Get ready for this. Elisha Lim of: the graphic novel 100 Butches (coming out later this year), the band Elisha and The One Hundred Butches, Sister Spit, One Hundred Percent Mixed, and her own blog New Art Every Day joined me today for an insightful and really laughter-filled interview. Check in later for the podcast version.
Elisha Lim was born in Toronto and grew up in Singapore, in a Catholic convent girls’ school overrun with queers, many of whom inspire his first graphic novel 100 Butches. Other sources of butch inspiration have been his bosses on German construction sites, her neighbors on the Spanish coast, his fellow drag kings in Israel/Palestine and restaurant guests subject to her waitressing in London. He returned to Toronto, and now proudly co-hosts a weekly party by and for queer people of color, called Fresh to Def. He was thrilled to be named “Artist in Residence” by Curve, a “Queer Woman to Watch” at afterellen.com and to run his strips in magazines like Diva, LOTL, CapitalXtra! and No More Potlucks.
Miyuki: So thanks for joining us at Asian, Gay and Proud.
Elisha: That’s where I am every day Miyuki.
Miyuki: Nice, thanks. So Elisha you’re from Toronto originally, were you born and raised there?
Elisha: Oh my god I actually got a tattoo about it. It’s a plane that goes all the way up to my neck and it’s just about how I feel like I’m from everywhere. I was born in Toronto and then I moved to Singapore when I was still a kid, and lived in Singapore until university and then I’ve lived in Europe and Australia, and now I’m back in Toronto.
Miyuki: I saw in one interview that you did a lot of traveling later on as well. Didn’t you live in Germany?
Elisha: Yeah that’s where I lived in Europe, Germany and England and I went to occupied Palestine for a while.
Miyuki: Geez, how was that?
Elisha: Um awesome, I was really in love with this Israeli girl woot woot
Miyuki: Was she queer?
Elisha: Oh yeah, YEAH
Miyuki: That’s awesome; it sounds like you totally lucked out. I mean you already have 100 butches to write about. So you were talking about being in Singapore…what was being queer like over there, compared to what it’s like in Toronto. I know that the Toronto queer scene is really active and vibrant. Have you been back to Singapore recently?
Elisha: Well you know it is to be mixed, there’s so much culture shock on a regular basis, and I think I’m recovering as a queer adult because I think it was a lot easier in a way to be gay in Singapore. I mean we didn’t use words like “queer,” and I don’t know what it’s like to be a queer adult there. But I mean there are so many cultural contexts that are kind of hard to translate. A lot gets lost in translation but, in a way, you know North American culture’s described as an individualist and at least in Singapore, it was more community-oriented. There was just a lot more of a feeling of “all for one” and “one for all.” We’re not being ambitious on our own behalf; we’re being ambitious on behalf of the group, on behalf of my class, on behalf of my school, on behalf of my country. It sounds cheesy but it was real and that reflected in queerness in that it wasn’t so important for me to be seen as queer. And so for me to have rights as a trans, queer individual…it was more that we were a part of this thing together.
Miyuki: Like it was unspoken, but you were all on the same page?
Elisha: Yes, I mean not even on the same page but it was like we didn’t make a big deal out of it. And it’s such a profound difference being an individualist society. I mean it wasn’t even about the sex you have on you own, with your partner. It was about like, “okay, so you vibrate on a different level from me, how are we gonna make this work when we have to do a project (in class together)?” Like that’s all that matters, that you’re productive together, or that you’re cooperating. And so your private sex life isn’t how we’re going to talk about this. I’m generalizing…it’s hard to simplify but for example, I went to an all girls school. And the only way to describe it is that the cool kids were lesbians. I mean at the time, it was the trend.
Miyuki: You know it reminds me of one of my white cousins who wanted to be Asian when she was growing up because her private school was 80% Asian, and all the cool kids were Asian. I mean do you think that you felt comfortable being yourself because all the cool kids were dating girls? Or do you feel like they opened your eyes up to something …
Elisha: I guess I just felt so different about it, and like I said, there’s so much lost in translation…it wasn’t even about feeling okay about being myself. This is kind of North American language in a way. It’s funny because I totally feel that, like I want to be comfortable being myself, but I know there’s an alternative and I guess that’s what living in Singapore taught me. There wasn’t really a “myself” to be, it was more like “there is something right about swagger, and I’m going to join in that kind of gracefulness and that’s what we’re going to do and we’re going to keep it a secret together, from our parents and we are going to have these signals that we understand about each other. And it’s not like “I need my gayness to be understood by my parents,” it was just, “we’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna protect each other and we’re gonna be stealth, and I’m going to learn how to do that with my legs when I’m sitting so it looks really tough, just like Michelle does, because she’s the leader of the pack.” So yeah, I feel like it’s kind of easier to be queer. I mean that being said, it’s against the law. Well it’s legal to be gay as of 1994 in Singapore but there’s still a lot that’s against the law, and you really jeopardize your job if you’re gay, so it’d be totally wrong if I said it was easy to be gay there but there’s something about that culture, the sense of community that makes it less urgent, and less like an emergency or something. When I came here, people were walking around with placards, you know, which is a great thing but I was like, “this is not describing myself.”
