Self-Inflicted Paper Cuts

Robert Ito, Asian Week

May 11 – 17, 2001

Autobiographies are, by nature, self-indulgent. Write one before your fortieth birthday as Kip Fulbeck has done with his first book, Paper Bullets, and expect people to question your motives, if not the size of your ego.

Not that Fulbeck, an award-winning videomaker, performance artist, UCSB professor and professional lifeguard, doesn’t have plenty of life stories to write about, whatever the literary genre. But an autobiography? Seems borderline diva, at best.

Paper Bullets, the fifth installment in the Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies from the University of Washington Press, does feature Fulbeck as its lead character and driving force, but any expectations that the book will be an exercise in self-love quickly evaporate within its first few chapters.

If anything, the author seems to revel in dredging up the most unflattering and painful memories from his past.

Some examples: Fulbeck watched a man drown, without offering assistance, in the surf off the coast of Japan. In high school, a fourteen-year-old girlfriend drove him to uncontrollable fits of crying. As a lifeguard, he and his pals devised a system of judging women’s bodies just by looking at their butts. He’s a vegetarian who goes spear-fishing, and he once ran over a dog.

And in grade school, he hurled a dodge ball missile right in the face of an Asian American classmate, Brendan Yang, leaving him with two parallel welts right where the ball connected with the boy’s coke-bottle glasses.

Cold-blooded? Sure. But Fulbeck has an explanation for the dodge ball incident. “In grade school, I was Brendan Yang,” he says with a laugh. “That was me.”

This particular revelation explains a lot about Fulbeck, and goes a long way in revealing just how the book manipulates supposedly real-life characters and events. Subtitled “a fictional autobiography,” the book’s fluid take on reality allows Fulbeck to get to the real meat of his stories without the constraints of having to adhere to the literal truth—a truth which, according to the author, doesn’t really even exist.

“We create our own fictions, especially when we talk about our own lives,” says Fulbeck. “I figure since I’m doing that anyway, why not take what I have from my life and from other people’s lives and use them to deal with the issues I want to deal with—hapa identity, Asian American masculinity, gender politics—and feed them into a character which I know pretty well—me.”

The result is a high-speed rush of a book that jumps from Fulbeck’s years as the “what the hell are you?” hapa kid at school (for the record, he’s a mix of Cantonese, English, Irish, and Welsh), to his experiences with a pathological former girlfriend who fakes bouts of cancer and leukemia.

The author’s keen visual sense and concise narrative form probably stem from his years as a video artist. Fulbeck has produced and directed 12 short videos, many of them dealing with the Asian American experience and peppered with film references and assorted pop cultural flotsam, from Bruce Lee classics to Wayne’s World.

Anyone who has seen one of Fulbeck’s kinetic, multi-narrative pieces will have an idea of what to expect here: he sucks you in with the pop and flash, but then leaves you thinking about issues many people would rather not confront.

There are serious discussions about where hapas fit into the whole scheme of Asian American politics, and the often-strained ways in which men attempt to communicate with each other. Other sections deal with rice chasers and Asian fetishes, highlighted by a hilarious lovemaking scene in which a white girlfriend asks Fulbeck to “tell me you want me in Chinese.”

But Fulbeck makes it all such a captivating ride that one almost forgets how painful some of the stories and anecdotes can be. Columbia University professor Arati Rao describes it as “hapa rap.” Fulbeck’s tone is engagingly conversational from the start, and one sees why he is one of the most popular speakers on the Asian American film and literature circuit.

Not that the book doesn’t have its difficult moments, particularly with the often unlikeable nature of the book’s lead character. At times, Fulbeck puts himself into the mindset of a teenaged lifeguard, with all the youthful stupidity and raging hormones that entails.

At other times, he’s the bully that makes life miserable for the “FOB geeks” who infest his school. Because of the narrative and point of view shifts in the book, one is never clear where the real Fulbeck ends and the fictional one begins.

Of course, that’s part of the point, but Fulbeck isn’t going to pretend that the sins and shortcomings of his book’s lead character are pure fiction. “It’s not like I don’t have a lot of jerk qualities myself, especially when I was younger,” he admits.

After putting so much of himself into the book, Fulbeck found the editing process grueling. “It was hell on earth,” he says. After quibbling over such printing press ephemera as fonts and dingbats, Fulbeck had to endure six edits that left 70 percent of his manuscript on the cutting room floor. “It was like having 100 children and only enough food for 30,” he says. “It was horrible.”

As bad as the editing process became, Fulbeck figures that one of the most painful aspects of completing the book will be dealing with the critics. Along with his numerous accolades and awards, he’s definitely taken his hits in the past over his films and performance art pieces.

“A well-known Asian American filmmaker was flaming me online, saying that I only made my work because I hate my mom for dating a white man,” he says. Another Asian American filmmaker claimed that Fulbeck had no right to talk about Asian male stuff because, as a hapa, he wasn’t “really Asian.”

“That hurts the most, when it comes from within the community,” he says.

While Fulbeck awaits the critical feedback, he continues to field questions from curious friends eager to find out what parts of the book are fact or fiction (for the record, the woman who lied about having leukemia and cancer; the incident where Fulbeck couldn’t urinate in front of his girlfriend’s father; Fulbeck’s homecoming date with Laura Louie, a former classmate who is now married to actor Woody Harrelson: all true).

“I had dinner with a friend last night who knew me since high school, and he was calling every single person he knew, asking, this is so-and-so, isn’t it?” says Fulbeck. “He’s known me long enough to have a good idea what was real and what was made up.”