Reading Without Walls: A Conversation with Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen YangThis month, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang officially ushers in the permanent annual version of his Reading Without Walls challenge. Recently Yang sat down with CBLDF Editorial Director Betsy Gomez to talk about the challenge and the importance of diverse voices in literature.

BG: All right, this is Betsy Gomez, the Editorial Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and I’m sitting down today to talk to Gene Yang. Hi Gene!

GY: Hi Betsy, thanks for having me!

BG: Thank you so much for doing this. So, you are the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, which is awesome. What has that experience been like? What are some of your responsibilities, and should I call you Mr. Ambassador?

GY: [Laughs.] It’s been a ton of fun. I started this gig two Januaries ago. The National Ambassador program hasn’t been around that long, it got started in 2008. Every ambassador has a two-year term. I’m the fifth one, and I’m also the first comics guy. Everybody else came up through books. So, out of all the jobs that I’ve ever had, the ambassador job is the one that has the most syllables in it. 

I guess the amount of weight that I feel sometimes is like, a little bit intense, you know? It feels weird to be jumping into that world, it feels weird to be working with the Library of Congress and Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader. Weird in a really good way, but still weird. 

The point of the appointment is to get both more kids reading and kids reading more, and I do that by giving speeches, I’ll go to different events like the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. or conventions like Emerald City Comicon, where this interview took place], and I’ll talk about reading and how awesome books are with young people. I do school visits — sometimes it’s virtual, sometimes it’s in person. And I’m also promoting a challenge called the Reading Without Walls challenge. Every ambassador picks a platform that they want to focus on, and for me it’s Reading Without Walls, which just means I want to get kids to go outside their comfort zones and explore the world through books. So, specifically I’m asking kids to one, read books about people who aren’t like them, who don’t look like them or live like them; two, read books about topics that they might find intimidating; and three, read books in formats that they don’t normally read for fun, so if normally all you read is like, chapter books for fun, I want you to try a graphic novel — and vice versa as well.

BG: Reading Without Walls was the initiative that you came up with as Ambassador, but it just went annual. Why was it important to you to make this designated time to do it and make sure that it lives beyond your ambassadorship?

ReadingWithoutWalls_GLYGraphic-thumb-autox378-20218GY: Yeah, I have to say I’m incredibly lucky that I’m with Macmillan, and it really is the folks of Macmillan who’ve provided so much support for the Reading Without Walls initiative. It was their idea to make it annual. I was just like, we’re going to do it — you know, we’ll do it for two years and then we’ll let it go. And they really wanted to make it every April we push Reading Without Walls. Part of it is that the response we’ve gotten from librarians and bookstore owners and teachers has been really overwhelming, you know, they’ll send photos to me of these different Reading Without Walls displays. They’ll show classes holding up books that the read to fulfill the challenge. It’s been awesome. It’s been wonderful.

BG: You talk about being the first graphic novelist to be named National Ambassador. You’re also the first graphic novelist to get shortlisted for the National Book Award in young people’s literature. Do you ever get askance glances from people who are like, why are you here, you’re a graphic novelist?

GY: You know, I think the world has really changed. I think the world has really changed, and that in part has been due to folks like Art Spiegelman and the Hernandez brothers and Lynda Barry and these folks that have been doing these literary comics for so long, for decades and decades and decades. It took until the early-to-mid 2000s for that to really set in. Nobody really knew what a graphic novel was until then, and nowadays I would say within the traditional book world as a whole, graphic novels are pretty well accepted. People get that this is just another way that we tell stories through books, so it’s really rare that I’ll meet somebody who reacts in a negative way. But it also could be because those sorts of folks aren’t coming to my events, you know? [both laugh]

BG: That’s one thing we run into: CBLDF still runs into people occasionally who are like, well comics aren’t real books. How do you respond to that?

