Gene Luen Yang is a busy guy. Just one of three graphic novelists ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship, in 2016, he could be excused for taking it easy, but he’s not. Earlier that year, he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and in that role he’s been busy promoting his platform, “Reading Without Walls.” I caught up with him toward the end of a national tour, after a full day talking to middle school students, topped off by a presentation and signing at an indie bookstore. Over a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about diversity, identity, comics, and, of course, his mission.
A platform tailor-made for our current, urgent conversations about diversity, “Reading Without Walls” has three planks:
- Read a book about a character who doesn't look like you or live like you.
- Read a book about a topic you don't know much about.
- Read a book in a format that you don't normally read for fun (a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, or an audiobook).
The third plank is a natural for an artist whose chosen medium—comics—is one historically viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility (remember Seduction of the Innocent, anyone?). The more comfortable readers get across formats, the more stories they have access to. And the second is likewise natural for a person of an obviously curious nature; in fact, it’s led the avowedly unathletic Yang to his upcoming (2018) nonfiction graphic novel about the 2015 season of an Oakland, California, high school basketball team.
And the first—well, as Yang says, “there’s a reason character is the first plank.” Yang’s own piercing exploration of identity in his Printz Award–winning American Born Chinese is a flat-out brilliant use of graphic storytelling to capture the ambiguity and anxiety of growing up the child of Chinese immigrants in the late-20th-century United States. It provided a mirror for countless readers like him, who applied some fantastically convoluted logic to his reading of Superman when he was a child in order to find a mirror for himself in the child of Krypton. And it provided a window for countless readers like me, whose sense of identity was not nearly so complicated.
Yang’s current experience as the parent of third-generation children has caused him to observe again the fluidity and complexity of identity. His kids’ Bay Area school, he notes, has a large Filipino-American population, and he sees that affinity groups form along generational lines, not ethnic ones. Ethnicity, he says, seems to be “less sticky” as the generations descend, and his kids identify as Asian-American, along with their generational Filipino-American peers, rather than Chinese-American.
This permutability of the barriers between race and identity is one of the things that fascinated him about Flygirl, Sherri L. Smith’s novel for teens about a young, light-skinned African-American aviator who passes for white in order to join the WASPs during World War II. He read the book—a prose novel about a black woman—as part of his own effort to read without walls.
And it’s why he’s so deeply distressed about our current political climate. “I’m shocked we’re still talking about walls.” He went on, “Diversity is what is great about America. We need to celebrate it, but we need to remember its complexity at the same time.”