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By Tim Leong
The National Book Award is the highest honor given to American literature. In the long history of the awards no graphic novel or serialized comic has ever been nomiated for a prize. Until now. Gene Yang’s graphic novel, “American Born Chinese” is up for the award in the Young People’s Literature category. A win would cement “ABC” among the ranks with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize for his book “Maus.” With the awards just a few weeks away, Comic Foundry spoke with Yang about the nomination and life since “American Born Chinese.”
The book came out a couple of months ago to critical acclaim and you recently received a nomination for the National Book Award. Has it all sunk in?
It’s still crazy. I don’t think it’ll ever completely sink in.
What were your expectations when the book came out?
I was hoping to get good reviews and get people to buy the book, so I could justify trying to get my publisher to sign me up for another one. Being in the comic book industry, I’ve always thought about comic book industry awards. It never occurred to me to think about how the book industry would react.
Have you thought about what would happen if you won?
I don’t think I’m going to win.
I think it’s already so crazy that they nominated a graphic novel. If they actually gave it to a graphic novel … I don’t know. My brain would melt. Honestly, I really do feel like getting the nomination, I feel like I won already. It was completely unexpected.
How has your family reacted?
A Chinese-language newspaper did a profile on me the day after the nominees were announced. After that my parents started getting calls from all these people that they haven’t heard from in years about the article they read. It was featured pretty prominently in the newspaper. My dad got so excited he said he couldn’t sleep for three days.
This is the first time a graphic novel has been nominated. Do you feel like you’re representing the comics industry?
I feel like I’m standing on other people’s shoulders. There have been mountains of comics literature — real graphic novels that are worthy of the term literature that have been coming out for the past 10 years. More than 10 years — when Maus came out. I think Maus really set the bar pretty high. And people started having a place to go. There was suddenly a category for comics as literature and they started going for it. The generation before us, and our generation, have really seen the example of Maus and really gone for it. I kinda think that in a lot of ways I just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It’s kinda our time as a medium — as a group of creators.
Well what do you think the broader implications of the nomination are for the industry?
Well, I think it’s part of a trend that I’ve seen over the past few years of academia and the general public really seeing graphic novels in a different light. I think it’s sort of a revolution that people have been working for so long — since the ’60s. Even longer — Will Eisner was trying to do it since the ’40s. All this hard work that people have put is finally starting to bear fruit.
I’m a high school teacher, and I’ve been invited to talk to audiences of teachers and librarians at a couple conferences. Their attitudes are completely different than what you read about in the ’40s and ’60s. At best, librarians see comics as literature. At worst, they see it as an avenue to literature. So either case is positive.
Kind of like this culmination — what do you think it was about your book?
Part of it was that it came from a book publisher. I was lucky enough to get hooked up with First Second. And, First Second is an imprint of Holtzbrinck, which is this giant multi-national book corporation. The staff at Holtzbrinck and the staff at First Second are pretty connected in the book world. I think a lot of the graphic novels that have come out in the past two to five years have come out for top-notch comic book publishers, but they don’t have the same type of connections they do there. That’s part of it.
Another part is the length. I think my graphic novel is probably on the longer side. It’s not Blankets and it’s not Cerebus, but I think nowadays, the graphic novel seems to average around 100 pages and mine is double that. It feels more like a novel.
How did your parents respond when the book came out?
First Second decided to do collector’s editions, which were hardcover versions of a book. And they chose mine as one of them. So they sent me a bunch of the hard copies and I gave a copy to my parents. When they received it and saw my work in hardcover, that’s when my dad turned around. My mom always had an artistic side and was always supportive. My dad is more practical and wanted me to have a more practical job. When I gave him the hardcover he was really impressed and a month later I had my birthday and he wrote me this card about how I’ve finally arrived and that all the choices I made earlier that he didn’t agree with were finally bearing fruit.
Do you think having this book and writing out your experiences will affect the way you raise your son — or at least make you more cognizant of experiences and environment as he grows?
I think so. I went to UC Berkeley. And at Berkeley, there’s a really huge emphasis on cultural identity, so I’ve been thinking about these types of issues since graduating from there. Or even while I was a student there. And as a result I’ve really thought about how I want my own kid to grow up and what experiences I want him to have. I think it’s really important for people, especially in the modern world, to have minority experience and a majority experience. I think having those two experience gives them 1 fuller picture of what people go through. I think even apart from the book that’s something I wanted for my kid. I want him to grow up in a place where there’s signifcant fusion American population. And eventually, experience what it’s like to be in the minority.
How close was the story to your own experiences?
