January 12, 2016

Graphic Novelist Gene Luen Yang On Shame, Asian American Identity And Comic Book Culture

By Ruth Tam

Comic artist Gene Luen Yang poses with a self portrait.

Comic artist Gene Luen Yang poses with a self portrait.

My childhood interest in comics was born out of a weekly tradition. As my family returned from church service every Sunday —before our family’s minivan even rolled over the curb of the driveway — one of my siblings or I would yell, “I CALL COMICS” to claim dibs on reading that section from the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune.

I typically got to it first.

Producer Ruth Tam at age 5.

Producer Ruth Tam at age 5.

Of course I enjoyed all other sections of the newspaper (I even pored over ads despite, you know, my lack of ability to buy things). But the comics section had a kind of life to it. It was delightful. It was inviting. It was back-to-back drawings of people different from me and my family.

For a kid without TV, comics were my window into normal — what was “dumb,” “beautiful,” “frustrating,” “funny,” “mysterious?” What made other people laugh?

As a preteen, I discovered my dad’s Doonesbury collection in our family’s basement. Doonesbury was a tricky cartoon in the Comics section. I almost never understood it as a kid. But this time, with rudimentary knowledge of American history, I dove into the box set. I didn’t comprehend all of it (“WHAT IS AN ENERGY CZAR ANYWAY,” I remember wondering), but I got some of it and that felt good. Understanding a joke was about more than a quick laugh — it was knowing that I had picked up on something, learned a new thing.

Once graphic novels entered the scene, I fell in love. Works by Craig Thompson, Marjane Satrapi and Scott McCloud have influenced me in ways that tug every available heartstring.

A page from Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese.”

One writer in particular blew me away when I read his book “American Born Chinese” in 2012. I was working at a newspaper in San Francisco and stopped by a public library in Oakland. A bright yellow paperback caught my eye and when I saw the title, I grabbed it, unable to comprehend the work in my hands. I had seen graphic novels with people of color before, but never one about the Chinese American experience. I sat down and read the whole thing.

Three years later, Gene Luen Yang, who wrote and illustrated “American Born Chinese” and over 20 other works, was appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. I don’t typically have strong reactions to government appointments, but when I learned the news this month, I was thrilled.

After his Library of Congress ceremony, Gene Luen Yang and I met up at WAMU, where we discussed many things including his fancy medal, adolescent racism (including the worst thing I have ever done), as well as the connection between Asian Americans and Christianity.

Listen To The Full Interview

Listen To Excerpts



Gene Luen Yang Discusses His Name


Gene Luen Yang On Shame


Asian Americans And Christianity


All graphics by Ruth Tam.