Interview with lesbian animator-comic creator Lien Fan Shen

 
 

The creator of the very first lesbian-themed comic book in Taiwan, Lien Fan Shen is no stranger to controversy. An accomplished animator, comic artist and academic, she recently headlined the "Queer Comics" panel at Comic-Con, which of course, got
our attention.

Back in the 90s, while working full-time as a commercial comic book artist in Taiwan, Shen created I Will Be Your Paradise, which is only
now getting the full attention it deserves. Her talk at this year’s show was inspired by a more recent paper about her work and its reception. Down-to-earth and contemplative, Shen, who now teaches at the University of Utah and works in experimental animation, is happy to share her insights and experiences.

Fresh from the convention, we had a chance to chat with Shen about her groundbreaking work, cultural norms in Taiwan and in the comics industry, and the simple importance of being out and proud.

Lien Fan Shen

AfterEllen: So, how was Comic-Con?
Lien Fan Shen
: It was wonderful! I saw a lot of people, it was so crowded – overwhelming, even. I’m exhausted! [laughs].

AE: In your panel, you talked a lot about your manga, I Will Be Your Paradise – and the ways in which you had to struggle with the publisher. How did it all come about?
LFS:
The 90s, [right after government control of the media ended in Taiwan], were still very conservative. But the public was trying to transform
into a more open kind of atmosphere. There were LGBT movements coming along with the feminist movement, though the society and the educational system were still very conservative.

There was one specific instance – a true event – that inspired me to create my own work. Two high school girls from the most prestigious school committed suicide together. What struck me was the reaction from their parents and friends and teachers. They strongly protested that [the girls] were not in a homosexual relationship. Their classmates even sent a letter to the newspaper [claiming that they were straight]. I have another quote from the girls, from their notes written right before their deaths: ‘It is not failure or stress in our daily lives that makes us feel difficult. Rather, it is that our existence is incompatible with social norms."

AE: Wow. That’s heartbreaking. So you based your comic on their story?
LFS:
I used my own interpretation of the events, using my own view of the whole story, and of course, I encountered some interesting challenges.
Reflecting on it 10 or more years later, looking back, I was framed into a very bizarre closet. I think my publisher, specifically, tried to separate the
artist identity and what had been created, using my own creative freedom, or whatever.

AE: So they tried to "de-gay" your image.
LFS
: One example I brought up in my presentation were the [bios] that editors would write about me as the artist. They used interesting wording to frame me as an "outsider" who was interested in the issues of homosexuality. I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back, not a
single person actually asked about my identity!

It’s always like that in the industry, the publisher wants to sell comic books. The reason they actually approved my story was just because they thought no one had done it before. It’s not that they were interested [in exploring lesbian issues].

AE: Right, it was new.
LFS:
Right. And a lot of the time, I was fighting with my editor about whatto present in my book. It was so difficult, the most difficult work I’ve ever
done.

Before this story, and after this story, all of my work was melodrama that’s really about general, ordinary high school romance. They sold well, and that’s why they approved of this kind of "different" story. It was new for them at the time.

Therefore, we were fighting all the time about what I wanted to present, and what they wanted to present. They wanted to have a more romantic storyline and more drama, rather than showing the real issue of what had happened. They didn’t object to the idea of homosexuality, but just how to present it.

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