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“If You’re Going to Fail, Just Make Sure You Fail Big”: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang

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It never hurts to be ambitious, pretension be damned. Take, for instance, Gene Luen Yang, whose ambitious desire to create a comic that dealt with issues of ethnic stereotyping and identity led him to create American Born Chinese, the 2006 graphic novel that garnered widespread acclaim, helped foster a wider appreciation for comics among the general public – especially schools and libraries – and and became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now Yang has doubled down with Boxers & Saints, a two-volume interrelated story set during the Boxer Rebellion, the violent anti-foreigner uprising that took place in China at the beginning of the 20th century. The books look at the rebellion from two different perspectives. Boxers chronicles the adventures of Bao, a young villager who (guided by supernatural forces) leads an uprising against the Europeans overrunning China. Saints, on the other hand, focuses on Christian convert Fourgirl and her own interaction with the otherworldly, as she starts receiving visions from none other than Joan of Arc.

Yang is clearly testing himself here: This is a much more challenging and, yes, ambitious book than American Born Chinese. So far it’s paid off. Boxers & Saints has generated a good deal of positive attention from the press, and has given Yang a second National Book Award nomination, no small feat.

I had the opportunity to moderate a panel with Yang and Raina Telgemeier at this year’s Small Press Expo, and was charmed by his humility and good humor. That panel in turn led to this interview which was done over the phone just a few days after B&S had made the NAB shortlist.

Mautner: Congratulations on the nomination. How does it feel to be nominated twice?

Yang: It feels crazy. The first nomination really changed my life, you know? Before that my comics were just breaking even. In the beginning of my career I was losing money every time I published something. After signing on with First Second I was breaking even, and then the National Book Award nomination let me at least go part-time on my day job, which was nice.

How did you first find out about the Boxer Rebellion?

I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church and this was the first time the Roman Catholic Church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way. My home church was super excited about it. They had a bunch of celebrations and special masses and stuff. And all those festivities inspired me to look into the lives of these saints. What I discovered was a lot of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. I had vague recollections of hearing about it in high school but I didn’t know much. And then when I read a few things I became really interested and intrigued for a whole variety of reasons.

boxer3How did that lead to making a comic about it and at what point did you realize you were going to have to make it into two books?

I think just ’cause I’m a cartoonist. I’m always looking for stories to tell through comics. Usually my comics come out of these little mini-obsessions that I go through. And I definitely got obsessed with the Boxer Rebellion for a while. I think pretty early on I had the idea of doing it as two books, because I couldn’t decide who the good guys and the bad guys were.

Did that daunt you at all? Were there any challenges or struggles you didn’t expect in having two interlocking but separate stories?

Yeah, I had to figure out where the points of connections would be between the two stories. I really tried to make both protagonists sympathetic, even though they were on opposite sides of this conflict. And I also realized pretty early on that the two stories didn’t match up perfectly, at least in terms of scope. Historically, the Boxers went on this long and epic journey. I felt in a lot of ways their story lent itself to narrative easier. And on the Chinese Christian side, a lot of their struggles were internal. They stayed in their villages or went to a neighboring village that was better defended and basically waited to die. A lot of their struggle was about doubt and their place in the world and who they were as human beings. It took me awhile to figure out how I would portray that visually. The Boxers have a much more visual story.

In some interviews you’ve compared Boxers as a kind of superhero book. I wondered if that meant that Saints was the indie, autobio book.

That’s exactly what it is. For Boxers I wanted to draw from heroic storytelling traditions like American superhero comics and like Chinese opera. For Saints, I wanted it to feel much more intimate. I wanted it to feel like an American autobio comic.

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Can you talk about how you structured each book to reflect those differences? 

Color was a big thing. I didn’t color the books. Both are colored by this cartoonist named Lark Pien. She’s amazing. She writes and draws her own comics as well.

And she’s colored all your books, correct?

She colored American Born Chinese. She didn’t color Prime Baby. That was done by Derek Kirk Kim. But she colored American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints.

