Writer and artist Belle Yang has made a career out of exploring the history of the life, the family and the cultures that shaped her. Born in Taiwan, she spent part of her childhood in Japan before immigrating to the US, and spent part of her adult life in China. Her works include illustrated memoirs of her family’s history, such award-winning picture books as Always Come Home to Me, and she was the subject of the award-winning PBS documentary My Name is Belle.
Now, Yang has come to comics with Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale. In this graphic memoir, Yang recounts her experience moving back in with her Chinese immigrant parents when she was stalked by an ex-boyfriend nicknamed “Rotten Egg.” There, she hears her father’s stories of her family in China, in which reflect her own pains and experiences.
Forget Sorrow has earned rave reviews since its release in May, and we were fortunate to get Yang on the phone to talk about her comics debut. In our in-depth conversation, Yang talked about her early experiences with comics, the creative freedom of this medium, and how China may have influenced the development of comic books.
Newsarama: Belle, in telling this story, why did you want to do it in a sequential graphic novel format?
Belle Yang: Well, let me start at the beginning. I was born in Taiwan, and then went to Japan with my family when I was five, six, seven. So I read a lot of manga, and I loved the manga format. Then I came to the U.S. wearing my favorite manga character shoes, and no one else was . . .
And now I’m much older, and this comics and manga rage has come after me! I arrived in the U.S. in 1967, so there was nothing really happening here, besides Captain America and the Marvel comics, which I didn’t really take to.
So it was really cool when my editor, Alane Salierno Mason, suggested I try this book – which was originally written as a prose book with color art, like my other books for adults – and turn it into a graphic memoir. So that’s what I did! And I took to the format very quickly.
Nrama: What were some of the challenges in adapting this from prose to sequential art?
Yang: Actually, it wasn’t a challenge – it was a lot of fun, because for me, the graphic novel format is my ideal format. It is very much akin to poetry, because it’s so condensed. My first love is poetry; I don’t like long, windy prose much, but I don’t want to be a poet.
In this graphic memoir medium, I get to play poet, because I get to shrink everything down to the essentials. It was fun doing that – to take a page from a prose novel, and take only the best language, and keep condensing it.
Even now, as a published book, I could make it shorter, but I had time constraints on me. On anything, with unlimited time, I can condense it to its essence, to where it’s the most brief but packs the greatest punch.
Nrama: And you have a lot of mythology in the book – in the sense of this familial history that’s been passed down through the generations – that lends itself to that visual format.
Yang: Yeah. When a lot of people hear me talk about China in the 1930s and 1940s, they tend to think of it as mythology. For them, the ‘30s and ‘40s were a very advanced time, with motorcars and rampant technology, but back then, China was still rural, and people telling ghost stories.
So Westerners will often read my books and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of mythology and ghost stories!” But that was the reality of the time.Nrama: How do you feel when people react like that?
Yang: I try to explain it, but a lot of people it doesn’t sink in. Like the first book I wrote, which was called Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders, I received a starred review in Kirkus, but the woman in the New York Times, who was Caucasian and had spent brief time in China during the cultural revolution, said, “Too many ghost stories.”
But she was unreachable – she had written this review, and I wanted to say, “That’s what it was! What you saw was a period in the 1960s full of upheaval where they tried to eradicate any kind of mythology! They tried to cut away the past.”
Nrama: One thing I enjoyed about this book is that you depict this China as filtered through memory, as it’s passed down to you. When you’re going through these memories, even things that happen to you have this larger-than-life quality – like early in the book, when you’re driving off in this car, and it’s massive with you tiny inside it.
Yang: That’s true. I’m finally getting to hear what other people are saying about this book after working on it for 14 years…!
On the art – my friend who lived in China -- says I have a “peasant art” style. And that’s true – I spent three years traveling in the countryside, and my style reflects what I absorbed, what I loved.
What you see in the panels are very much in a folkloric style – paper cuts, Chinese New Year prints. It’s absorbed from everything I’ve seen – everything I’ve ever ever fallen in love with is incorporated here.
On taking 14 years – I started this in 1996, when my father started telling the story of the four brothers. And I had a hard time convincing my agent to represent this book. She tried to sell it, and was told it was too quiet for the market.
She was a super agent, and had strong opinions. After mucking about on the manuscript for 11 years, I finally left her, and ran smack bang into the comics format as if into the embrace of an old friend.
It was fortunate I found a new agency with a supportive agent – Deborah Warren from the East West Agency, and Alane Salierno Mason, who was my former editor from Harcourt about 16 years ago. I really did work 14 years on this, because every time I got a rejection on the manuscript, I thought, “Well, I need to make it better!”
When I got the message from Alane to try it as a graphic memoir, I hoped to improve it in a new format, by boiling it down to visual and verbal poetry. It was a constant struggle – about 10 years ago, I got sick, and when I first came back from the hospital, my great-grandfather came to me in a dream, as if to say, “You can’t lie down – you still have my story inside you, and you need to tell it.”
