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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Maya Lin
BILL MOYERS: My favorite line from your book comes very close to the end where you write, "I do not think you can find a reason for everything you make." Talk to me about that.
MAYA LIN: Everything you make is being made by every single experience you've ever had in your whole life, and on top of that, things you were born with. I think your personality comes out.
There's no way of really saying: "If A, then B, or A plus B equals C in creativity." The true strength of the creative arts is that you allow yourself to think about something. Then how it finds its way in your mind to the surface through your hands to-- whether it's paint or sculpture-- is intuited. I think there's reason to it. But could you extrapolate? Could you actually formulate a mathematical theorem? Absolutely not.
BILL MOYERS: You couldn't put a pin on a map of (UNINTEL)?
MAYA LIN: No. You could never do that, nor would you want to do that. I split my time between art and architecture. And in art, that's truly the case. I think in architecture, a lot of it is fairly reasoned.
There is a lot of problem-solving going about. But still, the underlying threat, again, will be something that I would hope you can't quite put your finger on why you exactly did what you did.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever experience an idea physically before you see it? Do you feel it in your body before your eye beholds it?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely. I would say you'd get a sense. I would feel it in my fingertips sometimes. I just have a sense for what I would like to be in or see or sense. Sometimes you're basically imagining an emotion.
I wanna feel like this. Another adage in art is: you're a child and then you become an adult. You're always trying to regain that pure, almost empathetic response that you have when you're a child. It doesn't come with a lot of baggage. You're not worried about, "Oh, what are you thinking here, here, here?" You just respond in certain ways.
I think sometimes: Can you think like a child? We're always trying to regain that. I almost make things imagining a child will experience them.
There are different levels of experiencing pieces. One thing that is very valuable to me is the unlearned response.
BILL MOYERS: The unlearned response?
MAYA LIN: As you get older and you have more experiences, you're gonna see something differently. But I still am as fascinated by that eight-year-old. How are they gonna react to this?
BILL MOYERS: I read somewhere that an idea comes to you like an egg?
MAYA LIN: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: Then the question is, where does it get hatched?
MAYA LIN: I've never thought about that. (LAUGHS) It's sort of the idea of being. I can work on a project for three years.
But you'll never see me working on it. I'll be designing other things. Generally, the first concept, the initial idea, I can just wake up one morning after having not worked on it for a year, get up, do a sketch, make a model, and I know that's what it is.
Now, your great fear in art is that it's never guaranteed you're going to get that next idea. And there's always the fear that the idea you just made that you really, really love, you'll never be able to do it again.
(LAUGHS) And so for all your past and all your background, sometimes you go through periods where you don't have an idea. And you just have to believe you're gonna break through that.
BILL MOYERS: Writing is important to you, isn't it?
MAYA LIN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I actually read every word of the proposal for the [Vietnam Veterans] Memorial. It was beautifully written, not only in terms of its ideas, but in handwriting. Your handwriting is quite unusual.
MAYA LIN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about how writing fits into the hatching of the idea.
MAYA LIN: I try to understand the "why" of a project before it's a "what." And this might be more pertinent to some of my memorial projects. Memorials are a hybrid between art and architecture because they have a function.
But their function isn't like a physical function, like a house is to shelter you. It's a very conceptual, symbolic function. Whether it's the Civil Rights Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or even the Women's Table. There is a definite need for something. So, then you have to say, "What is it? What should that be? What do I wanna do here? What would I like to accomplish? What are the goals?" I tend to almost sketch an idea sometimes with text.
I'll write. I'll sit down and I'll just write what I think I wanna say here, what needs to be said, how to do it. I try not to second-guess it by finding a form and then trying to apply meaning or function to the form.
If you have the pre-conceived idea of what you think it looks like before you really shape it verbally, then you're trying to stuff function into a pre-existing form. What I love doing in a lot of my works is to write about it because you can get a conceptual sketch of what you think you want without any form. And then usually, the form finds me.
BILL MOYERS: Does the form emerge in your head as you're writing?
MAYA LIN: Not necessarily.
BILL MOYERS: Or are you writing about a form you've already seen?
MAYA LIN: Sometimes I write about me. It's almost like what I would like to accomplish with it. It might take me a month or two before I start. Then I'll make a model of the actual site.
And then I'll absolutely physically respond to the site. In my subconscious has been this underlying current of what I wanted to do there.
BILL MOYERS: The narrative?
MAYA LIN: Yeah, the narrative.
MAYA LIN: I don't do a narrative and then try to make a form articulate that narrative. I think it can fall flat on its face as well. The two are working simultaneously and then they come together at some point.
BILL MOYERS: The writing is not a blueprint?
MAYA LIN: No. The writing isn't a blueprint. It's sort of like when an artist makes a sketch and only that artist can know what that feeling is. My text can be the same way. It can be very much about feelings and emotions.
BILL MOYERS: Let me take just a few of your works and you describe as simply as you can the idea and the emotion that led to that. One of my favorites of course, as it is with many, is the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Now, just tell me about that.
MAYA LIN: I got a phone call from the Southern Poverty Law Center. They had to track me down. I was out of graduate school. I was doing an internship. I was unlisted, as always, in New York City. I was home sick with the flu. Eddie Ashworth gets on the phone and says, "You know, would you be interested in designing a civil rights memorial?"
And I thought well, isn't there one already? And he said, "No, there isn't. There's one for Martin Luther King. But actually, no one has really tackled the civil rights memorial as a piece. Would you be interested?"
I had two feelings at the time. One, I really did not wanna be typecast as a memorial designer. Two, I could not believe that there hadn't been a national civil rights memorial. I asked them to send me materials. And I got everything from "Eyes on the Prize," -- that was a documentary as well as a book, to many, many books on--
BILL MOYERS: It was a multi-part series Henry Hampton did--
MAYA LIN: Right.
I was stunned at what I began to read. I had no idea that, in 1963, which was when I was a child, that a boy was murdered for talking to a white woman.
BILL MOYERS: Emmett Till?
MAYA LIN: Emmett Till. Actually, that was earlier. I think in '63, Samuel Younge Jr. was killed for using a "whites-only" bathroom.
BILL MOYERS: Oh yes, that's right.
You weren't aware of the Civil Rights--
MAYA LIN: As a child, you're not very news-conscious. The Vietnam War was much more in the main news. I think the rioting was. But I think a lot of the facts hadn't been written into the textbooks because it was current news. From a child's point of view, you're not focusing on the daily news the same way. Anyway, I was stunned at how there was this part of American history. I know now it's absolutely covered in textbooks.
But could I offer something out as an information table that would give people a brief glimpse of that era the way I had been, after having looked at this material, been given a glimpse? And of course, the idea is, you look at this. You'll want to study it more. Because the one thing about sculptures, the one thing about memorials is: I can draw you in. I can make you think for 15 minutes, whatever, then it's really about where you go after that.
Are you gonna be so shocked? I think the Southern Poverty Law Center thought, "We'll get a table of martyrs," 'cause it's in the Vietnam memorial, names will do. I was very focused on how it was teaching people about the history 'cause I think in the end, a lot of my works deal with history and teaching. It's not so much about death. It's really about sharing a history so that we don't forget it, so we can improve upon it.
BILL MOYERS: Where did the water come from, the idea of the water?
MAYA LIN: The water was literally on my first plane ride down to see the site. So now, if you think back to the narrative, I have been reading about the Civil Rights history for the last couple months. Then I go visit the site.
