A Conversation with Lee Lai
Lee Lai is an Asian-Australian comix artist currently based in Montreal. Published in literary journals such as the Lifted Brow, Overland, The Suburban Review, and Pencilled In, Lee Lai also writes advice comics as Baby W. She works in Montreal as part of En Masse Pour Les Masses, a group which facilitates collaborative creations of murals between artists and schoolchildren.
We talked to Lee about depicting race, white-passing privilege, and 'queering ethnicity'.
Find our excerpt of Lai's forthcoming publication, First Year, here.
Liminal magazine: When I see an Asian character represented in media, it’s easy for me to be overly critical because it’s so rare. Your comics refuse this scarcity, normalising the portrayal of Asian-Australians as protagonists.
Lee Lai: Exactly. Especially with something like Asian-Australian representation, or any representations of people of colour in the diaspora, we’re always acting and reacting out of scarcity. We’re acting out of scarcity because everything is imperfect! We’re never going to have representation that we feel satisfied with unless there’s an over-saturation of images in culture that reflect who we are.
I remember being quite critical about Saving Face (2004). It’s great and it’s flawed. It’s a romantic comedy about two Asian-American women in love. It’s not a coming out story, which I appreciated. The challenge of the film centres around these two lovers who have to come out to their local Chinese community, which is super gossipy—it’s spot on! Saving Face isn’t about realising sexuality. It’s refreshing to see a queer film that’s not about crisis–but it’s still flawed, and it ends up having to answer to too much as a film about queer, Asian-American women in love. If there were also other films that could answer to this scarcity, I would feel that Saving Face could just be a drop in the water, rather than the only thing you have to pin all of your hopes and dreams onto.
In regards to my comics, it’s sad that while I’m living in Canada, feeling really connected to Montreal and inspired by my surrounding environment, I still want my characters to be Australian! In this… I wonder if it’s some kind of internalised patriotism or nationalism? I don’t generally make very atmospheric comics. I don’t think I obsess over the environment. At the moment, I’m trying to focus on the surrounds a little more because I want to get better at backgrounds basically — like, setting my comics in a specific place other than just a bedroom or a kitchen.
Well, if you don’t tie your art to one location, it becomes more... universal?
Yeah, but universality sucks and, I mean, also it’s a lie. Universality is a scam.
For a PoC, entering your visual world is really calming, because we can see ourselves in the characters, we're not shoved into caricature. Are you trying to create a kind of universe where people of colour are the norm?
The choice to depict diversity can lead into something more specific. Maybe the idea of oversaturation is important because — I don’t know how to say this in a political way, but — like, there are enough white people in comics — and in films, and in the art scene, in the music scene...
In my art, I approach it almost in the way that I would curate my own life. As a non-white person, I’ve come into the realisation of knowing that I need to have people around that represent parts of my identity. In order to feel nourished and enriched, and to feel like I’m living my best life and getting everything I need, I choose people that I need to see in order to create a sense of safety in community; maybe that’s trans bodies, maybe that’s queers, maybe people of colour.
I don’t like the idea that anything in comics is a mistake or an accident. I resent that someone can draw a crowd of people and everyone ‘just happens’ to be white, or every main character is white. That’s not a mistake, that’s not an accident, that’s an intentional thing. You have to be responsible for what you’re representing and why you’re making those decisions, you know? There’s a Tumblr post that I find relevant:
People talking about 'forced diversity' like characters being PoC or LGBT or disabled 'for no reason,'
like are people in real life PoC or LGBT or disabled for a reason?
Do these critics run up to people in the street like WHY ARE YOU BLACK?
You choose to perpetuate the lie that the white experience is the norm if you make the decision to only represent and portray white characters...I don’t feel like it is a super radical act to draw or write people of colour.
It’s simply that in choosing to put people of colour in your comics you’re not buying into the lie.
The author Jonathan Franzen argued that because he’s never been in love with a black woman he doesn’t feel like he can write one.
He needs to do some research! What is it about possessing someone in that way?
I remember this time a white friend of mine told me that they perceived my comics to be ‘about race.’ I don’t feel like they are. I’m writing through the lens of a racialised experience but not necessarily ‘about race’, and at the end of the day I think I kind of resented their comment. They saw people of colour in my comics and instantly politicised my work. I would love the world to get to a place where it’s not overtly political to put people of colour in your art.
What were you doing at the Victorian College of the Arts, and how did it get you to this point?
I was wasting time at the VCA. I studied drawing for my BFA and I barely drew the entire time. I felt like I needed a certificate to prove that I was a real artist when I wish I just did some technical course that taught me how to support myself as an artist.
I can’t say that I have gained many technical skills from the B.F.A. to apply to my practice. My experience has just been, like, faking it and having imposter’s syndrome until stuff starts coming back at you. The internet can be good for ‘imposter syndrome’ because it gives every— well not everyone, it’s still structurally hierarchical—but it gave me some opportunities to get my shit out there and receive feedback.
