Oct 28, 2016
A Little More Action, Please: Sarah Kuhn, Paul Krueger, and C.B. Lee on the Asian-American Superheroine Novel
When you grow up never seeing anyone who looks like you in media, it’s hard to imagine that representation is even possible. As a teenager, I read fantasy novels and science-fiction adventures that sometimes had Asian sidekicks—a blip on the screen, a passer-by on the street. Their fleeting appearances further entrenched the narrative I’d always heard: we belong in the background. But 2016 has brought not only one, but three Asian-American superheroines to bookshelves, with the promise of more on the way.
Sarah Kuhn, C.B. Lee, and Paul Krueger are three Asian-American writers, with roots in Los Angeles and Chicago. Their histories are as varied as their writing backgrounds. Kuhn has jumped from journalism to comics (Fresh Romance) to fiction, bringing new and exciting stories to each field. C.B. Lee’s debut novel Seven Tears at High Tide was a two-time finalist at the Bisexual Book of the Year Awards, and Krueger’s pre-novel debut work can be found in two anthologies, Sword & Laser and Noir Riot.
In their novels, Kuhn, Krueger, and Lee have written three incredibly different characters, whose identities aren’t narrowed down to their Asian heritage. Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn finds Evie Tanaka, a beleaguered personal assistant to her superheroine best friend, tangling with demon cupcakes in San Francisco. Bartender-in-training Bailey Chen of Paul Krueger’s Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge discovers a paranormal battleground on the streets of Chicago. In Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, Jessica Tran might have just gotten a job with a supervillain, but hey, the job market is tough out there. Each of them have unique struggles and successes, and engaging stories that frames these moments in their lives. I spoke with all three authors about the moments that brought them here, and the ways in which these characters embody and expand Asian-American experiences.
Tell me about the ideas for your books started out.
C.B. Lee: I really wanted to write a novel. The idea came from one of my friends—her daughter is going through the college application process. And she’s like “oh my gosh, I have to do all the stuff, I have to get a job” and she’s like, sixteen and she’s going through job apps. She’s looking for internships basically.
I remember doing this stuff and I was an intern at the California Philharmonic and most of my job turned out to be filing, which is really really boring. So when you’re doing a mundane task like that, you tend to come up with fun stuff, like “this piece of paper is the most important paper in the history of the world!” You come up with fun stories that make your task a lot more important than it actually is.
Because it was with a lot of music nerds, they would always have their music going on. It was pretty chill for an internship. I’ve always loved superheroes and comics and stuff, so what if there’s a superhero that had a really boring job?
Cause when we think about alter egos, a lot of heroes that we think of are also journalists. I was always thinking “I want to write a character who’s Asian,” because I wanted—a lot of times especially growing up and even now, whenever I’d see an Asian character on TV, she was always the sidekick or the best friend. She was there to be the supportive one, or add a little bit of “color”, or say “yay, yay, go!” to the hero. I wanted a main character.
I’m also bisexual, and I don’t see a lot of bisexual characters. We need to have more bi characters, so [Jessica] has a crush on a girl. The story unfolded from there. It’d be fun if she worked for a supervillain, and so on. It started with the internship idea and spiraled from there.
PK: So I graduated right into the teeth of the recession. Right when the economy turned down, I graduated college. So this is like, late 2010. I got my first job working at a busy Manhattan coffee shop, learning the difference between writer and waiter is just one letter. And I’d always treated food service people well before, but I really came to appreciate what they had to go through every day, how important their job was, how undervalued they were.
Right back then, I was already starting to think about what I could do with that experience. So when I moved to LA about three years ago, I was broke and unemployed, and I had no friends. I was sitting in this un-airconditioned apartment that I couldn’t afford by myself—I was in a pretty low point. I had just written a book that had gotten rejected like at a hundred places. It was supposed to be my big magnum opus at 23, and it got rejected everywhere, because of course it did.
So I sat down and decided I was going to write something so silly and ridiculous that I’d never have to worry about it selling, because it would be a thing only for me. And then I sold it two months later. Completely by accident, on Twitter. I guess that’s the other thing about Last Call. It comes jointly from restaurant work and social media, both of which are things that I used to consider a waste of my time. I find it really interesting that it’s both those things that led to my breakthrough, not anything else.
