Art-Making, White Spaces, and the Realities of the American Dream

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with graphic Memoirist Malaka Gharib
November 7, 2019

Malaka Gharib grew up believing that her childhood in the quiet immigrant-filled Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos, California, was typical — summers spent living abroad with her father in Egypt, fussing over social cliques in high school that were divided by ethnicity, and pining after the casual cool of white people on TV. It wasn’t until she left the bubble of her hometown that she realized what an anomaly her upbringing had been in the greater American culture, and how her own differences were viewed by others.

As a first generation Filipino-Egyptian American, Malaka was often caught between multiple worlds and identities, be it her mother’s devout Catholicism or her father’s Muslim faith, her pride in being a punk zine-maker or her confusion in being called white-washed by fellow Asian Americans who saw her an outsider. In all of these things, Malaka had to learn her own sense of self, and she brings these experiences and lessons to her debut graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream, which was published earlier this year to much acclaim.

Here, she opens up to The Seventh Wave about what it was like to revisit her past and discover new truths to old narratives, and how making art has helped her to understand her feelings toward her family, her cultures, and her place within the States.

Joyce Chen: We’ll be chatting today about I Was Their American Dream, but also your creative process in general. So to kick things off, can you tell me a little about the impetus for the book?

Malaka Gharib: I was inspired to start making comics about my family after the 2016 presidential election. I had heard so many one-dimensional views of immigrants. That we were racist, that we were drug addicts, that we were dying to come into this country, that we were terrorists. Just these really sad, one-dimensional things. And growing up in a place like Cerritos, California — which is an immigrant bubble, a place where a lot of my friends had parents move there in the 1980s — I just felt like it was a really inaccurate depiction of what America is. Because Cerritos, California, was my America and it felt like we belonged there.

I started drawing cartoons about my mom and my dad, about how my mom never even wanted to come to the U.S.; she was just following what the rest of the family was doing. They wanted to leave Manila because they weren’t sure about the Marcos Administration and what that would do to the country’s economy. And my dad, he wanted to come here because he loved American movies, and wanted to live in a place like New York City. A place where it would be like the film Taxi Cab, which it totally was not. After the election, people were joining Planned Parenthood, joining the ACLU, volunteering, or going to marches, and I felt the most authentic thing I could do with the talents I had was to use my comics and tell my story about what it’s like to grow up in this country and share a more nuanced picture of America.

Joyce: I like that idea of course correcting and taking where your talents were anyway, and pushing your story out there to make a bold statement. I Was Their American Dream is a quick book to go through, but there’s so much in there to digest, so I am curious: How did you go about choosing which parts of your life to include? Did you storyboard?

Malaka: I basically thought of my book as eight different mini-zines. I’ve never done anything so long before, so I thought of each chapter as being distinct: they could be standalone, with a beginning, middle, and end. I thought, “Okay, I can make a 17-page zine. And if I make eight zines, then that would be 160 pages.” So I saw the book as eight mini-zines, and if I have to tell the story of my high school in Cerritos, California, what would I need for people to take away from that? I felt like an outsider, so what is the fastest and quickest way to help you, the reader, understand that? So I’d draw a picture of, for example, the social map in high school: Korean girl from the U.S. sat in one corner, and Korean girls from Korea sat in another, you know?

I wanted to create the most distinct way to express myself. I found it really challenging and fun. I really liked the economy of words and pictures that you could use to tell the maximum story.

Joyce: In terms of specificity, and not just of Cerritos, but the era we grew up in — there’s a lot. For example, there are references to burned CDs and certain bands and Capri Sun, even — and they all felt like such significant generational markers. How did you capture the feel of this generation coming of age then?

Malaka: I keep thinking of the book as an inside joke to myself. I really wanted to pack in as many cultural references — that meant a lot to me — as humanly possible. My parents were from the homeland and I was born in the 80s, so they were very much their culture at home. They had not become Americanized yet. We were still hearing Tagalog and Arabic at home. So just by the very nature of my environment — being born in the 1980s and my parents being FOBs — that’s the experience of the first generation immigrant in this country. And because I was born in the 80s, I came of age in the early 2000s, so there’s going to be a lot of late 90s and early 2000s in there, like, yeah I had a Justin Timberlake burned CD with N.E.R.D on that mix, too, and Pharrell. Yeah, we wanted Lunchables, that was the thing to have. I remember when they first came out, that was a really big deal. And then the mall photos with all the Asians doing the peace sign and being cute and dressing similarly, I wish I was one of those small pictures. But it was very much of a time, you know what I mean?

