Tenaya Izu’s graphic novel Space Monkey narrates a world where subjects are incarcerated, forced to labor, and subject to medical experiments without full knowledge. The fictional “Spongle Inc.” is trying to create a utopian society — one where so-called overpopulation and inequality will cease to exist — but in order to build it, it needs laborers. Specifically prison laborers.
It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Space Monkey offers allegory to systems that in the U.S., primarily target Black and Latinx populations, as well as commentary on the state of incarceration, labor, and reproductive laws in China as well (many of the prison laborers were arrested for violating the “one-child-per-couple” law in the novel).
The version below is a sketch of what Tenaya will develop on later. Read on for our interview with Tenaya, where she talks about capitalism, neo-imperialism, and why she thinks being a “good person” is where we begin to create new, anti-oppressive utopias.
(Space Monkey is also viewable on Tenaya’s personal website.)
As[I]Am: Hi Tenaya! Please introduce yourself to As[I]Am’s readers. What are you about? Where is home? What identities resurface as you go through life and continue to make art?
Tenaya: I am about dreaming and trying to make dreams mesh with happening, trying to understand the fantasy interwoven in lived narratives.
Fantasy and desire keep resurfacing in both life and what I produce; some sense of longing for more keeps me moving and searching geographically, psychically, and artistically. I am always asking, “why am I here, who am I here, what am I doing here, why am I doing what I’m doing here?”
I’ve been wondering a lot about what home is. I am positive my home is the Bay Area, and that it will always be home, but New York City is now my home too, to a lesser extent.
As[I]Am: There’s so much allegory in Space Monkey: you have “FoxTron Laboratories,” a stand-in for FoxConn, which turns these prisoners and laborers into monkeys without complete prior knowledge; there’s “Silicon Valley,” which is self-explanatory. Could you explain some of the histories and current realities your graphic novel references? It seems like you talk about the history of forced medical experimentation, forced prison labor, and global capitalism, to name a few. Could you give us a brief overview of why those are important issues to discuss today?
Tenaya: People are and always have been cruel to each other. However, acts of systemic cruelty are often erased or ignored when enacted on people of color, especially on the lower class, or when they make life easier and more convenient for those not directly affected by them, particularly when convenience and luxury are produced in areas that people who benefit don’t see (out of sight out of mind). Certain bodies become disposable, becoming means to ends that overshadow the people who suffer for that result. People become dehumanized labor to produce capital goods, services, profit, and ease for everyone else. Like the system that produces prison populations and free labor through selective law enforcement; like medical experiments made without consent on POC bodies and without credit or recompense when discoveries become breakthrough-lucrative; like how neo-imperialist practices and policies are overshadowed by billionaire aid work, nonprofits, and feel good “buy these shoes and we’ll donate them// build a school for poor brown children if you buy this organic tea// help build a house here though you’ve never held a hammer before” etc campaigns to uplift the third world. And where our Apple products, our Kindles, our smartphones, our every things, come from. This is important to discuss because capitalism makes life easy for us and somewhere along the line many people get fucked over for it. Capitalism rules the world I know and terrifyingly, I can’t imagine a feasible world without it (without some form of apocalypse).
As[I]Am: You say in an essay you wrote in tandem with Space Monkey that capitalism and white supremacy “are so entrenched in global human social fabric that I cannot imagine the possibility of rebirth, renewal, or a severance from those steel threads of capital and domination.” And you also say later that “we can little by little manifest the fantastical type of liberation that can currently only happen in myth, in fiction.” As always, there’s an internal struggle between properly recognizing how systems of power have embedded themselves and recognizing our capability to undermine and change them. And yet there’s the danger that we create newly oppressive structures under the guide of chasing utopia — one of the characters sells the mass incarceration and forced labor of the monkeys as “the building of a new utopia” after all.
Could you elaborate more on these ideas, and what role your and others’ art-making serves to imagine our selves outside of oppression?
Tenaya: The formation of a society that I can imagine that is just, anti-oppressive, etc, can’t really happen in the kind of world order that currently exists, and would basically require a complete leveling of our infrastructure to get along on its way. It’s really overwhelming to try to think about/deal with/realize the feasibility of changing things, plus negotiating that with other pursuits and passions that maybe don’t involve overturning the world order. I think, at least for me, the most basic level of working towards these mythical utopias can be started by being a good person. Not a good person whose common goal “requires” people to be disposable or usable for an end, but a person who is critical of their place and personhood in relation to others and the world, and who is above all compassionate.
TENAYA LEE IZU is an artist from Oakland, California, but now lives in New York City where she just graduated from Columbia University. Tenaya spends a lot of time thinking about all the weird things human beings do with their time on earth.