I want to bring about—I guess the word isn’t “revenge,” but rather “justice” – justice for those who were starved to death, like my great-grandfather, under Communism. So I got up out of bed. I didn’t die, and I finished this book! I know it sounds melodramatic, but it’s what happened.
Nrama: Sounds like a pretty cathartic experience.
Yang: Oh yeah.
Nrama: Now that you have this out in the world, what kind of perspective did reliving these experiences give you?
Yang: In the “Rotten Egg” side of the story, the stalker…I felt that I was thrown such terrible things when I was young, in my early 20s, and some of them I deserved because I wasn’t paying attention or thinking for myself.
Even though it was a horrible time, it bore fruit, like that Hallmark card quote – “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” So this is my lemonade.
I tried not to focus too much on the stalking itself, because that wasn’t really the center the story – the center was both my great-grandfather and the parallel story about the government’s abuse of power.
One story was about a man trying to control me, to prevent me from living my life and speaking out, and then going to China to see an entire ruling class bearing down against its people for speaking up.
And then there’s the traditional Chinese family – that’s the third level, the patriarchy with the man in charge and everyone struggling under his confines, even if he’s benevolent.
I guess that’s a question for my dad, how it helped him to tell me this story. I just gave him an author copy, and he’s going through it with a black marker – to correct it, but to annotate it, in Chinese. He seems grateful that I was able to take his grandfather’s story and help put it out into the world.
Nrama: I was going to ask – did they ever catch “Rotten Egg?”Yang: Yeah. He did go to jail, because I worked with investigators, and he had broken into the house, not just to steal things, but just to wreak havoc on my life.
He used a court subpoena to get me out of the house in a lawsuit he had brought against one of his employees, and my parents accompanied me down to Pomona.
While we were gone, he broke into the house, and he took about everything – letters, pictures, my yearbooks, my dad’s paintings, the 500 poems he’d written in his own calligraphy.
I worked with the sheriff’s department, and they bungled it at first – everything was a wreck, and the fingerprints didn’t come out.
After he threw a brick through my lawyer’s window, he was arrested, and there was some evidence that led to our belongings. So we got our stuff back, and he was arrested, sat in jail for a couple of months.
As I wrote in the story, he was still stealing the contents of my parents’ garbage after I went away to China to learn of my whereabouts.
But that story, of men abusing women when they try to leave, is very common. One third of women have suffered abuse in the home. But in the 1980s, when this was happening, spousal or partner abuse wasn’t a major issue. There weren’t many shelters out there. It was truly a time less aware of women’s need for safety.
Nrama: I’m truly sorry you had to go through that.
Yang: Yeah, it changed my life. But then I wouldn’t have this or other books. I would have been running amok, making trouble somewhere else. Instead, I had to sit inside the house for a long time, facing my ancestors and myself. So thank you, Rotten Egg! (laughs)
Nrama: I admire your perspective.
Let’s talk about something lighter – you mentioned you were a fan of manga going back to the 1960s. What are some of your favorite books, then and now?
Yang: I don’t read it anymore, because I lost my Japanese! I think I can still read it if I picked up a copy in Japantown in San Francisco. But back when I came to the US when I was seven, Japanese was my second language, and that changed as I picked up English.
What I read back then were magazines, not specific books. Tetsuwan Atomu or Mighty Atom (aka Astro Boy) was definitely around, because he was a cartoon character on television.
And there were some other characters I don’t recall seeing in the American market. I don’t think I was savvy enough at that time to be reading Barefoot Gen about the aftermath of the atomic bombs, but I do remember Astro Boy.
Nrama: Well, that’s still decades ahead of when it was published in the US – there’s a whole flood of material now.
Yang: Tell me about it – it’s like a tidal wave that followed me here. (laughs). It was very lonely being in San Francisco in 1967 and not being able to find your favorite characters. My mom tried to order some telephone-book-sized volumes for me, but they were expensive and came months too late.
Nrama: And now that stuff is readily available in that format in the US in magazines such as Shonen Jump.
Yang: It’s so bizarre to me. I’m tickled. It’s like if you went to live in Japan, and you had been reading superheroes and Superman, and they didn’t exist, and then 40 years later you find they’ve set the comics landscape on fire.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing another graphic novel?
Yang: Yes! Yes. I think this is my medium. When I first published Baba in 1994 , and then my second The Odyssey of a Manchurian, there were illustrations. But it never occurred to me that I could be like Art Spiegelman and create in a graphic format, a sequential art format.
I thought, “That’s so original, I can’t possibly copy that!!” I never realized he was opening up an avenue.
As a writer and artist, I never could quite get the words and the pictures to become unified. They existed, together but separate. And now, I have this perfect balance between the words and pictures. I’m in heaven.
Nrama: Are you working on anything in that format now?Yang: Yes, because I go nuts once something is finished. I’m happy that this book is finished, but I’m even happier that I have another project. It takes place on the island of Taiwan, where I was born, and which had been underneath Japanese occupation for 50 years.
It will follow my mother’s side of the family, and the tension between Japan and China. Though most people remember it as entirely antagonistic, on a people to people level, it was completely different.
