Leslie Lum

Leslie Lum is a playwright, professor and writer. She recently partnered with director David Hsieh in presenting Lum’s play Geomancer, depicting a rocket scientist who is deported because of his Chinese origins – a timely theme considering recent attacks against Asians and Asian Americans. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Canadian Literature, Wascana Review, Asian Week, The Antigonish Review, Into the Fire, and Asian Pacific American Journal and anthologized in The Map is the Heart, Canadian Short Fiction, Pomegrante and the Wascana Review Thirty Year Retrospective. She has published two books in another field and is a senior associate professor at Bellevue College.

How did your original views on Iris Chan and Hsue-shen Tsien change over the course of your project?

The first version of Geomancer was entirely about Tsien, McCarthyism and the question of loyalty. I was reading Iris Chang’s biography of Tsien and realized that she should be in the piece because she was the only person who told the truth about him. She had done all her research prior to him being chosen as the Chinese hero of the technology age. Of course, I had read Iris Chang’s “Rape of Nanking” but didn’t know all the controversy around it and certainly didn’t understand how an immensely talented Chinese American woman could commit suicide at the peak of her career. The second reading of Geomancer was really a draft but working with Heidi Taylor and the great cast she put together helped me understand more about the process of writing the play. After that, I spent a lot of time doing research–on Nanjing, survivors, Tsien’s deportation hearings, and Tibet Buddhism. Fortunately, Iris Chang had been meticulous about cataloging all her research and it was available at UCSB and Stanford. I collected 5,000 pages from her archives. Heidi Taylor started me off and I ended up producing the third reading myself with director David Hsieh. The lockdown made Zoom readings possible but more than that I was able to assemble a cross-border team which included amazing performers who truly believed in the piece.

How has your multidisciplinary background influenced your writing? How do you connect your different interests?

I’ve always written about the Canadian/American Chinese experience. I foolishly thought that exploring the stories I wanted to tell in theatre might be easier because there so many more hands to help shape the piece. In truth, the playwright’s words carry everything. Everyone takes their direction from the words on the page. It is so much more complex than writing fiction for things such as subtext. As to multidisciplinary influences, Geomancer covers Chinese American history around McCarthyism that is yet to be acknowledged even to this day when the Trump administration had a China Initiative that targeted Chinese American scientists; Iris’ character struggles with intergenerational trauma which I dealt with as a social worker in Chinese refugee community; and Iris and Tsien have their interaction in the In-Between of Tibetan Buddhism, a religion which I have an affinity with and whose leader is banned in China.

I didn’t think that my business background would have much import to playwrighting. As an emerging playwright, I’ve pitched my work to artistic directors and assumed that they would take it from there. But most established theater companies choose very few new plays, especially pieces such as Geomancer which is so heavy in history, science, religion, and potentially explosive geopolitics. They can see that it is not going to be a big moneymaker. My business background actually came in handy in producing the reading myself. 

In the midst of COVID-19, your play Geomancer reached out to audiences by running online. What was it like putting on a play for virtual audiences? 

Commercially viable and plays cost so much to mount.