Gene Luen Yang is a cartoonist and author of 2006 National Book Award nominee American Born Chinese, Prime Baby, and most recently, Level Up. He also teaches computer science at a Catholic high school in California.
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'Write Your Life, Live Your Faith'
IN 1900, long-simmering resentment over increasing foreign presence and exploitation in China boiled over into a full-scale uprising, the Boxer Rebellion. It was spearheaded by the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” a peasant secret society whose members practiced martial arts—Westerners, observing their exercises, dubbed them “Boxers.” The Boxers targeted foreign officials, merchants, and missionaries, as well as Chinese Christian converts.
Comic book author and artist Gene Luen Yang illuminates two very different fictional perspectives on this conflict in his new two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints: The first volume, Boxers, tells the story of Bao, a boy who becomes a Boxer leader after seeing ongoing abuse by Westerners; Saintsfollows Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who converts to Catholicism, takes the name Vibiana, and must flee the Boxers.
Yang’s 2006 work American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to both win the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and to be nominated for a National Book Award. He lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches in the Hamline University MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter interviewed Yang in July. Boxers & Saints releases in September from First Second Books.
Julie Polter: The characters in Boxers & Saints are driven by varied combinations of ideology (patriotism, cultural imperialism) and mysticism/faith. The flaws and virtues of different beliefs seem to mirror each other. What led you to this complicated story?
Gene Luen Yang: The genesis of the project was out of my own conflicts. I majored in computer science in college and minored in creative writing. I had a professor who was also a novelist, Thaisa Frank. I remember visiting her during office hours and talking to her about my struggles with writing about issues of faith. Faith, especially in college, became very important to me; it became a critical part of how I saw my place in the world. It was really hard for me to put something authentic on the page. Her advice to me was, essentially, you have to write your life and live your faith—you don’t ever try to write your faith, because it will come out funky. That’s the advice I’ve tried to follow ever since.
Telling the Old, Old Story
Why, despite mutual suspicions, Christianity and comics go together like paper and ink.
Why Christianity and Comics Go Together
I remember vividly the first time I went to a comic book shop with my mom. I'd sneaked there before. But this time was different. This time I'd come without pretense, openly confessing my love of the four-color art form. I was in the fifth grade.
While I perused the back issue bins in the middle of the shop, my mother looked from one rack to the next, her face slowly solidifying into a grimace. On one cover, a half-naked green man punched a half-naked rock man in the head. On another, a woman wearing spandex tight enough to be body paint draped herself over some sort of futuristic motorcycle. Eventually, my mother's eyes fell upon the cover of a sword-and-sorcery title near the cash register. Behind a tan, sinewy barbarian stood a harem of women, all wearing thin strips of well-placed linen. We left before I could make a purchase.