Brooklyn

Camilla Zhang

 

After taking an English class in college, Camilla knew she had to write for a living—even if that meant overcoming financial instability and her mom’s misgivings. Camilla talks to us about her Chinese heritage, the difference between writing copy and writing comics, and the freedom she finds in the diversity of New York.

 
 

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You’re a born and bred New Yorker?
I’m from Jamaica, Queens.

What’s it like growing up in New York?
It was pretty residential where I grew up, but I would take trains to visit various parts of the city a lot. Taking the subway from an early age is a super-normal part of growing up here. I don’t really know what it’s like to not grow up in a city, so as I kid I was fascinated by small town settings. I would watch TV shows and see house parties in the suburbs and wonder, “Wow, what is that like?”

Have you always been interested in writing?
I was always a really creative kid, and I loved writing stories. But my mom is an immigrant, and she always wanted me to become a lawyer. I think that’s pretty common for immigrant families to want their children to have financially stable careers. You can become a lawyer, an accountant, or a doctor. Those are the big three. I was pretty argumentative as a child and loved debating, so I suppose that’s why she thought I should become a lawyer. She thought I was good at winning arguments, but really, it’s because I was persistent. [Laughs]

There’s a deeper reason why she wanted that path for me. I come from a family with domestic violence, which was one of the causes for my parents’ divorce. My mom was left to raise me, and she didn’t speak English very well, so I think she wanted me to fight for her. To eventually seek justice for her.  

When I got into Barnard College, my plan was to major in psychology and then go to law school. In your first year there, you have to take mandatory English classes. I’d always loved dissecting and analyzing literature, and writing about it. I was engaged in English and fell asleep in my psychology classes, so I decided to switch majors. I felt like I’d found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My mom didn’t approve at first, but eventually she came to accept it, especially when she saw that it made me happy. I graduated with an English degree and creative writing concentration.

 
You can ask for all the advice in the world, but at the end of the day you have to get out and do the things you’re asking about.
 

And what did you do after graduating?
It was right in the middle of the recession, so finding work was really hard. I found a job at a really small marketing agency. It wasn’t my passion or anything, but it was a good stepping stone. I wanted to pursue a more creative career path. I saw a job opening in the legal department at Marvel Comics. I had some experience in the industry because I interned at DC Comics while I was in college. I’ve always had a passion for comic books, so DC and Marvel were dream companies to work for. There were hardly any positions open, so I applied for what was available to get my foot in the door.

As a contracts coordinator, I worked with my bosses on branded license agreements, which let companies use Marvel characters on their products. It was great in terms of learning the business side of the industry, and I ended up staying there for three years.  

That job eventually led me to take on a role as an assistant editor at DC Comics. I loved working there, especially for my boss, Mark Chiarello, who is a very well-respected editor, art director and artist. I worked there for over two years before they decided to move the whole publishing business to California. I was offered a chance to move, but I really didn’t feel the pull to move across the country. My family is in New York; my home is here. I had invested so much into New York.   

I got a job at [website platform] Squarespace as a copywriter, and did that for two and a half years. Then, earlier this year, I started to feel like I needed to step back and do my own thing. 

Did you feel like the Squarespace job put you on the path to freelance writing?
I learned a lot at Squarespace, mostly from the people I met there. I think that it’s useful to learn about marketing copy and how you could apply that to promoting yourself and your own work. It teaches you to create words that are compelling to people, that speaks to them on a personal level.

Was it scary to make that decision to step out on your own?
Absolutely. For me and my family, stability has always been such a big issue. I had prepared for it, though, by putting away enough savings. I made sure that I had given myself a buffer.

What are you working on now?
I’m writing a graphic novel and a prose novel. My passion is immersive, long-form writing. That’s what I’m focused on right now; I’m taking the time to re-learn it. Especially coming from copywriting, which is all about being succinct. I suppose I’m not just re-learning that, but re-evaluating my days. Not having an office to go to, you have to create structure for yourself if you’re going to succeed. No one is going to make you get out of bed. It’s very easy to lose a sense of time when you’re working for yourself. I try my best to stick to a schedule: I’ll research for the first part of the day, then do logistical work, then do three hours of writing.  

For the graphic novel, I have the story planned out, and the first six pages written. The artist is working on those pages right now, so that we can start to shop it around. I’m also working with an editor who is giving me objective feedback.  

 
 

What is the graphic novel about?
The comic is about relationships and the fantasies we place onto them and onto other people. We’re fed so many romantic notions, and we sometimes build people up—we want the other person to be a certain way. Then as we move further into a relationship, we are often disappointed when the other person doesn’t live up to what we wanted them to be. But is it really their fault, when we didn’t communicate our expectations to begin with? There is a Chinese proverb that roughly translates to, “When you fall in love, open your eyes as big as possible, and when you get married start closing them.”

