By Pen and By Brush: Belle Yang rescues family stories

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 8.30.38 AMCARMEL—For a country that talks much of family and family values, the stories that connect us with our ancestry too often go untold, says Belle Yang, who has tussled for decades with her own complex family stories in books and illustrations.

Storytelling, by pen or brush, is a way to rescue the nearly forgotten tales that connect us, she says. Sometimes the recounting brings a temporary respite as well.

“My father has a great memory,” Yang says. “It’s an advantage, but he remembers all the hurt, all the things that deeply affected him.”

Much of her work tells the stories of her father, Joseph Yang, who fled communist Mainland China to the island of Taiwan where Yang was born in 1960. The family moved to Japan, then, in 1967, to the U.S. They lived in San Francisco for four years before settling in Carmel, far from the reaches of authoritarian governments. Her father opened a Beijing gift shop, then an art gallery, where he sold his own traditional calligraphy and Chinese art figures that he made with her mother Linang. It helped pay for Yang’s college.

After earning a biology degree from UC Santa Cruz, Yang soon recognized her path would be art. She studied at Pasadena Art Center College of Design and the Beijing Institute of Traditional Chinese Painting. Included in her nontraditional resume, however, is a painful time in her twenties when, fleeing to China seemed to be her only refuge from a violent relationship. She polished her Mandarin and experienced China in new ways until the Tiananmen Square protests in 2007 erupted in tragedy affecting her deeply.

She returned to her parents’ home tired, still seeking a safe haven. There, she began to listen more closely to her father’s stories. It was both a painful, confrontational process and a celebratory family creation that seemed at times to soothe them both.

“When I first started writing my father’s stories, it was like rescuing the stories of people who didn’t have voices,” Yang says. “They were silenced by communism. I felt I was freeing them.”

The literary community has welcomed the immigrant stories and historical accounts. She has written and illustrated seven children’s books and three adult books including a widely acclaimed graphic memoir that sells on Amazon for hundreds of dollars. In 2009, PBS aired “My Name is Belle,” an autobiography told through the eyes of a child immigrant. A traveling exhibit of paintings and illustrations, “Belle Yang: Crossing Cultures,” which has been touring the U.S. for several years, has just been extended.

When she teaches in local schools, she urges students to question their parents. Ask them what music they listened to when they fell in love. What foods did your grandparents love to eat that you can’t get any more?

“Then they begin to communicate and learn their history,” she says. “When you know the history of your past, you get a picture of how the different forces come together and intersect in you. You know about those travails and somehow they meet where you emerge. It brings history to life. It makes being on Earth much more interesting.”

This article appears in the Monterey Herald spring 2016 issue of Monterey County Women.


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