Ironically, on the way down, I'm on the airplane. And I do a lot of sketching or thinking about things in midair. I came across Martin Luther King's quote from the Book of Amos in his "I Have a Dream" speech. "We are not satisfied. We shall not be satisfied until justice--rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Again, intuition. I knew right then and there before the plane even landed, the piece was going to be about water.
What bothered me about going down thinking about the past in this one is that it's not done. It's not a closed timeline. It's ongoing. What the Southern Poverty Law Center is struggling with is the ongoing, is the future. So I needed something to connect the past, which would be the history, which became the water table, with the talk about the future which is the quote. And that's the two [elements] and then the water pulls them together symbolically.
BILL MOYERS: What about the Women's Table at Yale?
MAYA LIN: The Women's Table at Yale was even a trickier one because it's not a memorial. The then-President Benno Schmidt called up and said, "Could you do a sculpture at Yale commemorating women at Yale?" What does that mean?
I had no idea. That one, I sat on for over a year, reading about co-education at Yale, women at Yale, the history of gender at Yale. And all I remember having gone there for seven years is that every little stained-glass image, every sculpture, every statue was a man.
Because until 1968, Yale had been a male world.
As I start reading, I'm thinking it's not about when Yale officially went co-ed. Because women had been at Yale since the 1700s technically, but we were never known.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean technically?
MAYA LIN: There was a daughter of one of the professors who was sitting in on a class even very, very early on. I came across a phrase that actually sent chills down my spine. Women were allowed to sit in on classes in the 1800s, and they were called "silent listeners."
BILL MOYERS: Silent listeners?
MAYA LIN: And I thought that was the most atrocious (LAUGHS) attitude about women. And then you find out that when Yale officially went co-ed undergraduate, it went co-ed with a very tough quota system. Because the idea is, we still have to graduate X number of Yale men. Then, we'll let a few other women in.
But again, it was a quota system. And the quota system is fairly-- it was highly contested. And then they stopped that. It was about numbers. Did we count? How many were there of us? And little by little, I one day woke up and I wrote a little spiral of numbers.
The Vietnam has a closed time frame. It begins and ends at the apex.
For the Civil Rights Memorial, there's a gap between 1954, you walk around clockwise-- and you end in '68. But there's a gap, signifying that we've caught the Civil Rights era, but the quote really deals with the future. It's open-ended. Commemorating women at Yale, we have a beginning, but certainly, it's ongoing. So I thought of a spiral.
I was looking at one of Edward Tufte's book, ENVISIONING INFORMATION. He had a beautiful spiral of numbers. He's a professor at Yale.
I called him up, and both Professor Tufte and his wife Inge Druckrey, who's in the graphics department, were unbelievably helpful in helping me come up with the spiral number, how to lay it out, everything. They were great. And I chose an old-fashioned text because it's what the Yale college blue book, the course book, was printed on. So, any Yalie coming back will recognize that text. And it's a spiral starting with a group of zeros signifying there were no women at Yale for a very, very long time. And then the first women that officially were enrolled were enrolled in the graduate school of art, because Mr. Street, who donated the money to build the first art building, Street Hall, had two daughters. And his condition in a way, in building Street Hall was that his daughters would go there. And I think the first class is 13 painters in the school of art.
But the pieces are about history. And again, you can say it goes down to, "Can we make a history apolitical?" In all cases, I have just dealt with facts. But again, it's what facts you choose to portray that focus you. But it's always about giving to people information and letting them read into it what they will.
BILL MOYERS: And what about this? "Avalanche". This is so stunning.
This is one of my favorite sections in the book.
MAYA LIN: This is one of my favorite sculptures. I think I exist in three worlds. The monuments, really, which I think are the hybrids of art and architecture. Architecture is what I studied and trained in, and then what I basically was brought up with, which is art. My dad was Dean of Fine Arts. I grew up in an arts campus.
And of course, you never know, really, who you are. It's sort of self-discovery. All my art works deal with nature and the landscape. And with that piece, "Topographic Landscape", some people think it looks like water waves. Other people think it's like a sand dune.
Most of my pure sculptures are large-scale earth works, or they're studio sculptures that have been shown or exhibited. They're integrally related to seeing the land.
BILL MOYERS: I thought of this as the desert with the pyramid in the background. And I thought, "Well, that's too simple. That's too easy. (LAUGHTER) It must be something more than that."
MAYA LIN: It was never conscious. It's always about creating. Again, in art, I come out of more what you would call environmental installations.
So, even though that was a show called "Topologies", of which everything is based on landscape. Those pieces traveled to five different exhibits in different setups. And, say, in that photograph, the avalanche is in the background, the topographic landscape is in the foreground.
The avalanche is a glass sculpture, 14 tons of glass. At NYU, it was up against the window wall, so you could look into the back of it, but they're two separate pieces.
But the way in which they related to create what you would call environmental installation, so that the piece, as you walked through it, every single piece in the show was about landscape.
BILL MOYERS: So, did you know (UNINTEL) side they came from-- matching that and this--
MAYA LIN: No. I just made them. I'm planning my next show. And again, there'll be three large-scale earth works or landscape works. One, you walk under. One, you walk on. And the third one, you're gonna walk through. And they're in three different spaces. But it's again, how you experience the land.
BILL MOYERS: Another one of my favorites is the earth works sculpture in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tell me about that.
MAYA LIN: That one started out as a site-specific work. And it's an earth work. And it's a series of what looked like topiary that are rolling down a hill. It's in front of the Charlotte sports coliseum.
It was probably my breakthrough work, as far as getting past funereal architecture. (LAUGHS) I was doing that piece as I was doing the Civil Rights Memorial. Two things were happening. I was regaining my connection to the land. The Vietnam Memorial is an earth work. It's a cut in the land, polished the sides. But then Civil Rights was a very urban landscape. I was also working on a sculpture for Penn Station, which again was very urban. So, "Topo" was my first open, large-scale earth work site. And how I brought it back to, again, almost a drawing in the ground that then I sculpted.
It starts with two balls that are on top and then pushing the earth around. So literally, if you would carve that in wood and dropped a marble down it, the marble would roll til it hits the hole in one, which is an amphitheater at the bottom of the hill. So, it's a game being played out.
Because again, I would say my works are very site-specific. But it's not just the physical site. It's the contextual site. So, for that one, it's a sports coliseum. I wanted to play with a game. So, we called it Topo. I worked with a landscape architect named [Henry Arnold].
BILL MOYERS: "Topo", meaning?
MAYA LIN: "Topo", just playful, like topo, like a little kids' game.
BILL MOYERS: Topography?
MAYA LIN: Topography, of course. (LAUGHTER) One of my favorite pieces is a piece called "Wave Field".
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I got that here.
MAYA LIN: Again, it's in front of an aerospace engineering building.
BILL MOYERS: Makes me wanna lie down there.
MAYA LIN: And kids do.
BILL MOYERS: Really?
MAYA LIN: --until the sprinklers come up.
BILL MOYERS: Which campus is that on?
MAYA LIN: It's on the University of Michigan north campus, and the building surrounding two sides of it is the teachers aerospace and engineering.
So, of course, being site-specific, it's not just: here I've got a 200-foot square piece of earth, go put something in it. I wanted to connect it to what was going on behind the building.
BILL MOYERS: And that is?
MAYA LIN: Aerospace engineering. So, I started talking to the scientists, talking to the professors, and they started giving me books on aerodynamics, fluid dynamics. And one of the books I came across was this repetitive water wave.
