SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: KATIE ĐỖ IN IN CONVERSATION WITH MARTYNA MAJOK
Spotlight Interview: Katie Đo in conversation with Martyna Majok.
Katie Đỗ’s who hurt you? tells the story of Ellie and Kira, two Vietnamese-American actors who always find themselves in the same audition rooms. As their lives become more intertwined with the same lovers, friends, and opportunities, Ellie's jealousy spirals into a battle with insecurity, mental health, and an epic heartbreak. When fear and coincidence bring Ellie to a life and death situation, her loved ones come together to ask, who hurt you? And who hurt Ellie?
Katie recently invited Martyna Majok to read her first play, love you long time (already), a deeply personal reckoning between a mother and daughter across time. That play formed the jumping off point for an expansive conversation about first-gen immigrant experience, “the poetry of the New Jersey mouth,” and the spiritual utility of writing plays; and a look ahead to the upcoming Spotlight Series presentations of who hurt you? This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Martyna Majok: I love reading a play that gives me deep wisdom. love you long time (already) is beautiful and clear-eyed and theatrical. It’s both lyrical and muscular. And I think that it’s such a beautiful kind of double-helix love story between four people. It’s a mother-daughter love story. But also their “great loves” that have moved through time with them and still occupy a place in their hearts and minds. I was so grateful to read it. It spoke to me very personally, in a number of ways.
Katie Do: Thank you so much.
MM: There were moments where I, out loud, said, “Ah, fuck!” in response to some life wisdoms you dropped. “You should think about that, Martyna!” And just as I thought that might be the definitive answer to a particular life query, another character would counter and give me something equally compelling to consider. It reminds me of George Saunders’ fantastic book about writing called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He talks about a student asking in response to a particular Chekhov short story, “Is Chekhov saying that happiness is good or bad?” And Saunders’ response was “Yes.” I felt that very much in your play. You’re fully living in the complexity and impossibility of knowing what is the right thing.
KD: Thank you.
MM: Thank you. What or who motivates you to write?
KD: This play kind of started me on my writing journey. I never expected to see it even read out loud. So it was really a personal experiment to get to know the women who came before me, women who have put families on their backs in order for me to be here, and a lot of the women that I feel have really strong voices whose perspectives. I don’t see these heroes uplifted by current society often. I began looking deeply inward and assessing why I am the way I am. Given the impossibility of the circumstances of those who have come before me, it was really hard for me to assign blame. Everyone’s a victim of these circumstances, to varying degrees. It really started my investigative journey as to what I need to value as a person, and what I want to see on stage. And then it just kind of sprawled out of me.
MM: I can't believe this is your first play, how dare you? I love “What do you need to value?” Do you mean in writing? In life? Both?
KD: Oh, I think both. Writing really does change me. In particular, uplifting the voices of the women who came before me made me more acutely aware of how the perception of others affected them, and has affected me; with that came pain and a different understanding of why they are the way they are. For so long, I found it very hard to value myself and a lot of my natural impulses. I didn’t have the vocabulary or tools to separate myself from the perception of what many people might want from me, or think of me. So as writing continues to clarify who I am to me, I’m lucky to find and hold my truths, and I try to do the same for every character I write. I have to try to understand all perspectives and sides or, at the very least, investigate why I might struggle to understand someone or something. I found so much of myself, what I value, and what I want for myself in this play. The process of writing it, even to this day, points me in the right direction, or makes me discover new things about women in my past, and the women who will come after me.
MM: Will you say what some of those values are? Or do you think that it’s just about knowing that you should be mindfully looking or questioning that about your life as you go?
KD: I think mindfully questioning it. I had to name the things that were going on that were making these people act this way. In my family, there’s this kind of Buddhist attitude that your feelings are your own; you can’t blame anyone for how you act or how you feel. And I went into this play thinking, okay, so what if every person in this play doesn’t believe in accountability. And I’m like, it’s a fucking disaster. It’s a disaster. I had to learn how to name what is happening, how to be accountable for what is happening, the dynamics that are gendered, racial, and circumstantial. That process has changed me and what I try to value. I felt an agency that I had never felt. I could assign responsibility—but also assign empathy in trying to responsibly handle everyone’s truths, if that makes sense.