She just has a wonderful sense of color. Together we figured out a color scheme for Boxers & Saints. We wanted it to be full color. We wanted it to be really bright, especially once the Chinese gods come in, just to reflect that we’re pulling from these storytelling traditions like American superhero comics. For Saints we chose to go with a more muted palette. That book is done in these greys that Lark found. They’re really muted but I think she got a lot out of them.

How much back and forth was there between the two of you? Do you give her a lot of leeway? 

I really trust her judgment. I trust her color sense much more than my own. For instance with the opera, I sent her a whole bunch of visual reference of opera costumes, and then I’d tell her generally what I’m picturing in my head. At the same time I told her we’re trying to go for something more intimate, with a limited palette. She just figured it out from there.  On the Saints side especially, the way she colored Joan, it took us awhile to arrive at that. I told her I was thinking of those European illuminated manuscripts. And she was the one that translated that one phrase into what you see on the page, where she uses the textures and the shading to bring her to life.

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Tell me about the research you did. How much did you have to do to learn about this time period?

I definitely still feel like I have a lot to learn about research. I’m not very good at it. This is the first time I’ve done historical fiction and I started by just setting aside a few hours every week, I would go to my local university library for a few hours every Tuesday or Wednesday and just read. I would try to read as much as I could get my hands on about the Boxer Rebellion and also about China during that time. There were a few books that were helpful to me. The one that was especially helpful was called Origins of the Boxer Uprising by a man named Joseph Esherick. I relied heavily on that book, especially for the Boxer side. And then I was able to get other books as well. There’s a book put out by the Catholic church in Taiwan with brief biographies of each of the canonized saints. I was able to go to a Jesuit archive in a French city and there they had these letters and photos sent in by missionaries to China. I wasn’t able to use a lot of the letters because they were in French but the visual reference was amazing. I took a whole bunch of photos and brought them home and that served as the basis of my visual references for the book.

Did you find you had to change your initial idea for the book as you researched. Was there a plot point or character that was altered because of what you learned? 

My initial idea for it was so vague. As I researched it got more and more refined. I think it was limited before I decided I was going to bring in the magical realist element. I wanted to do something magical. I wanted to introduce some sort of fantastic element but it took me awhile to figure out on both sides how to portray the Chinese gods on the Boxer side and to decide to use Joan of Arc on the same side, because historically there’s no direct connection between Joan of Arc and the Boxer Rebellion.

Yeah, I thought that was interesting. I wanted to ask you in general about your use of magical realism, because that’s something you’ve used in your books before but I found it especially interesting here, because in your previous books these elements act as a positive force and are something to be trusted, but that’s not the case in Boxers & Saints. The supernatural forces aren’t always leading the protagonists to a clear or positive direction.

I think I wanted to use magical realism to visually portray the struggle that the characters were going through. The different temptations that they might be facing.

Do you find yourself drawn to that storytelling element? 

Yeah. I just think comics is a medium that lends itself to that because it’s so visual.

saints6I thought it was interesting you chose Joan of Arc as Fourgirl’s spiritual guide in Saints, because  Joan’s struggle mirrors that of the Boxers, so you’d think she’d appear to them. And unlike, say, American Born Chinese where you’re not sure what’s real, Fourgirl is obviously having these visions because she doesn’t know who Joan of Arc is. There’s a definitiveness about her visions as opposed to Bao’s where you’re not quite sure if the people in the crowds are seeing what he’s seeing. 

With American Born Chinese I couldn’t decide whether I wanted it to be a psychological thing the main character was going through or actually that magic was entering into this world. And I tried to write that book in a way that left it up to the reader. But with this book I didn’t think about that as much. I just tried to do whatever felt right in the story, that’s how I wrote it.

I can see what you’re saying about Joan of Arc. I think one of the things in my research I felt like [those] stories missed was the experience of the luminous. In a lot of the research I did on the Chinese Christian side, they talked about the forces that drove Chinese to convert to Christianity: How, for instance, a lot were former criminals and because the Europeans had so much power with the Chinese government, a lot of times Chinese criminals would convert to Christianity to circumvent the Chinese legal system. And how a lot of the Chinese had very practical reasons for converting to this Western faith.