Miyuki: Let’s talk about this then because as an Asian American growing up I just never saw gay Asians. It was Elton John or nothing. Maybe Ellen DeGeneres in high school. But yeah, I spent the last year in Taiwan and I kid you not, every 5th girl is a lesbian and you have to wonder, “Is it in the water? What is going on?”
Elisha: Let’s go there!
Miyuki: Yeah! But like you said, people aren’t protesting like you’d see in SF or other parts of North America. What is it though about North America? Do we feel like we have to prove ourselves as individuals? Is it that kind of culture? I wonder where it comes from; I mean how did you deal with that when you came back?
Elisha: It’s such a difficult question because it informs everything doesn’t it…even the way that we vote. I don’t know about Taiwan but in Singapore, you don’t even bother voting! I mean I noticed that in North America, even in our commercials, what’s important is that you be you, and that you know who you are. And really, I don’t have the answers, but in Singapore I knew that, and it was okay. So I feel like carrying a placard is like saying “I’m being me” and “I’ll alone in the world,” “I’m isolated,” “I’m like an atom on this singular island and I need you to see the island that I am.” And it’s really kind of lonely. It’s not like that over there (Singapore). We’re not islands.
Miyuki: Yeah I think I know what you mean. So I also wanted to talk about how that affected the work you’ve been doing with the graphic novel, your band, etc. Did you ever feel nervous because of the expectations that Asian Americans are given by the rest of society? Or have you always felt super comfortable doing what you wanted to do.
Elisha: Hmm, that’s a good question. Have you noticed that there’s a stereotype that Asians can do graphic novels? (Yeah) So like, phew! (laughter) But anyways, I’ve written a couple of comics specifically about the emasculation of East Asian men, I mean I’m writing about butches. But how am I supposed to be a convincing butch if people think East Asian men are all fairies to begin with…I mean that’s what I’m transitioning into. Was that your question?
Miyuki: Well as Asian Americans, whether we want it or not, people will expect us to be docile or shy and not being able to speak our true feelings, and so to be a lead singer in a band; that’s in the spotlight all right and you know, if you’re queer on top of that, there are all these layers of minority. And this is what people see in us. So I was wondering if you’ve ever felt intimidated by that or how if you did, overcome that.
Elisha: Well there are different sides of the coin. We’re expected to be docile, and the men in particular are expected to be submissive, inscrutable, but then the women are also fetishized as not just docile but also…I mean a female Asian lead singer as long as the band is white, is a very appealing thing. You’re just this wonderful ornament. So at one point I had a band of straight white guys and I was more feminine at the time, and that seemed to be a working formula…aghhhhh (grosss) But yeah now as a butch, I do worry that that’s not going to work out and when I was touring North America with the Sister Spit van, we went through 28 North American cities, which was amazing, in six weeks. So every night we read in front of a crowded room full of queer fans. And I wanna be fair to people but my tour mates would sort of tease me or even complain that I was really hamming it up and that I was just this huge mega flirt. So they’d say every night “Here comes Elisha, putting on the charm” and “putting on this whole persona together and the fact that you have so many absorbed fans is because you’re being overly flirty” and “I can’t believe what a flirt you are.” So I don’t know if this entirely fair but I kind of felt like, “Are you just surprised that an Asian is holding the court?” like is this really hard for you? That an Asian masculine energy is keeping everybody quiet? I mean there was this really hard night in Las Vegas where, it was the only night where they weren’t literature fans. It was a raucous bar full of drinkers and they weren’t there to listen to poets, and it was just like assassinations. Everyone got up one after the other and got completely ignored by a shouting room full of people and they’re reading their precious memoirs and so it was really sad. But I was lucky because I’ve had a lot of experience with being in front of a band and so I tried to use that as best as I could, and so I made like a big hullabaloo and I got on stage, got people quiet, and used all of my dramatic pauses and diction and managed to keep them quiet. And that’s unacceptable, as a masculine Asian whatever, queer. My tour mates weren’t resentful, and not mean, but they really noticed, they were almost suspicious like, “you’re pulling something.”
Miyuki: Oh my god…but of course stereotypes have to come from somewhere. So I feel like I might be just as surprised.
