So I wrote this book called Heroine Complex and I finally have a good answer for the inevitable question every writer dreads: "What's it about?"
I've gone through the Way Too Long Explanation That Goes Off On Many Tangents phase. The Read It And Find Out (Followed by Big Cheesy Smile) phase. The What Is Anything About Really, You Know What I'm Saying? Now Let's Change the Subject To Something That Is Not Me phase.
Here's my actual answer: It's about Asian Girls Having Fun.
At first I said this in a jokey, quippy, tossed off kind of way.
Now I say it as if it's the most important thing in the world. Because you know what? It kind of is.
The Asian Girls Having Fun in my book also happen to be superheroines. There's Evie Tanaka, who's Hapa (like me!), a wallflowerish personal assistant who must figure out what it means to be a heroine in her own right, and Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang), who's Chinese American, fabulous, and San Francisco's most beloved superheroine. Together, these two navigate the complications of their ever-shifting best friendship, the joys of bad junk food and worse karaoke, and the perils of falling in love. They Have Fun all over the damn place.
I've written at length about the "rep sweats" I've experienced with this book, the worries that I might not give the communities I value the representation they so desperately need. Buried within those sweats was one very specific worry: that I've been given the rare opportunity to write Asian American protagonists and instead of writing about something "important" -- The Struggle of My People or The Struggle with Identity or The Struggle Against Racism -- I wrote scenes involving loving descriptions of spam musubi, jokey banter, and the choreography of making out in karaoke bar closets.
But the more I thought about this, the more a certain realization started to come into focus. And it finally solidified when I read a quote from Amma Asante, the filmmaker behind the brilliant Belle, a period drama based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Dido is a mixed race woman growing up in 18th century upper-crust British society and in Belle, we get to see her dealing with all that this entails -- but we also get to see her falling in love. In an interview with IndieWire, Asante was asked why she went the route of "Austen-esque romance" to tell Dido's story.
"If I'm honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved," she said. "We don't see it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit, change the dialogue a little bit -- we are loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she was worthy of being loved, and she was loved."
I teared up reading that. I cried openly watching Belle. And I realized that Asante had perfectly vocalized something I'd never quite been able to figure out. It's the reason why I can still quote from shows like Living Single and A Different World, which firmly centered women of color having fun, funny adventures and goofy bonding moments with each other. The reason I imprinted hard on the movie Double Happiness, a rom-com with a twentysomething Asian Canadian protagonist (played by Sandra Oh). The reason I got just a little bit weepy when in the first few moments of Quantico, it became clear that Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) was going to get to have wild sex with a hot stranger and then go on to do all the other Protagonist Things throughout the course of the series. The reason I thrill in the twisty doings of Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and How To Get Away With Murder's Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) -- who, even if they're not exactly Having Fun, are certainly Protagonisting all over the place. The reason Bend It Like Beckham and The Middleman, which present WOC leads (Parminder Nagra, Natalie Morales) finding true joy in unlikely places, are among my go-to rewatches.
Because these stories show me I am worthy of all of that. And perhaps even more importantly, I am worthy of being the center of a story.
Stories solely about The Struggle are necessary, vital -- a key force in making our voices heard and getting our history told. But as a reader/viewer/consumer of media, stories that center Women of Color Having Fun resonate and stay with me just as much because they show me a reality where instead of being beaten down and crushed just for existing, I can thrive as a protagonist who gets to have joy, friendship, love -- all the things protagonists get to have.
Again, that I am worthy of that.
And it should be noted that these stories often address The Struggle even if it is not the main focus of the story. Identity informs experience and these experiences are woven into the fabric of the characters. Jade and Jess, the protagonists of Double Happiness and Bend It Like Beckham, struggle when their own desires are at odds with the traditional values of their parents. A Different World regularly took on racism, as in an episode where Whitley (Jasmine Guy) faces unexpected prejudice from a bigoted jewelry store clerk. Belle manages the amazing feat of intertwining big issues of social change with beautiful, stirring romance involving a WOC Having Fun and that's probably why it's one of my favorite movies of all time. And in Heroine Complex, the main characters face familiar taunts about their "weird eyes" and "gross food" from childhood bullies.
And yet... we still have a tendency to dismiss work that's on the lighter, funnier, and/or more romantic side as less important than work that takes on an Important Issue as its central thesis. I've certainly done that when it comes to both my work and the work of others, using such time-honored trivializing phrases like "well, it's not earth-shattering, but... it's fun."
You know what? Showing Asian Girls Having Fun, centering WOC Having Fun, is earth-shattering. Seeing it in others' work and writing it in my own feels like a revolutionary act. Hell, experiencing it in real life -- like when I spent most of the holiday season going to various The Force Awakens showings with my Asian-dominated geek girl gang -- feels like a revolutionary act.
So let's start celebrating it as one.
WOC Having Fun in fiction and in real life: I salute you, I love you, I am you.
And you are worthy of everything.
Sarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex -- the first in a series starring Asian American superheroines -- for DAW Books. She also wrote The Ruby Equation for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the romantic comedy novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from io9 and USA Today and is in development as a feature film. Her articles and essays on such topics as geek girl culture, Asian American representation, and Sailor Moon cosplay have appeared in The Toast, Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.com, Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, StarTrek.com, Creative Screenwriting, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. In 2011, she was selected as a finalist for the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award. You can visit her at heroinecomplex.com or on Twitter: @sarahkuhn.