In Which G. Willow Wilson Talks About Identity, and I Try Not to Fangirl Too Much

Let me get the obvious out of the way first: I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work. Her storytelling finesse, and experiences as being at the intersection of several identities speaks to me. I recently saw her in conversation with KUOW’s Jamala Henderson as part of Humanities Washington’s speaker series, talking about identity, the comics industry, and of course, Ms. Marvel. Part of the flyer for the event introduced Willow (the G is silent) thusly: G. Willow Wilson lies at the epicenter of multiple fault lines of American identity.

Once Willow came onstage and was introduced, she began by debunking that very description. “I think of myself as being more of the periphery of things rather than the center of it, simply because my own experiences don’t really transfer in any great way,” she said. “Every bit of my identity is modified in some way. I’m a Muslim, but I did not grow up with the faith. In most spaces like the ones in which I grew up, I’m considered as a traitor… Islam is seen as antithetical to what it means to be American. When I’m in Egypt I’m in the religious majority, but at the same time, I’m a foreigner, and that comes with certain privileges but also certain boundaries.”

Now, I am in no way a white American woman who converted to Islam, but I understand the tensions of being asked to speak as a member of a particular community. It’s hard, but I think one way to get around this role is to find and amplify the voices that are representatives. Willow described how she learned about this: when she was promoting The Butterfly Mosque, her first “book without pictures” as she described it, she was told by her agent that talking about Islam as a white, American woman might give her access to a white Christian audience due to their similar backgrounds.

The complete opposite was true. “Because I had a similar background to these WASPier audiences, they saw me as inherently traitorous. What I had done was a betrayal on a very intimate level of what they believed themselves to be… It was kind of a rude awakening to realize that I was not going to be central to these conversations. Someone who grew up Muslim in the United States would be better for having those conversations. They understand the duty to the past. They understand the culture, they understand loyalty to family, and when you couch the conversation in that context, [white Christian audiences] are more likely to say, ‘okay, we still hate your religion but we understand why you believe these things,’ that there’s some commonality there.”

I think that what we can speak to, and the connection between different aspects of one’s identity, has changed over time. In our current political climate, we can’t bucket people based on distinct parts of who they are, Willow said. “It’s not the case now if you see a woman in a headscarf that they’re automatically homophobic because you see women in headscarves marching in LGBTQ rights parades, and we all realize we have to have each other’s backs.”

[Image description: Jamala Henderson and G. Willow Wilson sit onstage in front of a large Humanities Washington projection while they are being introduced. Image source: JC Lau]

Next, Willow talked about the comics industry and getting her break. “I’ve been a comics geeks since I was 10 years old,” Willow said. “For 10-year-old me, X-Men was like church!” But going from religious devotion to the X-Men to creating her own content was not a clear path, in part due to the structure of the industry.

“I wanted to write comics, but I was not entirely clear how one does that. For regular publishing it’s quite straightforward: you send it to an agent, the agent says yes or no; and if they say yes, they send it to a publisher who then says yes or no,” explained Willow. “But comics function more like film; it’s more about who you know. It’s like six degrees of separation, but if you don’t have that first degree, it’s really hard to make that jump. I really wish that big comic book publishers would make some sort of open submission policy or at least clarify the policy so that there’s new talent coming into the industry.”

Even if there’s a bottleneck for diverse talent going into the industry, there are diverse stories coming out, and one such story is, without a doubt, Ms. Marvel. Willow describes how it came about that she got the gig: “I got called in 2011 or early 2012 out of the blue from Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker at Marvel. I’d done almost nothing for Marvel that year, but they gave me the pitch: [they] want to make a new YA American Muslim superheroine for her own ongoing series. They were like, ‘let’s see, are there any Muslim women who write superhero comics in North America? There’s one. Really, there was only one person we could call for this, so here we are.’ I could not believe that Marvel was pitching me this book—I’d never pitch this book in a million years, because it’s the trifecta of death: new characters do not sell, female characters do not sell, minority characters do not sell. This is all three.”

So, to insulate against potential failure, Willow said that she and Sana spent 18 months developing the character. Because the entire project was inspired by conversations that Sana had had with Steve, Willow decided that the character should be Pakistani American. From there, selecting Jersey City as the setting was significant, but inevitable. “I’m a Jersey girl, Sana was a Jersey girl. It made so much sense. You could see Manhattan–the epicenter of the Marvel Universe–and yet you’re apart from it. There is a large, vibrant, historically relevant Pakistani Muslim community there, so I’m like, this was perfect. That’s when it really all clicked. It’s not just the character, it’s the setting, it’s the family, it’s the whole thing.”

I wonder if the adage about working twice has hard applied here, but in any case it was clear that Ms. Marvel was successful, in no small part because of the preparation that had gone into her character creation.

[Image description: Hardcover copies of Ms. Marvel volumes 1 and 2, on a brown background. Image source: JC Lau]

Finally, Willow circled back to the themes for the evening, by talking about Kamala’s identity and representation.

“There was a lot of pressure for Kamala to be a certain way. There are two ways that muslim girls are portrayed in the media: You’re either the model minority or you’re the SVU episode. I think that the burden of representation that goes into a character from a massively underrepresented group is that they’re expected to be all things to all people, and you can’t be, and you shouldn’t be. Because what you want is a real character who feels singular and specific and particular and you can’t do that by making them a pastiche of everybody.”

There were a lot of interesting and charming points in the talk which I haven’t been able to elaborate on here, but I found the overall message of understanding intersectional identity and giving thoughtful, genuine representation to minority groups to be not just one that was positive, but one that was downright hopeful for the future of diverse representation in geekdom.  

After the talk was over, the audience was given an opportunity to meet with Willow. I wanted to tell her about how much I loved seeing how Singularity learned about our world in A-Force, and how grateful I was for the influence that Kamala has had on some many brown girls, who could see themselves be the heroes of their stories.

I didn’t get to any of that. I fangirled (just a bit), and Willow was gracious enough to sign my hardcover issues of Ms. Marvel and pose for a selfie:

[Image description: Ms. Marvel author G. Willow Wilson with JC Lau in a selfie. Image source: JC Lau]

Insightful discussions at the intersection of identity politics and geekiness? Night, made.

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JC Lau
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JC Lau

Previously disguised as a college professor and family lawyer, JC Lau is an Australian video game journalist and writer living in Seattle.

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