The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four graphic novels that illuminate anti-Asian racism through personal experience

A panel from a new social media comic by Gene Luen Yang.
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Gene Luen Yang slept fitfully the night of March 16 — the day that six Asian women were among the eight people killed in the Atlanta spa shootings. The next morning, he saw that #AsiansAreHuman was trending — a hashtag that felt “disturbingly familiar.”

So Yang did what he has devoted much of his career to: writing and drawing art that promotes empathy and understanding.

The Bay Area author created a short-form comic, he said this week, because he was “trying to make sense of what’s happening in America right now” amid a national spike in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic.

“We’re not jokes to make you laugh. We’re not props for the background of your selfie. We’re not punching bags for when you’re angry about a virus,” says Yang’s comic avatar.

Yang, a two-time National Book Award finalist, for “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints,” posted the comic to his Instagram and Facebook accounts on March 17, drawing thousands of likes and shares.

“People from all over, of all different backgrounds, reached out to me to express solidarity,” Yang says. “I felt understood and that there is a path leading to the future. It exists — we just have to find it.”

The reaction to Yang’s post is a vivid reminder that comics — with their blend of words and pictures — can dramatize and illuminate racism in a profound way for many readers, including young audiences.

Given the power of the form, The Washington Post asked four cartoonists, including Yang, to recommend a graphic novel that speaks especially well to anti-Asian and AAPI racism and bigotry, particularly in the United States. Here is their reading list (their comments have been edited for length and clarity):

‘The Best We Could Do’ by Thi Bui (2017)

Summary: Bui chronicles family life before and after the Vietnam War — part autobiography, part immigrant tale.

Chosen by: Yang, who’s also a past national ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

Why Yang chose it: “Bui recounts her family’s journey from Vietnam to America. Her parents’ courage bleeds through every page. In order to become Asian American, they faced down starvation, corruption, racism and their own internal flaws.

“Bui smartly punctuates her narrative with the births of children — her siblings and her own, as well as her son’s — tying the generations of her family together by both blood and hope. ‘The Best We Could Do’ is profoundly human, which makes it indispensable in a society that dehumanizes Asian Americans so easily.”

‘They Called Us Enemy’ by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker (2019)

Summary: Actor and activist George Takei tells the story of his family’s imprisonment in Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

Recommended by: Robin Ha, a Washington, D.C.-based cartoonist and author whose credits include the graphic memoir “Almost American Girl” and the best-selling cookbook “Cook Korean!: A Comic Book With Recipes.”

Why Ha recommends it: This book not only depicts racist attacks inflicted by individuals, but also shows how the American government acted in an immoral way and how it used fear to manipulate the victims. It also shows how long it took our government to admit wrongs and apologize to the people wronged.

“It shows the importance of everyone getting involved in our political process and having a voice to speak up when we see injustice, and also shows the resilience of people when all hope seems lost.

“We need to focus on what our government is doing to perpetuate racism in this country. It’s easy to brush off the violence happening to the Asian American community as if it’s just some unhinged individuals acting out their anger. But the problem is much bigger than that, and we need to hold our government responsible for their involvement in perpetuating white supremacy, and our media and police system responsible for dismissing this racism against Asian Americans time and time again. The Asian American community needs everyone’s help to be safe and valued as the rightful citizens of America.”

‘Secret Asian Man: The Daily Days’ by Tak Toyoshima (2009)

Summary: The collected syndicated strips feature protagonist Osama “Sam” Takahashi, who pulls no punches in commenting on everyday life.

Recommended by: Angelo Lopez, the Sigma Delta Chi Award-winning political cartoonist for Philippine News Today.

Why Lopez recommends it: “During this wave of anti-Asian violence, my mind has raced back to the early 2000s, when I read a comic strip that dealt with many of the issues still facing the Asian American Pacific Islander community. Tak Toyoshima’s ‘Secret Asian Man’ took a humorous dive into the myth of the Asian American model minority, as well as the cultural divide between Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, affirmative action and the difference issues between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and other Asian groups.

“What makes Toyoshima’s comic strip effective is the seemingly light tone that the strip takes. The main character is a ‘Candide’-like character who comments on the small prejudices that many Asian Americans endure with his wry, self-deprecating humor.”

‘Shortcomings’ by Adrian Tomine (2007)

Summary: Disaffected and habitually critical Ben Tanaka, a 30ish Japanese American man in a dead-end Berkeley job, wrestles with issues of race and sex. It was announced this week that Randall Park will direct the film adaptation.

Recommended by: MariNaomi, an author and illustrator (“Turning Japanese” and “Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22”) and founder-administrator of the Cartoonists of Color, Queer Cartoonists and Disabled Cartoonists databases.

Why MariNaomi chose it: “‘Shortcomings’ tackles the subject of anti-Asian hatred from within the Asian American community. Similar to the protagonist, Ben Tanaka, I was raised in a predominantly non-Asian community. Similar to Ben, I grew up in deep denial of the discrimination I faced, and felt desperate to fit into the White society surrounding me.

“Internalized racism was a survival tactic, and I’m only now, in middle age, beginning to forgive my younger self for idealizing blond hair and blue eyes and having a name people around me could actually pronounce. It’s no wonder I felt this way, as all the media I grew up with mocked Asian-ness at every level.

“Ham-fisted at times, this book still manages to be compelling and laugh-out-loud hilarious at parts. Its cast of hard-to-love characters is a good reminder that humans and their issues are complex, and racism isn’t just black and white.”

Read more:

George Takei has talked about his family’s internment before. But never quite like this.