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The heroic labor of love

As a recent Southeast Asian transplant to San Francisco, the Labor Day holiday in the United States represents yet another quirk in a long list of quirks about the US — like using the imperial system of measurements. Most of the rest of the of the world celebrates Labor Day on May 1st.

Nevertheless, here we are, a long weekend. My first Labor Day in September.

August had been a hard month for me at work, and I had been counting down to this weekend. But unlike many of my co-workers who had Plans, I merely looked forward to a long stretch of time to stay home, and work on my fanfic.

Yes, I am in my late twenties, and I write fanfiction.

It feels odd to make a somewhat defensive confession like that, when fanfiction has been seeing growing acceptance in the mainstream recently. Heck, the website I post my fanfic on, Archive of Our Own, recently won a Hugo award for Best Related Work. (The Hugo is one of the highest honors in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy). Many published writers, journalists and other respectable people have admitted to writing fanfiction in the past. Just last week, I read this powerful, beautifully written article in Wired magazine about how the generation of fans who write fanfiction are reinventing pop culture. I reread that article a few times, and I had never been as proud to be a fanfic writer.

But in the Southeast Asian society I had left behind early this year, fanfiction is still largely seen as a childish pursuit, and some of my old co-workers would have scoffed at such a pastime.

I myself had done that once, when I was starting university in Singapore.

Ironically, the Wired article by Laurie Penny I mentioned above was titled, ‘We can be heroes’. It is exactly this notion, that I can be a hero, that made me stop writing fanfiction when I was eighteen.

Like many other fans, I spent a ton of time online, reading wonderful and strange fanfiction and spending hours and hours creating works that we could never publish for any monetary gain. I didn’t have much else to my name in the offline world. I was a straight-A student, but I was such a nerd that I was seen as a book-smart stereotype without ‘leadership skills’. I couldn’t get a scholarship to the UK universities I was accepted to, and it was a wake-up call.

I was not a hero in real life. I was a socially awkward introvert who wrote about space-faring Power Rangers who were braver than I could ever be.

I asked myself then, would my own fictional heroes respect me?

I didn’t think they would.

But, crucially, I think they’d understand.

You see, I am a huge fan of Tamora Pierce’s heroines from the world of Tortall. They are kickass female characters in a medieval world — they are pioneer lady knights, powerful female mages or brilliant spies. And they are awesome in that they are rarely naturally gifted in what they do; they had to learn and train and fall and pick themselves back up, and they became good at what they do.

I realized that I can be a hero — like them. I can learn, I can make myself do the hard things. I can become my own hero.

Back then, fanfiction was mostly my channel for escapism, and it was a time-sucker. So I told myself to let go of childish pursuits, and grow up.

I packed my free time with non-academic activities in a bid to brush up my soft skills. I spent three years in Toastmasters, learning to grow a thicker skin and deal with every awkward encounter. I went on exchange and backpacked across western Europe on my own.

Fast forward about eight years or so, my life had turned out pretty well, by most objective markers. I had just left a job with 60-hour work weeks to join a tech company where my manager cared about work-life balance. I could afford to go on overseas holidays.

But something was missing. There was a big hole in my life that I couldn’t quite articulate, a sense of, is this it? Is this all that there is to life?

I was missing love, of course. And I was missing a creative outlet.

These two became crystal clear on hindsight, but back then everything was confusing and occasionally terrifying. Fanfiction brought the two together for me in a way that I had never expected it could, and I would be forever grateful for it.

The first piece of the puzzle came together when I realised that I missed writing stories. I realised that, if I were to die the next day, I would regret not writing stories more than not publishing a novel. I still didn’t have any ‘original’ ideas for my own novel, but it didn’t matter as much now. And so I dived right back into fanfiction.

A few months after that, belatedly, I realised that I am gay. In my single-minded pursuit of becoming my own hero, which I had internalised as having the economic power to shape my own life, I had unconsciously taken the rest of society’s definitions of success to heart too: good grades, good job, marriage to a man, and kids. Marriage and kids were supposed to come later, and I had always dreaded the thought. Now I know why.

Fanfiction helped me figured out the whole gay thing, too, and I had written a whole article about that.

And so, I had come full circle. I ditched fanfiction back then because I had wanted to be my own hero. To be clear, I don’t regret the time I had spent on everything else — all those skills and experiences had gotten me to where I am today, and it is a pretty good place to be.

But I recognise now that my definition of a hero was superficial and borrowed, the equivalent of a faceless knight killing the dragon (and the knight may not even be female; because why is killing something the default?).

In reading Penny’s ‘We can be heroes’, I realised that the world is changing. Many of the change makers had brought their experience in fandom with them, and in the new world of online streaming, these veterans of fandoms can tell the stories they had experienced in fandom. There is room for many kinds of stories at once, and there is room for many kinds of heroes.

It is okay to be a fan. It is okay to be passionate about something that is not financially rewarding.

This Labor Day weekend, I gleefully look forward to working on my fanfic. Ironically, the prompt for this article gently encouraged us to part ways with uncompensated stressors, the ‘labor of life’ this weekend. Granted, the editors were thinking about other, valid, uncompensated work in everyday life that may be unfair and that drag some of us down more than others.

But my fanfic? It is a labor of love.

I used to cringe at the phrase. As someone who grew up in a precariously middle-income family, I couldn’t understand why rational, responsible adults would indulge in a labor of love, which is basically unpaid work.

Nowadays, I see it for the act of heroism that it is. A small one, but heroic nonetheless in a world that continuously bombard us with ideas and images about what we should do and who we should be.

Before I started writing this, I googled to find out why Labor Day in the United States is in September and not May like in many parts of the world. I was humbled by the origins of the day and the labor movement. And the fact that I could treat this weekend as one of the many public holidays I am entitled to in a year speaks volumes about how far the world have come in terms of labor rights, even if we still have some ways to go.

I admit, I am a little uncomfortable in declaring the heroism of unpaid work for pleasure on a weekend honoring the efforts of those who have fought for their labor to be respected and compensated well.

Yet, their movement had brought us into more prosperous times, with paid time offs and multiple long weekends every year. Aside from taking a break, wouldn’t the freedom to indulge in a labor of love this weekend be a fine testament to their victory?

Happy long weekend, all.

Writer. Painter. Dreamer. Storyteller. Queer. Sometimes in that order. Recent transplant to San Franciso. Had lived in Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands.

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