Joyce: In terms of access that younger people now growing up have — social media — to see cultures that are not of their own, to see different kinds of lives, we didn’t really have that as much.

Malaka: I’m so jealous of that. I remember the first time I really saw myself in the media was in the early 2010s when I just discovered the Fung Brothers on YouTube, and it’s like “18 Types of Asian Girls, Which One Are You?” And I was like “Oh my gosh, I’m the whitewashed one!” But that was the first time I had seen other people that looked like me in the media. I was living in a very white space in Washington DC, but I learned through the Internet I could find my home, I could find my own Cerritos where I grew up online. I could find my Asian homies with a Z. Azn homiez with a z.

Joyce: That was one thing I thought was super interesting and so relatable in terms of your relationship to whiteness — being called whitewashed — and then moving away to college and being among a lot of white people for the first time. Could you speak a bit more to how complicated that might have been?

Malaka: I thought I knew so much about white people from TV, and then I came to a white space in college, and I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know anything. I’m so dumb. I don’t know anything about being white.” I was saying all this crazy stuff. Like, I remember my friend Katie, I was like, “Oh my god, you’re so tall,” and my grandma came to visit my college dorm, and she, too, was like, “Wow, Katie you’re so tall.” And I was like “Nene, I learned recently you’re not supposed to tell people that because it’s rude.” And she’s like, “Well, she’s tall, what do you want me to say?” And I’m like, you can’t say that.

There was so much stuff that was just wrong. For instance, my mom told me white people make you pay for your own food, that they’re very cheap, and we believed all this. I remember going to dinner with my roommate’s family in upstate New York, and I said, “I have the money to pay for my food,” and they’re like, “Oh no, really, don’t worry, we got this.” And I was like, “No really, I insist.” So just really dumb stuff. I had so many generalizations, like I thought all white people were rich. One person told me they grew up living in a townhouse, and I was like, “Wait, like me? You’re poor, too!”

Joyce: You mentioned looking at this as eight-ish zines, each with their own arcs. Were there any times where you were struggling to figure out how to tell this story visually and succinctly, while also having that emotional punch that is sometimes hard to get in so few words?

Malaka: I think that’s the beauty of the comics format. You have to have the three elements of a comic, which is the narration, the dialogue, and the image. You need to be able to use those skillfully and poetrically to express what you’re trying to land on.

I’m a very light illustrator; I just do pen and ink. I try to make my lines as expressive as possible. For example, sometimes I let my hair tell the emotion. If I am feeling really sad, for example, my hair will be close to my face and hiding it. If I am really excited or scared, my hair will be as big as humanly possible, frazzled and crazy. Every line conveys emotion. Even sometimes the writing — the typeset — you can tell how I feel even in how I write the letters on the page. I try to make everything do something.

Joyce: I’m guessing in the process of putting this all together, you had to go back and look through a lot of old writing or old sketches. What was that like?

Malaka: That was really fun, actually. Not only did I look through old journals, I called up people from high school and middle school and fact-checked my history. Going back to that social map of high school, I’d ask, “We really did have a Mexican punk group, right?” And they’d be like, “Oh yeah, definitely.” Somebody told me about — and I had forgotten about it — Fob Hill. I was like, “What was Fob Hill?” And they’re like, “It’s that hill where all the people from other countries hung out.” I was like oh my god, you’re totally right, I totally forgot.

We weren’t even that close in school, I just saw them on Instagram and was like, “Hey I’m writing this book about Cerritos.” I didn’t feel shy about that at all. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible and be as authentic to the story as possible.

Joyce: Was there anything else in talking with old classmates and friends that surprised you or that you had forgotten about?

Malaka: Yeah, well, I found out more about my parent’s history, calling my aunt. My mom said the reason we moved here to the U.S. is because our grandfather was being hunted down by the regime and needed to flee the country. I asked my aunt about that, and she’s like, “No, dude, that’s super dramatic. No one was hunting down anyone, we just wanted to leave here because we weren’t sure what was going to happen to the country. It wasn’t as dramatic as that.”

