Finding the Fire: On Community, Burnout, and That One Scene from 'Deep Space Nine'

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn

There are certain scenes from stories that stay with us forever, their lines looping through our brains like the stickiest of earworms. I can recite sections of the '80s era Anne of Green Gables movies word for word. I know every beat, every breath, in the first Princess Leia/Han Solo kiss scene like the back of my hand. And occasionally, my mind tubes will just randomly call up the post-teaser scene from season 2, episode 2 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "The Circle," and play it like it's my favorite song.

In this scene, tough-as-nails Major Kira Nerys (the iconic Nana Visitor) has been recalled to Bajor and is in the process of packing all her stuff. As she packs, she is constantly interrupted by her colleagues on the space station. They want to say goodbye, they want to give her gifts, they want to encourage her to challenge the reassignment and stay at her current post on the station.

"Fight for what you want!" shapeshifting security chief Odo growls at her. "It's what you do best."

As the door keeps chiming and more and more people pile into Kira's cramped quarters, the chaos builds to a perfectly calibrated pitch -- the dialogue snaps, the ensemble chemistry sizzles, and Kira's irritation grows from kindling to wildfire. Just as she's about to totally lose it and yell at all of them to get the hell out, yet another person enters, someone who's not a space station colleague -- hunky Bajoran religious leader Vedek Bareil. The hijinks bubble is pierced, the one-liners cease. Bareil apologizes for interrupting.

"No, please come in," Kira says hastily. "These are my..."

She pauses, the tension draining from her body. She looks around at all the faces who have intruded on her space, who won't shut up and go away. Her eyes soften, and a slight smile plays around the corners of her mouth.

"These are my friends."

This is a huge realization for Kira, a prickly freedom fighter with a hardscrabble past who never thought she would truly have friends -- or that she needed them. At that point, the beginning of season 2, DS9's varied, clashing ensemble of characters had fused into something she gave up on long ago: they are a family. A community. An assemblage of personages who will always show up for each other, even if it's in the form of totally irritating the friend they're trying to support.

I love this scene. It's like its own little story, its own little arc, each perfectly composed beat playing out to a satisfying conclusion. I love it so much, that I recently realized I've written a version of this type of scene in nearly every one of my books. My Heroine Complex books, in particular, always have this scene: the rag-tag crew of misfits that is my superheroine team have become their own kind of found family, and there's always some moment where they just have to pile into the protagonist's room and offer their own kind of chaos-packed support for whatever she's going through. The latest book, Haunted Heroine, actually starts with this scene, all of fire-wielding, pregnant superheroine Evie Tanaka's friends cramming themselves into a tiny bathroom to check on her after some unceremonious puking.

In a way, it is my favorite song.

* * *

When a thing like this keeps turning up in my work, I have to stop and think about why. Why did this scene imprint itself on my brain? Is it because DS9 was one of the first shows I was really and truly obsessed with, so much so that I broke down into full body sobs when that hunky Vedek Bareil was killed off one and a half seasons later? Or because I admire the elegance and snap of the writing -- by the late, great Peter Allan Fields? Or because I have always identified with Kira, a woman whose anger blazes so bright, she sometimes can't feel anything else?

I think it is, as usual, much simpler than that. When I first saw this scene, it represented something that I, a lonely, nerdy Asian American girl growing up in a very white small town, wanted very badly: a group of people who would tell me I belonged with them, who would stand up for me no matter what, and who would make me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. A community.

As I ventured into adulthood, I always felt myself reaching for that. I moved away from my small town. I met other geek girls who had been "the only one" in the comics shop, or who also remembered trying to slip highly detailed Trek continuity discussions into casual conversation with people who were definitely not interested, or who had tried to twist their uncooperative hair into Princess Leia buns. I met Asian Americans of all backgrounds and all walks of life. I remember one of the first deeper conversations I had with someone who became one of my dearest college friends -- we were talking about our parents, and then, more specifically, our moms.

"Asian moms," she said, shaking her head, her tone conveying absolutely everything those two words can mean. I laughed knowingly. She said that was when she knew we would always be friends.

I think back to all those first moments of connection I've had with people a lot -- when someone really sees you and you see them and it feels so revelatory, to be understood this way. It feels like you are no longer the only one who's lonely or scared or huddled in your small town basement bedroom, crying over Star Trek. Communities build up around those simple connections that begin with one person reaching out and understanding someone to their core.

And as my various communities grew up around these connections, I always felt a warm glow whenever I was surrounded by my favorite groups of people. Like I finally belonged in this moment, with these people, in a way that I'd never truly belonged before.