I’m sure that was true for a lot of the Chinese. But what they didn’t talk about was there was a certain percentage of those early Chinese Christians that had some sort of an authentic spiritual experience, some sort of experience of the luminous, of the otherworldly. If the whole reason the Chinese were converting to this new faith was simply for practical reasons, and they lost their power once they were kicked out of the country, the church should have fallen apart. It should have just disintegrated like it did in Japan a couple of centuries before that. But it didn’t. It sort of became indigenous. Even under communism Christianity still flourished underground. I think that’s because there was some sort of an authentic spiritual need that was met for a certain percentage of people in those communities. So that’s what I wanted to address with the dynamics between Joan and Fourgirl. Even though she doesn’t understand it, even though she gets into [the religion] for very practical reasons – just because she likes to eat – that towards the end there is some sort of spiritual experience that she has.

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My understanding is she’s partly at least based on someone in your family? 

Yeah. She’s based on a relative of mine who converted to Catholicism as an adult. Or inspired by, I should say. I have a relative who was born on a bad luck day according to traditional Chinese calendar. And she had a little sister that was born on a good luck day. Her grandfather really hated her because of the day she was born on. And every time the grandfather had treats, the little sister would get them, but this relative of mine would not. And then later as an adult she converted to Catholicism. She never connects that. When I talk to her she never connects these two things together but to me it seems like the connection is pretty obvious.

I wanted to ask you about your spirituality and faith and how it works in your comics, especially here. Because while there is the type of spiritual experience you talk about, it seemed at times in Boxers & Saints as though faith could be a destructive force and lead people into self-destructive paths. I’m especially thinking of the priest that appears in both books who doesn’t seem to be aware of his self-righteousness and arrogance. Were you conscious of that ambivalence and those issues?

Yeah, I think so. I’m a practicing Catholic now. Among adults who are still practicing their childhood faiths, I think I have a fairly common story. I grew up in the faith tradition, I went through a long period of doubt, but then I eventually came back to it and embraced it as an adult, but it definitely is in a different form than as I experienced it as a child.

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I think faith has always been a struggle for me. I really appreciate the value of it. I feel like it’s a deeply important part of our lives, it’s probably central to my life. At the same time, it’s a struggle. I think it’s a struggle to be part of a community with other flawed people. I think it’s also a struggle in the sense that most faith traditions are really old and in a lot of ways faith traditions can bring together the ancient and modern worlds in ways that aren’t necessarily easy.

One of the things I struggle with is that within a lot of monotheistic traditions there’s this idea that people have a calling in their lives and that you find your calling – that’s part of what it means to be a human being. You find your calling and you live it out. This is something I’ve talked with my other friends who are also religious. We talk about callings. We’ve been doing this since college. For 20 years we’ve been talking about our calling. And I think there are a couple of us that feel pretty solid that we’ve found our calling. But for me and most of us, I’d say it still feels ambiguous. We’re going through life and there are times when we feel that we’re where ought to be and that we found our place in life. And there other times where we have a lot of doubts and we go through a lot of struggles.

saints5A type of spirituality I’ve been attracted to lately is the spirituality of folks like a Dutch priest named Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton – people who emphasize the small picture over the big picture. There’s this idea that even if you’re never totally sure about how you fit in with the greater picture of the world, there are still these small, everyday instances of kindness and compassion that matter. That was driving my thinking behind [these books].

That seems to be the driving theme of the book. Certainly by the end the final sum up seems to be that personal sacrifice and compassion in the long run is a more positive thing or affects better change than the aggression and violence that Bao adopts.

I think that’s the spirituality that I’m currently attracted to: The small kindnesses within your life are important, regardless of whether you feel like you’ve figured out the big picture or not.

Do you worry about proselytizing or evangelizing in your comics?

Absolutely. When I was in college this was something that I really struggled with. College was when I thought through the big picture questions, like most of us. I thought about faith. I thought about whether or not I wanted to stay in the faith tradition that I was raised in. I was also taking these creative writing classes for a minor in creative writing. I remember writing about faith in a class and my teacher called me in and basically told me it was crap [laughs]. He was right. He told me it just read like crap and that it felt preachy.

