Author Yang presents on the role of observation in healing

Elyse Schoenig, Reporter

Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and author of American Born Chinese, visited U-High on Wednesday, March 7, for both a presentation and book signing of his graphic novel. American Born Chinese is read every year as a part of the freshman curriculum. After two years of selling hot chocolate, corresponding with the Normal Public Library Foundation, and working with the English College at Illinois State University, head librarian Gretchen Zaitzeff was able to turn Yang’s appearance from idea to reality.

“We wanted to find someone everyone would make a connection to,” Zaitzeff said. “The opportunity to connect with an author, having already read his literature-it’s a great way to develop empathy.”

Freshman Social Science teacher Kirsten Hany believes both the reading of Mr. Yang’s book and the interaction with Yang himself aids this goal tremendously.

“It’s about being okay with your vulnerabilities,” Hany said. “We read to understand others, and we hope to make our students stronger in their character and their ability to empathize.”

Many freshmen expressed surprise at discovering they enjoyed a graphic novel, a genre they would not ordinarily pick up on their own.

Freshman Olivia Graham said that once her class set aside their preconceptions of the novel, they began to understand exactly what Yang was trying to write.

“I think we can tie Mr. Yang’s lessons back to everything we’ve learned so far with race and empathy,” Graham said. “I think we’ve seen empathy in learning what it’s like to take a walk in another person’s shoes.”

American Born Chinese features stories about three main characters, each of whom represent different facets of growing up as an Asian American.

Freshman Pete Deffenbaugh recalls seeing how Yang was able to convey his identity through the use of all three main characters.

“He really expressed his feelings about how he was treated when he first moved here (to a predominately white school),” Deffenbaugh said. “He turned his feelings into a book in the form of another character.”

Yang explained the difficulties of his identity in relation to each character during his presentation. While the Monkey King represented traditional Chinese values his mother shared through stories, he always wished to be seen as the American boy. Much of Yang’s personal struggle emerged with the realization that others associated him with the stereotypes portrayed through cousin Chin-kee.

For Yang, the writing of American Born Chinese was a coping mechanism for the emotional turmoil he underwent as a child struggling with these multiple identities. He believes the best way for everyone to perceive his message is as an observer, and he believes in the importance of art as the best way to provide that separation.

“Art is the only class where you study yourself,” Yang said. “It is the power of those emotions that causes you to be the observer. Writing this book made some of those pains I faced less painful, and in the end, it brought healing.”