Today is for celebration! Celebrating one of my favorite Asian American authors – Gene Luen Yang.
Gene is generous. Gene is funny. Gene is wise. Gene is brave.
Gene is generous.
In 2013, he came to my school and met with high school students in the Asian Cultures and Science Fiction/Fantasy clubs to chat about graphic novels, Boxers & Saints, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and growing up as an Asian American nerd and answer many many questions — all on his own time, without charge!
Addendum: A friend of mine pointed out to me that such “free” visits are not the norm for most libraries or authors — my school is in NYC where Gene’s publisher is located, this was part of his promotional tour for Boxers & Saints, and I and the school I work for are frequently tapped by the NYC publishers to host informal author events like this. This is yet another case of how one person’s view can be so influenced by the circumstances and thus limited without the reminder from someone else who has the view from a different vantage point. That said, Gene’s generosity is not limited to “free visits” but is demonstrated his willingness to engage the students and freely shared thoughts and views.
Gene is funny.
I had the great pleasure to listen to Gene talking about Graphic Novels on a panel at last year’s USBBY Conference. He used humor to drive home some serious considerations in a way that the audience would easily accept.
Gene is wise.
As a recently appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene has set up a great campaign for all readers to Read Without Walls with three simply stated but significant goals that will advance the scope of diversity in any young reader’s world:
Gene is brave.
He spoke the hard truth publicly without skirting around the issues. One such memorable speech was delivered at the National Book Festival gala in September 2014. You can read the whole transcript at The Washington Post. These words were not only wise, almost prophetic, they should be heeded ever more now that so many of us get our news and views from extremely short, often volatile, and sometimes sensationalized sound bites littering the edge-less world of the Internet.
But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.
I offer three further thoughts inspired by Gene’s words:
First, I think this call for “doing homework” should not be limited to authors, illustrators, or editors and publishers. The demand of meticulous cultural research must extend to all the critics of books — we must also do our homework before delivering verdicts to praise or condemn a literary work, especially when large swatches of the text contain cultural allusions unfamiliar to us.
Second, I think it is crucial for those who are promoting works about and by diverse creators to remember that simply “of a culture” does not guarantee any book creator having understanding of the multiplicity of the entire history or full scope of that specific culture. Even those writing “within” a culture must do their homework!
Third, although book creators must heed Gene’s call for NOT fearing of where their creative hearts tell them to go, I feel compelled to call on critics and advocates to educate ourselves on informative and productive ways to critique literature so that we may uplift the whole field. We must figure out ways to turn our initial anger and frustration into useful and illuminating insights and advices to help improve representation and authenticity in all future books for young people.