That said, I really value the fine art theory training. I gained the analytical frameworks to apply to art that is really resistant to interpretation; the ability to look at something that’s super confusing in a contemporary gallery space and then going through steps to break it down to a level at which I can talk about it. But I value comics so much for its accessibility, compared to so many contemporary art practices.
I actually, I thought it would be amusing to start off the interview being like ‘where are you really from?’
Oh, my god. (laughs)
It’s that progression of questions: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Australia.’ ‘Where are you really from?’ ‘Australia.’ ‘Where are your parents from?’ ‘Australia.’
People love fixating on mixed race features and being like ‘let me racially dissect you based on my knowledge of the world.’ It always feels like this weird colonial thing— receiving this white analytical gaze.
But I don’t mind answering that question if the person who’s asking is also either mixed or diasporic or whatever… So, I’m from Melbourne. I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Melbourne and now I’m from Melbourne and Montreal and like the in-between, you know? My Dad is from Hong Kong, and my Mom is Anglo, born in Melbourne.
How do you navigate this interstitial space, the tremors and traumas of second-generation immigration?
The trauma of immigration is talked about a lot in my friendships. Sometimes it’s as a generational second-hand trauma, like their parents did that thing, displaced themselves, and are maybe permanently displaced forever—in language and in culture. My parents made an active decision to not teach me Chinese growing up. I think there was this idea of ‘I don’t want to put my kids through that; I want them to be normal.’
I’m really interested in how one’s interstitial status can transfer across paradigms. It’s hard to perceive myself in the straight white female role proposed in the traditional gender binary. I think it might be related to being mixed, because we’re already continually straddling lines.
Yeah, that idea of resisting binaries, of ‘queering’ something, like ‘queering ethnicity.’ Maybe by being mixed there is already something transgressive in our identity by just not being a pure ethnicity: society is already telling us that we’re already not doing it right. It’s so interesting that straightness can be associated with whiteness as well. They’re both oppressive structures, so maybe it is hard to kind of own it in that way or identify with it, feel nurtured by that.
I think I rejected the idea of being non-binary for a long time because I think I have a fear of being difficult. So I was like ‘I don’t want my gender to be difficult even though it is’ but certainly being inclined towards non-binary expression in gender can be linked to racial identity. I definitely have been trying in recent times to get away from the idea that that’s a place of weakness or something, or an illegitimacy, because with both gender and race I think it’s good to get to a point of feeling like - ‘okay there’s actually strength in the ambiguity.’ And at the end of the day, I feel privileged to be mixed with white. Not lucky, exactly, but privileged.
As so-called ‘mixed-race’ people, we have a kind of white-passing privilege that is becoming harder and harder to navigate.
I have so many feelings about white-passing. The first time there was a PoC space for me to go into, it was literally a door. It was at some feminist conference, when I was eighteen, and I’d just started dressing in a more transgressive way as well and was generally just kind of paranoid about my existence and how I was being read. I remember seeing this room for people of colour to talk about and share their experiences. Next to it was a ‘white room’ and I remember thinking like fuck, which room do I go in?
I was so scared of taking up space. We need to be responsible about white-passing privilege and light-skinned privilege, but I think it’s also important to be able to have the conversations we need to have, and get the support we need from one another.
What can we do, as ‘mixed-race’, or perhaps ‘white-passing’ POC?
I think my responsibility if I’m going to be in a POC space is to support, listen, and to show my solidarity. Like I think most of my responsibility if I’m going to flag as part of this community is solidarity work and responsibility to that community. I think Asian-Australians have a lot of solidarity work to do in general—to Black communities, to Indigenous communities, to Muslim communities. It feels like dire fucking times.
Our whiteness becomes a kind of visa or a passport, a temporary entrance.
It’s interesting being chameleonic and having certain privileges of being able to swim in some ways through that white stream. But also going through that process of burnout, and finding it harder to be in white spaces now than like ten years ago because tolerance levels for certain kinds of bullshit just go way down.
I think you’re right about the ‘temporary entrance’ idea, that alienation within the passing. I think there is something to be said for being in a room full of white people and knowing that you’re probably the only one thinking about the fact that everyone’s white—the only one feeling uncomfortable with that.
I’d love to know some of the things that inspire you as a comics artist. Do you have any favourite artists who you draw inspiration from?
All the artists that come to mind as particularly inspiring are usually those that capture interpersonal intimacy really well, through dialogue and gesture (I guess not a surprise considering what I write about). Brecht Evens’ The Wrong Place and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp were both books that blew me away for beautiful art and characters that are so mesmerising and convincing in their passion and insecurities and funny social ticks.
What are you currently listening to?
A funny mix of easy-listening Canadian pop (my friend plays CBC radio in the studio every day), and dreamy instrumentals—right now a lot of Susumu Yokota.
What are you currently reading?
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I guess… it means not being attached to any one form of cultural authenticity. It means embracing my heritage, as well as my upbringing, and trying to handle those things with responsibility and sensitivity. Right now it means being proud, catching up with that feeling after a long time of not being particularly proud of that. And now living in Canada, I guess being Asian-Australian means coming to terms with intersecting ways of being ‘from’ so many different places.