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‘I can’t be accepted unless I accept myself first’: Malaka Gharib on finding her own American Dream

‘I can’t be accepted unless I accept myself first’: Malaka Gharib on finding her own American Dream

Malaka Gharib is many things: she is a Filipino Egyptian who grew up in an Asian Hispanic community in the U.S. Despite this, there was a point in her life when Gharib felt like she didn’t know where to stand: identity seemed like a vague word, the more she knew about the world that surrounded her—cultures and languages and religion—the more she felt distant from herself.

“I tried instead of just being myself and embracing my family heritage on my dad and mom's side, I was rejecting it for another idea of what being an American was when in fact, who I was the whole time was just as an American experience as anything else,” Gharib said.

In I Was Their American Dream, Gharib shared what it means to truly discover herself and reach for own version of the American dream. In Fully Booked Chats with Malaka Gharib, the writer and illustrator gave readers a peek on her creative processes and a glimpse on how her graphic memoir came to be. Read some snippets of the interview with Malaka Gharib here. 

How did you develop your art style? How did you build your visual back?

I actually hated my illustration style for the longest time. I am not a formally trained artist. I wanted to go to art school, but my parents wouldn't let me because they didn't think it was a lucrative career. I didn't actually start drawing comics professionally until I was like 32, so I didn't have a lot of time to hone my style. Whatever I was drawing was the collection of every influence that I’ve ever liked as an artist: art pieces I saw, or like the graffiti that I was moved by. It's all an expression of yourself.

I find my illustrations to be kind of disarming because they're so childish and naive, it's almost like you're reading my diary and then I'm just drawing doodles in the corner. And I feel like that feels really accessible and relatable to a lot of people. I try to use expressive lines. So hopefully that makes it feel a little bit warmer and a little bit more personable and relatable, hopefully.

Speaking of art styles, how did you come up with the specific color scheme you chose for I Was Their American Dream?

Here's what's interesting, I'm terrible at color. My tatay, he was a journalist. He always bought these really fancy ink pens that he would put in his pocket and I'd always steal them. And I would just use his bond paper for his typewriter. That has always long been my medium: pen and bond paper. 

Penguin Random House and Clarkson Potter were so great. We actually hired a colorist in London. His name is Toby Lee and he did all the coloring and brought depth into my drawings. My drawings look so much better because he's colored it and added shadow. I'm working with them again in my next book.

Why did you choose those stages in your life to tell your story in the book?

The reason why I chose to cover those ages is because I have never written a book before. I have to draw 160 pages and since I come from the culture of making zines, the longest zine I've ever made… It's usually about 20 pages. So I was like, if I just divided 160 by 20 that's about like nine chapters. So I'll just do every stage of my life in 20 pages.

But I would like to just say something about how I chose to draw myself. I've been drawing myself, I think it surprised me how I chose to depict myself in this book as wide eyed with a little small nose and a big screaming mouth. It also brings up this idea from Kristen Radtke, who's another comic artist. She wrote this wonderful piece about how women depict themselves in comics. And we're not sexualizing ourselves. We're not drawing ourselves from the male gaze, but we're drawing ourselves from how we see ourselves. I feel like my comic character is my spirit animal.

If you were to visualize, who would be your target audience this time? How would you like your book to be read?

It's interesting, I never think about the audience when I'm writing or drawing. That's why when I Was Their American Dream became so successful and I started to see a lot of people, schools, and teachers make it a required reading and commenting about how the book meant something so important to them, that was all surprising to me. It was unbelievable. I can't even describe the feeling. I just couldn't imagine that it would ever be something that people would study. I feel like they have something in common with me because ironically, growing up in the United States, the whole time, I felt my family story was like an anomaly, I was the freak and everybody else was normal when everybody else was going through the same thing that I was. So it was a beautiful feeling.

What was it about the immigrant experience that made you want to put it on paper? 

I grew up in a really Asian and Hispanic community in Southern California when I was growing up. We actually lived in a very predominantly Filipino community. So we went to a Filipino church, we went to a Filipino elementary school. All of my family from the Philippines ended up moving to Southern California. So our whole clan lives within five miles of each other. That was my whole world growing up. I saw white people certainly, but they were on television. 

I was thinking, what were my parents' dreams for themselves when they first moved here? Did they achieve their dreams? What was their dream? What's my own dream? What is my American dream? And then once I started asking myself these questions, I started drawing comics directly in correlation to what I was seeing in the news. So for example, there was this rhetoric that was in the news… People from other countries are dying to come into the United States. That is certainly the case for some populations, but for me, my mom's pop, my mom's generation or my mom's family's story, she didn't want to come to the US.

She was perfectly happy in the Philippines and had a great job and a boyfriend. She was going to grad school at the University of the Philippines and she was doing fine. But then, since everybody moved, she was like, well, I guess I have to go, I can't just be here all alone. So I started drawing that comic and then I started hearing from people from different cultures, my dad in Korea in the 1980s. And then all of a sudden, I had 30 comics and somebody said, hey, you should put this into a book. And then I did.

What was the most difficult thing in writing that comic for you?

As I said before, writing is an active discovery, like you're trying to understand your own personal emotions. I was asking myself questions that I just didn't know the answer to. I realized, actually in most of high school, I was trying to align myself with white culture because I thought that's what it meant to be American. Even my own family reinforced that rhetoric. So when my tito, for example, when he found out that I was going to a white college, he was encouraging me to dress like them, eat like them, learn how they talk because, you know, when you graduate, you're going to be entering a mostly white workforce and you need to be able to flow with that society.

I was thinking, what's wrong with the way that we grew up? Why do I have to act like somebody else? Why can't I just act like the person who I am now? And why is it accepted? It made me really sad to think that for so many years, I tried instead of just being myself and embracing my family heritage on my dad and mom's side, I was rejecting it for another idea of what being an American was when in fact, who I was the whole time was just as an American experience as anything else. Growing up in a Hispanic, Asian community in Southern California is also an American experience, just as American and just as valid as somebody growing up in Connecticut or something. 

You mentioned that a lot of people feel very connected through your story. How does that make you feel? How does it make your family feel?

Well, my family, I think, was really surprised that I was having such struggles. As a second generation immigrant, they thought when they came to this country, that all of their problems would be solved and that they would be considered just as American as everybody else. And when they realized that I was also going through a lot of identity struggles, they were pretty surprised. They were like, well, you're American. And it's like, sure, you can call me that 500, 5 million times. But I don't feel that way on the inside. I don't feel I'll ever be truly accepted unless I accept myself first, which is essentially me coming to terms with myself as an American.

What are your hopes for people of color and immigrants? What are you looking forward to?

Oh, my gosh. What's happening right now is just so wonderful. I mean, I just watched Minari,  which is a beautiful story about a Korean American family who's trying to make it in the U.S. and it's so gorgeous. I mean, Shang-Chi, the Marvel movie with the Asian character, I feel like that is so great for representation. I think that it's never, there's never been a greater time than now to just... I feel like I'm a kid in a candy store. There's just so much content. I can't even begin to consume everything. It's great!

Check out Malaka Gharib’s comical and touching graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream on Fully Booked Online. Visit www.fullybookedonline.com to get a hold of your next great read. 

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