And I said, "That's the piece." Now, of course I presented it to the engineers. And they were going, "Well, that belongs over in naval engineering. It doesn't belong over here." (LAUGHTER) I always now say, when I go mine for information, because I never know what I'm gonna find, that probably nothing I get from you will be used in the art work. Just, can I ask a lot of questions? Otherwise, especially scientists, they tend to get very specific and think you're gonna do it very literally. And I think art is about the non-literal connection. It's that one thing doesn't correlate directly to the other, or it's too obvious. It's too easy, and in a way, if it can be understood and explained, it will not have its own life.
BILL MOYERS: But with all due respect, it isn't just intuition. I mean, you work hard at this. You went out there. You studied.
MAYA LIN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You asked. You recorded.
MAYA LIN: Always. I always research something for three months, a year, six months. I think I do it because it's an incubation period. And it's also because I come from a family of academics.
And I guess I miss school. So, this is my way of being a little bit of a student. I never become an expert. And you can tell. The minute I'm done with a project, I forget almost immediately, facts. And then I go onto the next one. It's funny.
But it's for that moment that for the two or three years I'm submersed in it. But again, say, for the Civil Rights Memorial, I didn't choose who's name goes on it. I am not a historian. I would never want to assume to be that. So, the Southern Poverty Law Center, as I was developing the art work for a year, they developed the team of historians and experts who would put together the history, choose the events, the people, and then I worked with them on how it was set.
I wanted text that was factual but wouldn't be sensationalized. You were dealing with a lot of deaths. And again, how do you factually put that forth without, again, sensationalizing it?
BILL MOYERS: How did you come to think about death so early? So much of your work deals with death, and you were so young when you were doing it.
MAYA LIN: I have no idea. I don't know. As far as the Vietnam piece was about, ironically, I had studied in Denmark. I had taken my junior term abroad. I ended up being given a section of Denmark, which included the largest cemetery. As an architect, you're out to analyze what's going on. And I start walking through the cemetery in Norrebro.
And unlike in America, cemeteries-- whether it's Pere LaChaise in Paris-- they're used more. They're habitated more. I think the one in Denmark is actually part park.
I think land is more scarce. People have been living there for many more hundreds of years. So, you use your free open space in different ways. The cemeteries became a part of the city fabric. They're a little more park-like in that sense. And then I started, just out of curiosity, checking up a few of those as I went through Europe in the summer. And I know it's very weird. The journalists had a heyday.
I wasn't fascinated with death. It was just from an architectural point of view. It was interesting. And I think funereal works are very psychologically and emotionally based. I was very interested in the psychological effects architecture has on people.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I'm beginning to understand the last line of your book, where you say, "Maybe I'm just asking you to pay closer attention to the land."
MAYA LIN: Yeah. Definitely.
BILL MOYERS: Whether the land is a cemetery or a sports coliseum--
MAYA LIN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: --or--
MAYA LIN: Or in the middle of nowhere, just a little brief inclusion that you can't tell if it's man-made or natural. I love that ambiguity.
BILL MOYERS: Where did this come from, this intrigue about the land?
MAYA LIN: Growing up in southeastern Ohio. It's very hilly, very rural, beautiful. I really don't know. I think my parents were very befuddled.
They are not what you would call [environmentalists]. The first pet I was really allowed to have was a parakeet. They're not really into nature. I'll say it right off. I ended up from day one-- When I was three or four years old, I loved animals.
I wanted to be an animal behaviorist. I wanted to be a vet. I wanted everything to do with non-human species. (LAUGHTER) And even to this day, I've been very interested in science. The other side of me was art.
BILL MOYERS: Did you spend a lot of time alone in your yard?
MAYA LIN: Yeah. (LAUGHS) I loved animals. So, I would feed all the raccoons. I would feed the birds. The birds had me well-trained. The red cardinals would come to the window and chirp knowing it was dinnertime, and I'd always be feeding them.
My dad always used to tease me, like, they've really got you well trained. And this is indicative. It's sort of-- okay, you're strange. I would sit still in the yard trying to tame this one rabbit. And I got so close to this rabbit at the end that I could've touched it. I don't know why. I just was very fascinated with nature and with animals. I just have always loved them.
BILL MOYERS: But animals don't show up in your work.
MAYA LIN: Well, they do and they don't. When I was growing up we were going through a very large campaign. Rachel Carson had put out SILENT SPRING. Lake Erie was catching on fire. DDT was decimating bird populations.
At a very, very early age I understood what it means to have a species go extinct. I was horrified that one species could do this to another species. I don't know where it comes from. My parents always tease me.
Early on I thought it was unbelievably unfair. I remember saying this to my mother once. "This is so unfair that one species could do this to other species. We have more of a responsibility."
I think what my work is about appreciating and being respectful of nature, which again ties in to an inherent love for the natural environment. I will go to sites that are just so beautiful beyond compare. I know that nothing I do can ever be better than what this planet, what this land, what the natural resources, what this place is--whether I'm making art that deals with this, taking a closer look at the land, paying attention to it, appreciating it, being respectful of it or whether it's when I'm volunteering for like work for different organizations like the NRDC. I'm on the board there. I've been incredibly concerned with this since I was a kid.
BILL MOYERS: What were your parents' expectations of you?
MAYA LIN: The only thing they ever said was, "We just want you to be happy." Which I think is a very unusual wish. It's a really beautiful wish. They didn't say anything else. They would not give us any direction, that's the thing. It was always, "As long as you're happy." It wasn't like, "In order for you to be happy, you should do this, this and this."
Education was key. You had to study. But again we were never forced to study. We sort of did it on our own. I think there was always an assumption that our education was what mattered. They would do anything to get us through college. I remember, my parents were both teaching at Ohio University. I could have gone there for free. My brother could have as well.
And they really wanted us to go out. They were so excited when I got into Yale. And even though, I could have gone to Ohio University for free since my parents were both professors, they felt that everything-- all the money they made — was so that we could get the best education. My brother went to Carlton and then Columbia. When you've got parents that are working that hard for you is there an underlying expectation? See that's where I think they were unusual. There wasn't even that feeling of, "You've got to do well." They just did not pressure us that way.
I think we wanted very much to do well, but it was never a forced issue.
BILL MOYERS: Doing well is not the same as making money?
MAYA LIN: Very much not about making money. Both my parents grew up in China with a fair amount of comfort. And they lost all of it coming out here, but it wasn't like they needed it. You know?
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about your family background.
MAYA LIN: I think my mother was born in Shanghai. My father, Fujian and Beijing. He grew up in both places. And they immigrated separately to the States. They both ostensibly came out because of the communist takeover. My mother came out on a scholarship to go to Smith. She got smuggled out on a junk boat in Shanghai harbor when the harbor was being bombed in 1949. Literally she got out and her brothers were supposed to follow when they reached the right age. No one expected the communist regime to last the way it did and to shut the doors the way it did.
My mother, at the age of 18 or 17 never saw her father again. She was so close to him. To this day, I'll remember when she got the letter that he had passed away. And she just was-- and-- you know you never think about it when you're that age.
But as I look back, imagine you get sent out with I think $50 sewn in to her coat with a suitcase, never to see your family ever again. Never to see your country until 40 years later.
I don't know how they both did it. My father had a career in China. He was an academic administrator. And he came out mid-career. Decided that he would never get a comparable position in America because he was Chinese, so in his late 30's, he decided to study ceramics. He goes to University of Washington and takes up pottery and did quite well.
