Interview with Gene Yang ’95, L&S alumnus and award-winning designer
On the evening of March 16, 2021, a man opened fire at three Atlanta-area businesses and killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent. In response to these tragic shootings, â#StopAsianHateâ and â#AsiansAreHumansTooâ became all too familiar refrains as thousands across the country protested against rising anti-Asian prejudice and violence. Renowned cartoonist Gene Luen Yang turned to his pen and paper and used the medium of comics to channel his own thoughts and emotions.
Yang graduated from UC Berkeley, where he majored in computer science while doing a minor in L&S Creative Writing program. Early in his career, he put both skills to good use as an educator and has since grown into a prolific storyteller, successfully partnering with iconic comic book publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Yang, who is Chinese-American, is a two-time National Book Award finalist with graphic novels that skillfully weave topics ranging from religion and culture to Boxers and Saints, identity and stereotypes Chinese born American. In 2016, he received a MacArthur Engineering Fellowship and the Library of Congress named him Ambassador for Children’s Literature.
We spoke with Yang about his journey to becoming a cartoonist, the comic book “#AsiansAreHumanToo” he recently posted on Instagram, and how art and storytelling can help us unravel complex themes like identity, racism and social justice.
[This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
L&S: As a student at Berkeley, what was it like to pursue seemingly different disciplines, computer science and creative writing? How do these different skill sets show up in your work?
Yang gene: When I started at Berkeley, I wanted to double major in computer science and art. But after taking a few art classes, I realized this was not my place and moved on to a minor in Creative Writing. I was lucky because it was difficult to get into these classes at the time. I was on the waiting list and finally entered after an interview with Professor Thaisa Frank. After being in comics and graphic novels for over 20 years, the minor in creative writing proved to be much more useful to me as an adult.
When it comes to coding and writing, I actually see a lot of overlap between the two. For both, you take abstract ideas in your head and break them down into concrete chunks. And then you arrange these concrete pieces in sequential order. The only difference is that with coding it’s a set of instructions and with comics it’s a set of panels.
L&S: Your recent Instagram comic seemed to pop up almost immediately after the Atlanta shooting, generating almost 19,000 likes. What was this process like for you?
I heard about the shooting from a friend and like many others I couldn’t sleep that night. I woke up in the morning and put aside everything I had to do that day. I just couldn’t focus on anything else. I remember I had a deadline for DC Comics and I just couldn’t make it until I released it.
I think that particular moment, the shooting, was a turning point for Asian Americans. I remember having a conversation with many college friends, Cal’s in fact, who have been involved in social justice issues for a long time. We explained how we knew something bad was going on with Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, but there was something that didn’t allow us to take it seriously until the shootings. occur. Then something finally fell into place.
Your work is often rooted in themes of identity, touching on topics such as racism, stereotypes and self-acceptance. Did you intend to create art to make a change?
The comics I made for the first ten years of my career looked a bit like an exorcism. With Chinese born AmericanI was just thinking about how I could handle my demons on a comic book page. I never expected to live full time with comics. In fact, I originally published Chinese like xerox comics. I finished a chapter, copied it, took it to local salons and sold the copies. There was also a store on Shattuck Avenue (in Berkeley) called Comic Relief that allowed me to sell comics on consignment. Creating the comics was just my way of working on things.
How does the format of comics and graphic novels allow you to deal with such deep ideas and feelings?
For me, with race issues, there is an added âoomphâ when dealing with comics as opposed to text, because of the visual element. So many ideas that haunt us as minorities are expressed visually – in political cartoons, in movies, etc. Because comics are a visual format, I felt I could deal with this more directly. In Chinese born American, there is a character called Cousin Chin-Kee who is basically an embodiment of all the ideas that I found in my head, that I had imbibed with the culture around me. I just don’t think I could have handled these ideas the same if I had limited myself to words. I needed the photos.
In your comic “#AsiansAreHumanToo”, there is a sign where your avatar is silent and there are no words. How do you decide when to rely on words rather than pictures?
I think silent panels with comics are a unique and powerful way to express yourself in the medium. Comics are an inherently hybrid medium, a combination of still illustrations and words. But I think the way pictures and words process information and emotions is very different. For emotion, when you try to illustrate an emotion through pictures, it’s a lot more visceral, it’s a lot more raw. Whereas when you do it with words it’s usually a lot more nuanced. So when there is an emotion that I want to put directly into a reader’s gut, bypassing their brain, I do it through images. When I want something more nuanced, more thoughtful, I do it with words. And the comics give you those two things to work with.
Comics give you both of these things to work with. For identity issues in particular, those two things come into play – sometimes we feel these issues viscerally in our gut, before we even know why we are feeling them. And other times, it’s just the thing you roll around in your head at night, when you’re alone in the dark.
Many Asian American creators, writers, artists and musicians have spoken out in support of each other in the wake of this year’s tragic events. Have you felt this in your own community?
Yes, there has been a lot of solidarity between Asian American creatives in the books and also in the comics. I saw it in both communities. In fact, there is an excellent book coming out soon by an author named Paula Yoo, From a whisper to a rallying cry, the assassination of Vincent Chin and the trial that galvanized the American-Asian movement. Virtually all Asian Americans, especially if you’ve been to UC Berkeley, have heard of Vincent Chin. We know this is a critical point in our story, but most of us don’t know many details. With this particular book, I had planned to read it for a week and instead finished it in 12 hours. It was as if I knew a long lost relative. This incident that I knew was important to me – part of my history – I had only really known it through echoes. Through his book, I had the impression of seeing up close.
What do you think the future holds for the Asian-American community? How might these events shape your work in the future?
This feeling that I talk about in the previous tape is real. In my career, every now and then things don’t feel as strained as they used to be, and I start to move forward. I look at my four children and their experiences are so different from mine, and I think we are headed in the right direction. When my children read Chinese born American, it’s just a story to them. I don’t think they have the same voices in their heads as I do, because they grew up very differently from me.
But then something will happen and I realize that we cannot move forward. I don’t know if we will ever be able to move on. Everything that has happened since the pandemic has definitely changed the tenor of our conversations. These events are affirmations that I must keep telling stories about these same things.