BY CINDY GAO
NüProfile is a column featuring in-depth conversations with diverse women working on China subjects.
It’s not every day you get a call from a Golden Globe winner wanting to turn your feature story into a film.
That is what happened to Madeline Leung Coleman, a freelance writer and senior editor at The Nation, after she wrote “How Chinese Food Fueled the Rise of California Punk, a story about Chinatown restaurants in California renting rehearsal spaces to West Coast punk bands during the 1970s and 1980s. The article is now being made into a film by Asian-American breakout star Awkafina and Topic Studios.
Daughter of a Chinese family that’s been in North America for at least four generations, Madeline has built a name for herself writing about diaspora, art, food and what she calls the ‘”jetsam of late capitalism.” In a wide-ranging conversation with NüVoices earlier this year, she spoke about how her identity has influenced her writing, the art and responsibility of Asian diaspora artists, the complacency of present day feminism, and how to be a successful freelance writer and editor.
Your story caught the attention of Awkwafina, who recently became the first Asian-American to win a Golden Globe Award for best actress. How did this article come about?
So when I wrote that piece, I was an editor at a magazine called Topic. It folded last summer, but at the time we were putting out these themed issues and we did an issue on music in June 2019. I had been thinking for a long time that it might be interesting to write something about the perspective of Chinatown business owners whose businesses would often play host to different kinds of art or music events. This is something we see in New York; it happens in LA; it happens in San Francisco. I grew up in Vancouver, and that was something that would happen there, too.
I felt that the question that wasn’t being asked was “how did it feel”—not for the artists who wanted to use the space, because it was pretty clear to me why they would want to use it—but how it felt for the people who actually owned those businesses. What are they getting out of it besides money, presumably, and what is that interaction like for them? I often feel that when ethnic (to use a very bland word) neighborhoods are used to stage events, etc., it often feels like it’s just being used as a backdrop. The focus is not on the agency of the people who actually live in those neighborhoods. So I started looking into different ways I could write about that, and I ended up stumbling across the fact that there has been this trend in California in the late 1970s and early 80s where just as punk music was taking off, a lot of the important early venues were actually Asian restaurants, mostly Chinese and Filipino. And it went from there. I ended up writing a short piece, and Awkwafina ended up seeing it and reaching out to Topic Studios. It’s very unexpected and very exciting.
You mentioned that you’ve always wanted to be a journalist. What is the driving force behind your journalism?
I became obsessed with magazines as a kid. I was a big reader anyway, but there was something about the timeliness and evolving nature of a magazine that really excited me. My mom, who was also a journalist, encouraged this by getting me subscriptions to publications like New Moon, which was—seriously—an anti-capitalist feminist magazine for little girls. In the ’90s, they published social justice stories for kids: about the insidiousness of the tobacco industry, animal testing, what it was like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Those ideas got their hooks in me early. But I should also say I was pretty into fashion magazines, so my reading habits weren’t THAT virtuous.
As an adult, I just need to metabolize the world around me by writing, reading, and working with other writers as an editor. Like many journalists, I’m motivated by injustice and an interest in human nature. But I also like working on pieces about seemingly more frivolous topics—and showing how they’re connected to the systems that govern us all. Case in point: one of my favorite pieces I ever wrote was a long reported feature about protein bars and capitalism.
Your writing and editing for The Nation and other publications have covered a broad range of topics. How has your experience being an Asian-Canadian living in the US influenced your thought process, covering topics related to China?
I started at The Nation last fall, and the Hong Kong protests, which are still continuing now of course, were at a fever pitch, and things were changing very rapidly. When I came in I felt that was something I really wanted to do more coverage on and get more interesting perspectives on rather than just straight news reporting of what was happening there. I’m definitely not the only editor who’s assigning on this type of thing, but I did have a personal connection to it because my mom’s family is Cantonese. We have some family in Guangdong; we have family in the New Territories. They are relatively distant, but it has always been this place that really loomed large in my imagination. Spending time there I really connected with it and really loved it. So it was something that I really wanted to do justice to.
I think that the most rewarding thing about assigning stories about the Hong Kong protest or assigning stories about China, which I’m starting to do more of now, is just being able to work with people who have a connection to it and really, really care deeply and are thinking about it in unconventional ways. I am so tired of reading pieces that are by older white male China Hands. I think that’s what they used to call them, which is obviously something that you guys at NüVoices are trying to make a less frequent occurrence. For so long, China discourse has been totally dominated by those kinds of people, and it still is. I feel as an editor—not that I don’t appreciate the work that a lot of those people have done, a lot of them are very respectful of the agency of Chinese people and people in Hong Kong as well—something I can do is give a platform for voices that aren’t heard that frequently, and ones which we should be listening to. So that’s my focus.
