NYS Writers Institute Graduate Assistant Kaori Otera Chen speaks with Shing Yin Khor, author of The Legend of Auntie Po (2021)
The Legend Of Auntie Po was selected as a finalist for the 2021 National Book Awards 2021 for Young People’s Literature. It is the author’s second full-length graphic novel and first middle grade historical fiction book.
Shing Yin Khor is an installation artist, cartoonist and experience designer exploring the Americana mythos, new human rituals, and collaborative worldbuilding.
Why did you write The Legend of Auntie Po?
I’ve been fairly obsessed with Paul Bunyan history for a few years, and it really just started out as being into lumberjacks and huge roadside statues and all sorts of goofy road trip Americana.
The more I researched these stories, the more I realized Paul Bunyan mythology actually dovetailed with a lot of my other interests, such as the history of working class Chinese people in America, and how much of the American story is shaped by clever marketing but built by the marginalised.
This story came together really quickly - it sort of sprung into my head while I was reading a non-fiction book about Chinese logging workers (Chinese in the Woods) and I already had years of Paul Bunyan and logging camp research behind me, so many of the pieces were just waiting to be slotted in place. Ultimately, the book is shaped from my passion for a specific type of nostalgic Americana and an understanding of the role that immigrant labor has always played in it.
And of course - when I was a kid, I loved stories about bright, adventurous, funny girls, but I never saw myself in them because they didn’t look like me. So this book is also formed from an indulgent desire to see adventurous, smart, young girl protagonists that look like me.
Why did you write this book as a graphic novel rather than a novel?
I’m a graphic novelist, this is my primary storytelling medium! I don’t really know how to write a novel.
What are the challenges in writing untold history of the Chinese Exclusion Act in a children’s cook?
The primary challenge is that the actual Chinese population at the time, who were largely laborers, is extremely underdocumented. There is a dearth of primary resources, because information about them was not kept. Personal working class Chinese histories from this era are not documented well at all. We have extremely few letters, largely from merchants and Chinese businesspeople, but mostly just census records, many of which do not correspond to a traceable individual. We do have a reasonable archeological record of what working class Chinese people used and left behind. That’s how we know that Chinese workers often had porcelain bowls and used chopsticks and had access to imported Chinese goods through merchants working in Chinatowns. We have some photographs, which is how we know that some of them wore more Chinese clothing, while many more would wear western styles.
A lot of these histories are glossed over in the popular American narrative. The popular conception of early American history, and especially that of Old West heroism is one full of white heroes and white individualism, which is more a matter of myth-building than historical fact. Often, marginalized groups are spoken of as a monolith, as a people rather than a collection of individual people, living a diversity of lives. This is not true now, and it wasn’t then either.
For further reading on Chinese workers in logging camps, I recommend Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods; it’s an academic book and one of my primary research sources.
Just like Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in American folk tales, Auntie Po and her buddy, Pei Pei, the blue water buffalo, help the workers in a logging camp in Sierra Nevada. But Auntie Po is a gigantic Chinese elderly woman! Please tell us a little bit about the creation of Auntie Po in this book.
I find American myth-building extremely compelling, and Paul Bunyan is probably the biggest American mythological figure, although probably a less generally destructive one than the myth we have made our “founding fathers” out to be. The American mythology dehumanizes and caricatures us. It tells us that indigenous people were “savages,” or healers, with no nuance for the individual, it tells us that enslaved people were “treated well,” it ignores the labor and death that this entire country was predicated on, and yes, some of the early Paul Bunyan stories are racist. At the center of this book is the simple question - what were the stories that we lost, because of the person that told them?
Auntie Po is really just Paul Bunyan, but in the lineage of the oral storytelling that the myth was formed out of, she is simply the expected Paul Bunyan story if a 12 year old Chinese-American girl got to tell it.
The protagonist is a Chinese-American girl, Mei, and Mei’s father Mr. Hao is the cook at the logging camp. Mei helps her father in the kitchen and bakes the best pies. Mei grows her romantic feelings for her best friend Bee, the daughter of Mr. Andersen who runs the logging camp. Why did you depict Mei’s feelings toward Bee in a subtle way while it is an important part of the book?
I wanted to write a book where queerness existed but was not the driving force of the book, because this is also how it exists in my life. I am a queer author, and I write queer characters who exist in queer books, but as a normal part of existing. My books also aren’t about romantic relationships, straight or queer.
In your Author’s Note, you wrote, “Ultimately, where our histories have been repressed and our people were not deemed worthy enough to document, I feel that we have the obligation to return ourselves to the narrative.” Can you tell us more about that?
Because of the nature of Asian immigration and the laws that prevented Asian immigration for a very long time, I think a lot of us think of this time as something that we weren’t present for. And that is simply not true, but it is a period that was underdocumented.
Acknowledging the diversity of and learning the histories of people that were present in this era, and being able to trace that direct emotional and actual lineage to the past, even if it is not a precise ancestry, is something that can shape how we see ourselves and how we move through the world, politically and emotionally. We can contend with our role as settlers on unceded indigenous land, and work towards righting these wrongs, because people like us occupied, worked, and even thrived on indigenous land, at a time of indigenous genocide. We can feel proud of what our forbearers achieved in the 1800s, in America. We can also address our history of anti-Blackness within our communities. We can also lay claim our own American-ness at a time where Asian people are still being othered, because people like us built America. We can understand that the histories that we were taught were politicized histories, because the histories of marginalized people were actively suppressed, destroyed, or reinterpreted, often to set us against each other which only benefited our oppressors. By knowing our own histories, we make room for other histories as well. We were part of farmworker labor movements, part of civil rights movements, and so much more.
A lot of the current discourse is about Asian exceptionalism and representation, but our successes are hollow if they have to be built on the backs of others, the same way America as a country was built on the backs of many marginalized laborers, many of them us. Our histories are much more intertwined with other marginalized groups than the stereotypical Asian-American narratives suggest, and solidarity backed by solidarity action is our only way out of the model minority myth. Our Asian-American history is flawed, and difficult, but we can accept both complicity and credit when our American history is known to us. And ultimately, if that history was underdocumented and repressed in a way that we can never truly retrieve its specifics, then we have to make fiction to guide us and to fill in the gaps, in as thoughtful and nuanced a way as we can manage.
The Author’s Website