Interview: Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn is a fresh, exciting voice in genre fiction. The author of the wry, funny and touching novella One Con Glory, currently in development for a feature film, she mixes romantic comedy with geek culture and creates magic. The first book of her upcoming trilogy, Heroine Complex, looks to cement Kuhn’s reputation as a smart, witty writer with a clear eye and sharp comedic timing. In addition to her novel/novella, Sarah Kuhn’s work has appeared in such publications as Apex Magazine, Back Stage, Geek Monthly, IGN.com and The Hollywood Reporter. Sarah Kuhn touches the geek in us all and we can’t wait to see more from this fantastic writer.

Uncanny Magazine: Your essay “We Were All Trini: Searching for Asian American Mirrors in SF/F” is an honest, wrenching examination of what it is like to grow up feeling like an alien in your own skin, where even your safe harbor of science fiction and fantasy sidelined you as a supporting character. Writers who revisit difficult life experiences will often say it is a healing process or they feel compelled to share the experience in order to make someone else’s path a little less difficult. How did you approach this essay?

Sarah Kuhn: To be honest, at first I tried to write around my life experience rather than addressing it directly—I was trying to write about whitewashing in a more distanced way, because I knew digging into some of this stuff would pick at wounds I didn’t want to pick at. Both my fiction and nonfiction writing almost always has some kind of humorous bent and when the topic veers toward painful, I find myself dialing that up and using it as a defense mechanism. So in this case, once I realized I had to write about my life experience very honestly and directly, I also had to stifle the urge to turn the humor way, way up. I kept stopping, re–reading, and asking myself if I was really being honest. One thing that’s helped me a lot in terms of writing about painful issues related to race is that I have a whole Asian Girl Gang now—we support each other, gripe to each other, and connect over shared experiences. A few of them beta read this essay for me and it was the most gratifying feeling to have them say, “We get this, we feel this, you’re not alone.” I was often the only Trini as a child. Having a whole posse of Trinis as an adult is the best.

Uncanny Magazine: You talk about internalizing the idea that it wasn’t possible for an Asian woman to be the center of the story, and if she was, she was never allowed to be herself. What was the moment that made you say “I can have this. I can make this story about someone like me”? What mental hurdles did you have to overcome to have your character take center stage?

Sarah Kuhn: When I wrote my novella, One Con Glory, I never specified the protagonist’s race—but I thought of her as white and I assumed everyone else would too. (She had an Asian girl pal/sidekick—of course.) I remember briefly thinking about making her Asian and then dismissing the idea because I thought the whole story would have to be about her being Asian and deal with Very Serious Issues—I hate that I thought that, but I think it’s a common trap. It’s so unusual for us to see women of color characters getting to do all the things white protagonists get to—having fun with their friends, falling in love, doing things that aren’t all about The Struggle—that sometimes it seems impossible that something like that could exist. Anyway, a lot of people actually assumed the protagonist of One Con Glory was Asian—I guess because people also assumed she was a thinly–veiled version of me. So when I started Heroine Complex, I was like, “Fuck it, everyone’s going to think this protagonist is Asian anyway. So why not make her look like me?” As I got more and more into the story, I found real joy and power in writing these Asian girls who got to be protagonists and superheroes and have all kinds of fun. And watching them do all that on the page made me feel like I could also incorporate things that were true and specific to my experience growing up Asian American, like getting teased on the playground for having “weird eyes.” I guess sometimes the biggest mental hurdle is looking at something that seems impossible and going, “Nah, it’s possible—cause I’m going to do it.”

Uncanny Magazine: There is a gut–punching paragraph in your essay about Asian “stuff” being valued over Asian people and how markers of some mythical monolithic Asian culture are cool accessories. We’ve seen a lot of backlash about cultural appropriation as a fashion statement, yet Asian “culture” still seems to be ripe for the picking. Why do you think this is still so pervasive?

