Jade Deo is a talented South Asian illustrator based in New York. She focuses primarily on fanart for various book fantasy series' by Leigh Bardugo. In this interview, Jade talks to us about her fanart, her cosplay of a famous Grishaverse character, and the harmful effect of whitewashing POC characters.
note: this interview contains spoilers for multiple books by Leigh Bardugo, including King of Scars and Rule of Wolves
Alefiya: Give us a little introduction to yourself.
Jade: My name is Jade. I'm 21. I’m an undergraduate student in college, I study computer science. I guess since we're talking about art, I've been drawing pretty much my whole life. I didn't start drawing digitally until like last April about though, so I'm a pretty decent newb, but it's been fun. I’ve met a lot of great people since I've started putting the work online.
Alefiya: Cool, cool. Okay, so you say you've been drawing your whole life, or I guess you've been into art your whole life. When and how did you get into it?
Jade: I don't know, I feel like that's a pretty boring story because I really don't know. I've just always like to draw. I remember being in pre-K, and there were all these, like, little centers around the classroom when you had playtime and you could choose what you wanted to do. There was a block area and a kitchen area of a little shopping cart and, like, Velcro carrots and stuff. And then there's also like a drawing and painting center, and I was like there every day. And one day the teacher was like, ‘how about you do something different?’ She just put me in the kitchen section I'm just sat there, I distinctly remember just sitting there, very upset, so um, I feel like that summarizes my entire artistic history. (laughs)
Alefiya: (laughs) That's funny.
Alefiya: So, what does your Asian identity mean to you? And how does that influence your art? You can honestly talk about this as much as you want.
Jade: Okay, cool. This is where my entire document of notes comes in handy. (laughs)
Okay so, to be honest, I feel like I have a bit of a strange relationship with my Asian identity because, I mean racially, I'm sure like people would look at me and be like, ‘Oh, you're probably Indian or like some country from around there’
But um, I don't always feel like that culturally because I'm first-generation American, but my parents are not from South Asia, my grandparents are not from South Asia, and neither are my ancestors from a few generations before that. So, my family's West Indian, so that's like not in the sense that they're from the western regions of India, it's like, it refers to the West Indies. So my mom was born in a South American country, Guyana, and my dad is from the Caribbean nations of Trinidad and Tobago.
So we would most accurately be defined as Indo-Caribbean.
Here’s a bit of history: I guess the reason why there's such a large population of people of Indian descent in the Caribbean and even countries like Guyana and Suriname and French Guyana is that in the 1800s when slavery was abolished, the various European nations they decided to get labor from elsewhere since they couldn't like contract slaves anymore, so they would get people from, like, China and India - I know those are like big ones - and they brought them to the Americas and the Caribbean, and a lot of the times they agreed to it. Like those people were willing to come and they started a new life, but sometimes it was more like they were tricked into it or they were brought forcefully, so not the greatest history. But, yeah, a lot of those people chose to stay there once they had been working those plantations for a long time and were granted ownership of the land, and then they moved to the US. So, yeah.
Alefiya: Yeah, now I understand one of the pieces you’ve submitted. I think you called it ‘Diaspora’?
Jade: Yeah, 'Diaspora Child'.
Alefiya: Yeah, you can definitely see how your identity has played in there.
Jade: Yeah, I do a lot of fan art, so it doesn't always get to come through. But when I do personal work, I try to work in little cultural details into them. I think it's really fun. I have created artwork surrounding the feeling of otherness around South Asians who have a more direct lineage to the side of the world. And it's like, sort of weird because we're so similar, but we're so different in so many ways and it's not so easy as saying that we're just Indians who crossed over a little earlier (laughs). The Caribbean is such a melting pot of cultures and people from four different continents, and, like, our cultures are not the same, but at the same time they are. So that's what that specific work [‘Diaspora Child’] was about. It was just like that weird little disconnect. Knowing where you come from, and who you come from, that's such a privilege I feel people don't realize. I can’t trace my family history back to like the other side of the world. A lot of people can be like, ‘Oh this is like a tax return from Germany or something and it has my great great great great grandparents, whatever…’ I can't do that.