I took intimates from m own life and mixed them with fiction. It’s not all from my life. Some of it is from friends and stories that I hear from peers — from other Asian Americans. Actually one thing that I took from a couple friends was in the very first chapter that is focused on Jin Wang, the young Chinese boy. He has a friend named Peter Garbinsky, who is a couple of years older than him and kinda abuses him. I noticed that for a lot of my friends, especially if they’re immigrants. I noticed a lot of weird white friends who weren’t really able to get other friends besides the immigrants.
Some of the racist that comes out of the character Timmy’s mouth actually comes from a group of students from junior high that we nicknamed the Stoners — the bad kids. And whenever we’d pass these Stoners in the hall they’d always yell these crude and racist things at us. I think that really affected me when I was young and I really wanted a character that embodied that.
Do people contact you to share their experiences?
I’ve had people come and tell me that there were some truths to it and that it resonated with them. Which is good.
Who did you intend your audience to be?
I was hoping that Asian Americans were in there, obviously. Anyone from sixth grade to early 30s. And then beyond that, hyphen Americans or anyone else that feels like they have a connect. Which is probably most of the world.
So you really did write aiming for an Asian audience.
As the core audience, yeah.
The NBA is giving it a lot of prominence, opening the book to a wider audience. How differently will the book be interpreted?
Race relations are definitely in the top three issues in America these days. Everybody is aware of it — it affects everybody. Even in the Midwest it’s monoethnic communities. Race relations with all the stuff going on with Iraq, the borders, all the security checks and racial profiling — it’s on everybody’s mind. Because of that, I’m hoping my book can be part of that conversation. Even for a non-Asian, anyone who’s an immigrant, no matter of their skin color has dealt with stereotypes, has dealt with the tension between their parents culture and the culture they find themselves surrounded by.
With in that and opening up to a broader, non-Asian audience, do you worry that the Chin-Kee character might perpetuate Asian stereotypes?
I was a little worried about that. I guess I still am. My primary purpose with the Chin-Kee character was to tie him with things that are happening today. I wanted to take something that was very extreme and also that a lot about him (seems to be outdated). I wanted to tie it in with things that are happening today.
Even though the things today don’t seem as outrageous or abrasive as Chin-Kee, underneath they’re just as destructive. A couple of modern examples – one is a political cartoonist by the name of Pat Oliphant. And it makes some references to him, but I don’t know if anyone would get them unless they had a Pat Oliphant cartoon right in front of them. I made a couple of references to a cartoon he did during the Chinese spy plane crisis of 2001. It was horribly, horribly racist and I couldn’t believe that it was posted on all these national newspapers and nobody called him on it before they printed it.
Then a couple of other things are: I personally question the reason behind William Hung’s popularity. I think there’s something racist about it. Nothing against him as a person, but as William Hung the phenomenon, I think a lot of it comes from the fact that he’s this Asian Americana guy and in his performance, a lot of his characteristics coincide with the most negative Asian stereotypes you can think of. Then here’s this kid who is Asian that exhibits a lot of the typical Asian American behaviors trying to be the American Idol. That’s what makes it so funny. And what bothers me is that he’s probably the most famous Asian American male out there right now.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel with a friend of mine named Thien Pham, who does a strip called “I Like Eating.” We’re doing a graphic novel called “Three Angels” and it’s kinda based on my brother’s experience as a medical student. We’re trying to explore the tension between destiny and personal passion. The story is that these angels come and ask this video game addict to become a medical student. So he’s torn between this calling for medicine and his personal passion for video games. That will be out for First Second in 2008.
What was your process for American Born Chinese?
I thought about it for a really long time and then I wrote an outline for the entire book. Then I scripted the chapters. For some chapters I went straight to thumbnail sketches and for other chapters I would actually write it out and write out a script that looked like a movie script. It would basically break down the pages panel-by-panel. Then when I decided what I wanted to do with the text or the thumbnails was I looked at the content of the chapter. If it was more action-oriented I’d go straight to the thumbnails. If it was more dialogue-heavy, I’d do the script first.
What have you taken from that you can now apply to “Three Angels”?
One thing from that was the first time that I did an outline of the whole book before I started on it. So it was really, really helpful and I’m doing that for everything that I do from now on. Beyond that, I think I did learn a lot about story structure. With American Born Chinese I think I w as kinda flying by the seat of my pants and trying things that felt right to me without understanding why they felt right. And since then I’ve had to read more about story structure and how other writers and comic book creators’ structure their stories. And now I have a more intellectual knowledge of what I’m trying to do.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in creating American Born Chinese?
On a personal level it has gotten me to think a lot more deeply for what it means to be an Asian American. From a creator’s standpoint, I’ve really learned the importance of having friends that could give me good feedback.
What are you hoping ABC teaches the readers?
The main thing I want is for people to think more about who they are and how their identity is formed. What it means to choose something and what it means to be stuck with it and that tension.