A Conversation with Katie Malia
BY SUMARLINAH RADEN WINOTO
Almost Asian is also an official selection to thirteen film festivals including the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, 2017 Cleveland International Film Festival and 2016 Raindance Film Festival in London where she was nominated for 'Outstanding Writing.' Katie is an alumni of the 2016 CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase.
Sumarlinah spoke to comedian, dancer and director Katie Malia about what it's like to be mixed race, make art, and the cathartic nature of humour. Through grace and humility, Katie gives sage advice ways to carry yourself through the world with pride and kindness.
Do you think a lot about being biracial? In which ways does it influence your life? where do you notice it?
I do think a lot about being biracial. More than ever! Though how I think about it now versus my formative years has shifted greatly. When I first began exploring my identity, it was very elementary—like a toddler clumsily playing with building blocks in primary colors. I had a limited vocabulary since my only experience with it was my own. Now, thanks to publications like this, increased literature and research about the mixed-race identity, my understanding has plunged beyond the skin deep mentality. I now view the identity like a sunlit prism with many angles and complex colours of beautifully refracted light. I’m more comfortable and accepting of my full self. I feel less like the “other” and more of “each other.” Part of a whole. I feel grateful to view life from multiple perspectives. It has made me more curious about everyone’s origin story and cultures I’m not familiar with.
Because real talk: race is a social construct. No one is pure anything - so looking at the mixed-race identity through a political, socio-economic, historical, and geographical lens has deepened my understanding of all its complexities as well as how the effects of social constructs have brainwashed me to minimise my identity: “You’ll never be enough. What are you? You don’t look Asian. You should change your name. And dye your hair while you’re at it.” Society tells us to do everything in order to fit into their box. But what society doesn’t tell us is to blow up the fucking box. No one is 100% one ethnicity, yet power structures continue to condition us to think of race in black and white - a pre-selected census list of limited options to choose from: the “pure” races and the “other.” So naturally, my sense of self being the “other” heightened around my Asian and white family as well as around my “full” friends. But the more I learned about the heavy historical backdrop of power structures using and abusing the other for their own political, financial, religious, and social gains, the more I wanted to create space and apply value to my own voice by embracing it from a place of inclusivity and self-worth. And I had to do something about it. So I blew up their little box.
Has being ethnically ambiguous played a role in your life?
Being ethnically ambiguous has been a great teacher to me. It has taught me empathy and acceptance of others and myself - flaws, imperfections, and all. It has taught me to look at everything from multiple angles and a place of love - that we’re all in this existence together - that we don’t have to be one thing that has to fit into society’s standards. All my experiences are unique and of equal value. Again, the prism perspective! I feel so grateful to understand this more. Because trying to understand identity is like trying to navigate a spiraling M.C. Escher staircase: there are so many twists and turns; it’s constantly evolving, breathing, and assuming new shapes. It’s very personal and unique to each person’s path; the more I looked at life from the ethnically ambiguous perspective, the more curious and understanding I became. You do not have to conform to one ethnicity.
The only thing you have to conform to is your truth. So get curious. And be proud. Is ethnically nonconforming a thing? Because maybe it should be!
What do you find important for how you see yourself reflected in the world? What do you wish you would see more of?
What I find most important is that first, the image of the mixed-race identity is reflected. That’s step one. Step two, is that the image is honest. We need honest voices, honest admissions, and honest reflections of the multi-racial experience by multi-racial people — and that means sharing the good, the bad and the ugly side of life. Put it all out there. There is power in vulnerability. And strength in imperfection. I want to see more inclusivity. More stories. More studies. More empathy. More understanding. More curiosity. And more love!
How have you come to understand the concept of ‘being enough’ in regard to cultural and racial representation?
I came to understand “being enough” by realising my voice has the power to create space for representation in an industry where it didn’t really exist. When you hear and see your identity represented honestly onscreen, you begin to believe your story has worth. You begin to feel “enough.” There’s a lot of white noise silencing minority voices, so the less we add value to our experiences, the less we exist. I had to create space; then I found community.
I think “being enough” isn’t so much a concept rather than a requirement to live a full life - you must add value to your existence by knowing every cell, fibre, and breath of your being has value. Easier said than done of course, but if you begin to view your life and make choices from a place of value rather than invisibility, then “being enough” becomes a way of life rooted in action. It isn’t enough to just think about being enough. You have to know it, challenge it, choose it, create it, live it, and own it.
Your series Almost Asian tackles a lot of the facets of having a perpetual identity crisis as a multiracial person. What inspired you to make the series?