Little by little, he got a job teaching at Ohio University in Athens. I just remember he went from being a ceramics professor to being Director of Fine Arts to being Dean of Fine Arts. And I just could never figure out how my dad, who's a potter, was so good at balancing budgets for schools. It didn't occur to me that his minor in college in China was economics. My mother and father never told us much about their past.
My mother said, "Well, you never asked. You never seemed interested." So they weren't gonna force it on us. But I also think that as a child, you don't know to ask because if you didn't know it existed, you just know what's in front of you.
MAYA LIN: I think [my parents] were definitely wanting us to assimilate. I think they were dealing with having left a past and it was probably painful for them to talk about. And then my brother and I being the only Chinese Americans in a small mid-western community, I mean all I wanted to do was fit in. I remember there was a classmate when I got to high school who was — I think his parents were from Eastern Europe, and he wasn't allowed to speak English at home. He had to speak the mother tongue at home. And I always felt sorry for him. To this day I might regret that I don't speak Chinese, but at the same time, I think there are two different ways. I think now in the generations you learn both.
I think it was probably very painful for my parents. Without really deciding upon it, they wanted us to fit in.
BILL MOYERS: Did they have you learn to speak Chinese?
MAYA LIN: No. Again, that was very unusual I think for a Chinese American family. My father was brought up fairly strictly, you know — calligraphy lessons in the morning for an hour and a half., music lessons —upper-crust upbringing.
I think he was a bit of a rebel. He wasn't allowed to go into art in China. Why did he like pottery so much? Because his father had an amazing collection of Chinese ceramics and porcelain so he had an appreciation for it. And then he was finally able to do what he wanted to do in America.
But the side of the Chinese American experience which is arts-based, scholar-based, education-based is a different side.
BILL MOYERS: To the science and the engineering?
MAYA LIN: Exactly. And I think with it came this unusual psyche that we're not gonna force Tan or Maya to do anything they don't wanna do.
BILL MOYERS: I understand that both of your maternal grandmothers were doctors in China.
MAYA LIN: All my mother's side of the family were doctors — men or women. My grandfather was an eye surgeon. Her grandmother was a doctor.
BILL MOYERS: But your grandmothers and your grandfathers were all privileged and were successful in China?
MAYA LIN: Yes, they were. On my mother's side, they were very successful in the medical profession. On my father's side of the family more in scholarship—as statesmen.
BILL MOYERS: Why did your father leave China?
MAYA LIN: My understanding was he sort of had to. Politically I think because he was the eldest son of a family with wealth. What could have happened to him had he stayed would-- they could imprison you, execute you, take over the family holdings.
BILL MOYERS: The Communists?
MAYA LIN: Yes.
MAYA LIN: [This happened to] whole upper classes, the wealthy classes. My mother's side of the family was protected because they wanted my grandfather to keep practicing. They needed doctors. He was protective. But there was redoctrination and retraining. I guess both my uncles were sent away to re-education camps.
On my father's side, because it was more political, there would have been a chance he would have been endangered if he stayed.
BILL MOYERS: And your parents didn't talk to you about all this?
MAYA LIN: No. I think the very first time I was told a little bit about my father's side of the family was when I was in Washington D.C., I had won the competition, I was battling in D.C., and my dad came in to visit and we went to a Chinese embassy party. And my dad is talking on and on and on with one of the secretaries of the embassy or whatever.
And afterwards I sort of mentioned it and said, "What were you talking about?" And he said, "Oh, I was talking about my father." And I said, "Well, what do you mean?" And so it was early October, it was around my birthday and I remember he sat me down at my birthday dinner and he started telling me about his family, a little bit about the history.
He adored his older sister-- half sister. He began to tell me how she came out to study architecture with her husband at U Penn. They didn't accept women so within a couple years she was actually teaching there. Her background is in architecture. I had studied architecture for four years in undergrad and it never comes out that there's this background on this amazing woman who had an incredible presence. She had gone back to China and had helped with the idea of progress.
There's this entire past that I need to start looking into it.
BILL MOYERS: I can sense that you're wresting with the questions and the information because you just didn't grow up steeped in that culture. It's unusual that you were not at home made as aware of your Chinese heritage as a lot of others whom I've been interviewing who said they were.
MAYA LIN: My brother is absolutely more attuned to it than me. I think it's partly my nature. My mother would say, "You do know, you just forget."
MAYA LIN: I had a really hard time with my identity. I wanted to fit in; I wanted to be American, and for the first 20 years of my life — I remember when I was at Yale I was recruited by the Asian American Society, ASA, and I was so uncomfortable. I was foreign in that group.
If you think about it I was the only Chinese American growing up so I looked out at everyone and everyone is white. So, what would make me more uncomfortable was hanging out with a group of Chinese Americans. And I knew that this was bad, like what is wrong with you, you're Chinese American? And I remember just politely declining becoming part of ASA at the time. And it's taken me my next 20 years to really understand.
And what is ironic is my work is inspired as much by an eastern sensibility coming from my father and probably my mother. It's there but I've only recently become really aware of how in a strange way it percolated up. I think identity quietly percolated up. My father-- everything we lived with at home he made — most of the pots we ate off of, a lot of the furniture. He was a master craftsman — the joinery, the detailing was very clean — it was modern.
It was the 50's modernism, but it was also — in it's simplicity, in the shapes, in the colors — he was brought up in China so that whole aesthetic. I went to his childhood home in Fukien and it was very Japanese based. I was sort of stunned because I've always felt my aesthetic is almost at times closer to the Japanese sensibility than the Chinese sensibility. At a certain point the temple architecture in China-- and I think is more of the Baroque period -- is very flourished, and I prefer this very minimal, simple look.
And I just felt like, why is that? My mouth, my jaw was open as I walked through my father's house, the childhood home that he was brought up in, because it was laid out like a very traditional vernacular Japanese house. I found out it was also a Chinese style house — it was a mix. Apparently my grandmother, his mother, loved Japanese architecture. So, you could say that what he brought with him and was making for us is how I began to see the world.
BILL MOYERS: And is that eastern sensibility-- is that a preference, a taste for simplicity, for the natural, for connecting to the flow of the earth, the harmony?
MAYA LIN: I think so. And yet the funny thing is I've never read about Taoist thought. I've never read about Zen. Again, it's always like I don't want to make it conscious. I'm much more about intuiting it in that sense.
I think there are two things going on. One, there's the physicality of it. And yes, the simplicity. A Japanese house is a very simple form. As you're walking through the landscape, it's framing your view of the landscape-- every single step. There's this connection so you're not treating the building as it's own castle.
Think about western European tradition. It's almost the fortress against nature. If you look at a Japanese house, as you walk through the house you are being given absolute glimpses of their nature. The only irony to this is it was a very controlled attitude about nature. We can improve upon nature.
BILL MOYERS: I see that in many of the houses you've designed here where there's that very strong Japanese relationship. And the control of the environment.
MAYA LIN: Right. To me, where I'm trying to question is the interface between inside and outside. It's about: Don't create a building that shuts itself down. I want a building that is opening up so you can't tell where the house ends in a way and where I connect you back to the landscape.
And actually to me it's evolving into a pure landscape. I'm working on a house right now that literally is going to be this very simple sliver of a wood box gently stepped into the landscape. And nothing else will be touched.
The one thing that my parents did give me as far as an eastern thought and -- again, never trained. But if you look at any of the works that I do I'm very much against a didactic teaching method-- where you come in and I tell you exactly what you should be getting out of this piece. Everything that I do will be about: I will put this out here and it's up to you to come to your own conclusions.
