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Carmel artist/writer Belle Yang finds ideal idiom in her first-ever graphic novel that has wowed critics
Fred Hernandez
Monterey County Herald

FORGET SORROW: Carmel artist/writer Belle Yang finds ideal idiom in her first-ever graphic novel that has wowed critics
Herald Correspondent
Posted: 05/07/2010 01:37:34 AM PDT
Updated: 05/07/2010 09:36:28 AM PDT

People used to ask Belle Yang whether she was primarily a writer or a painter. Her answer: "When I'm writing, I'm a writer; when I'm painting, I'm a painter." But that no longer necessarily applies.

The Carmel resident's seventh book, "Forget Sorrow — An Ancestral Tale," is her first graphic novel, and it's drawing rave reviews. Graphic novels are the descendants of the comic books many of us read as children and the funny pages in the newspaper.

But the new genre — called manga in Japan — are adult novels in pictures and words. Other graphic novels have forged a new frontier in mainstream acceptance throughout the world.

Yang — who feels "this book is my strongest, and I'm glad it came later in my career" — compares her graphic novel to a movie, as opposed to a prose book, in that there are no chapters, rather a complex and complete story. So now she is both an artist and a writer in the new idiom, and she plans to continue in that genre.

"Forget Sorrow" begins in Carmel, where Yang fled to her parents' home to escape a terrifying former boyfriend who stalked her for years. Identified only as Rotten Egg throughout the book, the stalker "shot up the office of Russell Thomson, the lawyer who befriended us," one panel in the book reveals. The district attorney, she says, warned her that the stalker "will find you and kill you." Rotten Egg even broke into her parents' home and stole some of her father's things.

She recalls, "I was even scared to go to Safeway, afraid he would jump out at the end of an aisle." Her friends stayed away from her after he started phoning and questioning one of them. And even her parents' friends kept their distance. So they all were victims of the stalking.

Yang then fled to China for three years, where she learned classical Chinese painting techniques, got to know some of her father's family, and found herself in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square massacre. There was no way Rotten Egg could find her there, but one time he even went through her parents' garbage, looking for clues that she had returned.

As to any further threat from Rotten Egg, she says, "I think he has found more interesting prey and has moved on."

When she did return to Carmel, she renewed her interest in retelling and drawing her father Joseph's stories about his family in Manchuria during World War II. Fleeing the ravages of war, four brothers had reunited in the family home, where, like Belle, they chafed against a traditional father, the patriarch.

"Forget Sorrow" seamlessly goes back and forth between Carmel and China. Her story — of being stalked, seeking healing, and arguments with her father — is interwoven with her intriguing ancestral history. Recounting the lives and choices of her grandfather, his brothers, and her great-grandfather, Yang at last finds healing — and the strength to honor both her father and herself.

Yang says she thought about the book for 14 years and physically created the panels in three years, drawing 20 pages a month. Through the book, she fulfilled a promise to herself that she would recount the painful story of her great-grandfather, a capitalist in China who was financially destroyed by the Communists, eventually delivered to a son's home in a wheelbarrow, was shunned by his family, and who died a beggar. "Now," she says, "my great-grandfather can rest."

Among the serious issues involved, Yang interposes poetry, lush landscapes, jokes among relatives and her unique sound words. For example, her cats say "mreow," bullets go "piang!" and temple bells go "dang, dang." One laugh-provoking scene depicts Grampy Wang's, shall we say, "indelicate" night noises, including "bwaang." In another scene a man called Idiot Yuan finds an inventive way to kill a louse.

Now that she has completed a graphic novel, she says, "I don't think I'll ever do a prose book again; I'll stick to picture books and graphic novels. Graphic novels are too perfect for me — words, pictures and design — I think I have a knack for that. I feel that I've found my idiom."

She adds, "To think that it has taken me 16 years. But I'm thrilled at 50 to start up a new format."

Incidentally, the book's title, "Forget Sorrow," is the English translation of her Chinese name, Xuan. She points out that Nepenthe on the Big Sur coast also means "removing sorrow," in Greek.

Released last Monday, the book has drawn rave reviews from leading book industry giants:

· Comics Buyer's Guide says: "Wow! Belle Yang has created a masterful book ... 'Forget Sorrow' should be on the must-read book list for anyone seeking an introduction to illustrated [novels]."

· A starred Kirkus Review: "East meets West in this occasionally playful yet profoundly moving graphic memoir."

· Booklist: "Yang spins out the story in concentric eddies and whorls, an excellent reverberation of her black-ink style."

· Publishers Weekly: "Yang weaves a riveting true-life tale ... with the tragic darkness of 'King Lear' and the clean austerity of classical Chinese poetry.''

· The Asian pop magazine Giant Robot calls it "uncommonly enriching."

· Elle Magazine: "A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes."

· Novelist Amy Tan: "While her story is deeply personal, it is also magical, nearly mythic."

Yang will sign copies of "Forget Sorrow" on Saturday, May 15, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove. She will appear at a public reception at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, May 27, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, followed by a talk and book-signing from 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.

Yang also educates readers about graphic novels on her blog at redroom.com.

The book's publisher, W.W. Norton, has scheduled some 20 signings and readings on the East and West coasts over the coming months, including appearances at the China Institute in New York City and the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. The graphic panels of the book will also be exhibited at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Sept. 20 to Oct.31.

Her previous books include the acclaimed novels "Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father's Shoulders," "Odyssey of a Manchurian," and several award-winning children's books, including "Hannah Is My Name" and "Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond."

So what's next? After months of touring for "Forget Sorrow" — some events even projected for next year — Yang says she wants to do a graphic novel about her mother Laning's side of the family.

Her mother is a Hakka, which means "guest people" in Mandarin. About 2,000 years ago, nomadic tribes from the north invaded China, Yang says, and the Hakkas were pushed away until they reached the coast. They spent most of their lives looking for a home and an identity. Many took to fishing and some set out to sea and reached Formosa, Indonesia and other lands.

Yang says the Hakkas followed the Black Current and may have ended up in California. "It's probable that Hakkas first inhabited the cottage in Whaler's Cove" at Point Lobos, she says.If you go
· Belle Yang will sign books Saturday, May 15, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hauk Fine Arts, 206 Fountain Ave., Pacific Grove. She also will appear at a reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas, followed by a talk and book signing.

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale