The Legend of Auntie Po

In The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor, available from Penguin Random House imprint Kokila beginning on June 15th, 2021, readers will be introduced to a new and unforgettable American myth. While the graphic novel builds on their previous work, like The American Dream?, this gorgeously rendered comic soon strikes out for uncharted territory.

The Beat caught up with Khor over email to find out more about what went into crafting the 1885 Sierra Nevada Mining Camp setting, what it was like having their Chinese handwriting mocked by their mother, and to discover what they named the giant skeleton they dressed up like a lumberjack!

Can you tell us about the genesis of this graphic novel?

This is going to be an extremely practical and technical answer. I’ve been really into logging history and Paul Bunyan for a while – I wasn’t trying to actually write this book in particular, I was hoping to eventually write a non-fiction graphic novel about the evolution of the Paul Bunyan mythos. But that book’s a bigger project, and I didn’t really have a clear sense of how to approach it yet, and I was flailing around a little bit about what to do with my career. I’d finished my first graphic novel, but it was in publishing limbo and I had no idea if it would be published (it has been now, but I didn’t know that at the time). I had a lot of freelance and self-directed work, but I wanted to work on a longer project and frankly, I was craving some publishing industry legitimacy and income. It is probably worth mentioning that the most motivating thing for me is a contract and deadline, and it is extremely hard for me to complete a long project without some external forces bearing down on me.

Anyway, I decided to challenge myself to just write one new pitch a month, and query agents, and see if any of my ideas were actually things other people might want to read. I am not a person of few ideas, so writing pitches is just not the hard part for me. I can write a lot of things, I love writing lots of things, I was just unclear about which things other people wanted to buy. I was continuing to do Bunyan and logging camp research, and I was reading an academic book, Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods. Some details I had gleaned from other research and was comfortably familiar, but one specific detail stood out to me – that some Chinese cooks were paid more than white cooks. Many Chinese cooks were known for being excellent, and often a mark of a good logging camp that could draw the best and most reliable loggers had Chinese-run kitchens. This book sort of…popped into my head in fairly fully fledged form – I wrote the synopsis in just two days during the X-mas holiday while home with my parents. Even though it is my first middle-grade graphic novel, this book is very much a combination of things I already loved and thought a lot about – Paul Bunyan, logging camps, the Chinese working class in the Old West, food, ritual and tradition – so the writing came easily.

At the same time I was querying some agents in January, a comic of mine called Say It With Noodles was making the rounds after being published on Catapult (it later won an Ignatz) and DongWon Song slipped into my DMs asking if I’d be interested in writing longer work. We were already Twitter friends, and I really enjoyed his thoughts, publishing philosophy, and woodworking – I only hadn’t queried him because he didn’t represent graphic novels. Anyway, now he represents graphic novels and I have an awesome agent, and the pitch for Auntie Po went out to publishers just a couple weeks afterwards in February, and we sold the book to Namrata Tripathi at Kokila, who has been an incredible editor that I feel so lucky to work with.

Working on this book has been a dream with them – the editorial team at Kokila is staffed with the most brilliant women of color, all of whom are thoughtful and incisive and philosophically devoted to centering stories like these in publishing.

The Legend of Auntie Po

One cornerstone of The Legend of Auntie Po story is food, with appearances made by many dishes, including pie, egg tarts, and chop suey. Why was it important to include food in this story?

A lot of my writing is about food because I like food. Many of my own relationships are forged around a dinner table or in the kitchen. I love drawing food, and I wanted to make a book I wanted to draw.

But I also wanted to tell a story about people of color excelling at their craft, and in this case, we have actual historical records that say Chinese people were extremely good camp cooks. I shaped a lot of the book around the scraps of historical fact that we actually have – that in some railroad camps, the Chinese workers would host a multi-course Chinese New Year dinner for all the workers, that some Chinese cooks were paid more as white cooks, and that logging camps needed to have good food to retain the best workers.

One of the central event-conflicts of this story, Ah Hao’s firing, is based on an actual incident that happened at about the same time, although in Washington. An anti-Chinese mob resulted in The Puget Mill Company firing their Chinese cooks and replacing them with white cooks. The white cooks were asked to make a hundred pies daily, as well as the regular meals. They only lasted a week. The Chinese cooks, who were easily making a hundred pies a day, were rehired.

I played a bit with history, of course – there isn’t any evidence of egg tarts being prevalent in Chinese communities in America at this time, and the story of chop suey being invented by Transcontinental Railroad cooks is mostly apocryphal (but it’s also just stir fried leftovers, so the general concept should be fairly common, regardless of what it’s called).

The Legend of Auntie Po

Much of The Legend of Auntie Po takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at a logging camp in 1885. What went into researching this historical setting? Why is it important to tell stories about these historical circumstances?

Researching tools and architecture was pretty straightforward – there is a fair amount of pictorial documentation of this era of buildings and objects. I was an artist in residence at Homestead National Monument in Nebraska (which is on the first plot of land homesteaded under the Homestead Act) a few years ago, and many of the kitchen tools and other tools are drawn from reference sketches I made while I was there. I read an entire book about building a log cabin, but I am unclear if it actually helped me draw them.

The same can’t really be said about people. 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.

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 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. 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. 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.

The Legend of Auntie Po
The Legend of Auntie Po

In previous work like The American Dream?, you have alluded to your affection for Paul Bunyan. Was there a reason you choose to foreground the legend in this graphic novel? FOLLOW UP: Can you tell us about the time you dressed a giant skeleton like a lumberjack?

