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Daily News/San Jose Mercury News Review of Forget Sorrow
Date of Review: 
John Orr
Daily News/San Jose Mercury News

A memory for beauty


When Belle Yang was born in Taiwan in 1960, her parents named her Xuan, which has many meanings, including "day lily," "being good to your mom," and "forget sorrow."

When Yang wrote and painted a beautiful graphic book about her life and about the history of her father's family in China, "Forget Sorrow" became its title.

There has been plenty of sorrow to forget, in both her family's ancestral history, and in her family's California lives.

"Forget Sorrow" relates those somewhat parallel stories with beauty and truth. It is an uplifting and moving story.

Yang was the promising only child of highly intelligent and creative parents. Her father, Joseph Yang, had moved his family through Japan to Carmel, where he opened a shop and gallery specializing in Chinese antiques and art.

Yang chafed at her parent's old country ways, and thought herself free when she went away for college, at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Four years after graduation she was back, hiding out from an abusive boyfriend.

"I fled one day when I thought he was going to kill me," Yang explained in a recent phone interview from her parents' home. "I left the car and everything. I was afraid he would hear the engine start. I flew home."

The terrible times did not end with that. The abusive man — a contractor in Southern California who would beat Yang when business was bad — became a stalker. He threw a brick through the
window of her lawyer-friend's office, then shot up the office. He drew Yang and her parents to Los Angeles with a subpoena, then burglarized their home in Carmel, stealing everything.

In "Forget Sorrow," Yang recounts her father's reaction: "From graduating top of your class, you became a gofer to a rotten egg. You're now twenty-six. Look how many years you've wasted. You need to depend on your own talents, not a man."

"Forget Sorrow," in part, tells the story of how Yang went from being Job, sitting in the ashes of her young life, to being a Phoenix rising from those ashes as a successful artist and writer.

It is also the tale of her father's family in China, which had once been landed and wealthy, but lost its wealth through patriarchal mistakes and the changes wrought in China by Japan, World War II and the terrible coming of the communists. In a sense, the Yang family has had a rebirth in Carmel.

When rotten egg, the stalker, was released on probation, and a district attorney told Yang he thought the stalker meant to kill her, Yang's father arranged for her to go to Beijing to study art, where rotten egg could not find her.

"Fall of 1986," Yang writes in "Forget Sorrow." "I began my study at the Academy of Traditional Painting. To my surprise, one of my teachers was Deng Ling, the daughter of China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping."

Yang shows herself with Deng Lin, who says "Chi — the breath of life — must be loaded into your brush."

For a while Yang was happy in China, safe from rotten egg and traveling around, meeting her relatives.

Then the Tiananmen Massacre happened. Yang worked at the CBS headquarters that night, translating for dissidents. Later she worked at the American Embassy and also translated for United Press International. One night she was dragged out of a taxi and her passport was seized.

"The first Chinese who left for America wanted their bones returned to China," she says in "Forget Sorrow." "But I was scared I'd die in China, my bones never returned to America."

She did get back to Carmel, where she began a successful career writing and illustrating her own books.

"I refuse to go back to China," she told me. "To me the whole entire nation needs psychiatrists. It's a wacky place. On the surface they've modernized, but underneath you never know what you'll find. People have gone through horrible deprivation. "... I think they are very aggressive. Children growing up with eight grandparents, growing up as little kings and queens."

While hiding out with her parents in Carmel, practicing her art and writing, she started asking her father about his family in China. His tales became the meat of "Forget Sorrow."

Joseph Yang's grandfather was patriarch of his clan, proud of a history that had taken his family from 18th-century criminal refugee status to being proud landowners whose sons were scholars, not farmers.

We meet this family and know its members both through Yang's writing and also her expressive paintings. Over the course of the book, we read about scheming among the patriarch's sons that helped lead to the collapse of the family fortune.

There is a time in this tale when the patriarch becomes homeless, wandering China, unable to find rest with some of the children he had raised.

"This book started as a prose memoir," Yang told me. "It was intended to be a prose memoir with art inserted. But I had to use a process of making poetry by condensing and condensing and condensing, and reducing my text to captions and word bubbles."

The result is a deeply touching story of family history, one that had me regretting, not for the first time, that the elders of my own family had all died before I became mature enough to recognize them for the treasures of history that they were.

Yang, imprisoned with her parents because of rotten egg, all their friends driven away by the stalker, worked out her youthful rebellions and became best friends with Laning and Joseph Yang.

She still lives with her parents. Joseph is 81 and Laning is 77.

"They're in pretty darn good health," said Yang, who recently turned 50. "Mom is spry, dad not so spry, by no major health issues.

"I'm pretty much their best friend here. Rotten egg scared everybody else off."

Yang is now working on her next book, which will also be a graphic memoir.

"I'm not going to write it as a prose book this time," Yang said. "I will write it as a script, a script for a graphic memoir.

"It will be about my mother's side of the family, which is largely from Taiwan. They were pushed out of China 1,700 years ago when the Huns invaded China. They were homeless, marginalized, like the Jews. Made to live on the worst pieces of land. They ultimately became nomads of the sea, spreading to the Philippines, Borneo, Taiwan. I will be able to write about Taiwan under Japanese occupation."

Yang's parents "really liked" her book, "Forget Sorrow," said Yang. "My father wanted his own copy to annotate. He wrote in the margins, in Chinese, then wrote a poem at the end."

The poem is this:

I come empty

I leave empty

All is emptiness

The heart of Buddha's disciple bears no desire

Ten thousand-year long river passing

The frost on the roof tile is fleeting