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Gene Luen Yang is a Chinese-American graphic novelist whose books deal with themes of identity, belonging, and cultural expectations, and often use humour to deal with dark subjects and themes. He has won the Printz award and multiple Eisner awards, and if that's not reason enough to read his work, you also have my personal recommendation - it's great! Pick up American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Prime Baby, Level Up, or Animal Crackers, then read this interview and his newest work, a two-part story called Boxers & Saints.
Q: We’re so excited about your latest project, Boxers & Saints – could you tell us a little about what inspired it?
A: I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese saints. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Naturally, my home church was incredibly excited by the announcement. When I looked into the lives of these new saints, I discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion.
The more I looked into the Boxer Rebellion, the more fascinated I became. The war externalizes a conflict that I think many Asian Christians and Christians of Asian descent feel – a conflict between Eastern culture and Western religion.
Q: Boxers & Saints tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two opposing viewpoints; why did you choose to publish it as a two-volume set, instead of in one combined volume?
A: One of the reasons I was attracted to the Boxer Rebellion in the first place was that I felt so ambivalent about it. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? I couldn’t decide, so I wrote and drew two books from two opposing viewpoints.
Separating the two stories into two physically distinct books forced me to think through each as a complete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. I hope that each volume can stand on its own. I also hope readers who choose to read both will get something out of the dialog between the two.
Q: As a Catholic yourself, was it difficult to write from the point of view of someone trying to drive out the “foreign devils”, and the "secondary devils" who were Chinese Christians?
A: The “foreign devils” were the European missionaries, merchants, and soldiers. Chinese Christians were considered the “secondary devils”, folks who had succumbed to the foreign devils’ lies.
As I’ve said, my primary reaction to the Boxer Rebellion is ambivalence. I can see myself on either side of the conflict. I sympathize with both the Boxers and their Chinese Christian opponents. I think they had similar motivations. Both sides wanted to keep their identities intact. The Boxers were angry at the way the foreign powers tore down traditional Chinese culture. The Christians died because they wanted to remain true to the identities they’d built for themselves, identities that drew from both Eastern and Western influences.
Q: You have talked on your blog about the similarities between Chinese opera for the boxers and our own modern day pop culture (I adored your Chinese Opera Avengers – in fact, your Thor is my desktop background right now!), and how those inspirations – whether gods or superheroes – can be a source of strength. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea?
A: The Boxers were poor, starving Chinese teenagers, mostly boys, who were deeply embarrassed by the European incursions onto Chinese soil. To deal with this sense of powerlessness in their lives, they did what today’s teenagers do: They looked to the pop culture that surrounded them for empowerment.
Back then, there were these traveling acting troupes that went from village to village performing snippets of classical Chinese opera. Opera was the Boxers’ pop culture. It was their television, their movies, their comic books. Like American superheroes, the gods of the opera wore colorful costumes, had magic powers, and fought otherworldly battles.
Like modern day cosplayers, these teenagers wanted to become their heroes. They came up with this mystical ritual that they believed would call the gods down from the heavens. The gods would grant them superpowers. Then armed with these superpowers, the Boxers ran through the countryside fighting European soldiers, missionaries, and Chinese Christians.
Stories help us make sense of our lives. They let one generation to communicate with the next. They give us examples to either follow or shun.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview early next week!