A few years back Fred Ho and I were having lunch in Chinatown. It was the summer of 2013, just after we had completed the performance run of his majestic and spectacular theatre piece Deadly She Wolf Assassin at Armageddon at La Mama Theatre in NYC. We were catching up over several plates of food at Congee on Bowery (which has now closed its doors for good). I am saying several plates because Fred loved to eat! During our massive lunch I told Fred about my wish to write something but I didn’t feel brave enough to actually sit down and put pen to paper. He asked me what I wanted to write, and I told him that I had been working on this piece inside my head for the last decade, a piece about my mother, but I just hadn’t had the courage to write it down. “Write it, I’ll produce it. Here is your deadline, use it”, he said. Fred Ho, composer, musician, writer, activist, revolutionary thinker, a polymath, passed away after a long battle with cancer on April 12, 2014. Needless to say we never did our co-production of my piece, but I continued to write it because that was my promise to myself and to Fred to finish the piece in honor of my mother. Fastward a few years… I finished what became a one woman show called Mermaid’s Howl, and had a chance to perform it in Sweden in the fall of 2016. It was a most significant experience to perform it in the land of my birth, in the country that my mother moved to on a whim and stayed in until her death in 1989. My pre-performance team consisted of projection designer Youn Jung Kim, costume designer Jane Catherine Shaw, and composer Dåkot-ta Alcantara-Camacho. In Sweden I had the honor and luck to spend some jetlagged mornings talking to dancer, choreographer and cultural activist Jack Gray about premonitions, dreams and following one’s path and cultural legacy, as well as having the invaluable technical help during the show from the composer himself, Dåkot-ta. It was a true blessing! My mother, Malja Park, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and was in and out of the hospital during my teenage years in Sweden. From time to time I stayed with my elementary school teacher Siv Englund, who lovingly took me in as her extra daughter. I was so furious with my mother during that time, for being sick, for abandoning me, for being different, for being difficult! Only in my adult years, after she had passed away, did I start to really think about her story, her life, her illness, and her legacy in me. Mermaid’s Howl is an attempt to look at madness from a non-western perspective, and giving it a feminist voice. Without glorifying mental illness, it is my way at trying to understand her life as a single mother, living outside the country of her birth, without any family or support; with patriarchal ideas and patterns swirling around her, telling her what to do, how to be, and what to be. It is also a way at looking at mental illness in a different way that we are used to in the West, where madness, especially in women, is shameful and should be shunned and locked away from the rest of society. Again, without glorifying or mystifying serious mental illness, I want to highlight how other cultures in the East look at those with mental illness, and specifically I look to my mother’s homeland of Korea as a source of strength and sense in viewing her particular symptoms. Some anecdotes in my piece are real memories, stories my mom told me, or things I remember from my childhood; others are swirling make-believe remembrances of a time past, dream sequences, foggy daydreams, mixed with historical documentation from the period of the WWII in Japan. There are so many untold stories out there, and it is my fervent wish that the stories of those who cannot tell them will still be told, that the stories of the voiceless will find a voice. Hopefully, telling my story, my mother’s story, will inspire other’s to tell theirs. I tell mine. You tell yours. I will keep on telling stories of the marginalized, the oppressed, stories of people of color, women, because stories give birth to other stories, stories feed off of other stories, and the wave will swell and become bigger as we add on…
Excerpt Mermaid’s Howl
a solo show
by Marina Celander
Water nearby. Ceremonial grounds.
It is a ripe place of rituals and spirits
as the grounds are quivering with souls.]