That is hilarious!
So the graphic novel follows the trajectory of a relationship that is already on the rocks, and it takes fantastical elements to explore how fantasy isn’t a firm foundation for a relationship.

There is no such thing as the perfect person, or perfect relationship. That’s the scariest part about them. One of my best friends got married last year to an amazing person and what I see from their relationship is that while love is something that happens to you, it’s also a choice. You have to see the other person’s faults and choose to be ok with them. That’s what real love is. I think the realities of “ordinary” life are not appreciated or celebrated in our culture. To put it in very simple terms, I think that sometimes we think that a fantasy is possible and achievable, but the very definition of fantasy means that it’s never achievable. Idealism can destroy you.

This sounds like an amazing concept for a graphic novel.
I’m also working on a novel, but it’s completely different. It’s a story about political espionage!  I got into a workshop called VONA [Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation] that is for writers of color, and I’m going to be workshopping my first 20 pages there. Part of it is set in China, which I’m travelling to.

Are you visiting family there?
Yes. It’s a really important trip for myself but also for my mom. It’s sort of a soul-searching trip for her. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, she was sent to work at a labor farm. The government's idea was to completely turn things around culturally. They tore families apart and took city children into the country. My mom was sent to the country, to learn about “hard work.”

My mom and her family fell under the “Five Black Categories.” It’s pretty hard to explain and to translate, but essentially you fell under this class for certain political identifiers that you often had no control over or were not personally responsible for  . My mom had family in Taiwan, which was considered bad. Her grandparents also had business relations with the US, so that was another transgression.

When the mandate for the Down to the Countryside Movement went out, the Red Guard would keep coming by my grandparents house, “asking” them to send my mom to the labor camps. A family would lose one food ration, regardless of whether their child went to the labor camp or stayed home. Still, Red Guards would keep coming by, sometimes polite but always threatening. They wouldn't leave my grandparents alone until my mom went to the camp. They even went so far as to try to send my mom to jail.

At 14?
Yes, they forced her to write these confessions for being a traitor. Thankfully, she wasn’t imprisoned but she  had to work hard-labor on a farm in Hubei for 10 years, until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

We’re going back to the areas where she worked. I’ll be there to support her and be by her side. I’ve heard the stories of her time there so many times that I feel like I’ve lived it myself. I’ve imagined myself in her place, but to really see it will be an eye-opener

 
 

That’s an incredible story. And it also helps to explain why your mom was so insistent on you having a stable life. How does she feel now that you are working for yourself?
You know, she kind of just kind of smiles and nods. I know that she wants a different life for me. But she also knows that once I put my mind to something, it will happen. She also has enough faith in me to know that I’ll be okay. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to work full time. It’s scary for her and scary for me, but as I’ve said, I worked really hard to put away enough savings to make this happen.

What is the best piece of advice you could give?
I think the best piece of advice would be to go out and create the life you want for yourself. Learn by doing. You can ask for all the advice in the world, but at the end of the day you have to get out and do the things you’re asking about. I’ve asked so many people for advice, especially about writing. Everybody has a different method…. Write one hour every day, or write for three hours, then do research. Honestly, though, I’ve had to figure out what works for me.

Another piece of advice is one that I’m really working on for myself, as well. It’s important to have mentors, and to seek them out. But don’t hold yourself up to impossible standards.

Not everybody is going to be a Stephen King or a Margaret Atwood, but that’s ok. Those standards can choke you, they can be debilitating. You have to do what you need to in order to be creatively fulfilled, and you will find that fulfillment in doing the work. Maybe no one will see your painting or read your book, but you aren’t going to be happy if you don’t do it. 

What does New York mean to you?
To me, New York is a microcosm of what I feel the world should be. I don’t mean that in any snobby way. I love how diverse it is, and I love how that lends itself to anonymity. Most New Yorkers are not going to stare at you for your race or ethnicity, although there are still plenty of race and intersectional issues here. This city isn’t perfect, but to me, it’s one of the very few places you can be yourself. There are some people who can make it difficult, like racist police officers, sex offenders, and bigots, but for the most part, NYC is a very freeing place. A lot of people come here because other places wouldn’t accept them for being who they are.

The most New York thing is the subway. It’s the place that brings everybody together. You are forced into dealing with people when you’re all in a packed subway car. New Yorkers are bonded by the MTA!

 
 

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Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©


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