True stories and other modern-day fantasies

True stories and other modern-day fantasies
PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING: Playwright David Henry Hwang, left, with actor Hoon Lee, who plays Hwang in the playwright's new work, "Yellow Face." (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

WE live in a time when reality has evidently trumped fiction. The novel loses readers, as narrative nonfiction and memoirs gain in popularity. Reality television, once derided as a fad, is apparently here to stay. Young people abandon the so-called old media to post anecdotes from their lives and videos of their activities online. In theater, docudramas, in which quotes from real people are dramatized, have become more present on our stages. Today, truth is not only stranger than fiction, it also seems to be more popular.

Yet even as America's appetite for real-life stories continues unabated, we might ask whether the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are really so clear and concrete.

In 2006, author James Frey endured a public flaying when it was revealed that some incidents in his bestselling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," had been invented. Interviewed on "Larry King Live," Frey admitted that his manuscript had previously been turned down by several publishers when he had submitted it as a novel.

Of course, the use of invention in works purporting to be nonfiction has a long history, including accusations against playwright Lillian Hellman that she had made up a portion of her memoirs on which the movie "Julia" was later based.

Conversely, autobiography has long been the lifeblood of novels, plays and other so-called fictional works. Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," is a barely disguised portrait of the author, his older brother and their parents. Arthur Miller got the idea for his classic play "Death of a Salesman" when he bumped into his Uncle Manny, a salesman. Many works that might be sold as memoirs today were published as novels, including Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." Authors have always followed the mandate: Write what you know.

Critics and the public seem to have agreed on a line separating fiction from nonfiction. Nonfiction writers can tell stories from their own points of view and even recount conversations at which they were not present (as in Bob Woodward's bestselling books about Washington power brokers). But they cannot invent incidents or characters wholesale. The standard to which they should aspire is journalistic integrity.

I wonder, however, if even journalists are immune from fictionalizing. By this, I don't mean such obvious incidents as the Jayson Blair case, in which the former New York Times reporter was caught fabricating elements of his stories. Even when writers adhere to "real" facts and aspire to "objectivity," does the very interpretation of data itself open up a story to the reporter's own preconceptions, biases and prejudices?

Researching my newest play, "Yellow Face," which opens next Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, I interviewed Jack Shafer, media critic and editor at large for Slate, who told me, "Journalists think that they have these original minds. I don't think they are completely aware of the templates in their heads that will take information and massage it, present it in a fashion that they think is wildly original, but it's not."

The journalist's job is partly creative. They arrange facts and quotes they deem most important, while discarding others, to find a narrative, to tell a story. In this sense, they resemble the makers of reality-TV shows, who edit together the best bits of footage to create an episode with suspense, sympathetic characters and villains -- traditional elements of good storytelling. In selecting and interpreting data, however, reporters can be influenced by the templates in their heads. Those details one reporter discards might be another's most salient facts.

I can't help but see these questions played out in the case of my own father, Henry Y. Hwang, who died in 2005. A Chinese immigrant who rose to become founder and chief executive of Far East National Bank in Los Angeles, Dad was a gregarious figure who was touched by controversy over the course of his career. In 1989, reports in the Los Angeles Times linked Far East National Bank to deposits from the city at the same time it employed then-Mayor Tom Bradley as an advisor. Though no charges were ever brought, these allegations led to the biggest political scandal of Bradley's career.

A decade later, my father was accused of something even more serious. In a 1999 front-page article, the New York Times reported that he was suspected of laundering money for the Chinese government. At the time, fears of Chinese infiltration and espionage were running at a fever pitch in America. Republicans charged that the Chinese government had tried to influence the 1996 presidential elections by funneling illegal donations to the Clinton-Gore campaign. Even more ominously, Chinese American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee had been arrested just a few months earlier, accused of passing classified secrets to China.

Looking back on Dad's two controversies, I find them very different. The Bradley charges, though arguably overblown, were at least plausible. On the other hand, laundering money for China, possibly to finance illegal campaign donations, would have been completely out of character for my father. Love for and gratitude to America defined his character, sometimes embarrassingly so to us, his children. These money-laundering accusations were insidious, however, because they tapped into a powerful and persistent narrative: that of the Asian American as a perpetual foreigner in this country. Even if one's forebears came to America generations ago, an Asian might still be told, "Gee, you speak really good English!" This narrative can lead to serious consequences, such as the wholesale incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II -- and the arrest of Wen Ho Lee.

The accusations against my father eventually died for lack of substance. After nine months in solitary confinement, Lee was also exonerated; the New York Times even published a self-criticism for having fanned the flames against him. To what extent were the reporters who broke these stories influenced, however unconsciously, by the template of Asians as perpetual foreigners? Moreover, if even hard reporting can be influenced by or fall prey to invention, could our culture's current craze for "real" stories be nothing more than a way for us to enjoy our fictions in nonfiction drag?

"Yellow Face" attempts to explore these questions by further blurring the line between fact and fiction. My comedy combines actual incidents from my own life with completely invented ones. In some ways, the play resembles "mockumentaries" such as "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Borat," which use documentary techniques to tell a fictional story. My piece could just as easily, however, be regarded as a comic memoir in which some events are invented. In "Yellow Face," the difference between real and fake is often in doubt.

To my mind, this blurring reflects a fundamental flaw in America's current preoccupation with "reality." In an age when people creatively embellish their Internet profiles and photos can be doctored on most home computers, the line between truth and fiction is fuzzier than ever. Or perhaps it has always been so.

More than a century ago, the playwright Oscar Wilde said, "Give [a man] a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Then, as today, reality should not be taken at face value. Sometimes, it is fiction that actually reveals the truth.


David Henry Hwang is a Tony- and two-time Obie Award-winning playwright whose works include "M. Butterfly," "Golden Child," "FOB," Disney's "Aida" and "Tarzan," and the revival of "Flower Drum Song."