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For as long as I can remember I have loved sci-fi and fantasy. I devoured books like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, LOTR, and Ready Player One. As a kid, I religiously watched Stargate SG-1, The Fifth Element, The Outer Limits, and Firefly. Maybe I was so drawn in because this was a space where racial heritage didn’t matter. Granted, back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, diversity was still scarce. Even more so than today. Yikes.
As an adult, I continue to judge (rather harshly) new endeavors in this genre. They just don’t live up to these classics. However, in the past six years, sci-fi/fantasy has gone through a renaissance of sorts, and Lisa Joy is at the helm of this revival.
If you’re not familiar with Joy, you should be. Often she was the only woman, let alone the only woman of color, in the writers’ room. She’s a powerhouse, who has broken through the bamboo ceiling. Best known for being the co-creator and executive producer of Westworld, Joy got her start as a writer on Pushing Daisies, and the rest is history.
Oh, and did I mention she is also a lawyer?
I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Joy about her mixed identity and latest sci-fi series The Peripheral, now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Alex Chester-Iwata: You’ve had an extensive career writing and producing science fiction hits. Do you think being mixed Asian has influenced your interest in producing and writing this genre?
Lisa Joy: I'm sure it has, even in ways that I don't fully understand. When you're mixed race, there's this feeling of not fully belonging in either culture. I remember going to the Chinese supermarket and hearing people speak Chinese about [me], “Why is this white girl in here?” Same when I was with my white friends at school, I would hear them talk about me as more Chinese, there’s this idea of always being a little bit other, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you get to experience so many cultures in fullness. You get to really explore and live in two cultures, with two identities. That's such a wonderful opportunity—a really full, exciting way to live.
On the other hand, there can be (for all people of color) a little feeling, a sort of estrangement from what is the norm. I think when people talk about the commercials they watched growing up, the food they ate, or the things that they did after school, it's very different to my experience—because my mom is Asian and we mostly hung out with Asian families and would go to Chinese school on the weekends, so the idea of always feeling a little bit like an outsider to the general sweep of American culture is something that I’m used to. I think it has informed me as a writer because you’re on the outside looking in, always really studying the world you live in and trying to make sense of it from that somewhat strange viewpoint.
That was helpful in writing sci-fi because you;re trying to look at humanity from a somewhat detached perspective, to observe it and comment on it. Especially in the case of when you're writing an AI, but it also gives you that feeling of love for your community. Whatever your community is, whatever your family, and the tribe you choose. So for something like Peripheral—Flynn’s family, Burton, and the merry band of fellows/veterans, that’s their family. It's a really big, diverse, cool family. I think being mixed race, you’re used to choosing your own family in addition to the family you were born with and you get a diverse array of loved ones.
ACI: Totally! To expand upon this, I've always said that being mixed is a superpower and that we can see both sides of many things. You bring characters with opposing viewpoints to life and make the audience feel for all these characters so fluidly. Do you think this mixed background of two cultures has influenced your character development?
LJ: Definitely. It’s influenced the way I see the world itself, and the way you see the world influences how you write characters. Growing up with different religions, cultures, and viewpoints on how children should behave and what family is, there was no right or wrong. There was just different people’s versions of it. I think that one of the greatest things you can do as a writer is to really empathize with your characters—to understand that even if you aren’t them (which you never are), you can put yourself in their position and understand where their views are coming from. You have to be able to extend your imagination far enough to encompass a different worldview, and I think being mixed race can help with that ability.
ACI: Let’s talk about The Peripheral. Oh my gosh. It is wild. And like Westworld, reality and learning about one’s existence seem to be a dominant theme, along with trauma and family. How has your personal experience and perception influenced these shows?
LJ: I think as a human, but especially as a woman and a woman of color, you’re always trying to chart your path, figure out who you are in that moment and where you wanna go. Everybody evolves constantly. I think we have certain cornerstones to our personality that are consistent, but we can change a lot throughout a lifetime.
The path that is set out—the normative path set out for society, that changes, too. I think no one is truly the norm, right? There’s less and less of a template for you to follow, and you have to kind of make it up as you go along. Who am I, what do I believe in, and who do I wanna become? These are all permanent existential questions for everyone, things that we examine and reexamine throughout our lives. So for me, all of my works are in a part about people trying to understand and define themselves and to reconcile the parts of who they are internally with the way they interact with the world and the things that they wanna achieve.
ACI: What was it like for you growing up as a mixed-Asian kid, and did you always wanna be a writer, director, and producer?
LJ: I always loved writing, but I never thought it was realistic, more so being mixed. I’m a first-generation American, and my parents didn’t have a lot of money. I think anybody who comes from any family not born here wants their children to have stability and safety first and foremost. A job as a writer does not often sound like it will be those things. It doesn’t sound safe and stable. Honestly, in some ways it’s not. You’re at the mercy of a lot of different factors. Writing for me was a way of digesting the world and my experience in it. I knew I was always gonna write and I was always gonna draw and create. I just never knew I would be able to do it for a living.
I had a lot of backup plans just in case, which is why I went to law school and did business and all this stuff because (especially for a lot of minorities and first-generation Americans) the idea that there is a social safety net that’s gonna catch you, that there’s gonna be money to pay the rent if you have a bad month, doesn’t exist. You can’t say just willy-nilly, ‘I’m gonna be a starving artist,” ’cause you really won’t be able to support yourself. You might have obligations. I know I did, to my family and my sibling. So it was more than just myself I was thinking about. I knew I would always write, but I didn’t wanna make the leap to writing as a career until I knew I could fulfill the obligations that I had to myself and my loved ones financially, for basic stuff like health care.
ACI: Yes. Health care is important. Did you get to visit the U.K. growing up at all?
LJ: Yeah. I visited the U.K. and China and Taiwan. I spent time in all of those places, and it was great. It was a very different world. I remember when I was a kid, I used to go to England for a while, and I’d come back speaking with a Northern British accent, which is ridiculous. I can’t even do one now. When I went to Asia, I fell in love with so many aspects of culture that you don’t see here. I try to bring it into the projects I work on. In my film Reminiscence, there is a night market scene, and we speak Chinese at home, there’s a lot of merging of languages and you get this kind of second language that’s a mix of Chinese and English, which I also put into my writing and in my film. I love fight scenes. I love martial arts, and it’s because when I was a kid, one of the first movies I saw was the Monkey King in a theater in Asia. I was so amazed by it that I just wanted to be the Monkey King. Even the ideas of the stories and myths I grew up with were different. I didn’t have Marvel or DC.
ACI: You’ve paved the path for future generations of women and women of color that wanna do what you do. What has it been like navigating the entertainment industry, specifically as a woman of color, especially at times being the only woman in the room?
LJ: Being the only woman in the room is just not fun in general. It’s not a great experience. I think it shows that something is fundamentally wrong in whatever organization you’re a part of. For a while I thought, ‘Oh, if I can tough it out as the only woman in the room, maybe it means I’m good enough.’ Now take it from a different viewpoint. I'm like, ‘I think I’m good enough. What's wrong with you guys that you have no women?’ That comes with age and a little bit of confidence. When I was starting, it was before #MeToo. It was before all these things. It really made you feel like you had to make it in this man’s world. Now I just think, ‘If it’s a man’s world, I don't wanna be a part of it. I wanna be a part of the real world.’
ACI: I love it. Do you have any advice or major lessons you learned that you could share?
LJ: It’s really hard to be confident as a creative because it’s subjective. You can believe in what you’re doing, but maybe other people don’t. The really important thing is to find a community of peers who support and understand you. If you’re in a bad work situation or it’s in your head that maybe it’s you and what you’re doing is wrong, they can give you some perspective and say, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the kind of position you should be in,’ or, ‘You’re not wrong. Just keep going.’ Whatever it is, I’ve relied heavily on the community of creatives that I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with.
ACI: You’ve had an incredible presence behind the camera. Any chance we’ll see you in front of the camera as an actor?
LJ: I played broccoli in a school play once, and I’m not sure I was very good at playing a vegetable. I don’t know if that bodes well for me in front of the camera. I will say though, I really love the costume design in The Peripheral. If it means I get to keep one of the outfits, I could be broccoli on The Peripheral for sure.
ACI: Awesome. I support this wholeheartedly.
LJ: I’m doing it for the clothes. I’m doing it for the clothes.
Published on November 16, 2022