Interview: Malaka Gharib

Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream, is about growing up Egyptian-Filipino-American. Short Run board member, Otts Bolisay, a Filipino-Bahamian-American, knew of Gharib first as an NPR journalist before realizing she was also a comics artist and zinester. This is their conversation.

Cover for Malaka Gharib's "I Was Their American Dream"
All pages reprinted from I WAS THEIR AMERICAN DREAM Copyright © 2019 by Malaka Gharib. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

“This is really good.”

My husband sent me a one-line email linking to an article Malaka Gharib wrote. How I Learned To Talk To My Filipino Mom About My Mental Health was my first encounter with her work and I immediately shared the article with my siblings. We’re all splitting caregiving duties for our mom and it was Year Three for my husband and I.

When I mention this to Malaka, she says, “Oh, that’s nice! That’s very Filipino of you. Is your husband Filipino as well?”

OB: Ooooo. No, he is not.

MG: “Right?”

A wedding photo of Malaka's Gharib's parents from "I Was Their American Dream"

We get right into it. Talking about parental and cultural pressure to date and marry another Filipino. In my family, I remember my sisters being pressured more than my brother and I.

MG: “I never got that pressure, because my mom herself married an Arab. I feel like she has that Filipino mindset of marrying a non-Filipino, especially a light-skinned one, is seen as very prestigious. Mestizo, you know?

“My dad’s been training me my whole life to marry an Arab Muslim. As a kid, it would be a joke, but I understood the subtext: in our culture, you don’t marry outside of the faith.

Malaka and her dad on the beach, he asks "Jason or Mohammed?" from Malaka Gharib's "I Was Their American Dream"

We talk about being attracted to other Filipinos and I mention the realization I came to several years ago. At the time, it almost felt too close, like being with another Filipino would be like being with a family member.

MG: “That’s interesting! I went to Sadie Hawkins with an Indian American and I asked a Taiwanese America guy to the prom. But I never thought that Filipino guys were a viable option. I just thought that they did look like family members. I dunno, that’s totally true. You know what I think this stems from? The dark-skinned Filipino is seen as not attractive. I’m sure your grandma did this to you: “Stay out of the sun”. And she would always do that thing with my nose where she would try to make my bridge longer.”

OB: My brother used to pinch his nose.

MG: “One time she took my measurements: ‘Oh my gosh, your bust and your hips are the same width, and you have a very small waist. You have the perfect Western measurements,’ or something.

“I was 14 at the time. I thought it was a weird statement. But I think she always thought I was very beautiful because I was mixed and lighter-skinned, more than other Filipino people in the family. But I definitely got from a young age that brown, Filipino: Not Good. White, mestiza: Good. That message was driven home. And from my dad, totally different messages: don’t even look at anybody if they’re not Arab or Muslim.”

Pick a Side

I tell Malaka about meeting a group of people the other day, and how one of them just blurted out, “Are you Filipino?” to me. Earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have liked being identified so easily as a Filipino, but it made me happy. We exchanged the few words of Tagalog we knew and quietly commiserated with each other that this was all we could manage. When I tell Malaka about this, she says,

“This is a time when people are prouder than ever to say what they are. Open dialogue about who we are as people and who we identify with is always welcome in my book. Because it helps begin the conversation about race and identity and creates a sense of pride around your heritage that you may have hidden away from others. In general, I feel I have to overcompensate. I do consciously overcompensate my Asian-ness or my Arab-ness, because I feel people cannot immediately identify me as Filipino or Egyptian.

I remember this one time, I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before, my Dad took me to the Rose Bowl when I was 6. I saw next to us there were Filipinos hanging out. And I really wanted them for some reason to know I was Filipino too. I remember moving over to them slightly, and I looked at my Dad and said, ‘Hey Daddy, do you think that Nanay will go to the Philippines next year?’ And my Dad was like, ‘Why are you doing that? Do you want the other people to know that you’re Filipino?  OK, you got it. They get it. You’re Filipino, you’re Filipino.’

I feel like that’s what I’ve had to do my whole life. Because I just don’t pass. I didn’t care for the majority of my life, especially in my 20s, when I didn’t really think or talk about race much. Only in the past few years as I’ve been leaning into my heritage more and more, like, Yeah! I want the whole world to know I’m Filipino! I put that little emoji, the Filipino flag in every social media platform that I have.” ??

Before our call, I found myself thinking of ways to get Malaka to express her preference for being Filipino over being Egyptian. Or, more accurately, to bond with her over our Filipino-ness. I’ve seen and felt this competitiveness before: wanting somebody who’s mixed race to “pick a side”; thinking, “That’s another one for us.” I ask Malaka if she’s encountered this before.

