WNDMG Author Interview with Shing Yin Khor
Featured in today’s WNDMG Wednesday, a WNDMG author interview with Shing Yin Khor about their graphic novel, THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. (Penguin Random House, June 2021)
About THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO
Part historical fiction, part magical realism, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.
Shing Yin Khor Interview
MUF: Thanks so much for doing this interview with me – I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. And I have to tell you, both my 9-year-old daughter and I enjoyed it immensely – she’s already reading it again! We’re grateful to you for bringing such a vibrant, creative book into the world.
What is the origin story for THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO? What is the significance of your decision to incorporate the Blue Ox?
SYK: My interest in the Paul Bunyan mythos goes back many years – it started with a fairly straightforward interest in logging history and this American myth, but as I learned more about early American history, especially in the Wild West, I realised how much history I didn’t know, or that was left deliberately untaught to me. A lot of these histories are glossed over in the popular American narrative. The popular conception of early American history, and especially that of Old West heroism is one full of white heroes and white individualism, which is more a matter of myth-building than historical fact. Often, marginalized groups are spoken of as a monolith, as a people rather than a collection of individual people, living a diversity of lives. This is not true now, and it wasn’t then either.
Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox
SYK: The evolution of the Paul Bunyan myth feels like a microcosm of this history to me – it has become a story of individual strength, while the stories in the oral tradition are often far more about collective labor. Including Pei Pei(as the stand-in for Babe the Blue Ox) felt pretty compulsory to me, he’s just such a signifier of the Paul Bunyan myth, and I also just wanted a big goofy ox in the book.
I find American myth-building extremely compelling, and Paul Bunyan is probably the biggest American mythological figure, although probably a less generally destructive one than the myth we have made our “founding fathers” out to be. The American mythology dehumanizes and caricatures us. It tells us that indigenous people were “savages,” or healers, with no nuance for the individual, it tells us that enslaved people were “treated well,” it ignores the labor and death that this entire country was predicated on, and yes, some of the early Paul Bunyan stories are racist.
And to also know that these logging camps were filled with immigrants, and Black and Indigenous workers, that they had tons of Chinese and Japanese workers in them – at the center of this book is the simple question – what were the stories that we lost, because of the person that told them?
MUF: Why did you decide to set this story in a logging camp?
SYK: I am specifically interested in logging and forest history, and in the evolution of the Paul Bunyan mythos – a logging camp was the obvious choice.
The Power of Myth
MUF: A major theme of your book is the reclaiming of the power of myth and who gets to own it. How do you hope to empower your readers with this message?
SYK: I’m writing quite indulgently here – the reader I’m trying to write for is the 12 year old version for myself, not anyone else. I wrote this book to restore something to the young version of me, who only found books about brave imaginative kind white girls. I hope that young readers today won’t need to have that futile search because my fellow authors have already been writing them into history. I hope there are more books like this, especially those that center Black and Indigenous perspectives, but I am heartened that this book is coming out at a time where marginalized voices are centered more, even though I think the traditional publishing industry still has a very long way to go. I hope that this book assures young readers from marginalized communities that they can tell their own stories too, and I hope that the collective work of my elders and my peers and the work that I try my best to do now and in the coming years, will help to ease the path for them to center their own voices as storytellers and be their own protagonists.
The Chinese Story in Logging Camp History
MUF: One of the most painful moments in the book is drawn from the racial tension that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act—can you describe the experience of writing and researching that period?
SYK: The thing about doing research about any marginalized peoples, and especially if you are from the same group, is that you often get bogged down by the grief and trauma of the research. It is difficult, because a lot of the history is not well documented, and what is documented is often the violence of the time period against Chinese workers.
