Telling Stories: Dmae Roberts' Insightful Works on Multicultural America
|Dmae Roberts with George Takei, of the first four episodes of Crossing East
Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody award-winning independent radio artist and writer who has written and produced more than 400 audio art pieces and documentaries for NPR and PRI programs. Her work – often autobiographical or focuses on cross-cultural peoples – is informed by her biracial identity.
Her most recent project has been “Crossing East,” the first Asian American history series on public radio which garnered a Peabody award. The eight-hour series took three years to produce and ran on more than 230 stations around the country.
Dmae also won a Peabody for the documentary "Mei Mei, a Daughter's Song," a harrowing account of her mother's childhood in Taiwan during WWII.
Dmae received the Dr. Suzanne Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice from the Asian American Journalists Association and was one of 50 artists around the country to be selected recently for the 2007 United States Artists (USA) Fellowship.
As the executive producer of MEDIARITES, a non-profit organization dedicated to multicultural arts production in radio and educational outreach, she continues her personal mission to create works that bring diverse communities together.
In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Dmae talks about her evolution as an artist and producer.
What are the unifying themes of your work? A big majority of my work focuses on multicultural themes, and telling personal stories of underserved voices.
I’m drawn to those themes because of my life experiences. I spent my childhood in the small town of Junction City, Oregon. My family certainly was the only inter-racial family in town. Back then, we didn’t even have a word for what I was. Most people would say we’re half-this, or half-that.
I felt isolated in our high school. The artistic path really saved my life. I think I would’ve felt too alone, too disconnected and too depressed if I didn’t get involved in drama or writing.
All that isolation, and being out of the mainstream has really informed my work and what I care about: people who are not in the mainstream, who are isolated and struggling or somehow discriminated against because of race, class and other factors. I feel that I’ve always championed “underdog” voices. I relate to their struggle.
Even in 2008, race is still viewed as a novelty. If you’re an Asian who lives in a predominantly white area, you are a novelty. I still get asked the oddest questions about Asians.
Secret Asian Woman was borne out of the desire to bring awareness about mixed race people. I was able to say everything I have said – in a lot of different conversations with people – all in one half-hour. Personally, it was a great release for me. If you give voice to the “unheard” – all of a sudden, it doesn’t become so weird. It becomes validated.
So many people of color feel invalidated. Seeing, hearing and speaking about your experiences makes you feel like everyone else. Which is what we are – we are everyone else. We don’t want to be the “other.” Sure, we want to be special, but not “weird.”
What current projects are in the works? I’m working on a one-hour documentary about mixed-race artists, called In the Mix (listen to demo). I’ve interviewed a dozen writers, actors, and musicians. It’s a way of bringing mixed-race issues to light through artists who use their art to express those issues. There are a lot of recurring themes of isolation, solidifying identity, finding a name. Who do you represent? As a mixed race person, people tend to want you represent a certain race. There are issues of discrimination, and what it means to look at one’s race as a novelty.
When you are mixed race, and people can’t classify you as easily as they’d like to, often they will not let you do things you want to do. For instance, in acting, when you have to look a certain way, they can openly discriminate against you. If a role calls for an African-American, and you may not look totally African-American to them, they won’t cast you.
What was your career path leading up to becoming a producer? I sorta fell into it, and I haven’t regretted that path at all.
I’ve always been a writer, so I decided to be a journalist. I went to Journalism school at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and learned the technical craft of writing. At the time, I still wanted to be an actor. I started volunteering at the local radio station KLCC and got hooked into doing radio. I felt that I could use my voice, my writing and get to meet interesting people. I really haven’t stopped since then. I may have dropped out occasionally to do theater or playwriting, but I always returned to radio. After a year, I was selling pieces to NPR, getting grants.
I moved up Portland in 1989 because I wanted more diversity, and opportunities to do theater. I liked that I could do the writing and voice work, and tell interesting stories. When I first started, I was doing radio theater and audio cartoons – really wacked out crazy stuff. It was fun and creative: I felt like I was making my own mini-movies.
Crossing East was a groundbreaking project because for the first time in public radio, people had the opportunity to hear about diverse histories of migration of Asian Americans to the United States. How did this project come about? From the time we hatched the idea to when it aired, it took almost four years. I had often thought about the idea of doing an Asian American history series, but I kept thinking that somebody who is “more Asian” should do that – someone fully Asian. Somehow, I never felt Asian enough. It took a while for people to embrace mixed-race people. In 2002, I started fund-raising for the project.
