Meet Brandon Generator.  He stares at the cursor on his blank laptop screen.  He drinks too much coffee.  He cuts newspapers into “word salads” for inspiration that never materializes.  He can’t write.  Like many a struggling writer, you can find him bemoaning his stasis on Twitter and Facebook: “Today I wrote nothing, but learnt how to draw four different types of dogs.  Progress?”  What makes him exceptional is that he is also the creation of writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Marvel and Lucasfilm artist Tommy Lee Edwards for their online, animated graphic-novel-in-progress designed to crowd source elements of the story.

Tinas Mouth: An Existential Comic DiaryTina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary is the story of 15-year-old Tina M., an Indian-American girl attending a posh private high school in California, and, like so many her age, trying to find her place in the world. A natural for self-reflection, Tina’s ripe for existentialism when her hippie English teacher introduces the subject to the class. The assignment for the year is for each student to find “true and authentic meaning and purpose” in their existence. What follows is Tina’s project. As the subtitle suggests, her search is in the form of an existential comic diary.

A year ago I interviewed Tyler Chin-Tanner, creator of the indie graphic novel  American Terrorist, recently released at the New York Comic Con, and now available through a choice of outlets.

There has of course been excitement of other sorts, also breaking through in The Big Apple. Some of the scenes of the “Occupy” protests bear a striking resemblance to the fictional events of American Terrorist.  I recently re-connected with Tyler to get his thoughts on the matter, and he shared some fascinating illustrations of the connection between his fiction and live current events.

Tyler Chin-Tanner: When I first began writing the American Terrorist graphic novel over four years ago I felt as if it was a fairly topical story in terms of its take on current American politics and where we were headed. But now, at the time of its release, even I find myself amazed at just how relevant it is in terms of its similarities to the mass protests of the Occupy movement.

Building an entire pop-cultural universe after its inception in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, these days the modern zombie tale shows more resilience than its shambling horrors, especially at the box office—the first new wave of zombie films made its arrival with Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, and subsequently led directly into Zombieland, The Walking Dead, and 28 Weeks Later on the big and small screen. Zombie video game icons Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead received rave reviews from gamer mags and fans alike, and even pillars of the literary canon, most famously Pride and Prejudice, have felt the clamp of rotten teeth around their skulls. No matter what the medium, in today’s publishing climate, zombies make for good storytelling and better business.

Please explain what just happened.

Everything? Nothing? It’s hard to say—I’m a planner, probably due to my compulsive nature, so I’m always looking more to the future than the past. But, I did just send out a pitch packet for my (hopefully) forthcoming graphic novel Terminus. I’ve also been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. A lot.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Running around outside my house on the South Side of Chicago, wearing Superman sandals.

 

If you weren’t a writer, what other profession would you choose?

I’m fascinated with how cities work, especially the manner in which space is allocated and utilized. If I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, I’d probably work in city planning.

What are the best pieces of advice you’ve received about writing?

I’ve had the very good fortune of encountering a number of generous and inspirational mentors who have shared some fantastic nuggets about craft as well as the distribution side of the business. Here are three of my favorites.

1. On craft, the poet and creative writing professor Mark Davidov believes that one of the best barometers for whether or not a poem is successful is for the poet to ask herself if she has written a letter to herself or a letter to the universe. The former, which he calls “diary poems,” are limited to an audience for whom the particularities of subject or image resonate, whereas the latter have the potential to vibrate on another level altogether. While I do believe that there is a place for diary poems, I have found this to be a useful guideline nonetheless.

2. After I had spent about an hour over coffee detailing my numerous concerns about putting my work out there, Beth Bosworth, a beloved teacher and fiction writer who has known me since I was twelve, said:

“If you wanna freak out, that’s okay. Some of your worries might even be legitimate. But you’ve put in the work and I think you’re ready, so if you’re gonna freak out, save some time. Do it on your way to the post office.”

3. On how to handle journal submissions, the poet Dorianne Laux said that it was “mainly scut work” and that when your poems are rejected, “you just make a couple of changes, stick them in a new envelope, and send them someplace else.”


Who are your main influences?

I have been a longtime fan of Anne Sexton, going back to her now and again at different stages in my life and getting different things from her at different times. And Sylvia Plath is in there too, though my appreciation for her has arisen mostly post-motherhood. Vera Pavlova is a newer favorite, derived from my older appreciation of Anna Akhmatova. Louise Gluck, of course. Dorianne Laux, Nancy White, and Bruce Weigl really resonate for me, as does David Ferry sometimes, and much of the time, W.S. Merwin. Perhaps a little weirdly, Philip Larkin can really do it for me when my mood is right, his politics notwithstanding. I’m also a big fan of Catullus.


What are your thoughts on being a Chinese American Female Poet?