There's supposedly an archive in Guyana, where they recorded all of the indentured laborers’ ships that came in. And you know, I would love to one day search them and learn more.
Alefiya: Oh, wow! You’re so right about it being a privilege to know so specifically where you come from. I really hope that you do get to search those records one day.
Jade: Maybe one day, yeah.
Jade: You know, I do feel that connection and appreciation for my South Asian identity. I feel like it's hard to not feel connected to it when you, like, live the reality. I mean, I look brown, people treat me like a brown person, so it's like not completely disconnected, and I guess that's why I draw the beautiful brown girls I do and the features I do and the jewelry and so on. I don't know, it just feels like the easiest way that I know to express that connection just because I'm an artist.
Alefiya: Can you actually tell us more about your creative process? For fan art, how do you imagine these fictional characters that have already been sort of fleshed out? How do you imagine them in your own creative settings or, like, modern settings?
Jade: So I feel like I don't place them in necessarily modern settings too often, because I, I don't know. I don't do a lot of scenery or story writing. I mean, I have written fics [fanfiction], but we're not talking about that. (laughs)
I feel like considering real-world concepts and ideas is something I wind up doing a lot more when it comes to making decisions. Specifically pertaining to things like skin color and features because those things are in direct opposition to Western conventional beauty, so I guess that's where the modern touch comes in because I'm very conscious about things like that.
For the creative process, I think it's fairly boring. I mean, just have an idea. I think of the character or the pose or like, maybe I see an outfit that I really want to draw somebody in and I'm just like, ‘Yeah, let's do that.’But it's like not super technical or outline-y, That's just how I feel and I do it.
Alefiya: So, how is that different- or I guess, is it different, the process for fan art, versus the process for your own personal art?
Jade: From a technical standpoint, no, because I follow the same steps, regardless of subject matter. But I feel like the differences are more mental than anything because like with fan art, it's a lot of just, ‘Okay, I'm feeling motivated to draw these characters in this pose and I'll have these vibes because I think it's cool and I also think people will like it because this is what they follow me for.’ So that's pretty much what my page is, mostly fan art.
And with personal art, it's a lot less straightforward, because I don't know, I feel like it follows more along the lines of, ‘I had this random thought, and it might make a cool doodle and I think people might like it.’ Fanart pretty much has a guaranteed audience, especially once you've already established that your page focuses on certain material for certain fandoms.
But personal art is a little more iffy because it's harder to locate that audience that will relate and appreciate to that specific piece that you've created, which might be disjointed from the other works you've created, so it's kind of like finding a new audience for every piece of personal work that you put out there, which is kind of difficult.
And at the same time, it's not super easy for fan art either because it's so easy to get boxed into creating one type of art. Like, I know people like artists who’ve gotten popular for their Grishaverse work, for example, and then every time they post something even from another popular fandom, it just doesn't do as well. People come to expect a certain something from you and they're less likely to interact when what you deliver falls outside of those boundaries. At the same time, it's not all about numbers and stats.
The feeling of reading the kind words of people who resonate with your personal work, or even like a caption that you've written, and they appreciate the thought you put into something, like the body hair that I draw my characters with- that just means something different.
It's really great when I get to push a bit of an overlap between personal and fanart. So, for example like giving Zoya* little jhumka earrings and adding trademark brown girl body hair.
Alefiya: So how do you find the balance between creating for other people and worrying about what other people are thinking versus creating for yourself. How do you develop your own art style?
Jade: Well, the first question, I guess, finding the balance is, I don't know, maybe, like, setting the standard that it's unreasonable to expect, for example, solely Grishaverse* content from me. Like from the get-go, I feel like I never went more than like a few posts of Grishaverse content without throwing personal work in there. I feel like that's good once in a while so it lets your audience know that you're not just here to produce content for a series that they like and that you also have your own values and interests and work that is more personal to you. And that's just as good.
