Yes, it is a bit odd to include Amanda in my series of obscured Americans. She is a very successful editor of films that have appeared on television and in theaters. Her credits include Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider (1994), Carmen Miranda: Bananas is my Business (1994), The Lost Children of Rockdale County (1999), Drinking Apart (2000), The Last Jews of Libya (2007) and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011). With Susan Hagedorn, Amanda also directed Deputized, a PBS documentary about the murder of Marcelo Lucero. An Ecuadorian immigrant, he was killed by seven Long Island teenagers out looking for “Mexicans to fuck up.” Jeffrey Conroy, 17-years-old when he fatally stabbed Lucero, was sentenced to 25 years.
Hagedorn and Zinoman call their film Deputized because they feel that the entire community abetted, and thus deputized, these teenagers to go out, hunt and beat up Latinos. It was a sport known locally as “beaner hopping.”
Amanda comes from a family of high achievers. Her mother, Joy, is the founder of the Studio Theater in Washington DC. Her older brother, Peter, is head of Vietnamese Studies at UC Berkeley. Her younger, Jason, is the comedy critic for the New York Times. This April, HarperCollins will publish Jason’s book, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night.
Last week, Amanda and her seven-year-old son, Jonah, drove down from Brooklyn to register voters in Philly. I met my friend of nearly two decades in a park. As Jonah played, we talked about her life.
I was born in Bangkok. My dad was a diplomat. Not a spy, a diplomat. That’s much more boring than being a spy. We lived in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Laos, then Boston, then Taiwan for a year, then Malaysia for three-and-a-half years, then back to the States, to the DC area. I went to high school in Maryland.
I was taken care of by this Thai amah for the first four years of my life. I never saw her again. I have pictures of myself with her. The first time I had acupuncture, I was laying there and all of a sudden, I had this memory of myself crying hysterically at the airport and hugging someone. I described this to my mother, and she said that’s exactly what happened, “You were saying goodbye to Ari at the airport. She’s the woman who had taken care of you your whole life.” I spoke Thai with Ari and English with my parents.
I think I’m especially able to relate to the race stuff from being the other, growing up. My view is a little wider than most Americans’, maybe. I’ve had other experiences besides my own little New York world.
This is how I adopted Jonah. I put an advertisement in PennySaver, then got an 800 number. Some people were really gross, like these men calling to say, “How much are you going to pay for my baby?”
I didn’t care if I had a black or white kid. That’s the first question his birth mother asked me, if I cared about race? I said no. She said she didn’t either. I said I thought it’s better that they’re all mixed up together.
I sent her this book about me. To make up this book was the hardest part of the whole thing. I had to talk about my family and me, and what I was going to have for this kid. I sent pictures of me and pictures of kids in my neighborhood. I told her I could afford to pay for his college education. It’s a roller coaster when you’re adopting. You have a possibility and it may not work out.
I was in the room when Jonah was born. I cut the umbilical cord. It was just me and her. I stayed in the hospital overnight with Jonah. His birth mother doesn’t want to confuse him. We text a couple of times a year and send pictures. I think she’s had another kid, which she didn’t tell me. I saw it on FaceBook.
Since I’m a single mom, I need people around me to help, and I have a great community of other single moms, with some transracial, some not. Some adopted, some gave birth. I also have my neighbors and friends. We can’t walk down the street without people knowing us. If I’m like, “Oh my God, the babysitter is late, I’m late for work,” the neighbors will take Jonah for 30 minutes.
I don’t go out at night because on top of a movie and dinner is an extra $75 for the babysitter. It’s $15 an hour for a babysitter in New York. It’s an extra $75, so I don’t go out.
In the city, camp for the summer is, like, 4,000 bucks. A friend of mine moved to Long Island and it’s 400 bucks for the whole summer. One year, I made a film for the camp so Jonah could go for free, but then you have to make the film!
I stopped buying clothes. It’s all hand-me-down for both me and Jonah. It’s fine. A friend of mine’s son is getting married in LA. I want to go but I can’t. It’s expensive to travel with a kid.
