Guest Feature by Priya Saxena
Priya Saxena spends most of her free time reading comic books and overanalyzing pop culture. Here’s her first piece on I Am Not Starfire.
When I Am Not Starfire was announced as part of DC’s young adult graphic novel imprint, I was excited about it for a lot of reasons: I adore Mariko Tamaki’s writing, I love Starfire, and I enjoy stories about young lesbians. I predicted I would find parts of it relatable as someone who was once a misfit lesbian in high school. When I read the book, I loved it even more than I had expected. Tamaki excels at writing teenagers who sound like actual teenagers, and her depiction of the central mother/daughter relationship feels authentic and nuanced. Yoshi Yoshitani’s lineless art and vivid colors are simply spectacular, conveying personality and mood in a way that is not just effective storytelling but also pleasing to look at. Yoshitani’s colors, costumes, and backgrounds greatly contribute to the story’s themes, and Aditya Bidikar’s letters are expertly done. As I predicted, I did find the story very relatable. But I was surprised to find that this story resonated not only with the lesbian aspect of my identity, but also with the part of me that is a daughter of immigrants.
Nearly seventeen, Mandy Anders understands exactly what makes her different from the people around her – at least, she thinks she does. Since childhood, the public has known her as Starfire’s daughter, the offspring of a beautiful alien superhero and some unknown human. Her classmates approach her often, but only to ask about Starfire’s recent missions and try to determine whether Mandy secretly has superpowers (she doesn’t). Her best friend Lincoln is the only person who isn’t more interested in her mom than her. As a son of Vietnamese immigrants, Lincoln can relate to Mandy’s struggles with fitting in.
The graphic novel opens with Mandy reapplying black dye to her hair to cover up the fiery orange roots she inherited from her mother. Mandy feels a desperate need to express her own unique identity and distance herself from her mother and her alien heritage. She feels immense pressure to live up to her mother’s example. Everything seems to come so easy to Starfire; sure, she fights epic space battles to save the world every day, but she has superpowers and confidence and the admiration of everyone around her. Mandy possesses none of these things, and she feels inadequate in comparison. She is so afraid of failure that she walks out of her SATs, hoping to move to France instead of going to college. Of course, she doesn’t tell her mother this. She couldn’t stand to see her mother even more disappointed in her than she already is.
Many factors contribute to Mandy’s sense of herself as an outcast: her lesbianism, her plus size body, her goth fashion style. However, as the title of the graphic novel suggests, it is her relationship with her mother and her alien heritage in general that she struggles with the most. Accordingly, the focus of the graphic novel is on this relationship and the conflict between mother and daughter. Mandy and Starfire care for each other a great deal, but, like so many teenage daughters and their mothers, they have a rocky relationship. When Starfire’s sister Blackfire abducts both of them and forces Mandy to fight her to the death for the throne of Tamaran, Mandy and Starfire are forced to rely on each other and manage to work out their issues with each other.
What stands out about I Am Not Starfire is how it directly conveys the truth that Starfire is an immigrant – it’s just that she came to the United States from another planet rather than another country. Starfire’s identity as an immigrant has always been somewhat crucial to the character. In the Wolfman/Perez comics, she has to adjust to the cultural norms of Earth, which are different from those of Tamaran, but her “exotic” beauty and charm help her win over the hearts of everyone she meets. In the cartoon, Starfire’s foreignness is accentuated by her unique speaking pattern of overusing the word “the” (a speech pattern Tamaki brings back for this graphic novel), while this and other quirks of hers born from her alien background are utilized mainly for comedic effect. Meanwhile, I Am Not Starfire tackles Starfire’s immigrant identity in a serious and significant way, and it explores said identity further by delving into the ways in which Starfire’s experiences as an immigrant affect her American daughter Mandy: how they shape Mandy’s sense of self, her relationships with her peers, and her relationship with her mother.