MM: I feel like the plays are always smarter than us. I love what you said about figuring out what your values are through the act of writing, or through the act of having written. Do you enjoy writing? The act of it?
KD: I used to. Writing this play, I had the privacy of knowing, or thinking, no one’s ever going to see this. It was really fun. Just, here’s all the crazy things in my head. There’s more of a feeling of expectation or exposure now, and I hate that. So the answer now is no, unfortunately. What about you?
MM: I hate it so much. I hate the act of it. I hate sitting for a long time. I hate being alone. I hate living with my demons and darkness and fashioning it into active fiction with a legible arc and purpose. But I love the rehearsal room more than any place in the world. Because that’s where I really figure out what it is I am in conversation with. To be able to lead the conversation every day about something that you’re obsessed about, and questioning, with lovely, generous people—it’s the best. But the actual act of writing is total agony. I only do it so I can get a ticket into the rehearsal room.
KD: Wow, that is a really painful ticket.
MM: It is a really painful ticket!
I was thinking about time a lot as I read your play. You seem to organize time associatively. It’s always forward-moving but not necessarily chronological. Different times also intersect; a daughter can encounter her mother before her wedding and help her with her wedding vows. I have this theory that a lot of us first-gen / immigrant kids are fascinated, even obsessed with time. Someone in your play says, “I’ll always write about my mom,” and when I read that I thought, “Yup, hard same.” Mine is always there. I’m fascinated by the act of leaving everything you’ve known. Particularly in a less technologically rich time. When my mom came to America, there wasn’t Skype, there wasn’t FaceTime, there wasn’t Zoom. We were sending cassette tapes of our voice through the mail. I see a lot of life through the lens of befores and afters, maybe because of seeing my mom before America and after America. So I tend to take different times in plays and just kind of push them together, because I’m curious about the journey from one version of a person to another, and what happened in between. Long says, about starting over, “Wouldn’t it just be the same?” There are so many brilliant observations in this play about time, and what someone’s life might have been, or might become, based on the outcome of one decision we’re watching them make in real time.
KD: I really connect with what you said about befores and afters. I have to imagine so much of the women before me, their lives, because I have so little of them—really few pictures, really few stories. I don't really have anything other than what I know in my bones. So I think this play was almost a conversation with time. How did Mai live life through all of these really unthinkable circumstances? What were her dreams before her dream was her daughter’s happiness? What are these lives and unrealized possibilities to her daughter, and why is it that the world doesn’t value the one Mai is living now? I saw so many women in my life just kind of be like, “Oh, yes, and if I didn't have to marry my husband, my life would be much better! I would have been, you know, a movie star.” There’s something interesting in the different sacrifices that are made for all these imagined possibilities and how society assigns different values to them.
MM: Kind of like Everything Everywhere All At Once.
KD: The greatest. Yes. “Look what my time could have been.” So I think time, in this play, is really comparative for me, an opportunity to imagine what could have been. If I was there before I was actually there, how could we have changed each other? But I only let it go so far; I think Mai would only let it go so far, because of how circumstances shaped her life and how her instincts are influenced by capitalism, the male gaze, internalized misogyny, and assimilation. And so I guess what I’m also feeling in this tanglement to explain the meaning of time is pain. Because I always think about how valuable time is. It seems like such a luxury when I think back to the women I know who did not have the privilege of watching the clock. My gratitude to these women and their sacrifice is painful. What do I do with that? What do I do with the time and choice they gave me?
MM: I feel the pressure of choice in every scene: Choose well! Because the rest of your life depends on those choices. Especially as they relate to men, for the two women. I feel that deeply. There’s something that you said about investigating your bones and figuring this out through yourself, the histories of—what is it you say?—all the women with their families on their backs? That’s so fucking beautiful. The mystery of our own families is maybe another similar first-gen immigrant experience. My mother never tells me shit about her life. I have to ask her a very specific question, that she will then maybe answer. She will not offer it. Is that similar for your family—that they don’t talk much about their lives, and you’re questing for that history?
