In graphic novels, Asian American writers find a medium to illustrate racial nuances

·5 min read

In “The Legend of Auntie Po,” Shing Yin Khor uses watercolors and folklore to bring alive a late-19th century Sierra Nevada logging camp, where some of the country’s earliest Chinese immigrants lived and worked.

Centered on the 13-year-old daughter of a Chinese cook, Khor’s middle-grade graphic novel, a finalist in this year’s National Book Awards, explores the hardships Chinese laborers experienced in the tumultuous years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But rather than dwelling on the pain and setbacks the group faced, Khor offers hope and whimsy by focusing on the gains, like how Chinese workers developed friendships with Black and Indigenous loggers.

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“When you start to examine the history of marginalized groups, it’s never just about trauma,” Khor told NBC Asian America. “We wouldn’t have ended up with generation upon generation of Chinese Americans in this country if it were complete and utter misery every single moment of the time.”

Graphic novels, with their powerful blend of images and words, have grown in popularity as a literary genre to explore the legacy of racism and the complexity of the immigrant experience. And in recent years, Asian American writers are increasingly publishing works that reckon with the country’s racial injustices, past and present.

Illustrated memoirs in particular surged during the Trump years. Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do,” which won an American Book Award in 2018, recounts her family’s flight from war-torn Vietnam to the United States. In her 2018 book “Good Talk,” Indian American writer Mira Jacob documents sobering conversations about race she has with her 6-year-old biracial son, including her own coming of age post 9/11 and her struggle to accept his Jewish grandparents’ support for then-President Donald Trump. And George Takei’s 2019 memoir, “They Called Us Enemy,” chronicles his childhood years in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.

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For Jacob, writing in the comic form can be liberating. The discomforting juxtaposition between the painful conversations she recounts and her illustrations of the characters’ unchanging, emotionless faces beckons readers to think deeply about how people of color are treated in America.

“I don’t want to be the person who’s holding onto all these emotions and asking you to care anymore,” she said. “I’d rather be the unemotional face telling you the enormous difficulty of trying to get through my life, and you get to hold it for once.”

Tara Fickle, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who teaches Asian American literature and comics, said the growth of graphic memoirs can be partly attributed to the “coming of age” of certain Asian American subgroups that haven’t “historically received as much attention in mainstream narratives,” including the children of refugees, mixed-race Asian Americans and transracial adoptees.

“Graphic novels are part of a larger contemporary media landscape where we see debates over minority representation and self-authorization play out,” she wrote in an email. “Asian American graphic novelists have developed brilliant ways to expose and critique the microaggressions and everyday reality of growing up Asian American, as well as the broader historical and systemic forces that determine their specific racialization.”

In some ways, the graphic novel is almost uniquely equipped for writers to explore the complexities of race, said Gene Yang, author of 2006's “American Born Chinese,” the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award.

The combination of words and images, he said, allows writers to convey the wide spectrum of emotions and memories that often characterize the immigrant experience.

“A well constructed graphic novel can have the same intimacy as a diary,” he said. “Issues of identity can be so emotionally fraught, so it makes sense to talk about them using a visual medium.”

While the rise of Asian American graphic novelists is a more recent phenomenon, Yang said, the group has had greater representation in comic books than perhaps any other storytelling industry. Jim Lee, a renowned Korean American artist who’s now the chief creative officer and publisher of DC Comics, created such iconic superheroes as Wildcat and Gambit. Japanese Canadian creator Mariko Tamaki contributed to two recent DC anthologies that reimagined Batgirl and Harley Quinn.

“If you ask any comic book fan for a list of their favorite artists, there’d be at least one to two Asian Americans,” Yang said. “You wouldn’t get that with filmmakers or actors.”

In her 2020 novel “Displacement,” Kiku Hughes uses a science fiction staple to explore the intergenerational impact of incarceration on Japanese American families like her own. While on vacation in San Francisco, her teenage avatar is abruptly transported back in time to the 1940s concentration camp her late grandmother was sent to during the war.

“I wanted to use the time travel device to put the reader in a place where the emphasis is not on historical fact,” Hughes said, “but on the personal experience of someone who went through it.”

The graphic novel form is a particularly powerful tool to examine the legacy of incarceration, she said. Because official records are scarce and government-produced films were often seen as propaganda, Miné Okubo’s 1946 graphic novel “Citizen 1366,” an illustrated memoir about life in an internment camp, became one of the only existing visual renderings of camp conditions, including bathrooms, kitchens, clothing and the food they ate.

“Reading her book made me feel like comics are the foundational medium with which the story has been told since the 1940s,” Hughes said.

As more states consider legislation to integrate Asian American history into public school curriculums, some graphic novelists are hoping their works have a place in the classroom alongside history textbooks.

Khor hopes “The Legend of Auntie Po” encourages young people to look into the history behind the Chinese logging camps, which now receive only a footnote in textbooks.

Growing up, Khor loved books about courageous young girls who led wild adventures: "Anne of the Green Gables" and "Little House on the Prairie." But the heroines were always white.

“The moment I got a chance,” Khor said, “I just really wanted to write a story where a kid who’s pretty similar to me could be the star.”

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