Interview: Gene Yang: Writer/Creator of "American Born Chinese"
by Jonathan Baylis
Published: December 13, 2006
This year, a new graphic novel publisher was born. First Second came out of the gate running with a
quantity of quality including two of my favorite creators, Eddie Campbell ("From Hell") and Louis
Trondheim ("Dungeon"). This Fall, they released a book by someone whose work I was not familiar with.
Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" was instantly pleasing to the eye upon first page flip and when
given the opportunity to read it and interview Mr. Yang, I jumped at the chance. Gene's book now has
the distinction of being the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award, and it was the
Amazon Editors' #1 graphic novel pick of the year. I think these distinctions are well deserved and
this was easily one of the best comics I've read in years. It's my pleasure to let Gene speak for
himself about this book.
Jonathan: Hi Gene, please introduce this book to our readers. What’s it about?
Gene: "American Born Chinese" has three storylines. The first is an Asian-American retelling of the Monkey
King legend, a popular Chinese myth. The second features Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy growing up
in a predominantly white neighborhood. The final storyline is a sitcom on paper, starring Cousin
Chin-Kee, the ultimate Chinese stereotype.
Jonathan: How did you come to write this book? What inspired you to write this particular story?
Gene: Well, I've been wanting to do my own version of the Monkey King ever since I can remember. It just
took me a while to figure out what I could add to the story. For folks who aren't familiar with the
Monkey King, he's a legendary figure in Chinese mythology who's become a pop icon. In Asia there are
so many versions of his story that he's practically his own genre.
the Monkey King
Gene: I eventually decided to use the Monkey King legend as a way of reflecting on my own experience as an
Asian-American. That, combined with the other two storylines, ended up being "American Born Chinese."
Jonathan: What’s the theme of your story?
Gene: I tried to explore the minority experience, and how different internal and external pressures play a
part in that experience.
Jonathan: There's a lot of talk on race in this country right now, especially with the Michael Richards incident. There's a lot of focus on Latinos and African-Americans. Do you feel that racism focused on Asians is one that's overlooked?
Gene: It seems like that sometimes, doesn’t it? We’re a more recent immigrant group, so some of it is understandable. I also believe that it’s partly the result of Asian-Americans’ general disdain for politics. Many Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants came to America to get away from politics, and the next generation inherited that attitude. Keep your head
down, study hard, and make a good life for yourself. Don’t make any waves.
Jonathan: Who are you aiming this book at?
Gene: Middle school and up, I'd imagine. I'm a little worried younger children would take the Chin-Kee
chapters the wrong way.
Jonathan: The story is accessible to young adults, but it has enough depth to reach adults as well. Could you speak to that?
Gene: Well, I'm honored that you think so! I do think that comics are finally "arriving" as a medium. The comics
community has been creating literary-minded works for over two decades, and we're reaching critical mass. I'm very privileged to be a part of that.
Jonathan: Why should the average reader pick this up off of the shelf?
Gene: I'd hope my story speaks to anyone who has had or wants to understand a minority experience.
Jonathan: Why comics? Why are you using this form?
Gene: The medium of comics is the most intimate medium, in my opinion. Every stroke you see on the page can
come out of a single person's brush. It's almost like reading a hand-written letter.
Jonathan: Do you prefer to do the art yourself? (I read “Duncan’s Kingdom” and saw your work with Derek
Gene Yang self-portrait
Gene: It depends on the project. Some projects are born out of my own experiences, others out of my
friendships with my fellow artists. I'm very happy with the way "Duncan's Kingdom" came out. It
wouldn't have been the same book if either of us had done it alone.
Jonathan: Did you do any research for this book?
Gene: I read multiple translations of the Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel that tells the
story of the Monkey King. I also visited China with my wife and a group of my students. I used many
of the photos we took on that trip as reference.
Jonathan: This was originally a webcomic?
Gene: Yes. Originally, I published it a page a week on ModernTales. I think webcomics are one of the most
interesting segments of the comics community right now. It's sort of like the Wild West, where
anything goes. There are beautiful comics, crazy comics, horrible comics that you'd never find in
Jonathan: Your website is called Humble Comics. How did you come to that name? How important is humility for an artist?
Gene: I decided to start drawing comics after praying about my future with some friends. Afterwards, I cut my
work hours to part-time (I was a programmer at the time), took some art classes, and learned as much as I could about the comics industry.
Gene: The name Humble Comics came out of that prayer time. I have a natural tendency to hang my self-worth onto my cartooning abilities. It's been such a big part of my life, and a real way for me to get attention when I was young. Even now, a bad Comics Journal review can keep me up at night.
Gene: The antidote for that is humility. A priest at my home parish once told me that real humility is the same thing as honesty. As mortals, if we’re just honest about our lives, we’ll be humble. I think there’s a lot to that. We all have “social” humility where we know better than to brag about ourselves in front of people we don’t know that well, but being honest about your life and yourself is a discipline that you have to practice.
Jonathan: This is the first graphic novel to ever get a nomination for a National Book Award. How does
Gene: It's amazing. It goes beyond feeling. I'm not sure what to say about it. I feel very, very
privileged. Very, very lucky. I'm lucky I got hooked up with First Second, I'm lucky to have been at
the right place at the right time. I also think the nomination is indicative of the sheer volume of
out there now.
Jonathan: You make your daily bread by teaching. Do you feel you try to teach or relay lessons in your
Gene: I don't try to consciously. I actually try to keep my two jobs as separate as possible. One gives me
break from the other.
Jonathan: First Second is a new graphic novel publisher. Do you have any opinions on them to share?
Gene: They are beautiful, beautiful people. They're like fairy godmothers, they're so good. Sometimes I
find it hard to believe that they exist. I hope our relationship lasts a long, long time.
Jonathan: When you were younger, I heard you had aspirations as a Disney animator. Would you like to see
this work animated?
Gene: It'd be cool, but I'm a little wary of finding bits and pieces of the Chin-Kee sections of an ABC
movie decontextualized, all over the Internet. It'd have to be done by a director I really trust.
Jonathan: What’s next?
Gene: I'm currently working on another graphic novel from First Second titled "Three Angels". It's a
collaborative effort with Thien Pham, another Bay Area cartoonist. It's about a video game enthusiast
who is called by three angels to go to medical school. We're trying to explore the tension between
Jonathan: Thanks, Gene! I loved the book!
Other "First Second" articles:
Sardine in Outer Space
A.L.I.E.E.E.N. : Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda