Make Room for Fun in Fandom: Observations by a Fan
Sometime last year I noticed that a Twitter mutual from the Philippines was in Singapore. As I had a great time meeting a Twitter mutual in Paris and building two wonderful new friendships, I thought I'd pay it forward, thus I asked if she'd like to hang out. We met up for coffee, chatted for hours about books and writing and creative life, and from that day on, it was as if she and I had known each other for ages. I am floored by how open and encouraging she is especially of fandom creators.
Recently, I realized that the creators I interview tend to be from the UK or the US. That is all well and good, but I am Singaporean, and I feel like I should also highlight creators from this region.
PJ (or ninemoons42 in fandom) has been around fan communities for around two decades, much as I have. As both of us are Southeast Asians, we have some overlapping experiences about being fans and consuming media that isn't made specifically for people like us. I thought she could share some insights and thoughts from her uniquely Southeast Asian perspective.
AK: Thanks again for doing this! It's always nice to spotlight a friend. This interview is about fandom, about being a fan, so let's start with talking about what fandoms you are part of.
PJ: There's a really long list! But just in the last few years that would be the first two Captain America movies, (still and always) the Takarazuka Kagekidan, Miss Sherlock, Elementary, Final Fantasy (and very specifically XV), and now I've dived straight into BTS fandom, and that will also be my first answer for music preferences at present. Why do I always keep coming back to RPF? I wish I knew.
AK: RPF is Real Person Fiction, for readers who aren't familiar. It means creating fan works based on a real person. I used to read a lot of Chinese RPF for my favorite Taiwanese band. What interests do you have outside of fandom then?
PJ: Fountain pens and the beautiful, beautiful inks to use with them. I might break my self-imposed pen embargo this year, but I'll buy something I can really use, so yay for that!
AK: I remember when we met up, we were going to little stationery shops and you were looking at the inks and pens.
PJ: Recently, I've gotten into brush pens in a small but meaningful way, and now I am learning a little bit more about making visual art (mostly organic forms for now, like leaves and flowers and feathers). I've come back to my favorite yarn hobbies -- I'm pretty good with crochet, and I have finally managed to teach myself how to knit (thank goodness for YouTube). And, always, my love for kimono and traditional Japanese fashion and culture, which is probably the only reason I still have my original tumblr blog.
AK: Tumblr (among other social media) has altered the way we discuss fandom a great deal. How do you personally define fandom culture?
PJ: I don't even know what it means to talk about culture any more, in terms of fandom, because what I grew up with is light years away from what it's like now.
AK: It used to be the case where fans' interpretations or fans' support of specific ships were not really taken into consideration, which of course gave creators a lot of free rein. At the same time, I think we as fans had the little protected space to just do what we want, play with the characters in a sandbox of our own universe, and then return the characters back all nice and shiny.
PJ: Like I said. When I started out we had this thought of, whatever I wind up reading, whatever I wind up looking at, however it affects me, is on me. I went in to read the thing, I don't get to bitch someone out for writing the thing or putting it out onto the world. (Not the same as critique, not the same as thinking to myself "aw shit I'll never get the time back, I just wasted it on something that I can't personally enjoy".)
AK: Like there's this growing demand - especially from younger fans, or people new to fandom activity - to cater to other fans and what they think is appropriate or suitable.
PJ: I like to offer up my own stock answer when confronted with fanwork tropes that I'm not actually interested in. There's a "please write this for me / please don't write this for me" bit in fic+art exchanges, right? And I would always say, "Please don't write A/B/O stories for me. I think this is a problem with my own brain, that I can't get it around the overarching ideas OR the details. I think I have a difficulty with getting into it at all, not you guys, so if you happen to be super into it, that's wonderful -- it just isn't for me, and that's on me." Can't remember how many times I've tried to put that together.
AK: The concept of 'squick', in a sense? Because I have literally had to restate 'Don't Like, Don't Read' a few times these past few months, and that applies to myself as a reader or a consumer of fan works as well.
PJ: I can never seem to emphasize that statement enough, that it's not the trope and it's not the people who love it -- it's me, in terms of -- I don't want it and I don't get it and I can't engage with it so please let's save ourselves the drama and take it out of the equation.I wonder if it will be possible to try to turn the clock back to this kind of "fandom culture", however.
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
AK: How do you engage with fandom?
PJ: I think my underlying project in all of the things I think about and do online has to do with my experiences of -- being Asian, specifically Southeast Asian, female, and in my 30s -- and still being in fandom. I mean, I literally have been doing the fandom thing since I was 13ish? 20+ years of being in fandom! I know about the beginnings of online fandom because I was there for it!
AK: Me too!