For the second question, oh my God, that's like one of the most popular questions I feel artists get. Especially from aspiring artists- I know I was that way too, like 14-15, I'd always see all these artists online, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love how they do this, this and this and I wish I could do that and how do I do that and make it look exactly like that?’ And I feel like it's definitely a thing you can't force. There are so many techniques you can follow, like figure out how this artist draws a nose and work it into your own art, see how they draw eyes and work into your own, but at the end of the day, it just comes naturally from drawing all the time and actively trying to get better. Basically, it just comes naturally, finding your art style.
And at the end of the day, I don't think I'll ever have one set art style, I think. My style is recognizable to some extent but it's always changing at the same time and a lot of artists, I'm sure feel the same way, that you're always improving, always getting better. And you're always incorporating new things into your work, and yeah, it's just a living document, so it is like you're always adding to your list of skills and likes and dislikes and all that.
Alefiya: Speaking of adding your own elements to artwork and characters, let’s talk about your Zoya cosplay because that’s really interesting to me. So, what about Zoya is interesting to you and why do you cosplay her specifically?
Jade: (laughs) So, why is she interesting to me...Well, I mean there's just a lot of basic stuff, I guess I just find her like an appealing and interesting character. She's a little more nuanced than the typical YA [Young Adult] heroine, I think. So even though like there's a whole thing where she's good, she's not necessarily kind and she's extremely flawed and she has this really interesting character development arc and we start off seeing her from a very narrow perspective but then like, as the books progressed, we get a lot more from her. I think that's really great to see. But other than that, I feel like I relate to her to some extent, I mean, we're very different personality-wise, but one thing in particular I noticed was her resentment of vulnerability, and I feel like I feel that really hard like I cannot talk about my feelings at all. (laughs) Like, I would rather die. (laughs)
And then there’s the line in the book Rule of Wolves where she’s going to tell [the love interest] how she feels, and it says, “She'd never been so frightened in her life”. I feel that so hard because it's such a simple thing for so many people to just like, you know project their feelings and just be like, ‘Yes I want to talk about this and I want to tell you this, this is what you mean to me and so on.’ On an emotional level, I guess there's some relating, and I also find her inspiring in a weird sense because I grew up really shy and insecure, and to be honest, I’m still a bit of both of those things. So she's like, everything I wish I was. She's so confident and unapologetic and secure in herself and her abilities and she would never undersell herself or second-guess herself.
I also really like what she's come to stand for and represent within the fandom, because she's like, the brown character that I wish I'd always known and the wish I had growing up. She's a woman of color with power in a world that is so prejudiced, in more ways than one, and people are so ready to defend her and fight her whitewashing and they work her Suli* heritage into their art and their ideas and their edits and their stories. And I don't know, the image of outwardly brown Zoya is so widely accepted and praised in the fandom and that's so crazy to see. You get used to a certain type of character and she definitely wasn't it, even just physically, which is such a trivial thing, but it matters. It means a lot because it affects the way that you see the world and the world, how the world sees you.
Another thing about Zoya is that her being undeniably beautiful exposed more and more people to the idea that beauty isn't this ‘cookie-cutter’ fair, blonde, conventionally attractive white woman, which is so great to see. Her indisputable beauty is made so many of our audience members are aware of their own, which is so crazy to think about. Like, there's no way that people in my DMs and comments who have expressed such an emotional connection to her and her increasingly popular design could know what they're worth to me. As an artist it's crazy, like, yeah I'm just drawing fan art for this book in this, but I feel like her design means so much to people.
And that's why I find her interesting, but at the same time, I feel like my Zoya, isn’t necessarily the one that was written by Leigh. We've made [Zoya] out to be this person and to look a certain way, which again is so trivial, but it's also so important because I know that I've attached a lot of meaning to her physical appearance. It affects the way she's perceived her entire life as a consequence because that's like the reality of being a person of color. That's why, if someone were to say, ‘Oh I don't see color,’ they'd get some interesting books because that, that's just not how it works. So, the fact that she was written as periodically white-passing takes away from all of that.