KD: Yes. I have to ask really specific questions. Or else I get the same broad-strokes story like a million times. There’s always a stopper, I feel, in terms of what my mom will willingly tell me. Like, “I can tell her about me being locked out of the house and eating a cookie, but I can’t tell her what it was like to have to learn English in the third grade by myself with my teacher holding a dictionary for me.” The feelings are usually completely taken out of it. I think it’s funny how much I actually think I don't know, and then sometimes I realize I’ve heard a story a million times and then I go in and look at all the details and think, oh—one time she told me this, the other time, that, and then I put it all together and I’m like, “Oh, so you were sixteen when that happened? You must have felt so angry!”
MM: You’re doing detective work.
MM: I think that sometimes our parents just don’t do it. It doesn’t serve them, necessarily, to go back and excavate these things that are painful. But yes, I am deeply curious about these choices that our parents have made that impact who we are on the most profound levels. What country we’re living in, what we sound like, is based on a decision that a person that we grew up with—I’m not sure if you were born here, or if you were brought here, but either way—there’s a severing of family and a severing of a kind of culture, a connection to something. Coming to America means that you will always be questioning about belonging, and about other possible versions of yourself.
KD: I think about this all the time. What would have happened if my parents weren’t displaced? My dad grew up in Đà Lạt where it is believed that there are lots of ghosts amongst the trees. Would I have existed among these trees and ghosts and had a really happy, not diasporic life? There is an understood sacrifice for those immigrating, a sacrifice of yourself, of your culture, in order to achieve this “American” dream. And it means you have to value, or pretend that you value, all American things above yourself. If you’re lucky enough to know to pretend, I wonder if eventually you realize you’re not pretending anymore. For example, my dad is a very proud Vietnamese man. He refused to put American names on our birth certificates. But then, eventually, somehow, it wasn’t important to teach us Vietnamese. We have to seek that out on our own, if we want it. It just tears me apart, because I think they had to be told multiple times that your language, your culture, your community means very little, if not nothing, here. You can’t have both. And if you do, it’s really hard to maintain.
MM: I feel jealous of other immigrant communities that have a larger presence in America, where learning and maintaining the language is deeply important, maybe even a given. Versus coming from a smaller country where only the people within the borders of that country speak that language. And maybe a choice gets made that teaching or maintaining the language wouldn’t serve our child in America. But it can then be lonely to try to become a part of these smaller communities of displaced immigrants. I feel that loneliness.
KD: It feels really lonely. And then I see people who are fluent in two cultures, and they have this really worldly perspective from such a young age, and I’m like, ugh, when I was in middle school, I just wanted to be like Snooki from The Jersey Shore. Not actually, but that was the aspiration of some of those around me in my very impressionable days.
MM: (Laughing.) We gotta talk about Jersey. What does New Jersey mean to you? Where are you from? Tell me all the things!
KD: It’s such a strange relationship. Where I grew up it was predominantly white, mostly a-few-generations-assimilated Irish and Italian, mostly upper-middle-class families, and I grew up full of shame. I didn’t have the awareness to try to salvage where I come from. I threw myself into the idea that America is it, English is it, and Vietnamese isn’t it. Vietnamese is loud, so loud, you know, it's a tonal language. It’s embarrassing because all of these people actually were Snooki and like, Mike The Situation, or aspiring to be… yeah, I'm just embarrassed. I’m from Colts Neck, New Jersey. If anybody from Colts Neck is reading this, please don’t come for me for this…
MM: I got you, I got you, come find me, I got you.
KD: I know that you write a lot about North Jersey, right? That’s where you’re from, right?
MM: Yeah—the end of the PATH train. Where’s Colts Neck?
KD: By the beaches, like Belmar, Asbury Park. Not too far from there.
MM: You’re from where Springsteen was born.
KD: Yes, that’s always what I tell people. But Bruce Springsteen really meant nothing to me as a kid because, you know, my parents were obsessed with ABBA.