As Truman Capote used to say, “Oh, honey, don’t let me commence!” Well, the way I see it, the poet’s individual world is a prism through which we see the universal, and in my case, that prism happens to be Chinese American and female. I don’t shy away from race or gender, but at the same time, I chaff at reductive classifications. I like to think of my poetry, which is to say the cultural sensibilities, sounds, and tropes underlying my work, as quintessentially American and I am very tired of the caught-between-two-cultures narrative. It’s a vicious cycle of what seems to sell and what writers feel compelled to produce as a result. Who gets to speak? Who gets to make art and be paid for it? Who gets to be read? What discourses are reproduced in what is published? Who defines what American means? These are perennially important questions in a culture that is neither post-racial, nor post-gendered. But I do sense that there is more space nowadays for a wider, more non-essentialist range of expression, for the multiplicity of voices out there to be heard. To that end, I suppose one of my projects is to disrupt conventional and received narratives in a way that is perhaps covertly political and overtly subversive without, I hope, sacrificing the quality of the poetry. And addressing the gender component of this question, I would say that if Walt Whitman gets to “sing the body electric” and “contain multitudes,” then I should think that I might make the same claims about my uterus. It’s time for the white male body to no longer be the benchmark for normativity.


Why poetry?

It is a common belief that poetry can only be appreciated and written by people who have a certain type of education or a certain sensibility, but poetry is in fact one of the oldest and most universal forms of cultural expression. The human heart seems to have an unabated appetite for it. W.S. Merwin says that through poetry we attempt to say what is unsayable, and in that vein, poetry can also speak through what the writing leaves unsaid, what is written, as it were, between the lines. Rachel Blau DuPlessis speaks of this, of “writing between the lines,” as a subversive feminist act.


What is your poetry about?

My poems are an attempt to answer my questions about the world and how to live in it. They contain the notes on what I have discovered so far. And though I resist the label of “confessional” or “autobiographical,” it is true that my work is informed by experience, which is the place from which we get verisimilitude and a certain kind of poetic emotional integrity. I do, however, aim to transcend a mere retelling of experience.


How has motherhood influenced your writing?

Being a mother has influenced my writing in many ways. Perhaps one of the most obvious is that my daughter couldn’t give a rat’s ass about my achievements or lack of achievements, literary or otherwise. All she cares about is the quality of our relationship, that I show up for her, and that I am present when I am with her. That has given me an enormous amount of perspective, and along with that, the freedom to fail, which is really what every artist needs. Another thing is that I now have to be a lot more disciplined and focused about how I use my limited time, and that is very helpful for making poetry. I’m way too tired to overthink and obsess about how terrible my writing is – I only have just about enough energy to sit down and do it. On another level, I think the enormous physicality of motherhood has afforded me a certain freedom from the vice-like grip of the mind, allowing for an integration and collaboration between the language of the body and the language of the mind, between the subconscious and the awareness of subjectivity. The act of birthing my daughter on my own terms gave me my body back. It gave me a confidence in and awareness of the power of my body that I had not experienced before. I have stopped distrusting and fearing my body, and that has in some significant way mediated the disconnect between sense data and imaginative data in my work. Jorie Graham speaks about this in an interview with Mark Wunderlich: “Abstraction of emotion is not a use of abstraction that is positive, it seems to me. Abstraction in which the body thinks in its unbodily reaches is truly powerful, necessary, and another story – the crucial metaphysical extension of bodily knowledge.”


Where is your poetry going now?

I think I am moving away from a more narrative style towards embracing a more abstract, metaphorical, and laconic approach. I have been trying to leap more quickly into the centers of my poems. Lately I have been studying Buddhist koans and writing poems that attempt to reclaim in English a form that was originally quite rarefied, privileged, ascetic, and distinctly masculine, and then was later appropriated in a somewhat orientalist new-agey way. My riffs on koans are written from the perspective of a contemporary, sexualized, female layperson.


Apart from poetry, you write graphic novels with your husband Tyler. In fact, he was interviewed for TNB by Uche Ogbuji in June about your latest digital graphic novel, a post-9/11 era Bonnie and Clyde story called “American Terrorist.” What’s been happening with the project since then?

Although the Kickstarter project we’d launched to meet the publishing costs for “American Terrorist” was not ultimately successful, we are continuing to publish the book digitally on the iPhone and the iPad. Chapter 4 was released in July and we have one more chapter to go before the story is completed. We have discovered that we have a loyal international fan base, and so we remain hopeful that one way or another, a hardbound version of “American Terrorist” will come into existence.


How is writing poetry different from writing graphic novels?

In poetry, subtlety and restraint are key because all of the elements that make meaning in a poem reside in the word. In graphic novels, however, the de-coupling of the text from the image creates a certain tension that in the context of sequential storytelling allows for a kind of dramatic narrative that is big and bold, dynamic and full of creative possibility. The processes for making poems and making graphic novels are also very different. Poetry is a solitary business, whereas there is a great deal of collaboration in graphic novels, not only between my husband and myself in the writing and layout process, but between the two of us and the artist, the inker, the colorist, and the letterer. When you get a good team together where each person is responsible for their own area of expertise, the product can be greatly enhanced by the input that comes in at different stages. Tyler and I have been known to make changes to the dialogue or even some elements of story based on how pages might look after they’re colored or lettered. For some people in the industry, that’s considered really late in the game!


Is there any scope for combining poetry and graphic novels?

Actually, one of the next projects that we’re planning is a fantasy romance about reincarnation. There may well be some poetry in that book.


I first encountered Wendy Chin-Tanner when she submitted a choice little poem for TNB.  In corresponding with her I came across A Wave Blue World, the Indie Comics company she founded with her husband, Tyler.  I was immediately intrigued by their approach to the practicalities—the difficult process of producing a high-quality graphic novel.  I was especially intrigued by the approach the company is taking to fund their latest project, American Terrorist.  Yet another area where it seems to me that independent media must be the future. Recently, of course, TNB has announced its own foray into the indie publishing business.  I know that the world of comics has always been a parallel universe to that of book publishing, so I was curious about the parallel evolution of the independent branch in graphic narrative.  Tyler was kind enough to offer a peek behind the scenes of a venture at the vanguard of small publishing of indie comics.

Belle Yang has created a story that is both personal and multigenerational in her illustrated memoir, FORGET SORROW. We’ll talk about her story of fleeing abuse, of seeking shelter with her Old World Chinese parents, and the dedication required to see this book to publication. Please welcome Belle and feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.

Belle, your graphic memoir is stunning, and I know it took quite a long time to create. Talk to me about the process, and I’m curious about your endurance—the faith and the patience you needed to see this project through to the end.

I was a good sprinter but not a long distance runner. In my writing/painting, I’ve always told myself I have to run an emotional marathon. Forget Sorrow took 14 years to finish. And, yes, I worked 14 years, beginning the year 1996, because each time I received rejection and revision notes from my agent, I reworked the entire book, originally meant to be a prose novel with full color illustrations. My agent, who has a very strong personality—god bless her—the very person who gave me a chance at publishing nearly 20 years ago, became problematic, sending me off to find the holy chalice. Every time I received a NO from the world, I’d pass out on my bed for a day or two and then rose to begin the task of revision all over again. I was also ill for a couple years, from 1998 through 2000, but all the while I was in the hospital or at home in bed, I did not give up on this project. On the night I returned from the hospital, my great grandfather came in a dream as if to say, You have no excuse to be in bed. You have not sent my story out into the world. So, I got better and began rewriting the manuscript for the umpteenth time. Ultimately, I had to leave my agent and went to the East West Agency. I contacted my first editor, Alane Mason, who is now at WW Norton, and she suggested I turn the prose manuscript into a graphic novel. I spent a year drawing the first few chapters. Norton gave me a contract in the fall of 2007, and I finished the bulk of the work by the fall of 2009. And here we are, less than a week to the official pub date. I must say my former agent was very gracious. When she saw the starred Kirkus Review, she emailed me her congratulations.

Another aspect of my process was the boiling down of the prose into near-poetry, and I refer to poetry in words and pictures. I thought I’d lose a lot in the transformation, but what I learned was that the more I condensed, the more powerful the story became.

How is it to write a memoir? Because I know it’s one thing to reveal personal things about yourself, but a memoir requires you to also reveal personal things about family. Did you feel free to write whatever you wanted, or did you feel a duty to protect those you were writing about?

I had no trouble revealing family warts, because my father is ultra critical of his own family, especially of his dad. And then most of the people of his father’s and grandfather’s generation are long dead. As for me, tragedy plus time equals humor. The fights I used to have with my father have become family comedy, so I played on that in my graphic memoir. My father is currently reading my book with a Sharpie to make annotations. He is setting down his feelings about re-encountering the past.

So your story begins when, at nearly age 30, you must flee from an abusive relationship and find yourself living with your parents again. They are living a pretty traditional Chinese lifestyle, and you are westernized, used to your independence, and potentially trapped in this role of being the child again. But what I think is so unusual about your memoir is that it very quickly becomes a multigenerational story. Your story becomes an extension of a family fighting oppression and trying to weigh personal desire against family duty.

We forget that being staunchly independent is a particularly American phenomenon. Even in Italy, adult men live with their parents until marriage. In Eastern cultures, this is the prevalent way of life for men and women. I loved my independence, but returning after 3 years living with an increasingly cruel man, who expected me to run his business, be his gofer, truck building material throughout LA, move him out of his apartment, be his cleaner, washer woman and cook–boy oh boy–did becoming a child again feel like I’d died and gone to nirvana. Now I am parent to my father and mother. The roles have switched considerably over the course of 20 years. I am glad I am growing older right alongside of them. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from elders through listening to old stories. I’ve learned to take a good care of myself, emotionally and physically, and how to intuit dangerous situations.

