Smash Pages Q&A: Malaka Gharib

The creator of ‘I Was Their American Dream’ discusses zine culture, being creative every day and more.

Malaka Gharib has been making comics and zines for years now, including The Runcible Spoon, a zine about food and fantasy she’s been making since 2010. Last year her first book I Was Their American Dream was released, looking at growing up as a Filipino-Egyptian in the United States and exploring questions of race, identity and belonging in different ways. 

Gharib has an active and entertaining Twitter and Instagram presence where she’s regularly making art, putting together things like a “5 minute zine” or other small projects. In her day job, Gharib is a writer and editor at NPR in Washington, D.C. She recently made an episode of the podcast Life Kit, about weaving art into your everyday life. We spoke recently about the book, zine culture and trying to make one creative thing a day.

Alex Dueben:  How did you come to comics?

Malaka Gharib:  As a little kid I always enjoyed drawing and writing in journals. I didn’t actually know that what I was making in my journals were comics until I was much older. I was drawing myself in different situations in basically a comic-style format. I think the only experience I had as a kid knowing that format was the Archie comics, but I wasn’t much of a comics reader. That was my mode of creative expression, drawing myself in different situations. It helped me sort out my emotions. Later when I was in high school and I read Ghost World for the first time, I realized that comics could be much closer to the types of comics that I had been making on my own, which was personal, kind of serious, like a diary.

As far as the book goes, where did it start? Did you plan to make a book-length project from the start?

I was going to do 101 comics about growing up Filipino-Egyptian first-generation American. I never thought of doing a memoir or a narrative. I was thinking of doing spot illustrations about various experiences. Like taking off your shoes before you enter a house. Trying to find ways for your hair not to smell like fried garlic. When I was talking with my agent and publisher, they said, “You should try to make this into a story.” It seemed daunting to do a whole story of my life. The only graphic memoirs I’d read beforehand were Persepolis and Maus

Reading the book I thought of Roz Chast and Lynda Barry and other expressive cartoonists who seem to have been a big influence on you.

They validated my style. I had a lot of hangups because I didn’t really like my style. I found it to be childish and loose and kind of like unprofessional or unfinished. When I saw Roz Chast and Lynda Barry’s work, it helped me see the cool parts of my style. I was able to look at what they were doing and go, “Their lines are also very open and loose and expressive.” That gave me a little more confidence to feel ownership of whatever style came out of me.

As far as the journey to make this, I kept thinking about being in your 30s and the book felt like you needed time to understand some of these events and have a perspective to own them. And that you wouldn’t have been able to make the book five or 10 years ago.

The book helped me realize that I had so much to say about race and identity. More than I thought. It was a difficult process. I learned maybe some of the reasons why I felt like an outsider when I was in high school was because I didn’t really fit in with the people who were in my prescribed ethnic group and because I was mixed. I also realized how much of a lonely childhood I had. Writing the book was helping me to shake hands with my former self and move on. Feeling like an outsider was probably my biggest hangup I’ve had my whole life, and I don’t think I ever said it out loud and processed it the way I was able to in this book.

Right now people are talking more about the immigrant experience and assimilation and what it’s meant. Do you think of the book in the context of work like Thu Bui or these other books trying to come to terms with these experience and the United States?

I remember that after the Arab Spring and the Revolution in Tahrir Square in Egypt there was this outpouring of protest music and poetry and art. The political uprising inspired so much incredible work. I think you see that in every region, in every country, where something political happens and there’s an artistic response. For me here in the States, that was the 2016 election. I saw how the country really saw us. And by “us” I mean people of color. I suddenly had this cognitive dissonance. Is this what people really think about us? I need to do something. The only thing I could think of doing was make my cartoons. I was drawing pictures of myself and my family and trying to course correct the narrative that I was seeing. And not just institutions where I’ve worked, but the city that I live in, in the media, everywhere. 

I remember when Aziz Ansari hosted SNL and gave the opening monologue before the inauguration in 2017 and he was talking about what the election meant to a person of color like him who grew up in South Carolina. I remember saying to myself, “This is the first time in my life at age 30 where I saw myself and my story reflected in a national way.” It inspired me to stand up about race. I haven’t stood up my whole life. I’ve let comments roll off my back. I didn’t even know that I was experiencing all these micro-aggressions. I didn’t know that if I didn’t see myself in the media, I could make it so.

This oversimplifies the book a lot, but you talked about growing up in an environment where you and other kids would ask each other, “What are you?” And then you stopped because that’s not something you can ask in other places. I felt like the book was you trying to find a way to explore these concerns and identities without being reductive.

I wanted to show how fraught that question is. I talked to a lot of East Coast Asians who hate that question because they were asked in a really unsafe environment in a judgmental way, but the way I was asked in my hometown in Southern California in this Asian bubble, it was a really important way to learn about each other’s culture and was seen as a sign of respect. 

But I think a lot about my white college roommates I had at Syracuse. I really wanted to talk about race and my culture and it felt like there was this unspeakable gulf between us that wouldn’t allow for that conversation to happen. I wanted this book to be triumphant and encouraging and to show nuance in a way where we could try to have dialogue. 

It would be sad for you and me, for example, to not talk about my culture because that’s something that’s very important to me. As friends or as peers, we should try to work together to get to what people really care about. Whatever you think is important to someone, you should be curious enough to try to draw that out.

You also are the editor of the zine The Runcible Spoon, which is a title I love. And I don’t want to say that food is a shorthand for culture, but food is about family and ritual and tradition and a way of exploring that.

Kat Chow was my sensitivity editor for the book, and she encouraged me to break out of using food as a shorthand for culture. She encouraged me to try to find it in different parts of my persona, in my values, in my beliefs, in the traditions that I keep. It was a really eye-opening exercise. I wish I did that more, but food is the most apparent place where culture shows up and manifests itself.

Related to that, you wrote a great piece for NPR about hosting your first Eid. And so often we look to people and say, “Explain your culture to me,” and this was you saying, “I’m still trying to understand it and understand what it means for me.” And that discovery isn’t fixed and doesn’t necessarily end when we become adults.

I think that the best piece of advice I got about writing was that writing should be about discovery, and if you’re not discovering anything while you’re writing, then how can your readers possibly discover anything? My central question when I wrote that piece about Eid was, “Am I allowed to host this meal?” But the deeper question was, “What is my relationship to Islam? How much do you stick to your parents’ religion?” These are identity questions I wanted to continue exploring,  and I’m so grateful to NPR – or any publication, really – for letting me write about these things and explore it together with an audience.

People who follow you on social media will see that you make things like a five-minute zine or a leaf zine, and you talked about how drawing was always an emotional outlet for you. What is your drawing practice in your daily life?

I try to make one creative thing a day, and social media is a good motivator. Sometimes I literally wonder, “What can I post on my Instagram today? Something that means a lot to me and would be amusing to share?” I recently had a conversation with the cartoonist Liana Finck for a podcast episode I am doing for NPR about the benefits of making art. And she explained that in art an audience is needed. Because what you’re doing is creating a space to be heard and understood. So I think social media is good for that – a place to put our the things that we feel inside. Perhaps others might relate.

I joke that after making a book, people have one of two reactions – “I want to make another book,” or, “I never want to do this again.” What do you want to do next? Or more of?

I think I need a break in writing memoir for a while. I would like to spend more time making art and figuring out what I like to do. And that is a very luxurious space to be in life! 

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