Interview with Gene Luen Yang, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature

Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang Gene Luen Yang

Boxers & Saints

First Second/Macmillan

Interview by William Alexander

William Alexander: Did you first envision Boxers & Saints as a single book and point of view, or did you set out to write two overlapping narratives from the start?

Gene Luen Yang: The two-volume nature of Boxers & Saints came out of my own ambivalence about the Boxer Rebellion. The more I read, the more ambivalent I felt. Who were the good guys?  I couldn't decide. Pretty early on, I knew the project was going to be two books told from opposing points of view.

WA: Both Bao and Vibiana struggle to figure out what kind of story they are living in. This is empowering (often literally), and also tragic when their expectations of their lives and narratives fail—or at least fail to work out in the way they expected. They use the stories they know to make sense of their lives. Have you learned more about your own story by telling theirs?

GLY: Yeah, sure.  You learn something about yourself every time you write. I think that's what storytelling is. You're trying to figure out what it means to be human. Identity, culture, and belief crop up again and again in my comics. I don't consciously choose to write about those themes. They just sort of... emerge. I didn't realize how important they were to me until I started telling stories.

WA: Is there a god or patron saint of comics?

GLY: The Roman Catholic Church doesn't have an official one, but Japan does.  The Japanese refer to Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astroboy, as the God of Manga, the God of Comics. Tezuka wrote and drew stories for both genders and every age demographic.  He's the reason why comics are so widely read in Japan.  

WA: Bao chooses fire as his element. You have also written humanizing stories about characters from the Fire Nation—the imperialistic former-villains in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which of the Chinese elements would you choose for yourself? And what sort of bender would you be?

GLY: With my work on the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, I was simply following the precedent set by the original animated series. Mike DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and the rest of the Avatar writing team did some pretty extraordinary things on that show. Each of their heroes has a bit of brokenness and each of their villains has a bit of goodness.

When I researched Chinese history for Boxers & Saints, I discovered that each dynasty associated itself with one of the five traditional Eastern elements: fire, water, metal, earth, wood. Because of the way the Boxer Rebellion ended, fire seemed appropriate for Bao.

For myself, I'd choose earth. I've thought a lot about this. When you bend the other three Avatar elements, the effect you create disappears as soon as you stop. Water, fire, and air all go back to being normal versions of themselves. Not so with earth. When you create something with earthbending, it stays that way. If I were an Earthbender, I'd make all sorts of awesome, earthen lawn furniture in my backyard. A table, some chairs. Maybe a canopy of some sort. And definitely a giant, earthen slide. Your pants would get dirty, but it'd be so fun.

WA: Both Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese combine reverence with irreverent, slapstick humor. Why are both bound up with your sense of the numinous? Are reverence and irreverence even opposites?

GLY: I'm following a precedent here, too. I've been a fan of the Monkey King since I was a kid. The Monkey King is this old, legendary figure in China. His story was first written down about 500 years ago in a Chinese novel called Journey to the West, which is considered one of the four pillars of Chinese literature. It's held in the same esteem as the West holds the works of Shakespeare. The story is about sin and spirituality and redemption, all these really weighty topics. Yet, the book is full of potty humor. The Monkey King and his buddies are constantly peeing on stuff.

C.S. Lewis has this theory that humor about bodily functions is a sign of our soulfulness. As humans, we have an inherent dignity, yet our bodies involuntarily do these really undignified things. We laugh because we recognize the contradiction. I don't know if I agree, but it does make me giggle to imagine an old British college professor like C.S. Lewis carefully considering the meaning of flatulence.

WA: What is the very first bedtime story you can remember?

GLY: My mom used to tell me Monkey King stories at bedtime. My favorite were about how he peed on stuff.

William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.