Early in the pandemic, Laura Gao watched in horror as Wuhan, China, was scapegoated for the coronavirus and anti-Asian violence in the U.S. soared. A comics artist based in San Francisco, Gao was born in Wuhan. When her parents left for the U.S. to attend graduate school, Gao stayed behind with her relatives, where she immersed herself in Chinese folktales, rode water buffaloes, and ran through rice paddies with her cousins. When she was 4 years old, she joined her parents and has remained here ever since. But Gao has held her memories of Wuhan close, especially when, during the pandemic, a disparaging portrait of her former city, and its people, took root.

When a March 2021 mass shooting at three Atlanta area spas left eight people dead, six of them Asian women, Gao decided to take action. She published a 10-panel webcomic, “The Wuhan I Know,” which relayed the city’s food, culture, and rich history. It quickly went viral and became the inspiration for her debut book, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, March 8).

Gao’s book goes far beyond the pandemic. It is an absorbing account of her immigration to the U.S., the racism and homophobia she endured during her adolescence in Coppell, Texas, and her move to Philadelphia for college, where she found acceptance in a large, diverse Asian American community as well as a queer community that readily embraced her whole self.

We spoke over Zoom while Gao was working and vacationing in Lisbon, Portugal. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the challenges in turning a 10-panel comic into a full-length graphic memoir?

Figuring out what exactly I wanted to convey in this book was challenging. There were so many ways I could have written it. It could have been purely just about how awesome Wuhan was, or it could have focused on anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

But after “The Wuhan I Know” went viral, an Asian American mother wrote to me to tell me that this was the first book she could share with her two young daughters where they could be proud of their identity.

I also remembered that I was most in conflict with myself during my teenage years, when I was starting to understand race and sexuality. I needed something to help ground myself. If I was speaking to younger Laura, what would I have wanted to say? I could imagine younger Laura experiencing joy while reading a book about being Asian and queer. This is why I wrote Messy Roots, for young people.

In the U.S., we’ve heard so much about the virus but very little about the Wuhanese people. How did the ignorance here influence how you shaped the book?

In the beginning, when no one was taking Covid seriously, co-workers and people around me would make offhand comments about Wuhan without understanding how harmful they could be. Jokes would pop up about bats. I would hear these comments at work and, later, FaceTime my grandparents and family in Wuhan. It was such a weird juxtaposition. Covid was a political comedy to some people in the U.S. but a reality for my Wuhanese family in lockdown. As an immigrant, I can’t speak for all Wuhanese people, but during the pandemic, I have had a unique perspective of both the East and the West. At the very least, I could express in the book my own anger and frustrations about how Wuhan was portrayed and also my pride [in] Wuhanese people.

Queer identity is still such a taboo in many Asian American communities. What role does understanding your own queerness play in Messy Roots?

I didn’t start exploring my own queer identity until I arrived at college. The University of Pennsylvania is quite a liberal community, and folks there are out and proud. Being out and proud is not just about embracing sexuality, but about being confident in my own skin in the same way being Asian is. I can’t think of a single person in Coppell, Texas, who was out and proud. Queerness there was always used to dehumanize someone. But my queerness is as ingrained in me as my Asianness. I can’t separate those identities.

How was the coming-out process for you?

I’m not out to my extended family in China yet. The parts of the book I’ve shared with them are about Wuhan and how much Wuhan has made me love my heritage.

I came out to my parents at the beginning of the year because the book was going to be published. I wanted them to know that I was queer before it hit the shelves. My coming out was hard for them. I knew it would not go smoothly, so it went how I expected. But over this past year we’ve had a lot of poignant talks. I’m hoping it will still get better.

When you attended college in Philadelphia, you met people who were queer and grew up in large Asian American communities, a stark contrast to your own upbringing in Coppell, Texas. How did this affect where you decided to live after college?

One of the reasons I applied to college so far away was because I wanted to change my environment and meet diverse minds. No one in my high school ever talked about identity or racism. While in college, I realized how much racism and homophobia at my high school were normalized. But I also realized that I had my own biases. I made my own faulty assumptions about Asians.

After college, I had to ask myself who I wanted to be. I moved to San Francisco, where I could be proud to be Asian and proud to be queer. These communities in San Francisco helped me find my voice. They became my emotional support when I received hate mail after publishing “The Wuhan I Know.”

How does the great distance from Wuhan and from most of your Wuhanese family shape your diasporic identity?

The distance is huge. I was very close to my Wuhanese relatives when I was little. When I first joined my parents in the U.S., my mom [says] that I would act up and get really mad. I didn’t address her as my mom. I didn’t consider her as a caretaker or parent of mine.

But the more I got accustomed to being in the U.S. and to American life, the more the distance from the U.S. to Wuhan caused me to lose the Wuhanese part of myself. During each call with my relatives, I noticed my Mandarin was getting worse and worse. My Wuhanese relatives were trying to bring up this past Laura that they knew well but who I could no longer live up to. It felt like I was constantly seeing this ghost of me, from before I left Wuhan.  

You were about to go back to Wuhan for a visit when the pandemic struck and the city shut down. What’s it been like for you to not be able to see your family there in person?

China has been closed ever since the pandemic started. The internet is not the best replacement for visits, but thankfully, my cousins helped my grandparents set up WeChat calls. I’m constantly checking in and call them every week. I feel like we’ve gotten a lot closer.

Anjali Enjeti is the author of the essay collection Southbound and a novel, The Parted Earth. She lives near Atlanta.