Yang talks National Book Award Nominee "American Born Chinese"

"American Born Chinese," a graphic novel about growing up different in America by Gene Yang from First Second Books, was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This is kind of a big deal.

For the half century or so they've been around, the National Books Awards have been one of the biggest awards in publishing. A huge variety of books have been nominated, but not one of them has been a graphic novel.

This was a capstone on a very big year for comics getting mainstream recognition, a year that also saw Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" named Time Magazine's Book of the Year.

CBR News talked with Yang about "American Born Chinese," the nomination and the book's origins on the web.

CBR NEWS: So, for the readers who aren't familiar with it, what is "American Born Chinese" about?

Gene Yang: "American Born Chinese" is made up of three storylines. The first is an Asian-American retelling of the legend of the Monkey King. The second is a coming-of-age story of a young Chinese-American boy growing up in a predominantly white suburb. The third is a sitcom in panels starring Cousin Chin-Kee, an amalgamation of all the Chinese stereotypes I could think of.

CBR: Let's go back to the beginning – what kind of comics did you read when you were growing up.

GY: I started reading comics in the fifth grade. I started on mostly Marvel superhero stuff, though I read some Harvey and Archie comics when I was at the barber shop. I stopped for a while in junior high, and then got really into it in high school.

At one point during high school, I was getting three series regularly: "The Incredible Hulk" during Peter David's first run, Kitchen Sink's "The Spirit" reprints, and "Uncle Scrooge. " With "Uncle Scrooge" I was mostly looking for Carl Barks reprints and new Don Rosa stuff. Couldn't get enough of it.

Then in college and post-college, I got into more alternative comics and graphic novels: Jeff Smith, Chester Brown, Osamu Tezuka, Scott McCloud, Jay Stephens, Lynda Barry, etc.

CBR: Have you been drawing as long as you've been collecting, too?

GY: My mom tells me I've been drawing since I was two, but I started drawing comics in the fifth grade, shortly after I started reading them. I used to make them with Jeremy Kuniyoshi, a friend of mine. We did a Robin Hood/Green Arrow knock-off called "Spade Hunter. " I found out later as an adult that Spade Hunter is actually an offensive term, but at the time we meant spade as in the suit of cards. That was the superhero's symbol.

CBR: What inspired you to write "American Born Chinese?"

GY: " American Born Chinese" is my third graphic novel. Up until then, I'd done comics with Asian-American characters but I hadn't tackled Asian-American issues head-on. I really wanted to because it's such an important part of who I am. I'd done some Creative Writing assignments in college that dealt with that aspect of my identity, and those assignments would almost write themselves. I knew I had something to exorcise.

CBR: Was it difficult to write about material that personal?

GY: Yes and no. "American Born Chinese" isn't autobiography, so I got to hide behind the guise of fiction when I wanted. Also, when I started on it, I published it as mini-comics and webcomics. My audience was not all that big, and most of the folks that actually gave me feedback were friends, so it was easy to do whatever I wanted. I didn't really think about the public. Had I known that ABC would be handled by a publisher who is so good at getting its product all over the world (just had a friend tell me he found it in Malaysia!) I don't know if I'd have had the guts to do some of those scenes. The Chin-Keeones, especially.

CBR: Do you think ABC's serialization was helpful to its future success?

GY: I don't know if it's the serialization so much as the immediacy of the web, but I really liked getting instant feedback on my pages. I didn't get a lot of it, and most of it was from my friends, but it was still very helpful. In the beginning I kept misspelling the word deity.

CBR: I'm sure you won't for get now! Related to that, did it change the way you told your story?

GY: Putting it on the web didn't change the way I told my story at all. I'd always imagined it as a graphic novel. I saw the web serialization as a way of interacting with readers until I got the whole thing done.

CBR: So, here you are, your third book and it's the first graphic novel nominated for the National Book Award. What's that like?

GY: It's mind-blowing, really. I still have trouble believing it. I really do think a huge portion of it is luck. I was in the right place at the right time. If "Maus" and "Love & Rockets" and "Louis Reil" and "Blankets" and a host of other graphic novels hadn't come before and carved out a place in people's minds for the literary graphic novel, they won't have even looked twice at "American Born Chinese. "

The nomination is really about the state of the art form rather than just a particular work. I mean just in this past year we've had "Fun Home," "Pride of Bahgdad" and "Curses," all of which make me more than a little jealous when I flip through them.

CBR: First Second is fairly new as a publisher. What's it been like working with them?

GY: It's been a dream. Mark Siegel, the Big Cheese (I don't remember what his official title is) at First Second, has a clear, well-articulated vision not only for the First Second imprint, but for American comics as a whole. He gets you excited. He gets you to believe in comics. And he's surrounded by many, many passionate, talented people there. They get stuff done.

CBR: Have you heard much from schools or libraries about the book? I know you're interested in comics and education, so it seems like a natural fit. Has it been a success in those areas?

GY: I've heard from a number of teachers and librarians. A couple of college professors have contacted me, telling me that ABC is now on their syllabi. It's great. I feel like I'm getting props from my own people, you know?Comics have yet to be fully exploited as an educational tool. I'm glad I get to play a part in that.

CBR: How has teaching affected the way you do comics, and vice versa?

GY: Honestly, I try to keep them separate most of the time. Selfishly speaking, they provide me relief from each other. Teaching is a very extroverted activity - you're constantly surrounded by people. Making comics is the exact opposite. I like coming home from a day of interacting with people and just sitting quietly at my drafting table.

After the nomination, though, many of my students became aware of my other job. Some have even brought in copies of my book for me to sign. It's nice. Normally the only things I get to sign at school are detention slips.

CBR: Gene, what's up next for you?

GY: I'm currently working on a graphic novel with Thien Pham, a fellow Bay Area cartoonist. I wrote it, he did the break-downs, he's pencilling, and I'm inking. It's called "Three Angels," and it's loosely based on my brother's experiences as a med school student.

My brother is in his fourth year at UCSF Medical School right now, and he comes back and tells me the craziest stories. After hearing a few of them, I told him, These need to be in a comic. And now, with the help of Thien, they will be.

CBR: Sounds like a great idea, Gene. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

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