Carmel artist/writer Belle Yang moves with ease from children’s books to graphic novels.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Carmel writer Belle Yang is an author and illustrator of lyrical books like Chili-Chili-Chin-Chin and Hannah Is My Name. But she also talks of reading economist John Kenneth Galbraith and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in reflecting on the current economic meltdown, and her harrowing escape from China during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“I continue to have nightmares,” she says at a coffee shop in Carmel’s Barnyard that feels worlds away from the panic she describes. “Trying to get out, trying to find a ticket, by plane, by train, trying to find a taxi to the airport. After getting back [to the States] I decided I had to tell the story about China to Westerners.”
That mission took the form of illustrated adult non-fiction books including Odyssey of a Manchurian, art shows, a documentary – the autobiographical, CINE-winning My Name is Belle – and children’s books like her latest, Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond.
Yang pops up on YouTube reading from Foo in charming, animated, in-character voices, complete with sound effects. It tells the story of three friends – Mao Mao Mudpuppy, Sue-Lin Salamander, and Foo Frog – who grow up together. But at some point, Foo drifts apart and later, literally drifts away.
“I was with friends in China,” says Yang, who crafted the story from an Asian folk tale and a real occurrence in her life. “Back in the States, one friend started talking about how much money she’s been making. It got unbearable.”
“Belle doesn’t sell millions of books” says Hauk Fine Arts gallery owner Steve Hauk, “but they get to influential people and people in second-and third-world countries who are attracted to her story of emigrating to the U.S.”
Born to a mother from Taiwan and a father from Manchuria, Belle and her family came to the States when she was 7. Her first language was Mandarin; her second, Japanese; her third, English. But as an immigrant, she encountered difficulty being understood by her English-speaking classmates. That spawned her urge to find ways to communicate.
“I backpacked through Europe my junior year [of college],” she says. A biology major at the time, “I encountered all this art and couldn’t imagine buckling down with hard science.
“When I first started [creating illustrated books], I painted first, then wrote. I trained myself, though, to write first, then paint. I use opaque watercolor – you can layer different colors, it’s more intense, and opaque dries really fast.”
The publishing industry likes authors to write and illustrators to draw, but Yang’s first editor, Elaine Maison, respected Yang’s “two-fisted warrior artist” approach (that’s from The Washington Post) and turned her on to another format: graphic novels.
“I was skeptical, even though I’d lived in Japan and read manga,’’ Yang says. “But then I saw [Iranian graphic novel-turned-animated film] Persepolis and thought, ‘I could do this.’ Elaine said I’d taken to it like a duck to water.”
She already has 230 panels completed of that graphic novel project, with nary 20 more to go. Its story, which speaks primarily to teen and young adult females, is about a real-life stalking incident in Yang’s life in the 1980s.
“I was naïve then,” she says. “But I’m turning 50 next March. I feel like I’ve reached a point where I’m really secure with who I am.”
BELLE YANG signs Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond, 11am-2pm Saturday, at Hauk Fine Arts Gallery, 206 Fountain Ave., Pacific Grove. Free. 373-6007, www.haukfinearts.com, www.belleyang.com.