An Interview with Gene Yang

Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese has taken the world of Graphic Novels by storm.  A finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Printz award, American Born Chinese emerged triumphant as the winner of the 2006 Cybil for Graphic Novels (ages 13 and up) as well. 

Americanbornchinese Laura Atkins, of Tockla’s World of Children’s Literature, interviewed Gene Yang about his book and its success.

Laura: Can you tell a bit about how you became a comic book creator? Were you an avid reader growing up? Any particular influences?

Gene: I’ve been crafting stories and drawing for as long as I can remember. When I was in grade school, I planned to become a Disney animator when I grew up. Then in the fifth grade I came across my first comic book. I fell in love immediately. All through high school, I debated between animation and comics. Finally, a college animation course convinced me that comics was it. I realized that it’s almost impossible for a single person to tell a long, involved story in animation. Comics is really the only visual medium that can give one creator control over everything. As for my influences, I can give you a list as long as my arm. I admire the works of Osamu Tezuka, Will Eisner, Jeff Smith, Jay Stephens, Chester Brown, Carl Barks, Don Rosa, Lynda Barry…I could go on forever.

I’m also very influenced by my own little crew of Bay Area cartoonists: Derek Kirk Kim, Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, Jesse Hamm, Jesse Reklaw, Thien Pham, Andy Hartzel. There are just so many amazing cartoonists out there. Outside of comics, I admire Shusaku Endo, Richard Wright, C.S. Lewis and Hayao Miyazake.

Laura: What do you feel the graphic novel format offers that is perhaps different from illustrated books (such as picture books), or using just a prose narrative? Are there any particular strengths or weaknesses of the format that you find when creating your own books?

Gene: In both prose and picture books, the words almost always carry the narrative. With the graphic novel, the visuals get a chance to step up and share in the heavy lifting. As a result, there are all sorts of visceral, immediate effects that a comics creator can employ. And because prose is a vital part of the comics medium, we don’t have to give up the intimacy of prose to achieve these effects. The comics medium has its weaknesses, too. Surprise, for instance, is difficult to manage in comics. Because past, present, and future all sit on the same page, the reader can inadvertently "peak" into the future by seeing the next panel in her peripheral vision. A common solution to this is saving surprises for the page flip, but there are others.

Laura: What brought you to create American Born Chinese?

Gene: My first two graphic novels featured Asian-American protagonists, but I hadn’t dealt with issue of ethnic identity head-on. My ethnicity makes up a huge part of my identity. As an adult, I can see that it colored practically every childhood experience. I thought I could learn a lot about my place in the world by taking on a project like American Born Chinese.

Laura: Are there books that aren’t graphic novels or comics which particularly influenced American Born Chinese?

Gene: In high school, I wrote my senior paper on Richard Wright. Black Boy was one of the most compelling books on our high school reading list. Wright fills his memoir with keen observation and bits of urban legend. In a college drama lit class I was introduced to the plays of David Henry Hwang. That was my first encounter with Asian-American literature.

Laura: I recently read in a Comics Weekly from PW that a bookstore thinks  your book could be shelved in memoir (as well as other sections). Of the three strands portrayed in the book, there is one that feels like it could be based on your experiences growing up. But combined with the section focusing on the Monkey King tale and the section featuring the uber-stereotypical characterization Chin-Kee, this is clearly a creative/fictionalized telling. Do you see this book as a memoir of  sorts? And what was your thinking about interspersing these three different narratives strands?

Gene: I think of American Born Chinese as fiction with autobiography sprinkled in. Parts of the Jin storyline are lifted directly from my junior high experiences. Much of the dialog of the Timmy character, for instance, came from a group of kids that used to torment me and my Asian-American friends. The three strands started off as ideas for three separate stories. Somewhere along the way, I decided to try to bring them together, almost as an intellectual exercise. They’re thematically connected, but I wanted connect them in a more concrete way.

Laura: You’ve achieved amazing critical success with this book–being the first graphic novel shortlisted for the National Book Award and the first to win the Michael L. Printz Award. How has it been to get this kind of recognition, especially since comic artists are usually unsung? Has it affected your work now?

Gene: The response from the literary world has been absolutely unbelievable. As a comic book creator, I dreamed of getting an Eisner or a Harvey (two comics industry awards). The National Book Award, the Printz Award, and the Cybils Award didn’t even seem like possibilities. They’re unexpected blessings. I hope it doesn’t go to my head, but it’s hard for me to tell. I’m just not that self-aware. But I guess that’s what my wife is for. She helps me stay humble. The other day, I asked her to read over a script. When she was finished, she looked me in the eye and said, "I hope you’re not expecting another National Book Award nomination for this."

Laura: Being Chinese American is clearly at the center of this book (even the title gives that away), and the book depicts some disturbing stereotypes and difficulties faced by the Chinese American  characters. Did you see this as being set during your own childhood? And if so, do you think things have changed (particularly since you  are a high school teacher now)?

Gene: Awkwardness during adolescence is not uniquely Asian-American. However, I do think Asian-Americans, and minorities in general, have one more layer added onto their experience. And really, it just takes a handful of kids to color everything. After just a few encounters with racism, I began wondering if all whites thought the same way about us, but most of them were simply too polite to say anything. I approached every relationship with a white person with an extra measure of caution.

Laura: What are you working on now (if you don’t mind telling…)?

Gene: My next project is a collaboration with fellow Bay Area cartoonist Thien Pham. We’re doing a graphic novel called Three Angels, which was initially inspired by my brother’s experiences as a medical student at UCSF. It’s due out from First Second in Spring 2008.