Elisha: Yeah, well the problem with stereotypes is that they come from a position of power. It’s like stereotypes that white people make about us and that’s because they’re in a position of privilege and so I think that for example, living in Singapore, the guys weren’t submissive! They were notinscrutable, they weren’t quiet and obedient, they were just guys, like anybody else. But of course when you’re an immigrant or working with a language that’s very VERY different from your own and you have to do so-called “female” jobs, and there are so many reasons why you’re feminized…like washing clothes, doing the laundry is “supposed” to be a woman’s job but once the Asian franchises started, it was easier to start other Laundromats through your Asian community. So all of a sudden, you’re the women of North America…it’s sexism, it’s all kinds of…I think that stereotypes are quite the power play. So I don’t really believe that Asian men are all that sissy, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to hold the stage.
Miyuki: I think you’re absolutely right. So my best friend who goes to college with me is a guy from China and he’s getting girls left and right, and it isn’t until recently that I started to realize why. It’s just that he’s not affected by this Asian American inferiority complex, something that even I as a female Asian American feel. I’ll look over to my Asian American male friend and think, “Damn he has it hard” because everyone’s feminizing him. But my friend from China he’s just being himself, of course he’s going to get women, and why should people be surprised? And so it’s cool to hear your story because you were in Singapore and then you transplanted yourself back to Toronto so you have both perspectives.
Elisha: I do want to say that if as Asians we do feel inferior, it’s because of a real phenomenon, like it’s easy to overlook a group of people who are so invisible in the media. I mean, we’re the last ones to be sex symbols, and I think it’s a really large wall of racism that we’re up against.
Miyuki: Yeah so we just need to be the media, we need to create the media.
Elisha: Woo! Asian, gay and proud!
Miyuki: Woo! Totally! So, because the website emphasizes coming out and being proud, I was hoping you could share a coming out story.
Elisha: I think that it’s really hard to come out to your family when you don’t have a strong community and this is not true for all Asian families but ours sort of migrated as an island, and we didn’t have a big network of friends. So I think that makes it really hard for immigrant families when your kid suddenly does something that’s “risky.” And I think it’s hard when your kid does something that makes you vulnerable and so it was really hard for us. I think my dad was really scared of me for a bit and my white mama was just as, if not more homophobic about it all. But they’ve made a huge effort and maybe if I have a kind of nice story, it’s when I was telling them more about gender. But coming out was a struggle, real suffering…and I don’t think I’ll ever try to explain the whole trans thing. My mom freaks about Annette Bening’s son, she’s like “Poor Annette, suffering so much!” So I don’t think I’ll tell them everything, but I tried a different tactic and I don’t know if it’ll be useful to your readers, but I hope so! (haha) I decided to go for this kind of deprecating tactic and well, I usually approach things with them as a “fight,” like you know, “This is how I am, whatcha gonna do about it?” But with this, I said, “Well, mommy and daddy, I don’t know why, and I know it’s weird and I don’t know what to do about it and it would be easier if it wasn’t this way, but I just like wearing men’s clothes.” Such s totally different tactic!
Miyuki: Oh my god! How did they react?
Elisha: Well believe it or not, they were really sympathetic. They were like, “Oh, okay, so Elishaknows that it’s a problem. That’s really too bad” HAHAHA which you know isn’t trans positive or anything but still it was okay and they didn’t freak out. And then my favorite part of the story is that the next night I was sitting having dinner across from my dad, and he was quiet for a while, and then he went, “You know, white shirts stain really easily and you shouldn’t buy white shirts, you should buy off-white shirts.” YAYYYYYYY!
Miyuki: That is AMAZING and super positive!
Elisha: I mean they moved far away soon after, so we haven’t really interacted a lot since then in person, but that was his first reaction.
Miyuki: When did you start writing your graphic novel, 100 Butches? Were you ready for all the coverage? Did you expect it to take off like this?
Elisha: 2008 I think? Noooo it was AMAZING! Oh my god. I have been an unsuccessful artist for SO long. I’ve been in so many projects, and they have been my best teachers, as my dad would say, “failures are our teachers, you pick up and you keep going.” So I’m involved in all kinds of failed projects on a grand-scale, so much money, so much work. And then you know what happened? It’s kind of amazing. I called it 100 Butches because I was sitting on the bus going to my London waiter job, and I noticed in the back of Diva Magazine, the lesbian magazine, that they needed a comic artist. And I had never done a comic before that, and so I was like “100 Butches! That sounds catchy!” And so I drew three of them on my kitchen table, which I sent into them, and they were like “We are going to feature you in our next issue!” Out of the blue! And then they did, and then this Canadian blog came out of nowhere, and featured it and did a radio show on it and then I literally had six interviews before I had even ten butches. It was so weird. I was like “All these years of making pathetic music in total obscurity and now I have six kitchen table drawings….” It’s so out of proportion. I think it has so much to do with your gimmick.
Miyuki: Yeah it’s all about catchphrases out there.