When the Japanese did occupy a place like Taiwan, after the brutal police state brought insurrections to an end, they started to improve the infrastructure. They innovated education, and over time, people born under the Japanese became Japanese in their heart, even though they were racially Chinese.
So I’m going to be talking about the war years in Taiwan. It has such a rich history -- it was a pirate’s nest! So I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m very excited.
Nrama: Was it different to do something where you started off knowing it would be in a sequential format, as opposed to converting it from a prose story?
Yang: Definitely. I’m studying the script format for comics – I had a typed script for Forget Sorrow, but now I’m doing sketchier intros for each page and breaking that down later to captions and dialogue. It’s a very different process, but every new knowledge and skill is enjoyable for me to learn.
I love learning new things, and learning to do a graphic novel in my middle age is, I guess, transcendental for me.
Nrama: I’ve talked with a number of book illustrators who’ve moved into the field of graphic novels, and every one says the same thing – they love the format. What has been fun, or liberating, or uniquely challenging to you about this format, and why do you think it holds such an appeal for illustrators?
Yang: Because it’s so visual. Because if you’re working in prose, you’re trying to translate everything you see visually into a different medium, the words. And here, you’re experiencing something through your eyes, or your brain, and it goes immediately into the visual. You don’t have that clunky prose intermediary.
For me – people ask me, “Are you first a writer or an artist?” When I’m writing, I’m a writer, and when I’m painting, I’m a painter. But this format lets me explode both, because the art and words together is 2 plus 2 equals 40 or 400.
If you envision something, you can immediately fit it in a panel, or several panels, or one huge panel on a page. And that’s what’s so fresh and exciting about this. When I was merely working in prose, and illustrating the prose, the art became secondary.
When you’re writing children’s books, you don’t do the art first. And certainly here, with the graphic novel, you don’t do the art first. But the art takes much more precedent now.
You can allow your imagination to imprint itself directly on the paper. You don’t need to go through prose translation and then ask the reader to translate it back to visuals in his own head.
And that’s what’s great for the illustrators. The excitement doesn’t have to be diluted while you’re trying to transpose by variations of the alphabet. Now you have that visual language, and it’s direct.
Nrama: I was interested in how early in the book, when you’re flashing back to your own life, there’s some experiments with overlapping panels and such…
Yang: That was me learning to draw the book as I was drawing it. (laughs) I was free to experiment in public. I didn’t have to be scientific, follow a guide book. I think the comics format gives us creators room to learn in a public way.
We don’t hide our imperfections. The imperfections indicate that something is being handmade, that it’s the product of an erring human.
Nrama: Going into your new project, how do you feel your technique has evolved when it comes to sequential material?
Yang: Well, I haven’t gotten to the drawing part yet – I’ve collected the material, I’ve recorded my mom’s side of the story, and now I’m trying to find the heart of the story. So I haven’t gone into the actual drawing yet.
But in the next book, I would like to give myself more room, more places to breathe. More spots for the reader t rest or linger quietly without captions or word bubbles. It’s as if I created Forget Sorrow in one huge inhalation and exhalation, because I felt an urgency.
Nrama: What’s been the most interesting response you’ve had to this book?Yang: I got a very interesting response from the Giant Robot people – “it was more honest than a film.” I think he was just being nice. (laughs). Martin Wong also said Forget Sorrow was exhausting and exhaustive. When I later contacted him, he clarified: “Exhausting in a good way.”
The style of countryside art was recognized by my friends who live in China, which was very gratifying. I know a lot of readers won’t recognize that, but to recognize it as Chinese “naïf” would take a reader keen on Chinese culture. You like to have other people understand the artistic bent, and not just the format.
I also liked when someone said, “This is a meaty book. It has bones.” When my editor showed me Persepolis, that was my reaction. I didn’t know what the audience would like – I knew I might lose my younger readers, who wanted something less exhausting, or easier to follow, but I wanted a comic of multiple layers. Recently, I’ve had a 14-year-old’s mom tell me her daughter loved Forget Sorrow.
Nrama: You mentioned Persepolis – any other graphic novels you enjoy?
Yang: I have just about everything that has become a modern classic, I guess. Epileptic, Jimmy Corrigan, the two volumes of Maus, Stitches, American Born Chinese, Fun Home, Louis Riel, Will Eisner…I haven’t read everything, but there’s a lot of amazing material. Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams is wordless perfection.
Nrama: Are you doing any more books outside of comics, such as something for younger readers?
Yang: I’m doing a book for children about recognizing Chinese characters. That’s actually something I want to add to my comments about the graphic memoir format – it suits me because Chinese characters are visual. They’re pictograph, or picture-words.
What I inherited from my culture – the picture-words of Chinese characters – is exactly what the graphic novel format is. It just feels innate. I know a lot of people have written about how manga or graphic novels have their roots in Japanese culture, in the long horizontal scroll.
Well, I don’t want to say, “Nah, nah, nah, we did it first,” but the Chinese were doing that long before the Japanese. And the Chinese characters were adopted by the Japanese and used in their language. Like I said, it just feels innate.
Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale is in bookstores now.