Boxers & Saints: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Set to the backdrop of one of the most violent anti-foreign, anti-colonial movements in Chinese history, Boxers & Saints is a two-volume box set created by Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and is a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what's popularly known as the MacArthur "Genius" Grant. In this thrilling tale, Yang tells two parallel stories: the first of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy who joins the Boxers; and Four-Girl, a girl whose village has no place for her that finds refuge with Christian missionaries.

BookShelf Editor Ashley Kronsberg speaks with Gene Luen Yang about the creation of this visceral and haunting tale, including the inspiration behind exploring the Boxer Rebellion and how historical fiction graphic novels can paint a better picture of historical events.

Ashley Kronsberg: What was the inspiration behind Boxers & Saints? What led you to ground the story in the Boxer Rebellion?

Gene Luen Yang: This is a project I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The graphic novel came out in 2013, but it’s a story that has been on my mind since the early 2000’s. I grew up Roman Catholic during the time of Pope John Paul the Second, and for the first time in history he canonized Chinese Catholics. The church I grew up in held massive events and festivities to recognize this honor, and it was through those festivities that I became curious in the history of Roman Catholicism and Chinese Culture.

My curiosities led me to the Boxer Rebellions which in a lot of ways is still a mystery in how they got started, but it refers to a time when indigenous Chinese people became to rebel against the western cultures and Christianity. The Chinese government went so far as issuing a protest statement claiming that any person in China embracing Christianity makes them a traitor to their nation, family, etc.  It was through this separation that some Chinese communities began praying to the gods to give them the power to fight off the encroaching western culture. These stories read very much like Shazam to me, and in creating Little Bao, I wanted to tap into the idea of the gods answering their prayers and providing powers to the Chinese people.

This was fascinating in many ways, including the fact that this was really the precursor to the two world wars – it was the first-time nations from eastern and western hemispheres were engaged, and it was the first media war where coverage of the action was in newspapers, on radio, etc. At the heart of it was this tension between eastern and western ways of understanding the world, and as an Asian American, I felt connected to this tension in many ways.

Was it always the intention to write this story from two points of view or did it develop as you created it?

Well, I was ambivalent. It definitely developed as I went along because I just could not decide who the heroes were. I went in thinking it was going to be the Boxers that were the heroes, but they did some pretty ferocious things as well. And then I thought, well maybe the Saints are the heroes, but likewise, they had their moments of extreme violence. So, after a while, I realized I needed to tell the story from both points of view.

Were there any aspects of the story that were harder to write than others?

Of all the works I have ever done, this is by far the most violent. The Boxers were mostly just kids doing ferocious things, and the violence of it all was definitely the most difficult. I remember travelling to France to look at their archives of the Boxer rebellion, and some of the photos I saw there I directly translated into the graphic novel. The visceral nature and brutality of this time resonated with me.

How do you view historical fiction in graphic novels as a whole? Should it be something that is utilized as supplemental reading in student’s education in order to better understand historical events?

Historical fiction is a part of the graphic novel landscape I really want to see develop – there is so much potential there. The central question of historical fiction graphic novels though is the inherent nature of cartooning – by using images and illustration, you are automatically adding a layer of fiction because no one looks like a cartoon. The challenge and the fun is how the creator deals with the automatic level of fiction when crafting these stories.

As long as the cartoonist does his/her homework, you can present at least a representation of how historical events and landscapes looked. We always have a bias towards the present, and we assume that the past looked more like the present than it actually did. With the graphic novel format, you have the visual evidence to support that the past is different, and using it as a supplement can also give you a glimpse into the emotional realities of the time.

About the Creator • Gene Luen Yang began making comics and graphic novels in the fifth grade. In 2006, First Second published his graphic novel American Born Chinese; and it became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. In addition to cartooning, Yang teaches creative writing through Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In January 2016, the Library of Congress, Every Child A Reader, and the Children’s Book Council appointed me the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.