Structo talks to Vera Chok

“Real laughter, real comedy is so much about humanity. It’s to do with sharing.”

This interview first appeared in issue 17, published February 2017.

Edited by Costa-shortlisted novelist Nikesh Shukla, the essay collection The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded by publisher Unbound in just three days, revealing a hunger for black and minority ethnic voices woefully underestimated by traditional publishers. The book features twenty-one writers of colour discussing race and immigration in the UK through their own personal stories.

The writer, actor and performer Vera Chok is intimately familiar with the way our bodies are used to express ideas and emotions. In ‘Yellow’, her essay in The Good Immigrant, she explores what it is to have assumptions and labels pushed on you because of your ‘yellow foreign body’, including the peculiar way we fetishise that body when it’s female and emasculate it when it’s male.

When the experiences of black, brown and yellow people are under-represented in culture, swathes of the population are undermined with a silent dexterity. Somehow the first of its kind, this book puts a name to a lack and shows that ticking “other” doesn’t have to mean being alone.

—Sarah Revivis Smith

How did you get involved in the book?

It was via Twitter. I saw the Unbound crowdfunder and remember ignoring it because the copy listed fifteen writers of colour and it was just black and brown people. I was quite cross. I think I tweeted Nikesh something like, ‘There’s no yellow people.’ I was being semi-jokey, but he said he’d since gotten Daniel York and Wei Ming Kam on board and extended it from fifteen writers to twenty-one. I love Nikesh, and we’ve had great conversations since, but I still feel a bit sad that perhaps East Asians were an afterthought – but I understand that. I write about our skin colour being ‘too pale’; about being invisible. I didn’t propose myself as a writer but people on Twitter said, ‘You should get Vera!’ and I worried because I’d only started describing myself as a writer fairly recently, and I mainly write experimental poetry. But he got in touch and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing if someone drops out?’ I was the last one in!

How did you decide the topic of your essay?

I didn’t know what the other writers were writing about. I was very nervous about making ‘official’ political and personal statements, and I didn’t know how polite or controversial people were going to be in the other essays. Nikesh and I decided together what I would write about. The first draft was terrible from my point of view because I was trying to do the ‘right thing’, but what’s ended up in the book is more my voice and what I care about.

What do you mean by the ‘right thing’?

Before Nikesh picked me he said, ‘Send me a proposal of what you’d like to write about.’ Once I started there were so many things I wanted to write about and they were really specific. The way East Asian women are hypersexualised, the intersection between East Asians and the class system in the UK – which I think is very different depending on what your skin colour is. But then from his point of view – it was towards the end of his process, so he already knew what everyone else was writing about – he saw there was a gap and no one was really talking about: ‘What is East Asian?’

My initial response was, ‘Oh, that might be very boring’, because it’s going to be one of those things of how did the phrase come about, one of those dry things. What I ended up writing wasn’t one of those dramatic personal account stories of this horrible thing happened to me, so it didn’t have that much of an emotional hook. I really wanted to write something punchy and not academic but my first draft was really quite laboured: it was really explainey – about why language matters and why labels matter and how we make meaning.

So I handed in this terribly staid first draft. And I was nervous because you make a statement and it goes into print once it’s in a book and the first book of its kind. I’m so interested in dialogue but once [the book is] printed how do you [have a] dialogue with your audience? And Nikesh, bless him, he’d never seen any of my writing – what a chance to take, right? He was very positive about my first draft and he didn’t ask me to rewrite it as dramatically as I did. I rewrote really quickly, into the night, jetlagged and ill. I think that level of stress and the changing circumstances [in my life at the time] really forced things out of me. I wrote about sexual inequality and I rejigged the whole thing and made it more in my voice. I’m really interested in sex and power. I don’t think we talk enough about sex in general, anyway, because it doesn’t seem classy or cultured or we’re all ashamed. And I think fundamentally it affects equality across the board. I couldn’t not write about sex.

When did you start writing about race?