Overall, Mandy is not thrilled about being half-alien. In dying her hair black, Mandy not only distances herself from her mother, but also from her Tamaranean heritage. However, the other kids at school still make rude assumptions about her body and culture, needling her about superpowers and traditions. Starfire’s Tamaranean heritage also makes it difficult for Mandy to understand her sometimes. The difficulties in communication between Mandy and Starfire are not just because Mandy is a teenager, but also because she is growing up in an entirely different culture and society than her mother did.
The effect that Starfire’s heritage has on Mandy’s life is especially prominent in their home life. For dinner the two of them make “Tamaranean” versions of Earth dishes: cooked noodles with hot dog chunks are their version of spaghetti and meatballs. Starfire sprays their house with perfume, making it smell unlike any other house Mandy has been to (perhaps the scent reminds Starfire of her home planet?). Because college didn’t exist on Tamaran, Starfire doesn’t entirely understand the process of deciding on a college, so she goes overboard in collecting dozens of brochures for Mandy to look at. These small details showing the ways in which Starfire’s cultural background shapes the lives of herself and her daughter support a full and resonant portrayal of Starfire as an immigrant raising her child in another country. As someone who was raised in the United States by immigrant parents, the fusion foods, unique smells, and well-meaning parental involvement that is more hindrance than help are all very familiar to me.
Mandy’s simmering resentment of her heritage and the things that make her and her mother stick out is also familiar to me. It’s not an uncommon attitude among kids of immigrant parents, especially as teenagers, when all you want to do is fit in with your peers. At one point in the graphic novel, Mandy snaps at Starfire and mocks her speech pattern, saying, “No, it’s the not.” It’s exactly the sort of petty comment that might come from a teenager dealing with self-loathing over her foreign heritage and blaming it on her mom. Although Starfire’s specific speech pattern isn’t particularly common among real people, the detail that she speaks differently because English is a second language for her pointedly evokes the accents, dialects, and grammar issues that real immigrants exhibit. Mandy’s mockery of her mother’s speech pattern is akin to an expression of internalized racism or xenophobia.
A major theme of this graphic novel is how Mandy struggles under the weight of the pressure to live up to her mother’s expectations. Like many immigrants, Starfire hoped that by raising her child in the United States, she could ensure that her child’s life would be safe and enriching, with plenty of opportunities for success. But since Starfire and Mandy come from such different worlds (literally), Starfire doesn’t quite understand the reality of Mandy’s life and experiences. She doesn’t see how Mandy is made to feel like an outcast in virtually every aspect of her life, and how this has caused Mandy to become apathetic and rebellious as a defense mechanism to keep from feeling like a failure.
Mandy’s best friend Lincoln sympathizes with her experiences because he too has immigrant parents, though his parents are from Vietnam, not another planet. Like Starfire, Lincoln’s parents had to undergo hardship to reach the United States, and Lincoln feels obligated to take advantage of the opportunities they worked so hard to give him. However, he recognizes that his life may not be exactly the way his parents envisioned it would be. Ultimately, he has to find a path that both honors his parents’ sacrifices and suits his personal vision for himself.
Mandy comes to learn this lesson as well, though it takes a superpowered battle with Blackfire for her to figure it out. When she finally unlocks her powers, spurred on by the sight of her mother lying unconscious and her aunt preparing to kill her, she finds strength in both her Tamaranean heritage and her own unique identity. Visually this is represented by the bright green color of Mandy’s starbolts, so different from Starfire’s pink powers or Blackfire’s blue powers. Mandy’s powers may come from her mother, but at the same time they are something all her own, wholly unique to her. She doesn’t have to worry about becoming somebody her mother could be proud of, because she already is that, just by being herself. At the same time, a very important part of Mandy’s identity comes from her mother and her heritage. Mandy doesn’t have to choose between honoring her mother and remaining true to herself – she can do both.