GY: Yeah, well, I think the definition of a book is really broad, especially with technology now being what it is, right? And I also think that the separation between words and pictures that we’ve had in America has historic roots that aren’t necessarily good. I personally think it dates back to the Reformation. If you look at traditional European culture, the people who were really good at words and the people who were really good at pictures were generally two sets of people. Words and pictures were seen as two separate disciplines. Whereas in traditional Asian culture, if you look at traditional Chinese brush painting or Japanese printmaking, the people who were good at words were also good at pictures and vice versa. Like a traditional Japanese print, it’s not considered finished until poetry is set alongside the image, and it’s not considered masterful unless both of those elements are masterful. I don’t think there are good reasons to separate them, you know? And really, they’re only just now coming back together. There’s just no legitimate reason why comics, a combination of words and pictures, shouldn’t be taken seriously.

BG: You’ve gone from more personal, kind of independent work like American Born Chinese into superhero comics, Superman. How does that compare?

GY: It was hard, I’ve got to be honest. It was hard to make that transition. And one of the hardest things was dealing with the page count. I was just not used to writing 22-page chunks, you know? It took a long time for me to get used to that rhythm. Just now, I’ve been working with DC Comics for two years now, and it’s just very recently that I feel comfortable with it. And the other thing is that Superman is — he’s not just a character, he’s like a legacy almost. You know, he means so many different things to different people, there are a lot of people with deeply passionate ideas about Superman, and when you’re working on a character like that you’re going to hear from some of those people. At the same time it was also crazy that I got to work on the very first superhero ever. It was a shock to my, like, nervebones.

BG: With Superman, he’s this iconic character that a lot of people strongly associate with the American way, which is really pretty funny since he’s basically an immigrant…

GY: Yes.

BG: …and even to a degree an undocumented immigrant…

GY: Yes. Exactly.

BG: What are some of the specific challenges you’re facing with Kong Kenan, the Chinese Superman.

GY: Yeah, this was not my idea. After I finished my run on the main Superman title, I had these talks with DC Comics. They said they wanted a Chinese Superman character, and I was like, that sounds terrible. You should not do that, that sounds horrible, I don’t want anything to do with it. And then I had this series of meetings with Jim Lee and with Geoff Johns, during these meetings the character started talking to me, and I was like, I think I’m going to need to do it. And one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it was specifically because of what you’re saying. Clark Kent is supposed to be Truth, Justice, and the American Way, so what does that mean in modern China? 

This wasn’t going to be a Chinese American character, they wanted like a Chinese character living in China. My parents — my dad was born in Taiwan, my mom was born on mainland China but her family left just as the Communist Party was coming into power, so I grew up with these really specific and really strong opinions about modern China and about the government, and issues of freedom and that sort of thing. It took me a little while as I was growing up to realize that the issues were more nuanced, and that the China of today is not the same as the China that my mom’s family left. A lot of the book is dealing with that kind of stuff…. We don’t talk about Truth, Justice, and the American Way, we talk about Truth, Justice, and Democracy. How are those things going to be expressed in modern China?

BG: Do you have people coming up to you at conventions when you’re doing signings [asking] “Why did you do this to Superman” at all?

GY: Not at conventions — not face to face. But you know the internet is like…yeah. So, I’ll get a little bit of that, but by and large I’d say most people have been really supportive. It’s been pretty amazing.

BG: Yeah, I’ve been enjoying the series and one of the things I thought was really interesting was that Kenan’s a jerk, he’s a bully and a petty thief. So, how are you going to evolve the character?

GY: Well, we wanted to pull from two different kinds of sources, two different kinds of inspirations. One is Clark Kent’s Superman, and the really early Superman from like the ‘30s and ‘40s is a jerk. He’s really mean, he’s really petty, he’s like really full of himself, he thinks he’s awesome. He makes fun of people who can’t figure out his secret identity. You know, he’s just kind of a jerk. So, as the decades went on, especially after he became like, the corporate symbol of DC Comics, his character changed and he eventually became this moral compass that we all think of today. We want that same arc to be present in Kenan Kong. 

