MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.
GENE LUEN YANG: So right before I got married, I went back to my parents' house, and I cleaned out my old childhood bedroom.
ZOMORODI: This is Gene Luen Yang. About 25 years ago, he was a high school teacher, and his hobby was writing comic books.
YANG: I would tell my classes on the first day of every semester that I was also a comic book creator because I was trying to impress them. And then I realized really quickly that it was just not impressive.
YANG: They didn't find it impressive at all.
ZOMORODI: So anyway, all those years ago, Gene was at his parents' house, going through old letters and drawings.
YANG: And I found this notebook that I had kept when I was in second and third grade. There's this cartoon in there, and on this cartoon there's a slant-eyed, buck-toothed character, and then there's this other blond character. And the slant-eyed, buck-toothed character is saying, me Chinese. Me play joke. Me go pee-pee in your Coke. And then the blond character is spitting out his Coke.
ZOMORODI: He didn't remember doing the drawing, but he did remember the joke.
YANG: Yeah. Any Asian American who grew up in the '80s and probably early '90s remembers that joke, but I obviously thought it was funny enough to put in my notebook. And I wondered if my second-grade self understood that that joke was aimed at people who look like me. I'm not positive he did. I'm not positive he did.
ZOMORODI: But at that moment, seeing it again as an adult, Gene felt like that character was speaking to him. So over the next six years or so, Gene started to work on a book with that character in mind.
YANG: He really is all of these negative Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes that I had grown up with, and drawing that character on the page felt like an exorcism to me. It was almost like I was working something out, you know?
ZOMORODI: That book ended up becoming "American Born Chinese," a graphic novel that came out in 2006 and quickly became a bestseller and the first graphic novel to ever become a finalist for the National Book Award.
YANG: I was kind of shocked by the reaction. I was incredibly surprised and also encouraged by the amount of support that book got from librarians and from teachers and from booksellers, of course, but really from these readers. And they were mostly - like, I heard a lot from not necessarily Asian American readers but from the children of immigrants. It didn't really matter where their parents were from. It didn't matter what kind of food they ate at home. It didn't matter what language they spoke at home. It just mattered that there was this divide between the life that they experienced at home and the life that they experienced at school, and I heard from a lot of folks like that.
ZOMORODI: Now "American Born Chinese" is a classic and required reading in many middle schools across the country. The book has also just been adapted into a Disney+ series starring some of the first Asian actors to ever win Oscars, marking a new era of storytelling that has finally arrived. And so today on the show, Gene Luen Yang explains his role in a quiet but extraordinary shift in how we educate and entertain the next generation, how he went from a comic-book-loving kid to the writer of "Superman" for DC Comics, what he learned teaching high school that he now applies to his graphic novels and why he finally agreed to let Hollywood take a crack at the book that made him famous. We'll also hear from the young actor who stars in the TV version of "American Born Chinese."
But first, we need to explain a little bit more about the book itself. If you aren't familiar with this graphic novel, the story isn't probably what you think it is because it's actually three stories about three Chinese teens. There's Jin, a kid who moves and goes to a new school where he's the only Chinese American student at first. There's a twist on the ancient tale of the powerful yet fallible young Monkey King. And then there's Chin-Kee, who visits his American cousin, bringing every stereotypical Chinese trait to life in a grotesque way that Gene as a second grader could never have imagined. We won't ruin the ending, but these three stories collide at the end of the book.
YANG: So that's what "American Born Chinese" is. I came up with three different story ideas. I couldn't decide which one I liked the best. And in the end, I realized that, you know, jumping between storylines, jumping between genres, that's kind of how it feels to be maybe an Asian American in particular or an immigrant's kid in general. Most of us live in between worlds, right? We have one world at home and another world at school. And often, as we go through our day, it does feel like we're moving in between worlds or we're moving in between genres.
ZOMORODI: OK. So, Gene, take us back to your childhood. How did you even - like, was this just a thing that you were into from the very beginning, or did someone introduce you to comics?
YANG: My parents are both immigrants. And like most immigrant parents, they would tell me stories from the culture that they left when I was a kid. It was their way of keeping that connection alive. So I grew up in this house full of stories, and I also grew up drawing. I started drawing when I was 2 years old, my mom tells me, and I basically haven't stopped.
ZOMORODI: Is it true that your mom was the person who bought you your first comic book?
YANG: That's right. In fifth grade, she took me to our local bookstore. And I don't totally remember why. But what I do remember very clearly was seeing the spinner rack in the corner, a wire frame rack that would carry a month's worth of comics. And I remember her buying a copy of DC Comics Presents No. 57, starring Superman and the Atomic Knights. So that was the very first comic of my collection.
