We Were Dreamers – An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story, by Simu Liu
I admit having a fondness for autobiographicals and memoirs written by pop culture folks I admire – Allan Cumming (Not My Father’s Son), Trevor Noah (Born a Crime), Kate Mulgrew (Born with Teeth), Carrie Fisher (The Princess Diarist) to name a few.
Add to that list We Were Dreamers – An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu, the actor I first “got to know” on the Canadian comedy series Kim’s Convenience who then wowed the world as the titular character of Marvel’s 2021 superhero film Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, part of Phase Four of the MCU.
Now, if you are like me and want to know what it was like to be the new kid on the block in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, realize that most of this book does not deal with that experience – that bit bookends the story without sinking into it. However, also like me, you’ll probably quickly come to realize that there is so many other stories for Liu to tell of his experiences prior to that point, which are so very personal and embracing, that you’ll end up not feeling the lack. Like I didn’t.
In fact, I enjoyed We Were Dreamers most when Liu was talking about the struggles his Chinese parents had before and during their move to Canada (little Simu was mostly raised by his grandparents in China until the age of four and a half), and then the gulf between them as he grew up between two worlds, as well as his struggles growing up Chinese in an Anglican environment. (He started writing this book before he got the Shang Chi gig).
Liu is not only an engaging actor, he also has a very engaging and friendly storytelling voice. Easily he paints incredibly animated and detailed images of places which, to many of us, are unfamiliar, sharing cheekily the audacities of a youthful internal dialog, not holding back on the pain vested upon him but also the pain that he, often unfairly, meted out. While reading this book, I didn’t so much feel that I was reading a memoir as listening to a friend sharing who he is and what brought him to a specific point in his life; a tale told very conversationally, with an incredible amount of wit and pop culture references, with no holds barred during the parts that were, well, pretty darned embarrassing. This keeps the earnestness – and there’s a lot of that, grounding the narrative – unattached to conceit or pandering, instead holding to a genuineness that shines, warms, and entertains.
But what also runs through the book is a sense of yearning to break down the barriers – social, cultural, generational – that rise between us, often unintentionally but staunchly held, all the same. There is a passage that jumped out at me, which comes early in the text, when Liu is giving the reader a crash coarse in Chinese history to put his parents’ efforts into context:
If you can accept that a single country can give birth to both a Donald Trump and a Donald Glover, a Steve Carrell and a Stone Cold Steve Austin, you shouldn’t have any difficulty accepting that the 1.3 billion people who call China home are just as varied in their ideologies and philosophies. There are the party officials, the pure-of-heart idealists, the Crazy Rich Asians, the activists, the social media influencers (smash that subscribe button!) the internet trolls and every conceivable thing in between – but perhaps most of all, there are the families like my parents, who simply did their best to stay out of trouble and survive from one day to the next.
Sharing this is far more important to Liu than it is to share the tabloid-y aspects of his story, although that is sensationalism indeed was most likely will bring most of us readers in. And because he shares this idealism so honestly, we are allowed to fall in love with this story as much as and perhaps more than when the narrative turns to more, shall we say, upwardly-mobile story lines. Oh, Liu knows his audience, and gives us what we came to the book thinking that we wanted, as well as gifting us with something much deeper, much more important and much more engaging – a story of a life before the spotlights focused on him, and the journey that brought him there.
Okay, excuse me while I go watch Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings again. It feels so much richer now that I had gotten glimpse into the man who carries that story, as well.
— Sharon Browning