The theme of this – the first online issue of Barrelhouse – is superheroes, and I feel obliged to explain why this is so.
The History: Of course, Wonder Woman was my favorite superhero when I was a kid, growing up in a South Philadelphia rowhouse with three brothers. She had to be, because she was the only regular, worthy and female superhero available to me. When Saturday morning cartoons were over and the local news came on, my brothers and I re-enacted whatever battles we’d seen, as I assume most impressionable children did, and Wonder Woman could seriously do some damage to her enemies, who were all men. She could also be a valued team member, because her strength and her lasso were legit. Her bracelets? Fashion and strength, in one package? Oh my god. Nobody wanted to mess with her.
The Confusion: For years, I remember thinking she was an Arab woman. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I do distinctly recall that I believed it for a very long time. And this confusion did lead me to dress up in a Wonder Woman costume when I was seven. I was proud of it, despite being horribly uncomfortable in the thin, plastic one-piece over my sweatpants and sweatshirt, my face sweating under the plastic mask with the nose holes and the rubber band stapled to the sides. Maybe I thought she was an Arab because she often said “Hera, give me strength.” Growing up in a bilingual household, I remember that I heard this as “Allah, give me strength,” which is just the dramatic type of thing an Arab woman might say. Plus, she could pass for an Arab woman, with that black hair and that attitude. And those eyebrows! Or maybe it was just because there were no Arab heroes on television when I was growing up (there still aren’t.) and I really longed for one.
The Legacy: Since then, I’ve loved the whole superhero culture. Even after clarifying that Wonder Woman’s ethnic identity is Amazonian-American. Having three brothers facilitated this interest nicely – we often discussed our favorite superheroes in detail, compared their powers and their weaknesses.
I developed a theory, still in the early stages, that most people have some kind of definable superpower. My power was realized when I got to college and discerned that I was ethnically malleable. This is an amazing power to have. Nobody knew “what I was,” but as a friend once told me, “I know you’re something.” It was like being a ghost who could pass through walls; I could hang out with the Latino kids on campus, then phase out and reappear with the African American students, or join in a discussion with the Indians and be totally accepted every time.
Frankly, I loved it, felt empowered and welcomed, even though I was often struck by the strangeness of the experience. It was akin to being that fourth kid on Barney – there was the obligatory White kid, around whom the story usually centered (he was the one lost in the woods, or it was her grandmother’s house they were all going to). There was the obligatory Black kid, as well as the Asian kid who could occasionally be swapped out for a kid with a physical disability. But that fourth child … that fourth one was ethnically ambiguous: was she Latina? Greek? Black? Pakistani? Who knew? But she satisfied the producer’s wacky quota and need to appeal to a wide, and misunderstood, viewing audience.
Anyway, here I am, editing my first issue as Barrelhouse’s online editor. I’ve joined the ranks of some of the best writers and editors I know, whose goal it is to demonstrate that pop culture is no small thing, that good literature is not an elitist enterprise. If I may wring this metaphor out some more, I view this mission as one well-suited for superheroes. And I contribute whatever powers I may have to it. Allah, give me strength.