The other source of inspiration we looked at was Journey to the West, I don’t know if you’re familiar, it’s the Monkey King story. And the Monkey King is all about spiritual enlightenment, it’s all about this king who was arrogant, full of himself, and kind of a bully, eventually figuring out that there’s more to life than just thinking of yourself as awesome. So, that same arc. We want that arc to follow that trend.

BG: You bring up Journey to the West and that’s actually one of the things about American Born Chinese, is you’ve got this character that you use to subvert the racist Chinese caricatures that you see in particular in early American cinema and drawings and even in Superman!

GY: Yeah, yeah, way back in the day.

BG: But some people are uncomfortable with it and they don’t recognize that you’re subverting that. How do you respond to that?

GY: I mean, that’s a danger, right? Every now and then I do hear from folks who have read American Born Chinese and I can just tell from talking to them that they’ve read it like, not the way I intended. And that always makes me feel so uncomfortable, so I get it. I think there is, whenever you’re talking about race, especially how race has been expressed in the past, especially stereotypes, you run into this danger of perpetuating the stereotype just simply by talking about it. But my thinking about that is, you’re never going to take away the power of a stereotype without confronting it directly. If you ignore it and pretend it was never there, it makes so that you can’t recognize expressions of those stereotypes in the media around you. So basically I thought it was worth it, I thought it was worth talking about despite the danger.

BG: You’ve been a supporter of CBLDF for a long time. Why is fighting censorship important to you?

GY: I really think freedom of expression — like I said, I come from a very specific background. My mom, my parents have very specific views given what happened in China, and I think freedom of expression really is about protecting the minority, however you define that word. It’s making sure that people with unpopular ideas, people from backgrounds that may seem strange to the majority, are able to express themselves. I was just actually listening to this podcast interview with a guy named Joi Ito, who is a MIT professor, and he talked about how most of the innovations that we’ve experienced in the modern world have happened in diverse environments, where different people with different backgrounds work on a problem together. And because they see things in different ways, they’re able to see solutions that no one person would be able to see. So, freedom of expression is really protecting them, it’s protecting voices that are unpopular so that as a diverse community we can come up with creative solutions.

BG: That’s one of the things we see, is that diverse content is more likely to be challenged, and it’s really frustrating. How do you think that we can continue to fight that — those attacks on diverse content? How can we prevent challenges to it?

GY: I mean, I feel sympathetic to people who — like, I’m a parent of four kids, I feel sympathetic to people who might feel uncomfortable with diverse content, you know. Because there is this balance between diversity and the identity of a community. You’re worried that if — like, there’s a part of us all that wants to protect the identity of our own tribe, and sometimes we’re worried that ideas that are different or strange or even contradictory to that identity will be threatening to it. But ultimately I think the way forward has to be recognizing that those two things can coexist, and have coexisted for a really long time in America, you know, America is not one monolithic culture. We actually are a collection of subcultures, and these subcultures — many of them date back to the beginning of our nation, and they’re still around. So, I don’t think that diversity and wanting to have a communal identity are necessarily antagonistic. I do think that it takes a certain amount of mental flexibility that might feel uncomfortable in order for you to live in that way. But it’s just part of modern life for us to do that. So, Reading Without Walls — I think you all protecting the right of minority voices to tell their stories is super important, and I also think that getting people to read those stories, getting people to read outside their comfort zones is important as well.

BG: So, what do you have planned for Reading Without Walls in April? What are you up to?

GY: Like I said, Macmillan has been awesome. They put together this kit with bookmarks and buttons, worksheets, reading list posters that they’re just mailing out. So if you’re a librarian, if you are a teacher, if you are a bookstore owner, and you want to run a Reading Without Walls summer program, in April — before April even, you can go and request one of these kits, and they’ll mail it out. They’ve mailed several hundred of the already, but they’re going to do more. So, that’s one. I’ll also be doing a bunch of events where I’ll be talking, and then I have a few other things as well that are coming out, really just to get the word out about the challenge.

BG: All right, great! Well thank you so much for sitting down with me, Gene.

GY: My pleasure, my pleasure!

Interview transcribed by Maren Williams. Special thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second for arranging it.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2017 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!