Being Asian is so conspicuous, and many Asian-Americans have fought their entire lives to assimilate and moderate their experiences. In your article about the photographer Michael Jang, he felt that his photographs weren’t good, and that he wasn’t sure why they were even interesting. Many Asian-Americans feel this way about their work. Do you think this perception is changing for the new generation of Asian diaspora artists?
Yes, I do think it’s changing. I think there are many reasons for that. There is something that I want to trouble about the notion of representation as the most important thing, which is why part of the reason it bothers me so much that Asian-Americans or Asian-Canadians or Asian diaspora stories haven’t been shown in the west very much is because it doesn’t give us a throughline for building our politics around how we fit into the world of race in the West.
When I saw Michael Jang’s photos, I was really struck by them. I had never seen pictures from that time, mostly his photos of his family are from the 1970s, of a Chinese-American family just hanging out. There are groups of photographers who were working in San Francisco and other places that were doing a lot of street photography of people in Chinese neighborhoods or in Chinatown. But to see those intimate domestic spaces that is so much of the canon of 1970s American photography…applied to a family that looked so literally like my family was really emotional. Representation is incredibly important just because of the pure sense of emotional validation that it gives you and a sense of belonging.
But the other side of it is that there has been kind of a turn with wealthy Chinese-Americans in particular. I don’t want to say that it’s everyone because it’s not, but a strong and forceful minority has become involved in some really ugly things like the affirmative action case at Harvard University. It’s complicated and Jay Caspian Kang has written really elegantly about it. But I think that that was a really ugly show of how little solidarity at least some powerful Asian-Americans felt with black and brown people in America.
I think that understanding our history more or understanding how we fit into the story of the United States would really help us to mobilize and understand how linked all of our destinies are, and also how much white supremacy has played us off one another. The entire model minority idea was one that was promoted by white people basically to denigrate black people and (use) Asian-Americans as a pawn in that fight. There are some very smart writers and academics who are doing work about anti-blackness and anti-brownness in Asian-American communities, and I think the feel-good aspect of representation can be and totally should be linked to that. I find it super political.
Growing up as part of the diaspora, there were these frustrations about stereotypes that were being applied that felt really condescending, really denigrating, but it was confusing to place them in time because I didn’t feel I had a lot of context for how to think about them. It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to really understand why things were the way they were. To some extent I’m still learning about that.
Recently, Asian-Americans have started to receive more spotlight in Western media. How do you feel about the current roster of media representation out there? How can it be improved?
I’m so thrilled to see more kinds of stories being told in general and think more Asian-American stories being told is part of that. Obviously “The Farewell” is great. I loved it. But part of what was so great about going to see it in a packed movie theatre in Brooklyn was seeing that there was all kinds of people there who were laughing and crying and reacting to it throughout. While I was watching it, I was just thinking about how this is such a specific Chinese context that this movie takes place in, but it doesn’t really explain it that much and it just assumes that the viewers can get there on their own, and they totally do. I think that viewers and readers are hungry to see different kinds of things and they can totally get it even if they don’t completely understand why there’s this crazy photo-shoot going on for the fake wedding. Even if they don’t totally understand that that is a thing they can still appreciate it as a set piece.
I think it’s been really wonderful to see more of these stories being told, but I also think it’s really interesting to think about it in a global context where China has become such a huge consumer of American movies and television to the point where Hollywood executives are really consciously thinking about that when they are figuring out how to finance movies: how to promote them, what kind of stories get told, and if this story will work in an international context. Those are some of the concerns that are being highlighted now. I think how that works out is that yes, more Asian-American stories are being told and in bigger ways, but it tends to be Han ethnic Chinese specifically.
I am happy to see these stories, but I just want to mention that that doesn’t represent the experiences of a lot of people who would fall under the rubric of Asian-American, which is the incredibly broad word to include people from so many different places and so many different experiences. I think in that sense it’s a bit limited but I also think that it could be a really important step towards more representation and hopefully with the understanding that different kinds of stories are worth telling. Obviously, I also acknowledge that in the story I wrote about Asian restaurants, it’s mostly about Chinese businesses and presumably the movie will play in that world as well. I do think it’s valuable. I guess what I’m saying is not delete what’s happening now but also keep expanding it. I really thought when a movie like “The Farewell” came out that it would hopefully be proof for people who have the money and the power that these kinds of stories can resonate with audiences. I hope so. Awkwafina winning her Golden Globe will help a lot more people see it as well.
