Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Belle Yang: My Life, My Family, My Graphic Memoir in Snapshots

I will be at Kepler's at 7:30 P.M. July 8th talking about the process of making a graphic novel. Please join me.


A drawing from 1967, the first year of my family's arrival in America. I like to show school children I wasn't drawing any better than most of them. The scene is of San Francisco Chinatown New Year's parade. Bing, Bang, Bong! Loving comic book sound effects at an early age.


My parents and I moved to Carmel in 1971. I was lonely the first summer and Nancy Johnson, a professional watercolorist, who lived across the street, took me in her green VW Beetle to join her elderly students sketching and painting at Point Lobos and Cannery Row. The latter was no tourist destination. It was still the real Cannery Row of John Steinbeck.


Self-portrait in my studio with my cat, Chairman Mao. Mao is a homonym for Mao--Cat (different tone. In Mandarin, there are 4 tones). You'll find him in my graphic memoir, "Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale." He appears in the present and in the past, because I wanted to connect my father to my great grandfather who were spiritually atuned.


During my three-year sojourn in China, I studied traditional Chinese painting from contemporary masters. There he is, Chairman Mao sitting on his bistro chair.


My studio at night.


I use pigment markers for shading and hatching. Pigments do not turn blue or purple with age. This ensures my art work remains unchanged. I continue to do everything by hand. Some artist draw with Photoshop, but this leaves them with no original art. Perhaps they retain merely the sketches, which were scanned into the computer to begin the art work. Maybe not even sketches. I feel rich when I have stacks of art work under my bed, in the closet.


A tube of gouache (pronounced goo-wash). It's an opaque watercolor and gives me the richest black. I prefer lamp black to permanent black.


An Ames guide allows me to draw parallel lines. They corral my uneven lettering. But my lettering is hardly as good as it was in grade school. WW Norton decided to digitalize my handwriting, so I have a Belle Yang alphabet. It looks good. I had to do a double-take when I saw my pages with the new alphabet inserted in the captions and word balloons.


A graphic novel page in the works.


Taping off an edge of a panel so . . .

I can paint a straight edge. But I rarely use this trick, because my hands have gradually grown steady and I can make a straight edge free hand.


Having a little show on the carpet of the living room with my dad watching on. It's so satisfying to spread out a bunch of the work and see how far I've come.


Asked to try my hand on the jacket art, I drew these two pieces. As you can see from the published book, we went in an altogether different direction.


The last page--"Finis!'

And Matt my loyal Fedex man comes to take it all away. It still amazes me my precious art, the results of 14-years, can reach New York City in less than 24-hours.


My great granddad, Yang Junchen. He is the tragic hero in "Forget Sorrow."


The Yang Family resettled in Tianjin during the mid-1930s after the Japanese attacked Manchuria.


My father Zu-Wu, or Joseph Yang, and me. This was taken in 1994 when my first self-illustrated, adult nonfiction book, "Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father's Shoulders," was published.


Laning and Zu-Wu. My parents on their engagement.

A life-long partnership.


My next project will be on my mother's Hakka tribe on the Island of Taiwan. Hakkas were pushed out of the north in the 3rd Century by horse-riding peoples of the steppes. Hakkas in turn became nomads and are often called the Jews of China. My grandfather was adopted by a Japanese family when Taiwan was a colony of Japan (1985--1945), thus the kimono.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Tao of the Graphic Novel

Belle Yang Interviews Belle Yang

Before we begin today's Q and A, please click here to watch this 4 minute film in which I am drawing a graphic novel page.

Q: Ms. Belle, are graphic novels all fiction?

A: Well, Belle, this area of art/literature is still being defined as it develops, but I asked my friend the librarian Ruthie Pennington Paget who is my go-to gal pal. This is what she says:

Comics are non-continuous, short stories that you find in a newspaper.

Graphic novels are book length, but they are their own format, which uses the methods of movies for presentation. They are the fiction format.

Graphic memoirs are a non-fiction genre of the graphic format.

The graphic style is a new format with fictional and non-fiction content.

Graphic style = cup. Non-fiction and fictional work are different kinds of ice cubes.

