Interview: Belle Yang, author of Forget Sorrow

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

By Lisa Qiu

“When I’m listening to my father, I am thinking in Chinese. But his stories are so authentic that I don’t really need to translate it to fit English. You do go through a process, and I tried to pick the best English phrases for Chinese that just don’t exist in English.”

Never in my life had I encountered a character from a book that looked and carried themselves exactly as I had imagined. Whether the character be manifested in the movies or on TV, I had always been disappointed. Consequently, I was in awe when I met Belle Yang, at Giant Robot (a subversive East Village comic bookstore), for an interview about her graphic novel memoir, Forget Sorrow. It was as if she had jumped out of a panel of her comic. Even her voice, soft and calm without a trace of an accent, fit the way she had portrayed herself in her memoir. She wore a white traditional Chinese jacket with her long black hair, which had wisps of wizened gray, pulled back. Her expressions were serene and contemplative throughout the interview; it was as if I was talking to a Zen master.

Forget Sorrow is a deeply personal memoir about how Yang recovered from an abusive boyfriend turned unrelenting stalker, called “Rotten Egg” in the book. To escape “Rotten Egg,” Yang moved to China to study art for three years, then moved in with her parents in Carmel, California. The book depicts not only the frustrations and fights she had with her father, but how he helped her heal through his storytelling. The result was life-saving: the more Yang worked, the more she began to understand herself and the nature of sorrow and hope. I found the memoir to be as restorative reading it as she did making it.

Click on images to enlarge.

Did you always know you’d write your memoir as a graphic novel?
It was originally a prose book. It was very difficult to get it out into the world. Also, I contacted Alane Mason at WW Norton and she suggested I turn it into a graphic novel. She said: find Persepolis and read it–and I did! I fell in love with the format. I never thought that I could do the comic format, not so much for the lack of skills, but because Persepolis and Maus were so original in the way it was told in a long format and I thought, That’s too original, I can’t copy that. But then it became its own genre.

This is a deeply personal story. Did you have any trouble drawing people you were close to?
No, because most of the people are of my grandfather’s generation and my grandfather and the rest are gone. So my father didn’t have any trouble telling stories and he never said, “Oh, you can’t write about this.” And even the fighting scenes with my dad, I knew that he would enjoy once he saw the drawings because there’s steam coming out of his ears and out of mine–sweat, etc. And he did laugh when he read the book!

Did your dad ever have any concerns about you sharing too much of your own life?
No. You know, I go by his intuition a lot. I used to go against him and it always turned out to be bad on my end. So this time, I when I wrote this book with drawings of “Rotten Egg,” he didn’t object. And I didn’t sense any nervousness. Wait ’til “Rotten Egg” finds out. [Laughter.] I know I’ll be fine, I have a ming sheng about my dad, which means superstition.

Were you always this close with your parents?
Not at all. Coming to the United States at age seven, I started moving away from my own cultural heritage because it didn’t help me to fit in outside the home. We spoke Chinese at home, we ate Chinese food. My father and mother both read Chinese literature and philosophy. It didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing so I stopped paying attention and thought they were so behind. It took me a long time–when I was much older, when I was a fully grown adult and had made my own mistakes. After that I was able to start paying attention and thought, They do make sense! After my trip to China for three years, I got better language skills to unlock my father’s memories.

In the United States, as a young person you have to rebel; it’s sort of a right of passage, I think. But we learned to get along and fight. [Laughter] When my dad was young he had a thick head of hair that was bristly; there’s a Chinese saying your hair softens and your pi chi (temperament) will also soften. He still has a thick head of hair, but it’s not like a porcupine anymore.

What’s your process like? What were the interview situations like with your father?
I record and take notes at the same time so I know what point in the tape I need to go back to and find the information. Also, after it’s been recorded, I type up everything. It’s all very messy at first, and then I start cleaning it up and start moving things into different places to what makes more sense. As any writer would know, it’s a very messy beginning and you have to keep telling yourself, Yeah, it’s a shitty first draft. Don’t worry about it! My pieces would be on 11″ by 14″ for each page. I could do about 20 a month. It would take me one-and-a-half days to do one piece.

What materials did you use?
Black washes and opaque watercolor and I used a brush because mao bi [a Chinese calligraphy brush] is the primary tool for Chinese artists; it expresses our culture, history, and language the best.

You had to translate everything from Chinese. Amy Tan said you write English as if it’s Chinese—do you think it’s because of the way you translate, or do you think in Chinese? How do you deal with language?

When I’m listening to my father, I am thinking in Chinese. But his stories are so authentic that I don’t really need to translate it to fit English. You do go through a process, and I tried to pick the best English phrases for Chinese that just don’t exist in English. Like the phrase ching tao leng– it means someone who’s young and fresh and a little bit wild. They don’t know his or her capabilities, they’re kind of bumbler, a beginner. So, I translated it as—well, ching literary means green—so I just translated it as ‘green lunkhead!’ In English, green is someone who’s not mature and lunkhead is an old-fashioned country saying.

Do you read reviews?
I do. It’s scary because when one pops up, you don’t know what you’re going to get. So far it’s been good. A graphic novel’s better than a prose book, because you’d have to wait for weeks before anyone would read it. Here I’m getting a reaction as soon as people get the book.

What was the greatest piece of advice you got while you were writing?
Most people don’t know about graphic novels where I live, which is a retirement community. I got Scott McCloud’s book [Understanding Comics], I got Graphic Novels for Idiots… and I just learned on my own. One thing that was crazy to me was being interviewed by a graphic novelist yesterday–she was surprised the work was mature and I was able to embrace the medium. Maybe in the future I can break through boxes.

What would you do differently?
I would slow down a little bit more and give more time to particular scenes and kind of slow down time. One reason why this moved so fast was that I was on such a tight deadline.

What’s your favorite panel?
I don’t have a favorite, because I like all my children, but I must say I loved drawing the sequence of panels from the last two panels on page 203 through page 206. This is where my grandmother and Second Great Aunt are forced to go begging on a winter day. Great Aunt sings a silly country song to cheer up Grandmother and she takes a spill on the icy river. Comedy and tragedy all mixed up together in this scene. I love drawing my great grandfather best, especially when he is escorted by Yuan the Idiot to abandoned temples.

And finally, Belle Yang, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Nifty: comic book creator at fifty.

Click on images to enlarge.
All images are from FORGET SORROW by Belle Yang. Copyright © 2010 by Belle Yang. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co and Belle Yang.


BUY Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale.

WATCH the video about the making of Forget Sorrow.

CHECK OUT Belle Yang’s website.

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5 responses

  1. Cool Deluxe says:

    This is wonderful!

  2. Belle Yang’s FORGET SORROW « Josh Neufeld says:

    [...] comics memoir form. The book’s been getting some really nice reviews, and there’s an interview with Yang on the SMITH website. Recommended! GA_googleAddAttr(”AdOpt”, “1″); GA_googleAddAttr(”Origin”, “other”); [...]

  3. Forget Sorrow « Olduvai Reads says:

    [...] really enjoyed her illustration style, which is at once modern and traditional. As she explained in an interview with Memoirville, she explained that she used a brush as well as black washes and watercolour, [...]

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  5. BrunoA says:

    Hey! Do you know how to write a reflection paper? I have something to tell you!

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