Jade: Oh, and the reason why I cosplay her. I feel like pretty much all of the above, like what I just said and also because a friend lowkey bullied me into it. She was like, ‘You better do it, you better do it.’ And I don't know, also because I'm competitive and I wanted to show up the white cosplayers.
Alefiya: Talk to us about these white cosplayers.
Jade: So I’ve seen a lot of brown cosplayers get told they’re too brown to cosplay Zoya- I know that was a big thing a few months ago- and it's like, so sad because sometimes it comes from other like brown individuals with this internalized racism. I’m like, ‘What are you- why?’ I don’t understand.
I rewatched 'Shadow and Bone'* with my mom because I listened to the audiobooks with her, so she's familiar with the characters and all that and I wanted to see what she thought. And after we had finished. I forgot what we were talking about and then somehow cosplay and stuff came up. And I was telling her that like so many brown girls they don't get the same attention that you know white cosplayers, who are like bigger and more popular get. And she was like, ‘Oh, you should do it that,’ and that's a little bit odd, to have your mom telling you to cosplay somebody but I was like, ‘Sure, why not.’
This is gonna sound stupid, but I haven’t dressed up like her that often. Like only a handful of times, but honestly, it feels like putting on a different persona, especially as somebody who was, like I said, so quiet, and I don't know, she's just so badass. I feel cool and I don't know, it's just like a weird little power kick, I guess, like the confidence level. Like, I'm a different person now. She's an alter ego, and I can do anything.
It's just such a controversial topic. But long story short, I agree that white people should not be cosplaying BIPOC characters, and it's not their place to. It’s just not their place to step into spaces meant for BIPOC, especially when they occupy so much space in other places completely unchecked. This is gonna sound harsh, but honestly, I do not care. I don't care if Zoya is your favorite character of all time or if you relate to her on a molecular level like if you as a white person cannot check yourself and step back from a singular character that you for some reason, feel like entitled to, I really hate to see how you handle yourself in situations of higher stakes because, at that point, you clearly do not care like you could not care less about BIPOC voices. In fandom and cosplay that's like, just such a small scale, but then like take into consideration larger issues like, are you really gonna care about BIPOC if this one is such a big deal to you.
There are like white cosplayers who have their little disclaimers and their captions like, ‘I know I’m white and I can’t portray her correctly, blah blah blah.’ It means nothing, not if you aren't promoting the content of BIPOC creators, not if you let the ‘Oh my god you’re perfect canon Zoya’ comments flog in and not correct anybody. You might as well just not put the disclaimer.
She's just one character in a sea for them to use it, but she's like one of a handful for us.
Alefiya: Yeah, that must be really frustrating.
Jade: Yeah. (laughs)
Alefiya: So there’s another layer to this, I think. I’ve seen a lot of discourse in the past few months about Zoya being too ‘eurocentric’ because she’s written as white-passing or because she has blue eyes, for example. What are your thoughts on that?
Jade: I feel like we need to be careful with labeling her as a whole as eurocentric because she is a mixed character of color and it is a valid identity. When it comes to the blue eyes thing. I'm pretty sure Leigh had no plans to make Zoya a Suli character when she introduced her in the trilogy. She was just supposed to be another, you know, ordinary-looking Ravkan*, and I guess that's why the blue eyes were a thing. But um, and that's like kind of a hard detail to change when we started getting more Zoya in King of Scars and when her Suli identity was introduced. introduced, it's hard to backtrack at that point.
My issue is with the way her race was handled in the text. It was such a missed opportunity and I hesitate to call it even that because that almost implies something passive or harmless, but it was an extremely invalidating and painful thing to read, especially as someone who had a part in shaping her character design within art in the fandom and that sounds conceited, but I promise I don't mean it that way. But I was drawing the darker brown skin, nose ring, face jewelry wearing Zoya before it was a trendy thing.
