The ComicsVerse Podcast has already featured two episodes of the work of Gene Luen Yang yet somehow we are always left wanting to hear more from this contemporary genius. The auteur of AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, BOXERS AND SAINTS, writer of three years of THE LAST AIRBENDER, and current writer of DC Comics’ SUPERMAN, sat down with the ComicsVerse Podcast to discuss how he works, how he broke into the comics industry and the inspiration behind his work.
Each panelist had too much to ask for anyone to be satisfied, but I came out of it with the recommendation that I read Jay Stephens’ Land of Nod so that’s enough for me. Justin, Kathy, and Kay interviewed Gene along with Jo Chiang, Angela Yih, and me, Nolan Bensen. What I remember most is the widespread agreement that AMERICAN BORN CHINESE spoke to most all of us not only as Chinese-Americans, but as members of immigrant families and the immigrant movement.
Yang’s AMERICAN BORN CHINESE tells three interweaving stories. One follows a version of the Monkey King from the prologue to Journey to the West, one of the four great novels of pre-modern China. In both the original and in this version, the head of a tribe of monkeys stumbles his way upward through the hierarchy of the Celestial Bureaucracy while mastering a series of supernatural martial arts maneuvers. This story in AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is interspersed both with that of a young Chinese-American boy’s experience in U.S. public school and the plot of an apparent sitcom episode: a white American high school student visited and accompanied to school by his Chinese racial stereotype of a cousin. I wouldn’t ruin any of the book’s middle or later plot, but let’s just say these three plotlines have more to do with each other than I expected — I was too immersed to quibble about traditional plot structures anyway.
Perhaps most surprising of all is what happened when I asked Gene about his unusual plot structure and he recommended Jay Stephens’ The Land of Nod to me as one of its inspirations. Jo Chiang made the astute observation that these three highly different narratives resemble the code switching an immigrant must perform to get by in their adopted home, and although Gene said that he hadn’t even thought of this aspect, it just shows that good writing comes from truth, and truth comes from within.
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