Jonah’s fun to travel with. He’s really interested and open and curious. When I was a certain age, I traveled all the time. Now, I have to buy two plane tickets. It’s a big difference. I want to travel with Jonah to Asia. I want to go with him to India.
Jonah’s very, very physical. You cannot stop him. He gets a lot of confidence from it. His coach told him to stop scoring at soccer because he scored seven goals. It’s, like, let the other kids score! I had to put him in a more competitive soccer league. He’s over that. Now, we’re on to basketball. He told me he’s going to buy me a house when he gets drafted by the NBA!
Jonah’s really an amazing kid. The greatest thing about him, and he’s had it since he was born, is compassion. Even when he was a little baby, if he heard someone scream or cry, he would look over in that direction. You can’t have anything better than that, this caring about somebody else.
Jonah is in 2nd grade. At his school, there’s this new kid, Dunya, from the Congo. Dunya was attacked by chimpanzees that were chased by poachers. They killed his brother, and Dunya had his lips ripped off. His face was mangled and he also lost several fingers, it’s pretty horrific. The first day of school, Jonah came home, and this is what I mean by his compassion, all Jonah talked about was Dunya. Dunya has only been here for six months, so he doesn’t have much English, but Jonah has become his friend.
Dunya’s mom died when he was young. He says he misses his mom more than he misses his dad. His dad is still in the Congo. Dunya’s living with a foster family. They worked for an NGO. They brought him over and are paying for his surgeries.
The principal is my pal. She said she’d gotten calls from some parents, asking to have their kids changed class, because they were scared of Dunya. I think that’s disgusting, and she didn’t like it either. First off, what if that’s your kid? Secondly, what an opportunity it is to have empathy. I mean, how hard is it to teach your kids that this kid has been through fuckin’ hell, so be nice to him, and how lucky are you, you white privileged asshole dicks!
The school is so good, although it’s not diverse. I’m kind of causing a revolution at the school. I’m insisting that they get real about race. The school did not, last year, do anything for Black History Month. It’s there for a reason. Otherwise, you don’t learn anything. Jonah didn’t know who Rosa Park was. Black history should be done all year round, but it’s not done all year round. We are reinstating Black History Month.
We are training teachers, the whole bit. We’re working with this organization to teach them about social justice. The bulletin board is out with different issues every week. We did one on Black Lives Matter. We did one on Latino history.
There’s a guy we brought in as a consultant. He had wanted to talk about white privilege at a Quaker school, but since it made parents uncomfortable, he had to leave his job. Although he was their diversity advisor, they didn’t want him to talk about white privilege!
One of the women on our school’s diversity committee is head of diversity for Microsoft. They’re trying to have more training about racial sensitivity. They’re trying to find ways to hire more minorities, to have their workforce be more diverse. They do things like training girls in tech. It’s kind of like affirmative action. It’s paying back. It’s, like, you guys have made all this money!
There’s a group called Filmmakers for Hillary. These films are shown on the internet, where they can go viral. I’m working with a producer from LA. She wants to do something for Hillary, so she came up with this idea. When Hillary was nominated, a lot of people said to her, “I wish my mother was around to see this,” so we’re asking people to make their own dedication. Do you know Bella Abzug? She was a New York congresswoman who was before her time, and very feminist. Her daughter is in this video, saying, “I wish my mom was here to see this.” Joe Papp, head of the Public Theater, his wife is dedicating it to her grandmother, who was a journalist.
I was a Hillary supporter in 2008, when Obama ran. She’s really competent, smart, hard-working. She was my senator. I’ve always been a feminist, always, and I think it’s fuckin’ time!
I edited this film called Thunder in Guyana. It was shown on PBS 20 something years ago, but it’s relevant now. Hillary Clinton is not the first American woman to become the president of a country. There’s a woman named Janet Jagan, who became the president of Guyana. She was a Jewish girl from Chicago who married an Indian guy from Guyana. It’s a great story. She went down there and they founded the Communist Party of Guyana.
