Jan. 27, 2021
Award-winning cartoonist Gene Luen Yang to join UCalgary for annual literary event
Gene Luen Yang is a MacArthur Fellow, the fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and the bestselling writer and artist behind American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, the Avatar: the Last Airbender comics, and many other iconic works. He will join the university on March 11 as Distinguished Visiting Writer for one of Calgary’s most anticipated literary events of the year.
When comic books come to mind, it is common to think about superheroes. Indeed, Yang’s own fascination with comics began in the fifth grade when an issue of Superman and the Atomic Knights caught his eye. But Yang believes the format can handle any genre, any mood, and any depth of information. Over the course of his career, Yang’s expansive body of work has proved this to be true, exploring vast topics such as mythology, history, math, science, religion, autobiography, sports, and yes, superheroes.
“When I look back on my fascination with Superman and with superheroes, I wonder if I was so fascinated because I am the child of immigrants,” Yang says.
The central reality of Superman’s life is that he has to navigate between two different identities and two different cultures. This dynamic of a secret identify that is so central to the superhero genre made a lot of sense to me.
Like Superman, Yang had two names growing up: a Chinese name that he used at home and an American name he used at school. He also spoke two languages and lived under two different sets of cultural expectations.
Yang’s first graphic novel, American Born Chinese, draws on emotions from his childhood and explores three interweaving storylines about the Asian-American experience. The book was the first-ever graphic novel to be named a finalist for the National Book Award, causing a firestorm of controversy about whether graphic novels were eligible for the award, and whether they were “real books.” It went on to win the Printz Award and an Eisner Award, one of the most prestigious honours in the comic book world.
Yang’s followup project, Boxers & Saints, a two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was also a National Book Award finalist and won the Printz Honor and the L.A. Times Book Prize for Young Readers. Continuing his focus on youth, Yang next published a middle-grade series called Secret Coders that teaches kids the basics of computer science. With an oeuvre such as this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Yang is an advocate for reading diversely.
“I really believe we need diverse books,” he says. “That includes reading about a diversity of characters and a diversity of publishing formats. I especially want kids to explore the world through books, to see themselves reflected but also to glimpse into the lives of other people.”
Books as mirrors and windows
During his two-year tenure as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Yang promoted Reading Without Walls, a platform he developed with the Children's Book Council that encourages young people to move outside their comfort zones and choose books with characters who look or live differently than they do, topics they have not yet discovered, or formats they have not tried.
“Books can act as mirrors and windows, and every person needs both,” says Yang. “Mirror books reflect pieces of our own experience and in doing so tell us that we’re not alone. Window books help us see into the lives of others and by doing this highlight our common humanity.”
In 2020, Yang published two new graphic novels: Dragon Hoops with First Second Books, which he wrote and illustrated, and Superman Smashes the Klan for DC Comics, authored by Yang and drawn by the Japanese illustration team Gurihiru. Both works bring his passion for diverse reading to life in different ways.
As a self-professed “non-athlete,” Yang takes on a topic outside his own comfort zone as he chronicles the journey of a high school basketball team chasing after the California State Championship in Dragon Hoops. In Superman Smashes the Klan, Yang retells an old radio story from the 1940s in which Superman defends a Chinese-American family from a group of hooded and robed racists called the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Interested in how a Chinese-American family played such a central but not overly visible role in the early Superman mythos, Yang gives the family even more prominence in this adaptation.
Reading is a great way to increase our own capacity for empathy. When we look at our world today, that empathy is something we could use more of.
As 2020-2021 Distinguished Visiting Writer, Yang joins a long list of literary luminaries who have joined the UCalgary community since the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program was founded in 1993. Past Distinguished Visiting Writers have included Margaret Atwood, Art Spiegelman, Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, Lee Maracle, and Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka, among others.
An Evening with Gene Luen Yang is free to attend but advance registration is required. Register to attend.