Dialogue: Two Asian American Fantasy Authors Talk Identity, Representation, and "Bad Role Models"

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn and Paul Krueger

Paul Krueger and I met because we're part of a very exclusive club: Hapa Authors With Debut Urban Fantasy Novels Starring Asian American Protagonists Out Summer '16.

Paul wrote Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, which chronicles the adventures of recent college grad Bailey Chen as she's inducted into a secret society of bartenders who fight demons using alcohol magic. And I wrote Heroine Complex, which is all about Evie Tanaka, the put-upon personal assistant to glamorous superheroine Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang), and her epic battles against demonic cupcakes, supernatural karaoke stars, and her own feelings.

As we wrap up our debut summers -- and prepare to appear in a show featuring geeky Asian American writers at LA's second annual Comedy Comedy Festival -- Paul and I thought it would be fun to sit down and talk writing, representation, and how our Asian American identities play into our work.

-- Sarah Kuhn

"We're in a very exclusive club."

SARAH: So as we've discussed many times, we're in a very exclusive club. How did you feel when you found out this club existed?

PAUL: At first I was super excited, because two half-Asians meant we could have a club with one cool Asian person and one cool white person. Once it was explained to me that this isn't how science works, I was still excited, because it meant I wasn't alone. I'm pretty used to being the only Asian person in a room, let alone a sub-sub-sub-sub-genre, so having you around was a really nice change.

What about you? When you wrote Heroine Complex, did you expect there to be anyone you could split your spam musubi with?

SARAH: Well, if I'm choosing the room, I'm usually not the only Asian person -- I'm lucky enough to have multiple supportive circles of awesome Asian friends, like my Asian-dominated geek girl gang and the amazing community of artists I've met here in LA, so it's usually more like I'm scrambling to snatch up some spam musubi before everyone else has eaten it. That's one thing that made writing and selling the book so rewarding: I have so many friends who I feel like the book is really specifically for, if that makes sense.

But I didn't know I would meet someone who I would overlap with in so many specific ways and I think that's cool because 1) going through your debut novel release is a uniquely terrifying experience, so it's way better if you have someone who knows exactly what that's like and 2) I'd really love for there to be more POC protagonists in urban fantasy in general.

That brings up something that kind of ties back to the "only Asian in the room" thing -- I feel like a lot of times, when we're POC writing POC protags, there's this weird idea that's drummed into us that we're like Highlanders: there can be only one. Like, I definitely had some sweats when I was on submission that maybe someone else already had an Asian American superheroine novel on submission. And even though I don't think that's the only unique thing about my book, I could totally see people going, "Eh, but we already have an Asian book. So...?"

PAUL: I had those same sweats, but I also came to the conclusion you did: that while Last Call is an Asian American book, that's not all it is. I think that's important for us to remember whenever people tell us there can only be one Asian (or whatever) American at a time. Just like no one white person lives the universal white experience, no one Asian American lives the universal Asian American experience. Look at you and me. We're both half-Asians who grew up to have roughly the same broad idea: Asian American girls with cool superpowers, fighting otherworldly hell-beasts and navigating their own tricky social circles. And yet, look at the completely different places you and I each took it. Evie Tanaka and Bailey Chen are similar in a lot of ways, but they're also very different because of the experiences we each had that led up to us writing them. When you think about it that way, isn't that so cool?

SARAH: That is way cool! And definitely I think that's what we want to keep working toward: a real variety of Asian American stories in all sub-sub-sub-genres and POC protags everywhere. That said, I don't think a lot of decision-makers in various entertainment industries really see it the way we do. I know people who have gotten work rejected because a publisher "already had an Asian book." I know if something that doesn't center a straight, white guy fails -- like, say, a female-led superhero movie or an Asian-led sitcom -- the non-white-guy-ness of it gets blamed above all else and suddenly Asians are banned from leading sitcoms for like 15 years. So when we have those sweats, I also don't think it's crazy -- it's coming from a very real place. For me personally, it's been hard to work through. And the only way I can think of to counter that sort of thing is to keep talking about it and keep pushing for more stories to get out there, both as creators and consumers.

Is there anything else we can do to nip that thinking in the bud, both within ourselves and in the outside world?

