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and lots of the lesser-known phenomena like Mothman and the Gray Man and Resurrection Mary and so on and so on. When I was a kid, my sister and mother and I saw a UFO over our house and watched it meander around the sky for a long time before it flew off into the line of trees. The event happened very much like the way it’s portrayed in the novel, and eventually in the film and stage adaptation. So when I wrote the UFO material into the book, it all came pretty naturally. It was exciting to utilize my own childhood obsession as a metaphor in the narrative.
PRINCE: On Opening Night of the play at East West Players, a bunch of people came up to ask you how you felt watching Asian American actors inhabit characters that you had originally conceived as Caucasian…. So, Scott, yeah, how was it? I mean, I never really pictured an all Asian American cast until director Tim Dang approached me about the possibility of an L.A. production, so it must be a bit odd for you? Or maybe not. Maybe you’re all hip and “colorblind” and all that liberal shit.
SCOTT: Well, I’m not colorblind; how could anyone truly be? I don’t think the point is to be colorblind, but rather not to have misconceptions and prejudices about another person’s color. For me, seeing the performance done by Asian American actors was fascinating, but it really wasn’t too much more than that. To be honest, I didn’t think about it at all as I was watching the play. They were just good actors, performing their roles carefully and sympathetically. That leads me to ask you a related question—do you feel that people expect you to write from the perspectives of Asian American characters, or gear your work toward Asian American audiences? Do you ever feel slightly pigeonholed by this?
PRINCE: I like writing about the Asian American experience because so much of my identity is tied into that. And I don’t mind being called an “Asian American writer.” I’m not one of those writers who shun labels. The only thing I worry about is when people don’t realize that I am just ONE voice of Asian America. I am not THE voice of the entire community. Keeping that in mind allows me to take risks and show my audiences things they might not expect to see from an artist who’s supposed to be a good, positive representative of the community. What about you? Do you think you become less labeled as you progress in your career and as the scope of your work expands? Wasn’t WE DISAPPEAR, your third novel, for example, nominated for awards in categories like “Horror” as much as “Gay”?
SCOTT: Yes. I have mixed feelings sometimes. On one hand, you don’t want to be pigeonholed, or only included in one section of the bookstore. On the other, if you have a loyal following—whether it’s a gay following, a science-fiction following, a Swahili following, whatever—you worry about the risk of losing that certain fan base, however small or large it may be, if you radically change your focus and subject matter with future material.
PRINCE: I would hope that your hardcore audience would grow with you and allow you to venture into new territory. But then again, Bob Dylan was vilified for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in the 60s.
SCOTT: I wish I could say I don’t worry about those sorts of things, but sometimes I do. I think my “audience,” whatever that means, grew quite a bit when Gregg Araki’s film of MYSTERIOUS SKIN came out, so now, instead of having an audience consisting primarily of gay men and loner bookworms who just happened to know about me pre-movie, I also have a new crowd of readers who were fans of the movie. For some reason, the movie, and therefore in many ways the book, has attracted a lot of Goth kids. I get a ton of e-mails or Facebook requests from kids with names like Azrael and Esmerelda now.
PRINCE: I wonder if I’LL get a bunch of Facebook requests from Goth Asians. Maybe I will finally prove to the world that I am wilder than I actually am…. Oh, who am I kidding…? My fan base is made up of sophisticated intellectuals and hot nerds, and that’s the way I like it…. Maybe you’ll see a spike in e-mails from Asian kids now. Look at you grow…! While the cast of this production is all-Asian, the “villain” of the piece is a white guy. Do you think we’ve inadvertently made some racial statement? Or am I reading too much into how people might be reading too much into this?
SCOTT: I’m not sure people will even notice. The actors in this particular production do such a great job in engaging with the audience, making people feel their insecurities and pains, that I think—I hope—any possible difficulties with a viewer’s political agendas are discarded. Sure, there’s a lot in the play that is disturbing and controversial, but ultimately, the viewer will just want to see the characters grow and heal.
PRINCE: If that weren’t so elegantly said, I would chalk it up to shameless self-promotion.
(Photos from EWP’s production of MYSTERIOUS SKIN)
(Check out Prince’s previous guest blog here)