BILL MOYERS: That's very Taoist.
MAYA LIN: That's so Taoist, never trained. I got into so much trouble. I think the main flack with the Vietnam Memorial came after the WASHINGTON POST had a great headline, "An Asian Memorial for an Asian War." It was written by a journalist who happened to really know Taoism. And he was going crazy because he was looking at this work and going, "It is so Taoist." He's talking to me and I'm going, " I don't know anything about that."
But of course it's all there because of my parents and the way we lived. Think about it: they never told us what to do. They never tried to ever say, "You can't do this." I mean, it was a very unusual upbringing.
BILL MOYERS: So, even though they didn't set you down and talk about your Chinese heritage or Asian heritage they lived their heritage in such a way that it was naturally imparted?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely. That's the only way I can reason it. It's no coincidence.
The fact that my brother is a poet, my mother is a writer, my dad is an artist, I'm in architecture. My brother and I had a really good giggle about ten years ago. A poet and a sculptor are technically not great professions in which to feed yourself. And we were joking, "Gee, maybe Mom and Dad should have made us worry about the realities of life."
But they really firmly believed that we had to grow here and that was what was really important. You had to pursue something that you really had a passion for, that you really, really loved. My mother especially was very suspect of material things.
The joke in our family is if we had gone into law or business, they might have felt less of us like, "Well, it's you're just going for the money." That would have been considered selling out. So, that's unusual. Is that Asian? I don't know. I know that they were different. There's this other side which I think is the academic scholar side.
BILL MOYERS: Your home was full of ideas. It was full of art and full of living.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, and I know that's the other side of the Chinese culture
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MAYA LIN: In China you have the intellectual scholar, and it was very highly respected and revered. The stories I know of friends of mine who basically wanted to go into the arts and their Chinese parents were just worried, terrified because how are you gonna make a living? And I think as an immigrant coming over what do you want your kids to do? You want them to be able to make a living. You're there to protect them. I think academia is it's own little protective bubble.
BILL MOYERS: Did you fit in in Athens? Did anybody ever make you feel uncomfortable there?
MAYA LIN: I didn't realize what it was. I was so miserable by the time I got to high school, and so I had pretty much retreated into my own world.
BILL MOYERS: Miserable because?
MAYA LIN: Didn't know. I was really out of place. And didn't understand why I was out of place. I mean, it seems so obvious. But if you're going through it you don't have a clue. If I look back I was probably an incredible misfit. I had friends but it wasn't like I belonged. I didn't want to date. I just wanted to study. I loved to study.
And then I was taking a lot of independent courses at the university. I was incredibly bookish. I think partly because I just wanted to get out of Athens a while. I really did not feel like I fit in. But again, I never would have figured out it's-- oh, it's because your parents are [Chinese]--I think high school was basically a traumatic experience for most people I know.
BILL MOYERS: When did race begin to matter?
MAYA LIN: When was I more aware of race? I think technically not until my late 20s, as my body of work began to grow, did I really begin to see how my voice is a voice that is very much coming out of a bicultural experience. Still, even though I'm very interested, I still don't want to consciously go back in and start reading books on Zen or Buddhism because I don't want to premeditate that creativity or second guess it.
BILL MOYERS: You just said you live in a bicultural world but that's a world where boundaries--
MAYA LIN: Don't exist.
BILL MOYERS: Or they disappear. Why did you call your book BOUNDARIES?
MAYA LIN: I think there's running liner text in the front that says, "I feel I exist on the boundaries, somewhere between an architecture east and west." So, everyone thinks boundaries and they think of the container. I'm thinking of the actual line between things. Because it's not about being divisive, it's about being truly ambivalent. You're in between; you're in the place neither here nor there.
Nobody thinks of that as a physicality. Part of the thing I like to do is get people to rethink their idea of what things are. And imagine, you're always thinking there's one and then the other. And I'm going, "Oh, what is that space? Is there a space right between that? What is that line?" Of course it doesn't exist. But if you try to make a line into a spatial conceit-- I'm asking people to rethink what the term is.
But it's all about feeling like you're in different worlds. And I think the main worlds are the east/west as well as the left-side-of-the-brain-people and right-side-of-the-brain-people.
When I started out, I was strongest in math and science. I was going to go into the sciences. I always did art because that's what I always loved doing it. Generally, I meet people that are in one world or the other. Very few tap into both sides in the art world in that sense. That ambiguity of what is the psyche just is part of what I am.
MAYA LIN: My mother is now writing the history of my family.
BILL MOYERS: Your mother is finally putting it down?
MAYA LIN: Finally putting it down, and I'm so excited. So I'm gonna start working with her on that. And then I'm gonna have to track down my father's side of the history, 'cause it is really, really important. Maybe having kids has made it more important.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you go back to his home in China?
MAYA LIN: My mother took my brother and me back. My father's health wasn't that great, so he didn't come with us, which was a little painful. We visited her uncles, one of his cousins, and one of my cousins. We were going through China. My mother had arranged it. We went to Fukien to see his home and meet up with a few more of his relatives.
BILL MOYERS: What were your emotions?
MAYA LIN: My mother never quite wanted to get stuck in southeastern Ohio in the summertime. Ohio is like 100 percent humidity and 100 degrees. It is a swamp. And she just-- she's-- she-- very Shanghai waiter. (MAYBE: She's like Shanghai water. ???) You can't change the temperature. They're delicate. And so she would always stay indoors and it's really muggy.
So we are in China, in the summer, in Fukien, and it is identical. (LAUGH) And we all started laughing because it's like, "Of course. Dad found the one place that reminded him of home."
I was in love with photography at the time and I took a lot of photographs of his childhood house 'cause I always felt a little guilty that I loved Japanese architecture and I'm Chinese. The Japanese had blown up my grandfather. There wasn't much love between the Chinese and the Japanese at that time. And there I was, like what is wrong with me? I'm inspired by Asian [culture], but it's sort of the wrong [culture]--
And there I was, in that house, realizing the circle was closed for me. I got it. I got where this aesthetic was formed by, and what my dad had given to me in a way. And that was quite strong.
BILL MOYERS: When we finished a moment ago, you said-- you could have done science, you were good in science, you were good in math. I happen to know you were first in your class. You could have become anything. You chose to be an artist. And I go to that because that's very American to me, that-- you know, we invent our lives here. We are free to compose our lives. That's really what being an American is to me.
MAYA LIN: The funny thing is there were two sides growing up. There was a very academic side, this love of academia. My parents had it, my mother more than my father. My mother was an Asian lit professor. I mean, there were books everywhere. That was what we assumed: we're gonna study, study, study.
Meanwhile, my brother and I go into my dad's ceramic studio every day after school, throwing clay at the clock to cover it up. Drove my dad crazy. I took it for granted. Every day of my life, I was making something. I never thought I would be an artist because in a weird way—[I thought] I had to get my doctorate. We've gotta get our Ph.D.'s, I mean that was sort of what I assumed would happen.
The bookish side was technically supposed to win out, right? But ironically, I chose architecture in a way because I thought it was this perfect combination of science, math and art. But the weird thing is even though I love building buildings, I'm an artist. I've been an artist from probably the first time I stepped into my dad's ceramics studio.