PAUL: Within the outside world, I think the best thing to do is just support other Asian creators as much as you can. Shout about their work online, buy it when you can afford it, talk it up to anyone who'll listen to you. We're trendy right now, but publishing is an establishment that successfully ignored us for decades before finally admitting how cool we are. If they did it for that long, they can up and ignore us again tomorrow, just like that. And if that day ever comes, the best resource Asian American creators can hope to have is a community full of people like them that will always have their back.

And within ourselves: just try to love your Asian identity, and the ways it helps make you who you are. Know that you don't have to speak for the entire community, even if other people (especially those not in it) treat you like you are. And do your best to internalize that your story is worth telling because it's unique to you. Others will be able to relate to it, but it will always be yours first.

"You're not alone."

SARAH: Um, are we trendy? Are you sure about that? Because I think we could be way trendier. There could be way more Asian books!

Having a strong AsAm community has been one of the things that's really gotten me through the harder parts of this experience -- I've told this story before, but when I was really deep in the rep sweats (which are a slightly different kind of sweat than what we've been talking about, but they're adjacent), my friend Jenny Yang told me point blank: "You're not alone." I had so much evidence of that already, all these awesome people in my life, but it took her saying the words to me for it to really, really sink in.

PAUL: I didn't really have my "You're not alone" moment until the past year or so. After a lifetime of having basically no Asian friends, I got a whole bunch of great ones all at once. No one ever specifically said those words to me, but they were always saying it to me indirectly just by being around. Cheesy? Sure, but I'm a proud product of the American midwest, so that's par for the course.

Do you have a favorite example of Asian American rep done well? An iconic character you latched onto early?

SARAH: My favorite early rep is Margaret Cho just being herself. Watching her standup was the first time I saw an Asian American woman being bold, loud, sexy, and funny and centering herself as a real protagonist without asking anyone first. It was also the first time I saw someone talking honestly about the Asian American experience, what it means to exist in that space where you're Othered from two different perspectives.

PAUL: Growing up, I was all about Nico Minoru in Marvel's Runaways comic. She had a lot in common with me specifically, in that she was a nerd who was all up on monsters, the occult, and general spookiness. But she was also an aspirational character for me. In times of crisis, she was the one other members of the team would turn to for help. She was desired by her teammates, but never in a salacious or fetishistic way. And she knew how to make the color black really love her in a way I never could, no matter how many times I tried shopping at Hot Topic. And like you and Margaret Cho, I loved that she was portrayed as Asian American, not just Asian. I always got the impression if she were ever dropped in Tokyo, she'd be no better off at navigating than any of her non-Asian teammates. That was something I could really relate to.

Nico Minoru of Marvel's 'Runaways'

SARAH: One thing I really love about Nico is that she's a centered character who's allowed to be flawed -- which is always a tough thing when you start having characters from marginalized backgrounds taking center stage, because there's a kind of onus put on them to be "good role models" and a too perfect character is almost never very interesting. I always liked that she was allowed to make bad decisions, to have a shit ton of inner conflict and turmoil.

I want to talk about that on a couple of levels. First, we've both talked about it taking a while for us to center Asian characters in our work. For you, why was that?

PAUL: I went through a really long period of trying to dissociate myself from my Asian side. I was tired of being different, or Other, or whatever. I just wanted to be "normal." So I stopped watching anime, ate less rice and more white foods, and tried to avoid mentioning my Asian-ness at all. I went on like this for years, ashamed of stuff that was a very real part of me -- and more importantly, made me happy.

I didn't just wake up one day and come running back into Asian America's arms. I reintroduced myself to it, bit by bit. And the very last thing I came around on was including it in my work. It occurred to me to try it, but I was always afraid to go through with it. I was intimidated by the idea that I'd be seen as speaking for all of Asian America, instead of just myself. I was worried that people would assume characters that were nothing like me were autobiographical, just because of our shared heritage (which has happened, by the way). And of course, I was also worried that no one would relate to an Asian American story, as told by Paul Krueger. After all, hadn't all my problems come from feeling isolated by my weird hybrid identity?