The semester after I took this class with a professor. I went in to see her during her office hours and I told her I want to write about what’s important to me but I don’t want to come off as preachy. She was a practicing Buddhist. She told me you should never write about faith, you should never write about religion. You should live out your religion, you should live out your faith, and you should just write your life. If your religion is actually a part of you, it will leak out in your writing. That’s the advice I’ve tried to follow since then. For this book especially I was really worried. I have a lot of atheist friends. I basically leaned on them. I’d give them drafts and they’d give me their opinions and I would modify accordingly.

Can you give me a specific example of something you changed?

It was basically the final scenes of Saints where a lot of this happened. I did have a scene that was in the afterlife. It wasn’t heaven per se, but it was between Fourgirl and Kong. They had both been killed and sat around in the afterlife and had a conversation. And I cut that. [laughs] A couple of my friends reacted poorly to that. And they were right. It was just me – I was so sad about the Boxer Rebellion at that point – I had been immersed in this [story] for several years – that I think I was just reaching for some sort of a happy ending.

The actual end is interesting because Bao is saved by faith but at the same time, he doesn’t do it out of any spiritual motive other than to save his skin. A personal sacrifice has been made but at the same time you’re not sure how to feel about it. It’s a very ambivalent ending.

That was a thing that I read too, that after the Boxers were defeated a lot of them started claiming to be Christians just to save their hides. This wasn’t in the book because I wasn’t able to fit it in, but they had these little headquarters in the city and after they were defeated they started putting up these signs saying “Chinese Christian Men’s Society” over these meeting places so that they would be spared.

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Bao struck me as something of a Hamlet character. Whereas Fourgirl, even if she didn’t realize it, had a path to follow, Bao can’t really commit one way or the other. He wants to retake China and save his people but at the same time he’s reticent to commit the violence asked of him. It makes him a sympathetic character, but I wonder if that’s not his tragic flaw.

Yeah, I think that’s right. I thought of him as somebody who has a very sympathetic motivation, he really wants to save China but maybe his conception of what China is is flawed.

You also have issues of cultures clashing and despite their similarities not getting along and feeling alien and separate from each other.

I certainly feel that way about the world in general and I wonder if that’s just part of digital culture. It seems like people end up seeing each other almost as simplified versions or avatars of each other. I sound like an old man.

 That’s okay.

Sometimes I’m disturbed by how people act online. People have these conversations that you would never have in real life. I’ve done interviews where things get reduced to a headline or a tweet, a complicated idea gets reduced down to a headline or a tweet. It’s not a big deal in my life but I think it happens for much more important things as well, within politics or within relationships between cultures. Things get reduced down to some sort of a core idea that doesn’t capture the complexity of the situation.

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Boxers is a violent and dark story, and you’re perceived as being a young adult author. Were you concerned about how to depict these battle scenes and have your main characters go through such horrible things?

I don’t think it was because of any of those categories but more because I’m naturally prudish. I did think a lot about how to portray the violence. I knew from my research, especially from the Jesuit archive, I was astonished by the number of photos they had of sheer brutality.  On both sides. European soldiers posing with headless bodies they had and Chinese committing atrocities against other Chinese. I was really struck by the brutality of the time period. I knew I needed to capture that, but at the same time I wanted to do it in a way where the violence wasn’t overwhelming, at least for most of the book, and wouldn’t kick the reader out of the story. There were certain times where I wanted the violence to come through, so I added more detail but overall I think I wanted it to be a much more simplified violence so that the emphasis wouldn’t be on the gore itself, it would be on the act. That’s what I was thinking.

In terms of being a young-adult book author, I had the pleasure of serving as a judge for the National Book Awards a few years ago in the young-adult category. For one year I got to read everything that was published in that category. Not everything, but a huge cross-section of what was published in that category. I was really surprised by how flexible the category is. The books I read dealt with all sorts of things. Every horrifying corner of humanity was represented.

Has this book or American Born Chinese ever come under that kind of censorship or criticism?

