My boobs are a lot smaller when I draw them. Look, I have great tits. They are comically perky in the way that real ones often are not, and a bit larger than expected on my smallish frame. I am 31, and I look a few years younger, but I draw myself with bags under my eyes. I draw myself flat chested, which I haven’t been since I was 20 and gained some weight and a regular supply of birth control pills. I draw myself quite a bit more awkward than I really am, and I draw my breasts a lot more average than they really are, because I am a cartoonist and I want you to like me.
I draw myself cute, but angry. On paper, I can rage; in my own studio, working alone, I am just tired and sleepy.
My day job is in the intersection of privacy and the internet, but in my spare time, I spill out my life online, and I don’t find it ironic at all. I spend a lot of time deconstructing the ridiculous myth that people should have nothing to hide, and I mean it, because I am an expert in constructing identity.
All writers are manipulative, but autobiographers are the worst offenders. We don’t have the luxury of hiding behind fiction, so our filtered experiences demand to be taken as truth. And we are telling the truth, but we have many truths. There is always a character that us autobiographers inhabit, and they are us and still, not entirely so. Somewhat universally, we just about never draw ourselves sexy.
Biographers sometimes attempt objectivity; autobiography, by nature, cannot. We decide every time we write — this much is for the world, and this much is for me. We decide which character we want to inhabit, and it feels like a false choice, because the answer is of course, “yourself,” but it is not.
My chosen character is theoretically somewhat complex, sketched out in angular lines, with eyebrows raised more often than not. My character is both fiction and non fiction, both me and not quite me, except that she is now irrevocably me, no matter how much I try to insist that some of her is still a bit of a fiction. I am many things to many people, she has become many things to many people. I am a quiet girl, mousy and introspective, and I am, sometimes. I am a loud mouthed bitch and I am, sometimes. Some people still believe that I am kind, and I remind myself to try to be that person they think I am.
When people meet me, they are absolutely certain that they know who I am. At conventions, strangers greet me like friends, and it is terrifying, not because of what they already know, but what they don’t. Would they still like me, if they knew the things I didn't write about? As a character, I am amusing feminist rage. I know how to illustrate my anxiety as universal, my awkwardness as adorable, my depression as shoegazey introspection.
I am a cartoonist; I am an autobiographer. I am manipulative, because this craft demands it.
As a real person, I am far more unsympathetic.
Being Asian complicates things, it does. What Would Yellow Ranger Do was my first comic to gain an audience, and so my voice is inextricably linked with a brand of youthful, angry, immigrant Asian American feminism. Which is fair, as I am a youthful, angry, immigrant Asian American feminist. The people that write me the most often are young women like me — constantly obsessed about finding an abstract notion of home, of belonging, when even the most well meaning people make them feel like strangers in an ordinary land. We’re discomfited by the stereotype of meekness, of conformity, our rage alone is our flagpole to gather by. LOOK AT US AS WE ARE, my comics demand. Look at us, we’re not your geisha, we’re not your Japanese girlfriend, we’re not your exotic sidekick.
I don’t speak for all of us. I have never wanted to; I have never pretended to. But there simply aren't enough of us speaking yet, not in this particular medium of intimately personal words and pictures. I do not yet have the luxury of having my own voice recognized as only my own experience, and no more than that.
Some people tell me that they wish they could write work that resonates. I get messages that tell me that I have already done that. Making work that resonates is fucking terrifying. It is hard to tell when your character has become a mascot, but it’s even harder to figure out why it hurts so badly that she is.
My most circulated comic is one I wrote anonymously. It’s not actually particularly anonymous, other than not having my name on it. It’s a surreal experience, having this thing that barely one person knew about reach over half a million page views in three days.
It was immensely cathartic, but it felt strange. By writing it, I’d imbued my character with one of my deepest secrets, and then it wasn't just mine anymore. This truth, that I’d kept close to my chest, is now just a story belonging to an unreliable narrator. I offered it up for criticism, for Reddit-hate, for utter and complete disparagement, and I wish I could explain it, but it simply does not feel like mine any longer. It resonated, in some sort of universal way; it became many people’s stories, and it stopped being just my own.
The first disappointed tweet hurt, even though I’d been warned that they would come by my fellow autobio-cartoonist friends(who have long learned to never read the comments). By most standards, it was trivial. “This is so not okay,” somebody tweeted, about The Tribble Story. That comic is about masturbating with a stuffed tribble. I wouldn't have cared, except I knew the person. She had written a letter to me about Yellow Ranger. It was a brutally honest one — about her struggle with prejudice as an Asian American woman and immigrant. She thanked me for putting her experience in words, for being brave and angry and open. And now, here I was, talking about jerking off with stuffed animals. Mascots don’t masturbate, do they? But I do, and my character does too.
There are more of those. There are strangers disappointed that I married a white man. There are strangers that are disappointed that I have comparatively few black friends. There are strangers that are disappointed that I contradict myself.
My character can’t be particularly submissive anymore, because she apparently means more to other people than she does to me. She was made to belie that common Asian stereotype, of submissiveness and meekness. In Yellow Ranger, she says “I want to fuck you with a purple dildo,” because that is what she is supposed to say. It’s not that I haven’t said that, because I have. But, I’m just as likely to say “I’d like you to yank on my hair and fuck me so hard that I forget your name.” I’m not sure that my character can say that anymore. She’s far too angry and dominant to admit those truths now. She is my own person, but not a person at all. She is a fiction rooted in non-fiction, groomed to convey an ideology that is definitely mine, but still — she can never be completely me because she is no longer belongs to just me.
What do you do when your autobiographical character becomes something more than you could ever be yourself, the voice of many more people than just one tiny, meaningless, girl? Nothing. You can’t do anything about it. You let your darlings out in the world, and they have to live their own lives, and it can get pretty complicated when your darlings are non-fiction. Watching yourself grow up in public is a fucking trip.
I am large, I contain multitudes, but not everyone wants me to, y’know? It’s easy for me to ignore the haters — I am good at dealing with hate. My block lists are vast; populated by the cold, sad husks of mansplainy men left behind in my glorious wake. I do not care about their feelings. But disappointment? Disappointment from your own community, from your own people, from the same people that cheered you on once? God, that hurts. Here’s the funny thing, my character would say “fuck them all.” My character can handle it just fine. She’s strong, and she’s rude, and she doesn't care what you think. Go ahead — call her names; she is me, but not all of me.
But, the version of me that is flesh and blood and kinda squishy — the version of me that contains all the truths, all at the same time — I care a lot. Stop telling me I shouldn't care what people think. I do care. I hope I always will, because out of all the potentially harmful personality traits I have, empathy is the one that I’d like to keep. That person that cares so damn much is far too soft to exist on a page.
I wield openness like a weapon now. To build the walls where they really matter, I have allowed so many others to fall. I have learned to be vulnerable in public, because I want to be underestimated, to be called a fool, to be called naive. Take these truths, these true truths, that I have already sorted through and deemed worthy for your consumption. Look, over there. I have laid my life bare. I have told you so many secrets. You know about my rage, my insecurity, my hopes. Don’t ask, then, what more there is.
There is always so much more.
Unreliable Narrator by Shing Yin Khor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.