Neuroses of an Asian American writer

I subscribe to The New York Times, but I must confess I often quickly scroll through the daily morning email that arrives in my inbox then delete it. But on this particular day, as I was clearing out my inbox, something caught my eye: near the bottom, a short blurb about The New York Times Magazine cover article featuring Steven Yeun. I guess you could say I’m a fan of Steven Yeun, although I’ve never seen “The Walking Dead.” But I tend to read his interviews because I find him to be particularly articulate and introspective about being a Korean American actor. (While he was born in South Korea and I was born in the Philippines, the experience of growing up in both countries and in primarily white areas in the US is something we have in common.) His answers don’t sound rehearsed; you can sense that he’s trying to figure it out just as we are. What makes “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun” different from other articles I’ve read is how it began, with the writer, Jay Caspian Kang, discussing the neuroses of being a writer or artist in the US who is not white.

“I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on. The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face,” Kang says.

What a punch to the gut. It threw me back to several moments in the past 18 months since I started to work on Yappie: The Musical when I questioned whether I could adequately and authentically capture a voice and experience that was not entirely my own, whether I had a right to, and ultimately, moments of disagreement among the creative team about who exactly I was writing for, which resulted in me writing a rap battle a la “Cabinet Battle #1” from the musical, Hamilton.

As a spoken word poet, my work has always been and continues to be grounded in my own experiences. On occasion I have written poems that tackled issues I cared about like human trafficking, women’s rights, immigration, and more. But I usually did not write in another voice, let alone create characters based on real people or experiences. So, I never really had to ask myself if what I was writing came from an authentic place. Because it most likely always did. Until I started to write the book and lyrics for an original musical.

Kang continues, further ripping apart my chest:

“There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?”

“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement.” I listened to Kang say this sentence and I read it over and over. Kang struck at a truth that wanted to escape from my mouth in a conversation with a friend the other day. I was expressing my frustration with the way we talk about race in America, our inability to hold multiple truths at the same time, and the kind of oppression Olympics we seem doomed to repeat. I wasn’t making much sense, but maybe that was the point—to just spill the thoughts out on to the pavement and sort it later.

Then Steven Yeun in this interview said it all: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Cue the screaming into the void. Decades of it. Of trying to insert yourself into conversations, into positions of power. Of jumping as high as you can, waving your arms in the air, waiting to be noticed so you’ll know you exist, too.

Maybe it’s the isolation talking. And I don’t mean just in the past year. I’ve been isolated from other Asian American writers and artists for a long time now. We’ve also changed as people and I wonder if any of them is questioning who they are in the same way I seem to be. Through my writing, Asian American Studies courses, and relationships with friends, many of whom are Asian American, I figured out my place in the world, how I am perceived, who I am outside of that perception. I had reconciled what it meant to be a daughter of an immigrant and being one, too. I remember thinking once, after writing several poems about mother-daughter relationships that I had no need to write any more of them because there was nothing more to say. I thought the same thing about my racial identity. I spent so many years claiming I belonged here, that this is my home that I never imagined I’d ever feel any different.

It was naïve to think I wouldn’t come back to these questions again, that my answers would not waver. Right now, I don’t know where home is. I don’t know if any of my writing will matter apart from being an act of self-preservation and survival. I feel like I know myself and yet not well enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently. Maybe the same. Maybe we’re bound to question everything and know nothing. What I know right now is that I don’t want to feel like I have to start from zero. I’ve spent too many years building up my confidence to have to do it all again because I can’t make sense of these changing, conflicting thoughts and emotions about writing, purpose, identity, and belonging. Making the decision to quit my job 2.5 years ago without a job lined up so I could start graduate school and pivot my career and life direction was already starting from zero. It was yet another reinvention. Maybe that’s it: I’m tired of reinvention.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie: The Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

Creativity in the time of crisis: An update on Yappie The Musical

Rehearsals for Yappie: The Musical were supposed to start last week. Then we heard from Johns Hopkins University & Peabody that all performances and events were canceled and that the college and conservatory would be transitioning to online classes until April 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was trying to finish up the script when we scheduled a late night FaceTime meeting to discuss our options. It took some time to wrap my head around what limiting access to JHU/Peabody might mean for our musical. Knowing that so much was out of our hands, we decided to move forward with the table read but to move it to Sunday. A few days later, we decided to suspend rehearsals until further notice.