I think I became aware of it in the theatre scene with the whole RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] kerfuffle with The Orphan of Zhao [One of China’s oldest plays: when adapted by the RSC in 2012 it featured only three East Asian actors in a cast of seventeen.]. Daniel [York Loh] was spearheading the campaign against that and I kind of ignored it because I thought, ‘Hey, the RSC can cast who they want; they’re just being very silly about their public statements’. I genuinely believe that if any artist for artistic reasons wants to make a super-white anything, and it’s thought through, then it’s fine. If they have deliberate reasons for controversial artistic choices, they should stick to their artistic guns and bear the consequences, good or bad. But it’s the unthinking bias and position of unquestioned privilege that is the problem, so for example all the RSC’s marketing was very Chinese-looking and they made a big deal about going to China and researching ‘authentic Chineseness’. I started educating myself when I started working with other Chinese actors, so Liz Chan, Daniel, Kevin Shen, Lucy Sheen, etc. It was because all these China plays were happening in the UK.

What year was that?

2013 was the year of Chimerica and The World of Extreme Happiness and when I stopped burying my head in the sand.

How do you think the conversation has changed since?

The book came about before any chat about the referendum or Brexit or Trump and it’s just so weird to think a book like this hasn’t existed before in the landscape. In terms of change, it depends on what circles you move in. It baffles me when I come across people where the conversation hasn’t changed at all. Some people aren’t familiar with the concept of intersectionality [A theory that describes how different minority status such as race, gender, age and health overlap or ‘intersect’ in a person’s identity to create layers of discrimination.], which I find super-helpful to explain everything. I think now the conversation’s become more difficult because people are saying it’s the left liberals’ fault that white people are being radicalised.

But before this tricky political point in time, I think an interesting shift within my industry (theatre and media) was that people were beginning to look at gender, sexuality, age, race together as one ‘diversity’ campaign. The Act For Change project [A campaign for ‘greater diversity in the live and recorded arts’.] was instrumental in creating this positive shift. So we weren’t isolating racism, we were looking at society as a whole. This was a really helpful shift for everybody’s causes because it’s not as if there’s a limit on compassion or humanity or equality. I think that was a really positive shift a year or two ago, but now I think larger world politics is throwing us. On a basic level, though, I struggle a lot with not having the language to talk about myself and people like me because of the word ‘Asian’ and how it’s used in the UK.

That was very informative for me in your essay, the terms ‘East Asian’ and ‘South Asian’.

Because ‘East Asian’ only appeared around four years ago and before that there was only ‘oriental’, I guess. I used to use the word ‘oriental’ and then I realised I don’t actually even know what that means. When I was growing up I used the word ‘Asian’ because that was the word I grew up with – I came from Asia.

I’ve been aware of ‘East Asian’ and I use it if I have to. I wasn’t advocating using the word yellow; I think that some people did think that I was going ‘reclaim the word’. I guess my point was I don’t have a word and that’s a problem. I wanted my essay to provoke thought.

Actually I spoke to one of the writers in the book about the term Asian. He said with ‘Asian’, people just mean ‘Indian-looking people’ and with ‘East Asian’ we mean ‘Chinese-looking people’. We completely generalise. And obviously there are other countries in South Asia apart from India. He said, in the UK, South Asians don’t use the word Asian because they’re thinking of themselves in specific terms of Bangladeshi, etc., or their religion – whether they’re Muslim or Sikh. And I hadn’t thought about it that way because we just go, ‘um, yeah, Indian’. I have been using the word Indian as a generality and now I’m like, ‘Oh God, stop doing that’.

I think a point the book makes well is having an awareness of some of the detail and vastness when we use these sweeping terms. So Inua Ellams’s essay ‘Cutting Through’, which differentiates the countries in Africa, because it’s huge and we just say ‘Africa’.

It was useful for me to read The Good Immigrant. It’s not just a book for white people to educate themselves; that would be so patronising. I was so struck – I hadn’t thought about the Greek-Cypriot situation, I hadn’t really thought about the caste system abroad. Because the book isn’t just about ‘other people’, everybody has their own prejudices and I think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves of the complications and the plurality. The world of information is so fast and fragmented because of social media. Because of the book I’m paying so much attention to the media, which is always chasing the sound bite when actually we need to keep all the complications in. So on news programmes everyone’s pitted against one another in a binary, black and white way because it’s simpler, or more entertaining. Or we get caught up in the anxiety of, ‘if I write this statement I can never change my mind, it’s locked down’. I know that I’m going to keep developing and growing and learning so I force myself to say things I believe in at whatever point in time. Because dialogue is the way forward.