What finally pushed me to create Bailey Chen was the fact that Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge never supposed to be my debut novel. It was supposed to just be some personal therapy for me that only a few friends would see. I didn't think it'd ever sell, so I didn't take the idea that it might into serious consideration. And by letting go of the pressures I'd put on myself for my first two manuscripts, I suddenly felt free to write an Asian American hero, plunk her down right in the center of the narrative, and make everything revolve around her for once.

And even then, I don't think I quite did it. I still wanted some level of distance to hide behind, which is why I made Bailey full Chinese American, instead of a Hapa Filipina. If I were to write Last Call today, I'd have probably made her at least full Filipina, if not half, because in those three years I've had more time to come to terms with my own specific identity.

That's something I actually really appreciate about you and Evie. Like you, Evie is half-Japanese. That's a part of your personal identity you were brave enough to put into your protag, and that takes a surprising amount of guts when you're seen as operating outside the parameters of "normal." Did you ever consider doing what I did? Find an identity adjacent to yours, and then write from that so you could still have that safety of distance?

SARAH: I'm so glad you came back to yourself (and also that you started eating rice again, because how the hell did you live without it?!) and one thing I think is really interesting is what you're saying about worrying that no one would relate to your story -- because within everyone's Asian American stories, as specific as they are, there seem to be these connective touchstones, which I'm sure people are finding in Last Call. I know I felt that when Bailey has to deal with the white Asianphile character who's basically trying to be more Asian than she is. We all know that guy.

My decision to make Evie pretty much my exact racial identity didn't really come from a "brave" place. When I wrote my novella, One Con Glory, I just assumed the main character was white because I had internalized the thinking that Asians couldn't lead stories unless the stories were all about being Asian. I'm mad that I had bought into that, but if you never see something, it's hard to believe it can be real. I also thought everyone else would think she was white -- even though it's never really specified -- because "white is the default" seems to be the usual assumption. But a lot of people actually assumed she was Asian -- because they assumed she was me. This seems to happen really, really often when you're a female writer writing in certain genres: people always assume your female protagonist is thinly veiled autobiography. No matter what you make that character, if she's a woman, you never seem to get that "safety of distance." So I was like, "I should just make this main character Hapa because everyone will think she's me anyway." But as I was writing it, I started feeling really empowered by that. It was this amazing feeling of seeing someone who looks like me and so many of my friends getting to do all the protagonist things and have all the adventures -- and that definitely came with amplified feelings of being extra vulnerable and exposed, but the exhilaration outweighed it. It just made me so happy.

But it did bring up something else as well, going back to the "flawed" thing with Nico: since there aren't thousands of Asian American superheroine books out there, I did have some anxieties about the ones I was presenting not being the best role models. Like, they make bad decisions, they don't always do the right thing, and they swear a lot. I love writing those kinds of characters and I love reading them, but I sometimes wondered if those were the kinds of characters Asian America needs right now. Did you have any of those worries?

PAUL: Oh man, I'm right there with you on the swearing. I actually had one of my beta readers come back to me and say I had too much of it in Last Call. My response was essentially, "You try preventing an imminent demonic apocalypse while barely staying alive, and see how long you can keep a civil tongue about you."

And I think that sums up my attitude towards the notion that the characters we make have to be role models. A white character in Bailey's situation would probably swear just as much, and it's likely they'd be given the unquestioning latitude to do so. So if characters like them can have that freedom, we unquestioningly deserve to have it, too. For me, it was about asserting that those things -- swearing, bad decision-making, selfishness -- were no one's exclusive territory to dance in. They're things that make us human, and to me deploying them in Bailey's story felt like a great way to break through the stereotype of Asian Americans as unemotional automatons that are good at homework and nothing else.

In this regard, I think Heroine Complex is particularly remarkable, in that you provide us with not one but three Asian American heroines, each flawed in unique and interesting ways. Was that by deliberate design, to combat the idea that there's this monolithic Asian American identity for us to live up to?

"Why call it an Asian American superhero book? Why not just a superhero book?"

SARAH: It's like my friend Christine Dinh always says: Asians can be assholes too!

