Graphic nov­el­ist wins ‘ge­nius’ grant, and just get­ting started

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Chris Davis NEWYORK JOUR­NAL Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­lyusa. com.

Afunny thing hap­pened to graphic nov­el­ist Gene Luen Yang, 43, on his way to work the other day — the of­fice, for him, be­ing ac­tu­ally a ta­ble at a Pan­era Bread shop near his San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia, house.

“I used to have a stu­dio at home but I have four chil­dren — one boy and three girls — and the old­est girl got sick of shar­ing a room with her sis­ter, so to keep the peace in our house, I gave up the stu­dio,” he said.

As he was back­ing out of the drive­way, his phone rang. It was the MacArthur Foun­da­tion on the line. Con­grat­u­la­tions, he was told, he had just won a “ge­nius” grant for $650,000.

“I pulled back in my drive­way,” he said. “That was kind of the end of my work­day right there. I spent the rest of the day in a daze.”

Yang is no stranger to ac­co­lades for his work in comic book-style lit­er­a­ture, which has steadily been gain­ing re­spect from the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment in re­cent years. His hit graphic nov­els (graphic nov­els are ba­si­cally 200-to-400-page comic books) — Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese (2006) and Box­ers & Saints (2013) — were both nom­i­nated for Na­tional Book Awards, with the for­mer be­ing the first work of the genre to ever make it to the fi­nals.

In Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese, Yang draws on Chi­nese folk lore and modern comic book style to tell a com­ing-of-age story about a young Chi­nese ado­les­cent try­ing to as­sim­i­late into Amer­i­can cul­ture with the mytho­log­i­cal Mon­key King as a guide.

“As a Chi­nese Amer­i­can, I grew up in be­tween cul­tures,” he said. “A Chi­nese cul­ture at home and an Amer­i­can cul­ture at school, with two names, one at home and one at school. It took me a while through­out my child­hood to fig­ure out who I was and how I fit in the world. I think that is re­flected in the work I’m do­ing.”

Box­ers & Saints tells the story of the Boxer Re­bel­lion through the eyes of a boy who joins the rebels and a girl who is un­der the in­flu­ence of Western mis­sion­ar­ies. The MacArthur ci­ta­tion called it “an il­lus­tra­tion of how con­sid­er­a­tion of mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives en­riches un­der­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal events”.

Yang has done most of his work while work­ing full time as a high school com­puter sci­ence teacher for the last 17 years, which has given him ideas as well. One of his sev­eral cur­rent projects is called Se­cret Coders, a six-vol­ume series about a group of mid­dle school kids who dis­cover a se­cret school where they learn the fun­da­men­tals of com­puter sci­ence.

“I’m ba­si­cally tak­ing what I used to do in my class­room and putting it into a graphic novel,” he said. “I’m re­ally hop­ing that kids read this book and be­come in­ter­ested in cod­ing.”

The big project he’s work­ing on right now is New Su­per-Man for DC Comics. For those who may not re­al­ize it, in the DC Uni­verse, Clark Kent (and Su­per­man) died a while back (long story) and has been re­placed by a bunch of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, one be­ing a Clark Kent from a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion.

The re­place­ment Yang is work­ing on — New Su­per-Man — is a 17-year-old boy in Shang­hai named Ke­nan Kong, who in­her­its some of Su­per­man’s pow­ers (long story) and then tries to fig­ure out how to best put them to use.

“It wasn’t my idea to do a Chi­nese Su­per­man, and when they first brought it to me, I was kind of scared to do it,” Yang said. “It’s a tricky po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural land­scape to nav­i­gate. Su­per­man’s about truth, jus­tice and the Amer­i­can way. What do those things mean in the con­text of modern China?

“The China that ex­ists to­day is dif­fer­ent from the China that ex­isted for most of Clark Kent’s his­tory, right? So we wanted to play with some of those dy­nam­ics.”

Yang said most of his work is about “how peo­ple form iden­ti­ties us­ing dis­parate sources”.

And cul­ture, to him, is “a liv­ing thing, it changes, and when a fam­ily moves from one cul­ture into an­other and they try to pre­serve a cul­ture, what they’re pre­serv­ing is like a cul­ture frozen in time.

“So the Chi­nese cul­ture that I ex­pe­ri­enced is like the Chi­nese cul­ture from the 1960s,” he said, “be­cause that’s what my par­ents knew.”

“A lot of Amer­i­cans, when they think of China, the China that they have in their imag­i­na­tions isn’t the China of to­day,” he said. “The China of to­day is very for­ward think­ing, re­ally about the fu­ture, and I think a lot of Amer­i­cans don’t un­der­stand that.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

MacArthur Grant win­ner and graphic nov­el­ist Gene Luen Yang.

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