Diane Zhou on ONLY

An ink wash illustration of a girl turning to look towards the viewer, but instead of eyes and a mouth, the text "ONLY" appears where her face should be. Cartoony animals frolic across the surface of the illustration.

The following essay was written by Diane Zhou to accompany her comic, ONLY

When I drew ONLY (right before COVID hit), I was thinking about the weirdness of being associated with a group of people—East Asian, “Yellow” women*—that's both desired and forgotten, and also of navigating the group’s often-fluctuating boundaries. 

I know that these categories are imposed on us because we live in a western country/western-dominated world, yet I still find it hard to separate myself out from them. As I move through the city I often wonder if there’s any meaningful connection between the other Asian femme-looking people in the subway car, elevator, park, etc. and myself, and how the answer to this, while never conclusive, is evolving in real time as we go from being fetishized/disregarded as a category to being fetishized/hated/feared. Superficially, we have enough in common for someone to mistake us as sisters or relatives if we sat together; but at the same time, more relevant aspects of our experiences might not overlap at all, and some people swept together into this category are much more at risk of exploitation and violence than others. 

A comic page showing numerous girls' names in hand drawn bubble letters, along with the text "All the yellow girls disappeared...and those are just the ones I know.""

The narrator struggles against these boundaries, but at the same time, desperately wants to belong to the group or just be unconditionally accepted. The identity is deeply imperfect and compromised, but its neon borders are somehow comforting, offering her an illusion of certainty. At times, this illusion also tempts me into thinking that I can reclaim the boundaries that are put on me and people who “look like me” (I’ve also been told I look like Pepe the Frog though so what is the truth?), and somehow twist them to my own ends.  

But then sometimes something incredibly cruel and violent will happen, and these groupings that seemed arbitrary or comforting a moment ago start to feel indelible and suffocating. 

I don’t feel satisfied with trying to convince people that we’re human or begging them not to kill us. I feel like explicitly asking this of people, heightening our visibility based on victimization, can actually increase our vulnerability while not being very convincing to the people who would do these things. 

An illustration spread showing plants and animals growing out of a giant fish along with the text "Who will listen for the wind that whistles across the steaming lake of blood between us?"

If we are going to be constantly Othered just by existing in this world, I would instead like to relish that a little, as long as I’m alive to do so. I would like to make friends with the naked anime girls that teen boys and adult perverts slap all over their cars, and the photos of East Asian women in bikinis on banner ads seen across the internet promising a momentary escape from being lonely and horny. I feel like I already exist in a soup of these images, they form a floating network that is superimposed on the world and I walk through it every day. I fit into it somewhere, I’m perceived in relation to it, and I also digest it myself. I hate the way that these images are consumed and discarded by their target audience, and the way that they can cumulatively convince people of our disposability. But I don’t disavow these strange ghosts either. I want to save them; release them from being seen as just degraded, flattened images, or “bad representation,” remind myself that they could’ve been me in parallel lives and are closely related to the lives of actual people. 

An illustration spread of a collage of silhouettes and photos of faces of Asian women.

With ONLY, I wanted to take the boundary around “yellow women” and make it tangible, crunchy, and fleshy, to collapse its ambiguity with its physical realities, and to bask in that spiky soupy mess. We’re selfish, desirous, raging, yearning, and hungry. 

*I know it can sometimes be offensive when East Asians are called "yellow." I use it in ONLY because I feel like the unsavoriness of calling ourselves yellow emphasizes how artificial this categorization is, and how bad it feels to be categorized in this way at all, without pretending to be neutral.