December 8, 2022

By BRYAN THAO WORRA

AAP staff writer

Award-winning writer Katie Hae Leo’s work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Asian American Poetry & Writing, The Talking Stick, 60 Seconds to Shine: One-minute Monologues for Men, MN Women’s Press, Utne Reader and others.

Leo has been recognized by The Academy of American Poets prestigious James Wright Prize and received a Gesell Award for nonfiction, and funded by the MN State Arts Board and the Blacklock Foundation.  She received an M.F.A. from The University of Minnesota and teaches at St. Catherine University and Minneapolis Community & Technical College.

Asian American Press had a chance to catch up with her to discuss her work.

Asian American Press: When did you first really notice your interests in the art emerging?

Katie Hae Leo: I’ve always enjoyed both writing and acting. I remember writing little stories that I illustrated myself when I was in second grade, for example. My parents would sometimes make copies of them and send them to relatives. They were always riffs on existing stories, of course, like a variation on Cinderella that I once wrote, in which Cinderella was an unpopular teenager. Instead of a glass slipper, she ended up getting some really cool Nike tennis shoes from her fairy godmother. It’s funny, how those tropes get inside your head at a young age.

With regards to acting, I was a really shy kid, so I liked the idea of people paying attention to me but was too afraid to get that attention by being myself. Acting was one way I could get people to notice me; and, since I was playing someone else, it felt safer than just being me. The more I did it, the more I liked it. I also really liked the whole community of theater, the way of life. I liked actors, because they were demonstrative and funny. And, I enjoyed the whole process of making theater. I liked hanging around after school and rehearsing and putting on costumes and makeup – the whole thing.

But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that writing sustains me more than theater.  I’m not shy anymore, but I’m definitely an introvert. Acting takes a lot out of me emotionally, while writing restores me. These days I would rather write a play than act in one.

AAP: You’ve been writing and performing for many years. What keeps you going as an artist?

KHL: Lots of things – first, I am constantly inspired by the world around me. I try to stay as engaged as possible with current events and issues, and these things often give me something to write about. But, I don’t like art that’s too didactic or reactive. I don’t want to just write in order to educate people or force my opinion on them.  That’s where the art comes in. Like Emily Dickinson said, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Through form and language, you can uncover multiple truths. You can question truths rather than impose them.

Maybe that’s what drives any artist – the quest for truth. Maybe it’s as simple and as complicated as that. I also want to tell a good story. I want to engage my audience or reader in a conversation. And, I want to be part of a larger conversation of writers and artists who are all contributing to how the world thinks. Finally, I am always inspired by the community of artists around me and beyond. Their work makes me want to do my work.

AAP: What are the themes you really enjoy examining in your work?

KHL: As much as I try to resist it sometimes, my work thus far has always gone back to questions of place and identity. This comes from my experience as an adoptee. That’s not to say that I’m trying to find a definitive identity or answer, but rather to raise questions about received notions of identity. I’d rather complicate things than try to sum them up in a neat box. And, I think that these questions are relevant to the times in which we live, as well. As more and more people are migrating, whether by force or necessity or desire, themes of place and displacement, of identity and home, will continue to resonate.

AAP: What’s your artistic process like for your writing? And do you see a difference between this and the other forms of art you practice?

KHL: It depends on the genre. I carry around a little black notebook, and I like to freewrite in that if an idea pops into my head. For poetry, sometimes it’s just a word that I really like or a phrase that strikes me. I’m very interested in received language, as in old textbooks or museums. There’s something fascinating in codified, highly structured information. When we’re kids, we take that language for granted. We’re taught not to question it or think about where it came from or who wrote it or why. But, those are the most important questions we need to be asking of it, because that language is the basis for what we’re taught. It governs how we think about the world.

Anyway, I generally like to freewrite by hand, play around with words and try to get out of my conscious mind into a more unconscious space. I play word games or free association or pick through a dictionary and just start writing based on a word I see. Stuff like that. Then, if something interesting comes out of that, I’ll type it into my computer to see how it looks on the page.

For playwriting, I start with characters. I put them into a place, give them a relationship or an intention, and just let them talk. The coolest thing about writing plays is that sometimes a character that you created will do or say something that you hadn’t planned. Even though you’re writing that character, sometimes as you do so, dialogue will just spill out in such a way that it feels as though the character is telling you what to write. It’s eerie in a very good way.

AAP: Where in your latest work do you feel you are you really trying to push yourself?

KHL: My most recent work is a play that I’m developing through Mu Performing Arts called Four Destinies. It’s a satire of adoption. For this work I’ve really pushed myself in terms of formal structure. Most of my plays until now have utilized linear, straightforward naturalism, but this play is intentionally nonlinear and non-naturalistic. I take as inspiration the work of women like Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, and Kristina Wong. It feels right to explore a multi-dimensional subject like adoption through non-linear storytelling. It’s also very funny, and I don’t necessarily consider myself a comedienne. But, I’ve always loved satire as a form of critique.

I also think the questions that this play is trying to ask are challenging. What are the stories that we as adoptees are told? What do we tell ourselves? What do you do when all you want is the truth of your biological history, but that truth will be forever elusive? I’m also fascinated by the tension between destiny and free will. Our culture is in awe of genetics right now, as though genetics can answer and predict everything. But, I consider that tendency toward genetic pre-determinism problematic. My anxiety around that comes up in this play, as well.

AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?

KHL: I’ve been focused on playwriting for the past six months, while my poetry has been lying dormant in my computer. I was fortunate to receive a grant to work on my poetry manuscript, and I’m excited to return to it. I also have some other plays in the works. And, of course, I’m still developing Four Destinies. So, it’s an exciting time for me, creatively speaking. (It) utilized linear, straightforward naturalism, but this play is intentionally nonlinear and non-naturalistic. I take as inspiration the work of women like Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, and Kristina Wong. It feels right to explore a multi-dimensional subject like adoption through non-linear storytelling. It’s also very funny, and I don’t necessarily consider myself a comedienne. But, I’ve always loved satire as a form of critique.

I also think the questions that this play is trying to ask are challenging. What are the stories that we as adoptees are told? What do we tell ourselves? What do you do when all you want is the truth of your biological history, but that truth will be forever elusive?  I’m also fascinated by the tension between destiny and free will. Our culture is in awe of genetics right now, as though genetics can answer and predict everything. But, I consider that tendency toward genetic pre-determinism problematic. My anxiety around that comes up in this play, as well.

AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?

KHL: I’ve been focused on playwriting for the past six months, while my poetry has been lying dormant in my computer. I was fortunate to receive a grant to work on my poetry manuscript, and I’m excited to return to it. I also have some other plays in the works. And, of course, I’m still developing Four Destinies.  So, it’s an exciting time for me, creatively speaking.

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