Art is often molded by its creator’s personal experiences—a large part of which is influenced by the creator’s cultural background and heritage, whether the creator is aware of it or embraces it. Art created by people of certain heritages and cultural backgrounds can educate and refine public knowledge on various topics or can provide fresh perspectives to move an artistic field forward. No less is true about the impact of the works created by Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) artists.
No matter the creative field, AAPI artists have persisted and excelled in their crafts, which opened up the chance for audiences to hear and learn from a set of diverse voices. During AAPI Month 2022, we’ve highlighted some creators within the AAPI community who have made amazing contributions to American creativity and innovation. In this blog, we will celebrate the accomplishments and the impact of several other AAPI creators who have shared their unique thoughts and perspectives with the world.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Actor, Producer, Wrestler
There is no denying that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been an influential presence in the sports and entertainment industries. Johnson had a successful and illustrious career as a professional wrestler in World Wrestling Entertainment for several years before turning to a career in acting and producing in the film and television industry.
Johnson proudly identifies as Black and Samoan, continually finding ways to incorporate parts of his Samoan background and heritage into his professional projects. In Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Johnson was able to bring the Samoan culture to the big screens by exploring the Samoan heritage of his fictional character, Hobbs. From casting all Polynesian actors to performing the siva tau, the Samoan war dance, in a particular scene, the film shined the spotlight and exposed audiences to Samoan culture on not only a national, but also a global scale.
Johnson stated: “It was our way of paying homage and honoring a culture that I’m very proud of and that has been responsible for teaching me defining values throughout the years.” Johnson even recounted in several interviews that his Samoan mother was particularly overwhelmed during the filming of the movie because the world would finally experience Samoan culture in a mainstream setting.
Further speaking of the importance of showcasing diverse perspectives and cultures on the big screen, Johnson stated: “if we can, in our small way, showcase inclusivity, showcase culture, and love others—and again, in our small way show that there is power in putting your differences aside, and there is power in lateral thinking and remaining big picture and accepting of all cultures—I think there is something important in that.”
Aparna Nancherla: Comedian, Actor, Writer
The world of comedy has seen a steady increase in diverse voices, and there have been increased recognition of talented comedians from the AAPI community who are paving the way for other AAPI comedians. Aparna Nancherla is one of these comedians. She started her standup comedy career in Washington D.C. and eventually moved on to hone her craft in Los Angeles and New York City. Since then, she wrote as a staff writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers and lent her comedic and voice talents in The Standups, Corporate, Mira Royal Detective, Steven Universe, Bob’s Burger’s, and BoJack Horseman.
Nancherla recalled in an interview that growing up, she didn’t really think standup comedy was really a career she could pursue, and that the entertainment industry was “another realm, where people who were Indian—people like me— had no access to.” But she recounted her first-time doing standup, stating: “[Doing standup] was a response to going on depression medication for the first time, like this initial euphoric boost—I felt like I could do anything. That’s the only reason I tried comedy.”
Nancherla’s stand-up routines have focused on the “mundane, everyday occurrences” and touches on serious topics like mental health, gun control, and sexism. But Nancherla understands the power of comedy and her artform and the need to be thoughtful about crafting certain jokes, especially when the topics concern race and racial stereotypes in America. In response to the harm of stereotypical jokes about Asian Americans, she stressed: “The idea that a joke is just a joke is ludicrous . . . your words matter . . .”
Nancherla has also been vocal about what increased diversity in her industry has meant to her. She was part of the first cartoon to feature an all-South Asian cast with a female lead in Disney’s Mira, Royal Detective. Noting that she would have loved to have seen a cartoon like this, she noted: “I’m so glad South Asian kids today are seeing themselves centered on screen more and more, not to mention witnessing their culture depicted as more than just a stereotype. Am I biased because I finally get to play a self-absorbed, vapid teenager? Maybe.”
She also gave a list detailing some of her favorite AAPI comedy pioneers and creators, in case you need some recommendations of some AAPI comedians who are sure to make you belt out a laugh or two.
