At the beginning of the month, I was lucky enough to be a guest of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. It was a truly stimulating experience, and I met members of the Asian diaspora who further informed my experience of being Asian outside of Asia: Will Yu, who created #StarringJonCho; the actor Lee Shorten, who was in The Man in the High Castle and spoke about his experience being adopted by a non-Asian Australian family; Jeff Yang, journalist and father of Hudson Yang, the young star of Fresh Off the Boat; Bernard Chang, comic book artist behind Batman Beyond and covers of Hulk and New Super Man; and of course my friends in the comics industry — Sarah Kuhn, Christine Norrie, and Jon Tsuei.
Many thanks to VAFF founder Barbara Lee for inviting me and Leonard S. Chang for moderating the comics panel!
In each session, the panelists gave a brief talk, and then sat down to answer a moderator's and the audience's questions. Here is a rough transcript of my talk.
Hello, everyone. My name is Jennifer de Guzman. I’m a writer and I’ve worked as an editor, PR person, and journalist in the comics industry since 2001. In the last 15 years I’ve seen representation of people of color become ever more visible in the industry, and in particular of mixed race Asian people of all backgrounds like myself.
A bit about me: Former California Poet Laureate Al Young once called me a “quintessential Californian.” And I’ll take that — my family history is one of immigration, of a grandfather who worked in Chinese restaurants while he went to business college, of another who worked at the docks and on farms, of two sets of grandparents who flouted anti-miscegenation law in order to marry, two mixed-race parents who found their places — and each other — in the rich Bay Area Filipino community.
Sometimes, though, I find this quintessentially Californian history a strange match for who I am — I'm an Anglophile with degrees in English, a nerd who loves comics, a vegetarian (and if you don’t think that’s at odds with being Filipino, you’ve never tried to ask for vegetarian food at a Filipino restaurant).
As time has gone on, I’ve recognized that the only bounds on my identity are those placed there by people who make assumptions when they see me or struggle to put me in a category that they know how to name.
It's a weird feeling — feeling like you're neither one thing nor another. To put it in a way comics nerds like me will understand: It’s kind of like being Psylocke.
OK, for those of you who don’t know, this is Psylocke. (The art is by Billy Tan, a Malaysian artist.) I’ll try to explain what her deal is really quick because it’s confusing even to die-hard Marvel experts.
She looks like your average comic book ninja-y Orientalist trope assassin, but she’s not! She’s a psychic mutant, for one thing. And her real name is Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock, and she is a white British aristocrat in a Japanese woman’s body. (How that came to happen isn’t worth getting into here.) But she’s also Kwannon — that’s the Japanese woman — since when her consciousness was moved into Kwannon’s body, some of Kwannon’s consciousness remained as well.
So, yeah, she’s super problematic.
But you know, so am I. I don’t know how to say even one sentence in Ilocano. I read Charles Dickens instead of Jose Rizal, John Steinbeck instead of Carlos Bulosan — even though manong Bulosan’s life closely mirrors both of my grandfathers’. I read comics instead of komiks.
So I am Filipino and conscientiously so — I mean, I read Jessica Hagedorn — but at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm not Filipino enough. I was born in the U.S.; my parents were born in the U.S. One of my grandfathers died before I was born, the other died when I was 16. My direct, living ties to the Philippines are gone. If I ever visited Ilocos Sur, I’m sure I would be nearly as baffled and out-of-place as I was when I visited Beijing.
But the Philippines can never completely be a foreign country to me. I have to carry it with me. Manong Bulosan said “America is in the heart,” but so is a distant place that you may have never been — a place that shaped those who came before you. As much as I feel like just your average American when I’m out in the world, like I said, here is this face, this hair, these eyes, this skin, all somehow signaling that I am from another place, all drawing the questions so many of us of Asian ethnicity know so well — “What are you?” “Where are you from? No, where are you from originally?”
So then I’m reminded — like Psylocke, I’m two consciousnesses in one body. I am an American, but one who always has to be aware of her foreignness. We all know we have to do this. Because the moment may come when a teacher whose class you’ve been in for weeks or some random woman on the street will ask you if you speak English or another parent at the water park won’t recognize you as the mother of your own children, who are half caucasian. You have to be prepared.
You have to accept that your identity is complicated, and that your own awareness of your identity is complicated.
Well, you don’t have to. Maybe you don’t recognize the micro-aggressions for what they are, maybe you even internalize racism without realizing it. It seems like that’s something some members of my family have done. They’re voting for Trump. Yeah, I don’t know.
But if you’re a creative person — if you live to create and tell stories — you can’t not be aware of the Marvel-Universe-level complexity of your identity. When you’re brainstorming, your mind finds these complexities and paradoxes, these internal and external conflicts, and turns them into stories.
That’s how I realized Psylocke is a symbol — not a perfect one; like I said she’s totally problematic — of my relationship with my ethnicity, which I admit is kind of dysfunctional.
I even named this dysfunction after her: Psylocke Syndrome. It’s when you’re Asian (or any a person of color of any ethnicity, I guess), but you and your family are so thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream Western culture you live in that you’re afraid you’re a fraud. Like, you may have this face, but inside maybe you’re just as white as Betsy Braddock, English aristocrat.
And then you remember Betsy Braddock isn’t just that white English aristocrat inside anymore. Not just because she has Kwannon’s consciousness — but she also has that face, those eyes, that hair, and that’s going to affect how people see her and treat her. What’s that feel like? We know what that feels like!
And then you resent people for treating you like you’re foreign, other. You want to be seen and treated as who you are — a unique person and also as a member of the same society, one whose history isn’t foreign but essentially — quintessentially — American — or Canadian. I want to be me, seen as me — but I want to be seen as part of “us,” too.
That desire is part of that double consciousness, which can feel a lot like insecurity. The insecurity of wanting to exist as a paradox; the conflict between our many identities — That's what stories are made out of. And what’s more, the particular anxieties that arise out of our conflicts have been, until now, largely unexamined in mainstream entertainment — they’re not in novels, not in movies, not in comics.
Well, a little bit in comics, thanks to my girl Psylocke.
And a few awesome Asian creators in comics — here are some books that explore the experience of the Asian diaspora.
Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples