Q&A with Gene Luen Yang

Reading Time: 5 minutes
photography by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com
photography by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com

In celebration of Children’s Book Week, I had the opportunity to interview Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He’s also the author of American Born Chinese, Secret Coders, Boxers & Saints, and recently finished his stint writing DC Comics’ Superman. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll stop myself here and let you read the interview.

GeekMom:
What is your favorite programming language?
Gene Luen Yang:
Logo was my first language, so it has a special place in my heart. If I had to pick one favorite, that would be it. It’s not for any logical reasons, it’s purely a choice of the heart.

That said, my old college professor Brian Harvey argues that Logo is as robust as any language out there. He wrote multiple books about it. If you have any interest in the language beyond the turtle, you ought to check them out.

In high school, I used Pascal. In college, it was mostly C. Professionally, I used C and Visual Basic, but that was a long, long time ago.

As I teacher, I taught Pascal, C++, and Java. Of the three, I liked teaching C++ the best, though my knowledge of the language isn’t very deep.

Nowadays, I’m pretty out of date. I haven’t programmed professionally in almost two decades. Luckily, though, most of the building blocks are the same regardless of what language you use.

GeekMom:
A question from my nine year-old (who is eagerly awaiting book 2 of Secret Coders) — which of your books is your favorites?
Gene Luen Yang:
My favorite book is always the one I’m currently working on, so right now it’s Secret Coders Book 4! I’m in the middle of writing a scene about how to translate letters into binary!
Self Portrait by Gene Luen Yang
Self Portrait by Gene Luen Yang
GeekMom:
Parenting-wise, you responded to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom with a great cartoon that just hinted at the very real cultural disparity we in the Immigrant Sandwich Generation face . Of course, as I throw the word immigrant in there, it still covers pretty much everyone in America, since people’s cultural identities still translate to a conflict between old world and new world, where America seems to get blamed for being too lax, too tech-focused, the enemy of tradition. How do you balance this?
Gene Luen Yang:
Wow. So three questions in and you’re already giving me the hard ones, huh? ☺ I don’t know if I have a good answer for this. I’m still trying to figure it out. Immigrants’ kids have to navigate two (or more) cultures. We have to stitch together two (or more) distinct sets of expectations into one, integrated whole.

Here’s one realization that has helped me: Cultures are living things. They change and grow. The Asia that my parents left, the one in their memories, the one they told me about in their stories, no longer exists. So what is the “Old World”, exactly?

Tradition is important. It ought to inform us. It ought to have a place in the conversation. But we can’t be completely beholden to it. After all, the children of the folks who didn’t emigrate aren’t completely beholden to it, so why should we be?

GeekMom:
Both American Born Chinese and the Shadow Hero address the immigrant experience, of growing up an immigrant and coming to terms with your cultural identity. Do you have plans to explore this further?
Gene Luen Yang:
My parents’ immigrant experience has had such a big impact on my life. As long as I continue writing from my life, it will come up again and again, in both explicit and hidden ways. Right now, I’m not actively working on a project that focuses on the immigrant experience, but it’s still a part of everything I do.
GeekMom:
My personal mission is to help promote Asian-American literature, helping to explore that cultural tug-of-war between traditional and modern, that first or second generation Asian Americans face (much as you did in American Born Chinese). Are there other Asian American authors/storytellers that speak to you, whose stories resonate with you, or that you believe deserve further recognition?
Gene Luen Yang:
Lark Pien, the colorist of American Born Chinese, has written and drawn several books on her own. One of my favorites is Long Tail Kitty, an utterly endearing children’s graphic novel.

Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference won all three comics industry awards for a reason. He perfectly captures what it was like to come of age in the nineties.

Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile is one of the most inventive graphic novels in existence.

Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons is a huge influence on me.

If you have an interest at all in the Asian American experience–heck, in the human experience–you need to read Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings.

I love the novels of David Yoo and Mike Jung. Both of them expertly blend drama with humor. Mitali Perkins, an accomplished author in her own right, put together an anthology about living in two cultures called Open Mic.

GeekMom:
About your stint as a Superman writer, how does that work? Are you given guidelines about the storyline, or do you have free reign (while remaining true to the character/universe) to take the story wherever you want it to go?
Gene Luen Yang:
Superman exists in a shared universe. As such, there are certain restrictions about what happens to him. What I wrote had to fit into the company’s larger vision for the character. Of all my projects, Superman was the most collaborative by far. I was part of a writing team that included the writers of the other Superman comics and our editors. While I was able to work many of my own ideas into the book, they had to be stitched into a larger tapestry.
I’m no longer writing Superman. My last issue was #50, which came out a couple of months ago. Now, I’m writing New Super-Man, a brand-new monthly series from DC Comics about a Chinese kid who inherits some of Clark Kent’s power. I’m working with an amazing team that includes artist Viktor Bogdanovic and colorist Kesley Shannon. The pages those guys are putting together look shockingly good. We are all really excited about it.
GeekMom:
Moving forward to your post as the National Ambassador for Young Person’s Literature, how has it changed your life? How have your students, family reacted to your post?
Gene Luen Yang:
It’s been a crazy year so far, but crazy in a good way. Things have been pretty busy, especially this past month. I’ve gotten on an airplane every single week. But it’s also been a thrill to speak to students all over the country about the importance of books.

My family, especially my wife, have been incredibly supportive. My wife is heavily involved in promoting reading and writing at our kids’ school, so what I’m doing goes hand-in-hand with what she’s doing.

I’ve heard from a few of my old students. They’re happy for me. I taught for seventeen years, so many of my students are older than I was when I taught them. Discovering that those goofy teenagers from a decade ago have grown into wonderful, functional adults has been deeply satisfying.

GeekMom:
I love your Reading without Walls initiative. Has the response been what you had hoped?
Gene Luen Yang:
I’m challenging kids to read outside of their walls. Specifically, I want them to:

  • Read a book about someone who doesn’t look or live like them.
  • Read a book about a topic they find intimidating.
  • Read a book in a format they’ve never tried before, be it a graphic novel or a chapter book or a book in verse.

I’ve heard from a number of librarians and teachers who have issued the challenge to their students, and the results have been better than I could have imagines. For instance, at Live Oak School in San Francisco, librarian Melissa McAvoy created a Reading Without Walls program that resulted in over 100 books being read!

Right now, the Children’s Book Council, First Second Books, and I are working on materials to help teachers and librarians present the challenge to their students. We’re going to have it ready before the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.

GeekMom:
What else is in store for us during your reign?
Gene Luen Yang:
“Reign.” Ha ha. That’s awesome.

I’ve started a Reading Without Walls monthly podcast with Reading Rockets.

I do a monthly column about the creative process for Panels.net. Here’s the latest.

And I’m going to do a monthly column about what I’m reading. That will be up soon.

So there you have it. National Ambassador Gene Luen Yang sure is busy, and I know I appreciate the work he’s doing to bring children’s literature into focus.

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