Finding Asian representation within the superhero flicks that dominate our screens is not an easy task. It’s made increasingly difficult when canon Asian characters are portrayed by white actors in film and TV adaptations. This makes existing representation all the more important, especially when it’s #OwnVoices.
Take, for instance, Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee. Not Your Sidekick centers on Jess, a bisexual Asian American girl in a world filled with superheroes. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain.
Tell us about Not Your Sidekick, and what readers can expect from your novel.
Not Your Sidekick is a scifi romp in a futuristic world populated with superheroes that it isn’t quite perfect. Expect silliness and romance and girls falling for each other and people who aren’t quite what you expect, and plenty of fun.
One of the common tropes associated with queer stories and characters is that of ‘bury your gays,’ where LGBTQIA+ characters aren’t allowed happy endings. In Not Your Sidekick, reviewers remarked on how it was “refreshing… [because it was]full of multiple queer characters of color who also got to fall in love and save the world and be happy, regardless of their race or orientation.” Why was it important to you to not only included queer characters of color, but subvert the trope with happy narratives?
Happy narratives are so important to me because they gave me hope; as a teen, I read voraciously all the time, fantasy and adventure and mystery and all kinds of stories, and I thrived on those happy-ever-afters. Loved those adventure stories where the hero saved the day and got the big kiss and everything, and yet at the same time, I never saw myself as that hero. The narratives almost always focused on straight white protagonists, and I grew up thinking that people like me didn’t get stories like that, didn’t get to have the big adventures and happy endings.
I write the stories I wish I had as a teenager, stories that I hope people will not only enjoy, but also give them hope for their own happy endings.
Despite blockbuster movies and popular comic series, seeing superheroes of color, queer superheroes, or a combination of the two is rare. In Not Your Sidekick the main character, Jess, is not only Asian American, but bisexual. What drove you to fill this wide-open niche with a character like Jess?
While popular media is changing for the better with more widespread representation, it is still common for writers and creators to think of characters as only having one aspect of identity.
This is a great question, and I think it’s very illustrative of the way we are taught by popular media and the way people are portrayed that we, the audience, expect only one aspect of that person.
Outside of fiction, people’s identities intersect in many ways. People aren’t just their race or their sexuality or their disability or their mental illness; many of them have one or two or all of those things.
When there isn’t enough representation, suddenly there is all this pressure for a character to have to represent everyone in that group, and they can’t. That’s one of the things I’ve observed in some media: let’s say there’s a queer character, and they’re the only one on the show. You mentioned the ‘bury your gays’ trope earlier, and one of the things that is so devastating about it is because there’s so little representation to begin with, that the death of one is a huge blow to the community.
One film that I thought did an excellent job of portraying women was Max Max: Fury Road; there were old women and young women and frail women and strong women, women with different temperaments and abilities. Without the pressure of having only one or two women in the film, it was great to see all these different personalities explored.
I wasn’t thinking about filling a niche when I wrote Jess. When I started this project, I wanted to create characters who I felt were normal, relatable; I’m Asian American and bisexual and wanted to write a character with that identity.
I hope that characters like Jess — like me — will very soon not be the rare exception, that we will see more and more people who reflect who we are and our intersectional identities.
One of the themes in Not Your Sidekick has to do with redefining success as a first generation Asian American. You’ve spoken about the pressures on kids born to immigrant parents. What was the message you wanted to send to other first generation kids with Not Your Sidekick?
My parents’ expectations were a huge part of how I pushed myself as a teenager. I wanted to succeed, to do well, to make them proud, and a lot of it had to do with wanting to show them that their hard work and sacrifice was worth it. There was pressure, too, especially on how that success was made: go to college, get a traditional career and make lots of money. I struggled with what I wanted to do and how it would disappoint my parents— a lot of that is reflected in Jess’ feeling that if she doesn’t have the awesome powers her parents do, like super strength or flight, that she won’t make anything of herself at all. As she finds out, it isn’t the case, and I hope other kids can realize that it’s up to them to define their own success, and the people who matter most will appreciate that.
Growing up in a world filled with media that does not actively represent our identities is not only invalidating, but actively harmful. Not Your Sidekick is a sizable step in the direction of a world that gives marginalized teens hope. If you could get a message to teen!Carrie—knowing what you do now and having written Not Your Sidekick—what would you say?
I think I would tell myself that it’s going to be okay, that the path you take, the obvious one, isn’t going to be the one where you find the most joy and fulfillment, and it will take awhile to get there, but you get there.
What’s next for you? Tell us about your next book, or anything else you’re excited about!
I’m currently writing the next two books in the series. The next installment, Not Your Villain, is set to be released in late 2017. After Jess and her friends try to expose the corruption in the League of Heroes and the government lies about superheroes, the system needs a scapegoat. Bells’ superpowered alter-ego, Chameleon, is targeted. Branded as a villain, and with many other lives on the line, Bells decides they have to do the impossible: steal the metahuman Registry before anyone else is hurt.