The media are chasing the sound bite as a practicality as well, they don’t have infinite space and they’re constrained by needing to sell papers. They need that snappy thing. But it’s an interesting point about being able to hold multiple viewpoints in your mind, and how either we’re not primed for it, or the current system doesn’t allow us to. But as the reverse of that, that’s a reason why people like Trump are so popular: they make things black and white, good and bad – there’s a yearning for a simpler time.

It’s very strange but I completely understand that he seems to make things simpler. But America’s values are already so simple: everyone is equal, it’s in the constitution, right? And you kinda go, ‘that’s simple enough guys, let’s base everything on that…’ How did they end up voting for a person who isn’t for equal freedom?

I understand, though: I definitely believe that human beings have to categorise to make sense of the world, so the basic [idea] – whether you want to think of it as anthropology or philosophy or whatever – [is] ‘I’m me because I’m not you’. There’s that basic separation, but what I don’t think we need to do is place value judgements on top. You’ve got blue eyes so therefore your life is worth more? You know when you say it out loud or you’re standing next to a blue-eyed person it just doesn’t make sense. We can just say, ‘I’m you, you’re me, we’re different’ and just leave it at that level. Why do we place value judgements? It’s fear.

We live in a world that’s changing rapidly and there is a lot of fear.

It does feel like fear is being generated where it’s not warranted. In terms of US gun crime killing more people than terrorists, whereas people are so much more afraid of terrorists. You go, ‘No, wait, stop: we’re afraid of the wrong things’. I don’t know how to reverse that or address that fear. Because fear really, really messes people up on all sorts of levels.

I’m really interested in how people see themselves in the world. We’re more fragmented now because of modern media and the lack of shared experiences. The way we interact with each other in the digital world is different. People have been talking about the disenfranchised and I think it’s an important thing – if you feel powerless or disconnected, you don’t realise your actions affect other people. But they do. Throwing litter into your neighbour’s garden does have an impact. Not voting with care has an impact. Because it’s about empathy, it’s about thinking about the other person and the impact of policies or behaviour.

And then when I think about the book: who is gonna read the book? I mean, it’s doing really well, but it’s still a book. And poor people aren’t going to spend however much to buy the book. Some of the articles have been pulled and put in the newspaper, great. But those are still for people who read. And it is easyish to read the book, but it isn’t that easy, it’s quite chewy. My point is that I feel very strongly about grassroots – I don’t even like the phrase – but how do we relate to each other? How do we change things? And I feel it must be on a personal level, because if you do sit down and talk, you connect.

You’re right, because there is a certain type of person who’s going to read The Good Immigrant. And books aren’t the dominant form anymore so how do you get the message to everyone when people aren’t in the same place like they were. How do you find them? And do they even want to hear what you have to say?

Which is why I’m really interested in comedy, for example.

I wanted to ask about your comedy. When I saw you in The World of Extreme Happiness, you were so, so funny. Can we talk a bit more about the role humour plays for you?

That was my breakout comedy role actually. I loved it and I really discovered stuff. We talk about accessing people: I think you have to be naughty about it. You can’t just go like parents, ‘Eat these greens’. You have to make it fun. How do you access people? How do you get their attention? I think through something that’s interesting, that’s entertaining and that they can see is not scary. I also think comedy is the hardest thing to do well. The greatest comics are really smart and have a real instinct and their rhythm and humanity is so that you’re in tune with them. There are lots of stand-up joints where people are laughing, but it’s a surface laughter. But real laughter, real comedy is so much about humanity. It’s to do with vulnerability and sharing.

Also, someone said this to me – I don’t know if it’s true – that in general people don’t laugh out loud when they’re by themselves. It’s a social thing. I’m interested in shared activities and there’s an energy that’s generated. I’m really opposed to art, or things that purport to be art, that smashes audiences down and goes, ‘the world is so disgusting and terrible and awful: feel bad about it’. So either the audience is incapacitated and can’t go out and make any social change because things seem so hopeless, or they’re like, ‘pat [us] on the back, we’re so liberal; we’ve seen something awful, we can go home and carry on living because we’ve suffered enough during this experience’. Comedy works differently. Even with absurdist, observational comedians like Eddie Izzard, you might be talking about giraffes, but really we’re laughing because we’re human beings and we see something about feelings and being alive. The content doesn’t need to be overtly political but if it makes you think and feel, share and empathise? That’s political.