So, you got it? I am actually more rattled. I’ve read “Graphic Novels for Dummies” and it says graphic novels encompass fiction and non-fictional works as in memoirs. And some creators would be outraged to be called graphic novelists when they prefer the aesthetic simplicity of being creators of comics. Some just want to be called cartoonists. Manifestos have been written about what comics should mean. Manifestos? I thought they were only for Communists. Is Communism the root of all comics?

Q: Ms. Belle, what are a few of your favorite graphic novelists

Okay, the obvious ones are Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi. Then there is Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”—oh, she is just so literary and laugh-engendering even in as quirky a setting as a funeral home. How can you get literary in a comic book, you ask? You can. She does and I do or at least I try to be.

There are historical comics like the Canadian Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel.” Now that’s an area I want to see grow—biography and history. Comics grow up.

“Stitches” by the Caldecot bemedaled David Small. Josh Neufeld—and I am raring to get my hand on his “A.D. New Orleans after the Deluge.”

There is Joe Sacco’s journalistic approach in “Palestine” and “Gorazde.” He’s great, even if his characters were drawn by an overzealous dentist.

Seth’s “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken,” about the main character’s obsession to discover the past of a dead New Yorker cartoonist. Seth's drawings are loose-limbed and stylish. Yes, some people get to go by one name because they are special.

Oh, not to forget David B.’s “Epileptic.” He’s French, so he gets to be just David B. (That’s Daveeeed to us uncouth Americans.) His drawings are stunning, marvelous. They make me wish I had made them. His story is painfully personal, about life with a brother who suffers grand mal seizures. Their parents’ attention is focused on the child with the problem. You get the picture. David has to live with the horrid N word: Neglect.

And I could tell you about the graphic novels I don’t love, but I always stop myself from being negative about another maker’s opus. This is my pet peeve: if it’s a bad book of any genre, it will die a natural death. Don’t throw dung at it. We need to review the good ones. Leave room for the idea that all your taste may be all in your buds?

Q: How did you choose the comics format?

A: It jumped out at me in a dark alley at a dead-end. It truly did.

I lived in Japan as a child and was devouring the telephone book-sized manga for girls and came to the US in 1967 wearing my favorite manga character shoes. Now in middle age, the manga phenomenon has washed over this continent like a tsunami.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Well-Read Donkey post, I had a tough time selling my prose book with full color illustrations. In the eleventh year of my struggle, I reconnected with Alane Salierno Mason, my former editor at Harcourt Brace. She had moved to WW Norton and Company, and she suggested I take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” I did, and KAPOW! I was knocked over madly in like with the comics format all over again. I said, hey, I can do this, and do it well. So I turned my prose work into captions and dialogues, drew the pages in panels of art then showed them to Alane. Norton offered me a contract in the fall of 2007.

Q: Why do you work in black and white. Are you giving up color?

A: Ms. Belle, you know very well this question sends me into a tizzy.

As far as I can remember, I've loved black and white art. It began with black crayons on white sheets of paper on the backs of mom's students’ exams. When someone mentions comics, my mind flies to black and white inky panels, not color. Black and white has it's own set of parameters and design issues. Black on white is ecstatic. The two "colors"--one being the total absorption of light and the other, the throwing off of all light--are polar opposites. It's thrilling, its ecstatic, it's exhilarating. It's drama and conflict. Durm und strung.

Think about the first mark you make on a pristine sheet of paper. The abrasion of the black crayon or pencil is like an explosion in the cosmos, the moment when matter comes into existence.

Q: Ms. Belle, how should someone new to the graphic novel approach the reading of the first one?

A: I am always surprised by this question, because I learned to read manga when young, so it’s as natural to me as eating rice. You can do it any way you like: read it fast and come back to study the details. Or linger over each panel until satisfied and go on to the next. I can’t begin to break down my eye-brain functions, but I imagine I scan the panels and the entire page.

A graphic novelists like Chris Ware in his “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” asks us to scan the whole page, because he wants us not to read in the usual way of moving our eyes left to right and top to bottom. He requires us to take in the whole and then home in on the details within the panels. You eyes will get a lot of exhausting and exhaustive exercise when you read graphic novels. It’s not kid’s stuff. Oftentimes, you have go back to find the trail of white pebbles, like Hansel and Gretel, in order to find your way.

And no, you are not stoopid if you missed it the first time round. Reread, reread and reread.