Joyce: Speaking of family, I’m guessing yours has read or seen the book. How did they respond?

Malaka: With my family on the Arab side, they didn’t trust me. I took a lot of offense to this, but I shouldn’t have taken it so personally, but they told me: “We’re just really not comfortable with you talking about our family, so we’d appreciate it if you just kept this side of the family out of it.” That was fine, and I respected their wishes, but they probably felt that way because I didn’t do a good job communicating what the book was going to be about because I didn’t know what the book was going to be about. I just told them, “Listen, I’m writing a memoir about our family, I’ll be making a lot of phone calls.” It sounds scary from the get-go. It sounds scary to hear someone is writing a story about your family — like, what are you going to write about?

A lot of people were really skeptical. Like, please don’t write about the time I went to jail. I’m like, I’m not going to write about how you went to jail, this is a story about my personal identity journey, and that’s not going to make it into the book, but they had legitimate fears. The job of a journalist is to make sure there are no surprises, and for my parents, so much of the book is about them that I didn’t want them to be surprised by the content of the book. So a lot of the questions I asked were, “Hey, why did you guys get divorced?” So then they knew, oh, she is going to write about our divorce, let me get mentally prepared for this.

And I would fact-check that against each other. Like, “Mom says the reason she got a divorce with you, Dad, is you told her that she couldn’t wear short skirts and you wanted her to be more modest like Muslim women.” And my Dad was like you know what, that is true. And I thought he was going to vehemently deny it, but he admitted to it. So I tried to avoid surprises, and when the book came out, my mom was like, “You made me sound so poor and struggling.” To which, I said, “Mommy, you’re a first generation immigrant. Look around. Does it look like anybody in your situation from another country is having a great time adapting to America?”

Joyce: How about your sister?

Malaka: Min Min was just so excited to be included at all. She was very proud. I took her with me to the Filipino American International Book Festival in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and people recognized her, like, “Oh my god, you’re Min Min from the book!” And Min Min was so proud, I love it. She’s been very supportive.

Joyce: Zooming out a little bit, I’m curious about your creative process in general. Where do you draw your inspiration from and how do you stay inspired? What are your walls and how do you get passed them?

Malaka: I think for me, making art, drawing, and writing are a way for me to process my emotions and feelings. I honestly don’t know how I’m feeling until I can sit down and put pen to paper and sort out how I feel.

Like, I feel so weird today, I wonder why I feel so weird today, I’m just going to draw for a second, and here is this blob, and then it’s my face and me with a Grr face, and I’m like I am so mad, what is going on? And so I keep drawing until I figure it out. Like an aha! I know why I’m mad or I feel lonely: I haven’t talked to my mom in a while. It helps you get in touch with your feelings, you know? And for me, I’m very intentional because I know that I need that to process anything at all, whether it’s good emotions or bad.

I try to set aside times in my day to make things. I try to make something once a day, even if it’s very really fast and dirty, like a mini-zine or mini-comic. I usually use my bus rides to work as a place for making something. I doodle in my notebook or I’ll go to a coffee shop in the morning before work because it feels so cold to just jolt into work. I usually have a cup of coffee and force myself to make a five-minute zine, which you can see on my Instagram, and I also like being inspired by beautiful things and by nature and art.

This is more recent, but I try to go to a museum at least once every two weeks, and take pictures or just look at the details in paintings I like, like a still-life of champagne and fruit where it looked like the champagne was fizzling. The way the carbonation was painted, I was so moved by it. Recently, I went to go see the sculpture called The Evil Spirits by Auguste Rodin,and I almost cried because I felt like it’s exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. It’s this woman sitting with her hair over her face with these two demons surrounding her, cowering over her. I took a picture of it and tried to make a sculpture interpretation of that just using sculpting clay while I was sitting at my desk at the office when I was taking short breaks. It took ten minutes but it was very cathartic and helped me understand why I was so drawn to that image in the first place.

I also like going on nature walks and taking pictures of flowers. I’m reading Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton, and he’s saying that sometimes, if you’re feeling a picture of a simple and beautiful flower can move you, they can move you so deeply if you’re in a place where you’re seeking beauty.