I also think there’s something quite alchemical about laughing, it changes your state. You cut through the crap we build around ourselves.

Yes, if the comedian and the comedy can cut through all the crap it strips down your defences and it equalises people. Because if the teenager in a hoody down the street laughs at the same thing I laugh at, then at some level we are similar, and so I’m less likely to be violent against them or them against me. So if you practise that across all the different groups…

You end your essay with the brilliantly sinister line, ‘I see you’, which kind of suggests accountability; but more than that, I read as you actively looking out – rejecting your role as a passive ‘thing’ to be looked at or have Chineseness pushed onto. Is that something you were trying to do?

I was trying to do that! Is that super-cheesy? I’m bad at endings in all my work, and I remember having to rewrite the end. I was jet-lagged, ill and on my tiny laptop in America sweating, ‘it’s such an important essay, I have to do this properly’. But you’re right, it is about that; in all my work I want people to feel. In my essay I’m poking with comedy and with difficult statements and it’s apt that I end on something that is tricky, so is it accusatory or is it accepting? One of the things that I feel is invisible or not quite whole.

If I see that someone does accept all parts of me, and doesn’t reduce me to ‘small woman’ or ‘East Asian woman’ or ‘actress’, if they see me, then I think that’s so valuable. I think that it’s so important to really see each other. All my work is about whether people can connect and for how long. Because it’s not like once you connect you’re always connected.

So the act of seeing is an active thing. If we continue seeing each other then I think that’s a massive thing that will really change our lives.

Writing is quite a new thing for you but one of your first forays is one of the biggest books this year, and I read your piece on political blackness in The Guardian that I thought was excellent. So it seems to come naturally to you. How do you feel about your writing?

I haven’t quite worked it out. I don’t write compulsively but I do want to do more with my writing. I think that I will always make stuff, and expressing myself is going to be important to me for the rest of my life. I’ve got an artist friend and I asked her, ‘Why do you create?’ She says she makes to make sense of the world, that’s her process of living. It’s the same for me, but I’m also very interested in connecting people, connecting to people, and one way I can do that is through writing. I’ll be finishing my MA next year. My mentor [Tim Atkins] is the reason I’m doing this MA. He’s helped me to discover so much about my writing.

How do you write?

I’d say I’m playful while being very controlling! I try to provoke and to manufacture spaces my audience can dream around. I want my audience to keep being affected beyond the event of reading or experiencing my work. It has to do with my performance training and my degree in anthropology on how meaning is made, how we use space, what is culture, how do we communicate, build, play. I like to control what my words are doing in the space and I like the idea of being with the reader, so rhythm, formatting and punctuation are important. I put in lots of starts and stops – ideas that butt up against each other. I like to drop in provocations. I try to be surprising, I try not to be patronising. It was hard to write an essay with data because I don’t like explaining stuff. I am primarily a poet, I would say, and some people find my writing easy and some find it difficult.

Tim says I should look to America as there’s a lot more experimentation going on there. He’s talking about American, experimental avant-garde poets. He currently doesn’t know anybody who writes like I do which is … interesting!

Can we talk about the use of quotes in your piece, in particular the first quote?

It’s the quote about the bird that flies and flies and then lands once in its life and then it dies. The quote for me is to do with travel and seeking, and birds cross borders all the time. The quotes in the essay act as interruptions. Because I can’t be with the reader when they’re reading this is my way of being with them. But the initial quote is around this idea of constant movement. I feel like I’m seeking a home somewhere. I’m seeking happiness and belonging and I don’t know when I’ll find what I’m looking for and what will happen when or if that point comes. So in a way the bird quote is quite cheesy and romantic, like I am! Nikesh asked, “Why do people come to this country; what are they looking for? If they don’t find it here do they go elsewhere?” And so this seeking – look, I can’t go back to Malaysia and I absolutely can’t go back to China because I didn’t come from China, and if I wanted to be all tragic and sad about it I’d be like, “Oh God, I don’t have a home! Will I ever have a home?” I like wondering if we’re asking the right questions. I don’t want to die at the point of landing, I want to live while I fly.