How has the diaspora been affected by an increased influx of great art coming from the motherland, like “Parasite”?
It must have had some impact. Hard to say exactly what it is. I think a lot of people who are first generation or grew up frequently visiting family in those countries were finding their way towards it anyway. It’s really interesting to see K-pop become this global phenomenon that so many different kinds of people love so much, way beyond the Korean diaspora. What I hope is that it makes people realize that in different parts of the world, people are dealing with similar concerns to them: emotionally, personally, intellectually. The fact that “Parasite” is a movie that is so much about capitalism—what capitalism does and how it hurts us—the fact that it was a movie that was coming out of South Korea, I can’t help but think that (it) probably exposed a lot of people for the first time to the realization that there were these kinds of class divisions.
I think that (the movie is) expanding this idea that there is this global one percent that is benefitting off the capitalist system. I think that is really positive. The movie “Burning” also really deals with that question as well. I’m not saying that when this stuff makes its way to North America that it needs to result in this political awakening from people. There’s also an argument for entertainment: that we just see and we just enjoy it, and it makes us feel good and is fun. And that’s completely valid and important as well. We need a release valve. We live in a horrible world.
In an interview about her book A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara was asked if she felt pressure to produce a narrative that sprung from her own experiences as an Asian-American. Do you feel many Asian-American artists feel this pull to tell the diaspora story and only that story?
I think it’s two-pronged. On the one hand, as a country we are not really done acknowledging that people who weren’t middle-class white people have been, for most of our history of entertainment and media, totally excluded. Or if they were included—in the case of many African American artists and entertainers—they weren’t necessarily in control of their own narrative. So on the one hand we are not really done dealing with that, and we are not really done telling that story. But on the other hand, we want to move beyond that. I think this goes for all kinds of people who are underrepresented, including people who are say, gender non-binary, or might be living with disabilities. People want to be able to write about the world that they live in, without making it always about their own bodies.
I think there’s something that is very limiting about the idea that if you aren’t considered “norm” that you have to spend all of your time with the things that differentiate you from the “norm”. It should totally be a choice. I also think that in the case of a book like “A Little Life” being part of a group that is not the dominant group will necessarily inform what you write, even if you don’t literally write about being Asian-American. You still have the experience of taking in media and art that wasn’t intended for you, and doesn’t take you into account. And I think that shapes how you tell stories, no matter what you tell them about.
In your review of Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation of “Little Women,” you talked about women being “lightly woke.” Do you think female artists currently are trying to make feminism more palatable, for everyone but especially for other women?
One interesting thing about writing that review of “Little Women” was that it ended up feeling to me like a decade in review kind of piece. Because that movie and all of the hype around it—some of it manufactured and some of it genuine—from people who are themselves really excited about it, felt so retrograde to me, or just so complacent. I really couldn’t believe that after all of the difficult conversations that we’ve been having over the past decade that the movie that was being held up at the end of the decade as a feminist triumph was “Little Women.” I found that so insulting on some level. I think where we are at with feminism is not surprising, given liberal, moderate, capitalist co-option of social movements.
Women have been writing about this book—wondering why we were still talking about it, holding it up, and doing so in a way that didn’t really disrupt its very outdated parts of the story—literally since the 60s and 70s. And the fact that this movie had come out where the most radical statement it seems to be making is that women might want careers and creative fulfilment: that just seemed to me like we are stuck on something. It feels like we got snagged somewhere. There were a lot of pieces at the end of last year that were being written about the decline or the evolution of a certain kind of feminist media that sprung up in the 2010s.
Feminism became not a dirty word in that decade to a very large extent for a lot of people, and that is kind of an amazing achievement. And I think it was a project of a lot of writers who really pushed on it. But the mass popularity of a co-working space like The Wing for example, which is literally an expensive co-working space that hosts events sometimes and where everything is pink and pretty and includes a primping room: the fact that that is being held up as this sort of powerful connective tissue between women just really shows the triumph of mediocrity in my opinion. “Little Women,” if people like that movie, that’s great. I will fully admit that I cried when I saw it, and I was still mad.
The term “feminist” has undergone many transformations. Do you think the current generation is trying to assuage the label and don’t want to put in the work and attention needed to be feminists, especially to make it more inclusive of women of color?