"Whatever, dude, Imma just do me", from Malaka Gharib's "I Was Their American Dream"

“People don’t question which side I prefer. It’s a deeper nuance that I think people have only started to unpack or care about. [They say,] ‘Oh, Egyptian-Filipino-American, that’s cool.’ But now, I introduce a deeper bit of nuance when I introduce myself: ‘I’m Egyptian-Filipino-American, but I grew up with my Filipino family in southern California, so I really identify a little more closely with my Filipino side. I’m able to cook dishes and understand Tagalog fluently and I know more about that culture than I do my Arab side.’ But that’s a piece of nuance I’ve been trying to explain to people. Because it’s important: it’s possible to be many things, but also feel more like one than another.

OB: I will admit, when I noticed in the book that you said “Egyptian-Filipino”, I said, “Why not Filipino-Egyptian?”

MG: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true. It’s interesting that you say that because I don’t think I thought about the ranking order of it much until I was finished with the book and realized that, “Wow, I really am so Filipino. I probably should change up the order. But you know, I’m still half and half, so whatever.

Am I Filipino Enough?

OB: It seems super petty to admit, especially because I don’t know you that well. But I don’t pass, depending on where I am. But, I still think about a lot of these things. I still feel a need, even talking to you, to prove my Filipino-ness.

MG: Well, that’s helpful. That makes me feel better.

OB: Yeah. [laugh] OK, good. On some level it feels like we’re all trying to prove how real we are and I’m trying to figure out where that comes from.

MG: I’ve been thinking a lot about that too. Whatever skills or knowledge you have as a Filipino, that’s it. Your grandparents are probably not around any more. Whatever knowledge that has been transferred to you, that’s all you get, man. If you ever have kids someday, or if you have kids, or nieces and nephews that you want to pass this knowledge to, do you want to share your Filipino-ness with others? All you have is all you have. Is what you have enough? That is the question that I grapple with in the last chapter of the book.

I’m forgetting things. I’m forgetting things that Nanay taught me. I cease to practice things that my Mom told me about because I just think they’re stupid. Like, you know what, I’m wearing shoes in the house, I’m lazy. I’m not gonna change into my pambahay when I get home because I’m lazy. Those little bits are getting chipped away. I’m afraid that life is getting more Americanized and Americanized as the years go by.

Panels from Malaka Gharib's "I Was Their American Dream": she won't serve men first, forgets to take her shoes off at home, doesn't eat rice for dinner all the time.

But I was in LA recently and this Filipino guy came up to me, his name is Ayy Ron, and he has a youth outreach program for Filipinos called Lakas. And he says, “I tell people all the time: whatever you’re doing, even if it’s weird and random, it’s Filipino. Just because you are Filipino. Anything that you do, anything that you think, it’s automatically Filipino. This is an evolution of our people as it has always been and how it will always be.”

I thought that was very beautiful. I thought about all the colonizers who came and the changes that happened to our people. And all the millions of people who have traveled away from the Philippines, who have migrated overseas, are all grappling with the same identity issues. Am I still Filipino? Am I Filipino enough? Whatever! You’re still Filipino because you are Filipino. I know it’s very kumbaya, but it was a big turning point for me.

The Constraints of Cartooning

OB: I love the tone of this book. It’s so breezy and fun. There’s so many directions it could’ve gone with your parents’ divorce, racism, internalized racism, lingering on much heavier topics. Tell me more about why and how you calibrated the tone in this way.

MG: I’m very inspired by Christoph Niemann. His philosophy in art is to use the minimal amount of lines to express what you need to express. I love the control, the constrictions of the cartoon format. You really don’t have many words, and you really shouldn’t use too many words, and you have limited space for expressing your art, and I wanted everything to be just enough of what you needed to understand. That was very important for me.

And I see this a lot with Adrian Tomine, who’s another artist I love and look up to, especially in Killing and Dying, you can do just enough to help you understand what I mean, there’s something beautiful in that constraint.

Miniature Maximalist

OB: How do comics fit in with your job at NPR?

MG: It still feels compartmentalized. I write about poverty and global issues during the day. Right now, I’m writing a piece that is about the World Bank. And then at night, or in my free time, that’s when I do stuff about my Filipino identity. NPR’s been very open about publishing that stuff, which is nice. And then freelancing, I did a comic for The Nib with another Filipino artist names Trinidad Escobar, we did an exploration on the colonial roots of pimiento.

OB: I read it!

MG: I get to do that stuff on the side. And then I do a lot of little comics and zines which I post on my Instagram. There’s a lot of making everywhere.

OB: I love the 5-minute zine that you tweeted. The torn edges and the crossed out words, it doesn’t occur to me as much these days to do something so quick and even messy (in a good way), like that. Do you do that kind of stuff often? Where you just rip a piece of paper and you do it right there, and then you post it?

