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.


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.


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.


Question of the Month: Children’s Books

by Susan Henderson on February 2, 2009

What are your favorite children’s books? And what do you love about them?

Wednesday, painter and children’s book author, Belle Yang, will be here. She’s a remarkable woman, and I’m excited for you to meet her. Be sure to stop by and say hello!


Norman Mallory

by Susan Henderson on August 31, 2006

The heart of an artist: Norman Mallory

Earlier in the week, you met two artists getting steady commercial work. Today, I want to introduce you to an artist who has never been able to support himself with his art, and yet his art gives him life. He is a lovely man who will talk today about the heart of an artist. Please meet Norman Mallory, who was recently a featured artist on studio8.

Tell me about the range of art you do (medium, style, etc).

I draw and paint in many media. For several years I did only watercolor and egg tempera paintings, but recently I have returned to oil. I like drawing from life as often as possible in a full range of media. I used charcoal and graphite for years in working from the figure. Now I use brush and ink for comics, of course. I made many woodcuts when I was younger.

Where were you trained? And what’s the most helpful thing you were taught?

I know the world uses the word “training” quite conventionally, but I rankle at it a little. The tropisms necessary for learning to draw probably apply most here. I learned to draw mainly on my own, but many hours in the life rooms of some college and universities have helped.

I had a very good drawing teacher right from the beginning, in my teens. He was merciless and weaned me away from all the comfortable cliches I’d been rewarded for by earlier teachers. It was a kind of boot camp working with him, a real humbling experience. Slowly, very slowly on a kind of circuitous path, I regained the confidence he had rightly eroded, and, using the way he had taught me to see, I began to gain ground. The most important thing for me has been learning to look at nature clearly and draw what I see without letting tricky facility interfere. My teacher helped me there. He made me draw wearing boxing gloves.

Would you say that you’ve “made a living” at being an artist?

No. I made a living as a teacher in various colleges and universities. I got money and some free time from that job, but I have never considered myself anything but an artist and never considered teaching anything but a job. I think I needed the security that teaching provided me since I came from a very insecure home environment.

While I sell my work, I have never sought notoriety with any determination, never tried to become a star. I’d be embarrassed and think I’d lost my marbles if I had hundreds of banners, like Bill Viola, showing pictures of me up and down major boulevards in Los Angeles. Being Bill Viola must be hard at times, but it’s not as hard as spending thousands of hours grinding away at learning to draw the figure. As Stan Freberg says, “It’s all in the way you look at it.”

What have you given up or endured to remain in this profession and talk to me about whether it has been worth it and why.

I have chosen not to have children, for various reasons, most of them having to do with my art but also centrally because I would make a lousy parent. I have resisted going into debt. I own almost nothing except my books, my art supplies and a few stringed instruments. My wife lends me her car. l have always wanted to be an artist since I gave up the idea of being an astronomer at about age eight. I think I understood pretty early that painters who made a lot of money were fairly rare and resigned myself to the have-not group. Artists like Andrew Wyeth who make barrels of cash appeal to something in a broad audience I can’t (and don’t want to) reach. He should stop giving interviews and writing autobiographical notes on the sizes and condition of his model’s sex organs, by the way. It’s getting embarrassing.

Describe the difference between the art you do that is commissioned versus the art you feel compelled to do regardless of knowing if it will sell.

I have and will continue to make the largest part of my art without any hope of sale. The game – I call it the “wine and cheese pageant” – of being noticed, groveling, “making connections” is something I haven’t been able to manage, being constitutionally weak in the self-promotion zone. I can’t use business strategies at all, which is why I became a teacher – as a sort of refugee from the business world.

I have been paid from time to time for commercial work, including writing. And I have an agent selling mostly watercolors for me. But I could never subsist on sales or commissions. Last year I made a few hundred dollars on art, that’s all. Since making money is the measurement most people recognize when art is discussed, they don’t discuss me.

Cezanne was ecstatic when his father, a banker, died and left him financially independent and we all know what happened to poor Vincent.

What artists have most influenced your work?

Cezanne, Bonnard, from whom I’ve tried to learn about color. Picasso for drawing and printmaking. R.B. Kitaj and Lucien Freud in their eloquent handling of the figure and the weight of narration that emerges from their work.

There are many, many others, some of whom were “commercial” artists like Robert Fawcett, one of the most accomplished picture-makers this country has produced. I like abstract art too. Franz Kline, DeKooning, Rothko and Motherwell have had a profound effect on me spiritually, you might say. And there are other witty painters, like the Cuban Julio Larraz. Philip Guston’s late work is important to me, as it is to thousands of artists.

