Reimena Yee is a student, illustrator and comic artist. Her freelance work has spanned from character design to game artwork and now she has created a series of original webcomics, exploring issues of Orientalism and representation in the media.
Tell us about your current project, your new webcomic called The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya (TCM).
The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya focuses on the backstory of a vampire named Zeynel, an important character from my larger body of work called The World in Deeper Inspection. TCM opens in 1680 Ottoman Istanbul. Zeynel is a socially nervous guy who wants nothing more than to remain ordinary and honest, be a supportive husband for his ambitious wife and to continue living his days until he dies a good person. All this he did very well, especially the last part – which he didn’t expect to come so soon. One night on his way to the Balkans, he makes the mistake of helping a lost soul. Forced into an unfortunate and extraordinary circumstance, he must reconcile his identity with his curse and adapt himself to the strange new world that has opened up. To add salt to the wound, when an old enemy finds him a century later, he must also learn to come to terms with the vampire who turned him.
Aside from the setting, your illustration style seems to reference Islamic and Turkish art. Did you have any particular sources of inspiration?
Since comics are an entirely visual medium, I think it makes artistic sense to incorporate and highlight Zeynel’s heritage as a major part of the visual storytelling. Particular sources of inspiration were the miniatures in the Persian epic Shahnameh, Oushak carpets, various Ottoman muraqqas (albums), Iznik decorative arts and the Turkish bookbinding tradition. Animated films like The Secret of Kells and The Thief and the Cobbler, alongside Craig Thompson’s Habibi were also great things to study from.
Was it difficult to adapt these art forms into your style?
It’s difficult to quantify difficulty [laughs]. When I’m drawing TCM, even though it is heavily influenced by Islamic and Turkish art, I’m not looking to mimic it. It’s impossible for me to do so because there’s always going to be an element of unconscious interpretation happening and it will not do the original justice to claim otherwise. I would rather say my style is informed in its tribute. I did as much research as possible, not just for superficial appearances of the art but for its cultural history and influences, its relationship with other mediums and society, and the beliefs or symbolisms that might have informed the original artist and audience. But I also recognise that I can never emulate the style perfectly and there are going to be at least some blind spots. There is a depth of artistic tradition which is currently inaccessible because of the separation of time (500 years), cultural bias in academia towards Europe, the slow obscurity of tradition in favour of modernity and the simple fact that each of us is limited by our own situated knowledge. The actual act of drawing is the easy part – it’s the planning, the research and the desire to respect which are the difficult tasks.
Something which struck me about TCM is the sympathetic character of the vampire. Traditionally in Western literature, the vampire often symbolises an unknown and archaic horror. For example, Dracula comes from the East and represents the illogical and bestial in contrast to the modern and scientific West. Was this a conscious reference?
I wasn’t referring specifically to Dracula but I’m aware that modern vampires carry a colonialist history even if today we see vampires simply as cool and suave. But also: why are they so (racially) white? Vampires of the pre-modern type (jiangshi, strigoi, pontianak, ghul, werewolf, etc) were actually not about the dichotomy between East and West, they were instead a reflection of their society’s struggle with morality, death, liminality and tradition. There is a richness and complexity of the so-called ‘exotic’ vampire which often get shoved aside, purposefully ignored or vilified in favour of constructing the West as advanced, or to facilitate thoughtless appropriation – things which are still happening today.
This is where I want to turn Orientalism on its head. Centring the perspective on Zeynel as the hero, the person to be respected and beloved, who draws his strength and virtue from his heritage, who adapts to his surrounding culture yet still preserves his identity, who struggles sometimes with morality, death, liminality and tradition but also receives love, friendship and family… I want to focus on his inherent humanity, not in spite of his ‘Orientalism’, but as part and parcel of it. I leave the unknown and archaic horror to his sire, who is coded as the Occidental. These are all things I’m building up to.
