By Guest Contributor Sunny Kim
I first learned about Project Secret Identities over two years ago when a call for story submissions started to float around my corner of the interwebs. My excitement was limitless! No more waiting for some white guy to come save me! Now I could have my own superheroes. Secret Identities promised to fill the need for comics that cast us as the superheroes and I waited with bated breath for the release.
Here we are in 2009 and the book has been released to much fanfare. And yet, I feel disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the nerd specs on the pleasing green cover (I rock my own pair everyday). There are some real gems in this anthology including the oft-cited “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” (Bruce Lee hated being Kato) and the true-to-life stories in the section From Headline to Hero (“Taking Back Troy” re-imagines Vincent Chin’s story in a way that doesn’t let us forget it). Despite the many great stories found within this anthology there are some glaring holes that I can’t seem to fly over.
The editors of the book tell us that Asian Americans have more in common with Clark Kent than just his geek chic appearance and as such present an opening for our superheroes. Yet the editors define Asian American by the stories they chose, and it seems like they define Asian as “East Asian with a sprinkling of Filipino and a drop of Indian.” In other words Secret Identities is more East Asian than Asian, and Shen and Yang have — I’m sure unintentionally — deleted most of the Asian continent in their selection process.
While Asian America isn’t as explicitly defined as it was in Aieeeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, where Frank Chin stated in the introduction that the work would feature Japanese, Chinese and Filipino writers, Secret Identities doesn’t acknowledge its bias at all nor does it emerge from the same historical context*. So where are some missing identities that didn’t make it into the book? What about the daughter of a Cambodian refugee and a Filipino cannery worker in Seattle**? Or how about expanding our knowledge of Asian American hate crime victims by looking at the death of Cha Vang, a Hmong immigrant, whose white killer did not get charged with a hate crime? On a similar note: where are the stories of poor and working class families and young LGBT runaways? All of these are real aspects of our diverse community.
There are so many members of the APIA community who have fought courageously to get recognized within the monolith of Asian America and this heavily East Asian male representation does nothing to recognize that battle. The reason why college organizers at UCLA spent so much time trying to disaggregate the numbers of Asian American admitted students is because those identities remain invisible without it. When we allow these identities to remain under wraps there are serious economic and racial struggles that cannot gain any ground because varied communities are dismissed as doing fine and become lost within the model minority myth. Can Secret Identities really be “The Asian American Superhero Anthology”?
Maybe this is less a criticism and more a longing for a different kind of Asian American voice and maybe I’m just a backseat anthology editor. I would have started by taking a hard look at who the editors are and what communities they can reach. When I asked Jeff Yang why Secret Identities has so few stories outside of East Asia I was told that they had put out a general call for submissions and that some of the stories submitted just weren’t good enough to include.
Now I know that you know that this sounds pretty similar to what people of color have been hearing as a justification for crooked systems, biased hiring processes and exclusion from publishing houses for decades. I understand that an editorial board must have standards and cannot squeeze stories out of people but they also have a responsibility to broaden the reach and broaden again if need be. I also know that ALL of the editors of Secret Identities are East Asian men.
If the editorial board had more varied experiences to draw upon then perhaps the War and Remembrance section would have been able to draw connections across time and space to tie our diverse communities together. For example, there is nothing in Secret Identities about wars in Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Guam or Hawai’i. By leaving these narratives out of the picture you miss an opportunity to illustrate the arc of U.S. military imperialism across the Pacific Rim. Japanese American internment is a big and still divisive issue (as demonstrated by a Senator’s recent comments) but so is the U.S. presence in the Philippines, Korea, Guam and Okinawa (to name a few). Shifting the focus, not away from internment, to include these other sites of struggle would have been truly welcomed by anti-miltarism activists with comic book nerd secrets.
It could have elevated Secret Identities to a place within academic curriculum that is crying out for more accessible ways to spread this history. I think the story “Hibakusha” stood out to me because it highlighted a story that is often unknown: forced laborers in Japan from Korea whose descendants are known as Zainichi. “Hibakusha” written by Parry Shen is about descendants of survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and focuses on the effect that the atomic bombs had on their physiology. But let’s take a step back and think about the testing grounds for these weapons and how little recognition Pacific Islanders get in the cultural narratives about this war and when thinking about Asian America at large. I would have pushed Mr. Shen to look further and think about places like the Marshall Islands whose waters and atolls were irreparably changed by atomic testing done prior to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. As it stands, the anthology essentializes how war has shaped our collective stories of migration and memory when it could have pushed us all to think of our histories in broader and more connected terms.
What I so desperately want to see is a story that handles our connected histories and stories with grace. Something that can hold the multiplicity of the APIA community, particularly the parts that are the most secret. Our shared migration experiences can live side by side on the page and I challenge future anthology editors to see how vast we are ethnically, politically, sexually and socially. I wish I could have claimed this book as one that includes an experience very close to mine as a young, queer, second-generation activist. I wish that the stories of my friends and community could have found a place within this anthology. We all have the responsibility to create spaces for our own identities, but just as important is our responsibility to call out those who claim to represent us while shutting us out.
*Aieeeeee! was published in 1974, not ten years after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that finally abolished the quotas of immigrants from Asian nations.
**This is the character generated by the audience at Parry Shen’s and Jeff Yang’s talk at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle on May 14th, 2009. A fuller description of this potential superhero character: A young woman whose parents are a Filipino canner in Seattle and a Cambodian refugee. Her history is steeped in death and war and her power lies in her emphatic ability which is deeply connected to her Buddhist spirituality.