We are thrilled to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month with a special On Our Minds blog series featuring four of our AAPI authors and illustrators. We asked each one to reflect on how their identity and/or culture influences and is visible in their creative work. The third post in this series is by Michelle Mee Nutter. Her latest book, Allergic, is available now!
When I think about the power of story and representation I think of how hungry I was for identity growing up. My brother and I were adopted from South Korea, to white parents, in a very and I mean very, white town. The diaspora radius for South Korean adoptees to a white middle-class family is heartbreakingly small. Despite growing up in the states, speaking perfect English and adorning myself in top to bottom Claire’s accessories, the folks around me didn’t see me as American. Or if they did, they erased my Asian experience all together. The phrases, “I don’t see color” and “you’re not really Asian though” were said frequently, among other aggressions. There’s a feeling that shakes your whole body, an ache that you can feel deep in your stomach when you finally receive what you’ve been missing all along. Representation is that for me, and as an adult, I’m finally beginning to see more diverse books and media. Yes, I was that person ugly crying in the theater after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, and no I’m not embarrassed to admit it. For the first time, I actually saw a love story play out on screen with characters who had similar features to mine and I was living for it.
If you’re a POC growing up in white spaces, you’re constantly told this country isn’t made for you. It happens in subtle and not so subtle ways. I remember as a little girl, going to toy stores, and seeing a whole wall of barbies and action figures. The only ones that looked like me was a Mulan doll, and a ninja. Those were my two options while my white friends had every option under the sun. It seemed like they could be absolutely anything. As I got older, I began to understand that the world saw Asian Americans as interchangeable. We were always reduced to the common stereotypes. Every night I wished I could just wake up one day, and be white like everyone else. Drawing became a way to combat this and it was the best gift I could give myself. All of a sudden I had all the control to create characters and worlds for people who looked like me. Stories have the power to shape your life, your future and show you what’s possible. It wasn’t until recently that I fully embraced my unique experience and there’s so much joy in accepting yourself and where you come from. I’m investing in stories that touch on the experience of a transracial adoptee, as a way to heal my own wounds and hold up a mirror for someone who needs it.
As an illustrator, there’s a responsibility to not only fight for representation for my own community but the ones around me as well. To me, creating characters of color is a privilege, that I feel so grateful for every single day. Nothing feels more empowering than reclaiming space on a bookshelf and knowing it may reach a young reader who will feel seen. I draw to heal that little girl looking at that toy shelf, searching desperately to find herself. We’ve made progress but there’s still so much we can do, we just have to keep fighting for representation.
Michelle Mee Nutter graduated with a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, 3x3 Illustration, Creative Quarterly, and more. Allergic is her debut graphic novel. Michelle lives in Boston. Visit her online at michellemee.com.