I feel like Leigh promoted and possibly profited off of the idea of a visibly phenotypically brown Zoya, and then like turning around and saying like, ‘Haha, no’ and deciding to write her as pale and white-passing extremely last minute after promoting all brown art was offensive. So, that's my issue but I don't know if I would call her eurocentric, especially not just for the eye thing.
I don't know, it was just such a messy thing like writing her as white-passing just made it seem like the reason why she was beautiful is that she passes white and, that's such a problem for so many reasons and it's something I think a lot of people of color can, like, understand and be angered by because like a lot. Within a lot of our communities, beauty is contingent upon your closeness to whiteness, if that makes sense, especially in South Asian culture, like the obsession with having lighter skin.
Alefiya: Oh, yeah. Like ‘Fair and Lovely’.
Jade: Yeah, exactly. And her being brown too, or Suli, you know what I mean. And then that being such a problem in South Asia. It seems so tasteless.
Alefiya: Yeah. Wow.
Jade: Sorry, I got a little heated there. (laughs)
Alefiya: (laughs) No, you’re fine.
Alefiya: So, I guess moving on to more positive things. Let’s talk about the art aspect of your cosplay. What was the process of drawing yourself as Zoya, like becoming her?
Jade: Okay, so like that was never the intention and I did not draw Zoya, or like create this character design of her like as a way of like self inserting my entire being. I gave her small details that are related to me, like I gave her my ear piercings and things like that but like, she wasn't meant to be me.
I'm not complaining though. Honestly, it's such an honor to be associated with her, like for all the reasons I said before, but um, yeah, it was not my intention.
Alefiya: Yeah, I think you sent me like the full-scale one, right? And then I also really like the one where you like, draw over a picture of yourself. I thought that one was really interesting.
Jade: Oh, yeah, yeah. I did that one in February or something because like, like I said the friend was harassing me to do the cosplay. And I was like, ‘Well, my wardrobe is mostly black, like where am I gonna find clothes to be Zoya?’ I was like ‘You know what, I have a tablet, I draw, let's just draw the cosplay on me.’ So I took a picture and just scribbled over it, and made my hair longer, you know.
Alefiya: That’s so cool. It really is like an alter ego, because of the way you make her come to life in your special way.
Alefiya: So, moving on. Do you have any examples of South Asian representation in media/literature that you think have been done really well?
Jade: The first one that jumps to my mind, the forefront of my mind, and it isn’t written by a person of color, but City of Brass and the whole Daevabad trilogy. I have never read something that was majority POC characters, like, I can't even think of the name of a white character in that series, except maybe the apothecary man that the main character learned from. That was so unheard of for me at that point, so that one definitely. I read Star Daughter and I feel like I wasn't the right age group for that, but I'm glad that there's starting to be more out there for younger readers. Like, it was crazy, like within the first few pages they were talking about some South Asian food and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I feel that I see that, I understand that,’ and that's something that's so small, but so valuable.
Alefiya: Oh yeah, that trilogy and Star Daughter are both actually on my list too, so that’s cool.
Alefiya: Okay, last question. What advice would you give to like, maybe a younger version of yourself, or even like just a young brown artist trying to find their place in a creative space?
Jade: You should create the content for yourself. You have to make that space for yourself and for people that might also feel comfortable in that space and I don't know, sometimes you got to be a pioneer and do things and add fuzzies [body hair] to your characters and stuff like that. Oh, and have fun always.
Grishaverse: the shared fantasy universe that the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows duology and King of Scars duology by Leigh Bardugo take place in.
Shadow and Bone: the first book in the entire Grishaverse series, has also been adapted into a TV show on Netflix.
Ravka/Ravkan: a nation in the Grishaverse that is based on 19th-century Russia.
Suli: a nomadic people from the northwestern parts of Ravka, inspired by Roma and South Asian cultures.
Zoya: a main character in the Grishaverse who first appears in Shadow and Bone. She is revealed to be half-Ravkan and half-Suli in the King of Scars duology but was also written as white-passing.
Jade Deo, cosplaying as Zoya Nazyalensky from the Grishaverse