Ah yes, his name is Paul Boneyan. I dressed my 12’ Home Depot skeleton up like a lumberjack because I couldn’t resist that pun. Could you? I think not.

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?

I’ve been immersing myself in Paul Bunyan stories and the history of the evolution of this myth for years now, and this book actually came out of that, so Paul Bunyan stories were always part of this book from the very beginning. I actually wanted to write a non-fiction graphic novel about Paul Bunyan and how those stories evolved over time, and this book is what it became instead.

I got really into the Paul Bunyan mythos when a friend and I started a silly competition to visit as many Paul Bunyan statues as we could in two years. I genuinely do not remember why now. I have a custom Google Map that logs the location of Paul Bunyan statues in the continental United States (defined as an oversized lumberjack statue), and I’ve visited over twenty of them, but I did not win the competition.

One of the interesting elements of this narrative is the dynamic that emerges between privileged characters and marginalized characters. What was involved in dramatizing this kind of conflict, which may be familiar to many readers, but which many have never seen represented on the page?

The vast majority of white characters in this book really do mean well. But there is a vast chasm between having good intentions and acting in solidarity with the marginalized people in your life. There are many intersections of privilege and even Mei does not understand all of them. Martha, who is a Black woman, is extremely cautious (for good reason!) when Mei tries to make her son feel safe, because she does not feel comfortable making that promise to her children. In a sense, Mei does live in a reasonably sheltered and privileged environment that her dad has tried to build for her out of the privilege of white proximity by leveraging his white friendships, and the book is very much a book about both Mei and her dad beginning to understand that that is not sustainable.

In my life, most conflicts of privilege are not explosive. They don’t come to a boiling point. They remain simmering and awkward and subtly resentful, and I think this dynamic ended up in the book a lot. I have a lot of moments where characters do not know what to say to each other. I also often do not know what to say. Nothing gets solved in this book.

The Legend of Auntie Po
The Legend of Auntie Po

I noticed that The Legend of Auntie Po is intergenerational, including the perspective of both Mei and her father (as well as other similarly intergenerational perspectives). Why is it so important for this graphic novel to include the perspectives of several generations?

I’m sort of caught between these two generational perspectives, and I couldn’t pick one. I haven’t been a 13 year old girl for a long time, and I’m not a parent of one. The entire story was written from just Mei’s perspective at first, but it was impossible to not mirror the dynamics between Mei and Bee with their fathers as well. The story came together when I did.

The Legend of Auntie Po
The Legend of Auntie Po

As credited in the acknowledgements section, your parents not only helped review drafts of The Legend of Auntie Po, but the majority of the Chinese characters included in the book are in your mother’s handwriting. What was it like working with your parents on this project?

It was extremely weird and nerve-wracking. But it was also fun! I didn’t actually let them (or anyone besides the editorial team) review the book until a near-final draft because I do not work well in the presence of too many opinions, but it was wonderful to be able to show them my work and to tell them that it was going to be a real book. They were helpful in helping me refine the way Ah Hao speaks – I wanted him to speak like English was his second language, even if he does speak English fluently. He does not speak incorrectly, just differently. I obviously patterned it after my own parents, who are both fluent in English (my mother additionally speaks three Chinese dialects and Bahasa Malaysia), but whose accents and phrasing choices have also shifted and changed over the decades we’ve spent in America.

I don’t think they fully understood my intended career at the time I quit my stable corporate job to make comics, but they are proud of me now (they’ve bought 25 copies of the book).

The translation process was fun – I’d send my mom a list of phrases I need translation for, she’d consult with some of her Cantonese friends to get idiomatic expressions correct, and then she’d handwrite these phrases in her own handwriting. In some cases, we left an idiomatic expression written in Chinese, and a more literal translation in English. She’d mail them to me, and I’d scan them in and use them in the book. We repeated this process a couple times. In some cases, I had to write some phrases myself, and those were opportunities for her to mock my Chinese handwriting (which I haven’t done in decades, and I cried my way through Chinese school, so…I can’t write Chinese even though I still seem to mostly have stroke order in my muscle memory when I have to). This particular dynamic is also in the book – Ah Hao makes Mei learn English so she’ll be able to adapt to American life, but still makes fun for her for being bad at Cantonese. Yes, parents, you wanted me to learn English as my first language, and I did, and now I am a published author in English who needs you to translate Chinese for me.

Have there been any comics (or any other kind of stories) that have been especially inspirational for you lately?

I just read Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish, which I’d put off because I knew I’d cry through it and I was right. It is also a story about telling stories, although it is an entirely different one from mine – it is thoughtful and empathetic and I loved it.

I’ve been brushing up a lot on my graphic storytelling fundamentals, honestly. I came unto this from doing mostly indie comics, and without any formal art education, so I feel like I have a lot to catch up on. I am really in awe of Gale Galligan’s clear and extremely competent storytelling. Pseudonym Jones is doing some absolutely incredible panelling and captures brief emotional beats like none other. I’m kind of obsessed with Jon Klassen children’s books, his storytelling is so weird and economical and visually distinct.

Is there anything else that you would like me to be sure and include?

Every time I was stressed when drawing the book, I added a drawing of a cat or chicken to it. I think there are seven cats and four chickens, if you’d like to take a stab at finding them all.

The Legend of Auntie Po will be available at your local book store or public library beginning on June 15th, 2021.