Cheddi Jagan was a great figure. He was like, “The Caribbean needs to think of itself as separate from South America and separate from the West.” The name of his most famous book is The West on Trial. Cheddi Jagan was really brilliant.
For years, the US tried to depose them. Janet’s maiden name was Rosenberg, so they intimated that she was related to the Rosenbergs. The US incited race riots in Guyana. It was so alarmed because they were Communists. It was the Cold War.
Jagan finally came into power in the 80’s. When he died in office, Janet took over, then she ran and won. Guyana has an interesting mix, with blacks, Indians and even some Chinese. It’s a weird colonial mix, then there’s this white woman. There’s a footage of all these Indian men talking. It’s, like, behind-the-scene election, with this Jewish grandma. Janet was incredibly passionate. She went there in the 40’s and flew in on a seaplane. She never returned to the States.
My friend who made the film is a historian, mostly of New York City and the Lower East Side. Suzanne Wasserman has made a few films since. She did one about this Yiddish woman writer, Anzia Yezierska.
The New Yorker just wrote an article about how Hillary is not the first American woman president. The first half of it is about Janet Jagan, and the second half is about how Sri Lanka had a woman president in 1952. All these countries have had women presidents. Indira Gandhi, Pakistan. We act like we’re such a big deal, but our country is far behind.
I’m trying to organize a film series at LincolnCenter about women as leaders, then have this panel discussion about what does it mean that women are finally in power? I think women should be in power. I think America would be in a better place.
Even today, this guy said to me, “I don’t trust Hillary.” I think that’s fuckin’ bullshit! It’s misogynistic. Why don’t they trust her? What does she do that they don’t trust her? I really don’t understand!
Is it because her husband cheated on her that they don’t trust her? That’s just sick, misogynistic bullshit. Nobody has been able to explain to me what are her lies? What about Trump?! Talk about lies!
Hillary has been working since the beginning of her career for women, for children’s rights. When she was a senator, she busted her fuckin’ butt. She worked in the trenches. She’s not, like, showy. She’s not like, “Hey, look at how great I am! Look what I’ve done!”
The atmosphere now in politics is so insane, so who knows if she can get anything done anyway, but she works, and she knows how to compromise to get shit done.
Trump is the last gasp of the Civil War. It’s racism rearing its ugly head. It’s white men losing their power, which is true just demographically. When people feel like they’re losing their power, they become more desperate about holding on to it and whatever they have to do to keep it. It’s the most ridiculous desperation that ever was.
I want to tell you a story because it’s chilling. We were in Kent, Connecticut. It’s me and a friend of mine, a professor in urban studies. She is also a white woman with a black son.
So the two kids were standing outside this sandwich shop, doing nothing. This middle-aged couple came in, and the woman, I don’t think she knew I was Jonah’s mother, she looked at me then looked at them, then she went, “Wild animals!” meaning the two black kids.
I was pretty freaked out, so I said, “This must be Trump country,” and her husband said, “You’re damn right!” He was serious, dead-on serious. It was, like, threatening. All I wanted to do was put my arms around Jonah and run in five hundred different directions.
They were emboldened to say that shit because of Trump, then there are all these shootings, one after another, after another, after another. I don’t think it’s different than what it used to be, but it’s now out there because of the press.
You should take a picture of me. I’m in this thing called MOBS, Moms of Black Sons, and I have a T-shirt with pink sparkle! We’re having a big march. I didn’t wear it today while registering voters. I thought it would scare people away.
Would you take some of these stickers? These are names of black people who’ve been shot by the police. I don’t even know half of them. I had a Trayvon Martin one, but somebody already took it down. Can you imagine?! I put it up at a little corner store in my neighborhood, and the next day, it wasn’t there!