Q: Why did you use a brush and gouache instead of markers or pen and India ink?

I’m Chinese. Chinese love the brush. Therefore, I love the brush. Chinese culture is inseparable from the brush, since Chinese calligraphy is defined as the Mother of all arts. (I’ve heard Westerners refer to calligraphy as the art of the dunce. Hey, don't frown at me: I didn’t say it.) The brush can be supple or energized. It is able to express the artist’s every emotion, whether it be peace, rage or elated trembling.

With gouache, an opaque watercolor, I can get the darkest velvety black. India ink can crack. It’s not as supple after it dries on the Bristol board and causes the paper to warp. Nothing uglier than warped art.

Q: Why do you say the Chinese horizontal scroll is like a pre-modern motion picture. How does it relate to the graphic novel?

When you go into Asian museums, you might see a horizontal scroll unrolled in its entirety under glass. This is the wrong way to look. Horizontal scrolls were hand-held devices. Intimate. You unroll a section to the left and roll up what you’ve seen on the right. It’s as if you are riding on the back of a donkey and you get to travel the landscape, entering the mountain, descending into a village, crossing a bridge, getting into a boat to float downstream . . . the boat goes over a waterfall (Uh, just checkin’ to see if you are still with me.)

This is exactly what I try to show the reader of a graphic novel. I take my reader into the landscape of my story. And I might add that scrolls have lines of poetry written directly into the silk or paper, just like captions in a graphic novel.

Q: Why are you nuts about this format?

A: Because it’s perfect for me. In my prose books, the two-dozen pieces of art got lost. In my children’s book, the art was dominant partner. In graphic novels, words and images come together in a perfect balance and neither overwhelms the other. And how cool is that to be make ice cubes to fill a largely unfilled cup. My cup runneth empty is a good place to be.

Q: What are you going to blog about tomorrow, Ms. Belle?

A: I’m taking you on a photographic visit of my workspace and the tools of my trade, which includes empty, white tofu containers. And the latter has zero to do with being Chinese. I also want to show you family pictures of ancestors. But I have 24-hours to change my mind.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Belle Yang Interviews Belle Yang

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 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?

Friday, July 2, 2010

How to Find an Author

Translation: like my publisher, I’m in it for the benjamins. But purely mercenary reasons aside, I should say one of the greatest rewards is stumbling across “new” authors. There’s an innocence, yet also a covetousness, to such occasions: you’re in love, you’re making a discovery that only a minority of English-speakers can share, and in staking out ground with your flag, you’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg—probably the larger part of an entire oeuvre still lies submerged in another language. It’s possessive in the best sense, like when, as a kid, you couldn’t wait to race to the library and check out all a given author’s books because you’d just devoured the last one. But of course, if you love an author, you also want to share him or her with the world.

How do I find the authors likely to interest me? Well, how do you decide what book to read next? The time-honored ways apply: critical histories, serendipitous bookstore finds, tips from trusted friends. I look up interviews with authors I like, then look up the authors they mention as friends, influences, heroes, contemporaries. Really, one read leads to another: epigraphs, quotations, allusions, blurbs, these all whet hungry curiosity with the breadcrumbs of further names or titles to investigate. One of the best things about reading foreign fiction is encountering the strange. Read a lot. Be willing to be surprised.

Because of the relatively small amount of work translated into English (as opposed to the amount translated from it), any authors you find are likely to be “new” only to English speakers, though sometimes they can be young or budding talents even in their home country. (This, like sales figures or an established reputation, can in fact be a selling point to US publishers.) We may feel we live in an international age, but c’mon: roaming charges, DVD regions, voltage variations, and a thousand other details of daily life make the experience of being in any one country quite different from being in another. The truth is, unless you can afford to spend your days following another country’s literary news, the best you can get from abroad is a very filtered view. What’s it filtered by? Professors, pundits, experts, scholars, reporters, reviewers, various government-funded initiatives for international cultural dissemination, authors, translators—think about all the usual people telling you who to read; think about how much you do or don’t ignore them; imagine that number doubled—the US plus another country’s literary establishment—then imagine the intermittent signal from one to the other further staticked by rumor, speculation, misperception, mistranslation, partiality, and gossip. How do we ever manage to get the skinny on another country?

