Gene Luen Yang wins a MacArthur grant 'out of left field, but in the best way'

Gene Luen Yang was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for his work as a graphic novelist and cartoonist. The week the fellowship was announced, the former high school teacher was set to embark on the book tour for the second in his series of comics for middle graders, “Secret Coders,” designed to engage kids in computer science through mystery stories. Yang’s graphic novel for young adults, “Boxers and Saints,” won the L.A. Times Book Prize in 2014; he’s currently writing “New Super-Man” for  DC Comics about a young Chinese superhero; and he’s serving as the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. We caught up to him by phone to talk about the award at his unofficial workplace in the Bay Area.

Where are you?

At a Panera Bread. Because I don’t have a writing studio.

Congratulations!

Thank you! It’s crazy. My stomach’s been doing somersaults since they told me.

This is a significant grant with no strings attached. Do you think you might not write at Panera?

Because I can build a palace and work in that? Well, I live in the Bay Area, so it’s a very expensive place. I used to have a studio at home, a spare bedroom. We have four kids...So I had to give up my studio.

What was the first thought you had when you heard about the award?

I didn’t have a first thought; it was mind-numbing shock. For three days. When I thought of the MacArthur Awards before this, I thought of scientists. I know they give awards to other writers and artists as well, but I primarily thought of it as an award for scientists, cancer research. So it was totally mind-blowing to me — it was awesome. It felt like it was out of left field, but in the best way possible.

Have you thought about what to do with the award?

This is what I think: I see myself as having three big roles. One, I’m a member of a family — I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a son; two is, I am a cartoonist; and three is, I’m a teacher. And I want to put part of these resources to each of those things. I don’t think I’m going to build a palace,  but it will at least help me send two of my kids to college. I want to hire an intern — there’s a [cartoonist] school out in Vermont that I’ve always been an admirer of. Having an intern would both help me professionally, and it would be a way of easing somebody into the comic book industry. As a teacher, my primary role as a teacher is as the National Ambassador for Young people’s Literature through the Library of Congress, and there are a number of different things we’ve been talking about for a while, but we weren’t sure where the resources to do those things would come from — and now I have access to resources. I’m hoping I’ll be able to do some of those things before my term ends at the end of 2017. So those are the three categories that I want to throw money at.

Emotionally, where are you at with this news?

I feel like I’m all over the place. I’m Catholic, I still consider myself part of that tradition. But lately I’ve been reading a lot of Taosit stuff, mostly because they talk a lot about the monkey mind. That’s a very Eastern philosophy kind of thing. My mind feels like this jittery monkey, and I’m still trying to make it settle down so I can figure out how to move forward with my life. My brain feels like it’s constantly excited and jumping up and down, and I need it to calm down so we can figure things out.

2016 MacArthur fellows:

Josh Kun

Maggie Nelson

Claudia Rankine

Lauren Redniss

Sarah Stillman

 

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