Making a Scene: How Claudia Kishi Helped Me and My YA Heroine Find Our Voices

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn

I love Claudia Kishi. Ever since she first emerged on the pages of The Baby-Sitters Club books -- that touchstone series about enterprising tweens who start their own small business and become embroiled in the world of Kid Kits, cruises, and mysteries that involve things like ghost cats -- I've been obsessed with her every move. I related to her creativity, her inability to master math, and her whole Japanese American girl living in the white suburbs thing. I coveted her in-room phone line, her hollowed out books full of candy, and of course... her clothes.

Oh, her clothes. So many bright colors. So many "clashing" patterns. So many bedazzled ankle boots. The endless pages that lovingly describe her outfits (often characterized as "wild") are the most worn and dog-eared in my BSC collection. I wanted every single piece of her wardrobe so very badly.

But I also found myself caught in a classic tweenager-y paradox. I thought I wanted to stand out like Claudia, but I also knew in my heart of hearts that it would probably be better for my whole middle school experience if I did not stand out at all. At least, not any more than I already did, thanks to that "Japanese American girl living in the white suburbs" thing.

I sometimes found myself trying to incorporate a Claudia-esque piece into my look -- oversized men's shirts, scrunchy socks in a Technicolor rainbow of colors, barrettes shaped like animals. But I always ended up feeling self-conscious, the bravado I'd felt when clipping that sparkly giraffe into my hair melting as soon as one of the popular white girls sent me one of those disdainful looks that just seemed to say: really?

Claudia was never scared to make a scene.

I usually ended up feeling like my super fly accessory was wearing me instead of the other way around, stoking my desire to melt into the background so I wouldn't get mocked for my "weird eyes" or asked "but where are you really from?" or "WHAT ARE YOU" for the zillionth time.

I wore a lot of black. (And not in a cool goth way, in a "I'll just buy seven of the same shirt and wear it under a hoodie and not worry about it" kind of way.) I wanted to dress like Claudia, to express my creativity in those bright colors and patterns, but I didn't have her confidence, her unshakable certainty that she looked cool no matter what anyone else said. I did not yet have the panache to rock that sparkly giraffe barrette -- that seemingly tiny thing that was somehow loud and attention-getting and, you know, made a scene.

Claudia was never scared to make a scene. But I had been conditioned by so many things -- the vicious teasing for standing out the way I did, the societal and pop culture-influenced expectations of Asian women -- to make myself small.

Making a scene sounded like the worst thing ever.

All these years later, I wrote a book -- actually, I've written several now, but this one is called I Love You So Mochi and it's about Kimi Nakamura, a teenage Japanese American fashionista who journeys to Japan on a quest of self-discovery. She connects with her estranged grandparents, eats a lot of awesome food, and falls for a cute aspiring med student who moonlights as a costumed mochi mascot. She is one of my Asian Girls Having Fun, a girl who loves fashion and art and definitely stands out (like Claudia) -- but isn't always sure she wants to (like me circa those tween/teen years).

While I was writing this book, I found a lot of pure joy in describing Kimi's various outfit creations, all things I wish I'd had as a teen, all things I probably would have been too scared to wear. A "modern superheroine" look that started out as a vintage figure skating costume. A bright, swirly-patterned frock decorated with paint and the eclectic stains from a trip to an amusement park. A midnight blue concoction of asymmetric layers fashioned out of the bones of an old prom gown.

But there were things I took from my own closet, too. A bolt of fabric Kimi's drawn to -- bright pink, sprigged with little white flowers -- is the basis for one of my favorite vintage dress treasures. The gigantic rings she wears -- heavy rocks held in place with twists of shimmery metal -- grace my fingers on a regular basis. And the red kimono/orange obi that her mother gives her, the thing that sparks her love of "clashing" color combos, is something my own mother gave to me.

I realized that while I might have been too scared, too timid, too afraid of making a scene to rock that sparkly giraffe in my tween years, I had grown into an adult who totally dresses like Claudia Kishi.

How had that happened? How had I gone from an anxiety-ridden child trying to blend into the washed-out school hallway to an anxiety-ridden adult who would like you to please take note of her cavalcade of loud florals and obnoxious animal prints and wears clashing colors with unrestrained glee? Someone who gravitates toward making a scene rather than running away from it as fast as her boring-clothes-clad legs can carry her?

I had grown into an adult who
totally dresses like Claudia Kishi.

In Mochi, Kimi is scared to step up and claim her passions, to admit that expressing herself through fashion is big and important and something she loves with all her heart. She has to learn how to make that statement, how to be loud about it. How to no longer make herself small.

I think that's something I had to learn, too -- but rather than one big lightbulb moment, it's been a series of tiny sparks over the years. Those bright vintage pieces sneaking their way into my closet one by one as I went from "ah, pretty" to "this looks like leopard print threw up on leopard print and then someone put sequins all over it, I LOVE IT." Leaving home and finding my communities, realizing that the world is bigger than the tiny town I came from -- that I could make it bigger. Allowing that blaze of anger out instead of tamping it down when I was told Asian American superheroines or Asian American rom-com leads or Asian American anything would never sell. Finding power in being loud, in saying what I want, in refusing to be small because it makes someone else more comfortable.

And Claudia's been there with me through it all. Actually, if there was one final lightbulb moment, I think it was this: over the years, I've connected with so many other Asian American women who were inspired to express their creativity and be loud about it because of Claudia. It feels like now so many of us have found both our voices and each other -- and being able to come together and lift each other up makes us so much more powerful. So much louder. So much bigger.

It is kind of magical to think of all of us as kids, not knowing each other but reading the same pages about Claudia's wild outfits. Imagining a bigger world of thriving, joyful, artistic Asian American girls.

I sometimes also imagine myself reaching back to that scared, timid girl I was, the girl embarrassed by her sparkly giraffe barrette.

It's all gonna be okay, I'd say. Someday you'll be here, wearing the shit out of as many sparkly giraffe barrettes as you want. You will totally make a scene -- and you will love every fucking minute.

I Love You So Mochi launches in LA on Sunday, June 2, at 3 pm at The Ripped Bodice (3806 Main Street, Culver City, CA 90232). The launch will feature special appearances by Maurene Goo, Keiko Agena, Julia Cho, Will Choi, Hayden Szeto, and Jenny Yang. Plus: mochi treats by JustJENN, giveaways from Asian American Girl Club, and more! Sarah will also be appearing 6/3 at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego with Maurene Goo and Cindy Pon!

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels—a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection. Other projects include a graphic novel about Batgirl Cassandra Cain for DC Comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Additionally, Sarah was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award. She has also written assorted short fiction, non-fiction, and comics about geeks, aliens, romance, and Barbie. Yes, that Barbie. A third-generation Japanese American, she lives in LA with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures. You can visit her online at heroinecomplex.com.

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