I think without a clear sense of solidarity and pushing forward toward something more radical, and because people who hold and control the money in this country are so eager now to co-opt movements (all you have to do is look at all of the banks that decorate themselves for Pride), it’s very easy to drift toward the middle on these kinds of issues. It’s very easy to fall back on this sort of girl power ethos. I think women rationally, and rightly so. have been feeling frustration with these issues for such a long time. But there is this really difficult hurdle for feminism to overcome in the mainstream: that it is experienced by people of different classes and backgrounds differently, and that most of the people who work in the media and entertainment industry come from relatively well-to-do backgrounds. That ends up shaping how these stories get told. “Little Women” is a movie based on a book about a family that is pretty poor, written by an author who had grown up poor, but I don’t see that reflected in the move at all. The actual ugly realities of what it’s like living without money is still kind of too much for a lot of media to get into. So that’s part of it.
You write about a great number of topics with ease and also traverse in different genres of writing, from criticism to more in depth reporting. How did you first become interested in becoming a writer, and how has your vision of who that writer is changed throughout the years?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid I think I thought I might be a fiction writer. That hasn’t happened so far, but never say never. My mom was a journalist, so I’m in the rare position of being a woman of color in America whose mother was also a woman of color who’s a journalist. The fact that she did that job really made it seem possible to my sister and I when we were kids. It seemed like a totally normal job that your mom would have. And it wasn’t until later that I realized that she was actually a pretty rare commodity at the time. So I ended up going to journalism school in Montreal. I went to Concordia University, and I worked on the student paper. It took me a while before I realized that being a journalist is what I wanted to be. I started out writing for the student paper at my previous university McGill. I realized that it was all I kind of wanted to do, and it felt like the most satisfying way to synthesize the world around me, so I jumped into it.
I actually became an editor before I feel like I became a writer. Of course, I was writing the whole time like you do when you work in editorial, but I really found myself as an editor first. It might be because of the jobs I ended up getting. I was hired as an editor when I was quite young, and kinda just went from there. But it took me a while to realize that being a writer was such a big part of the way that I need to deal with the world. I do feel compelled to explore things in that way, and I’m definitely happiest when I’m writing. So I have a pretty lucky arrangement now where I edit at The Nation, but I also do a lot of freelance writing on the side, which I consider really fortunate.
Are traits that make you an observant and great writer the same ones that make you an astute and supportive editor?
I think that writing and editing are related, but not the same profession or the same calling. I guess vocation is the word I’m looking for. I think that doing so much editing did help me to become a better writer. It definitely helped me to work with other editors more because I have empathy for the task they are dealing with. I think that the most important thing for all of us is just reading a lot—thinking about it, talking about it, and being pretty flexible in what you think and what kind of jobs you think you should or could have.
I worked both in journalism and in art book publishing. I studied both journalism and art history in school, and I was always interested in art and always thought I’d do something related to it somehow. The first editorial job I had when I moved to New York was working at Aperture Foundation, which is a photography publisher based in Chelsea, and I was working in the books department. I’ve been interested in photography, but I didn’t know that much about it specifically. It ended up being a really amazing experience for me because so many of the same questions that are involved in photography and the evolution of photography are very related to the evolution of writing. It also provided a different way of thinking about contextualizing the world and communicating feelings and information, because we were making these books that were very much about using both the visual and the text to work together. I think that was really valuable, but it’s not something that I would have ever thought I would do when I was in journalism school.
What stories do you gravitate towards as a writer or editor and why?
My mandate as an editor has been different everywhere I’ve worked. At The Nation, I’ve assigned stories on the Hong Kong protests, China, migration, gentrification and planning in California, race politics, Canadian politics, and Indigenous resistance. We do a lot of issue-based journalism. There’s a kind of purity in being able to assign stories based on what we think is important, rather than because it has a fun narrative hook. (Although I love that kind of writing too, and have assigned that way for other publications.)
As both a writer and editor, I am interested in stories that critique power structures and foreground the perspectives of people who are often marginalized in the media. I am strongly motivated to work with women and people of color. I think, done right, editorial work can be a form of power redistribution. But I also like fun ideas that make me laugh when I say them out loud. Some of the stories I’ve written started as jokes with myself, and before I knew it I was a couple thousand words deep. You can’t always be trying to change the world.
What tips do you have for being a successful freelancer? And editor?
I was so young when I became an editor. I think I was almost too young to have doubts about it. I think I was maybe 21 when I got my first job as an editor. Way too young. Inappropriately young. I was often editing people who were much older than me, and to all of those people I apologize. In terms of being a freelance writer, it was something I struggled with for a long time. I would have ideas for things I wanted to write but I didn’t feel confident enough in how I was going to approach them, and I was always waiting for this stroke of inspiration to hit me. I was like: I need the muse to move me in order to write and that’s just way too high a bar. Writing became a lot easier when I started to think of it as labor or just as a normal kind of work where if you can’t start at the beginning, you start in the middle. You read about it, you do research about it, you make notes about it, and something will emerge from that.