Getting the project done was a major struggle. It felt like we were constantly going uphill for several years. Everyday, there’s some new tragedy, some new weird thing, some new rejection. The idea was rejected from a couple of organizations. Even while we started production with funding from CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) in 2003, I still had to raise more than $90,000, because we couldn’t get another funder.
|Dmae garnered the Peabody Award in 2006, for "Crossing East." The Peabody Awards are regarded as the most prestigious awards honoring distinction and achievement in the United States within the fields of broadcast journalism, documentary filmmaking, educational programming, children's programming, and entertainment.
It took a lot of arm-twisting and convincing for stations to run “Crossing East.” It’s a huge commitment for the radio stations, to air an eight-hour series. It was discouraging at times, because we could’ve done four years worth of work, and nobody might have aired it. We had to call a lot of stations and ask them to air the free program on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The response we got:
“We don’t even know what APA month is.”
“We don’t have any Asians.”
“Our listeners are predominantly white.”
“Crossing East” aired for the first time in May 2006. The West Coast stations embraced the program, obviously, because there are higher populations of Asian-Americans in this part of the country. Public radio is predominantly white, it’s true, but there are a lot more people of color that are listening than they count, than they are aware of.
Altogether, 230 stations have run the program. I’m really proud of the fact that even now, in 2008, stations looking for APA Heritage Month programs look to “Crossing East.”
What were some of the other challenges in putting the series together? One of the major challenges was building a comprehensive history that included as many important moments in time, and included as many groups as possible. That was hard, because the project was truly Pan-Asian. Not only were we juggling the information and time periods, and make sure that each community is represented.
Who were some of your more surprising allies? We had about 50 people directly involved in the making of the project: scholars, producers, artists, writers, technical folks, engineers.
Some of the scholars took some convincing. They said: “We already know this history. Why are we putting this on the air?”
A book may have been written about the topic, but majority of the country doesn’t know anything about our histories. The courses may be taught at the colleges, but how many people actually take ethnic studies courses?
Judy Yung of the University of California, Santa Cruz was our lead scholar. She saw that we needed her. She helped guide the process to identify the important stories. The connection I made with George Takei was wonderful. He has stayed in touch and has been really supportive. Everywhere he went for interviews, he mentioned Crossing East, and really created awareness for the project. And Margaret Cho didn’t hestitate to be involved as a host. She said “yes” immediately and really brought focus to the project.
Also we had support with outreach events from Hawaii Public Radio, KQED in San Francisco, KUOW in Seattle and locally with Oregon Public Broadcasting. They made a firm commitment to run the series and to create awareness with their listeners for the listening sessions and events.
Local community groups were very supportive. In Portland, we worked with youth and elders to focus on Southeast Asian community groups: the Cambodian American Community of Oregon, Vietnamese organizations, and the Asian Family Center, to name a few.
What did you enjoy the most about the project? I really loved hearing the individual interviews and audio that was gathered. I loved meeting a lot of the people in communities that I really had little knowledge about before.
When we did the stories on adoptees and military brides, there were days when I’d just be crying, listening to the stories, which are so sad and beautiful. Listening to stories about Cambodia and boat refugees – they were heartbreaking, but just as beautiful.
We have this huge archive of comprehensive oral history, and the next step is to preserve them. I would love for these to be available in colleges and universities, and for people to access these oral histories in their entirety.
How has work changed over the years? When I first started, I did all these radio plays, artistic audio cartoons, wacky vox collages – do everything “in the soup” – had as many flavors. I did a lot of sound effects: it was more frenetic, wild and experimental.
Through the years, felt like I didn’t really need all those bells and whistles. Making the message clear became more important to me.
The audience definitely has changed a lot. People who listen to public radio are much more diverse now, although the programming doesn’t really acknowledge diversity. Moving forward it’s my mission to continue to do the stories that tell the unheard voices, but also to train more new producers and bring the next generation on board. I love the fact that radio is one of a handful of mediums that tell personal stories effectively. I love radio, and I want to make sure there are other people doing this.
Summer 2008 Colors of Influence ||
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