MM: I know what you mean. It was when I realized that that might offer some kind of sense of belonging, that I was like, Oh, yeah, Springsteen, I guess this is like, a part of me. Which, may we all be so lucky to be a part of Bruce. Now I know where the ABBA in the play comes from.
KD: Yes, exactly. And Jersey made me who I am because there is this loudness to where I was from. Everyone has really strong opinions, and you gotta adapt or else you’re just gonna kind of swallow yourself.
MM: You feel like it gave you strong opinions, being from Jersey?
KD:Well, I think I swallowed myself growing up. But, I think it gave me inspiration to have strong, loud opinions someday. I don’t think I had strong opinions until after college. But where I came from made me realize how loud shitty people can be, so maybe not-shitty people should be loud, too.
MM: (Clapping and laughing.)
KD: That’s my version of Jersey. How do you feel about Jersey now that you’re a New Yorker? Do you consider yourself a New Yorker?
MM: I guess I consider myself an East Coaster, because I grew up in what I consider to be like a borough of New York City. When you’re that close, you know. I would come here all the time in high school and make all kinds of mistakes and choices.
KD: As you should.
MM: I love it because I find the poetry of the Jersey mouth beautiful. It feels like home. I think I find home in the sound of an Eastern European mouth and the sound of a Jersey mouth. I grew among a lot of factories, in working class neighborhoods, and now when I look at an abandoned factory, at that brick, I just think it’s so beautiful because it has the sheen of childhood on it. Even though my childhood was not always the rosiest. But I see beauty in it. It’ll always have a place in my heart. It made this flawed, lovely version of myself, and I’m grateful for it.
KD: “The poetry of the Jersey mouth” is really actually a thing. That was beautifully said. Weirdly, I’m realizing now, it’s kind of like Vietnamese. Jersey is a really loud language itself!
MM: Yes, with a directness and an aggressiveness that I deeply value.
Some of my favorite parts of the play are moments of mother-daughter survival advice. Especially as it relates to men. It’s like a protection against being consumed by men. Like the bulk of the women know that they can be consumed by the needs, desires, and recklessness of men. This line: “Movies are lies, men are lies.” Genius. And this next one, I circled many times. I feel like my mother has actually said to me: “Never spend money, never not study, never trust men, you will live a good life.”
KD: That’s the thesis of the play.
MM: And of our lives! And I love—all advice is autobiographical. To me, one of the best ways to get to know a character is through the advice that they give, because it’s always coming from what they wish they did, or what they’re deeply proud of. Particularly when it’s about heartache between mother and daughter. Did you receive similar advice from your mother? How did you feel like it protected you or harmed you?
KD: Of course. With the Vietnamese women I know, everything is either a criticism or a warning. And the warnings are very often about men. Because men, to me, are such consumers in Vietnamese culture. And it’s so tolerated at this point; I have seen so many women change their expectations and shift what they value so that they can survive. I was really damaged by this because I didn’t want to need any of these warnings. I was trying so hard to be the exception. Being the exception to a man, the one who gets him to change his ways, is somehow painted as very sexy in most societies? You’re going to think I’m so special, and I’ll be so good to you that you’ll never think I’m disposable. This is something women are taught to want that is incredibly damaging in practice. It went very poorly for me for a very long time, until I really looked at myself and asked myself, Wait, why am I not the exception? Why do I want to be the exception? Why do I feel this way about myself when I deal with hurtful men?
MM: Are men good or bad? Yes.
KD: Yes! Exactly. It can be both. I realized, Okay, so the men that like the patriarchy because it works for them are not going to see me as an equal, or even as a person. And actually they are also hurting tremendously because the patriarchy hurts everyone. Got it. Now what? All to say, yes, it was really damaging. What about you?
MM: My mom’s advice was in her actions. Or, now my mom’s advice is, How can you get away with as much as possible with the least amount of damage? She’ll be like, do this shady thing. I’m like, But that’s shady, and she’s like, Only if you’re caught.
KD: Iconic, honestly.