MG: Yeah, all the time. I think it’s important to be an artist every day. Do it for you. I do lots of different things: I make little zines, but also I leave flowers, I pick flowers, and I tie them up and write a letter or small note, and I leave that out on the bus or at a bus stop, on a lamp post. I also write a lot of maxims in the style of Jenny Holzer, and I leave them around the city; tape them up inside the bus or bus stops. So I do a lot of these mini installations, the miniature maximalist format, if you could call it that.

I have this philosophy that if I want to call myself an artist, I should practice being an artist every day. It’s those little things that I do that make me feel like I’m an artist and it reminds me that I’m doing this for myself. The things that I’m making are extensions of how I feel inside: I was missing Nanay, and I decided to make that zine because if I was feeling that I was missing Nanay anyway, might as well just write it down and document it and share it with people. Actually, I didn’t think that zine would resonate with people but on my Instagram, some people said it was very beautiful. I’m glad that people can identify with that I thought was a very niche event: needing to say goodbye.

OB: The ephemeral nature of something like that, would you even show that zine to Nanay the next time you see her? Or is it more about documenting it in that moment?

Photo of Malaka Gharib in Cerritos
Photo credit Andrew Castro

MG: For me, art is a means of processing emotion. It’s never about other people. It’s about trying to express how I feel in a way that helps me understand. And when I give it away, like post on Instagram for example, it feels like I’ve processed it and I can move on. It’s like writing a diary entry, except that there’s a payoff when people can say that they relate to the emotion. That’s why people share art. You want to be understood, you want to be related to, you want to feel like you’re not the only person in the world who feels that way. For me, art is really about a process. And the daily practice of making art contributes to a broader definition of who I am, it helps you evolve as an artist. It helps hone my aesthetic and helps hone that way that I think about feelings and how I express emotion. The practice of it is very valuable. Even though it’s ephemeral, it has a lot of utility to me as an emotional being and also to my greater art. Wow, that sound so high falutin’, I’m so sorry. [Laughs]

OB: No! Don’t apologize. This is really helpful for me to hear too. Because I didn’t go to art school.

MG: Me too!

OB: Yeah, and I find myself doing this stuff, and learning about terms like “emerging artist”. And if I think about it too hard, which is really easy for me, I can freeze up, because I think it needs to be good, or I need to figure out how to make money from this. All of this is really useful for me to hear, I appreciate that.

A Zinester First

OB: This is your first book, right?

MG: It is my first book, but I would like to say that I have been making comics and zines for a very long time. And this is certainly not my first publication at all. This is my first book with a publisher, but I’ve been making lots of little books and lots of little zines, from a Filipino Food Coloring Book, to long form comics about my step mother in Egypt, I’ve made a lot of indie magazines about food and music.

OB: That’s great, because Short Run’s all about small press, DIY stuff.

MG: Oh, good! Yeah, you guys get it. You guys really get it.

OB: Because of where I’m at in my career, and it feels pretentious to even say that, it feels like there’s so much emphasis on THE book. Now you’ve arrived, people can walk into a bookstore and know who you are as opposed to going to a zine festival. But for me, it’s not so much that I have a book, but just that I’m making work that I’m happy with and that work is doing something for people out there, whether small press stuff, tabling at a zine fest or whatever.

MG: Absolutely. I’m 100% with you. I feel like I cut my teeth in the zine and comics community my whole life. Since I was 14, I found a real sense of belonging in this subculture. I also try to bring the joy of making zines to others. The workshops I’ve done, a lot of them have been,”Hey, you too, can make a zine. And we’re gonna complete one from start to finish now!”

And I love seeing the look of accomplishment when people actually do make a zine. And I love seeing people take the format I taught them—just that traditional, single sheet, 8-page, folded zine—when they start making their own creations or selling them online or selling them at a zine fest. It really opens doors for people to explore their own creativity. It’s an easy, fast way to get people to make. I think the best thing in life is when we surprise ourselves about how creative we can be, about how resourceful we can be, or what we have to say and how we can package things. That’s what I love about the zine format.

OB: What was your path to actually getting a book deal?

MG: Instagram. If you do good work, people just know. My colleague, she’s always been a supporter of The Runcible Spoon, which is my food zine. She saw my Instagram post with the cartoons I was making at the time about my family and stuff. She said, “Hey, my friend is an agent in NY and I think you should pitch him and turn this into a book.”

“OK, whatever, man. Thank you, that’s crazy. I highly doubt it.” She asked if I called him, “No.” but I did, and he liked the idea, saw my cartoons and told me to turn it into a pitch. It took me forever, what am I gonna put in a book pitch? I don’t even know. I just put together a paragraph and then four examples of illustrations from my Instagram, and I submitted that. And he said “This is great! I’ll just pitch this around to some publishers and see if they bite.” And three publishers did, which is crazy.

