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Belle Yang

by Susan Henderson on February 4, 2009

Belle Yang is an author and painter whose honest words and vibrant illustrations tell stories about her Chinese heritage, the plight of immigrants in America, and the complex relationships between those we love.

Join our conversation as we talk about art, repression, writing for children, and the power of words.

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When did you know you were an artist/writer? And talk to me about how you knewa joy in creating, rebelling against something, a need to tell an important story, …?

In 1986 I left Los Angeles, where I’d been studying art, because of a lover turned violent. He followed me to my childhood home in Carmel where I had taken refuge. This monster broke into my parents’ house and stole just about everything meaningful to us—my father’s five hundred, original poems, written in his own calligraphy, photographs galore, paintings, letters, yearbooks. All our clothes, too.

The police bungled the initial investigation: fingerprinting wasn’t done correctly, nor did the photographs of the broken window develop. When I did not hear from the police after a month, I wrote a letter to the District Attorney and the Sheriff’s department to explain my situation. I wrote the letter using an old typewriter. It took four days and I lost nearly that many pounds in weight. Within days of sending out the letter, the Monterey County investigators came to my aid. In two months, the abuser/stalker was arrested and our belongings retrieved from Simi Valley.

THAT’S when I knew I was a writer. I could move people to act through my words. When I visit kids at schools, I tell them the importance of writing clearly, because your ability to communicate via a written letter may one day save your life. Spoken words can be effective, but they dissipate if not recorded. Nothing is more powerful than the written word. I felt I’d become a painter after returning from China in 1989 and had sold my first piece through a reputable gallery. But I’ve known I was a painter since I was a child.

What a violation. But also, what a discovery: the power of your words! I love that you pass this message on to children. What’s been their response?

I study their faces, which look serious. I get a sense that my story has seeped into their little noggins—at least a clutch of them. You never know, do you? When I was in fifth grade, a poet came and read a piece about a man who is drowning in the sea and he waves to a person at a distance, who he thinks to be onshore, for rescue. That other person merely waves back. At the end of the poem, we realize both beings are drowning, waving to one another for help.

THAT really STUCK with me. So perhaps a few will remember that writing once saved a writer who came to visit and writing may also save them in some unexpected way, physically and emotionally. Wouldn’t you just love to meet one of your little readers decades down the Yellow Brick Road and be told that writing liberated them in an unimagined way?

Yes! I was once a little reader saved by a poet, myself.

Something that strikes me about your children’s books is that they go deepyou’re willing to explore sorrow and anxiety and disappointment. You could have chosen to tell some of these stories as memoir or adult novels, but you didn’t.

I’ve explored these states of being in my adult books, and I believe I have one good graphic novel for adults still in me, where I will explore sorrow and anxiety. Yet sorrow and anxiety are best set against the light, so there will be humor and joy. Just as in a painting, the colors jumps out when set next to black and the black is inkier set against bright color. This book may have to wait until I am no longer somebody’s daughter. It would not be a dark book, even if the subject is hardly pretty. My Chinese name is “Forget Sorrow,” and I forget pain quickly compared to people like my father, who has—to his own burden—an incredible memory for pain suffered. I’m glad I have poor memory.

ALWAYS COME HOME TO ME

What makes you pick up the pen versus the paintbrush?

Writing and painting are nearly the same to me. With writing, I paint the images. With painting, I tell a story. In the “fine art” pieces I sell in galleries, there are always stories I write on the back of the painting to augment the image. The words are revealed in a cutout window, protected by Plexiglas. I switch tools when I feel a need to use a different part of my brain. It’s good to give one part of my brain a rest and employ the other. The part that’s being used is getting a good massage. In all my adult’s and children’s books, I have been privileged to include words and images. The adult nonfiction books by Harcourt [BABA: A RETURN TO CHINA UPON MY FATHER’S SHOULDERS and THE ODYSSEY OF A MANCHURIAN] were graced with 25 paintings. My picture books—like the brand new one coming out in February, FOO THE FLYING FROG OF WASHTUB POND with Candlewick Press—includes my own illustrations and words. I can’t wait to perform this story in front of kids.

My current project, FORGET SORROW, a graphic novel (adult, “literary” comic book) to be published by WW Norton in 2010 is the perfect balance of the image/words partnership. I believe this is the format I will be working with for the rest of my life.

When I’ve been asked to write book reviews for The Washington Post, they’ve allowed me to include an illustration.

Tell me more about this graphic novel. (Mesmerizing title!)