I think having multiple AsAm heroines came from a place of wanting to center multiple women of color characters -- because so many times, if you get one in a big, fun superhero/fantasy story, that's all you get. I'm so sick of that. I wanted a story starring people who look like me and my friends. I love it when I find any work that features multiple WOC interacting with each other and some of my favorite parts to write in Heroine Complex were all the bonding and fighting moments between Evie, Aveda/Annie, and Evie's little sister Bea.

But this was another thing that I think took on more weight as I was writing it and did start to play into the idea you mentioned: combating the monolith. One Con Glory stars a geek girl protagonist, and when I wrote it, there weren't a ton of things out there with geek girl protagonists. While the response was mostly very positive, I got some negative responses from folks who were excited by the idea of a geek girl protag, then disappointed because she wasn't a geek girl protag they could relate to. I totally get that because I've been on the reader/consumer side of that equation so many times, where you finally get representation, but it's not quite what you want. And I think the answer to that is to have more representation -- all the geek girl protagonists! All the Asian American superheroines! So one character doesn't have to be all things to all people. I initially had thought of Heroine Complex as a series from just Evie's perspective, but when I started thinking of it as a series with multiple Asian American female protagonists, it was way more exciting to me.

This brings up another thing that's been interesting for me: I know some people are like, "Why call it an Asian American superhero book? Why not just a superhero book?" Personally, I find it empowering to call it an Asian American superhero book. Because even though it's not just about being Asian, I feel very proud of that piece of its identity. What about you, where do you position the Asianness when identifying or talking about Last Call?

PAUL: For purely mercenary reasons it's not the first thing I tend to mention, but it's almost always the second. I've just found that the quickest way to raise eyebrows is to lead with "alcohol magic," so I try to get that into the conversation as quickly as possible. If that piques their interest, then I feel like I have the freedom to pivot the conversation towards the book's Asian-ness. A spoonful of bourbon to help the medicine go down, you know?

I think part of that sugarcoating impulse comes from my own complicated feelings about being identified as an Asian American writer. I'm anxious about getting pigeonholed as a guy who only writes Asian Stuff. I like writing Asian Stuff, but I also want the freedom to write other things someday if the mood ever strikes me, and that can get tricky if people already have a strong preconceived notion of what you do. Yet at the same time, I'm also anxious about not representing the community with as much zeal and commitment as I could. And I'm even more anxious about accidentally contributing to problematic representation, despite my best efforts to avoid it. If I'm being honest, it's still something I'm working through with myself.

SARAH: I think these are issues we're all working through as creators of color and I think it's totally okay to be conflicted about them and to not have a set "stance" on every single thing. The whole thing is a process, right? To be honest, when it comes to "pigeonholing," I've worked my way to the opposite perspective, which is that if pigeonholing means someone wants to pay me for the rest of my life to write badass Asian American ladies, then please: pigeonhole me! It took me so long to come to a place where I felt like I could do that at all -- and beyond that, felt like someone would actually buy it -- that now I don't want to stop.

PAUL: I'm sure by now you've gotten a decent amount of feedback from Asian American readers about Heroine Complex. What's that been like?

SARAH: I've gotten really awesome feedback from Asian American readers, particularly geeky young women who love SF/F and romance and want to see stories where they get to have joy, fun, love -- which makes sense, because that's basically me. I know once you put a book out into the world, it's not just yours anymore and reader response and reviews aren't really for the author, but it still means a lot to me when I feel like I did what I set out to do and it resonates for people who aren't me. What about you, what's the feedback been like?

PAUL: Like you, some of my best feedback's come from Asian American readers who see themselves in my main character. I wrote my book about a frustrated, underemployed recession victim who's desperate to find some direction in her life. It's a pretty common experience in my generation, and I'm hardly the first millennial to fictionalize it. But what my Asian American readers have told me -- particularly the millennial ones -- is that they appreciate getting to be the face of that experience for once. That's about as high of praise as I can hope for, and every time someone tells me that, it makes it a little easier for me to deal with my own mixed (heh) feelings about who I am. And it definitely encourages me to keep writing about it.

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, The Mary Sue, 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.

Paul Krueger is the author of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. Out this summer, it's about a secret society of bartenders who fight demons with alcohol magic. He also fronts the Adventure Time-themed punk band Lemonbadd. A Chicago native, Paul currently lives in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter at @NotLikeFreddy.

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