I think sometimes, if the idea is good, it’s hard to argue with that. What’s nice about Instagram, people can gauge how much it will resonate from Comments and Likes. I think that was the case with my early cartoons which I drew in 2016 after hearing the anti-immigrant rhetoric. A lot of the cartoons I drew was to share my own stories of my Arab family and my Filipino family to show the public and people that there are many different immigrant stories, not just the ones we see in the news.

OB: What was it like going to this longer form where you had to sustain a narrative for this long?

MG: It was really hard. I became very isolated. I didn’t know how much work it was going to take. You know how they say that in writing and in art, it takes as long as it takes? It took as long as it took. It was very hard to be creative after a very long day of work.

But I approached it like making 8 mini-zines, which I strung together in one big zine. And each mini zine had to be 17 pages, so that was the philosophy. [laughs]. And I didn’t know what I wanted to say because writing is about discovery. I only had as my north star the title of the book: I Was Their American Dream. So, chronologically, I tried to assess my relationship to those words through each stage of my life: what was my parents’ idea of the American dream? How did that shape my version of the American Dream? How does my relationship change to that over time? How much of that is wrapped up in how you see yourself, and how you see others? And those actions you take in your life and your obligations to your family and so many things. And in the end I thought I got the answers to what I was looking for: what was my own American Dream?

OB: I like limited color palettes, and the screentones too in your book. Was that a budgetary printing consideration, you could only afford three colors?

MG: It’s a boring answer but I am terrible with colors so I hired somebody to do the colors for me. The publisher did market research and found that these 3 colors are really hot right now. And also, red, white and blue like the American flag.

Readers of Color Dreading That Moment

Tagalog flash cards: muta, baon, pambahay, baduy, ulam and more.

OB: The format reminds me of the Mini Page in the newspapers. You got recipes, a zine you can cut out and fold, Paper Dolls, Microaggressions Bingo. I really enjoyed and identified with what you’re talking about. But part of me was dreading, and I don’t know if this is how it is for all readers of color reading an author of color who you identify with, if you’re dreading that moment when racism (or whatever) finally appears, because you know it’s gonna come. And I was really enjoying your book, and I was two-thirds of the way in, and then you have that scene where you’re doing the sardines and rice in college in your dorm and the people are running out because of the smell. And it’s so funny, because very specific to Filipinos, there’s a lot of shame around the food we eat. When I first moved here, I didn’t eat with a spoon in public because I didn’t want people to stare and make comments. Specifically the smell and the fishiness. That shame feels so deep, that even though I’m in a much better place now where I’ll eat with a spoon, I’ll eat tuyo in front of my husband if I want to. But that moment came in the book, and I said, “Oh, damn. So it’s not gonna be all fun and breezy.” What do you think of that, did you give much thought into including that moment? Did it even mean that much to you? Does it change this tone you were going for?

MG: That probably was one of my first interactions with racism towards me as a POC. That happened freshman year of college. The story in real life was that I had adobo that my mom made, and I put it in the fridge with my roommate. And when I came back, my roommate had put baking soda in the fridge.

OB: For adobo?!

MG: For adobo. But you know, adobo has lots of garlic. It’s very intense for white people. Because I went to an Asian high school, and a mostly Filipino grade school, that was the first time I experienced that. That awareness of something, and the tone is reflective of my identity as a person as I had come to know it. Perhaps it’s reflective of that stage in my life and my changing understanding of my identity.

OB: I read one of the articles you wrote on NPR about doing potlucks at work with other Filipinos.

MG: We just had one today. The Kaibigan Klub. Yeah.

OB: Do you ever feel that wariness around the food that you bring, or the food that you eat in public, at work? Prior to these potlucks, did you ever feel that?

MG: Absolutely. I definitely tried to minimize my cultural background and ethnicity in the workplace because I wanted people to see me for my work and not my ethnic identity. I was afraid that the FOB-y parts of me would show.

The Most Amazing Format

OB: What are you most looking forward to about coming to Seattle for Short Run?

MG: I am so excited to be amongst my comics people. And my zine people! The one thing I love about comics and zine people is that they get it. You don’t have to explain what a zine is. You don’t have to explain why comics is an amazing format. You don’t have to explain anything because they already know. That’s the best part, you can just focus on the art and the message instead of the format. That’s a question I get a lot: Why did you choose comics as a format? Because it’s the most amazing format ever, what are you saying? Children’s, comics and zines, right? And indie publications.

OB: Anything else to add?

MG: I hope that you include some of your own experiences as a Filipino American too. What I think is the most important part about all this is that we’re having a dialogue with each other. If you can, put yourself in the story too, even if it’s just, “I grew up here, and was able to relate this way. Or, this was different from my upbringing.” This is the type of dialogue that I want to foster. Put yourself in the story if you can.

Otts smiling, holding a bottle of Bagoong Alamang in front of his mouth
Otts with some bagoong—eat it with green mango!

See Malaka Gharib at Short Run, November 9th, 2019.