By Suniti Srinivasan
Today we’re pleased to welcome Laura Gao to the WNDB blog to discuss Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American, out March 8, 2022!
After spending her early years in Wuhan, China, riding water buffalos and devouring stinky tofu, Laura immigrates to Texas, where her hometown is as foreign as Mars—at least until 2020, when COVID-19 makes Wuhan a household name.
In Messy Roots, Laura illustrates her coming-of-age as the girl who simply wants to make the basketball team, escape Chinese school, and figure out why girls make her heart flutter.
Insightful, original, and hilarious, toggling seamlessly between past and present, China and America, Gao’s debut is a tour de force of graphic storytelling.
Content Note: This interview mentions anti-Asian racism and hate crimes in relation to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you come up with the title Messy Roots?
The title was a joint effort between my publisher and me. As I was writing my editor, I realized that the story encompasses more than just Wuhan. It began with my immigration story, then you add a layer of being queer and another layer of how the pandemic affected my hometown, racism against Asians, everything gets pretty messy at that point. There is also this other part in the book where I talk about how I don’t like my bushy hair. I even tried shaving my eyebrows, but each time the roots kept growing messier and thicker, which is a great metaphor for what happens when we push our identity away instead of embracing it. So that ended up becoming the title for Messy Roots.
Looking at the cover, it was an interesting amalgamation of Wuhan, San Francisco, and Texas. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, this book is divided into 3 main sections and so the cover is also split into 3 main sections. One in the top left is Wuhan, that’s where I was born and later on, I visited every once in a while, after I immigrated and that’s where most of my family still is today. Bottom section is the suburbs of Texas where I grew up. The last one is San Francisco; you see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean. San Francisco is where I lived most of my adult life and where I felt like I was being accepted for being Asian and Queer. Each one of these sections has had a profound impact on my identity seeking journey. Each setting also reflects a different color scheme that parallels the mood and impact it had with my experiences. At first when you look at it, each scene seems to be a bit distorted, which is exactly how I felt with my identity while growing up in each of those places. But if you look closely, you will see the clouds in the Wuhan section merge with the ones in San Francisco. The ocean and cityscapes of Wuhan lead into the open skies of Texas. That also shows how I managed to weave all the three parts of my life into this book.
Going deeper into the book, this book showcased the small things that are very common for immigrant children—namely, focus on academics, going to libraries and picking academically related books, success in academic life, to name a few. How did that life shape you?
At first, it was kind of hard as I was a very rebellious kid and oftentimes the hopes and dreams of success are on the first kid in an immigrant family. My parents had to sacrifice a lot to come and live in the United States. I often make fun of this with my brother who is 5 years younger, that I was made the guinea pig and the poster child at the same time while he could chill and enjoy the show from the sidelines eating popcorn. But as years passed by and I became comfortable with the Asian American immigrant tag, I also realized the thinking and thought process my parents had while parenting us. The good thing about this was it has made me a lot more independent and confident today, being able to stick up for myself, think for myself. But this definitely took many years to understand what it took to be the oldest kid in an immigrant family.
How were your experiences in America different from that of your brother’s, since he was a first gen American?
From our conversations, I think he had an easier time assimilating since he grew up speaking English. When he was older (middle/high school) my parents were more comfortable with the American way of life. They were also financially in a better place and could afford sending him to more places and encouraged his hobbies. So it seemed like he didn’t have that many challenges growing up. His high school years, he had a more diverse group of friends because more south Asians were moving into my city in Texas at that time. But I also feel he missed out on many things too. He didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin and when we visited China he couldn’t converse with our relatives. Food was also a major issue, where he always looked for a Pizza hut and couldn’t eat much while I enjoyed the food. It’s funny because I felt the same way when I first came to the United States. My mom used to say that when I attended the preschool here, I pretty much skipped all the school lunches to the extent that my hair started falling out and I became malnourished.
Moving forward with languages and accents, how did you handle all the mispronunciations of your Chinese name? Was it difficult to handle those situations on a daily basis at school? It’s interesting how this is a common issue that two authors of different ethnicities mentioned to me; I personally have experienced this too!
Yeah, it’s so universal that it can apply to any person of color with a slightly weird -ounding name. It’s really unfortunate because when people can pronounce names like “Timothée Chalamet” they can’t pronounce YuYang Gao, which has much fewer letters! Gao is not even a complex word and the number of ways that people have butchered it completely perplexes me! I remember the amount of dread I had when I walked into my first-grade class and saw a substitute teacher, because that meant I had to quickly get into the process of remembering the roll call and shouting out “I am here” before my name is just about to be called. I got so fed up with this process that one day I marched to my mom and said, “I need a new name”. It’s unfortunate this happened when I was 6, and at that age you shouldn’t worry about your name but rather be thinking about Pokémon! You shouldn’t have to rename yourself and redo your identity! As much as getting names wrong seems to be “cliché” in some of these identity stories, if it’s still happening then it should be definitely talked about.
What is the favorite thing about your birth name? I know you changed it to adapt better, but towards the end of the book you explain about your birth name and its significance. Could you elaborate on that? Is it still part of your name now?
It still is… I think the parts I like the most is how poetic it is. My brother’s name means cartoon mouse and mine means the universe. I think I cherish that now; the only people who call me by my Chinese name are my family and Chinese friends. I actually feel like I prefer it that way. It keeps a lot of meaning and my heritage and culture in the community that I want to cherish the most. And the book travels through the entire ordeal in my journey and today I am so proud to be a Chinese American.
How did you feel about the pandemic, especially since your roots are in Wuhan? Did it emotionally affect you at some level considering the political climate in US was not very understanding or empathetic about the pandemic as a whole?
