Last month, I saw a call for submissions to a comic anthology for creators of colour, and decided to give it a shot. I immediately knew what kind of story I wanted to tell in my submission, and I owe much of that to Gene Luen Yang, an Asian-American artist and author.
Yang is one of my idols and a trailblazer in the comics industry. He’s dedicated himself to telling stories about Chinese culture and the Asian-American experience. Yang’s most famous graphic novel, American Born Chinese came out in 2006. I was probably around 14 when I saw this bright yellow book on shelves in the bookstore, and I remember picking it up and bringing it home, not because of the art, or the book’s critical acclaim, but because it was the first North American comic I had ever seen starring an Asian.
Last year, I read his two-volume comic, Boxers and Saints. The Boxers half of the comic is a re-telling of the historical Boxer Rebellion that happened in the late Qing Dynasty in China. I loved the way Yang blended history, mythology, and his own personal voice in the book. It was educational, but also engaging and thought-provoking. I began daydreaming about writing my own comic that would incorporate Chinese history, and now I’m working on making the project a reality.
My comic, Awakening, features a college student named Audrey Wang. Like many other Asian-Canadians, Audrey struggles with perpetually feeling like an outsider in both white Canadian culture and her own Chinese community. Throughout the story, Audrey’s scenes are interwoven with snapshots from the events leading up to the May 4th movement, an anti-imperialist movement that drastically changed the course of China’s history almost 100 years ago. One of the goals of my comic is to draw a parallel between the present and the past – the contemporary Asian-Canadian’s experience, and the history that we are bound to.
Why talk about historical events? For me personally, history is an important way to connect with my Chinese identity. I know a lot of Chinese readers will understand when I say that I wasn’t always proud of where I came from. We know that China has a whole host of political, social, and economic issues in its closet – many of which are ugly (especially when viewed through Western eyes) and difficult to want to associate yourself with.
But learning about the events in our history, and the reasons why our country has become the way it is today has helped me let go of that shame.
China’s issues today are not inherent to our nature – they’re the result of complex unfoldings from the past. We have to understand the context of these problems, rather than dissociating from them out of shame. As much as we want to, we can’t separate ourselves (the way we have been conditioned, interact with our families, the world perceives us) from the countries of our ethnic origin. I think one way of coming to terms with our identities is by investigating the history of our people, and that’s why I’m making history a major theme in my comic.
A side note: As much as Gene Yang’s narratives resonate with me, they are undoubtedly told from a male perspective. Asian women who grow up and live in North America experience a whole different kind of “othering” and alienation than Asian men, so I definitely wanted to tell a story that was about the unique struggles of Asian girls and women. My hope is that other Asian girls will see themselves and their experiences reflected in the stories I tell, and that they’ll see the value in telling their own stories as well, just like how my desire to create this comic has been ignited and inspired by Mr. Yang’s work.
The project is still in its early stages, but if you’re interested in learning more about it, I encourage you to stay tuned on updates by following my tumblr (http://blog.janiceliu.com) or instagram (flutterdoodle)! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
– janice liu