Creative Forces

Telling a More Complete Story

How Emersonians lift up historically underrepresented voices, and why it matters

As a kid growing up in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, Meghan Irons ’90 remembers the racial divide among basketball fans in the city.

“If you lived in Southie or East Boston, you were a Larry Bird fan. But if you lived in Mattapan or Dorchester, you’re Magic Johnson,” she said. “The black kids would scream for the LA Lakers while the white kids would scream for the Celtics.”

Years later—long after she graduated from Emerson with a degree in journalism, cut her teeth in newspapers and radio in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the early 1990s, and returned home to work as a reporter for The Boston Globe—Irons found herself writing a story about the Celtics. She needed to interview fans. “I went to South Boston, but also Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Codman Square,” she said. “What I came back with was a rich cultural story.”

What she came back with was what Irons is known for in her reporting: “a sense that Boston is for every person and that every person has a say in their city,” she said.

Irons, an investigative reporter at the Globe, is one of a number of Emersonians whose work raises up the voices, perspectives, and stories of those who have been historically underrepresented in mainstream media and the arts—voices, perspectives, and stories that have always been there, but have been routinely omitted.

“There has been a dominant narrative that’s been the narrative of our country. It’s an important narrative, but not the only narrative,” said David Howse, artistic director of ArtsEmerson. “It’s imperative to recognize and acknowledge the multiple stories that have contributed to [who we are as a nation].

Those very stories comprise ArtsEmerson’s programming. Since its founding in 2009, the arts organization has worked to engage and connect diverse audiences around complex issues and topics. “We use art as the prompt,” Howse said, “and the conversation is the point.”

“For me, the arts is a non-threatening way to engage in what can be ugly issues. We can use art as that tool for transformation, reconciliation, growth, and change,” he said. “Part of what we’re doing is to rewrite the narrative of this city and this country.”

In February, ArtsEmerson presented the world premiere of Detroit Red, which was written by Will Powers and tells the little-known story of Malcolm X’s years in Boston. The production was important for ArtsEmerson, Howse said, because it achieved the organization’s overall goal of bringing forward stories that are untold, as well as attracting new patrons to the theatre. 

“We recognize that there are many people who’ve never felt welcomed in these theatres,” he said. “It’s about being visible in these public spaces that have so often been reserved for only a few.”

Another method for opening the doors to the city’s theatres is through ArtsEmerson’s annual tour of Mr. Joy, which explores race and class in America and which brings theatre into Boston’s neighborhoods.

On Screen and Behind the Scenes

Likewise, it’s important to see characters on stage or on screen who reflect the true diversity of a community and for those stories to be told authentically by writers, producers, or directors behind the scenes. 

For Adele Lim ’96, despite a near 20-year career as a television writer, it wasn’t until she wrote the screenplay for the 2018 feature film Crazy Rich Asians that she had the opportunity “to write for a character that looks like me,” she said. “Most of my career, I’ve had to park my culture in the background.”

Originally from Malaysia, Lim, came to the US to attend Emerson and study creative writing. 
And when an Emerson friend said he was driving to Los Angeles after graduation, Lim decided to join him. She was soon working as a writer’s assistant on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, launching a tv writing career that has spanned such shows such as One Tree Hill, Life Unexpected, Private Practice, and Star Crossed.

In 2017, film director Jon Chu approached her about writing the screenplay for Crazy Rich Asians. “When I read the book, I was blown away. I realized that it was really specifically about my culture. It was a celebration of my people,” she said.

Given the “heightened elements” in the original book, Lim said it would have been easy for the characters to be depicted as zany or crazy. “I didn’t want the audience to be laughing at them,” she said. “I wanted the audience to feel that we really are one and the same. Strip away the exoticism and the money, what you get to is a story about two women.”

Lim is keenly aware, however, that Hollywood, and the arts in general, still has room for growth in fully recognizing those diverse voices and ideas.

In 2019, she was set to write the screenplay for the Crazy Rich Asians sequel, but left the project early on when she learned she was being paid significantly less than cowriter Peter Chiarelli. Lim said she was hesitant at first to come forward about the pay disparity issue because she didn’t want to distract from the reception that the first movie received. Ultimately, she decided it was important to tell her side of the story. “There’s this ongoing assumption that if you’re a woman and a minority and you’re complaining, somehow the system was justified,” she said.

Today, Lim mentors up-and-coming writers with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE). “The truth of it is, writers mentor writers who remind them of themselves,” she said, adding that she hadn’t known of CAPE when she was coming up in television. “My attitude [back then] was to try and tamp down our otherness as much as humanly as possible. The only way you were going to succeed was to be able to write from the white male point-of-view.” 

