Talking with Gene Luen Yang: Presented by AWM’s My America Series

As part of Booklist Reader‘s ongoing partnership with the American Writers Museum in Chicago, we’ll be providing readers with exclusive interviews from authors featured in the museum’s My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today exhibit. Below, AWM’s Content & Communications Coordinator Nate King speaks with award-winning creator Gene Luen Yang about his latest graphic novel, Dragon Hoops, publishing next Tuesday, March 17, from First Second.

You’ve written comics and graphic novels for a long time, so why tell your own story now? Why a memoir-graphic novel now?

I didn’t mean for Dragon Hoops to be a memoir. It just kind of evolved that way.

I was not a particularly athletic kid. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I was terrible at sports. I had negative talent. The basketball court was always an arena of humiliation for me, so I tried to avoid it as much as possible, even on television.

When I first began working on Dragon Hoops, I focused on the coaches and the players only. I wasn’t planning to put myself in the narrative at all. But then I had all these inadequacies as a storyteller. I wasn’t a sports guy. I didn’t share the same background as many of the people that I wanted to feature. I felt I had to be upfront about all of those inadequacies. Ultimately, including myself as a character seemed the best way to do that.

What do you hope readers—especially young students—take away from reading Dragon Hoops and the rest of your work?

What happened on the court that year really inspired me. In game after game, I saw young players make mistakes, often in front of huge audiences. Then I watched them shake it off, get their heads back in the game, and ready themselves for the next play. Their presence of mind was incredible.

I’m a middle-aged man, twice as old as those kids. I still struggle with the mistakes I’ve made in the past. Sometimes I find my mind going back to those same loops, over and over. But now I at least know how I’m supposed to handle it: shake it off, get my head back in the game, ready myself for the next play. I hope that the lesson comes through to the reader.

In our exhibit, My America, which your program is presented in conjunction with, we explore the notion of “American-ness.” What does “American” mean to you? What does it mean to “be American?”

Both of my parents are immigrants. They worked hard to become Americans, so they take being American very, very seriously.

I’ve thought about this question for a while now. I don’t know if I have a complete answer, but here’s the beginning of one: to my parents, America represented the future. Maybe that’s what this country represents to me, too. America is a place where people with different pasts are bound together by a common future.

Why did you want to become a writer/graphic artist?

I grew up in a house full of stories. Both my mother and my father were avid storytellers. When I got old enough, I wanted to tell my own stories. Becoming a cartoonist felt like a natural way for me to do that.

If you could meet one American writer from the past, who would it be and why?

I’m a comic book guy, so I’m going to give a comic book answer. Chu Hing was one of the first Chinese Americans to work in the American comic book industry. He did some work for Marvel, but he’s still pretty obscure. He created a character called the Green Turtle who I believe is the first Asian American superhero. I’d love to sit down with Chu Hing to talk about his life, superheroes, and what those early days in comics were like.

Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yang, who was originally scheduled to speak at the American Writers Museum next Friday, March 20, has cancelled his book tour. As this increasingly becomes the case for artists around the world, Booklist Reader encourages you to lift up the creators you loveand support local businessesby ordering books from independent bookstores and spreading the word on social media.

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