I guess my book is about a lot of disaffected millennial stuff, and disappointment. Like the realities of moving back in with your parents, and having all of your ideas of what your job is gonna be and not measuring up to those. You know, what it feels like when all the people you grew up with feel like they’re moving faster than you, and doing better than you, and you’re still stuck here working a food service job when you can do more. Ultimately it came back to the idea that food service is a noble profession. Every job is worth doing if someone needs you to do it. The line I always come back to here is: I’ve always believed food service people are professional or superheroes. Last Call is just me giving them superpowers.
Sarah Kuhn: I grew up on superheroes. I’m a lifelong nerd, I’m a lifelong comic book reader. I’ve always loved those stories, and I’m also a big urban fantasy fan, all those books with the kickass ladies in leather pants. But I’ve always been fascinated by the side of both comic book stories and urban fantasy stories that maybe doesn’t get explored as much, which is the really mundane side of who is helping you be so fabulous? Who is the person who has to clean up your leather pants when you get demon crap all over them, who is the person that has to maintain your social media presence? Cause obviously that person exists. The next fight, the heroine goes up and she has a whole new pair of leather pants.
I wanted to explore the life of someone who was in that position—the personal assistant to a fabulous superheroine—who has to do all these unglamourous, unseen tasks that superheroes need. That got me thinking: what would that person be like? How did they get into that position? I think what I came to originally was that that person is maybe the least qualified to be a superhero. Someone like me, who likes wearing leather pants but also loves eating potato chips. The person who doesn’t mind exercise, but it isn’t number one on my to-do list. I wanted to explore the life of that person who is unqualified to be a superhero, and what happens when she has to be one anyway.
Those are all the reasons why I loved this book, because it was very much like “that’s me!”
CBL: I really liked those elements of realism too. When you were talking about the trials of being a millennial, and all the drama of it, Jess doesn’t really have superpowers and that the core of her problem in the beginning. She’s like, “well, my parents have these expectations of me,” and she has all of these expectations as well. That stemmed a lot from my own experience as a first-generation kid growing up. My parents were always like, “well, we moved here so you could have a better life!” They’re always like “We worked so hard for you, and if you could become a doctor or a lawyer, that’d be great.”
PK: And here we are.
SK: I think that’s also an interesting element to all three of our books. So many times we’ve seen Asian characters in media, it’s always that overachieving, a bit of a stereotype. Another theme I kinda wanted to explore was the idea of really willfully not living up to your potential, or whatever potential someone else thinks you have. I feel like we wrote underachieving Asian characters, so that’s almost a point of pride.
PK: Bailey, on the surface, looks like one of those typical Asian overachievers. Good grades, studies hard and everything. But one of the things I designed her to be was kind of a deconstruction of that trope. Cause sometimes you can really study as hard as you can, work as hard as you can, and it still might not end up leading anywhere. Then what do you do when this idea of hard work that you’ve been subscribing to your whole life doesn’t work out for you? Are you going to stubbornly keep on working hard, be more flexible, open up, adjust to your circumstances? Redefine what success means for you? Which are all things I made Bailey do over the course of the book.
I also tried to deconstruct the stereotype of the overbearing Asian parents as well.
SK: I loved your parents.
PK: Thank you. I get really frustrated in urban fantasy novels and YA novels, and really [books in] any genre where the parents are this non-entity to show up every couple scenes like “Don’t forget your mundane responsibilities!” So I tried to make them—on the surface, they look like a stereotype, and then I pull a switcheroo on what their motivation has been this whole time. And that was a very deliberate subversion on my part. I’m tired of seeing these stereotypes too.
Taking that as a jumping point then: how have your experiences informed these novels and your writing process throughout?
SK: When you’re writing a character who hasn’t been represented that much historically, I think there are ideas about what that character can be and can’t be. So sometimes the empowering thing is to write something that’s not what people think is a “positive” role model. A friend of mine always says, “Asians can be assholes too.” We should be able to be assholes. We should be able to be everything.
