When I was a teenager, I imagined leaping across the tops of speeding train cars, trading kicks and flips with villains who had abducted my loved ones, my outfit billowing behind me. I imagined chase scenes across the tops of moonlit castles, through the dank lamplit halls of Vernian submarines, through the Caribbean mountains across from my home that cut the night sky like the spine of some leviathan’s fossils, through stairways carved from stars.
As if these superheroine fantasies were not incriminating enough, I often imagined them while listening to the tortured, if not torturous, soundtrack of my teenage angst alone in my room. I was an only child who lived with her parents on the side of a mountain, at the edge of a quiet village of zinc-roofed shacks where the wind rolled by with the sound of Atlantic waves, and in this montane solitude I sometimes just lay down and imagined I was someone else, somewhere louder and more exciting: a girl saving the world, a girl fighting alongside characters from my video games and comics, a girl saving the other girl (or boy) she had a crush on.
The most incredible thing about these visions, to me, wasn’t even my superpowers; it was that I got to be a girl in them. I was a pansexual trans woman deep in the closet about both my gender identity and queer desires, because I lived in a small country where being openly gay, much less trans, simply wasn’t an option unless you wanted to be harassed, humiliated, hurt. I didn’t even really understand what it meant to be trans when I was a teen, since I had never seen anyone like me; a part of me wondered if I was the only person who had this strange sense that I was a girl, like a lamp always aglow, but that no one else could see me for who I was.
So I dreamed. Some of my happiest visions weren’t even the ones where I saved my latest celebrity crush—which was once Britney Spears—from impending doom. Instead, they were when I got to picture myself just doing the simplest things as a woman, from walking into Jolly’s Pharmacy amidst the chaos of our capital city and purchasing a lipstick, to going to school in the uniform—navy pleated skirt, white button-up, black Mary Janes—the Convent girls got to wear. When I wasn’t dreaming, I read queer things in secret, at least when I could muster up the courage, because at that time I still was faintly afraid a flaming abyss might open beneath me if I dared to read a lesbian fanfic online (but I did, anyway). I wrote, too; in one story, a princess in a vast submarine deep in the sea was in love with another girl on the ship, who—ironically, I now realize—hid in her closet whenever the princess’s father came to visit, so that she and the princess could make out when the clueless king was gone. It felt wrong, dangerous, impishly perverse—but so, so right, too.
I’ll never really know what my life would have been like if I’d been allowed to experience my teenage years as the girl I always wanted people to accept me as.
I came out, finally, in my mid-twenties in America, where I’ve remained since, missing my old home but grateful for the chance to have others see me the way I did for so long. But I’ve always felt conflicted about my teenage years. I never got to live, openly, as the teenage girl I fantasized about being at the time; all my teenage “firsts” were in the ugly costume of a boy. I got to go to prom after secondary school was over in a hotel by a dark river, where I had my first real dance with a date, but I hate remembering it, because I wanted, desperately, to wear a dress and corsage and pose with the other girls for awkward, grinning photos, but had to pretend, instead, to be happy in my guise of a boy in a baggy suit. I had my first kisses and first girlfriends and angst-ridden breakups, but a part of the angst was that those girlfriends never got to see me the way I wanted them to. I’ll never get those years back—and, sometimes, thinking about that hurts.
Transitioning as an adult is sometimes likened to a second puberty—if you’re a trans woman, like me, you may get to feel the growing pains of your breasts forming, you get aches and hot flashes when your hormone levels fall out of whack, you experience so many mundane things for the first time—and it is, in the weird wonderful way that you get to “redo” many aspects of your life now that you’re living, officially, as your truest self. But there are limits to this analogy. I’ll never really get to know what my life would have been like if I’d been allowed to experience my teenage years as the girl I always wanted people to accept me as.
Of course, if I had, I wouldn’t be the version of me I am today; my fears, uncertainties, and yearning shaped me in too many ways for me to truly be able to picture what my life might have been like, had I been accepted as Gabrielle back then; ironically, I wouldn’t be me today if I had been me back then, a mystery as inexplicable as Borges’s book of sand, which a reader may never turn to the same page twice.
But I still wonder, so often. I’m still drawn today to stories about teenage girls’ lives, real or fantastical, and I know that—aside from them just being fun—a part of it is trying to glimpse moments of a world I never fully got to walk in. I’ve made peace with who and where I am, for the most part, but, sometimes, on bad nights, I relive the pain of the youth I did have, remembering how often, in my confused agony, I imagined not international capers but killing myself, instead; and how I nearly did as an adult when I decided I couldn’t live in the closet any longer. This version of me is one I try to forget, yet it follows me like a shadow.
“If we’re not careful,” Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager from Jersey City, muses one fateful night as she plummets into the Hudson River, “the worst version of ourselves can kill us.”
Her words are disquietingly apt both for the moment—she has been facing an alien nanotech suit that looks, unsettlingly, like a negative image of her—and for her life more broadly, for Kamala Khan is also (to those in the know) the famed, shape-shifting savior of New Jersey, Ms. Marvel, whose foes are as often flesh-and-bone villains as her own inner fears. To win these battles, she has learnt, you not only have to stop the threat; you have to make sure you don’t become a threat to yourself, as well, have to make sure the maelstrom whipping around in you is calm enough to get through another day without pulling you under.
This is what I’ve always loved about Kamala Khan’s celebrated tenure as Ms. Marvel, a storied mantle first given to Carol Danvers in 1977 (before Danvers took her now-current title of Captain Marvel). The series—which debuted in comic form in 2014 and will be adapted into a series on Disney+ later this year—manages to make the well-trod story of a hero-in-hiding feel not only fresh, but politically and representationally urgent. Many superheroes struggle with who they are and how to balance their day-to-day life with their simultaneously secret-yet-more-public lives as defenders of the world, but even so, Kamala Khan feels special to me, on the one hand viscerally real in her awkward brown teenage-girldom, and a formidable fighter in her own right on the other.
You never forget, though, even in her most epic moments of comic-book badassery, that she’s a teenager still in search of all the things teens search for: where you fit in, who you’ll be, who you’ll be with, the trajectory of your life. Her lives as Kamala Khan and Ms. Marvel overlap: she dances out of the way of an Asgardian enemy’s blows at a school dance she hoped to be asked out to; she thinks she’s found her dream-boyfriend, an Asian American like her who gets her references and ensorcels her with his film-star cuteness, until she realizes he’s working for an organization hellbent on destruction; she fangirls with wide eyes over Spider-Man and recites how often he’s used certain attacks while battling alongside him; she sneaks out to combat crime while grounded by her parents. She is both teen and titan, and I love it. I connect with her unashamed geekiness, her unending awkwardness, her quest to find her footing in a world that does not always embrace people who look like her.
Kamala Khan is both teen and titan, and I love it.
She’s become my favorite character in comics today, exceeding all my expectations—and defying my fears that a poor series would only offer ammunition to conservative comic fans who decry the appearance of nonwhite characters like her. When the series was first announced, admittedly, I was both hyped and a little horrified, because the very things that excited me—the new bearer of the title Ms. Marvel being a brown Muslim girl of Pakistani descent—were also immediately the targets of racist, Islamophobic vitriol across social media, with bigoted memes, tweets, and videos appearing swiftly under any mention of Kamala Khan. And, from the first issues onwards, the series’ stellar initial writer, G. Willow Wilson, made Kamala’s Islamic connections core to her character, even if she isn’t particularly devout: the top of her outfit is a burkini Kamala paints a lightning bolt on, her brother Aamir is an at-times comically stick-in-the-mud follower of the faith, and she goes to the local Islamic center with her Turkish bestie, Nadia, who, unlike Kamala, always wears a hijab. She calls her parents Abu and Ammi in Arabic, rather than Dadand Mom. Wilson knew that a character like this, even one as complex yet broadly relatable as Kamala Khan, would subject the comic to extreme Islamophobic vitriol, but she went ahead, anyway.
Her persistence both gladdened and scared me. The sad truth is that so many brown female readers like me have become accustomed to both the venomous tirades and the toxic expectations that come with diverse representation in comic books, whereby nonwhite characters, women most of all, are torn down for the smallest perceived errors or narrative flops. These works are judged at extreme, anxiety-inducing standards. Make a mistake, and diverse representation itself gets blamed, even if the same “mistake” has marred any number of white male superheroes’ tales for decades. It’s a stressful cycle—almost Wagnerian in its dramatic scope—of hope and fear for readers and writers alike.
It would have been so easy for Ms. Marvel to flop, under the world-weight of all of this pressure and prejudice. But it didn’t. From the start, Ms. Marvel established itself as a deeply humane, smart, funny, and addictive comic world, creating a character whose identities—brown Jersey teenage girl, loose Muslim in a strict family—felt believable. She fights villains as much as she fights racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, transforming her into a believable symbol of social justice, not in a schlocky, sermonizing way, but in a way that just reflects the complex world—alternative versions of Jersey and NYC—she exists in. While her enemies endanger the world on multiple occasions, Ms. Marvel’s battles are almost always as internal as they are external, as much about literal kicks and punches as they are about the insecurities, trauma, and tragedy that Kamala is struggling with. Her antagonists play on issues often directly related to her: Hydra, that emblematic organization of comic-book evil, takes the form of a xenophobic crusade to gentrify a neighborhood that is also literally turning the residents into mind-controlled minions; another adversary is a literal online troll, who “hacks” into strangers’ bodies to take them over and fight Ms. Marvel.
Her slow growth into a superheroine feels natural; she takes a long time to feel “ready” to be Ms. Marvel, even if she’s thrust into the thick of things almost immediately. I’ve read through every one of her main comics and most of her side appearances because her character—first geeky and unsure of herself, then geeky but confident—is one of the most compelling I’ve seen in recent comics.
I am still quietly amazed, sometimes, that she exists.
What is the language for a past you never had?
I think of how Kamala Khan, in a sense, loses her teenagerdom when she decides to embrace her identity as Ms. Marvel. The version of her we first meet, who vaguely wanted the popular kids to like her and thought her life under her parents’ roof was doomed to be dull, fades; it becomes harder and harder to detach Ms. Marvel from Kamala Khan, until it is impossible to see that old, more naïve Kamala Khan anymore, replaced, slowly, by someone who has learnt startling things: how it feels to really get hurt, how it feels to save a life, how it feels to nearly kill someone, how it feels to grieve. She has grown up, even if she is still a teen.
There is something indescribable about who we might have been, had our lives been different; the question seems easy, at first, but it quickly becomes unanswerable. If, as the meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously declared, the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can, over time, conjure up a tornado a world away, charting who we would be if anything in our past had shifted, no matter how small, feels futile, like trying to hold sand without spilling a grain.
I think, now, of how to essay means to attempt, and how an essay, then, becomes an attempt at saying, an attempt at holding something. When I read Ms. Marvel, though it doesn’t take the form of an essay, I encounter a similar impulse: one teenager’s attempts to hold a world in each hand, hoping, against all odds, that neither falls.
The night Kamala Khan becomes Ms. Marvel is a night of attempts. One night over dinner, she mentions a party she wants to go to—all the cool kids will be there—and her parents, predictably, tell her she’s instead to do her homework and not leave her room. Of course, she sneaks out her window and heads to the party, attempting to gain points with the cool kids without her parents being the wiser. But the so-called cool kids are mean, asking asinine anti-Muslim questions about women being “locked up” and dismissively saying she smells “like curry.” Even Bruno, her best friend who works at a bodega, treats her like a damsel in distress, attempting to get her to return home. Angered and hurt, she turns her back on Bruno and the party and begins walking home.
Then, ominous and oneiric as some soundscape by Ligeti, a great grey mist floods the streets of Jersey. Lost in the twin fogs of her existential uncertainty and this literal mist, Kamala collapses; when she comes to, she sees the Avengers dancing towards her on pink clouds as if in some Bollywood flick. They are “Faith,” Captain Marvel tells her, and Kamala is at a “crossroads”: to continue her boring, cloistered existence, or to take a leap of faith and be that heroine she’s dreamt of. She chooses the latter, still not entirely sure she isn’t just drunk, and Captain Marvel leaves her with a warning that things won’t go the way she thinks.
The sad truth is that so many brown female readers like me have become accustomed to the venomous tirades and toxic expectations that come with diverse representation in comic books.
When Kamala comes to, she’s become the original Ms. Marvel, sort of, sporting long blonde tresses and wearing Carol Danvers’s original outfit. Most notably, she has gained “polymorph powers,” which allow her to shift her proportions and appearance at will. Soon, she learns to retain her own appearance when she activates her abilities, as well as to elongate and “embiggen” her limbs at will, and, as she gets bigger, she becomes stronger. If Beowulf of the eponymous epic famously claims to have the strength of thirty men in each fist, Ms. Marvel can make a single fist far larger than the Danish hero in seconds.
Like Alice, Ms. Marvel shrinks or grows with Wonderland suddenness; unlike Alice, however, she learns to control these seismic shifts of her body at will. She is both Brobdingnag and Lilliput, there-and-not as Schrodinger’s cat, not simply Marvel but a marvel. The Cuban novelist and critic Alejo Carpentier famously argued that Latin America was a world in which baroque, larger-than-life events and occurrences were simply a part of everyday reality, coining the term lo real maravilloso americano, or the American marvelous real, to capture this sensibility that is best known outside Latin America as the literary genre of magical realism; applied to the Americas more broadly, a character like Kamala Khan, who is at once profoundly real and yet can change form at will is a living embodiment of the marvelous and the real coexisting.
Because of this hybridity, Ms. Marvel also ends up being a remarkable symbol of the chaos of life as a teenager. If puberty signifies the corporeal unexpected—unceremonious growths, an awareness like never before that one indeed has a distinct body—then the teenage Ms. Marvel is a curiously apt metaphor, showcasing the way that our bodies’ changes are painful and awkward at first, but can become beautiful things we learn to accept and even love later on. “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,” Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses famously begins; Kamala Khan is metamorphosis personified.