Joyce: I think that’s when you know you’re an artist: the way that you’re observing the world is art, not just the actual production but the thing itself. Our upcoming issue is called “Actionable Storytelling,” and it’s all about recalibration, this idea of reaching breaking points, or finding out truths and falsehoods and what we do from there. I’m curious — in the creation of this book, was there such a point? You say you’re discovering as you create, so was there a lightbulb moment for you in terms of what you were trying to get across, or something you didn’t understand when you were younger?

Malaka: The whole book made me process the journey. Writing is about discovery, and if the writer isn’t really discovering anything about herself or himself, then you’re not really taking readers on that journey with you.

Just reexamining everything that happened, chronologically, from the moments my parents got here to my adulthood, and trying to understand the forces at play that helped shape my decisions in life, were really heartbreaking. I think what hurt me the most was in looking back, I felt like because I didn’t pass as Filipino, it was really hard for me to fit into Filipino spaces, and so I had to find an alternative identity that I felt I belonged to. That’s probably why I fell into punk culture, and zines and comics culture, because I just didn’t pass. My sister disagrees with this theory, by the way. She’s like, “I refuse to believe that the only reason I hang out with the Filipino group is because I look Filipino.” And I’m like well, that really helps.

I was thinking about these other forces at play that we might not realize. And I’m like, do I even like Fugazi? Shit, all these bands I have venerated, I don’t know if I forced myself to like them because I felt like that’s what I had to do. Is the only reason I make comics because I was a loser and a nerd in high school? You have this existential crisis of who you are and what chased you.

Joyce: What was the conclusion at the end of that? Or are you still discovering?

Malaka: I think where I’m at now is, I feel like I’m baby woke. I’m aware of myself now. I’ve questioned my identity and I can see now how my identity was formed, and now that I have this awareness, I can build on a new one.

It’s kind of like I stepped outside of the Matrix, and I’m like, “Ok, wow, I lived my whole life thinking I was just this one thing.” For instance, I believed for a long time that no microaggression or racial thing had ever been thrown at me because I passed as white, but then I started making a list of all the microaggressions I could think of, and I came up with a list of 10, then 20, then 50, then 100, and I was like, oh my god, this whole time, I’ve just never thought about it. Kind of like after the #MeToo movement, women were like, nothing has happened to me in the workplace, and then you start looking more closely, and you’re like, oh there was this one time a man put his hands on my knee during a meeting, and that was so sick.

Joyce: They’re called microaggressions for a reason, right, cause they grate at you but you don’t really know why until you really look at it. As a final question, what do you hope folks would walk away with after reading your book?

Malaka: More than anything, I just want POC to know your upbringing was so weird. It was like the weirdest thing being a POC in America. It makes you feel like you don’t belong, and that’s such a normal feeling, and I wish someone had just told me that when I was younger. “You being a Filipino-Egyptian American, that’s going to be different for you, and that’s OK.” If someone just told me that from the get-go, then I wouldn’t have had so much self-loathing and self-hatred. Like ew, my hair is so frizzy and curly, like I wish I had straight hair. Why am I so brown? You know? I wish I had those conversations sooner. I would have been relieved of a lifetime of that.

And it’s totally cool to be different. You should embrace that. It’s beautiful. I love my cultures and I sort of suppressed it my whole life. I was very dejected in college when people didn’t really care, like “Oh, I don’t see color.” It’s like, well I love being Egyptian, so fuck you. If you don’t want to know about my culture, then I won’t tell you.

My favorite feedback I’ve gotten this year is from this middle school kid. She’s from Bangladesh, and she said, “Your book inspired me to tell people I am not Indian, I am Bangladeshi.” So I’ve done my job, you know?

Headshot of Malaka Gharib

Malaka Gharib is an artist, journalist, and writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the founder of The Runcible Spoon, a food zine, and the co-founder of the D.C. Art Book Fair. Malaka is also deputy editor and digital strategist of Goats and Soda, NPR’s global health and development blog. She reports on topics such as the humanitarian aid sector, gender equality, and innovation in the developing world. Malaka lives in a row house with her husband Darren and her 9-year-old rice cooker.

Join the conversation!

Once or twice a month — we only send newsletters when we have things to communicate — we send announcements, opportunities, and inspirations.

Thanks for signing up! Oops! Something went wrong, please try again.