Elisha: Oh yeah, but it’s been freaking amazing! I toured with Michelle Tea across North America–it’s unreal.
Miyuki: Can you tell us about your trans experience?
Elisha: Sure yeah let me elaborate on my “transness.” I do not want to transition to being a man, I don’t think I’m a man but what I feel instead is that I just feel like it’s so obvious that for some people it’s much more than just boy or girl. So I want to be more vocal about that, and more visible. That’s why I want to use “they” or “he.” I feel like I’m never going to pass as a “he” as much as I…like that’s so much to my chagrin, I want so badly to, but I don’t. Doesn’t matter. Not because I want to be a guy but I wish that I had more fluidity and options…but anyways, my point is that I use “he” because I know that it’s uncomfortable, awkward and strange, and I value that. I feel that I’m something that is neither “he” nor “she” and when you say “he” to me, it represents that quite well. Like now you’re a dissonant note! Kind of creepy now, and that’s about right. I mean that’s a bit negative, but I’m different and duh, anyone can see that. When I told my boss that a guy in the elevator was hitting on me, she was like, “REALLY?” I mean it’s obvious I’m different. Hahaha, which is fine but whatever. So I really appreciate the way that you guys, in America, talk about transness. It’s different from Toronto. It’s very new language, not a new experience, but new language. But my San Francisco tour mates talked to me a lot about the trans spectrum and that it was okay to be a female-bodied trans person who doesn’t take hormones blah blah blah, and I really value that. That’s how I feel so…I want to talk about this spectrum and I’ve gotten onto North America with my placard! I AM A SPECTRUM! See me ahhh! But my Singaporean friends are all like, “You’re really making us uncomfortable!” But anyways, that’s how I see myself. I do feel very comfortable in queer scenes, and especially in Toronto, there’s a strong queer peoples of color scene…yeah queer white scenes don’t make me feel that hot, but queer peoples of color scenes make me feel like I’m on the top of the world!
Miyuki: That’s why it’s so important to have a community you know?
Elisha: Oh yeah, it’s so nice!
Miyuki: I did have one more question that relates to that, which was: Do you think there’s a collective queer Asian American experience that we can all relate to? Or do you think that this kind of categorizing is simply replicating the way our society tries to put us in boxes?
Miyuki: Because I feel like that’s the million dollar question. Why do we keep talking about justice if we’re going to be in our own communities, where we feel most comfortable. What are your thoughts on that?
Elisha: I guess I think it’s a default. I don’t want to be confined to my own community. I wish for equality, I wish I could be myself everywhere, and right now, it’s only in my community that I feel strong enough to say so. But hopefully when my kids are around, they won’t have to be relegated to their communities to feel good about themselves. So now, our communities serve as platforms. So websites like yours are really important and cool because there’s no reinforcer in just public everyday popular culture, No reinforcement. If anything, there’s degradation of being an Asian female or male!
Miyuki: Totally, well why don’t we end the interview with some advice you could give the readers of Asian, Gay & Proud.
Elisha: Well, I guess all you can advise is what you know, and something useful that I learned about making an artistic reputation or getting acknowledgement as an artist, because it just sucks being overlooked as an artist, listening. Listening was really hard for me to do and my very prudent Asian father would say, “what you’re doing isn’t working and it’s because you’re not listening to your audience.” And I just wouldn’t listen and listening not just to my dad’s advice, but also listening to people’s reactions and seeing what makes them go “yeah” and seeing the moment where they’re like “uh, lost interest,” that’s really helped me. And now I’m obsessed with that. I pay a lot of attention to “what did you just enjoy?” and “where am I losing your focus?” And I don’t want to say to work at the expense of your art…that’s what advertising is, just purely following the audience. But I really feel like we’ve all got these incredibly complex individual very fascinating, beautiful stories and they deserve to be told, and the only reason I had the opportunity to tell my stories now is because I gave them a vehicle that people actually like. And that’s because I really had to humble myself and pay attention to what they would like.
Miyuki: That’s excellent advice! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Asian, Gay and Proud! Good luck with your book and all of the other projects you’re involved in!
|If you want to know more about what Elisha’s up to, check out his blog: New Art Every Day and the following links:Music: http://www.myspace.com/worldsmostelisha
Pre-order the book: http://www.amazon.com/100-Butches-1-Elisha-Lim/dp/1593501684
Lunchin’ Ladies’ Blog interview:http://lunchinladies.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/lunch-date-with-the-dashingly-dapper-elisha-lim/
Curve Magazine feature: http://www.curvemag.com/Curve-Magazine/September-2008/Open-Studio-Elisha-Lim/
*There were a few parts of the interview that didn’t make it into the transcribed version because they were either a. off topic b. full of crazy sounds or c. both a and b. Please listen to the podcast (should be up in the next week) for the whole interview.