And that's again what they give you. My mother's a writer, my brother took off on that leg. My brother was a poet. He was the one that put Asper (PH) in front of me, Stevens in front of me, Ruroinitz (PH). He was absolutely critical in editing the text for the Vietnam Memorial. He was at Columbia [University]. There was no fax back then. I would read over the phone. I had mailed it to him, and then he had gotten it, and he was correcting it.
BILL MOYERS: Your book BOUNDARIES is a wonderful marriage of the printed text and the visual concepts. You like writing, don't you?
MAYA LIN: I love writing.
BILL MOYERS: You value writing?
MAYA LIN: I value writing. I respect it. I find it the most difficult thing for me to do, but when I'm done I am unbelievably just at peace. If you think about art as being able to share your thoughts with another, writing is totally pure.
MAYA LIN: Writing is one of the purest arts, not to say that sculpture isn't. But the medium has no weight. The medium is a word on the page, whereas everything else sort of translates through medium, this one is just my thoughts to yours. Whether it's the purest of the arts, I don't think I'd say it that way. But it's just so direct.
I really respect it. It's also so integral to how I make things. My head has always been in two different worlds. I've always existed with that left side, right side [of the brain]. Most people assume artists gravitate towards art because they don't want the other side or whatever.
I actually had to kill off the analytic, the factual side. I mean, the irony is I remember nothing now what of what I used to do in high school and in junior high. I memorize by rote huge passages. You almost had to suppress that to allow the artistic side to have its free rein. There's a battle going on, actually.
BILL MOYERS: If someone asked me now what is Taoism, I would say it's Maya Lin. (LAUGH) You're the embodiment of this duality.
MAYA LIN: And I've never read anything.
BILL MOYERS: (LAUGH) And you've never read it.
MAYA LIN: It's sort of ironic.
BILL MOYERS: -- this harmony of the opposites.
MAYA LIN: Yeah. The yin-yang.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Alrighty. (LAUGH) I brought this from BOUNDARIES. Would-- you read this because it is wonderful writing. Tell me about where this is from?
MAYA LIN: This is describing the design of the Vietnam Memorial.
BILL MOYERS: And you wrote this as part of your proposal?
MAYA LIN: "I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth" is a descriptive essay that I wrote about it.
BILL MOYERS: Read it.
MAYA LIN: I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagine taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up and the initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure, flat surface in the earth with a polished mirrored surfaced, much like the surface on a geode when you cut it and polish the edge.
The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial. There was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember. It would be an interface between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond.
BILL MOYERS: Now let me ask you about that. Where did that impulse to cut into the earth come from?
MAYA LIN: My process is that I'll study something. And what I was studying for the three months leading up to the design of the memorial was this funereal class. We asked a professor to be our professor. As a senior at Yale, you could make your own senior seminar. So there were I think 11 of us that wanted to study funereal architecture, or the architecture in relation to mortality.
So we had been studying and designing things. One of the problems was design a memorial to World War III, one was design a cemetery cherub or something. And so I had been thinking, when I was designing a memorial to World War III, what is the nature of a memorial? And I studied World War I memorials. I went back to Trajan's Column.
So again, research. Studied something for a couple months. Put it all away. Went to visit the site. No thinking, just had an impulse. It's the egg.
MAYA LIN: Just cut open the earth, open it up. This is where I think a critic is better at it than me because I think when we try to find hindsight reason-- but obviously I was responding to what it was about and that's how it came out.
I had huge debates with the architect of record that was selected to work with me to realize it because he could not understand why I didn't want to create massive stone walls. I in the end wanted this stone surface to get so thin it was paper thin. Now, from an architect's point of view, that's a veneer; that's cheap. This is a memorial. We should make this massive and big.
But think about the difference: if you put something with weight, then you've actually inserted an object. You've dropped a physical thing into the earth. All I wanted to do was cut the earth and polish the earth's edge. I didn't want weight. Now I didn't know that at the time. In a way, I couldn't explain it. But I just kept going, "Thinner. Thinner." Literally, if you go up on top, you'll see it was actually a very tricky detail because you wanted the grass to literally grow right up to the stone. So the top of the memorial is only two inches thick. Then it chamfers down and drops.
Now I'm not saying, "I want it to look like a geode." This is a year later writing. I love rocks, I love geology, I love the earth. But then I just knew I needed this thing to be thin.
BILL MOYERS: You didn't think metaphorically about how the Vietnam War had cut a great gash in the psyche of this country?
MAYA LIN: No. I'm so naive that way. I was like, "Oh, yeah, it's like cutting open the earth and opening it up." And everyone said, "Scar?" And the minute you say scar in the media, it's like, "We don't want a scar." Well, I agree, no one would want that; I didn't say a scar. (LAUGH) I just said it's a process piece.
They read into it. The other thing they read into is that it's a V for victory. And I kept going, "Well, if you tried to do that as big as the memorial, you'd break your fingers. It's really not that." And the third way they read into the image was the color black as being, again, a very negative statement. And then it took Colonel Price, who happens to be African American, getting up in front of one of the subcommittee hearings and saying, "I see nothing wrong with the color black."
And then that quelled it politically but it didn't quell it in the fracas that was happening outside of the subcommittee. You had to get through the process. To get the memorial built, you had to go through five committees two or three times. Normally what happens in Washington is the architecture gets chewed up in the committees.
This time around, it was amazing. Everyone within the committees was very, very protective of the piece and of me. And what happened outside was this thing turned into this huge political thing.
BILL MOYERS: Well, it was not only political, Maya Lin, it was personal. I mean, the most vicious and venomous things were said about you. You were called a gook, someone said you were making a tribute to Jane Fonda.
Congressman Henry Hyde intervened with the White House to try to get the president to stop the project. There were personal attacks on you. How did you cope with those? You were so young.
MAYA LIN: Because when you're so young, what do you have going for you? Total belief in what you've done. There was no doubt. As you get older, we all begin to have doubts. I think when you're 20 years old, you're right. And I knew I was right and once it was up, they would get it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how were you so sure of that?
MAYA LIN: I just knew. If we all think back to when we're that young, that's one of the things we really have going for us. You're sure of your ideals. You're sure of your beliefs.
If I won that competition today, I don't think I could have weathered the storm. Back then, there was nothing to weather. I totally understood that people would think it was. If I was a Vietnam veteran and someone said, "You're getting a ditch, a black ditch,"-- I think the quote was a black ditch of shame and sorrow. If that's what I read, I wouldn't want it either. I could understand. I could understand people not getting what it would be.
What fascinates me is how I was never afraid that it wouldn't work. Whereas I think now, absolutely, you'd be terrified. You'd be thinking, "Oh my God, what if they're right and I'm wrong?" You don't have that when you're that age.
I am very focused. And some would say extremely stubborn. And you kinda know when you've hit it, you know when it's right.
BILL MOYERS: One of your competitors called it an open urinal--
MAYA LIN: (LAUGH) That I didn't see.
BILL MOYERS: You didn't see that? A right winger called it "an Orwellian glop".
MAYA LIN: Glop. (LAUGH)
BILL MOYERS: You read that. (LAUGH)
MAYA LIN: After it was built, I got a letter from the critic of "Orwellian glop" who actually wrote a letter to apologize. He was the architectural writer for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. And he actually wrote and said, "I'm really sorry. I made a mistake."
I mean the only ones who I really thought less of in the whole thing was probably [Secretary of the Interior] Lott and [Ross] Perot and their methodology and how they thought they could buy in--
He tried to stop it on the direction of Gee Whiz Reagan when he was visiting in Texas would stay at his friend's ranch. And even Perot truly believed that what I was doing would denigrate the veterans.