I am moved a lot by the racial issue right now, and a part of that is raising my son and protecting him. I would be interested in doing projects that have something to do with race. I got a call recently. It’s a film about hate crimes against Muslims. The director is a Jewish woman. She’s so freaked out by Trump that she wants to do something. She’s already interviewed, like, six or seven different Muslim families.
I went to see a play on Governors Island. This island was an army base and there’s this old mansion. This neighbor of mine is black and he’s in the play. It’s Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, transposed to the antebellum South and performed inside one of these mansions. I took Jonah and it was great. I was weeping. Like all of Chekov’s plays, it’s about people who own the big house and are now losing it.
I realized I was weeping for the white woman who was losing her power. The slave’s son is buying the plantation because he’s the carpetbagger now. I was, like, wow, I’m feeling sorry for her, and I realized she’s not being so hateful. It made me feel like maybe I should be a little bit more sympathetic to these white people who are losing power, like there is something painful about losing power, if they weren’t being so hateful. In Chekov, you feel compassion, like this old way of life, this grand way of life, whatever it is, is disappearing.
There was a talk afterwards, and I think people were shocked that I felt sympathetic towards Madame so-and-so. She was a kind of Blanche DuBois. It’s like her world doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s a new word which is great, but it made me be sympathetic, not to Donald Trump, but to these poor white people, and I don’t mean poor like poor, economically. I mean white people who had power.
I did see a lot of poor white people today outside this supermarket on Broad Street. There was a toothless guy. When I was trying to register people, I was shocked at how many people who said, “I don’t care. I don’t care about this shit. It doesn’t make a difference!”
A friend of mine worked on a film about meth. It’s pretty disgusting what it does to people, and in the fuckin’ middle of nowhere! Maybe it’s the same thing, like they say, with crack, that it was put into the country to put black people down. Maybe meth was brought in to make these white people more subservient. It’s certainly a scourge and nobody’s doing anything about it.
I worked on a film about underground female fight clubs. These are women who live in the projects and have, like, three different babies by three different baby daddies. They wake up in the morning with zero money in their pockets, and they have to find a way to get $100 sneakers for their kids, because that’s what’s important. There’s a woman who met her baby daddy at the check cashing place because he’s just gotten his welfare check. The way these women make money is these underground female fight clubs. No pulling hair and no biting are the two rules. These women fight and people bet on them. They’re also hired to go beat people up. These are tough-assed women. They’re all black and every man in the film has gunshot wounds, every fuckin’ one. I’m not exaggerating. There’s a party scene where they all pull up their shirts and each one of them has gunshot wounds.
I would have been interested in race, but I wouldn’t have been as invested. With transracial adoption, the thing you can do is to become an ally because you’re in the perfect position to be a very strong ally and advocate. You’re invested, whereas these other white people would rather not talk about white privilege. I have a reason to want to make this better, and to protect Jonah.
I like to think I’m confident that Hillary will win, but then people didn’t think Brexit would happen either, right? My dad is so pessimistic. He’s like, “It’s over.”
I’m going to move out of the country if Trump wins. I will go to Malaysia or Holland if that dumb guy wins, but here’s the problem: the people who voted for Trump will still be around. They have been so emboldened and told that the election’s rigged. The fuckin’ KKK will be marching in the street. It’s going to be bad.
Hillary, at least, she can do something about it, but it’s going to be bad when she wins because of those people. It’s just horrible. They’re just so frustrated, bitter and hostile.
You know people say, “You have to stay and fight,” but I don’t think he’s going to win. I can’t believe that. I would go to Malaysia. I would move to Malaysia anyway, if I could get a job. Malaysia is not homogeneous, but very multi-racial. It’s very interesting, like Guyana. The food is also much better in multi-racial societies!
Financially, I’m not doing very well but socially and emotionally I’m doing really well. I’m not doing reality TV anymore. I cannot work 20-hour days. I don’t want to do it and I’m not good at it. I’m good at doing documentaries. I’m good at finding a story that’s meaningful.
Professionally, I have a very good reputation but I don’t take shit, that’s my problem. I speak my mind.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.