Part of my impetus for writing Auntie Po was actually learning how Chinese people were, in some ways, valued by the world beyond their own Chinese communities. The plot point where Ah Hao finds out that he was paid more than the white cook is a historical fact, that I encountered in Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods, which is just about the only academic book about working-class Chinese in the lumber industry in this era. This story of logging camp cooks sprang basically fully formed into my head when I read it – I already knew a lot about the Paul Bunyan mythos, and I knew a lot about the early American logging industry, but this book so clearly placed Chinese people in this history I was already interested in and made it feel like it was something I deserved to claim.
((Enjoying this WNDMG interview? Read this guest post from author Christina Li))
MUF: How do you feel that history connects to today’s awful bias against the Asian
SYK: I don’t really feel like I have the ability to form complete thoughts about this yet. But it is clear to me that the only way we move forward is in solidarity with other marginalized peoples, especially Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color. Anti-Asian racism is not just a current issue, it is an ongoing pattern of institutional racism that this country has engaged in, rooted in white supremacy, that seeks to pit marginalized people against each other, which does not ever benefit any marginalized group, and only benefits white supremacy. A large part of my book is about Chinese people forced into navigating whiteness for their survival and comfort, and realizing the limits of what white-adjacency can bring them. Our histories are much more intertwined with other marginalized groups than the stereotypical Asian-American narratives suggest, and solidarity backed by solidarity action is our only way out of the model minority myth.
MUF: What is the most meaningful part of the book for you personally?
SYK: Mei’s relationship with her dad is really important to me, because it’s really similar to my relationship with my own dad. We immigrated to the United States when I was 16, and even though we are a much more privileged family than a logging camp cook, it is so clear to me the sacrifices he made to give me a life where I could make art for a living. He was the first person in his family to go to college, his brothers and sisters pooled their money so he could go, being an artist was never an option for him.
I also loved being able to write a queer character while not necessarily needing to make it a major part of the book! Mei is a queer character that exists in many intersections of experiences, just like many other queer people. Not every experience foregrounds queerness, it is just part of who she is as a person.
Publishing Team of Color
MUF: As a creator of color in the graphic novel space, what was your experience on your path to publication? In your Acknowledgements page, you note that this book was finished in collaboration with a team that was entirely made up of people of color. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?
SYK: I was already doing a lot of my own work, both self published and shorter works with online publishers, so the path to publication for this book was fairly straightforward. I had some early experiences in my early days as a writer, where I was often made to feel that the stories that were wanted from me in traditional publishing were about trauma, or confessional memoirs about even more trauma, and I was unenthusiastic about that. But because I was doing my own work, and had established enough of my own voice, my entire publication journey for The Legend of Auntie Po was with a team that was always on the same page about the sort of story that I was going to be telling. And of course, my book is coming out after so many other incredible marginalized authors and bloggers and editors have done the work of making publishing a more inclusive and welcoming space for a range of voices. I am extremely lucky, I am writing books about parts of the Asian American experience ten years after I first read MariNaomi Kiss and Tell, after Gene Luen Yang’s been making graphic novels for decades, after Kazu Kibushi’s Avatar series is wildly beloved.
Working with a team that is entirely composed of people of color(my agent, editor, art director – all of Kokila, my publisher), meant that while I had a lot of work to do on this book, the work that I did not have to do included things like “explaining racism” or “being nicer to the white characters.” Authors of color deserve to work with publishers and editors who understand their lived experiences. Working on this book has been a dream with them – the editorial team at Kokila is staffed with the most brilliant women of color, all of whom are thoughtful and incisive and philosophically devoted to centering stories like these in publishing.
MUF: What do you hope readers will take away from THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO?
I hope they will feel even more agency and urgency to tell their own stories.
Chickens and Cats
MUF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?
Every time I was stressed when drawing the book, I added a drawing of a cat or chicken to it. I think there are seven cats and four chickens, if you’d like to take a stab at finding them all.
MUF: I love that. Headed now to look for the cats and chickens. Thanks again, Shing, and congratulations!
Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist exploring the Americana mythos and new human rituals. A Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, and an American citizen since 2011, they are also the author of The American Dream?, a graphic novel about travelling Route 66.
Connect with Shing: