Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
For Asian Heritage Month, I strove to connect with creators and authors who identify intersectionally because intersectional identities are real, complex, and nuanced. In today’s American political landscape, being an immigrant is difficult and, frankly, scary at times.
When describing experiences where intersectional identities interact, Yao Xiao did so, in a way that was profound and vibrant, in her graphic novel Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid, which was published earlier this year in March. Yao herself in a queer immigrant and in her book, she reflects upon the personal impact of her arrival to the United States.
It is my honor to welcome Yao to the Pond today! She joins us as a fuschia horse wearing a leaf hat! Before I share the interview that I did with Yao, here’s more information of her upcoming book, Everything is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid.
Everything is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid by Yao Xiao
Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid perfectly captures the feelings of a young sojourner in America as she explores the nuances in searching for a place to belong. Baopu is a monthly serialized comic on Autostraddle, and this book includes beloved fan favorites plus new, never-before-seen comics.
This one-of-a-kind graphic novel explores the poetics of searching for connection, belonging, and identity through the fictional life of a young, queer immigrant. Inspired by the creator’s own experiences as a queer, China-born illustrator living in the United States, Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid has an undeniable memoir quality to its recollection and thought-provoking accounts of what it’s like to navigate the complexities of seeking belonging—mentally and geographically.
I adored Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid. Each vignette was carefully placed in the chronology of Yao’s story, and each one provided a new sense of healing, even if the tone was distressing. I saw myself in many of the stories.
Author Interview: Yao Xiao
Joce: Hi Yao! Thank you for joining us at the Pond, and welcome! We are so excited to have you here to celebrate Asian Heritage Month. Can you please tell us about yourself?
Yao: Hi Joce! My name is Yao Xiao, and I’m a cartoonist and illustrator. I live in New York where I create most of my writing and art. I moved to the U.S. in 2006 from China where I was born and raised. A lot of my art is about memories and the surreal experience of recounting them.
Joce: Let’s talk about your most recent release, your graphic novel entitled Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid! Apart from what readers can find on the dust jacket, tell us something special about the book.
Yao: This book has been my art baby since 2014. I started creating the series of comics called Baopu back then, while I was looking for relatable content about my own experience being in my 20s, dealing with coming out and heartbreaks. I identify as a first generation immigrant, as well as queer and Chinese. It was not easy to find comics that depict exactly this niche cluster of identities at the time, so I started creating my own. They were drawn in Sharpies and scanned black & white. Luckily, the editors at Autostraddle gave the comic a chance to serialize monthly. Through the years, I created a comic every month and received warm encouragement from the queer community in person and online. I made many friends through comics and writing and trading feelings and ideas. Finding my group of people is one of the most special aspects of the book to me.
Joce: Something I loved about Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid was the intersection of being a queer immigrant. I also loved the notion of finding safety and gratitude every day, even if it is difficult. Where are some safe spaces for you as a queer immigrant, and how did you go about finding them?
Yao: Initially, I didn’t always take care of my own emotional needs. There were interactions that exhausted me but I thought that I had no choice but to accept them, and in turn accepting myself as an anomaly: too Chinese, too American, too queer, too weird, too emotional…this was in real life and also in art making. I thought that my art would serve the function of explaining Chinese-ness, or explaining queerness, instead of serving those who feel similarly and need no explanation.
One thing that I did to allow change was to follow my intuition and find friends who can share a safe space. When I find friends I trust and love, I either find communities through their guidance or create a space for us to be in. Relationships and community are very important to me, even when writing and drawings makes me a mostly solitary person. One of the physical places I love is Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side in New York City. I always feel at home there and I’m always ready to learn. I also love the communities of queer artists in Chinatown and the different cultural events now we can all go to. It is important to me to host gatherings from my home and make it a safe and welcoming space. Having access to these awesome communities really spoiled me.
Joce: As a follow-up question, there is something to be said when going through grief processes, such as the grief of events and missing people during this pandemic. The newness of our current climate mirrors the newness of entering into a different country or place. How does your creative process change as you move in and out of these “foreign” spaces?
Yao: When I feel like a stranger to a new place, I have to recalibrate my creative brain to adapt to the environment somehow. One survival instinct is to prove myself useful, interesting, and relatable. I have this instinctual fear of being left behind. Sometimes this fear makes me want to imitate other popular voices or try to minimize my quirks to “fit in.” In the beginning of the pandemic, I realize that my experience as a Chinese immigrant would be drastically different from what was shaping up to be the mainstream “American” version. This made creating during this time especially difficult at first because I felt like the ideas I had were so isolated, quite literally out of sync. But as I figure out my place, I try to dive deeper and find meanings that are unique to me, this is a process that’s personal instead of performative.
Joce: I’d like to ask you more about the particular city, province, or area you are from in China. What was your personal experience growing up, and do you think you would have had a different experience growing up in a different region of China?
Yao: I’m from Tianjin, China. It’s a large city in Northern China, very close to Beijing. Growing up, my father’s side of the family was from a rural area and we had elements from his life before coming to the city, a different dialect and food culture. Even without coming to America, there are themes of migration culture and assimilation in our life. An entirely different way of life can get reduced to an accent and a few dishes in the process of adapting to a mainstream culture. In the city, I grew up to become very open-minded and independent, despite the prejudices present even in my girlhood in a very developed part of the country. I think if I grew up in the rural village where my father was from, I would be closer to my grandparents and might learn a more familial way of life through super tight knit communities. But that’s another generalization by me, someone who has been mostly absent from that experience.
Joce: Your first language is Chinese (Mandarin), but you chose to write in English even though it is your second language. Furthermore, you chose to publish in the USA rather than publishing in China. Tell me more about your decision-making process.
Yao: I had initially struggled about whether I should pursue my writing towards a Chinese audience or an American one. At the time I thought that either way, I’d have to do a great deal of explaining. As I spent more years in the U.S. and have most of my friends here, as well as spending my entire adult life here, I start to write creatively in English most of the time. I think to publish in Chinese I would make bigger leaps from what I’m currently creating. Writing in a second language has a freeing element to it—I can be familiar with my native language and it becomes hard to break out its writing conventions. It is a constantly transient process, to think about telling my stories to an audience in one language versus the other. To think about the audience in general is daunting to me, and I would rather create first and see who becomes attracted to what I make. In the end, it felt natural to publish in the U.S. because that is where I have been living and thinking about art.
Joce: What were some of the biggest challenges during your decision-making process and how did you resolve or work through them?
Yao: One big challenge was to shift my mindset from “introducing” my history to telling the stories in a more nuanced, more relaxed way. It’s a challenge of being bi-cultural. There’s a constant temptation to dramatize certain things or make generalizations because there’s this sense of being the only one in the room who knows what really happened or how it really was. I try to not exaggerate things or utilize stereotypes, and instead trace feelings and events more strictly. “Everything Is Beautiful, And I’m Not Afraid” is only part auto-biographical because there were some parts of the story that I paraphrased heavily or interpreted in my own way. But even with the changes, I try not to make up events that don’t feel truthful to me.
Joce: Personally, when talking to friends who are Chinese-speaking (any dialect), when I try to explain how I identify within the LGBTQIA+ community, I run into trouble pinpointing words or phrases that directly translate into the words I use to identify myself. Obviously, some people choose not to use labels or identifiers, but for those who do, do they find it frustrating to convey the nuance and layers of their personal queer identities?
Yao: I’m very spoiled now with the communities I find myself in. I like the way that we use a mixture of Chinese, English, internet lingo and original made-up words to express identity. In contemporary China, there’s a wealth of words for talking about queer identity and sexuality that I am still learning about. I think it’s like discovering treasure troves. I also like to not only use labels but also describe the emotions, feelings, communities and actions we take and talk about the things that happen in our lives. There is a lot of switching back and forth that happens between languages that’s interesting to me, especially with my friends who are also expats from other countries, and we find words that translate into each other between non-English languages. I think the most fun part is to keep talking and figure things out during those talks.
About the Author
Yao Xiao is a cartoonist and illustrator living in New York. Yao was born in China and emigrated to the United States in 2006. After graduation with a degree in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts, Yao sought a way to document her experiences as a queer immigrant in and developed a series of comics incorporating illustration and writing. Her debut graphic novel, Everything Is Beautiful, And I’m Not Afraid was published by Andrews McMeel in 2020 and has received praise by Publishers Weekly and Ms. Magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Ignatz Award and recognized by the Society of Illustrators.
I would highly encourage everyone reading this to pick up a copy of Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid. Everything that Yao spoke about in her interview is portrayed so poignantly and with a reflective tone and vibrant, striking artwork to match. Thank you so much, Yao, for joining us at the Pond!