Avigdor Arikha, the Israeli painter based in Paris, has taught me much, particularly about the still life. Morandi and his marvelous subtle vision. Antonio Lopez-Garcia, the Spanish realist. Balthus for his mysterious eroticism and extraordinary painting technique. I’m fond of expressionism too, and have even been called an “expressionist”, whatever that means, in print. So – Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Bacon of course. I have an affinity for the English as you can see from my list. There’s a young man named Phil Hale who won the BP award in Britain a few years ago who makes marvelous illustrations in oil.

The Americans Morris Graves and Ben Shahn are central to me, for their ardor, social commitment and Buddhist (in the case of Graves) influences. Graves is a sort of Gary Snyder of painting. Brad Holland is an American illustrator I’ve learned from. And the marvelous Howard Pyle among the older artists. I could go on and on. I’m a careful student of art history, trying to learn something from everyone I look at. As an old teacher of mine said to me when I was young : haunt the museums. All the problems are already solved there.

What do you consider your breakthrough job? How did you land that job, and what kinds of doors did it open for you?

No breakthroughs, no landing, no doors opening. Really, my work is in very limited circulation. Sometimes I’ll visit the friend of a friend and, in their commodious home, see one of my pictures hanging on the wall nicely framed. That is very gratifying. And my work has appeared in print from time to time.

Who are some of your favorite writers and illustrators?

Again, this is a fun game to play but I could fill a small pamphlet with my lists of this kind. In addition to the illustrators I named above, I’ll throw some more obscure ones at you: Edmund J. Sullivan, Joseph Clement Coll, Daniel Vierge, Edwin Austin Abbey, Lynd Ward, Rockwell Kent – all for their use of pen and ink. I’m very, very fond of black-and-white illustration. Austin Briggs, Albert Dorne, Al Parker, Stephan Dohanos, Robert
Fawcett (whom I mentioned above) and all the “Connecticut Famous Artists” group. You know the ones who had the “Draw Me!” matchbook ads back in the fifties? Burt Silverman and his beautifully observed figures and portraits – what technique! Robert MacGinnis and his sexy ladies and tough cops and spies. That guy can paint anything well.

And of course there are the comic book-style illustrators: Alex Toth, Jean (“Moebius”) Giraud, Jorge Zaffino, Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles. There are hundreds. Mike Mignola among young contemporary comic-book artists is really extraordinary and a fine designer of pages. Even the violence-slinger Frank Miller, a terrific black-and-white artist. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, a gifted draftsman, Wally Wood, Al Williamson.

Among writers I have frequented over the years: Borges, Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Louise Bogan, James Wright, Galway Kinnell and Elizabeth Bishop. Lots of Walter Benjamin, George Steiner and William H. Gass. The luminous and short-lived Bruce Chatwin, W. G. Sebald whom I read again and again. Samuel Johnson has been a constant companion, and one of his own favorites, Sir Thomas Browne. I love “Vulgar Errors” (“Pseudodoxia Epidemica”). It always cheers me up.

The brilliant and original little wild, chestnut-haired Emily from Amherst.

Melville, particularly in his shorter works, is just great – “Benito Cereno” and “The Confidence-Man” for instance.

In my former job I taught a lot of Shakespeare, naturally, and thereby came to know him better than before. Robert Burton, Dryden and Pope. Marlowe. Milton. I used to teach “Paradise Lost” and came to love its cadences and imagery.

Right now I’m reading Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. What a writer!

I read “The History of the English Speaking People” several years ago and loved it.

There’s a new Library of America edition of H.P. Lovecraft I just ordered. I have long loved his somewhat tangle-footed wannabe Augustan prose.

As Pound said about his “Cantos”: there are good things buried in there.

I went through a long period during which I read lots of Virginia Woolf.

V.S. Pritchett is a prodigious and complex writer who deserves more attention since his death, having lived and written for nearly a full century.

Bellow, of course, among our writers.

Nabokov, in all his disguises – letters, lectures, polemics and chess problems.

And William Blake, visual artist and poet supreme.

This is getting out of control. I’ll stop.

Share 3 pieces of advice for anyone interested in this field.

1. Observe nature attentively and copy it faithfully. Style will take care of itself.

2. Follow Flaubert’s dictum when it comes to your own style, but only after a long apprenticeship: “Not to resemble one’s neighbor; that is everything!”

3. Study the history of art. Be influenced by many. Don’t merely copy your hero(oes).

It was a pleasure to have you here, Norman. Tomorrow: my artist friend who opened my eyes. And Friday, an artist whose movies, last I checked, are currently number 1 and number 6 at the box office. Stay tuned!