Spirits walk here at dawn and dusk. That’s why I am here. My wolf eyes see far in the dark. My nose inhales incense and prayer wheels. My ears listen for the trance inducing drums. My tongue tastes birch leaves and salty yak butter tea. My whiskers sense water droplets evaporated from melted glaciers millions of years ago. My pads on my paws touch the wetness of the earth and the wetness of the clouds as they meet and marry at the top of the mountain. Now my eyes see my uncle. I tell my family that I see our uncle. “Nonsense”, they tell me. “He lives on the other side of the district, he isn’t here.” The next morning the news reach us that our uncle is dead, died last night. Mother and father slowly turn their heads and look at me. Not a word. Just look. Then silent, dry tears. I saw uncles and aunts, neighbors, family friends, fire balls bouncing over rooftops. Obake. Premonitions. Never speak of this again.
I love to draw. I drew the fading grandeur of the Shinto Gate over and over again. Then I filled the insides of the lines with water colors. We used to sit for a while on the sunwarm stonewall not far from the Gate and chat, giggle and rest, my sisters and I, on our way home from school. I drew the gate under rainheavy skies; the gate during a blustery autumn afternoon; the gate empty; the gate filled with people and bicycles; the gate shyly peeking from behind a veil of flying snowflakes; the gate naked in stark sunlight. One day during rainy season, when the air was hot and thick with murmurs, muted voices stuck in midair, sounds swollen with dampness, words caught in ancient droplets floating like bloated blimps, the soldier jumped out of the automobile in the middle of the Gate, and tugged at my sister’s arm. “Yakamashi! (Shut up!)”, he yelled and yanked her body back and forth. My sister forgot she wasn’t supposed to speak Korean, and yelped “Andea” (don’t!)”. Something inside me twists into a hard knot. My vision narrows to a thin, dark tunnel; I look on from the other side of a taut umbilical cord, gaze above the top of the gate. My ears are ringing, the bells are talking, the neck hairs stand on end, my body growing. Waves crashing. Distant howling. A deafening silence, like a wool blanket covering me. Then... comes the roar. From the deep recesses of my soul, from before the beginning, from the murky darkness of my tiniest blood vessels, swimming up and out. Eyes blazing like a mad dog’s fangs growing cutting pain dry lips crackling. Silent howl. Roar inside my head bursting blood vessels tainting the world in vermillion... reaching out my hand to demand my sister back before the forbidden happens before she dies before they make her die before they touch her. When I open my eyes again I feel my sisters warm, little hand in mine and we walk off, quickly, fangs retracted, water from the glaciers rolling down our cheeks. I was told to never speak of this again. “You are too powerful...like me”, said mother. “And stubborn. You will never get yourself a husband”. “Korean girls don’t stand up to Japanese soldiers”, said father. “You will get yourself killed.”
One of my Gate paintings won me the grand prize at a youth art competition. I was really happy, and hopeful. I wanted to paint! Go to Paris, attend art school, fall in love under the Paris skies. “Learn to cook and clean, take a good husband, be a good wife. Don’t wait for Prince Charming”, said father. “You can’t paint”, said mother. “You have to help with the farm, and then you marry a nice Korean boy here and live quiet life, making no waves. Our ancestral grandmothers swam in the ocean, deep diving, holding on to the sunshine on their brown skin when the cold pressure of the deep threatened to explode their ear drums. Making waves was all they ever did. Matriarchal partnership. Mother. Ocean. Earth. They never waited for their husbands to bring home the day’s catch. Holding their breaths in the deep, yes, but not while waiting for a Prince Charming. Holding their breaths long before returning to the surface. Sumbisori. The sound of the women of the sea, life giving breath, sound of life, whistling like howling wind. Eyes piercing through sea foam, underwater waves and webbed feet projecting sleek bodies forward, riding seahorses. Black hair, strands of jet black seaweed. Dark underwater crevices, glistening. Gateways to another world.
End of Excerpt
About the Author/Artist
Marina Celander is a mom, theatre artist, singer, dancer, living and working in NYC. She studied dance at London Contemporary Dance School, England. Marina received the Pan Asian Rep’s annual Red Socks Award in 2014. Mermaid’s Howl was nominated for the Stockholm Fringe Festival’s Innovation In Performance Award in 2016.