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Find more The Booklist Interview
This year’s winner of the Michael L. Printz Award is Gene Luen Yang, whose graphic novel, American Born Chinese, explores a young Asian American’s struggle to accept his Chinese American identity. From the San Franciso–area Roman Catholic high school, where he teaches computer science, Yang spoke to Booklist about the creation of his award-winning title and about the surprising growth of the comic-book industry.
BKL: How long have you been creating comics?
GLY: I bought my first comic in the fifth grade, and I started drawing them shortly thereafter with a friend. Then in seventh grade, we both got interested in girls, and comics became really uncool. So I stopped drawing them, and I also stopped reading them. In high school, I took a comics class, and I started getting really heavily into them again.
BKL: Who is the Monkey King in Chinese mythology and why did you chose him as your subject?
GLY: Pretty much anyone from a Chinese background will have heard of the Monkey King. He’s kind of a cross between a Chinese version of Mickey Mouse and Robin Hood. He’s both popular and literary. Growing up, I heard his stories from my mom at bedtime. And shortly after I started creating comics, I knew that I wanted to do an adaptation of his story in comics. The problem is that in China, the Monkey King is practically his own genre. He’s so popular that pretty much any comic-book creator who is worth his or her salt has taken a crack at the story. I couldn’t think of what new approach I could bring to the table. In the end, I decided on a more Asian American take on the story.
BKL: Did the Monkey King lead you into the story’s identity themes?
GLY: Prior to working on American Born Chinese, I did a number of graphic novels with Asian American protagonists. I hadn’t included much about the cultures, though, and I felt that I was kind of wimping out. So I wanted to do something that was head-on. In a high-school art class, I drew a picture of the Monkey King. When I showed it to my mom, she said, “You drew it wrong. The Monkey King always wears shoes.” I asked why, and she said, “Well, he doesn’t really want people to know he’s a monkey.” That feeling connected well with something that I think Asian Americans in particular, and maybe immigrants to America in general, struggle with.
BKL: Do you worry that readers may miss the satire in the character of Chin-Kee?
GLY: Yes. I first created American Born Chinese as a minicomic, which, basically, is just a comic that you photocopy yourself. I was also publishing it online, the total audience for the comic was maybe 1,000. When you’re working like that, you don’t really think about how things are going to be perceived. If I had known at the time that it would be published by First Second, in full color, as this nicely packaged graphic novel, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do some of that stuff.
BKL: You present Chin-Kee in a sitcom world.
GLY: Iconically, the sitcom family is the ideal American family, in which the characters are living ideal American lives, things get solved within half an hour, and everything’s funny. I think in lots of ways that that’s what Asian American kids strive for. In high school, we had an assignment to write a satirical paper, modeled after a Jonathan Swift essay. I did mine on ethnic identity; I think the thesis was that people of Chinese descent would never be fully assimilated. I remember feeling like I was expelling something out of myself when I did that, and that’s sort of how I feel about the Chin-Kee story line—that I was exorcising something.
BKL: Have you incorporated comics into your teaching?
GLY: When I was in a master’s program for education, I was also serving as a long-term sub at my school. One of our algebra teachers had to take leave, and during the period that I was supposed to sub for him, I was also committed to helping out in a computer class. Whenever I had to miss the algebra class, I would videotape myself giving the lectures and ask the sub to play it for my students. They couldn’t stand it. As a plan B, I drew out the lessons in comics, and the kids loved that. Comics are visual, like a film or a television program, but you have the ability to reread things if you need to, which really aids the learning process. Based on this experience, I chose to explore the educational uses of comics in my master’s thesis. I found that when comics first became a mass medium in America, there was a lot of work done about how to incorporate them into the classroom. Then psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote a book that basically said that comics were the cause of juvenile delinquency. After that, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, many comic-book companies went out of business. American society just kind of abandoned it as a legitimate medium.
BKL: Are you surprised by the mainstream attention that comics are receiving now?
GLY: I have been astounded! At comics conventions ten years ago, people were predicting the death of the American comic book. To get from there to where we are now is just a complete 180! A lot of it is thanks to manga. I’m not totally sure why manga has caught on so strongly, but it has. Also, my pet theory as a computer-science teacher is that with the Web and with digital technology, media is converging. Comics fit in with that because they bring two divergent media—pictures and text—together. As people get used to reading multimedia documents, they prepare themselves to read comic books. Young-adult readers are really good for comics. The mainstream comic-book market caters to this aging audience of men who grew up reading superhero comics. We really need fresh eyes and a fresh audience.
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