Two Sides, Two Stories: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang
Boxers & Saints is thrilling, funny, sad, but most of all, deeply ambivalent. The two-volume comic, written by Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), confronts the Boxer Rebellion, a two-year uprising in 1899 in which violent nationalists sought to combat the presence of Christianity in China. Yang's work deals with the story from both sides, represented by the protagonist in each book. In Boxers, Little Bao unlocks the power of Chinese gods and uses those abilities to lead a rebellion against all Westerners in China; Saints finds a young girl named Vibiana having a conflict about her Christian faith. Both stories, which are cleverly linked, work in tandem to draw a powerful portrait of one of China's most controversial historical events. The National Book Foundation agrees, recently including Boxers & Saints on the National Book Award's longlist for Young People's Literature.
First, congrats on making the National Book Award's longlist. What inspired you to write a comic about the Boxer Rebellion?
Thank you! I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul canonized 120 saints of China. 87 were ethnically Chinese, 33 were foreign missionaries to China. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, and naturally my home church was really excited about the Vatican's announcement. This was the first time the Roman Catholic Church — this deeply Western church — had recognized Chinese citizens in this way. There were all sorts of celebrations and special masses. I looked into the lives of the newly canonized and discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion, a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900. The more I read about the war, the more fascinated I became. The Boxer Rebellion embodies this struggle between Eastern and Western culture that I've struggled with at different points in my life.
How much research went into the book? Since the Boxer Rebellion is one of China's most controversial historical events, did you find conflicting accounts of what happened?
For about a year, a year and a half, I went to my local university library once a week. I spent several hours there each visit, reading as much as I could about the Boxer Rebellion and turn-of-the-century China. I also got the opportunity to visit a Jesuit archive in the French city of Vanves. There, they had letters and photos that once belonged to French missionaries and soldiers serving in China. It was pretty amazing.
I think history's view of the Boxers has shifted over the decades. During the Boxer Rebellion, the most conservative members of the Chinese government saw them as defenders of traditional Chinese culture. Immediately after they were defeated, the Boxers were seen as these superstitious, backwards rubes. Then after the Chinese Communists came to power, Mao recast them as patriotic freedom fighters. Nowadays, most scholars seem ambivalent about the Boxer Rebellion.
Did you have the diptych/dual-perspectives planned from the start?
I got the idea of doing two books pretty early on. The more I researched, the more ambivalent I felt. I just couldn't decide who I sympathized with more. I couldn't decide who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. So that's why I did two volumes. The protagonists in one are the antagonists in the other.
Did you write both volumes at the same time? If not, which one did you start with? Do you want people to read them in that order?
I outlined both books together so I could figure out the connection points. Then I wrote Boxers. I wrote Saints as I was drawing Boxers. Finally I drew Saints. Originally, I'd hoped that they could be read in either order, but after talking to readers, it sounds like they work best if you read Boxers first.
Without giving away too much, Boxers is primarily about heroism and Saints is more concerned with faith. I loved how the endings of both seem to question the definitions of these things. Why did you want to introduce so much ambiguity around the choices the two protagonists make?
I think heroism and faith are important to many of us. They're both expressions of idealism. As human beings, we strive to be the most noble versions of ourselves. Yet, idealism can sometimes lead us down some very, very dark alleys. In my own life, faith has always been a struggle. Sometimes I've participated in my faith tradition for spiritual reasons, sometimes it's been for pragmatic reasons. I thought it'd be most honest to portray my protagonists' journey in the same way.
A big difference between Boxers and Saints is the coloring (which I know Lark Pien did). Why did you want Boxers to be so much brighter than Saints, which takes more subdued hues?
Lark Pien is an incredible cartoonist. She wrote and drew this kids' graphic novel called Long Tail Kitty. If you haven't checked it out, you should.
As you pointed out, Boxers is about heroism — what does it mean to be a hero? — and Saints is about faith — what does it mean to be a saint? For Boxers, Lark and I tried to pull from heroic storytelling traditions: Chinese opera and American superhero comics. I wanted Boxers to be a comics version of a Chinese war epic, full of color and blood and tragedy.
Saints, I knew, would be a much more humble story. Since humility is such an important part of our conception of sainthood, this volume would be smaller, shorter, quieter. Lark and I pulled from the aesthetic sensibilities of American autobio comics. I admire the intimacy many of those comics can achieve with their readers. Many of them use a humble, limited color palette to do it. We tried to do the same.
What are you working on next?
Singaporean cartoonist sensation Sonny Liew and I are working on a graphic novel that’s a revival of an obscure 1940's superhero called The Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was created by a Chinese American artist named Chu Hing. Supposedly, Hing wanted his hero to be a Chinese American, but his publishers wouldn't let him. So Hing reacted in this very passive-aggressive way. In those original Green Turtle comics, the reader almost never gets to see the hero's face. He almost always has his back turned to us. Rumor is, Hing drew those pages that way so he could imagine his character the way he'd intended, as a Chinese American. The Green Turtle got canceled before we could learn his secret identity or his origin story. In our book, Sonny and I are filling in that gap. We're firmly establishing The Green Turtle as the first Asian American superhero. I did the writing, Sonny did the art. I've seen his finished pages and I have to say, Sonny is just amazing. He knocked it out of the park on this one.