Sarah Kuhn: Other folks probably have really smart takes on this, but honestly, I’m not sure. All I know is that the white kids who used to make fun of me for eating stuff like kamaboko seemed to have grown up to be white hipsters who can’t wait to educate me about my sushi choices. Maybe it has to do with the stereotypes of Asians, that we’re so exotic, mysterious, and basically aliens. The most Other of the Others. Or maybe it’s because there are so many narratives about white saviors learning various kinds of martial arts (and other “Asian stuff”) from wise Asian mentors and then becoming way better at it than any Asian person in the story could ever hope to be. It’s not that unusual to see a white character wielding a katana or wearing something that looks like a kimono or striking some kind of “samurai” pose. In fact, it’s usually positioned as the natural end of a hero’s journey. So not only does that kind of appropriation seem acceptable, it seems downright heroic.

Uncanny Magazine: The musical Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon and there have been acres of print about the casting of actors of color for that show. There has even been discussion of “The Hamilton Effect” opining that its massive popularity is paving the way for more diverse and interesting casting choices in other mediums. Do you think there will be any impact on mainstream media as a result of the cultural conversation Hamilton has generated?

Sarah Kuhn: I really, really hope so, but it’s so hard to say since mainstream media usually takes a while to learn the right lessons from a successful work like that. I do feel like we’re in the midst of a sea change moment, where the idea that only universal stories star white people is slowly being dismantled and we actually have more than one successful work centering people of color out there—Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Empire, and so on. One thing I think it’s important to talk about when we talk about Hamilton is that it doesn’t just star people of color, it was created by a person of color—Lin–Manuel Miranda. Most of the few Asian characters I found as a kid were created by white writers. It’s so powerful to see a work like that, a work that has POC stars brought to life by a POC creator. It makes another thing that seemed impossible suddenly possible.

Uncanny Magazine: You conclude your essay by saying “we have to keep fighting, to keep pushing back, to keep saying that no, you can’t just take Asian Stuff without including Asian faces.” This spring Twitter was awash with the #WhitewashedOUT hashtag highlighting not only the lack of Asian actors in film and television, but also the casting of white actors in Asian roles. While social media is an important way to highlight issues and injustices, what can be done, beyond armchair activism, to help push a cultural change?

Sarah Kuhn: Well, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of social media in that—those hashtag discussions have the power to open up an issue in a far–reaching way, to allow people to speak their truth, feel less alone, and work together toward change. Beyond that, I think it’s important to support the work we want to see in the world—to buy it, to talk about it, to let it be known that we want more of it. I spend a lot of time complaining about racist casting on Twitter, but I try to spend an equal amount of time actively looking for work by WOC containing WOC protagonists. And then I buy the hell out of it.

Uncanny Magazine: Your upcoming series Heroine Complex seems to be a fantastic mashup of all fannish glory and delight. As a self–identifying geek girl, how much of your fannish experiences (or your friends, friends of friends, etc.) made it into this series?

Sarah Kuhn: It’s definitely heavily laced with inspiration from many of my favorite geek things—superhero comics, Hong Kong action movies. One specific fannish thing has to do with the two main characters, Evie and Aveda, seeing the movie The Heroic Trio, which stars three Asian women, and feeling like their entire world’s changed because there are superheroes that look like them. They basically imprint on that movie and it becomes a touchstone that connects them throughout their lives. I think most geeks can relate to that feeling of finding something at a formative age that changes your world and stays with you for the rest of your life—it’s the thing that made you into a fan for the first time. And I think geeks who aren’t represented much onscreen can probably relate to that feeling even more.

Uncanny Magazine: You are going on tour this summer with Seanan McGuire and Amber Benson to promote the release of Heroine Complex. When it is all said and done, what will have made this a successful tour for you?

Sarah Kuhn: I’m really excited to be touring with Seanan and Amber! Honestly, the fact that they wanted to do all these bookstore stops with me already makes it a success in my mind. Beyond that, I hope we can just get out there, entertain people, and sell some books. Oh, and come up with a kickass playlist for our road trip.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and good luck on the book tour!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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