Yeah, especially during the peak of it felt so emotionally taxing, not just for me but for my family and other Asian Americans I was talking to. It was kind of like these two identities of mine, being Chinese and American, were wrestled away from me and weaponized for a political game by both sides of the media. Instead of trying to humanize what was actually happening, the West was blaming China and vice versa. The people who were caught in the middle in this crossfire were Asians all over the world. It was literally like you don’t just protect yourself from the pandemic but also have to pick a side to avoid dying from a hate crime. Sometimes even if you picked a side, you could still be a target for hate crime because of how racist a lot of the takes were in the media. I felt very helpless and that actually made me create the “Wuhan I know” comic, which was my way of taking back the agency and speaking up for myself when the world was hurting from this.
Changing gears into another layer in this book about your queer identity, what do you think is the single biggest problem that immigrant kids face when they are coming out about who they really are? What were the challenges you faced?
Hmm… I don’t think I can speak for all of queer immigrant kids about the single most important issue but at least from my experience with my immigrant parents, it was challenging getting them to understand what I was really going through while crossing language barriers, cultural barriers, and religious barriers. I remember thinking I didn’t even understand if they knew what queer meant.
Firstly, it was hard for me to find a word in the Mandarin vocab and a lot of these terms were created in the modern times. And my parents left China in the ’90s so I don’t even know if they would know what queer even meant if I were to say it. So I had to change the words I used in my coming out and hope that they really understood what I was trying to convey. So that was hard for me and also my parents are very religious and that was a whole other pandora’s box. It’s just hard being the oldest kid who [represents] your parents’ hopes and dreams. The fortunate thing in my case at least was that I could be a Product Manager in a tech company, making a lot of good money and now I am publishing two books. You could argue that for any parent that’s a hell of a good job, and for my parents that is cool, but my queer identity seems to counteract that. It’s almost as if now I am the most shameful thing that they can think of for the family. I think that’s been the hardest issue for me and my parents.
How did it feel to tell the story to the world of becoming who you are? Because this is like taking your entire life journey and putting it in a book for the world to know you. How did that feel emotionally?
I think it’s both the most exhilarating thing and the scariest thing because I have written autobiographical comics for a while, and most of the time it’s like on Twitter or Insta with my 10 best friends liking it. At first, I was worried because I wasn’t out to my parents yet and didn’t really know how they would take it or how I would come out to them. But I did come out to them this last year and I am already more public about it to my friends. If anything, I am more excited for young people to be able to read my story and relate to them and take pieces of it to hopefully help themselves.
Did you feel like college was a place that helped you open up the real idea of who you are and make you feel stronger about it? Maybe even some newfound confidence along the way?
Yeah, definitely! College was a night and day difference to the city where I grew up and went to school. I went to the University Of Pennsylvania and it was a more liberal and diverse environment—at least more than the schools I studied in [before], for sure. I remember going there and thinking, “Wow, it’s possible to have so many Asian people in one school”! There were also a lot of people in the LGBTQ plus spectrum. But before all this I had to get past my own demons before I let myself enter into those spaces. It actually took me a while to join a Asian club or a queer club. I was mainly afraid of two things: One: I had to get past this toxic view that I created while growing up and the environment I was in was, like, doing Asian things or having Asian friends was not cool. Two: I had to get past this impostor feeling, that I wasn’t Asian enough or queer enough. I had to have some hard conversations with myself and also with other Asian and LGBTQ friends that I had made about why I had these fears, and how to unlearn them. But once I did, this community was one of the best things that could have happened to me in college.
Very cool! I always hear about how college is the place where you make some lasting friendships…
Yeah, college was definitely a place were for the first time I felt completely independent; you are away from family, away from the ghosts that you had in your mind, in my personal experience. You are forced to create your own identity and really question if the parts of you that you had in high school are really the parts that you want to be now in your adult life. I was also glad that I went to a college far away from Texas, which helped me start from a blank slate. This helped me construct Laura into the Laura that I wanted to be.
So do you feel you have finally become the Laura you want to be or are you still in that journey?
I don’t think the journey ever ends. Every year I find out more and more things about myself and the book ending is also slightly ambiguous because no one ever truly is like, “Yes, this is it!”, the identity I have peaked and will never change. I do think that the Laura I am now is the best version of myself, and I hope to keep exploring about myself. One thing is, I recently came out as gender-fluid and gender is still something that I am trying to explore and fully understand quite well.
On a fun ending note, I just want to know what your current fashion style is now, since you talk about it in the book!
Ooh good question! I think fashion is really an identity for me and is constantly changing for me. I would say after living in SF it made my fashion a little bit more chill, like loose fitting shirts, jeans, but also, I am inspired by BTS and Harry Styles off late. I am inspired to wear more bright colors and flowery prints. While I was growing up, I hated anything colorful mainly because I thought it was too girly. But I later realized I was rebelling because of what the society thought I should be. But when I ignore that external noise and asked what Laura actually wants, it’s mostly about embracing everything about herself, and so why not wear fun flowery colors! SO that’s the style I am going with now.
Laura Gao is a comic artist and bread lover currently living in San Francisco. Laura’s art career began by doodling on Pokémon cards and has since blossomed to be featured on NPR, HuffPost, and most notably, her parents’ fridge. She is a proud queer Asian-American immigrant and strives to inspire others to live unapologetically loud. Say hello and send her bakery recommendations at www.lauragao.com.
Suniti Srinivasan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books, and a middle schooler in International Community School. She is very passionate about law and International Studies. When she is not doing schoolwork, she expresses herself through classical dance and finds it to be a great stress reliever. She is an animal enthusiast and has a golden retriever who keeps her busy. She has been an avid reader from a very young age, absorbing the tales of strong characters in fantasy lands and in society. She hopes to share her joy of reading with the world and help highlight more diverse authors through this platform.