The media seems to have become more conscious of representation over recent years. In 2014 Kamala Khan became Marvel’s first Muslim title character. You also mentioned Craig Thompson’s Islamic themed graphic novel Habibi which was published in 2011. As an independent artist, what is your response to the increasing diversity in mainstream representation?
I think it’s awesome! I’m so tired of watching and reading the same thing over and over again – usually White, cis-male, straight and NORTH AMERICAN – that anything different is welcomed. But then again, there is a troubling undertone behind this phenomenon; while media is becoming more diverse, the people who create, publish and control the media aren’t. I don’t think they are pandering but mainstream media certainly know that diversity is where they can get the PR dollar and spotlight, at the same time they’re ignoring and underappreciating the contributions of diverse indie creators that helped paved the road they step on. And even without this, representation from comics and movies is still very American, informed by discourse and experience rooted in a North American or White-majority Western context.
I’m all for representation in fiction but I would like my actors, my publishers, my directors, my writers, my artists and all else to be diverse as well. I don’t want the majority of mainstream representation to be written by White, straight Americans. No. I need more diverse creators because despite the increase in representation, our voices are still missing.
In the essay Ottoman Orientalism, Ussama Makdisi states that “every nation has its own Orient”. It seems like these deeper issues and internal nuances are often lost because of East/West dichotomies. Thus while there is increasing representation of marginalised voices, do you think there needs to be more nuance in how writers and artists portray the ‘other’?
There needs to be more nuanced writing, even when writing a familiar character. You may be a person of colour but you’re still obligated to do research when you’re writing a religious, racial or geographical culture that you’re unfamiliar with. It’s more out of respect than anything else.
There also needs to be a broadening of the discourse; a lot of POC talk happening online is highly Western and many times when it encounters an event, conflict, culture or lifestyle that is not easily explained by Western concepts or terms, it falls apart. There of course are some practices and ideas which are harmful and unacceptable to human decency but things like framing the hijab as oppressive or barbaric – when they don’t blink an eye at nuns – or shaming foreigners for their weird or ‘cruel’ diets – when such diets are informed by a history of war or poverty – they need to be looked at more closely and ambiguously. So these are approaches to keep in mind when writing about the ‘other’ as well – what may seem odd to you is reasonable to them and what you’ve been exposed to about this culture may not be the full story.
Do you ever feel conflicted between wanting to engage with broader political ideas and just creating whatever you want to create? I suppose I’m kind of doing this right now but I find creators from ‘minority’ backgrounds are often burdened with representing a collective identity.
Haha! God, this frustrates me daily. The double standard is hilarious; when a White creator writes a non-White character (even superficially) they get fanfare and praise and progressive pats on the backs but when a non-White creator does the same, they either get silence or the dreaded questions: ‘Why isn’t there [insert another minority race/sexuality/gender] in your work? Why isn’t this character of X identity not 100 per cent relatable to my individual experience as an X person? Why isn’t this character X enough?’
I feel like we get this kind of pressure because of how little representation we actually have.
For example I don’t see enough Chinese characters be greedy, shrewd, party-going, intellectual, a cheerleader, conservative, queer etc. A lot of our experiences get cut off so it creates unrealistic expectations for the ‘perfect’ Chinese character that embodies ALL Chinese experience without being stereotypical. I’ve got a Chinese friend who wrote a Chinese character and she is accused of not making this character ‘Chinese enough’, WHATEVER THAT MEANS. I don’t particularly care about ‘perfect’ representation, since that’s impossible. Respectful representation though… that’s what I want to see more of.
What role do you think fiction and art can play in allowing us to see from the point of view of ‘other’?
It allows us to see that we all share a common human experience – we want love, we want belonging, we desire and sin and fail and triumph – but it also shows us that we’re unique. We differ in our experiences and how we approach those experiences based on our history and culture and relationships. It gives explanations for why people are the way they are, it provides perspective. It transforms the ‘other’ into a ‘person’. But then again; fiction and art can be used to vilify and misinform. It has the power to choose the narrative and influence all future ones.