I’m not sad or disappointed with where we are with Yappie: The Musical. To be sad or mad would be short-sighted on my part. My work will still exist regardless of what happens. If we can’t share this musical with you in May, we are determined to find a way to share it with the world somehow, some time.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a challenging/difficult/interesting past few days. I promised to send the draft of the script to the cast. I am trying to maintain some kind of momentum. Let me confess now that I haven’t had the head space to finalize the script.

I think about my parents who are in their 60s and 70s, my sister who is alone in another state, my neighbors who have chosen not to practice social distancing, headlines and graphs and data on COVID-19, and my family in the Philippines who are in a lockdown right now. I think about my own privilege: ability to work from home, internet access, a comforting home. I think about how it feels to not be able to breathe when my asthma hits because of cold air, stress, or exercise, and wonder if that’s how it would be without a ventilator. I’ve suppressed these thoughts for days now, choosing instead to focus on finishing the script. But to no avail. So I’m releasing these thoughts, letting them mix with the rest of our anxieties as we reconfigure our lives not just for the temporary, but for the long-run.

I am also trying not to kick myself for not being “productive” during this time. Do I have a whole host of projects/tasks I’ve wanted to work on for a while? Yes, of course I do—filing my taxes being one of them (if I get “nothing done” let my taxes be something I do get done). I am reminding myself that it’s ok to take a few days to process, that there is no requirement to pivot as quickly as others do, and that I will finish this script.

Hopefully we’ll be able to share Yappie: The Musical with you in some way this spring. Thank you so much for supporting us thus far. Be well and see you soon.

Workshop Performance of YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy

Two months ago I officially signed on to write the book and lyrics for an original musical about Asian Americans. As of today, we are 11 days out from the workshop performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy.

Hours before rehearsal last night I started to get nervous. My leg was twitchy; I felt my heart rate rise; I tried to control my breathing. The magnitude of this project and the urgency to get it ready by October 4 finally hit me. I’ve spent most of the past two months writing dialogue and lyrics; thinking about dialogue and lyrics (which come at the most inopportune time, like when you’re in the bathroom); editing scenes; reading scenes out loud; discussing scenes, themes, and dialogue with the creative team; reworking the storyboard; calling my sister at random times throughout the night to ask if a scene, situation, or line is funny; doubting my own sense of humor and ability to write humor; and staring at the blinking cursor on Microsoft Word for long, excruciating minutes.

I knew October 4 was coming, but I was focused on the script, trying to let a story unfold. A story I wasn’t too sure of when I first began to write it. A story I wasn’t sure I could write given my inexperience with writing plays and songs.

At some point in rehearsal last night, I hit my stride. I heard the actors breathe life into two new scenes I wrote this week, and I let myself be proud of it. I was proud of my work. Scratch that. I AM proud of my work.

Sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit. I know a lot of women who don’t; we just do the work and keep doing the work, praise or no praise. That’s not a cycle I want to continue, so I am taking up this space. I am embracing the compliments and assurances the creative team and cast send my way. I am owning this story and this experience and everything that comes with it. I’ve been full of excitement; I’ve been frustrated; I’ve been upset; I’ve silenced myself; I’ve procrastinated on grad school assignments because all I want to do is write this musical; I’ve let the doubts take over my day; I’ve been happy. And I am always grateful.

I am beyond fortunate to work with and be supported by the dream team of Roger Wu Fu + Bobby Ge + Donna Ibale. So many factors in our individual lives converged to bring us together. When I think about it, the machinations began last summer: an arts organization focused on AAPIs was in the works in which Donna was a founder; Roger and Bobby started their graduate program at Peabody; I quit my job. None of us thought we would be here right now, days away from the premiere of an original musical (maybe Donna). But here we are. And it’s exactly where I want to be.


Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, what she wants, and what it means to be Asian American. Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth, and lots of laughs. 