It is about the life and death of my Manchurian great grandfather, the patriarch of a wealthy multigenerational family. He was born before the fall of the last dynasty and lived through the turmoil of warlord battles, Japanese invasion and occupation, Soviet invasion, Chinese civil war. With the Communist takeover, he was swept out of his estate and wandered a beggar. His children were afraid to take him in, as he ws black-listed as a “Declining Capitalist.” In Forget Sorrow, I explore how fortune unmasks men. My father and I tell the story alternately. It’s a story within a story.

I’d returned home after the Tiananmen Massacre, but the stalker ex-boy-fiend was still a threat, having stolen my parents’ garbage around the time of the massacre to see if I’d come home or to find any info leading to my address. And so, I was forced to stay indoors much of the time after returning to Carmel. As in The Decameron, my father entertained me with stories of old China until the human plague passed. Incidentally, after 3 years in China, I was much better able to bridge the cultural and age gap, which had existed between Pop and me.

I’m looking forward to reading it! What do you say to other authors who also have manuscripts that have taken many years to complete and many more years to sell (particularly when there are authors out there who seem to deliver a new book every year)?

Tough question, which I can’t really answer well. The one reason I’ve been able to publish slowly and fairly consistently is because I am a niche author by being a Chinese-American and an artist/illustrator. In order to get your work into the world, you have to offer what’s not already out there, something fairly rare. And you also need to be open to change. When I could not get FORGET SORROW out in the traditional prose format, when the opportunity came for the graphic novel medium, I changed. Change is always scary.

That’s one possibility, that you are a niche author. The other is that you’re a fabulous artist who connects to the heart of your readers and who is able to simplify complex emotions and relationships so children can understand what was otherwise confusing or frightening. But whatever the reason, I’m glad these books are here for us.

When you look through your paintings and your books, what are the themes you see again and again? What do your characters wrestle with? What do they desire?

Theme: To rescue the voices that have disappeared in the chaos of war without a complaint. When I first began to listen to my father’s stories about Chinese country folk in 1989 (after returning from China post Tiananmen Massacre), I felt incredibly sad for the men and women whose lives were so bountiful, so interesting, earthy, but who died without a murmur. Their peaceful existence was shattered, first by the Japanese who invaded Manchuria, then the Soviets, and finally the Nationalists Chinese and the Communists. The Communists continue to wage wars against their own people. Such a waste! My characters all wish to find a haven, whether geographical or emotional.

You have a real understanding of the gift of free expression. I think a lot of us who were born in America take that gift for granted. There’s a line I was reading in your book, HANNAH IS MY NAME, that made me tear up: “We don’t have to stay quiet and make ourselves small.” In another article, you said, “To swallow your voice, to keep stories buried deeply beneath layers and layers of silence is to live in a state of bondage. Stories are magic. Stories make us individuals. They make us free.” It seems like that haven you speak about has something to do with this.

The Tiananmen Massacre was bondage and silence on a societal level. I had lived with an abusive man who was violent to me on a personal level. My China experience only underscored my knowledge of the insidious Evil in society. How will Hamas and Israel stop fighting when women in a relatively liberal country like the U.S. (women of all class levels) are beaten in their own homes, just for speaking their own minds? China looks wealthy to the outside, but its citizens are beaten down every day for speaking up against pollution and corruption.

Isn’t it a bit ironic to you that I write kids’ book? The Evil of which I speak is kept from them as long as possible. We send our kids out entirely blind about the subtleties of power. In CHILI-CHILI-CHIN-CHIN, my first children’s book, it was a reaction against being ridden, used like horse or pack mule by others or by society as a whole. Someone very astute person once said, “Belle you give off a sense of brightness even when your life has had its darkness.” But you can’t know freedom of expression until you’ve been muffled.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

robinslick February 4, 2009 at 6:28 am

What a gorgeous interview in every sense – the artwork, Belle’s words, and your comments as well, Susan. And yes, the phrase “We don’t have to stay quiet and make ourselves small” totally resonated with me…what a powerful, powerful statement.

I am really looking forward to Forget Sorrow.

Yet another introduction to a previously unknown to me incredible author/artist…I thank you both on this snowy Wednesday morning.

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SusanHenderson February 4, 2009 at 8:55 am

Me, too, Robin. That line just broke (and then rebuilt) me. Thanks so much for being here!

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 4, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Thank you, Susan, for introducing Belle Yang. Like you and Robin, the line, “We don’t have to stay quiet and make ourselves small” spoke to me on a personal level. Yet it the line, “With writing, I paint the images. With painting, I tell a story.” has such perfect symmetry I found myself reading it over and over.

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SusanHenderson February 4, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Yeah, such a neat way of describing it. Maybe that’s why I was never good at art, I never knew I could use it to tell a story.

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jessicaK February 4, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Wow, Belle. Your work is powerful and gorgeous. Your colors are episodic, moving in waves as if they have a narrative pull to them, and they do.

