World / Reporter's Journal

Graphic novelist wins 'genius' grant, just getting started

By Chris Davis ( Updated: 2016-09-28 06:14

A funny thing happened to graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, 43, on his way to work the other day — the office, for him, being actually a table at a Panera Bread shop near his San Jose, California, house.

"I used to have a studio at home but I have four children — one boy and three girls — and the oldest girl got sick of sharing a room with her sister, so to keep the peace in our house, I gave up the studio," he said.

As he was backing out of the driveway, his phone rang. It was the MacArthur Foundation on the line. Congratulations, he was told, he had just won a "genius" grant for $650,000.

"I pulled back in my driveway," he said. "That was kind of the end of my workday right there. I spent the rest of the day in a daze."

Yang is no stranger to accolades for his work in comic book-style literature, which has steadily been gaining respect from the literary establishment in recent years. His hit graphic novels (graphic novels are basically 200-to-400-page comic books) — American Born Chinese (2006) and Boxers & Saints (2013) —were both nominated for National Book Awards, with the former being the first work of the genre to ever make it to the finals.

In American Born Chinese, Yang draws on Chinese folk lore and modern comic book style to tell a coming-of-age story about a young Chinese adolescent trying to assimilate into American culture with the mythological Monkey King as a guide.

"As a Chinese American I grew up in between cultures," he said. "A Chinese culture at home and an American culture at school, with two names, one at home and one at school. It took me a while throughout my childhood to figure out who I was and how I fit in the world. I think that is reflected in the work I'm doing."

Boxers & Saints tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion through the eyes of a boy who joins the rebels and a girl who is under the influence of Western missionaries. The MacArthur citation called it "an illustration of how consideration of multiple perspectives enriches understanding of historical events."

Yang has done most of his work while working fulltime as a high school computer science teacher for the last 17 years, which has given him ideas as well. One of his several current projects is called Secret Coders, a six-volume series about a group of middle school kids who discover a secret school where they learn the fundamentals of computer science.

"I'm basically taking what I used to do in my classroom and putting into a graphic novel," he said. "I'm really hoping that kids read this book and become interested in coding."

The big project he's working on right now is New Super-Man for DC Comics. For those who may not realize it, in the DC Universe, Clark Kent (and Superman) died a while back (long story) and has been replaced by a bunch of different characters, one being a Clark Kent from a different dimension.

The replacement Yang is working on — New Super-Man— is a 17-year-old boy in Shanghai named Kenan Kong, who inherits some of Superman's powers (long story) and then tries to figure out how to best put them to use.

"It wasn't my idea to do a Chinese Superman and when they first brought it to me I was kind of scared to do it," Yang said. "It's a tricky political and cultural landscape to navigate. Superman's about truth, justice and the American way. What do those things mean in the context of modern China?

"The China that exists today is different from the China that existed for most of Clark Kent's history, right? So we wanted to play with some of those dynamics."

Yang said most of his work is about "how people form identities using disparate sources."

And culture, to him, is "a living thing, it changes and when a family moves from one culture into another and they try to preserve a culture, what they're preserving is like a culture frozen in time.

"So the Chinese culture that I experienced is like the Chinese culture from the 1960s," he said, "because that's what my parents knew."

"A lot of Americans, when they think of China, the China that they have in their imaginations isn't the China of today," he said. "The China of today is very forward thinking, really about the future, and I think a lot of Americans don't understand that."

The MacArthur Foundation cited Yang for "leading the way in bringing diverse characters to children's and young adult literature and confirming comics' place as an important creative and imaginative force within literature and art."

Yang said he's still in shock over receiving $650,000 and is not sure what he's going to do with it, but he does imagine a good chunk of it will go toward putting the kids through college.

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