I’ve gotten some for American Born Chinese. I think these books are a little too new. I’ve gotten some for Chinese because of the stereotypes. I can totally understand that. I’ve gotten a little bit of interest from movie studios about adapting American Born Chinese and I’m always really reluctant about it because I’m scared that there will be this YouTube clip of Cousin Chinky without any context. That’s my deepest fear. I can understand where they’re coming from.

Did working on such a dark story for a long time take a toll on you?

I think so. I had to take a break. What I did was I outlined both books. Then I wrote Boxers and then I drew Boxers and wrote Saints at the same time. After I finished that, after I finished writing Saints and drawing Boxers I took a break from the project and wrote this superhero story that will be out next year that is drawn by Sonny Liew. It’s called the Shadow Hero. And then after that I drew Saints. So I did have to take that break in between the two books.

ShadowHero-Cov-final2What the Shadow Hero is about?

It’s a superhero book set in the 1940s in Chinatown. It’s a revival of this public domain superhero. In the 1940s the golden age of American comic books all these tiny comic book publishers popped up and started throwing characters out at the public because they wanted the next big hit they wanted to get rich. One of these publishers had a Chinese-American artist named Chu Hing, who I think is one of the first Asian-Americans in the American comic book scene. They asked him to create a comic book character for them and he creates a guy named the Green Turtle, who, if you see a picture from the 1940s, has one of the goofiest costumes I’ve ever seen.

The interesting thing about him is the rumors. There are all these rumors about his creation. Basically the rumors are that Chu Hing wanted the Green Turtle to be a Chinese-American but his publishers didn’t think that would fly, so he decided to do this really passive-aggressive thing where you can never see [the character's] face. He almost always has his back turned towards you, and when he is turned towards you, his face is obscured by shadows or another character’s head or his own arm if he’s throwing a punch. The rumor is that he did that so he could imagine his hero as a Chinese-American. So Sonny Liew and I are giving him an origin story. His adventures were canceled after five issues so in those comics you never found out his secret origin you never found out his secret identity, so we’re giving him a secret identity and we’re also giving him an origin story.

And did working on that help reinvigorate you so you could get back to Saints

Yeah, that’s a much lighter story. It’s within this genre that’s traditionally been full of hope, that generally has a much higher view of humanity.

You talked a bit earlier how the success of American Born Chinese changed everything for you. Did that success invigorate you? Inhibit you? I’m curious as to how you were able to process not just having a successful book but one that helped break down the doors into libraries and create an audience for kids.

Everything that happened around American Born Chinese was kind of crazy. In a lot of ways I think it was right place, right time. I think books like Maus and Persepolis and Blankets really put this category in people’s heads of comics that are tackling more literary topics. So when American Born Chinese was published, people like the folks on the National Book Awards judging panel had this category in their heads. It wasn’t completely out of the blue for a comic to tackle something serious like ethnic identity. I’m really grateful for that. I’m grateful to the cartoonists who put that in people’s heads.

levelupAfter that I think I did feel intimidated for a long time. In fact, one of the things that happened was the book was supposed to come out immediately after American Born Chinese was Level Up. it was supposed to be done with a friend of mine named Thien Pham. He also did a book called Sumo. We almost finished that book. We were five pages away from being done. We get this call from our editor and he basically tells us it sucks, and you can’t follow up American Born Chinese with this book. He said it super nicely, but that was the jist. We ended up redoing it that book. It ended up taking us five years because of that. We basically did it twice. What ended up happening was I did a book with Derek Kirk Kim that came out  three years after American Born Chinese came out, The Eternal Smile. But originally it was supposed to be American Born Chinese then Level Up. I definitely felt intimidated. [laughs] My editor was totally right. That book sucked.

Boxers & Saints does feel like the big follow-up. I don’t mean that to slight Level Up and Smile. But it does feel like this is your next big statement.

I think that’s true. This is a book that, when I thought about it, I felt really scared about it. I was worried that I couldn’t pull it off. This is a book where I kept telling myself if you’re going to fail, just make sure you fail big. [laughs] That’s the thing.

Overall I’m happy with it. I have a hard time reading the comics I have published cause I always see things I’d have done differently. But overall I’m happy with it. There are things in every book I wish I had done differently.

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