She’s also inescapably awkward, and her abilities as Ms. Marvel curiously seem to amplify this—except, now, it has become an icon of power. In a moment, she becomes ganglier than any tall geek; in other moments, her body parts inflate or distend to proportions that can’t help but disrupt the aesthetic flow we expect in an otherwise mundane metropolitan background, and what is unabashed geekdom, if not a disrupting of a simplistic societal structure that privileges fitting in with sticking out?
She is the literal embodiment of defiance: defying the laws of physics; defying the societal codes that tell her to be a quiet, obedient girl; defying the one thing that would let her have something shaped like a normal life, which is to just stop being a hero, because she refuses to. And, as painful as losing one version of a life can be, there is something incredible, too, in refashioning it not as loss, but as something gained.
Giving up one life, sometimes, is the only way to really keep on living.
If transitioning after your teenage years is akin to redoing them (but only somewhat), the other sad truth is that the world doesn’t wait for you to catch back up to it, with this new, special timestream you’ve waded into; the people around you remain the same.
When I was actually a teenager, my father was diabetic, but he was still capable of walking and going with me and my mum on long trips. Now, as an adult, he can barely walk without a cane, his mobility ravaged by an abscess on his foot that nearly killed him and a clogged heart that tried just as hard. Once, years ago, a hurricane also nearly took his life; he and my mother only survived its cyclopean fury, its raging arms of wind, by hiding in a closet, and he had to be medevaced, later, to another island, then to the United States, for medical treatment. Over and over, he has looked into Death’s deep-sea eyes and, somehow, been able to look away and keep going. His face seems gaunter each time I see him, though his eyes still have some of their old twinkle; he tries to call me by my new name, but sometimes forgets and calls me another. I worry about him so often, especially during this pandemic, wondering how long he can look away from those fatal eyes.
So I appreciated Ms. Marvel’s surprising, somewhat recent arc about the fear of losing a father, where Kamala Khan faces a foe she never expected, the one she can’t punch away: the specter of her father dying. He has been struggling with a debilitating disease doctors can do little to cure; unbeknownst to them, his disease is both medical and magical in nature. The only doctor, indeed, who has any chance of alleviating his agony is Doctor Strange, who offers, as part of a favor from Tony Stark to Kamala, to operate on her father using a new, rare technique that just might save his life. Kamala leaps at the idea; she has been grieving at the thought of losing her Abu for so long that she had almost lost hope. But she is also Ms. Marvel in a city filled with murderous megalomaniacs, and so, though she just wants to sit in the hospital waiting room with her family while Strange operates, she is wrenched away from her family when a homicidal maniac named Hyde begins rampaging through the wards. Once you’ve committed to saving lives, you can’t really ever take a day off.
As painful as losing one version of a life can be, there is something incredible, too, in refashioning it not as loss, but as something gained.
Hyde is overwhelmingly strong, and Ms. Marvel only manages to defeat him through the help of her new, enhanced Kree nanotech suit—a suit that, she suddenly realizes, has been programmed to help its wearer not simply stop but kill its opponents. She tries to break free of the suit, then finds herself facing, with cruel aptness, a dark shadow of herself, because it is her very identity she has been fighting all along, the girl who wishes to protect Jersey from danger but whose job is such that she cannot even be at her father’s side in what may be his final moments.
And, of course, she is also facing a frightening, devilish version of what she could be, if she accepted the suit’s help: Kamala the killer. She refuses, and consequently, loses the power this new suit conferred, but gains, in turn, a newfound sense of self-respect, because she knows, now, a line she will not willingly cross. When she returns to the hospital, finally, she learns that Strange’s intervention has been successful, prolonging her father’s life—but he needed some of her blood to complete the procedure, and because she was fighting to protect the city far from the hospital, she got there late, and her father suffers some permanent physical damage as a result. And though Strange has prevented her father from dying too soon, Kamala still can’t fail to associate him with death. When we come close to losing the ones we love, how can we fail to picture their grave, as much as we try not to, when we think of them again?
Still, armed with newfound optimism, Kamala is able to smile with her father again, even if she knows there will come a time when he will not be able to smile back. Amidst all the alien tech and frenzied mutants, here is a moment startlingly tender and real.
And this, ultimately, is why I love Ms. Marvel so much. I’ll never get to have either the regular or superheroine versions of a teenage life like hers; I only have the teenage years I did live, which, for better or worse, led to me. But when I read Ms. Marvel, its emotional power hits me both as someone yearning for those lost years and as an adult dealing with the present. It reminds me that failure, sometimes, is okay, because not even superheroes can defeat that. It reminds me to hold the ones I love closer in the version of a life I do have, as long as I get to walk it.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.