TCR Talks with Gene Luen Yang
By Joe Sullivan
Having previously written comics and graphic novels of Superman (Superman Smashes the Klan) and Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gene Yang now has an executive producer credit to his name, as he’s recently been part of the team adapting his award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese into a TV series by the same name for Disney+, which premiered on May 24.
Starring recent Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and directed/co-executive produced by Destin Daniel Cretton (director of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), American Born Chinese tells the story of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an Asian teenager struggling with his identity in a mostly white culture while on a mission to successfully navigate high school, and Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a confident new student who needs his help to fulfill a mission of a more mystical nature.
Yang sat down with the Coachella Review to talk about his first TV job, putting together a compelling fight scene, and the hidden benefits of teaching in an MFA program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Coachella Review: On your IMDB, this looks like your first adaptation. Is that accurate?
Gene Yang: Oh, yeah. This is the very first time I’ve had anything to do with Hollywood, for sure.
TCR: What is being an executive producer like? What does your day-to-day look like, and how does that differ from your normal routine?
GY: You know, I have to be honest: I did not really know what that meant. Before this all started, Melvin Mar, who is another executive producer, [and I] met at an event years ago, and we kind of hit it off. And we’ve been talking about this project ever since. So when this got going, he was insistent that I be an executive producer. And now I realize it does mean there’s not one set of tasks that an executive producer does. And for me, I really just chipped in when I could. I’ve gotten to become pretty good friends with Kelvin Yu, who’s the showrunner. He’ll bounce ideas off me, [and] we will sometimes get on the phone or Zoom and talk through several ideas that he’s trying to work through. And then I also will chip in sketches when necessary. So every now and then, they’ll ask me for a sketch for something. And I’ll do it.
TCR: Speaking of Kelvin, I know it’s been a while since the book was published originally. Is there something that convinced you—about Kelvin or his pitch—that this was the right person or the right time to do this adaptation?
GY: Yeah, we had a long conversation pretty early in the process. You know, Melvin and Kelvin knew each other, not just because their names rhyme. We all went out to dinner, and that conversation convinced me that we were all on the same page. One of the big reasons I was resistant to American Born Chinese being adapted to the screen is because I have this cousin character in the book who is intentionally offensive. He’s like the embodiment of all the negative Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes that I grew up with. And I was always kind of freaked out that if it got adapted, decontextualized clips of him would show up on YouTube. And Kelvin proposed, I thought, a really smart solution to that fear: he decided to take that and make it a plot point in the first episode. So by doing that, he’s sort of teaching the viewer how to think about that character. That was one of the things that got me on board with him.
TCR: I read in a previous interview that you wanted that character—Chin-Kee—to be sort of a “punch in the gut.” Was it challenging to try to maintain that sort of punch when you’re doing a TV adaptation? Were there other things at play in terms of trying to keep more of a balance?
GY: Yeah, we were hoping for that. We knew that he couldn’t show up in the exact same way on the screen as he shows up in the book. And this is another Kelvin thing. In addition to being a television writer, Kelvin is an actor. One of the very first roles that he got was on a show called Popular, where he plays, essentially, a two-dimensional stereotype. He’s supposed to be comic relief, and his humor just stems purely from being an Asian guy. That character’s name is Freddy Gong. And that’s why, in the show, the cousin equivalent is a character named Freddy Wong, right? It really was Kelvin taking his own experiences as an Asian American and putting them up on the screen.
TCR: I know in the past, you’ve worked on adapting from TV, such as with Avatar, and I wondered if you learned anything unique about having your actual work adapted to TV.
GY: The big thing I learned is it takes a lot of work. Television is such a labor-intensive medium. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of effort and passion that everybody on the team has put into the show, from Kelvin and his writers’ room, obviously—but all the way over to the costume department and the set design. All of it is just absolutely amazing.
TCR: I’ve got another quote from an interview you’ve done in the past: “Whenever I’m doing a comic, always in the back of my mind I’m thinking about why does this story have to be told. Why is it a comic? Why does it have to be told in panels? Why can’t this be prose?” I’m wondering if the process of adapting brought to mind any other sorts of opportunities, in terms of taking a story that was told originally on the page and doing it on TV? Was there anything exciting to you about that process? Or did a lot of that come from working with Kelvin specifically?
GY: A lot of it did come from working with Kelvin. But there are some things that were pretty exciting. There are two fight scenes in the book, I think, maybe three, and they expanded that in the television show so that, I think, we have at least one fight scene in every episode. That was really fun, to be a part of that process. The fight choreography was handled by this guy named Peng Zhang, who did all of the fight choreography for Shang-Chi. He and Destin had been working together for a while, and their approach to these fights was actually very internally motivated. Before he talked about the punches and the kicks or anything else, Peng wanted to understand the internal motivations of the characters because he really thought of the fights as sort of an external expression of internal turmoil. And I think that was really interesting to watch.
And it has a lot of parallels with writing superhero comics. I’ve been doing comics for both Marvel and DC for a few years now, and in a lot of ways, that’s the underlying ethos of superhero fights. A really, really good superhero fight on the page ought to be like an external expression of something internal. So to see that on the screen was really amazing, [and] to get an insider’s view of that—to kind of listen to some of the conversations that they had about that.