My identity crisis! No, seriously. What jumpstarted me to make Almost Asian nearly five years ago was precisely this perpetual identity crisis that I felt wasn’t being represented onscreen. I thought “hey, my crisis is dark and funny, surely I can’t be the only one that feels this way, maybe I should do a series about it and find out!” So I did (with my director brother), and lo and behold, we found we’re not alone. The humour was pitch perfect. All the awkward moments unique to my multiracial experience translated well to the screen, and Almost Asian was able to carve a niche out for this voice in the comedic space.
Because for me, laughter is healing; and writing the series has become self-therapy. I had to laugh about my identity crisis in order to challenge it and grow. It also helps that I excel in the art of the awkward and have a very dark and twisted sense of humour, so writing racially charged scenes with a universal message was a total joy. And what continues to inspire me now that the series has expanded into a half-hour comedy is the community calling for their/your/our voices to still be heard. Their cry for representation is my jet fuel. So I built a rocket ship.
To me, Almost Asian is a comedic release of a lot of bound up, confused, hard to articulate tension that I relate to as a multiracial person, and it’s such satisfying content to watch. I always thought my experience of being multiracial is very niche, until I started bonding with other multiracial people and realised we all felt the same alienation and weirdness, even if our cultures are vastly different.
What is it about being mixed race that can connect us over continents, even if simultaneously we feel otherly in our own families?
Thank you so much, I am honoured you find the content cathartic and satisfying! Personally, I think what connects us over continents is the universal need to belong—in the workplace, school, community - this need is the cornerstone of identity. And the context humans experience this need first is with family. Naturally, relationships with our parents, siblings, and extended family precede all others, and our formative years inform how we initially move through the world, define ourselves, and relate to others; so when we feel like the outsider and our identity crisis dropkicks into hyperdrive, we look at the roadmap of our life and often attribute our otherness to our mixed-race roots. Our home base. I’ve never looked like my dad’s family, and I’ll never look like my mom’s. Some of my Japanese family members are Buddhist, and my German-Irish dad’s side is Catholic. How can I be one and both simultaneously? Multiracials have experienced this otherness since we were born, so naturally I think this is the shared mixed-race bond even as the experience extends beyond the household and into the world. And even as a questionably well-adjusted adult, I still experience otherness quiet often. We all can relate to this identity purgatory on one level or another.
Again, there are many reasons people feel a sense of otherness and how they identify. The multiracial family dynamic is just one of them. And Almost Asian taps into that. Mainly, because it’s just honest! I didn’t think viewers would relate to my ‘almost’ Asian-American story as much as they have, but here we are — our unique experiences are indeed universal and shared. Pretty cool we have an extended family of mixed-race individuals we can connect with now. You are not alone. Consider me your long lost cousin.
How has the reception been for Almost Asian?
The reception has been so inspiring and positive. I am humbled by the number of messages I receive from viewers all around the world - how they relate to the series, what their upbringing was like, how it has enlightened and empowered them, and how it has helped parents better understand their mixed-race kids. I also receive messages from viewers who don’t identify as multi-racial but relate to the outsider experience that Almost Asian champions. I learn so much from their stories that empower me and expand my own understanding of the multiracial identity. They challenge me to think beyond my limited worldview. I am so grateful for their responses. There is so much more to glean. And space to grow. I only hope to continue to challenge social conventions, educate, and share the message with a larger audience, while hopefully making them laugh.
Can you talk about some of the milestones in your life about coming to terms with your identity as a mixed race person?
I think one of the most important milestones in coming to terms with my identity was shedding my anger about being mixed-race. For years, consciously and unconsciously, I used my mixed-race as a scapegoat for not fitting in. While being mixed certainly contributed to my otherness and played a factor in not fitting in, there were other factors too; like my fundamentalist religious upbringing and the fact I can be a super fucking weirdo that constantly craves solitude - what, you don’t love listening to noise music while aimlessly wandering the supermarket aisles late at night too?! Being mixed-race did not justify a reason to redpill.
Anger was a powerful, valid, and necessary step in order to achieve awakening and understanding but at a certain point, it was a low vibrating one note stunting my growth; my middle finger got tired, and I had to let it go. Realising I had the power to change what I was angry about in my life through productivity, positivity, and creativity lead me to a new chapter of love, curiosity, and acceptance. It’s good to be angry and rebel because it means you’re alive. Call that shit out! But ultimately, I had to identify what exactly I was angry about then do something about it. That is how Almost Asian was born. From a shit nugget of anger that blossomed into a bright, fragrant well-fertilised flower of bitter laughter and sweet love.
What will you be working on in 2019?
I’ll be continuing to expand Almost Asian into a half-hour comedy. Margaret Cho is my executive-producer! Yes, THE Margaret Cho. And I just debuted the first episode of my new unscripted side project called Almost Asian: Presents that features inspiring individuals from the multiracial community. The incredible comedian and musician, Reggie Watts, is my first guest (he is the BEST!), and I can’t wait to interview more. Karen O, you up?