I was particularly moved by the story of Grandfather. Can you talk about what the label of “Capitalist” did to him and the family?

The label, in my great grandfather’s instance, was a sentence of death by ostracism. No one wanted contact with a former Capitalist. My great grandfather was evicted from his estate, the home he had built from decades of hard work, rising from the lowly position as an apprentice to the owner of his own grain brokerage (really, a bank of yore). Strangers and neighbors took over the units of his estate and abused him verbally and physically. Some stood up for him, recalling he was generous to the poor and the unfortunate. He was allowed to roam a beggar, but where was he to live when the populace at large depended wholly on the State for food and shelter. He sought warmth and a roof over his head with his spoiled Fourth Son and wife, but they rejected him time and time again. His favorite Third Son had been sent to a labor camp and had subsequently died for ill use. My great grandfather finally ended up at the doorsteps of his estranged First Son, my grandfather. He came feverish by train, and the railway workers pushed him to my grandfather’s house in a wheelbarrow. He was wanted here, taken in by all and comforted by my grandmother. But my great grandfather died within a week from hunger and disease.

Your story moves almost effortlessly between the stories your Baba tells of his ancestors and your relationship as you share this house together. And sometimes his actions are loving—planting prickly pear around the yard to keep Rotten Egg (the abuser) from coming close. And other times, he’s critical. We see him looking at your first attempts to write down this story and he says, “Here, illogical. This wrong, too.” Tell me about that tension and how it was to write about it.

By the time I was writing and drawing the graphic memoir, my father and I had become comrades-in-arms, best buddies. We’ve been “talking” stories for twenty years, so we had left the fighting far behind us. In fact, when I was typing up the script and then drawing the comic panel, I was often giggling, and impatient for my dad to see how I depicted him, depicted us. I was laughing, because I know he’d see the sense of humor in the steam blasting out of our ears. Dad recently asked for his very own copy of “Forget Sorrow” in which he could make annotations in pen. He laughs when he comes to the scenes of our flare ups. He’ll tease me about my immaturity and bad temper in my teen and twenties, and I’ll tease him about the things he would rather “tear off his head” than do, like turning one spare room into my studio. I am sitting in that very studio as I type.

There’s such detail and texture to this book. Some moments are as brief as a single drawing panel but stayed with me to the end: the children poking the swallow’s nests, the cut down maple trees, the short life of Little Autumn, the coat burned with cigarette ash, the husband putting up his wife’s hair after she sprains her wrist, and the young son whose duty it is to direct his mother’s soul to nirvana. Would you choose a single panel that is particularly important to you and tell the story behind it?

The panel I would choose is the entirety of Page 11, where Rotten Egg is peeping into our house, while my parents and I are paralyzed and trapped inside. When my friend, the journalist Fred Hernandez, told me the image of the stalker looks like a big fat baby, I realize that I had indeed drawn the stalker as a baby. It was a moment of enlightenment: After 25 years, I had finally seen through this person, who once seemed much older, worldlier, and more powerful than me. In retrospect, I see that he was a big, bawling baby. When business went sour, when he was having trouble in the world, he’d take out his anger on me with his fists. Isn’t that what some misbehaving children do? They take it out on their mother? I think Rotten Egg was a big fat baby who needed a mother and a spanking.

You write in the book that you have tried to heal your father’s pain by telling this story. How so?

If you have ever been wronged—and I think all of us have—the telling of the pain and suffering is vastly therapeutic. It is a bringing of evil to justice. My father has nightmares. He mumbles. Sometimes I can make out words like “Execution!” or “You ate the best and gave us only sorghum.” I hope his nightmares have decreased, but I know he still has bad dreams about cruelty suffered as a neglected but a sensitive and intelligent child in a huge family. And there was the war he walked through and out of as a young man at the age of 17-18.

You managed to heal something in yourself, as well. How are you different from that time you spent in hiding? How has telling your story healed you?

I am wondering if other published authors feel the same empowerment I experienced in being able to send my words into the world. I feel protected by words, by my ability to cry out for help through the written language, to cry out against unfairness in society. I EXIST through my words and stories, whereas in the time of hiding, I was made so very small. Through the experience of writing to the sheriff, to the D.A, about my plight, then in getting proper responses from the world through the writing, I acquired a sense of my own solidity. I am gentle, polite, helpful, but if you are going to mess with me, I am someone who will surprise you in my strength to take the fight back to you.

I do understand about the empowerment, and even the sense that the words somehow mean that you exist. Thank you for being here, Belle. Xie xie.