TCR: In terms of your work as a comic book author and artist, have you already been viewing fights on the page with that same sort of motivation?
GY: I’ve been trying to, yeah, but it’s way more complicated on the screen than in any of my comics. Most of the fight scenes that are written in superhero comics last—I don’t know—four pages tops, and you can only get so many moves in four pages. But Peng and his team, they did some really, really elaborate stuff for the show.
TCR: You have kids. In a past interview, referring to your eldest, you said, “I’m not sure how relevant American Born Chinese is to him, how much overlap there is between his experience and my own.” Do you have a better sense of how much of this experience applies to your kids? Or do they have a different sort of worldview?
GY: Yeah, that son is now nineteen. He’s in college. And I do think there are significant differences between his experience and mine. I think he probably overlaps more with Wei-Chen than with Jin. I don’t know if he has ever gone through a period where he has felt ashamed of his own cultural heritage or the way he looked. Part of that is because we made an intentional choice to send him to an elementary school that was predominantly Asian. And then, in part, I think America itself is changing. When I was a kid, if I brought Chinese food to school, I would probably get made fun of. Now, when you bring any sort of Asian food to school, even in a predominantly non-Asian environment, people are going to ask for a bite, right? That’s like the exact opposite of what I grew up with.
But at the same time, I do think it’s sort of what they say about technology: they say that the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed. And I think that’s true. As an author, one of the parts of my job is I get to go to these different communities—usually libraries or schools—to talk about the themes of my books. And I will meet kids, often the children of immigrants, and they’ll tell me these experiences that are very, very similar to mine, even if the cultures are different. Even if their parents are from, like, Nigeria or Poland, the underlying emotions are still the same.
TCR: Expanding beyond that, we talked a little bit previously about that Chin-Kee character being potentially hard to adapt to the screen. To what extent do you think the presence of a show like American Born Chinese might change things so that a character like him might not need to exist in the same manner as it did in the book, even fifteen years ago? Because shows like American Born Chinese exist now, is that part of the goal? Or would you disagree with that entirely?
GY: No, I think that’s part of the goal. The hope is that the emotional realities that I talk about in the book will someday become irrelevant. I mean, I think that would show progress in society. And I also think that American Born Chinese, the show, is part of this larger movement. Now, we’re seeing more and more representation—not just [of] Asian Americans but of minority groups in general—in a way that I think would have been unimaginable to me when the book was published.
TCR: Because we are an MFA publication, I suppose I do have to ask an MFA question. I understand that you used to teach a little bit of creative writing.
GY: [laughs] I did! I taught at Hamline University. Yeah—through their MFA program.
TCR: Tell me a little bit about what that process was like. How did you find Hamline, and what was teaching creative writing students like for you?
GY: Yeah, I’m friends with Gary Schmidt, who is an award-winning middle grade author. Gary invited me to go speak at Hamline. I was there for a weekend, [and] I got to know the community. I really loved it there. When they asked me to join the faculty, I said yes. I was there for, I think, about ten years. And it was amazing. I felt like I learned so much from being in that environment. I was like the graphic novel guy. Most of the other members of the faculty worked in other publishing formats, so we had children’s book authors, we had novelists, we had nonfiction writers, we had poets. Part of the fun of teaching was I got to sit in on these sessions that were taught by my fellow faculty members, and they’re just brilliant. The understanding that I got from storytelling, just by being part of that that program, was unparalleled.
I also think there’s something about teaching, right? When you’re forced to teach, you’re forced to think through the craft, or you’re forced to think through what you’re trying to do on the page, in a [level of] detail that you wouldn’t otherwise apply to what you’re doing. I tell people, “If you want to get better at something, teach it, and the act of teaching will force you to be better.”
TCR: Is there anything specific, like a specific anecdote that stands out to you in terms of having to teach something or prepare a lecture or a lesson plan and how it retroactively informed how you approach your work?
GY: Yeah, absolutely. I had to do a lecture on point of view, and point of view in a graphic novel is strange because you can have multiple points of view, all side by side on a single page. Your images have a point of view. Your texts can have a point of view. And different kinds of text can have different kinds of points of view, right? Like the caption could have one point of view, whereas the dialogue spoken by the characters can have another one. I think before that, I would do everything by instinct, but thinking about that carefully and thinking about where my instincts come from definitely informed the work that I did after that [as well as with] other people’s ideas in my work.
I also listened to a lecture on endowed objects by one of my fellow faculty members. And ever since then, I’ve just been thinking about endowed objects. Like, every book I do, I think about what the endowed objects are, and that was something I think I had a vague notion of, but [now I can] actually speak about it and have a name for it, have a language.
TCR: A shared language to articulate the idea.
GY: That’s right.
Joe Sullivan is a screenwriter, editor, and recovering educator. He received his MFA in screenwriting from the University of California, Riverside—Palm Desert’s low-residency program, and currently spends his time in Los Angeles, CA, trying to talk about movies that his wife and kids haven’t seen.