CBL: As fiction and media’s changing, it’s used to be that shows would have one Asian character and they would have to be it for everybody. And if this character’s an asshole, or the too nice one, or the overachieving one, then they’re a stereotype or a caricature. It’s all on them. But when there’s more than one, when you have more writers writing characters, and we have a plethora of them, then we don’t have to have that pressure to represent everyone. We can have Asians who are superheroes, Asians who are villains. We can have characters who can represent people, and if they’re not perfect, it’s okay.
PK: Each of us took the core concept of “Asian superheroes,” and each of us took it in such a different direction, and focused on such different aspects of what that would be like. We created three really different books that represent three realities of being an Asian-American, while also kicking demons in the face until they explode. And I think that that’s really cool, and it’s proof that we’re not monolithic and that we have different experiences. You brought your experiences as a journalist to the story of Evie, I worked in food service for years and that informs a lot of my characterization of Bailey.
SK: I grew up Asian-American in a very small, very white town, reading all this geek media. I didn’t know it was possible to have a character who looked like any of us be at the center of these pieces of media. Because like we were saying, all the characters were sidekicks. There was Jubilee, but she was definitely very sidekick and only allowed to do certain things. I don’t think I knew that was something I could have. And when I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know I could center an Asian-American female character.
I wrote this novella called One Con Glory, and I just assumed the main character was white. I think I internalized a lot of that self-rejection: if you write a story with an Asian main character, it has to be about being Asian. It has to be all about being Asian, it can’t be about anything else, and it has to be about very serious issues. If you do anything else, you’re doing a disservice or no one will read it. When that story gained some traction, people just assumed she was Asian because I am. So when I started writing Heroine Complex—well, a lot of times people are like, “that’s awesome, you made this bold move and decided to have these two Asian-American superheroes.” It wasn’t in any way noble, I just thought “everyone will think that anyway.” It wasn’t until I was in the thick of writing it that I actually felt very empowered by that because I think that they are Asian-American characters, you can’t swap them out for any white characters. They definitely have an essential Asian-Americanness about them, but the story is just them getting to have fun. I think it’s super empowering to show Asian girls because women of color are always marginalized the most and always tortured the most in stories and used as examples to show how racism is bad. So getting to show them doing things like bad karaoke and eating junk food and having hot love interests, and getting to do all these superhero things I had read in stories growing up, was something I found super empowering as I was writing.
And now sometimes I think—because of the subgenres we’re writing in—the reaction people will say sometimes, because these are fun books, is “it’s just fun, it’s not trying to do anything super important.” I say, showing Asian girls having fun is profound. It is groundbreaking, and it’s super important because we never get to see it.
CBL: I think there is enough darkness in the world. There are stories like that which I do enjoy, and there’s a place and time for that. But I really wanted to bring fun and joy and laughter and cheesiness. There are things like the Heroes’ League of Heroes. It’s really cheesy. When you think about Asian-American literature, a lot of it was like Amy Tan and historical fiction about the struggles of life. It’s very heavy and poignant, and it’s good and important, but I don’t want that to be the only media that we have.
SK: I love reading all of those books too. My degree was ethnic studies, but it was basically Asian-American literature because those were all the classics. I think all those stories are still super important, and it’s important to write about the struggle, because the struggle is still going on. But I think what I’m always trying to get out there is that it’s equally important to show Asian-American characters living their lives, and getting to have these joyful experiences.
PK: I don’t really understand this idea that “serious” and “fun” are somehow antithetical. If you look at the quality of children’s television and entertainment, so much of that would be considered lighter fare, just because of the subject matter they’re not allowed to tackle. Nonetheless it manages to still be really profound and affecting, and once you’ve grown up, so much of it will stay with you for the rest of your life. It opens up some part of what it means to be alive and what it means to be a person.
All three of us went for relatively fun instead of the gritty reality of Asian-Americanness. As Sarah pointed out, I’ve seen a lot of reviews where people will say as a backhanded compliment: “Last Call is nothing serious, it’s fun.” It felt serious to me when I was writing it and making it the best I could make it. It felt serious when I decided that Bailey was going to be Asian-American. It was the first time I centered an Asian character in my work. Because I had just assumed that it was something people just weren’t interested in. And if I were to write it, I was afraid to be pigeonholed forever. It was actually talking to Sarah that helped me realize that being pigeonholed isn’t such a bad thing.
