Comics Herstory: Belle Yang
Belle Yang was born in Taiwan, and immigrated to America at the age of seven. Though she graduated from University of California Santa Cruz with a degree in biology, she then pursued art, studying in both Pasadena and Beijing.
Her first novel, Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders recounts Yang’s father’s memories of growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Yang opens each chapter with beautiful watercolor illustrations, which complement the musicality of her writing. Baba (1994) was followed by The Odyssey of a Manchurian in 1996 and several children’s books, including Chili-Chili-Chin-Chin and Hannah is My Name. She was awarded Chinese American Library Association Best Picture Book of 2008 for Always Come Home to Me, a symbolic book about two children who run away to chase runaway pet birds.
Yang’s first graphic novel, Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, was published in 2010. It’s the perfect book for, well, everyone, but might be especially relevant to lost millennials, because while Yang does use the medium to explore her ancestry, she also struggles to find her calling within the narrative.
At the beginning of the book, she has returned home to avoid an abusive stalker ex-boyfriend (called onlily “Rotten Egg”) and is unsure what career path to follow. She moves to Beijing for three years to study painting, and returns after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The story is primarily about making the effort to recount family history and recognizing its importance, and it unfolds naturally in the pages. Though Forget Sorrow is a graphic memoir, Yang does not place herself at the center of it. She could have done so with ease by framing the story as her family history, but defers to her father’s stories. It is a family history, and told as such, with Yang and her father present as characters more for context.
Forget Sorrow is similar in structure to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, with pages of story bookended by real-life interactions with Yang’s father. However, Yang’s writing is graceful, with a lyrical quality to it even when describing the heartbreaking and painful toll that communism and political upheaval had on her family. Yang’s talent in crafting a story is a gift, and Forget Sorrow is a subtle coming of age story, exceptionally well done for a first graphic novel, and bears relevance to readers of all ages.