This is exactly what Mandy does after the battle. She studies for her SATs and trains in the use of her powers under Starfire’s guidance. Yet, when it comes to her superhero costume and name, the choice is all her own. Mandy’s costume incorporates both her own personal style and her Tamaranean heritage. The basic outfit is a black halter top and shorts, with plenty of mesh and fishnets added in, but the costume also incorporates green jewelry much like the kind that Starfire wears. Additionally, Mandy’s costume is slightly more revealing than her other outfits, possibly suggesting emerging confidence. As for Mandy’s superhero name, she decides to stick with “Mandy” for the time being. The decision to keep the name her mother gave her shows Mandy’s newfound respect and appreciation for her mother. She used to try to distance herself from Starfire and from her heritage, but now she embraces both.
One of the most stunning depictions of Mandy’s burgeoning pride in her heritage is entirely visual. A few weeks after the battle with Blackfire, she and her crush Claire go for a walk and try to work things out between them. Claire had hurt Mandy’s feelings previously, but Mandy forgives her. In a gorgeous two page spread, Mandy kisses her, and the sudden embrace causes Mandy’s hat to fall off, revealing her pink-orange roots for the first time. The ends of her hair are still dyed black, but the pink-orange roots signify Mandy’s willingness to display her familial connection to Starfire and to Tamaran. She is, pardon the pun, proud of her roots. It is a clear contrast to the beginning of the graphic novel, when Mandy was reapplying black hair dye to cover up her roots. The presence of both the black and the pink-orange colors in her hair is a beautiful visual representation of Mandy reconciling individuality and family.
Although I Am Not Starfire does an amazing job of capturing the intricacies of growing up as the daughter of an immigrant, one aspect of the graphic novel clashes with this theme: the whiteness of Starfire and Mandy. Starfire has orange skin because she is a Tamaranean, but she has straight hair and Eurocentric features, much like the version of Starfire from the Teen Titans cartoon. Mandy’s skin tone is pale and matches the skin tones of the white human characters in the graphic novel. Her facial features are more ambiguous, but she nevertheless seems to be coded as white as well.
The decision to make these characters white or white-coded is an odd one, given both Anna Diop’s current portrayal of Starfire on Titans and the Black-coding of Starfire in George Perez’s original design through her round nose, full lips, and voluminous curly hair. While Starfire’s golden skin seemed to support the Black-coding of the character in Perez’s art, here she just looks like an orange-skinned white woman. And although children of mixed-race backgrounds may look any number of ways, the depiction of Mandy as light-skinned reinforces the white-coding of Starfire. These decision seem like a missed opportunity given the history of Starfire as a Black-coded character, as well as the immigrant narrative of the graphic novel. Of course, not all immigrants are people of color, but the struggles Starfire and Mandy face due to their Tamaranean heritage are particularly evocative of the struggles of immigrants of color, even though the characters themselves are white-coded.
It can be difficult to learn to take pride in a heritage for which you have been mocked countless times. But as I Am Not Starfire shows that there is great strength to be found in that heritage, in the connection to your family and your ancestors. Though most of us don’t have superpowers written into our genetic code, the lesson Mandy learns applies to us immigrant kids as well. We don’t have to reject the cultures we come from in order to be ourselves, and we don’t have to beat ourselves up just because we turned out different than our parents thought we would. We can embrace all aspects of our identities and do right by our parents by becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can be.
I Am Not Starfire takes the metaphor of Starfire as an immigrant and refugee and presents it with a more nuanced treatment than it has usually been given. Tamaki and Yoshitani show us both the joys and sorrows, both the confusions and charms, which come with assimilating into a foreign society and raising a child there. Through the character of Mandy and her relationship to Starfire, we see how having an immigrant parent can impact a child and how that child can establish a cohesive identity for themself in spite of the difficulties. Mandy’s trajectory over the course of the story shows us that it really is possible to be true to yourself while honoring and respecting the people you came from.
GUEST COMMENTARY: The Experience of an Immigrant’s Child in ‘I Am Not Starfire’, by Priya Saxena
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