I felt like Kira in that scene when she pauses, softens, smiles. When she realizes: These are my friends.

As years passed, I threw my whole being into these communities. I loved having a sprawling, interconnected posse at comic book conventions -- how you could start the night hanging out with a couple people, end it with a raucous cast of thousands, and then run into each other on the floor the next day and laugh about someone's hilariously specific rant about some pocket of Dragonlance lore the night before. I loved finding the beautiful Asian American arts community of Los Angeles, and bringing so many of my Asian geeks into that. Communities connecting with communities! What could be better?

When I started writing books and comics and other things professionally, my communities only seemed to grow. I loved my book parties and cons and other events I was lucky enough to be part of because they always felt like something bigger than me -- those communities coming together, appreciating each other's talents, making new friends and cheering each other on.

That DS9 scene again: everyone piling into a room and glorious chaos ensuing.

* * *

So. Where did it all go wrong? Because at some point, the idea of community soured for me. And in 2020 (already our year of hell, I know), it soured so fucking much that I had to lie down for a full day and wonder why I'd given so much of my blood to a concept that seemed destined to turn toxic.

Because my communities had grown and morphed in a way that started to seem, at the best of times, unmanageable. My work life and my personal life all bled together. There were no boundaries. I started dreading a lot of the con meetups I had once loved. I stopped organizing various group outings I had once delighted in. I grew exhausted constantly calling out the systemic racism and sexism and microaggressions and everything in between in every single industry I work in because nothing ever seemed to change -- not really.

Like Kira, I'm used to fighting and have been doing it my whole life -- that is simply part of being a woman of color existing in the world. But I guess my idealized notion of community made me see the circles I was part of as a safe haven from so many of the sexist and racist micro and macroaggressions I experience on a daily basis, a place to vent, a space where we could mobilize and fight together.

I channeled my fiery temper, the one that was so much like Major Kira's, into fighting everything. As a small example, take all the toxic, gatekeeping assholes in geekdom who hate anyone who is not exactly like them with all of their being -- I was in the trenches for the Fake Geek Girl Wars of the aughts. And then back in the trenches again when I realized that some white geek girls thought victory for them was victory for everyone when it was most demonstrably not. I fought long and I fought hard and I felt my temper burning bright, powering me through.

One of the reasons I gave Evie Tanaka, Heroine Complex's first ever protagonist, an uncontrollable firepower was that I had a very specific long-running fantasy about being able to shoot fire out of my hands. I think I imagined that as a way of being able to channel my temper -- or exorcise it, even. To make what felt like an anger that was burning me up, in danger of consuming me...mean something.

But all that fighting -- year after year, day after day, minute after minute -- chips away at a person. At some point, you ask yourself: What am I fighting for?

In the midst of our daily global horror show, long-standing institutions are finally being questioned, harassers of all kinds are being outed, the dark patches of communities are being exposed -- these feel like good, necessary, invigorating things. But with that comes trauma for those of us who have been living with this for so long, so much of it bottled up for years and years. And then the inevitable questions: why did it take this long? Why were these people allowed to run around wreaking unchecked havoc on so many? And why are so many of us fighting so hard to be part of something that seems to, at its core, hate who we are?

When yet another story broke about someone who had used many people -- including me -- to access and cause harm to several of my communities... I did not even have the words. I felt like giving up. I suddenly remembered every bad thing that had ever happened to me within these "safe spaces," and how I'd brushed most of it off as the cost of existing there.

Like, for example, in the geek community (and sorry, I know I'm writing about the messy, overlapping chaos of my many communities, and all of that is a bit hard to parse, so I'm trying to be specific where I can), I could suddenly recall so many things that had seemed so small at the time: the email from a professional colleague confessing "a dream" he'd had about me. The male "friend" who slung his arm around me at con karaoke and drunkenly whisper-yelled in my ear "I AM TOUCHING YOUR BOOB." The rumors that I'd gotten a writing job because I'd obviously slept with someone -- clearly the only reason I'd be offered a writing job, period.

And again: those are the "smaller" incidents, the ones I can bring myself to describe. The gatekeeping, the gaslighting, the sexism, the racism, the harassment -- it was all there, rotting things away at the core. And it felt like every community I was part of was corruptible in that way.

My temper, my fire that had burned so bright, felt extinguished.

I could feel myself withdrawing from this thing I'd longed for, ever since childhood. Maybe Kira would've been better off if she'd just kicked everyone out of her space as soon as they intruded.

