I’ve had many an interview on this book tour for my graphic memoir, “Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale,” published by WW Norton and Company. I’ve had fun replying to the questions, but sometimes, I leave the sessions feeling unfulfilled—mostly on radio when the platform is really for the scintillating host fast-talk.
One of my favorite telephone interviews became material for the Asian Pop column by John Yang in sfgate.com. John and I were so culturally in tune with one another, I could skip over the explanations and jump into the real deal of Chinese history and aesthetics. Tomorrow, I’ll do a self-interview about the art and process of the graphic novel (comic format). Today, some getting-getting-to-know what's under Ms. Belle's mad hat.
Belle Yang Interviews Belle Yang
Q: Belle, what question do you hate most?
A: “Are you writer first or do you primarily think of yourself as a painter?”
I say: "When I write, I am a writer; when I paint, I am a painter.” I add: “When I make graphic novels, I can be both.”
Q: You’re a writer/artist of adult nonfiction books and children’s books, and now you are a graphic memoirist. Why do you jump categories, formats and generally make a librarian's job harder?
A: Belle, I came a cross a saying by a writer in India. She said: “ To be categorized is near death.” My soul was smiling when I read her words. I know it’s a trope, an exaggeration, but since I’ve long outgrown my childhood need to be like everyone else, I now have the opposite fear: of being plugged into a single category, let’s say “Asian American literature” or “Immigrant Literature.” I am a communicator. I can speak to young and old and anyone in between.
Q: Belle, if Forget Sorrow is your Chinese King Lear, can you identify the parallel characters in your book and in Lear?
A: My father’s grandfather was King Lear, who was blind to the truth nature of his children. His father was an imperfect Cordelia. My father’s second uncle was the fool and so was Yuan the Taoist idiot who came to claim his winter clothing from Great Grandfather when geese flew south and frost was on the eggplant. You know that Shakespeare had multiple fools in “As You Like.”
Q: Then who is your Edmund?
A: The Communist. They blinded China. The old order was turned upside down. Children were turned against parents to eradicate the Confucian legacy.
Q: Come now, did you reeeeally work 14 years on Forget Sorrow?
A: Yes, I had two adult nonfiction books under my belt. Then I met with rejection after rejection from my agent and editors, so I reworked my prose manuscript each time after I recovered from the blow. (I’d sleep for 2 days then get up, ready to fight on). Even when I was ill a decade ago, I returned from the hospital and dreamed of my great grandfather. He did not say a word, but I interpreted the dream as a reminder I had no time to be ill: I had not sent his story out into the world.
Q: Why were you so darn persistent?
A: There are many parts to the answer. One, I wanted to take away the pain my father bore for decades after the dissolution of his family and country.
Two, I wanted to take revenge against time, war and forgetting for my great grandfather who was thrown off his estate and wandered a beggar, dying ultimately of starvation and heartbreak.
Three, I was born in 1960 when great grandfather was “going home,’ so I often envision myself as his reincarnation.
Four, I always try finish what I begin. I’ve been a sprinter in the athletic sense, never a marathon runner. In my creative life, I want to be the latter.
Q: Under your hat, I see you have a bit of gray. What are the most important lessons you have learned in your half-century?
A: I lived with an abusive man who turned stalker after I fled him. He had gradually silenced me through manipulation. Manipulation is the evil art of alternating praise with pain. Sweetness followed by bitterness, on and on in this iambic pattern.
After I left him, I found a haven in China, but ran smack into the Tiananmen Massacre in my third year. I saw an entire people silenced by manipulation.
I learned that voice is power and stories make us individuals. When an emperor comes to the throne, he burns books—quashes stories—to enslave the people. I returned from China, vowing I would never waste this gift known as freedom of expression.
I’ve lent my voice to my parents who are bards in Mandarin Chinese, but lost their voice in this new country. I helped to make them individuals in the eyes of this society.
Q: What are your goals as a writer?
A: I want to have my books published and do well enough so that I can keep on doing the same thing. The reward of writing is to continue writing. No more; no less.
Q: How do you pronounce your last name?
A: Yang is pronounced like “young” as in young and old. We don’t have nasal “a’s” in Chinese. The “g” is almost silent. A few years ago, I made it my mission to teach non-Chinese speaker how to wag and curl their tongues properly. Yang means poplar, birch, willow or aspen. It's a beautiful family of trees and deserves to be pronounced with an open "a".
Q: I am writing a comic book script myself. It’s about my mother who was a member of the Hakka tribes. They fled the Huns when they rode in from the north. It's going to be really good. You want to read it?
A: Uh, oh gosh, I forgot I have an appointment for a pap smear followed by a root canal. Maybe later, okay?