Susan, thanks for another stupendous interview.
Thank you, Belle. I’m awed by this.

Jessica Keener
Purple Day is March 26
http://www.purpleday.org

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Hi, Jessica, I’ve spent an hour trying to establish an account here so I can log in and reply. Phew, I’m finally here.

Thank you for your kind words. I write for adults and children and everyone in between. I know there are distinct categories of writing, but it’s all communications to me.

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Hi, Carolyn–

I also felt in writing the adult books about the struggles of the Chinese during the Japanese invasion and Communist takeover, that I was able to lend voice to those who disappeared without a chance to raise their voices.

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I love taking people who say they were “never good at art” out on sketching trips. It’s something that can be learned. It’s meditative if you are not worrying about perspective and all the rules!

Thanks, Susan, for inviting me to talk to your Litpark readers. I know this is HUGE amount of work and you’ve done an amazing job with the entire site.

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Robin–i’d like to trade you the snow for some sun. I’m in California and we are in our 3rd year of drought, which means we can look forward to fear in the summer when the hill burn.

I’m on the 3rd to last chapter of forget sorrow. I am still amazed it’s getting published, because I remember those days when the ms. was rejected by publishers as a prose book with art. I always felt faint when I received the NO’s. Good thing I usually just pass out and sleep away the disappointment. Three days later, I’m scheming again on how to get it out into the world.

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I like this setup. I can click on the readers and visit their blogs to see what they are creating!

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patry February 4, 2009 at 7:07 pm

So happy to see Belle here! I’ve been a fan of her gorgeous work and open heart for a while. (Is there really a difference between the two?)

To move people to act through our words…That really is our highest calling as writers, isn’t it? Thanks for the reminder.

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Aurelio February 4, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Thank you Susan for another fine interview.

Belle, I am struck by how brave you are in your work – your ability to fearlessly go from writing for adults, to your children’s books, and now to graphic novels, all with a kind of quiet confidence. I also love the use of pattern in your color illustrations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and work with us.

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Patry–the image you used in your most recent blog is so clever. I’ve been thinking of my thighs as 2 sardines all evening. I was so afraid I write you and your husband would respond instead of you . . .

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SusanHenderson February 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I’ll be back in the morning to respond to all these comments.

My son was in a county-wide French poetry contest today (???! I know. And I didn’t even know he was writing poems or writing them in French.) Anyway, he placed 3rd after 3 hours of this contest, and now everyone is wiped. ‘Night!

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belleyang February 4, 2009 at 10:09 pm

I used to feel very lost in the market, because as writers we are supposed to establish ourselves as one thing or another. The market depends on clear cut categories. Now I am fine with a chameleon existence, because I don’t feel the youthful need to be entirely visible.

I can fit in American society easily and at times, NOT; I can blend into a Chinese environment and feel pain and resentment for every moment I spend there.

I’m flattered that you think me brave, but I needed to change with every new change in the market. It seems we are all learning this lesson as the economy forces us to think of new paths.

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jessicaK February 5, 2009 at 9:00 am

Wise attitude, Belle.

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:22 am

This always moves me so much, just how much artists struggle to be heard. It’s a big theme around here, that’s for sure.

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:23 am

Since both of you are out in California, maybe you can catch one of her readings or art showings.

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:23 am

I have to introduce you to my friend, Xujun. I have a feeling you could talk for hours.

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:25 am

Thank you.

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:26 am

Hey, congratulations on your literary prize yesterday! Is there a link you can post here?

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:28 am

Patry! I’m so happy you’re here!

I’m off to read your blog in 2 minutes. In the meantime, I’ll link it for everyone else: http://simplywait.blogspot.com/

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 10:29 am

If you knew Aurelio better, you’d know you just gave him a perfect piece of wisdom.

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Shelley February 5, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Yes, I agree with Aurelio, Belle, that you are brave to speak out and articulate your heart aches and perceptions, and to do so, beautifully. Thanks for sharing your stories here. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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JamesRSpring February 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Spectacular words. Spectacular images. I look forward to reading your children’s books to my babies…

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Well said!

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SusanHenderson February 5, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Aww, I love the idea of you reading her books to your kids.

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belleyang February 6, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Thanks, Shelley. I hope I get to write and publish more. One always wonders if this may be the last book.

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belleyang February 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Hi, James. Thank you. I think Foo the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond would be a fun one for you. I realize I have to write children’s books that are fun for me to read out loud.

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SusanHenderson February 6, 2009 at 8:44 pm

I think, after your graphic novel, you may have to write a book about mushrooms!

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SusanHenderson February 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm

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