MM: She’s a survivor. I guess that logic brought her here. So, you know: good and bad. Maybe all of us as daughters are trying not to replay—well, I hesitate to say mistakes, because who knows? Do we really have a bird’s eye view of our lives to say what is a mistake? I feel like we make the best decisions that we can in the moment. She didn’t really give much advice. I just didn’t want to replay the abusive relationships she was in. The lesson I learned was that men may destroy you. If you let them. Be on guard. Which makes you a tough person in the world, but then makes it hard to open up and be vulnerable. Which is the joy of a loving relationship, offering these parts of yourself that are deep and complicated and you fear are unlovable. You offer that to somebody to try to vanquish the loneliness within yourself and have a true connection with another human. I got the sense that Mai was very lonely.
KD: Yes. I think the only person she really allowed herself to be seen by is her daughter. There’s a quote I feel encapsulates love you long time (already) from Lin Ma’s short story Peking Duck. “When I first learned I was having a daughter, the family was so disappointed… But me, I was secretly happy. A boy, at best, can adore his mother, but a girl can understand her. When the doctor told me it was a girl, I thought, now I will be understood.” And there’s a saying in my Vietnamese family to the effect of, you’ll know that your daughter’s kids are actually your grandchildren, but your son’s children, you don’t know, because your own daughter didn’t carry the baby. That could be someone else’s baby. It’s the daughters that are trusted by the family, especially, when it comes to acts of care. The mothers in my family usually trust their daughters the most. This labor, this burden, this love, this connection, this deep understanding, is magic and poison at the same time.
KD: I think about how many roles Tâm has to play in order to be loved by her mom, or seen as useful or good. I feel that in my own life. I can only be talking right now to my favorite playwright because of all the sacrifice and love that has happened, between all of these women, and I feel the heavy duty of wanting to make them proud—I want to be a good daughter.
MM: I think you wrote my mom. You mentioned Mai being a pariah in church. If you’re a pariah in church, you’re pushed out of the community. My mom experienced a similar thing. There are so many migrations that Mai goes through in that way, including a migration of her mind, losing memories. She’s made to travel further away from herself and restart so many times. I just love her. I deeply love her. I see my mom so much in who you wrote. The loneliness of the love of your life having abandoned you, disappointed you, but you still hold this place in your memory and your heart for that type of romantic love. Maybe even above the person who has been there for you consistently—your own daughter. You evoke all of that with so much clarity and compassion and humor.
KD: Thank you. That dynamic was something I really tried to capture and is at the heart of this play.
MM: I’m curious, what feels most vital for you to say about these characters? How do you feel this play might be righting some wrongs of how characters like these have been portrayed, or how people like these characters are treated or seen in life? Do you consider your writing to be a political act? Or do you write personally, and then it just can’t help but be political? I hate to say political, actually, because the gatekeepers have uplifted certain predominant stories, and then we have to be “political” to put our families on stage…
KD: Oh, all of that. I think the biggest thing I was trying to do with this play—and I think I only discovered it recently—was trying to redefine love for the women who came before me. By the end of the play, Tâm discovers what love isn’t. And the biggest act of love she ever receives comes in the form of all the sacrifice, humor, and challenges her mom shares with her. I think about what it means to love someone in the hope that the other person is going to change, be better. I think if Mai could look at her life again, even if she couldn’t change anything, at least should could point to Tâm and say, look, she changed me, she’s making meaning of my life just by trying to write it down, or have dreams about me, or you know, take care of me toward the end of my life as my memories go, and save things for me. Maybe somewhere in the ancestral realm, all of the women who have mothered the mothers of my mother can be like, Oh, thanks. Or maybe they’d hate it. Writing as a political act? I think it has to be. You have to dissect these systems that were just handed to us that none of us want. Or some of us want, I guess. And make the people dance, I guess.
MM: Dissect the systems and then dance.
KD: Just the easy stuff.
MM: Also, you may not know what system has been circumscribing your life and making you feel less potently human, because oftentimes, they’re craftily invisible. This is the work of the fucking daughters, to scream, “This is what happened!”
KD: Here we are.
MM: Here we are.
Can you say a little about your next play, who hurt you? What are your hopes for that next child?