Maya Lin: Architect
If you’ve ever visited the Vietnam War Memorial, you may have marveled at how simple, yet powerful this memorial is. Upon the surface of the onyx black walls of marble—walls which emerge from the earth in a V-formation—are carved the names of all the fallen soldiers of this bitter war, giving this memorial a befitting somber and stately impression. The simplicity and directness embodied in the memorial’s designs were some qualities picked up by some critics at the time, with one critic calling the monument “an Asian monument for an Asian war, the hint of a 4,000-year-old culture transmuted in the art of a Chinese-American girl from Athens, Ohio.”
Maya Lin was that Chinese American girl—the artist who created this memorial. Her proposal for the Vietnam War Memorial was chosen over 1,400 other contestants and sparked a great public debate at the time for its unconventional design. When a reporter asked Lin at her first press conference whether she thought it was ironic that the memorial is the Vietnam Memorial, and that Lin was of Asian descent. Lin responded: “Well, that’s irrelevant. You know, this is American.”
Though Lin correctly shifted the conversation back on the merits of her work, she realized later that her Chinese heritage had had a subtle but forceful impact in her creative visions as an artist. In an interview about her experiences in designing the memorial, Lin stated that despite the fact that she struggled to embrace her Chinese identity growing up, she did find it “ironic [that the Vietnam Memorial] is inspired as much by an eastern sensibility coming from my father and probably my mother” further stating that, “[the influence] is there but I’ve only recently become really aware of how in a strange way it percolated up. I think identity quietly percolated up.”
Lin has since then created other prized and lauded works as an artist and architect including the Civil Rights Memorial, the Peace Chapel, “Women’s Table,” “The Wave Field,” “2×4 Landscape,” and the Vancouver Land Bridge. Her experience in creating the Vietnam Memorial as a young Asian American girl in an older male-dominated field of architecture was the subject of the Academy Award winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. She was also rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 for her trailblazing accomplishments and contributions in sculpture and landscape art.
Linda Sue Park: Children’s Book Author
I read a lot of books as a child and one author whose books I particularly enjoyed reading was Linda Sue Park. Many of Park’s works feature Korean history, culture, characters, and settings, including A Single Shard, Seesaw Girl, When My Name Was Keoko, and Kitefighters and her works have been well received with much praise and acclaim. In 2002, Park won the Newberry Medal, one of the highest awards in the field of children’s literature, for her book, A Single Shard, a story about a young orphan boy in historic Korea on his journey of becoming a master potter.
For me personally, reading Park’s books gave me a sense of comfort that there were writers out there who shared my cultural background, writing and creating stories and characters whose shoes I could really imagine myself fitting into. Park’s stories also helped me fill in knowledge gaps about my own heritage and culture since I didn’t grow up learning much about Korean history. But beyond just educating her audiences on the uniqueness of a different culture and history, Park’s stories are ultimately so impactful because readers ultimately bond to stories that explore core and universal human values, struggles, and emotions. In fact, Park stated once in an interview: “Historical fiction lets me explore how a setting and time are different, but how the emotions are the same.”
Park not only writes culturally distinct and diverse characters, but is also a passionate advocate for greater diversity in children’s literature, serving on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books and even launching her kiBooka website in 2020, featuring Korean American children’s book creators. In an interview, she stated that her inspiration behind kiBooka was to continue addressing the problem that “bias and injustice flourish when not enough of us tell our stories, and when those stories are not shared widely enough.” She further noted that visibility of diverse voices is needed so that various communities can be “seen —as Americans, as creators of great books, as community builders and contributors to society.”
If you’re looking for children’s books recommendations, authors on kiBooka are currently recommending children’s books written by other authors of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month 2022.
We fortunately live in an era where we have been able to witness, read, and experience the incredible works created by all types of creators from the AAPI community. A tiny snapshot of the few AAPI creators described above shows the contributions these diverse voices have made to American culture. What we can hope is that we continue to remember the stories, emotions, and knowledge we gained from these experiences and to keep listening to and encouraging different voices to flourish and contribute to the American creative community.
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