‘American Born Chinese’ Graphic Novelist Gene Yang Considers Being an Outsider a Blessing

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One morning this past September, Gene Luen Yang was backing out of his driveway in San Jose, California, to go to his writing studio—a nearby Panera Bread—when he got a call. Someone from the MacArthur Foundation was on the other end, informing him that he was among 23 winners of the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship. Also known as “genius grants” (a term the foundation dislikes), the annual award recognizes innovative, creative leaders in any industry who are American citizens or residents.

“I eventually made it to Panera,” the Chinese American graphic novelist, writer, and cartoonist told Vulture. “But I didn’t get much work done.”

A MacArthur Foundation statement said that Yang was recognized for “bringing diverse people and cultures to children’s and young adult literature and confirming comics’ place as an important and creative force within literature, art, and education.”

As our news sources, social media feeds, and even our churches are increasingly siloed, many Christians feel disconnected from their neighbors and the world. Yang’s work counteracts this trend, nudging us to explore the different and the unfamiliar to better understand—and love—perspectives that are not our own.

Yang is among a distinguished slate of Americans who have been awarded the no-strings-attached prize, including paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, activist Marian Wright Edelman, sociologist William Julius Wilson, and writers George Saunders and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yang, 43, is only the third graphic novelist to receive the honor in its 35-year history.

“I don’t know if it will ever actually sink in,” Yang admitted to me in an interview two weeks after the announcement. “It feels really crazy. It’s beyond anything I could have expected for my life.”

According to Mark Siegel, his longtime editor at First Second Books, such an unassuming response is classic Gene Yang. “I’ve never seen anything go to his head. I’ve never seen him take anything for granted. If anything, it makes him work harder.”

Siegel would know better than anyone. “When I first signed up Gene, he was pretty much photocopying and stapling his mini comics and losing money on them at Comic-Con,” Siegel said. “And then 18 months later we were in Times Square at the National Book Awards in our tuxedos. We were looking at each other, going, ‘Did something just happen?’ ”

A remarkable number of things have happened since Yang’s breakout graphic novel, American Born Chinese, was published in 2006. It was the first book in its genre ever to be named a National Book Award finalist and to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. His next major solo graphic novel, the two-volume Boxers & Saints (First Second, 2013), also won a raft of awards. Yang has collaborated with other artists on award-winning stories and graphic novels and has written for the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender and Superman comic book series. In 2016, he was named an Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the US Library of Congress and made his debut as the writer of DC Comics’s New Super-Man comic series, whose hero is a Chinese man living in modern Shanghai.

Despite Yang’s impressive resume, every individual I interviewed started with something like: “He is one of my favorite people,” or “He is one of the best human beings I know,” or simply “I love Gene!” They are fans not just of his work, but of the man himself.

Christian author Matt Mikalatos, who has known Yang for several years, told CT, “He’s humble, kind and generous to people around him. He’s a lot like his work: deep, intelligent, thoughtful, but also full of life and funny.” Jason Jensen, a longtime friend and mentor, called Yang a “goofball. Gene is a person of lighthearted joy, mixed with deep, thoughtful faith.”

Living In Tension
The person of Gene Luen Yang—a modest, lovable goofball—seems incongruent with the artist who explores weighty topics like ethnic identity, racism, and religious fundamentalism in his stories. But Yang has always been a person of contradictions, caught in between different worlds.

This “tension,” as Yang calls it, is probably the greatest force shaping his art, his identity as a follower of Jesus, and the growing impact of his work, which extends far beyond the Asian American community.

Yang’s father is a Christian engineer from Taiwan. His mother, a programmer from Taiwan and Hong Kong, converted to Catholicism after immigrating to the United States. Yang grew up attending a Chinese Catholic Church in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At school, Yang was one of a few Asian students and was regularly mocked by his classmates. His faith also made him an outsider, as some aspects of Christianity have been viewed by some as incompatible with Eastern traditions. And even among Chinese American Christians, who lean heavily Protestant (over two-thirds according to a 2012 Pew Research study), Yang is an anomaly as a Catholic.

Yang wanted to pursue art and animation since childhood; his parents preferred that he become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. As Yang was preparing to attend college, his father insisted, “Do something practical. After graduation, I’ll leave you alone.” (They ended up compromising: Yang majored in computer science and minored in creative writing.)

While a student at the University of California–Berkeley, Yang found himself in a majority Asian American population for the first time in his life. “I think that was when I started being able to explain and understand the discomfort I had had since I was a kid,” he said in a 2013 interview.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

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