KD: The child’s a toddler now I can't.
MM: So screaming in your face and breaking things?
KD: Yeah, it’s like, “I’ve been alive for a few years, explain me!”
It’s quite a polarizing piece at the moment, because I make this really big structural change in the second act, and people who have read it really challenge me on it, or really love it. The play is really talking about Asian femmes, Asian actors, what roles we’re going out for, and what roles we’re putting on in our real lives. And what happens when someone sacrifices herself to what American success wants an Asian woman to be? How does that relate to the proximity of Whiteness? What happens to her, and who’s responsible for that? But then, I am also attempting to try to heal everybody by the end of the play. Because I discovered, in writing both of these plays, that if I can’t hand people glue, if I can’t give them a salve, I don’t think I did my job. I don’t want to just put trauma onstage for the sake of representation. I don’t want to put all these people through pain and send them home. I know I’m not going to heal everyone, I’m going to make people angry, too. Hey, anger can be healing! But I hope the people who need it can feel some peace, by the end.
MM: I love that you’re thinking about the utility of your writing. I felt that in this play. And I can’t wait to see the next one. You are an incredibly generous writer, a generous maker of experiences for an audience. You don’t compromise the reality of your characters’ lives, but you tell their stories with compassion and humor, and moments of great theatrical beauty.
Sometimes when I get frustrated about writing plays, I tell myself, actually, I’m just throwing a party in my living room. That’s really what a play could be. Come to my house and I’m gonna try and host a party that I hope you enjoy, and find useful and meaningful in your life. I was so grateful for the very specific, beautiful, intimate party that you threw for me, as a reader.
KD: Thank you so much.
MM: And I can’t wait to come to your next one.
KD: Oh my god, please come. It’s probably gonna be sad.
MM: I love a sad party! They’re so useful to me, too. Vanquish my loneliness! I’m so grateful for it and I’m here for it.
Katie Đỗ (she/her/hers) is a Vietnamese-American woman with a mouth from New Jersey. She writes to give voice to tell stories that often center the Vietnamese-American diaspora and her Vietnamese lineage. Currently, she is a member of the Public's Emerging Writers Group and is a proud alum of the Sống Collective's Việt Writers Lab. In 2021, she was the staff writer for Partner Track on Netflix and wrote episode 107: Talking Points. Her play love you long time (already) was a part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival (directed by Mei Ann Teo) as well as the Atlantic Theater Company's MixFest (directed by Cara Hinh), both in 2022. who hurt you?, her new play, had a developmental reading back in May 2022 at 59E59, produced by the Sống Collective (directed by Teresa Cruz).
Martyna Majok (she/her) was born in Bytom, Poland and raised in Jersey and Chicago. She was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, Cost of Living, which debuted this fall on Broadway and is currently nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. Other plays include Sanctuary City, Queens, and Ironbound, which have been produced across American and international stages.
Other awards include The Obie Award for Playwriting, The Hull-Warriner Award, The Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin Hadley Danks Award for Exceptional Playwriting, Off Broadway Alliance Best New Play Award, The Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding New Play, The Hermitage Greenfield Prize, as the first female recipient in drama, The Champions of Change Award from the NYC Mayor’s Office, The Francesca Primus Prize, two Jane Chambers Playwriting Awards, The Lanford Wilson Prize, The Lilly Award's Stacey Mindich Prize, Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award, Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Original New Play from The Helen Hayes Awards, Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award, ANPF Women's Invitational Prize, David Calicchio Prize, Global Age Project Prize, NYTW 2050 Fellowship, NNPN Smith Prize for Political Playwriting, and Merage Foundation Fellowship for The American Dream. Martyna studied at Yale School of Drama, Juilliard, University of Chicago, and Jersey public schools. She was a 2012-2013 NNPN playwright-in-residence, the 2015-2016 PoNY Fellow at the Lark Play Development Center, and a 2018-2019 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. Martyna is currently writing a musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby, with music by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett, and developing TV and film for Plan B, Pastel, and MRC.
Majok is pronounced My Oak, like the tree. Or like Cinco de Mayo-k.