PJ: From the very beginning of my fandom life, the writing and reading of fan work has been the thing I do in order to engage with things I like. I like to tell the story of: I was given a school assignment to write sentences containing adjectives (or was it adverbs)? So I was actually graded on little bits of story about the characters I loved the most in the Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey. In high school I had my first serious thing with reading everyone else's fanfic -- we'd print them out on long reams of sprocket-feed paper, back to back, tiny fonts -- and then literally carry them around with us, together with our schoolwork.
AK: I printed reams of Buffy fanfiction, along with the actual scripts. I studied speech patterns and all that. I think I put more effort into memorizing Buffy than I did any of my school subjects! And then I got into fics with more adult themes.
PJ: With the Internet in its baby steps to wide coverage back then, I would misrepresent my age to read all the various things that I wanted to read, and the nice thing was, I sort of did get away with it -- with the huge caveat of knowing that I was always responsible for my own reactions, for my own experiences after reading about certain topics or certain scenarios. I kind of always knew that I would be doing all of these things to myself -- that was the thing that sat in my head even when I was 14 or 15, although I couldn't have articulated the thought.
AK: Were you the sort to complain about how the creators did your faves dirty? I was such an ass about certain manga developments. Thankfully, we didn't have social media then, I would have been the annoying fan who found fault in everything.
PJ: I don't know when I started critiquing things. I know I have been in fandoms where there were LOTS of things to complain about, LOTS of areas for improvement, that kind of thing. Maybe I've been lucky? I've found a lot of people who did that, do that, engage with the things they loved and also try to advocate for -- making things better. Making things more inclusive. Understanding the thought of intersectionality, managing the overlap between fandom and media and reactions within the fandom. It's never been easy for me to put the idea together -- but I like to think of it in terms of -- here's the original, here's the "canon", so -- if these groups of people are represented in it and it looks like this, and it's valid, then why can't all the other points of view also have a chance to be the represented ones? Why is it so hard to accept X trope but not -- with A & B pairing, or C nationality / ethnicity, that kind of thing? Because that's what I've always done for myself in reading what I read, thinking: and what if the main character were closer to me?
AK: That's where our Mary Sues and original characters (OCs) come in, I think.
PJ: I haven't really owned up to my very long term obsession with OCs. I've never been one to post my OC-heavy stuff, and maybe I'm also being picky here in terms of my fandom thing, because -- I always manage to find characters I can sort of give a gentle half-twist to resemble me? Like, Rule 63 fanfic, or my own personal characteristics showing up as part of someone in an AU. That all goes back to my writing about my OCs, the characters who are sort of me but better in the worlds I've created for them, interacting with the canon characters. Does that let me "take back" that part of the whole thing, letting myself be "seen" in the context of the media? No idea. I'll get to that thought eventually, I'm sure.
AK: So what does being a fan mean to you?
PJ: I have no idea what the word 'fan' really means any more. I refuse to explain my engagement to anyone else, primarily because I'm an outlier now? I'm in my later 30s and I'm still a fan of a lot of things -- and now I'm getting into BTS fandom. Is this a childish thing? Is this immaturity? Or can't people just take my explanation at face value? -- I love the characters / personae that these seven boys are putting on for the rest of the world, and I admire the thoughts and ideas and philosophies they put forward, whether as part of their respective characters or as small parts of their true selves that they're really sharing with everyone else. So I'd like to enjoy what they do, and support them in their endeavors, and create work in tribute to them. This is why I have zero problems with consuming RPF.
I think is being a fan of something means I enjoy something for myself. I get something out of it, like a creative instinct, like encouragement in my own little struggles, like consolation or hope or a reflection of what I want. NOT validation of everything about me. NOT a license to tell other people "you're wrong and you should be ashamed to be wrong". I'm wondering where those other things came from, but I'm also suspicious that when fans started taking all the actual FUN out of fandom. There used to be room for fun for everyone.
Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash
AK: Let's go back to the part about re-casting canon characters in our fan works. I think that, for us in Southeast Asia, we're kind of used to not seeing ourselves in popular franchises, and we don't get the big stars popping by this part of the world on their world tours. I think that influences the way we 'do' fandom. Have you observed any difference in your community?
PJ: In the Philippines the engagement with media, with celebrities, all follows the Hollywood model rather slavishly because of direct importation. I wasn't surprised about antis and rabid shipping because hoo boy I'd been seeing it in my communities all along. Like, was it a very weird thing that my mom was and still is a "Sharonian" (fan of Sharon Cuneta) to the exclusion of everyone else? (Vilma Santos, Nora Aunor, were the ones who were just as big at the time, being the 80s and 90s.) Am I surprised that "love teams" have such frothing-at-the-mouth fans that there are scuffles offline and online? The trappings of support are the only things that change; the pure emotional investment (not to mention the handy-dandy distraction tactic from more important and more actually critical matters) never goes away.