I mean, he was wrong. And I remember meeting him and I wanted to tell him he was wrong. But you're allowed to have your opinion.
Actually, ironically the only person I sort of really felt kind of very much less of was the sculptor of the three statues. Because as an artist, you should know to respect another person's art. And I remember the whole controversy was he wanted the statues right there at the apex. And I remember a meeting when he literally turned to me and said, with his statues there, and at that point they would have been taller, their heads would have been poking up above. He said, "My sculpture will improve your work."
I would never in a million years disrespect another artist that way. So that was the only one that was a little strange. Obviously it was very traumatic and upsetting, but I didn't take it personally. I felt that everyone's entitled to their opinion. I actually think Vietnam veterans reading in the paper that this is an Asian memorial for an Asian war, it wasn't even about racism. It was like this is hard for them to swallow.
I mean, the Vietnam Veterans Fund buffered me. I had no idea that there was a problem with my race. I was so naive that I remember at the very first press conference some reporter said, "Don't you think it's ironic that the memorial is the Vietnam Memorial and you're of Asian descent?" And I looked at him, and I was like, "Well, that's irrelevant. You know, this is American. That's irrelevant."
I was brought up in a very rarified world where what mattered was what you thought. It's academia; it's what you're thinking. Your gender didn't matter, your age didn't matter, your race didn't matter. So I actually was so happily naive I didn't realize that people would have a problem with me.
BILL MOYERS: Has the irony occurred to you that your parents had spent so much of their lives trying to protect you, keep you in a little bubble of immunity from all of this, and suddenly it's all over you?
MAYA LIN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: How did they take it?
MAYA LIN: I'm sure they were quite worried. They were in Ohio, but I wouldn't tell 'em what was going on. I just would not tell them because the one thing we couldn't do to our parents is have them worry. The worst thing my brother or I could ever do is do something that would make our parents worry.
So I didn't tell them anything. I didn't talk to anyone about what was going on. I just absorbed it. I didn't even realize how bad it was because I just did it. This is not pleasant. I don't like Washington. I will get out of here as soon as I can. I dealt with it by absolutely refusing to talk about it.
BILL MOYERS: I believe you when you say you weathered it. But you just acknowledged to me what I had to believe of you: I don't see how you could have gone through this without it hurting.
MAYA LIN: Well, I think it was hurting. But again, I would be not acknowledging it by not talking about it. And I would give the excuse of: "I'll only talk about the conceptual basis of the art because the controversy is just silly. You know, it's not important."
But obviously what was happening is I was just bottling it all up. And I think it was after the documentary came out-- because Freida Mock who did the documentary, she was very sensitive. And she knew I'd bolt and run. I never realized how much the film would deal with the controversy and the memorial.
Even though I respect her; it's her art, you know, she's gonna do it, I'm gonna see it when it's all done, if I had had my druthers at that point, I would have stopped it. 'Cause again, I couldn't handle it. And it was literally not until after I saw it, I was a basket case. I was balling. I had to deal with it. Because my way of dealing with it was to tell no one, talk to no one, go through graduate architecture school, pull the all-nighters, work like a crazy person.
I mean, architecture graduate school is one big [charade], night after night. So my way of getting over it was to throw myself right back into first Harvard then Yale.
And it's so sweet because the then head of Harvard's GSD program-- I withdrew after a semester because I was spending my time shuttling down to Washington to testify, and I would never talk about it-- came up to me years later and said—('cause he had seen the film), "I am so sorry. We had no idea what you were going through." And I didn't know what I was going through.
But I got back to Yale graduate school. They liked me when I was an undergrad. And I remember one of my favorite advisors when I was an undergrad was so looking forward to having me like possibly T.A. his course, which would have been a great honor and all this.
And I get to my first year in graduate school and I'm a basket case. I mean, I'm doing the work, but I'm never finishing anything. What they didn't realize is it was like I just had to get out of Washington. I had to go back to academia, my only safe haven. And they thought, "You have the perfect opportunity to launch your career. You're worse-- "
And I think we all know what it was. I mean, at this point now, It took me a few years to kind of recover from it.
BILL MOYERS: 'Course the bigotry and the hatred and the racism did not have the last word. The monument was the last word.
MAYA LIN: Yeah. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: It is. And people who visit it are visibly moved. I go there many times, and I never go there without being moved myself and without seeing everyone who is passing by deeply moved. Why do you think they are so moved by it?
MAYA LIN: I think because it's tapping into some very important, I would say ancient needs. I think fundamentally, when I was designing it, I thought about the nature of death and acknowledging death. And I think in many, many cultures, dying and the acknowledgement of the death is so much a part of the living. It's a ritual, and there are big rituals around it.
I think America's a very young country and we're afraid of growing old 'cause we're really young. As a country, we're afraid of dying, so what do we do? We pretend it doesn't exist. We do not make huge emotional acknowledgements of that type of a pain. We tend to try to forget about it, which is probably the worst thing you can do.
But if you think about it, it is a much more Taoist belief. You offer it up. And they will get it. You will find your way to it. But it's not like you're going to do this. It goes against every grain in my body to preach.
Americans are used to the loud super-statements, preach it, tell it, super simple, super graphics. But there's this other side. I think you could be sort of heartened that we can all tap into that emotion.
BILL MOYERS: It's extraordinary to watch people touch the names. It's as if something were passing back and forth between the name and the touch.
And there's something very quiet and very intimate. And I think again, that intimacy which is so important I think to any of the work that I do-- and people don't think of that -- there's more of a bravado and a largesse. I always joke that I don't make monuments, I make anti-monuments. Again, let's rethink what a monument is.
Everyone was shocked at the size of text and they argued, "You can't do that." Because a text in public spaces should be large. I equate it to when you read a billboard, yes you read it en masse. But it's more of a personal connection if you read a book 'cause you're just so connected to it.
So can you put a book out in the public realm? Can we make it that personal and still be in a very large public space? And again, there's another one of those opposites. Very public, but intensely private.
And yep, I think that is an aesthetic that is coming right out of a different culture. But we're all human, and we can all very much relate to it.
BILL MOYERS: I didn't quite understand it-- why it was so powerful to be there until I actually read the sentence from your essay where you say, "Looking at that black marble, it would be an interface between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond."
MAYA LIN: Right. And it's a world we can't enter because we can't pass through those names. And it's painful.
I had not known anyone who had died. I just had a feeling that it's gotta be the most painful experience that you will ever go through. But what you have is the memory. And you have to accept it and then you have to turn around and walk back into the light. But if you don't accept it, you'll never get over it.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever go there?
MAYA LIN: When I'm in Washington, I'll drop in. Washington is not my favorite town. (LAUGH) There are horrible memories of my time spent there building it, so I don't tend to go back there unless I have to. But if I do, I enjoy visiting.
BILL MOYERS: Some veterans wanted a more conventional memorial. They wanted the bronze figures of the heroic soldiers, like the Iwo Jima statue, which is quite impressive. But you didn't want to go there, did you?
MAYA LIN: No. Obviously I'm being influenced by the earth artists that are coming out of the '70s, like [Robert] Smithson, [Michael] Heizer, [Richard] Serra. Not even knowing it because I wasn't even studying it. But that's the vocabulary.
I was going after something very psychological. When I say: think like a child, stop the baggage, when we look at a man on a horse we know what a man on a horse is. It's a representation of something, and we kind of intellectually get what it's referring to.