I think i would say, from my perch as an editor, to freelance writers that learning how to pitch in a good way and learning how to be responsive to your editor is super important. Even at the J school I went to, we were never taught how to pitch a story. The biggest tip I would say is just that make things as easy for your editor as possible to understand what the story is that you are trying to tell. Make sure that you understand it well. You might not need to know how it ends. Especially if you are reporting something, you might literally not know. But you need to know what makes a story important and crucial, and what’s gonna grab people about it. The question I’m always asking my writers, pushing back on them is: what are the stakes? I understand that you know what they are, but spell it out to me as if I’m a kid. Just make it really clear why does this story matter and what is riding on this.
For arts and culture, there are stakes in that as well, so just make sure you are clear about that. What is the tension that is at work in this story. The other thing is: be responsive, be open to suggestions, make sure that you have done your work and you know what the publication is before you are pitching to it. I often find it frustrating when people will ask me what kinds of stories are you looking for. Listen, read the magazine, and you’ll see. You need to be really familiar with the publication you are pitching to. And that doesn’t mean you need to subscribe to it for 10 years. Go online and read a few articles, do your homework.
As an editor, I think I was really lucky to start my career outside of New York City. I started working as an editor in Montreal where there aren’t a ton of editorial jobs in English because it’s mostly a French speaking city. But it’s about being at the right place at the right time. Something, various interns have asked me over the years is how do you learn how to edit and I don’t really have a clear answer to that. I did my first editing when I worked at the student paper, and it was like the lunatic running the asylum kind of a situation because we were all super young and green and just basically decided we all had to do this. But maybe one tip I would say if you haven’t had the opportunity to do that, or you are not in school or you’ve done school already, is offer to edit stuff if you have friends who are writers. If you have people who are similarly trying to learn how to do this, help each other out because you don’t really know what it’s like to be wrestling with someone else’s piece of writing unless you spend some time doing that.
Different editors have different approaches. I’m a very hands-on, some might say heavy, editor. Because I see it as a collaborative process, and I have really high standards for my writers. I want them to look as good as they possibly can. But not every editor works that way. Some people will be more hands-off and ask questions and try to guide you towards rewriting things. Some people might get in there and delete and start rearranging. Everybody has different approaches. There really isn’t a wrong way. An editor should make a writer feel heard and feel like they have agency over their story, and that’s a very tricky balancing act. Editing is necessarily a somewhat very confrontational thing to do because you need to be taking this position of authority. If you can think of it like you are trying to excavate all of the beautiful parts of the piece in front of you, and make sure that they shine as brightly as possible and be as clear as possible, then I think that’s maybe a healthier position to take.
What are some books that you’ve read recently that have really influenced your thinking?
One book that I would really recommend for anyone who’s thinking about writing about race in America or outside of America is the book Racecraft. It’s a series of essays, and they make the argument that race can be viewed the same way we see witchcraft and the witch trials in pilgrim times because it isn’t real. It’s not actually biologically real, but the effects it has are real. So we need to treat its effects as real even if we try to break down the constructions that lead to it being used as such a damaging category. I’m a mixed-race person, and it was really helpful and kind of mind-blowing for me to read that book. I felt like it really helped put a framework around things that I sort of intuitively understood to be true but totally did not have the words for. And the authors are just so smart and funny, too, even when they are writing about this, so a great book.
At the end of 2019, I read the book No-No Boy by John Okada. I think for Asian-Americans, this is a really important text. It was published in the 1950s, and it’s about a Japanese-American who has just gotten out of jail after World War II, and he was put in jail because he refused to be drafted into the US army. He was in internment and said no to being drafted and ended up being put in jail for that. It’s a really amazing book about the double bind of internment and how arbitrary and cruel it was, and also just how traumatic it was. The book really impressed me because I didn’t feel like I’d ever read something that really dug into the trauma of internment, or as we should really say, the concentration camps. I was really blown away. It’s kind of a mid-century drinking man’s novel, but it works. It’s really worth reading.
About the author
Cindy Gao is a board member and one of the podcast hosts at NuVoices. She works at the Center for Applied Data Science at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC and holds a BS from Columbia University.
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a journalist and artist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics, with a focus on China. Her work has been published by The Nation, Foreign Policy and The Economist, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a reporter with the South China Morning Post. She holds a MSc from the London School of Economics, an LLM from Peking University and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie