Vietnamese American playwright and performer Susan Lieu discusses the stages of traumatic healing and how to set free personal and family stories for empowerment.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

From 2019 to 2020, Vietnamese-American playwright, producer and performer Susan Lieu performed her theatrical solo show, "140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother," over 50 times. "140 LBS" is the true story of how Lieu’s mother died after getting plastic surgery due to medical malpractice when Lieu was only 11 years old. Through a skillful interplay of comedy and drama, Lieu unravels her family's story and dives into the "lived realities of body insecurity, grieving and trauma."

Lieu screened "140 LBS" for virtual audiences at UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC San Diego this spring. On May 12, 2021, she hosted a radical storytelling workshop supported by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Asian American Studies Center, Department of Asian American Studies, Institute of American Cultures, Vietnamese Student Union, Asian Pacific Coalition and Undergraduate Student Association Council. Lieu walked participants through the stages of traumatic healing as a way to more deeply explore themes of identity, lineage, community and growth. 

To empower participants to find new agency in lived or inherited pasts, the workshop explored how to better process personal stories and family histories and transform them into sources of power, agency and narrative-building.

Exploring form

Lieu first started performing stand-up comedy 10 years ago, naturally gravitating toward performance. She ran high school rallies and proudly served as the mascot, but because she didn't participate in theater in middle or high school, she felt behind somehow.

However, as part of an improv team in Seattle, she took a solo performance class that slowly seeded the possibility of embracing performance in a more substantial way. "I was planning on doing weird performance art, like in the style of Andy Kaufman," she shared. "But I started finding mentors and they wanted to talk more about the story about my mom when I mentioned it. They started drawing it out of me. And I did have some unresolved issues since only my husband really knew that story about me, trying to figure it all out on my own because my family wouldn't talk about it anymore."

She started with a small performance of "140LBS", originally titled "Doctor X: How I Avenged My Mother's Death," in a community theater and saw that the story really resonated with the audience. As she continued to workshop the show, she drew from audience feedback, noting when people were confused or what areas she could elaborate further on in later performances.

"I do believe Vietnamese people are really playful and lighthearted!" she added. "How do I incorporate that part of my identity and my Vietnamese American experience and make it something that I'm more proud of? The nature of theater allowed me to iterate quickly."

The body as a lens

In "140 LBS," Lieu gives a brutally honest account of how her mother went in for plastic surgery and died from the hands of a doctor who was on probation and facing multiple violations and lawsuits. The show follows Lieu as she navigates both her personal reaction and her family's multi-generational response to this incident, highlighting the many through-lines woven into this story: "body insecurity and shame, repression and subsequent examination of personal loss and the lack of accountability in the medical system."

"The body itself has so much judgment inherently," Lieu noted. "The reason I called the show '140 LBS' is because there is a likeness of my mother's body to my body. In the entire show, I'm searching for my mother. I come to realize that the very thing that carries so much shame for both of us -- our bodies -- I understand that my body is my mother's last gift to me."

"I always want to lose another 10 pounds. I feel like that my entire life. So what's that about?" Lieu asked in response to a question during the workshop about her own relationship to her body and plastic surgery. "I think it's very human to wish for certain things, but I need to be very conscientious and recognize that those thoughts are based on conditioning. It's either I'm good or I'm not good. I'm enough or I'm not enough. I'm pretty or I'm not pretty. When you look closer, there's this dangerous absolute thinking tying what our bodies look like to our self-worth which needs to be unpacked."

"We were objects for so long. We were bought and sold. We were a cost center to our family. And so by having a a nicer body or a nicer face or a nicer whatever, we would be less of a burden. That's just the history of being a woman," she said.

Now as a mother to a young son, Lieu has been very intentional about the messages and language he receives about his body. She recognizes that he is the next generation and wants to consciously remove any shame and the binary of good versus bad in conversations about his body and food.

She asked audiences to challenge themselves when they have these desires to change their body in some way. What is the root of that desire? Is it being driven by fear? Who profits from those thoughts? Who are you doing it for?

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Published: Tuesday, May 25, 2021