But -- to see ourselves in the big-media stories? Naw. Local adaptations don't even want to use morena or kayumanggi actresses as they are perceived to be less beautiful than the skinny white mestiza performers. Doesn't matter if the kayumanggi lady is heaps more talented; the mestiza will be given the lead role because she's more Western-looking. Or the kayumanggi sidekick will always be pining after some mestizo actor and will never get the guy.
(Morena and Kayumanggi means having brown skin. Mestizo/mestiza are Filipinos of mixed ancestry, especially those with light skin.)
AK: Surely there have been some changes, given that there is a stronger call for more diversity.
PJ: Just a very little bit? Now that we're getting a ton of Asian live-action series ported over and given local dubs. But no one is going to try to turn, say, Hana Yori Dango into an ACTUAL Filipino reflection of 'plain girl who isn't even anywhere near pretty gets chased all over town by four super hot guys', because if that happened here, the plain girl WON'T be plain. She'll look Western and the same will go for her suitors. The colonial mentality cannot be shaken off around here.
There was one time I was actually part of the overall discussion about race in a fandom. I was a non-Western fan, writing in English, in Dragon Age fandom (specifically Dragon Age Inquisition), and I had an OC who really wasn't Western-styled (my Inquisitor's appearance was based on a Japanese stage actress), and people would NOT read those stories even though we were all doing the same thing, which was writing OC fic.
Why were the non-Western creators with their cultures and their experiences less valid than the Western ones? I've never been able to answer that question. Fortunately I was never "important" enough to get dragged into the thick of the argument, but I was still standing around on the edges of it wondering what the deal was, and why some groups of people were almost always more critically "important" to the life of the fandom or the life of its fan culture than the rest.
AK: I think there's a new generation of fans who haven't been through the struggles of early fandom - and I am happy for them, that they can be free to indulge their passion - but it also means they don't truly see the need to be protective and nurturing of other fans if they want to preserve and cultivate fandom, to keep the doors open.
PJ: I think I'm "old guard" fandom, then. Not to say that all of us who have this approach have this wisdom or maturity or whatever - I'm immature enough to be much too fond of Noctis getting roasted (it actually happens multiple times in FFXV canon), or of the BTS kids roughhousing and looking like absolute idiots in the process.
AK: Enough about being a fan, tell us about you as a creator. I know that you write and draw. Which comes to you more naturally?
PJ: Writing comes to me most naturally. It's the thing I have a natural bent for, and it's the thing I've actively been trained for, like all the way to taking university-level classes on, workshops, etc. The thoughts in my head sometimes come out as words and sometimes come out as images, but even if they did come out as the latter -- I try to pour them out of me by using words. So I translate the images into written words. Maybe sometimes the writing looks like visual art if I pick the right pen and the right ink. But -- writing first. I've done so much of it in so many ways.
AK: What is your creative discipline or routine or ritual?
PJ: I need to have music when I write. Sometimes the music gives me the story; sometimes the music simply reinforces the mood of the story. I don't actually draw a distinction between writing to instrumentals and writing to vocal tracks; lately I've been doing all of my writing to BTS music so I hear the words, I hear the languages they use, and I hear the music itself with the beats and the rhythms and I respond to those in the altogether, to keep my scenes flowing.
Sometimes I'm overtaken by the urge to clean something and then I'll go and rest and start writing afterwards.
AK: I find that if I start cleaning, I will lose my focus for creating.
PJ: I guess that was a weirdly good talent to have, when I was still cohabiting -- I'd willingly clean the bathroom at random intervals and after I had caught my breath I'd start and finish something in a single sitting.
AK: What is a dream collaboration for you? Who, present or past, would you like to collaborate with and on what?
PJ: My stock answer used to be Neil Gaiman. Now I would simply like to have sit down to a meal, home-cooked (my ideas of home, his ideas of home) with Anthony Bourdain. Of course we'll drink all kinds of booze during the meal. We'll talk about everything and maybe I'll wind up making stupid poetry about food and memories and home. I'll end up as a small anecdote in one of his books. But if we could have sat down and -- talked about surviving the terrible madness of this world, somehow, then that would have made me very happy, and fulfilled. Even if all I got out of it was a blog post or whatever, or a tweetstorm. I would have wanted to soak in Tony's words and thoughts.
If we're not talking about dead people, I think I'd like to go out drinking with Kim Namjoon. Leader of BTS and the guy who speaks for them in the Western world (as he is fluent in English). I think I'd like to pick his brain about fame, about coping with it, about creativity and the fears that loom large in it. About expressing the self in multiple languages, and being conscious that he's his bandmates' voice to the world. I think I'd like to make something small and cute for him, like a crocheted flower or a small stuffed toy; and I would definitely be pleased to help him write a verse or two in a rap, in a song, or something. Even if all I did was suggest one word!
Some of PJ's drawings - you'll see more on her Instagram