Making Waves—Across Media

Alumna Pier Nirandara discusses her unconventional career path and the potential of storytelling to change the narrative for Asians—and others—everywhere in the world

Pier Nirandara was 14 when she submitted her first manuscript for publication. 

“I was so young that the editors didn’t believe I was the author,” Nirandara recalls. “They invited me to a board meeting and asked, ‘Did you really write this?’ I was pretty taken aback, but then flattered that they thought someone else could’ve written the manuscript.”

A shark displays a fishing hook and line stuck in its jaw

A shark off the coast of Bimini, in the Bahamas, displays a fishing hook and line stuck in its jaw. Photo: Pier Nirandara

A year later, in 2009, that book, The Mermaid Apprentices, the first volume of a trilogy, was published in Nirandara’s native Thailand, making her the country’s youngest English-writing author. The novel was translated into multiple languages (including Thai, by the translator of the Harry Potter series) and ultimately became a number-one national bestseller.

Since then, Nirandara, A15, has published graphic novels, short stories, and two best-selling sequels to that first novel. After graduating from Tufts, she launched a career as a film and television production executive, before working as a travel writer and underwater photographer, leading expeditions to swim with marine wildlife around the world. 

Currently at work on her first novel for adults, Nirandara sat down with Tufts Now to discuss her time in the film industry, her take on Asian and Asian-American culture-makers, and her wide-ranging career. 

What was it like working at A-Major Media–Hollywood’s first film production company to focus on Asian American stories?

It was such a unique experience, one I never thought could exist. Before A-Major, I had worked at Sony’s Columbia Pictures as director of development for international content, where I scouted for foreign intellectual property to adapt to the U.S. market.

That was a role that was borne from a need of global stories. Then Crazy Rich Asians happened. Suddenly, people were thinking, “Wait, Asian American storytelling is a thing,” and A-Major Media was launched.

A shark plows through bait during the sardine run on South Africa’s Wild Coast.

A shark plows through bait during the sardine run on South Africa’s Wild Coast. Photo: Pier Nirandara

Working at A-Major Media and focusing on Asian American stories drove home to me the importance of helping people understand that Asians are not a monolith. We are as diverse as we are equal. We came to the U.S. for different reasons, at different time frames, from different cultures. For example, I might pass as an Asian American, but I was born and raised in Bangkok. A lot of us who went to international school call ourselves “third-culture kids”—those who grew up between cultures, but who are sort of rootless and don’t necessarily belong to any one place or group. 

It would be impossible for any single company to speak for the entire Asian American community. There’s a term—narrative scarcity—that was coined to describe the weight a story holds when there aren’t enough of those stories being told. My goal was to expand the space, providing opportunities for more of our stories to be told.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once recently made film history, winning seven Academy Awards out of 11 nominations. It received the most wins or nominations ever for a film featuring an almost entirely Asian cast. Its star, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, became the first Asian person to win in the lead actor or actress category. How do the film’s accolades speak to new developments in the industry?

When I first started in the industry, I would never advertise my foreignness, because companies didn’t want to sponsor international employees and Hollywood, to an extent, was still incredibly American-centric. Then the culture started to shift—films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Minari showed the industry that there was a need for global stories. The industry began to recognize that there’s a demand for diverse storytelling. 

Nowadays, I take pride in the fact that I was born and raised abroad and am a woman of color in a historically white, male-dominated field. My background doesn’t only inform the kinds of stories I want to tell but it has also been instrumental in giving me an ability to connect with people from different walks of life around the world. What used to make me feel different has made me feel all the more connected.

Spotted Atlantic dolphins play with a freediver in the Bahamas.

Spotted Atlantic dolphins play with a freediver in the Bahamas. Photo: Pier Nirandara

As for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, it feels really good to see our stories getting recognized. I think it’s just a sign of just how ready the world is for Asian stories, and diverse stories in general.

What connects filmmaking to your other passions—writing, diving, photography, environmental journalism?

Everything I do has been about storytelling. Whether it’s creative writing, filmmaking, or photography—each of these mediums has a narrative power of its own. Stories act as connective tissue for humanity—and allows us to transcend geographical boundaries and cultural differences to empathize and unite.

A lot of the writing I do now focuses on the environment. There are so many undiscovered, underrepresented stories, especially in marine conservation. Storytelling is more than just pretty pictures of wildlife; there’s a massive human element in our relationship to the water, and in representation. We can’t care about what we don’t know, and where we don’t feel like we belong.

It’s deeply ironic to me that one of the biggest anti-Asian slurs is the phrase “fresh off the boat.” That phrase is relevant only because we have a significant connection to the water in the first place; so many of us are descended from immigrants who crossed the seas to come to America.

Shamier, a Muslim man and local freediver, emerges from the belly of the Antipolis shipwreck in Cape Town

Shamier, a Muslim man and local freediver, emerges from the belly of the Antipolis shipwreck in Cape Town, South Africa. His ancestors were displaced from their homes by the ocean multiple times; exploring these depths, Shamier reclaims his space and history. Photo: Pier Nirandara

There is so much xenophobia (and sinophobia) in conservation. It’s easy to vilify poor shark fishermen trying to feed their families, or countries struggling to escape the shadows of colonialism that can’t afford to prioritize sustainability. But disenfranchised groups are the most at risk from climate change.

We can fight this with representation—reclaiming marine spaces where the ocean is the common link and universal democratizer. My goal is to utilize my background in writing, film, and photography to uncover the narratives within these spaces, challenge stereotypes, and make it clear that we all can be whatever—and wherever—we want to be.

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