ZOMORODI: Were you psyched about Superman?
YANG: I was not psyched about Superman.
ZOMORODI: Oh, no.
YANG: I was not a Superman fan. I had actually wanted this Marvel comic. You know, there was this Marvel two-in-one comic with The Thing, who's this big, orange rock monster, and Rom the Space Knight, who's, like, this - he's kind of a superhero that dresses up like a robot and fights these demons from outer space. But my mom felt like those two characters looked too scary. So she bought me the Superman comic instead because Superman is, like - you know, he's like a Boy Scout. He's, like, very safe.
YANG: Super-super-safe. Yeah.
ZOMORODI: It kind of reminds me, like, in sitcoms where you'd see, like, the bad kid in the back row with the comic book hiding behind the chemistry, you know, textbook. What was the belief that you had? Where did you see comic books fitting into your world or other kids' worlds?
YANG: Yeah, it felt a little bit subversive. The way I would get to the comic book shop was - I had a best friend named Jeremy in the fifth grade. We would get our parents to drop us off at the local library, and then they would drive away. And we would be like, oh, we're going to spend, like, two hours in this library. And then we would sneak out of the library. We would walk 20 minutes to the comic book shop. We'd buy as many comics out of the quarter bin as we could, and then we'd take them back to the library. And we'd check out these big, like, oversized books to hide our comics in. So it always felt very, like, subversive, like something I wasn't supposed to do. I remember my dad realizing that my comic book collection was growing, and he would find these articles. I don't even know where he found them. He would find them where - and they would talk about how, like, the lettering of the comics was so small that it would ruin your eyesight if you read too much, you know?
ZOMORODI: They're dangerous.
YANG: Yes, so dangerous because of the lettering.
ZOMORODI: So you didn't go, though, straight into comics and graphic novels. You first - as you became an adult, you continued drawing comics, but that was seen as, like, a thing you did on the side. Was it seen as a hobby?
YANG: Yeah. I mean, that was part of it. But then as I got older and I started going to comic conventions and exploring what it meant to actually enter the industry - this was the '90s - I realized that it was just a very hard way of making a living. So then my plan was I was going to get a day job, and then I was going to do comics on the side. More than a hobby, I thought of it more as like an avocation, you know, like something that was part of my - this is going to sound very highfalutin, but part of my development as a person. And out of that, I came to the decision of becoming a high school teacher and then taking comics more seriously.
ZOMORODI: So I don't know. Did you incorporate comics into your teaching or the way you taught algebra or computer science?
YANG: So in the beginning, I just tried to keep them separate, but then they came together. Maybe about four or five years into my teaching career, I was asked to sub for this Algebra II class. One of my colleagues in the math department had to go on long-term leave. So I said yes. But the problem was I was also the school's educational technologist, which just meant every two weeks I would be out of the classroom in some other teacher's classroom, helping with some tech-related project. So for this Algebra II class, it meant that they would have to have a sub for their sub, which was horrific. Right? It's, like, one of the worst situations you can have in the classroom. So as a way of kind of providing that continuity, I would draw these comics of myself giving lectures. And those were surprisingly really well-received. Some of my students even preferred me, like, in the comic to me in real life.
ZOMORODI: Here's Gene Luen Yang on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
YANG: When I talked to my students about why they liked these comics lectures so much, I began to understand the educational potential of comics. First, unlike their math textbooks, these comics lectures taught visually. Our students grow up in a visual culture, so they're used to taking in information that way. But unlike other visual narrative, like film or television or animation or video, comics are what I call permanent. In a comic, past, present, and future all sit side by side on the same page. This means that the rate of information flow is firmly in the hands of the reader. When my students didn't understand something in my comics lecture, they could just reread that passage as quickly or slowly as they needed. It was like I was giving them a remote control over the information. So for certain students and certain kinds of information, these two aspects of the comics medium, its visual nature and its permanence, make it an incredibly powerful educational tool.
ZOMORODI: Actually, this is something I talk about with my kids all the time. You know, my older son just rips through books. And he read one of yours last night and stayed up most of the night finishing it, whereas my daughter - she really has to pace herself. And she needs to take her time, and she knows it. But tell me more about this idea about the rate of information flow, putting it in the hands of your students, of your readers.
YANG: Well, I'm a slow reader as well. I read very, very slowly. And I also wonder if that's one of the reasons why I was drawn to comics because comics are this visual medium that allow you to approach it at your own pace. It's not like animation, right? It's not like film. If a movie is an hour and a half long, every single person who watches that movie is going to take an hour and a half to watch that movie. But a comic you can read as quickly or as slowly as you want to or as you need to.
ZOMORODI: In a minute, how Gene Luen Yang took his experience in the classroom and turned it into a book that still feels unusual enough to grab kids' attention over 15 years later. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, I am talking to Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator of the graphic novel "American Born Chinese."
So during your teaching career, you started working on your graphic novel, "American Born Chinese," which you wrote and illustrated yourself. It came out in 2006. And now, you know, here we are over 15 years later, and it's required reading in middle schools across the country. And it still feels revelatory.
YANG: Well, thanks. Thanks. I've been doing comics for about five years, and I'd always had these Asian American protagonists. But their Asian Americanness was never an important part of the story. It was always like, you know, they would eat with chopsticks or something. It was - there'd be, like, little hints of their culture throughout the narrative, but it wasn't central to the narrative. I wanted to do some kind of story where that was the center.
When I started working on it, I was doing it as mini comics, which meant I would write and draw a chapter. I'd take it to my local Kinko's. I'd run off copies. I'd staple them by hand, and then I would sell them. I would sell them to local stores. There would be a couple of stores that would carry handmade comics on consignment in the Bay Area. And at the end of the day, I'd move maybe 20 copies or 25 copies. So I was working at a very, very small scale. And I knew most of the people who were going to read that book, so I think that in a way gave me the courage to do a character like that cousin character.
ZOMORODI: Gene, this cousin character - I mean, he really is every uncomfortable stereotype of Asians and Asian Americans all kind of wrapped up into one. I'm just looking at the page right now, and he has slanted eyes, light yellow skin, teeth like a beaver. He quotes Confucius a lot. I mean, I am cringing as I turn to this other page in the book where he's at school eating a dead cat and noodles out of a Chinese takeout container for his lunch.
YANG: Yeah, that cousin character is definitely the most controversial part of the book. My publisher actually sent out a whole bunch of these review copies to different independent bookstores all over America, and more than one Asian American bookstore owner flipped through the book, saw that character and refused to carry the book. So I ended up having to write this essay about what I was trying to do with that character. My publisher put that up on the web. That convinced those Asian American bookstore owners to actually read the book, and now they're among my most ardent supporters. But it took a little bit.
ZOMORODI: I mean, he is - this character is so ridiculous that I started laughing at his scenes. But then I was like, is that bad that I'm laughing? Like, I don't know, Gene. Was that OK?
YANG: (Laughter) These are the three big reactions that I've gotten from that character. So one is - it's usually from older Asian Americans. They'll tell me that they get to those portions of the book, and they find that character so painful that it's hard for them to finish the book. And I kind of think that's OK. I kind of think that that's sort of what I was going for. And then the second reaction - and this is very rare - I would get somebody coming up to me at a comic book convention. And they would say, you know, that cousin character in your book is so cute. Do you have, like, a T-shirt with his face on it?
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) No.
YANG: And when I would get a reaction like that, I'd be like, yeah. You just did not understand what I was trying to do with...
ZOMORODI: Oh, dear.
YANG: ...That character. The other reaction is usually from younger folks, and it's sort of like yours. It's people telling me, you know, I found that character really funny, but I felt very uncomfortable laughing.
YANG: And I think that's OK, too. I think that's also kind of what I was going for because in a lot of ways, like, if you look at American comedians, we just have a lot of race-based humor. But I think the race-based humor comes in two different flavors. One is people who make jokes about race because they think the stereotypes are true. And that's a - I mean, that's just straight-up racist humor. The other way I think people make jokes about race is they use jokes to point out the absurdity of the stereotypes because deep down inside, we know that it's not right to smush down three-dimensional people into two-dimensional stereotypes. So that is sort of what I was going for with this character as well. Like, I did want him to be absurd, but I wanted him to be absurd because he is the embodiment of absurd ideas about Asians and Asian Americans.
ZOMORODI: I heard that when the book was first published, a couple people in Hollywood also took notice and that you did get an offer, but you didn't take it. Am I getting this story correct?
YANG: Yeah, that - it was from a major studio. And then when I dug in very lightly, I was told that they were interested in it because it had the word Chinese in the title, and they wanted something to coincide with the Chinese Olympics that happened in 2008.
ZOMORODI: Oh. How did that make you feel?
YANG: I mean, it did not make me feel awesome. Now that I've, you know, dipped my toe into Hollywood, I kind of get how, in order for these stories to exist that are told in Hollywood, you do have to ride that line in between art and commerce, right? It's just part of being able to do what they do. I get that. But I think when I heard that, it felt like they didn't necessarily have an understanding of the spirit underneath the book. And then internally, I was always kind of freaked out about how that cousin character would make the leap from the page to the screen. And this might be, like, a bias of mine because I'm a book person. But I kind of trust readers a little bit more than I trust viewers. And my biggest fear was that - if the story was ever adapted, that scenes with that cousin character would get clipped and show up on YouTube completely decontextualized. And that would be a complete nightmare for me.
ZOMORODI: OK. So here we are. An "American Born Chinese" has been made into a TV show. What changed both for you and for Hollywood?
YANG: On the Hollywood side, I think they've become much more open to a diversity of stories. "Black Panther" came out, and "Crazy Rich Asians" came out, and both of them made boatloads of money. And I do think that was a watershed year. Folks in Hollywood realized, oh, these stories can actually work. They can work both creatively and financially. I think that was very important.
ZOMORODI: But, Gene, you know, a lot of people don't get a second chance. Like, a book comes out. If you're going to option it, it's got to happen then because people forget. What happened? How did interest spark up? Or was it bubbling along all this time?
YANG: Yeah, I wouldn't say it was bubbling along (laughter). I do think it was after that year, after the "Black Panther" and "Crazy Rich Asians" year. There was this renewed search for stories that might have been missed simply because the protagonist didn't fit, you know, the standard boxes. And I started getting some interest. The big turning point was meeting Kelvin and Charles Yu, who ended up writing the pilot together. So they're two brothers. They're both incredibly talented. We sat down for a conversation, and their solution to my fear that I had had for years and years and years was to simply put it into the script. So in the pilot episode, that fear that I had of the cousin character getting clipped and put on YouTube decontextualized - that actually happens. That's part of the plot. So in a lot of ways, what Kelvin and Charles are doing in that story is sort of teaching the viewer what to think about that. When they walked me through that solution, I was like, OK. I trust these guys.
ZOMORODI: But it's true. As you mentioned, the TV adaptation of the book - it's very different. Was that hard for you to see your baby morph? Or were you OK with that? Like, how do you - was this your first time sort of thinking, like, how do I take the essence of my book but turn it into something that makes sense for someone who maybe has never read anything that I've ever written?
YANG: I was OK with it. I felt like before we started working on this, I had made peace with the fact that the adaptation would be very different from the original book. And I think some of that comes from just watching adaptations of other books. Different media have different strengths. And I think in order for you to take advantage of the strength of one medium, you do have to change the storyline. So early on, Kelvin and Charles and I - we had these conversations about boiling the book down into its essence and then letting it re-expand into the shape of an eight-episode season of television. So with the book, it's a 200-page graphic novel. It has one beginning, middle and end, whereas with television, because there's eight episodes, you do need at least eight beginnings, middles and ends.
YANG: So how do you get there? How do you get from one place to the other, you know? The other thing we had to talk about was pretty early on, we made the decision to move the time period of the story from the late '80s, early '90s, which is vaguely when the book is set, into the 2020s. The conversation about Asian Americans has changed...
YANG: ...Between then and now, and those changes have to be incorporated into the story as well.
ZOMORODI: In the TV version, Jin is a present-day high school student who just wants to fit in.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")
CHIN HAN: (As Simon Wang) How's was school?
BEN WANG: (As Jin Wang) It was good. School is fine. I've got American Lit, Bio II, Trig, World History - which I think is way too broad - Art. And I also have P.E. this year, which I can sub for a sport. So I was thinking maybe I could do soccer.
HAN: (As Simon Wang) Not too many activities. Just stay focused. Study, and work hard. That is enough.
ZOMORODI: So that's Jin with his parents. And the cousin character we talked about now only exists in clips from a cheesy '90s sitcom. When one of the kids at school mocks Jin by comparing him to that old '90s show, we see how old stereotypes die hard. Then there's also the Chinese mythological characters woven in - the Monkey King and many more, including a goddess played by Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")
MICHELLE YEOH: (As Guanyin) But I want you to know it will be difficult and dangerous. And remember; the fate of your world hangs in the balance.
ZOMORODI: Jin is played by Ben Wang, who was born in Beijing and immigrated to Minnesota around age 6. He had never read Gene's book until he auditioned for the part.
WANG: My jaw was on the floor. I had never gotten, like, material that reminded me so much of my own life before.
