First off: My deepest apologies. I have been incredibly remiss in keeping up with my posts for this blog. Adult life is harder than anyone could have prepared me for, particularly the psychological parts. High school was largely useless in the grand scheme of things. So, onto more pressing matters.
Why the hell is it so hard for me to find queer Asian Americans in media?!
Since we’re still new to the blogging experience, every week Chebk and I find ourselves in the same quandary of figuring out blog topics. Every week, to Chebk’s exasperation, I ask her about her interests and likes and tell her to write about that. Whenever she turns the tables and asks me, though, my answer is pretty consistent: “Queer Asians.” I’m particularly interested in Asian American portrayals in media, hoping it will weed out the usual lotus blossom/femme fatale stereotypes for women and kung fu master/nerdy weakling stereotypes for men (and all the pratfalls in between.)
Still, despite my burning passion, there aren’t a whole lot of characters to which I can actually cling (and worship.)
Admittedly, during college I fell behind in my pleasure reading, so my references may be a little dated. (That’s my entire life though, folks. A well of neverending nostalgia and longing.) HOWEVER, let it be known that in the eight years or so of endless classes dedicated to 19th century nonsense, East Asian classical poetry, and the untouchable Virginia Woolf, a single truth remains: Not that many new LGBTQAI Asian characters have burst into existence in mainstream media anyway.
What queer Asian ladies can we place in the pantheon as muses for future writers?
Dr. Allison Mann (Y: The Last Man)
Let’s just, for a second, forget that the entire premise hinges on the fact that in a world where all the men have been mysteriously wiped out, the story chooses to focus on a single surviving man, who also happens to be white, straight, and able-bodied, (whose name is also Yorick.) Let’s, instead, talk about Allison Mann.
First up, she is a geneticist. Secondly, she is a lesbian. Nowhere in the entire storyline does she deviate or waver, by which I mean she is one of the few women in the story who do not fall in lust or love with the last remaining man on the planet. Thank goodness. (Note: It is always acceptable and fine for people to love who they love, and I know there is unnecessary vitriol whenever a lifelong lesbian or gay man falls in love with someone of the opposite sex. That is not my problem. My problem is in persistent media representation of lesbians falling for the Single Male Exception. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
Also, she gives birth to her own clone.
On the other hand, Allison does fall prey to the Unrequited Love/Lust with a Straight Girl thing, the Smart Asian trope, and the Strict Asian Father characterization. What’s left is mostly weird science and a truly awful storyline entitled — I shit you not — Kimono Dragons. So. Allison starts off kind of rad and then gets horrifically exotified…and then cloned repeatedly without consent. To save the planet? Or something.
Let’s try another example:
Kavita, Sabina, and Zara (Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier)
All three women play side characters to narrator Dimple’s teenage angst and romance, but they are vibrant, queer South Asian ladies that remain memorable to me even a decade later. (I honestly had to look up when this book was published because I remember holding it like a holy relic in Borders, the only cover with a person of color in the YA section at the time. Also discovered mere seconds ago: The author has since written a sequel that I am too scared to read because this book remains a bright spot in my teen reading memories.)
Kavita and Sabina are (surprise!) lesbian lovers. Kavita is a visiting cousin from India and balancing culture shock with all the behaviors and mindsets she’s internalized within her own cultural background. Her new girlfriend is an out-and-proud, in-your-face feminist. Zara is an unconnected drag queen who pops in and out of the main narrative like a fever dream.
While I loved the characters, they were mostly there to serve as obligatory “learning to be open-minded” storylines. Dimple idealized Zara and simplified Sabina. While Kavita may have been the most normal, I can’t remember too much more about her outside her coming-out storyline. Also, let’s reiterate again that they were side characters — way off to the side. It took a very specific Google search of “Born Confused Dimple’s cousin” to even get Kavita’s name. There is no mention of any of these characters in any summary. (The main story focused on Dimple and her white best friend in a love triangle with the Perfect Indian Boy.)
So. Let’s try again:
Anchee Min (Red Azalea by Anchee Min)
This book is harder to pick apart because it’s a memoir, but it was also dear to me for just that reason. Set during the Cultural Revolution, Anchee Min works at a farm with the rest of the loyal nationalists and then she falls in love with a female superior there. Wikipedia will lie and tell you “she finds a role model to follow and stays on track with Maoism” but that is not the truth. There are love letters and pining and even a soldier beard. They also bang, no metaphors involved.
Still, the story ends (spoiler alert) with the female superior shacking up with soldier beard because of the times and she disappears basically forever (or at least the rest of the book) and eventually Anchee moves to America. 😦
…Alright, not to say that I’ve exhausted my list of queer Asian ladies in lit but…maybe I have. There are slightly more examples available in other media (particularly television and movies), which leaves me scratching my head at the lack of LGBTQAI Asian characters in literature. GoodReads has a list of Asian Lesbian and Queer Fiction comprised of 33 books (http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/30043.Asian_Lesbian_and_Queer_Women_Fiction) which I may have to tackle at some point. Still, 33 books out of how many billions published every year?
The tropes, stereotypes, and shortcomings of these characters are easier to pick apart precisely because they stand in isolation. Yet these characters were important to me as a young queer Asian teen on the precipice of coming out because — though their stories were quite different and definitely more heroic than mine — their struggles and mere existence were a mirror of sorts, one that meant it was okay, that I was okay, because I was not alone.
How cheesy. But true.
Thus, I think it’s important not only to uphold the strengths of these women as representations but to canonize them as forebearers. Chebk and I would like to introduce the beginning of our miniseries, The Pantheon of Queer Ladies, by inducting:
Allison Mann, Patron Saint of Queer Science
Kavita & Zara, Patron Saints of Sapphic Saris
Anchee Min, Our Lady of Comrade Love
Images pending! Over the next few weeks, we will be adding to the pantheon to build up a holy altar of queer lady representation for us all to look to for inspiration. I will also be reviewing films with queer Asian ladies to make up for this deficit of representation in literature. Let’s do this!
Got any book/movie/TV recommendations for me? Want to explain why visual representation in TV/movies is slightly more proliferative than in literature? (A subject I may have to tackle at some point soon…) Let me know in the comments!