One of things about the Vietnam War, I couldn't think of any one image. I can think of a few images, but there isn't one image-- like the Iwo Jima, the raising of the flag is an image we can all respond to. And it relates to what we think.
There isn't one image that comes to mind that everyone would truly connect to. And the odd thing is, that's where figurative sometimes gets so specific, it doesn't relate. It relates to you, but it doesn't relate to you. They added the three men, then the women got upset because there wasn't a woman. So then, there's that problem that can occur. When you stick within the abstract realm-- this is where Tom Wolfe weighed into it: How can abstraction be human? It's sort of like how can music, which is completely abstract, make people cry or laugh? Music. Totally abstract sounds, how they're laid out. That abstraction can be as human and relate to you. And that's where the name, any person who knew that person, everything about that person will come back in the name.
BILL MOYERS: The name is so concrete.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a moment of awareness, a moment when you had to claim your Chinese-ness?
MAYA LIN: No. I would say from the mid-20's onward it's been this increasing awareness of my heritage. I did fight it. I fought it very hard in my teen—late teenage years and in my 20's.
It's my art that kind of guided me to see it. It was never like, my work is going to be about my Asian American identity. It was more like I just make work. This is what I do. And then I look back and I go, oh, I get it.
And my art has really helped me understand the two sides of me. And that has led me to a point where I'm actually-- I have two young children and I am really--
BILL MOYERS: You want your two children to know.
MAYA LIN: And I know that I don't know it, and it's embarrassing. And I want to finally know it. My guess is the first half of my life I've spent finding a little bit. You want to feel comfortable with where you are and then you can study both sides. And I'm very, very, very much wanting to know my past.
BILL MOYERS: There's a story, maybe it's hypocriful, of something that happened when you were a student in your junior year abroad in Denmark.
MAYA LIN: Yeah. I had been blessed that racism had never really entered into my realm. I get to Denmark and ironically I think they thought I was a Greenlander at times. An eskimo. Because if I get a suntan, I change through different races. Some people think I'm American Indian. When I'm in Mexico, I blend.
Two things happened. When they thought I was Chinese, they would say things like, "Oh, so do your parents only a laundry or a restaurant?" And I didn't quite know if they were joking or not. And they weren't joking. They were trying to be very kind, but the stereotypes were pretty hellacious.
And then what happened is the sun finally showed up. In Scandinavia, I tan pretty easily. I remember getting on a bus once and sitting down. And no one would sit anywhere near me. For the first time in my life I felt, oh, now I know what it's like.
In Boston I had a horrible incident.
BILL MOYERS: In Boston. When you were in school?
MAYA LIN: Yeah. I was in school and I was taking the subway in. And I remember these three working class guys were up on the top of the passover and they were trying to spit on me. And they were saying incredibly racist and intensely painful things.
What's strange is you look at Black Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Chinese Americans, and New York is such a mixture. And at times you wonder, sometimes we're acceptable, we blend in, we're not spat on. Do other races have a harder time? Yes, the answer is horrible at times.
And you can really relate. And you feel sometimes the funny thing about being Asian American is if you're black American you're American, whereas I will always inevitably get into a cab sometime and the cab driver will turn around and say, "Where are you from?" And I'll say, "Ohio." And they'll say, "No, no, where are you really from?"
And there could be a white German who's English is okay. He could have just traveled here yesterday and they will assume he's American. I was born and raised here. Looking the way I look, you will always get that question, even sometimes at polite cocktail party: Where are you from? Where are you really from? And that leaves you in a weird in- between world. Like you're both.
BILL MOYERS: So the stereotypes exist even now.
MAYA LIN: I don't think anyone means it to be negative. It's just the problem is you're not from here. You will always physically look like you're a foreigner. So if you're truly born and raised here what does that do to your psyche?
You're American. It's not the same as if you were born in Poland and you're first generation 'cause if you look white, they're not gonna question you the same way. They're not going to ask for your genealogy. Whereas I swear it's like I really have to explain always. At this point, it's so much easier to say, I was born here but my mother's from Shanghai and my [father]-- you know, it just makes it all simpler.
But that does something to you. Like, well, are we really not allowed to be from here? And then I am at times very sensitive to Asian American-- the Chinese American stereotyping that goes on. Whether it's in TV or movies, when can we get to be people who happen to be Asian in a part versus this is a part that an Asian gets because they do Kung-fu.
We've technically assimilated. Yet at the same time the stereotypes shock me at times.
There was an advertisement for a hotel chain, and it had an Asian woman making the bed. There was this three sentence paragraph about how she was born to serve you. It completely smacked of the notion of the docile, servile Asian woman.
My ears were burning. I think equivalent stereotypes in other ethnic groups would have been nailed down. Maybe they're more sensitive or they're louder about fighting it.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, if that ad had had an African American woman in it and said she as born to serve you there would have been an uproar.
MAYA LIN: Oh, there would have been an uproar. I think the next generations are going to be inclined to speak out. It's still kind of engrained in me to be very, very polite. I mean, that's how I was raised. It's just not in my nature. I think as the next generations go on, they might be more vocal. So there's that inherently we don't speak out in protest the way we might have to to change it.
Or two there's also that lumping us all together as Asian American. And you've got such diverse cultural groups within that. So I've always felt it was almost a western conceit, that they were just gonna lump together all the rest that didn't fit in anywhere else. But it also means how do you bound together, how do you form community when you've got societies that culturally are not that similar and yet they are lumped together by western eyes.
It does help with certain things because it puts a voice together. But it also can be problematic in galvanizing that identity and that voice. I am surprised that the stereotypes can be so much a part of images we see.
BILL MOYERS: What about your two daughters, will all this be behind them? Will they ever be free, liberated, because of what has happened? To not have to think this way anymore? Tell me about it them.
MAYA LIN: They're really cute. And what I find fascinating is that we will get asked when we bring them out, my husband and I.
On several occasions, we've been asked, "Are they half?" Which is kind of a very kind of odd-- are they half. Like are they half-- No, they're full children.
BILL MOYERS: Your husband's background is?
MAYA LIN: He's American Jewish. My daughters look very Caucasian. He's Caucasian. You can tell in the eldest girl's eyes—but it's not recognizable except by someone else. Usually it's a young girl who asks that question, like a 20 year old woman.
And I know that she's looking at them going, "What are you gonna be?" You can relate because they'll go through what she sort of went through a little bit. If both my husband and I had been Chinese they would get asked that exact same question in the cab, "Where are you from?"
Because no matter how long you've been here you're not going to be quite allowed to be American, which is very intriguing about all the Asian races.
BILL MOYERS: So you're still living between boundaries.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, between worlds. It's a funny place to be. But it's also who you are. You might try to understand it. And I think at this point I embrace it; it's great. You can share a culture and take from both, but it's a balancing act.
BILL MOYERS: While I look at the cover of your book "Boundaries," that's your hand around that beautiful giode, which is one of my favorite stones of the earth. I think, she's got the whole world in her hand.
MAYA LIN: Nah. I don't know where that cover came from. But as far as just between the design of it I just love. Wherever I go, I collect rocks, and I just think they're so beautiful. Everyone assumes they're so simple. You look at them and think it's a dumb simple water worn rock.
If you ever tried to analyze its shape, it's one of the most complex forms. Think about it, it's every compound curve. There's nothing symmetrical about it. It's about looking at something again and then appreciating it. I mean, nature, is so complex.
BILL MOYERS: Maya Lin, thank you very much.
MAYA LIN: You're welcome.
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