ZOMORODI: I called Ben a few weeks ago to talk to him about being in the series.
WANG: I was in Stamford, Conn., at the time, shooting another film. And I had an off day, so I ran to the Stamford Public Library. And I found the graphic novel in the children's section in the basement. And, like, it was, like, 7:58, and they closed at 8. And I was, like, on the floor, like, crying my eyes out on the carpet. And the janitor was like, sir, you need to leave. And I was like, stop. I can't leave. I feel seen for the first time in my life (laughter). Please let me cry on your carpet.
ZOMORODI: I mean, can I just ask you what was making you cry, do you think?
WANG: So I didn't realize this, really, until I had read this book. But for me, growing up, consuming media was always an act of empathy. It was always about me learning about something else or someone else's life. And for the very first time, maybe in my entire life, I read something that felt like a reflection of my own specific circumstances. In an instant, I felt less alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")
SYDNEY TAYLOR: (As Amelia) Amelia.
WANG: (As Jin) Jin. It's nice to meet you sort of.
TAYLOR: (As Amelia) Sort of?
WANG: (As Jin) I just meant because we sort of know each other because we went to elementary school together. But then you went to Crest Road Intermediate. I went to Dorothy Nichols Middle. And now I'm kind of creeping myself out. I should stop.
TAYLOR: (As Amelia) You know, I think I do remember you. I mean, you kind of stand out, obviously.
WANG: (As Jin) I do?
TAYLOR: (As Amelia) Hey. Are you trying out for soccer?
WANG: (As Jin) Yeah. Or, you know - I don't know - maybe.
TAYLOR: (As Amelia) No, that's cool. I was actually going to try out, too, but my mom wants me to do drama because she did drama in high school. And apparently, we have to have all the same interests. Your parents ever like that?
WANG: (As Jin) I'm not actually sure if my parents have any interests.
I mean, at its core, Jin is just a regular American kid trying to do regular American kid things, right? He wants to join the team. And he wants to get the girl and he - go to the dance and do all the things that he saw on TV growing up that, you know, the world tells you a kid is supposed to be doing. But his life keeps getting interrupted by Oscar award-winning actors and actresses who crash in through his ceiling. And they tell him, you have to save the world, Jin. And you're like, why do I have to do this, Oscar award-winning actress Michelle Yeoh? And she's like, because you have to.
And I always thought of it as a wonderful sort of metaphor, right? Jin is this character who's trying to live a normal life, but there's this whole other world of the mythological - of sort of kung fu and fantasy and deities and folklore - that sort of invade his life. And he feels like he's being pulled between these two worlds. And I think, you know, what better metaphor is there for sort of the immigrant experience and the Asian American experience - right? - because that was what it was for me.
I was trying to just be this normal kid, but I always felt like there were these - this other world that I had responsibilities to, this other world that I didn't think any of my friends could understand, that I felt like I was being pulled between. And ultimately, the show - the lesson of the show is learning to embrace all of the worlds that you are a part of, that they don't have to be separate, that you don't have to reject one to live in the other. You can live in both at once. And that will be a even fuller and more beautiful life.
ZOMORODI: So I was looking at your Instagram. And I guess this must have been right when you were filming the show. And you posted something about being cast. And you said that - this is a quote - "growing up, I could either watch American shows, or I could watch Chinese shows. I didn't realize there could be Chinese American shows. Boy, was I dumb."
ZOMORODI: But in some ways - I don't know - do you feel like you are kicking off a new genre? Was that something that the producers of the show told you that they were hoping to do?
WANG: I think everybody knew this show was very special from the start. From just seeing the words on the page, we all knew. And then in making it, yeah - going on set every day and seeing all of these - (laughter) all of these Asian people making a movie. The funny thing is right before "American Born Chinese," I made a movie called "Chang Can Dunk" starring an Asian American lead. I played his best friend. And it was written and directed by a Chinese American guy, Jingyi Shao. And so I had just come from this Asian American movie to this Asian American TV show. And right before that, I had done this indie film about this Chinese American eye doctor that, again, had a majority Asian cast. And those are really the only three movies I've done in my career. And they have all been these Asian American stories told by Asian Americans. And so, in a way, I almost forgot sometimes that this - how special it was.
WANG: Isn't that - that's just such an incredible privilege, to be able to forget for a second, like, whoa. I'd be like, yeah, this is normal. I've done three of these. What, is this weird? But, you know, very quickly, you're reminded by the people who have been doing this for a long, long time that, no, this is a really amazing and incredible thing.
ZOMORODI: Do you think that's the goal, though, that eventually you get to the point where you won't even need to think about who's making it and that won't even be an issue, that you're Asian? Or are we at this place where identity has to be part of telling our stories?
WANG: I think both are good. I think both are necessary. There's a character in the show who has this incredible line where he basically says, you know, I was a working actor. And in the industry back in the day, the only roles I got offered were nerds and ninjas. And to me, the problem is not that - it's not a problem for Asian Americans to play nerds and ninjas. The problem is that for so long, that's all we were allowed to play. And I think the world that I want to be an actor in, and I think the world we're getting into, is one where we can play anything as big as our humanity can encompass, anything as big as our imaginations are able to dream. We can be. We don't need to feel like we're allowed to do this or we're not allowed to do that. That's where I want to be.
ZOMORODI: That's Ben Wang, star of "American Born Chinese," out now on Disney+. In a moment, more from Gene Luen Yang, his latest graphic novel, "Dragon Hoops," about the history of basketball and the year he spent embedded with a high school team. Plus, how he writes in the voice of Superman for DC Comics. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and I am spending the hour with the award-winning writer and illustrator Gene Luen Yang. After "American Born Chinese," Gene kept teaching high school and writing graphic novels on the side. Pretty soon, the opportunities started rolling in to write for the big leagues, like DC Comics. But Gene had already started researching his latest graphic novel, "Dragon Hoops." For one year, he was embedded with his high school's basketball team in Oakland, Calif. They were competing for the state championships. Some of these kids would likely end up playing professionally. And they captured Gene's imagination even though he hated sports as a kid.
YANG: I did. I did hate sports as a kid, mostly 'cause I was really bad at it. I'm very uncoordinated. I flinch anytime somebody throws a ball at me.
YANG: Even though I really, really try hard not to, I still flinch. And the worst part about basketball is I was one of the taller kids. I was 6'1". So people would, like...
YANG: ...Expect me to be OK at it, and I was, like, horrible. I was, like, the worst one on the court every time, so it was always this arena of humiliation. I did "Dragon Hoops" in part because I found this incredible story that was so compelling, I could not ignore it. It's the story of a high school basketball team, the team of the high school where I used to teach, the varsity men's team during the 2014-2015 season when they were going after the California state championship. So a part of that narrative is also about how that team affected me.
One of the things that I realized about sports during that season is that I think people go to watch sports because we want to watch, like, courage and perseverance and tenacity on display. That's what I think the court is for most people. It's not an arena of humiliation. It's an arena where courage can be shown, right? And we want to watch it so that a bit of that courage that the players show on the court end up - ends up rubbing off on us. I think that happened for me. You know, I follow these kids. All these young men were half my age. And I'll watch them step out onto the court, sometimes in the face of these opponents that were, at least on paper, much stronger than them and play their hearts out, you know?
So when the DC offer came in, it was actually the third time they approached me. And I turned them down twice because I didn't want to leave my teaching job. But when this offer came in, I just thought I had to do it even though it felt very risky to me. My wife and I, we have four kids. I ended up doing it in part because of the example, I think, of that team.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. So you profile each player on the basketball team, and that includes a lot about their identity, whether it's their religion, their race or their financial situation. And you also - you know, you are a character in this book, and you really express your awe, in some ways, of these kids, that - their ability to be so focused on the court and also so at peace with themselves in many ways, well beyond their years.
YANG: Yeah, yeah, that's right. The thing that most impressed me about them, the thing that I couldn't wrap my head around, was how they could make a mistake on the court. You know, they could miss a pass or do something that might even be so embarrassing that the crowd would react, you know? They could do something like that and still keep their head in the game and still, like, focus on the next thing that they had to do - like, push that failure aside and keep pursuing the goal. It was shocking to me because I feel like when I make a mistake, I dwell on it for, like, days or weeks. I feel like it takes me forever to recover. That was something that I wanted to emulate in my life - to not dwell on mistakes so much and just to keep going forward.
ZOMORODI: You know, I also learned a lot in this book about the history of basketball. I had no idea about the origins of the game, that it was founded by a guy named James Naismith in 1891 at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Why did you want to weave the evolution and history of the game into the story about the kids on the team at Bishop O'Dowd?
YANG: That book just kept growing. I think I started reading books about basketball history because I was such a basketball noob, you know? I didn't know anything about the sport, and I just felt a little bit inadequate. And the more I read about it, the more fascinated I became. I just found all these really, really interesting characters in basketball history. And then I realized that reading the basketball history affected how I was watching these games play out on the court.
I can give you an example. So, you know, I would go to these games, and usually, on that court, it was just a bunch of kids from a bunch of different cultural backgrounds all playing together. You know, there were white kids or Black kids or Asian kids. There were - you know, it's Oakland. It's any background you could imagine. And it was just something I didn't think about because that's what my classroom looked like. But then I read this book called "Tricksters In The Madhouse" about this milestone game between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Harlem Globetrotters. And in that book, they go into just how unusual it was at the time for players of different races to be on the court together. There was this deep fear that if you had people of different cultural backgrounds playing sports together, it would inevitably lead to violence, and it would inevitably lead to conflict. So simply by playing that game, they were proving something, you know? The Globetrotters won, but in some ways, it almost didn't matter that they won. It mattered that they played. It mattered that they played.
So I would read this book, and then I would go to the next game, and I would watch all these kids from all these different backgrounds interacting with each other like it was just super-normal 'cause it is now, right?
YANG: It is normal. And I would think about how - like, how much blood and sweat it took to get to this point where it was normal, where nobody thought about it, nobody in the gym thought about it, you know?
ZOMORODI: So you put this team's experience in historical context, and as you mentioned, you also weave in your own story. Your wife and kids make appearances, and you really break the fourth wall, talking straight to the reader about your process and some of the difficult choices that you have to make about what to keep in the book and what to leave out. Tell me more about why you wanted to take the reader behind the scenes - like, what you think we get by getting a front-row seat to your - I guess it's your inner creative turmoil, a lot of it.
YANG: Yeah. That - this book was really hard for me to do because I was dealing with real people that I had real relationships with. You know, these are not just random strangers that I was following. They were friends, and I wanted to do right by them. At the same time, I wanted to do right by reality, you know? Like, I wanted to do a nonfiction graphic novel. And I had this struggle early on with the act of cartooning. Like, when you're cartooning, you're simplifying, so is it even possible to do a nonfiction graphic novel? Because just by the act of drawing, just by the act of creating a cartoon of a real person, you're adding this layer of fiction on top of a real story. Like, I've come around. I definitely - like, after doing this book, I definitely think nonfiction graphic novels is clearly a category, and I hope it's a category that will grow. But when I was working on that book, I was struggling through all of that, you know? And part of the way I did that was by just footnoting the crap out of that book (laughter).
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) So there are some people who won't be surprised that there are historical graphic novels like "Dragon Hoops." But back when you first published "American Born Chinese," it still felt unusual. I mean, of course, you weren't the first person to publish these books, but what's the history there? How did it all start?
YANG: So first, I do think that it was part of this wave of graphic novels that you could point to maybe "Maus" starting, right? When "Maus" won the Pulitzer Prize in the '90s, there was this promise of a new kind of comic book or graphic novel that would deal with more literary topics. And then there were books like "Blankets." There's just - there was, like, a slow buildup. And by the time "American Born Chinese" came out in 2006, I think that buildup had become a wave, and the term graphic novel was being widely used by teachers and librarians. And I think there was this openness to using books in that publishing format, you know, in the classroom to kind of experiment with comics and figure out how to pull out the - as much of the medium's inherent educational potential as possible.
ZOMORODI: Well, you're really reminding me of your 2013 graphic novels "Boxers" and "Saints," where you tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-Christian uprisings in China at the turn of the 20th century, and it's a historic perspective on being both Chinese and Christian. What were the parallels that you saw to your own life? I'm curious. I mean, that's another story about people experiencing devastation and trying to relate it to now.
YANG: Yeah, yeah. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic community. I'm still a practicing Catholic, although now I go to a Korean American church 'cause my wife is Korean American. And there is this tension, I think, between Western faith and Eastern culture. It's a tension that I wasn't aware of when I was a kid because, you know, as a kid growing up in that church, anytime people were talking about God and Jesus, they were doing it in Chinese, so for me, they kind of went hand in hand. It wasn't until I was older and I started reading more about history and especially the Boxer Rebellion that I realized that that wasn't always the case.
So the reason why I wanted to do "Boxers" and "Saints" was because I felt like the Boxer Rebellion as a historical event mirrored a tension that I had felt in my own life, you know, between East and West. I think the root of the tension is this difference in value hierarchies and how you decide what is more important. I think that Eastern and Western ways of thinking, the value hierarchies are similar, but the differences can cause a lot of tension in, like, an Asian American's life.
ZOMORODI: Did you feel like you were able to - I don't know if reconcile is the right word, but feel like you understood those tensions better?
YANG: Yeah, I think so. I think most of my books are like self-therapy. You realize - like, sometimes you have to make a choice, and you realize that between the options that are presented to you, there is no option that will make you feel perfectly at peace, you know? Like, you'll make a decision based on the Eastern hierarchy, and you'll know, like, that Western part of your thinking is going to make you feel weird about it. Or you'll do the reverse, and you just kind of have to accept the fact that there's going to be that weird feeling after you make this choice.
ZOMORODI: I mean, these are pretty adult issues, ideas. I mean, there's a lot of violence in "Boxers" and "Saints," and that's the reality. In "Dragon Hoops," you bring up the accusations against one of the coaches who has been shunned by the school. Do you try to write for a specific age group? Or does the story just have to be told the way it has to be told?
YANG: I do think it's the second for me. You know, I came up in comics. So in - like, in the '80s and '90s, your average comic bookstore, there might be a kid's shelf with, like, the Disney duck comics. And there might be an adult shelf with, like, very adult things. But the vast majority of comics were just in this middle section. And age demographics just aren't a really big deal. It wasn't until I signed with First Second Books, who's a part of Macmillan, they were really the ones that categorized my books as YA. And now that they did that, I think I fit really well there. But age demographics aren't something I think about when I'm working on my books.
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ZOMORODI: So at this point, you have written dozens of comics and books, including Superman for DC Comics, Shang-Chi for Marvel, the Avatar comic book series. I mean, Gene, is this the dream? If you had told that fifth grader who was sneaking from the public library down to the comic bookstore that this is what you would end up doing, would he have believed it?
YANG: That fifth grader would've peed his pants.
YANG: He would have been so excited. I think, in a lot of ways, the answer is yes. It absolutely is a dream to be doing what I'm doing. I do think that my dreams have changed, though, since I was in fifth grade. You know, in fifth grade, I think it was about writing my favorite superhero characters. And there still is that piece in me that really, really loves that and gets excited about that. But now I kind of think of storytelling as a way for us to work out what it means to be human. And there's no end to that because it's such a complex question. I think it's just a constant conversation that you have to continue to participate in.
ZOMORODI: So what is your process, then, for - I mean, we've talked about characters that, you know, you're the first person ever writing them. Either you come up with them or you're basing them on real-life people. But what is your process for writing for characters who are icons that people feel like they already know and love? I mean, how do you keep the essence of Superman but add your Gene Luen Yang twist to it?
YANG: Yeah, that - Superman has been around for a long time. He's been around long enough that there are multiple iterations of him, you know? Like, his powers will change depending on the era you're in. Even his love interest will change. You know, sometimes he's in love with Lois Lane, other times he's in love with Wonder Woman. So for Superman, I think I just tried to find the Superman that most overlapped with my own interests, you know, like, my own concerns. The thing that I love the most about Superman is that he is essentially like an immigrant. He...
ZOMORODI: Right (laughter). He's from another planet.
YANG: Yeah, he's from another planet. He's from a different culture. I think he's a science fiction version of the American Jewish experience, which does, of course, have a lot of overlap with just the immigrant experience in general, you know, the American immigrant experience in general. But I leaned into that. I leaned into the fact that he is this foreigner. And he kind of has to balance these two different identities just to get through his day.
ZOMORODI: OK, so last question. If you were a superhero, who would you be? Who is your role model, Gene?
YANG: Who would I want to be now? I think I would want to be Multiple Man.
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YANG: Multiple Man is a somewhat obscure...
YANG: Marvel Comics character who can multiply himself. And the reason why I would want to be Multiple Man right now is because I am really behind on a deadline. And I think if I could make two or three of myself, maybe I would finally catch up.
ZOMORODI: Gene Luen Yang, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for your time and your amazing brain.
YANG: Thank you. Thank you so much, Manoush. It was wonderful to talk to you. This was really an honor. Thank you.
ZOMORODI: Gene Luen Yang is the author of the graphic novel "American Born Chinese." It is now a series on Disney+ starring Michelle Yeoh and Ben Wang, who we heard from earlier. Gene's next project is the comic book series "Books Of Clash," which is based on the popular mobile game. He also writes for DC Comics and Marvel. And you can see his full talk at ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week. It was produced by Rachel Faulkner White and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Me. Our production staff at NPR also includes James Delahoussaye, Harsha Nahata, Andrea Gutierrez, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier and Katie Monteleone. Beth Donovan is our executive producer. Our audio engineer was Margaret Luthar. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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