This may sound exceedingly cynical, but what I’m saying is: make up your own mind. Find something you love and champion it. Only you can make it the next big thing. Often there’s a lot of competition among translators for a few big names that not only make it over, but make a splash. Toussaint. Houellebecq. Bernard Henri-Lévy. Don’t be satisfied with what people tell you is big abroad. The people over there think something if not totally different, then definitely more varied. As Americans, we have a certain conception of France, and naturally, we often look to confirm that conception. Publishers who like French stuff are looking the next book that’s somehow quintessentially French. But humans are great rationalizers, and everything that makes it big as French somehow gets added to the general conception of “Frenchness,” even if only as “something not formerly thought of as French.” So much of taste is decided around a dinner table, anyway: an editor goes to Paris, dines with his or her friends, comes back with recommendations. Why shouldn’t your dinner table be a source of informed opinion, provided that you’ve done your research and can eloquently advocate your tastes? Translation is your chance to revamp national reputations—to renovate a cliché. Up till recently, there was no such subgenre as “Scandinavian crime.”

I for one would love to expand the notion of Frenchness to include fabulism, not generally something we’ve looked to France for since, oh, maybe Jules Verne. As a genre, the Francophone fantastic is something of a lost continent for American readers today; the last communiqués from its shores to reach our own date back to the Decadents, or the Surrealists at best. Internationally, its centrality to French letters has been overshadowed by more prominent movements. Existentialism, Oulipo, the nouveau roman, structuralism: thanks in part to their successful exportation, these are the must-sees on any tour of postwar French literature, yet in the 20th century, a tradition born of the transition from Romantic to Modern also thrived, and evolved to address contemporary concerns. French Decadents were reflected in the dark mirror of their British brethren and in our own American “weird tale,” homegrown name for a somber hybrid of fantasy and horror. But it’s clear the contemporary fantastic, which remains virtually unknown outside France, has much to offer similar Anglophone developments, from the metafictionalists of the 1960s, who playfully appropriated fantastical content, to the contemporary New Weird and New Wave Fabulists. Publications like Fairy Tale Review, or such recent volumes as the Library of America’s two-volume American Fantastic Tales bear witness not only to resurgent interest in the genre but its legitimization as literature.

A bit of advice for budding translators: international rights are a tricky business, and more than one translator has gotten burned by issues of permission. There have even been stories of fickle or unscrupulous authors retracting rights or pitting two translators against each other. Before you dive into the work, do your homework. Who owns the rights: the publisher, the author, or the author’s estate? The older a work is, the harder it may be to track down the rights. Contact the rights department for the publisher in question, and wait patiently for your email to be dug out of spam by an intern. Chances are, answering your query will not be a priority, unless you are coming with a publication contract or some other offer of money (sadly, publications in literary magazines may not always cut it). Then, stand by your author. The translator is writer, critic, and representative. In a way, I was Châteaureynaud’s US agent for a while, when I was trying to build a presence for him with publications in literary magazines. It may not pay much, but it’s gratifying, and a good way, down the line, to make a case for your author to a publisher. So what if your author isn’t even well-known in his or her homeland? The ironies and vagaries of international publishing are such that making it into English could, conversely, make your author big back home.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege blogging this week at Well-Read Donkey. I am grateful and honored Aggie asked me to drop by, and I hope it’s been as fun for you as it has for me. To paraphrase Beyoncé: if you like it, then you should put a comment on it.


P.S. If you’re reading A Life on Paper, why not drop by the terrific blog Largehearted Boy for a peek at the soundtrack the author and I have devised for the book? Then stick around for other awesome soundtracks writers have concocted for their creations.

Also, if you’re into supporting excellent writing, I’m in the Clarion Write-a-Thon this summer.You may have heard of the Clarion writing workshop, which has been running for 42 years and has turned out many bestselling and award-winning writers, often in the speculative vein. Funding has been cut for the program this year, and so Clarion has responded by running a "Write-a-Thon" to ensure that the workshop can continue. Sponsor me, and all proceeds go to keeping Clarion alive. What this entails is making a small PayPal donation via my profile page, which can be found here. Even a $5 donation helps Clarion tremendously. Sponsors also have the option of joining the Write-a-Thon forums, tracking my progress, and cheering me on during this six-week event.