Maybe I would be too.

* * *

When I am exhausted, when I am a husk, I want to reach for things that comfort -- but often find that I can't. And I didn't know what to reach for here anyway. I could only see the concept of community -- this thing that had brought me so much comfort in the past -- as a big amorphous blob of toxicity. What would I even reach for if I could?

Here is a crucial thing I forgot, in my husk-like state -- when I was out there fighting, I was never fighting alone. When you have community, you don't always have to be the one doing the reaching. Your community will reach back for you.

And that's what happened.

There was the friend who FaceTimed me, took a long look at my impressive eye-bags, patiently listened to my rambling "plans" for my work, and said: "I think maybe you should rest." The close-knit circle of women in one of the male-dominated industries I work in who said, "Hell yeah, let's just have a whole Zoom where we fucking vent about these assholes and maybe come up with some action items." The virtual birthday party where I showed up, exhausted and propped up on a pillow, straggly bangs grown out...and felt an immediate surge of warmth, seeing so many faces that I love, all of them greeting each other with so much enthusiasm.

It came in bits and pieces. The group texts, the long phone calls, the "Are you okay?" check-ins. Yet another FaceTime with a friend where I tried to express my feelings about being part of community -- how I love looking around a room full of people and feeling like I am part of something bigger than me. How I didn't know if I could trust that feeling ever again. And how, despite all that... I missed it. I missed it so fucking much.

My friend was kind, gentle, empathetic -- of course you miss that, she said. It's so much a part of you. And yes, community means being part of something bigger than yourself -- but you have to remember that you are still important.

I felt something small spark in my chest. Maybe not my fire at full strength. But something that could become that.

My community reached back for me -- and I, very tentatively, took its hand.

* * *

A few weeks later, my friend Grant Imahara, one of the famous faces of Mythbusters, passed away suddenly -- and several communities I am part of showed up in force to mourn him. Something about the way they showed up punctured my overwhelming wall of grief. There were Asian Americans who said they'd been inspired by him to go into science or engineering or robotics. Nearly everyone in geekdom had a story about him being kind to them, or delightfully enthusiastic about something super nerdy. Several people told me they'd met him at one of my book parties, and he had been incredibly gracious and appreciative of their fandom.

Personally, I remembered the moment my friendship with Grant started -- we'd met a couple times, and then he saw me tweeting about katsu and messaged me asking for LA recs. We had a very long conversation about katsu. And then, over the years, we ended up eating a lot of katsu together. There was even a whole little community that grew around eating katsu together. It was called Katsu Klub, and it was awesome. He also encouraged me constantly and believed in me, even when I couldn't explain my work in a coherent way, or thought I wasn't very good at something. He always thought people were good at things.

And as I saw everyone remembering Grant and talking about how kind and enthusiastic and encouraging he'd been, how he'd connected with so many people, how nearly everyone had a truly lovely story about him, how reaching out to a near stranger to talk about katsu was very much in line with a lot of stuff that he did and who he was as a person...I remembered that thought I'd had about those first precious moments of connection, and how communities build up around them.

How the start of community is still always one person reaching out to another and truly seeing them. And how that makes us feel like maybe we belong somewhere.

And goddammit... I felt that fire fully ignite in my chest again.

This is not to say that I was "inspired" by the death of my friend -- I loathe the concept of finding any kind of so-called silver lining in something so horribly tragic. But I am inspired by how he lived his life. I wish he was still here with us, living it. And the way he treated people, the way he fostered community, is how I want to go forward as I live mine.

Communities are made up of people. Some of those people are going to try to worm their way in, to use their communities to harass, behave badly, invoke trauma. Some of those people are just fucking awful.

But I still believe I -- we -- can fight to make our communities what they should be. Safe spaces, brimming with people connecting, belonging, truly seeing each other. Supporting each other through the bad times and cheering each other on. Protecting each other from harm. Kicking out those who cause that harm. Reaching back for those who feel like they just can't reach one more time.

Because even when communities are bigger than us, every single person is important. Every single person deserves to feel protected, safe, and seen. And all of that is worth fighting for.

My fire is back. My fire burns bright. If my fire burns me out once more, I know there are people who will reach back for me again.

And... look, I know this is goofy, but sometimes when I close my eyes and let the fire take over, I like to imagine that I can hear Grant's ever encouraging voice, quoting Odo in that scene from Deep Space Nine:

"Fight for what you want -- it's what you do best."

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels -- a series starring Asian American superheroines. The latest book, Haunted Heroine, is out now. 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 and a nominee for YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.

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