Let me just say that I don’t pick up books to review for tactical marketing reasons. Sure I support indie authors and fellow Asian authors, but in a rare fit of traditionalism my Chinese father named me for the concepts of steadfastness (read: stubborn) and belief. I like to think I have some integrity when it comes to delivering the goods on what I really think about books, and for reading books that drifted into my orbit organically. My usual fare is a sprinkling of Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Adams, Felix Gilman, et al. I don’t go looking for stuff that is calculated to match my reader demographic or would encourage people to check out my work. It seems a little dishonest.
My reluctance to delve too deeply into author marketing may be why Heroine Complex was both a pleasant surprise and a mixed bag for me to read. From Asian-American author Sarah Kuhn, the 384-page offering from DAW (affiliated with our favorite distributor Random Penguin) joins the ranks of Monstress in a niche of material created by Asian-American women that have been steadily building a delightful community of fans. In Heroine Complex, you’ll find demon karaoke, drama up to your eyeballs, and a complicated relationship with food, all cultural aspects that I recognize too well as a part of the culture I grew up with. Despite the flowering of anime and other Asian cultures in America, I found Heroine Complex to be a rare illustration of Asian American culture, where we’ve evolved a completely different lifestyle and values from our brethren across the pond.
For a helpful summary of what Heroine Complex is about, head on over to the book’s web page. My version of it is: “What if the demon portal arc of Yu Yu Hakusho was set in San Francisco?” That’s a poignant description of the book, really, because a) YYH was one of the first anime brought to America and b) one of the few that have made it to translations of a number of different Asian countries. Result: I, a Hong Kong native, can talk to somebody with Taiwanese or Korean ancestry about YYH and totally connect, even though the anime was made in Japan. Heroine Complex is another one of those titles that bridges the Asian culture gap. Get this: the protagonist is half-Japanese, her dad makes Hawaiian fusion Japanese food, and her best friend is a Chinese person who got her superhero name from a makeup company in the Midwest and my favorite Sailor Scout. That’s about as Asian American as it gets.
The unadulterated culture infusion doesn’t stop there. Growing up in New York and visiting Hong Kong in the summers, I got to see pretty much every flavor of Asian girl drama, and they’re pretty well represented by Kuhn’s efforts. My wife tells me that most women are told their actions influence everybody’s state of mind, and that it exerts pressure on women to consider every aspect of an action before doing it. My opinion is social pressure is multiplied astronomically for Asians of every stripe. Chinese people fuss over money, Koreans over respect, and Japanese over etiquette, but basically everybody is afraid of bringing shame on themselves. (I’m not comfortable saying as much about other Asians, but please feel free to comment below) More than anything, Asian women across the board are pressured to be both successful career women and appealing for marriage material. I think Kuhn illustrated that well enough in the Aveda Jupiter character for me, a Chinese American man, to make that claim. Point, representation!
There is enormous pressure for HC’s protagonist Evie Tanaka to find success as a minority, to project the image she wants, and to be capable at being a superheroine’s assistant. In a way, Kuhn has created the archetypal Asian American Woman: capable to a fault and only limited by her crippling self-doubt and hopeless addiction to Lucky Charms. My mom is totally like this. Incredible at her job, crap at driving because she’s chicken, cannot resist beer or a deal on a sushi buffet. Sorry mom.
Cred established, I do have some beef, or rather, spam musubi, with Kuhn’s book. First off, the comic-style cover screams YA, and the writing style is reminiscent of Goosebumps or Sailor Moon in its linear plot arcs. Foreshadowing might as well be picked out with strobing neon. That plot style by itself is just nostalgia gravy, but the huge font is sprinkled with F-bombs and the occasional sexual scenarios. I’m not sure what audience Kuhn is aiming for, but blending YA adventuring with ladyparts warming up is a point of conflict with me. On the one hand, it is what I’ve always advocated, that adult themes are not too difficult for young adults to handle. On the other, HC’s style of storytelling misses out on some juicy literary themes, so it reads as a juvenile way for a bunch of late-twenties superheroes to handle a potentially world-ending situation. Ie: when Aveda’s zit situation has equal importance as a bunch of carnivorous baked goods, or when the bitchy critic also happens to be evil. I hereby declare that storytelling an Asian Fail.
That said, Heroine Complex is a valuable addition to a field devoid of a voice that reflects Asian Americans. I had my doubts at first because of the references to fusion cuisine, mentions of cultural specifics that were way on the nose (Michelle Yeoh?) and Sarah Kuhn’s appearance as a mixed-ancestry person. What? I can admit it. I quash as many preconceptions a day as there are grains of rice in my bowl. And you know, I am glad I did with this one, because I went through a lot of the situations in Heroine Complex before. It’s really nice to have that stuff out there in print. Really fun and strangely nostalgic. Pretty much the experience you get eating a ramen burger.