To See, To Say

Forget SorrowBy Mary Ellen Hannibal

The word “graphic” has both Latin and Greek roots and also bridges the concepts of “writing” and “drawing.”  The graphic novel thus fulfills its etymology. 

Belle Yang’s memoir, Forget Sorrow, likewise bridges two very different worlds – the past and the present—finding through lines not only of loss but also of hope.  Her historical context is also her family history, the Chinese experience of devastation through World War II and under Communism.  Later this year the Main Library will host an exhibit of Yang’s paintings and drawings, and will feature a screening of the PBS documentary “My Name is Belle.” Stay tuned.

MEH: I wonder if you could wax on a bit about the graphic novel format and how you came to use it.   Your book, like Persepolis and Maus, effortlessly conveys personal history while placing it in a much broader context.  Is the form particularly conducive to this?

BY: The graphic novel format is akin to the Chinese horizontal scroll, which is an intimate format, held in the hands like a book.  Increments of the art are unrolled from the left and rolled back on the right.  It was a pre-modern form of motion picture, taking the viewer from one contiguous scene to another.

Vertical columns of poetry added new layers of meaning to the images.  The Chinese written language is comprised of pictographs and ideographs, so it is natural for the written language to be incorporated into the picture plane.

It was not a big leap of imagination for me to take this hand scroll medium and turn it into the graphic novel format with its panels of words and drawings.  The format is indeed favorable to telling a story that is foreign to a reader, because the artist can draw an unfamiliar background without getting bogged down by the use of too many descriptive passages.

Forget Sorrow Page 11MEH: There is a very frightening theme/thread through the book about a former boyfriend stalking you.  How does this experience intersect with the book’s larger aim of portraying a family history?  It’s like there are two spectres haunting the narrator, this awful man, and painful cultural upheaval, etc.

BY: I had experienced violence, the circumvention of my movements, and the silencing of my voice at the hands of one man.  When I ran headlong into Democracy Spring and the Tiananmen Massacre, I saw that it was murder and the subsequent quashing of stories by the state.  In Forget Sorrow I depict an patriarchal society before the arrival of the Communists and the continuation of that society under another authoritarian guise—that of the People’s Republic of China.  It’s the worst joke in Chinese history that those in power dare to call the country “The People’s Republic.”

MEH: You have made some touching comments about the whole “Tiger Mother” brou ha ha.  What I got out of your comments is that for many Chinese in America today, the harsh past of really fighting to survive still resounds mightily.  I guess the question is, given a softer general environment, is the Tiger Mother’s an adaptive approach or counter-productive?

BY: I think people have forgotten the child in all  the ruckus.  People hear about Chinese prodigies, but I am kith and kin to plenty of so-called failures.  If the child is not prodigy material, no matter how many hours of practice at the piano, she will be playing Chopin as if playing “Chopsticks.”  Many of my relatives who chide and berate manage to beat down their children into neurotic, unhappy beings who confide that they want to commit suicide.

Then there are the kids who excel when the pressure in on, whether the force comes from parents or their environment.

There is laziness involved in being Tiger Mom 24/7.  You can’t be an autopilot Tiger Mom.  A parent has to work hard to be in tune with her child to know when it’s time to chide and when it’s time to praise.  Aesop was not wrong when he wrote the story about the contest of strength between the warming sun and the frigid North Wind.

MEH: When you speak, do you get a strong personal response from the audience?  (I’m guessing you do.)  How do you feel about it — is your own experience “representative”?  Do you sometimes feel exposed?

BY: My primary purpose, whether before an adult or a school-age audience is to get people interested in their family histories.  I want them to become knowledgeable about how they became who they are today.  Invariably, someone will come up to me after my presentation and say, “I am going talk to my mother, father, aunt, grandfather and find out about how we came to America.”  Some will go on to write up the information and wrap it around their personal stories as gifts to their kids at Christmas.  One man, a well-know artist, told me his parents were both gone.  “I don’t even know what songs my parents had listened to when they first fell in love,” he said.

I heard a writing teacher say that a book should be useful.  I feel gratified when I am useful.  I know I am helping a few people save their stories before time gobbles them all up into its maw of nothingness.

I do feel exposed when I talk about “The Rotten Egg,” the violent stalker ex-boyfriend.  But it doesn’t keep me from talking about it.  I may yet write a book on that period of time to make cruelty comprehensible.

MEH: What are you working on now?

BY: One, a Chinese reader for tots and an adult graphic memoir based on my mother’s side of the family.  In 1994, a woman heard my talk on my first book Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders and said, “I won’t read your books until you write about your mother.  So nearly two decades since that night, I’ve started to work on Umbilical Cords.  It takes place in Taiwan and Canton.  Taiwan is an island first settled by Malay-speaking aborigines, the Dutch, the Spanish and by various groups of Chinese.  Among the latter were the Hakka people who were pressed south by the onslaught of the Huns (yes, the Huns who had encroached on Rome).  I am in smack in the middle of writing the graphic memoir script.  That’s the best place to be.  I am most happy in the middle of work rather than on publication of the book.

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