SK: I have a whole spiel about that. It’s one of the questions I get asked the most. I think it’s along the path, you make a series of choices. A lot of publishing is not in our hands, but we make a choice about how we talk about our books, and how we sort of position them when we’re speaking in public. I made a choice very early to say “this is an Asian-American superheroine book.” And people were like “What? A superhero book? Why do you want to pigeonhole it as an Asian superhero book?”
Number one, because there aren’t a million of them. There are three now, but not a million of them. I’m very proud that it’s an Asian-American superhero book. But also I feel like when the pigeonholing question comes up, the question underneath it is “but don’t you really want the privilege of writing white people? Don’t you really want the privilege of centering white characters?” Of course there are a lot of great, iconic characters that we grew up with, who I would love to get my hands on. But I’ve said over and over again: if pigeonholing means I get paid for the rest of my life to write kickass Asian-American superheroines all the time, then please pigeonhole me. I am happy with that.
PK: When Sarah phrased it that way, my attitudes about pigeonholing pretty much went out the window. But for a long time, I was afraid of that. I was afraid for what that would mean for my future career. It felt serious to me the first time I identified [my character] as Bailey Chen, and specifically talked about her being Chinese-American, specifically second-generation. Which is not something you see a lot of, I think. Her parents are first-gen, so her family’s been in America for a while because I really wanted to fight against the idea that we are just one step away from the boat that took us here. I wanted to really establish that. That felt serious to me because I wasn’t even sure I was ready to.
I had to make it fun because the reality of it was its own kind of terrifying. I had to include the jokes. I had to really embrace the absurdity of alcohol magic, and then find a way to take it super seriously. The research phase was a lot of fun.
The fact that Bailey was second-generation—I paused while reading and thought to myself “I’ve never really seen any second-generation Asian-American characters in my books.”
PK: I’m first-gen myself, but I was like, “I’m tired of seeing it always be the parents with the funny accents or ‘oh, back in the old country,’ all the sacrifices they had to make to come here”—that’s important, that’s a huge part of my own life. But Bailey’s parents are kind of—they spent their 20s kind of dicking around, and then they had to get serious. I think that’s as much of a valid experience as coming here on a boat and starting from nothing. I wanted to show that it doesn’t just have to be white people who have been here since the Mayflower that can have that kind of life. That can happen to us too.
SK: I’m third-generation, and I feel like I never see that experience. It just goes with the idea that there needs to be more than one, because we do have a variety of experiences. I think that’s an idea that’s fed to us a lot, that there can only be one. I have a friend who’s working on an Asian-American superheroine novel, and he was like “I read yours and now I feel like, why bother?” And I said “no, but we need that! We need this to be an actual genre!” There needs to be a whole variety of Asian-American superheroes, so everybody feels like they have their own that they can identify with. I had a lot of sweats about people getting so excited just hearing that there was an Asian-American superheroine movie coming out, and I was thinking “that’s nice of them” but then I would get this weird sick feeling because I know my characters can’t be everything to everyone. I don’t think most characters can be. I think that’s what we’re going with, that there should be more of a variety of characters and a variety of experiences, so that one character doesn’t have to be everything to everyone.
CBL: There’s a lot of pressure with representation where you worry because this character might not be for everyone. I wrote a character that has a specific experience, and you hope that people relate to them. I can’t represent everybody in one person. You can pick up any comic book, and if you’re a straight white guy, you can probably see yourself in it. So many superheroes. You can be a good guy, you can be an asshole. They have so many personality archetypes that you can see yourself in any way. Writers don’t have to worry that “oh, is Joe Everyman going to see himself in this character?” Hopefully with our new subgenre, there will be more writers in the wings going to write more of these stories.
PK: I dream of the day readers complain about how cliched and played out these stories are.
SK: They’re like “not another one!” That’s like the level of accomplishment we want.
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