Since Crazy Rich Asians, she’s had more opportunities to write from her culturally-specific background, including writing the screenplay for Disney’s Southeast Asia-inspired Raya and the Last Dragon. That movie is set to release in November.

Disturbing the Peace

Like Lim, author and playwright Jabari Asim knows how critical mentorship is. When he arrived at Emerson 10 years ago to teach in the College’s Writing, Literature and Publishing (WLP) program, students of color—even those whom he didn’t have in class—were quick to seek him out for advice. And it’s no wonder. 

Until recently, Asim was editor-in-chief of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, was a Washington Post editor, and is the author of 15 books for adults and children, with three more coming out this year. His most recent collection of essays, We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies and the Art of Survival, was named a 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist; one of the essays in that collection, “Getting it Twisted,” was selected for The Best American Essays 2019 anthology.

As Asim spoke about his writing, he recalled the words of author James Baldwin, who said, “artists are here to disturb the peace.” Asim, who’s creative output revolves around social justice, said his work often revolves around “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” 

“I really do want to entertain first. If the art has other consequences—positive consequences— that’s all the better,” he said.

Much of his writing centers on injustice, unfairness, and racism—topics that are necessary for him to address, he said. “I don’t have the leisure of having it not be important to me because of the color of my skin,” he said. “Rather than be sad about racism and injustice, I should be combatting it.”

Asim brings that orientation to his writing, of course, as well as to his multiple roles as WLP associate professor, graduate program director of the MFA in Creative Writing, and as the first Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow in the College’s Social Justice Collaborative. Asim also is responsible for planning and organizing Emerson’s annual Teach-In On Race - an event that brings speakers to the College for a day of lectures and panel discussions centered on identity, community, and social justice. “We want to learn how to be better people,” he said. “You can’t do much in a single day, but we’re trying to do as much as we can in a single day.”

Colleges and universities have a moral responsibility to address issues of racism, injustice, and inequity. “Any institution of higher learning needs to be having those conversations or else their alleged pursuit of higher learning is a masked pursuit,” he said. “We’re obligated to approach it with humility. We’re all here to learn.” (For more on the College’s efforts in this area, see sidebar.)

A Voice of People

As a high schooler in Washington D.C., alum Jaweed Kaleem ’07 acutely remembers the religious-based extremism and backlash against Muslims, and those perceived as Muslim, after September 11. “It affected how I saw what was in the media and the role of journalism,” he said.

At the time, Kaleem, who grew up Muslim, wrote a piece about it for his school newspaper. He would later earn a scholarship from Knight Ridder for underrepresented students interested in journalism, leading him to study writing at Emerson, and to a career that has included roles as a religion and general assignment reporter at the Miami Herald, senior religion reporter at The Huffington Post, and, since 2016, as a national correspondent at the Los Angeles Times. 

Through his current reporting on race and justice issues, Kaleem covers topics as diverse—and arguably sensitive—as immigration and refugees, the environment, civil rights, activism and protest movements, racism, religion, Muslims, anti-Semitism, and “any issue around all of the above as it relates to the Trump administration.”

Kaleem said no matter the topic, the issues are about people. “There is so much news happening right now, partially due to the political discourse and controversy in the country and partially because there’s so much news available to us [from different sources],” he said. “What gets lost are the people—the real individuals who are affected by that news.”

One of his recent stories uncovered and highlighted the growing community of immigrant truckers from India, who are becoming increasingly influential in this vitally important US industry, so much so that Indian vegetarian truck stops have begun popping up along interstate  I-40. The story, for which he took a road trip across the country over five days with a Punjabi Sikh trucker, touched on the important intersection of US immigration, the Punjabi community, and agriculture.

“You hear a lot of sad or scary stories about immigrants, and those are important stories to tell and there’s a lot of those stories to tell,” Kaleem said. “You don’t always hear stories of resilience.”

Likewise, near Emerson’s main campus, Irons’ reporting in the Globe has always led her to stories that paint a fuller picture of all the people in a community.

“Boston isn’t one person or one voice. Boston is a rich culturally beautiful city. It’s about the Cape Verdeans in Upham’s Corners, the Africans and Black Americans in Dudley Square, Jamaicans, Haitians,” Irons said. “Sometimes you read a newspaper and you never see their names or hear their stories. I just feel they’re part of Boston and they deserve to be heard.” 

These are the stories Irons covers and the voices she uplifts. “I’m not bringing a black perspective or a person of color perspective,” she said. “I’m bringing a voice of people.”

Originally written by Charna Mamlok Westervelt for the Spring 2020 issue of Expression Magazine. (Photography by Derek Palmer)