Story by Roger Wu Fu, Jenny C. Lares & Bobby Ge

Book & Lyrics by Jenny C. Lares | Music & Lyrics by Bobby Ge

Directed by Donna Ibale | Produced by Roger Wu Fu & Donna Ibale

Tickets: $8 General Admission, $5 for college students, Free for JHU students/faculty/staff

I’m writing a musical!

It’s been a summer of writing, collaborating, performing, being open to all possibilities, and taking chances. A year ago, I was still very lost and very much full of doubt. I binge watched tv shows to drown out my own thoughts and to avoid making any kind of decision about my future. And then, slowly, after reading books, and making myself write more consistently in my journal (and with the immense support of my family and close friends), things started to shift. Every day I felt closer to a version of myself I had lost along the way years ago. I finally put myself out there again; I put forth positive energy into the universe and now it’s coming back to me in ways I never thought possible.

I can’t remember exactly when I said this and to whom, but I said that I was interested in learning more about theatre and being part of the creative process somehow. I guess the universe was listening because I’m writing a musical. A musical!

When I was first approached about joining the creative team as the playwright and lyricist in mid-July, I thought I wasn’t “ready” as a writer to take on such a challenge. I’ve written skits for college performances before but never a full script (but now I’m remembering I technically co-wrote a play for the Philippine Culture Night at the University of Maryland many years ago. Does that count?). Writing skits or a play for a college audience as a college student is one thing. This was a bigger, more expansive project. With music, nonetheless!

My sister thought I was crazy to agree to it. Did I think I was crazy? No. It was exactly what I was looking for, and to be honest, exactly what I needed: an opportunity to challenge myself artistically and to grow as both an artist and person.

I have wanted to collaborate on an artistic project with other artists for a very long time, but it didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons. One of the visions I had for Sulu DC years ago was creating a monthly jam session for artists to connect and play together, with the hope that it could transform into actual collaborations between artists. I was not able to create that space, but now, years later, I am in that space with other artists and I am enjoying every second of it. Even the times when I’m struggling with a rhyme for a song, or I can’t seem to get the cadence or voice of a character right. Even when I keep staring at a blank page, hoping dialogue for a scene I’ve outlined will magically pop into my brain from nothing. Even those moments are worthwhile, and made even more so when I do come up with the next verse and I send it off to my creative collaborators and they love it (and even when they don’t love it).

The next couple weeks of my life (more like 8 months) is going to be hectic in the best way. I’m so honored and happy I get to work with talented, bright, driven, truly amazing people. I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to join the project so quickly had they not been my partners in this endeavor.

The workshop performance of our musical, YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy, is slated for Friday, October 4 at 7:30 PM at the Cohen-Davison Family Theatre at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University . Check out my Events page for more information. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram for updates and behind-the-scenes look at our process.

ABOUT THE MUSICAL

Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, where she belongs, and what it means to be Asian American. Written by Jenny C. Lares and composed by Bobby Ge, Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth…and lots of laughs. 

Producer & Music Director: Roger Wu Fu

Producer & Director: Donna Ibale

Upcoming events

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities to perform, share my work, and advocate for the arts. Here’s where I’ll be in the next two weeks!

Tabling for the Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective at the Baltimore APA Heritage Month Celebration // Friday, May 31 // 5:00 – 9:00 PM // Brown Center, MICA // The event is FREE but advanced registration is required via Event Brite.

Judging the Capturing Fire Semifinal Poetry Slam // Friday, May 31 // 8:30 – 11:00 PM // Busboys & Poets Takoma

Hosting the Filipino American Association of Upper Chesapeake (FAAUC) 33rd Anniversary Dinner Dance // Saturday, June 1 // 7:00 PM – 1:00 AM // Richlin Ballroom, Edgewood, MD // Tickets $60 in advance

Performing a short set at Katipunan Filipino Festival // Saturday, June 8 // 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM (my performance is at 1:00 PM) // Timonium Fairgrounds // $5 tickets

The closing of Tornkid, the collaboration between Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective and Cohesion Theatre Company // Sunday, June 9 // 4:00 PM // 923 S East Avenue, Baltimore // Tickets are Pay What You Can available online and at the door