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.