Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of your graphic memoir, The American Dream?, through Zest Books! What initially inspired you to tell this story and to launch the road trip of this book?
Shing Yin Khor: My editor, Daniel Harmon, actually solicited pitches from me, and I always had this dream of driving all of Historic Route 66, and that was the pitch that he wanted! So, I set out on the trip knowing that it was going to have to eventually be a book. I've always been interested in the elements of the American mythos, and especially the American West. I've got an accompanying obsession with the Paul Bunyan mythos and I am currently really into learning about the Pony Express. Route 66 seems like one of those central elements of the American myth, except instead of just its fascinating history, it also exists very much in the present. I didn't plan the trip too much, other than the very specific route I would follow, but I trusted that the road would have stories for me.
BD: Following your work on the Eisner Award-winning anthology, Elements: Fire, what can you share with us about balancing both the writing and illustrative duties of The American Dream?, and what have been some of your creative influences?
SYK: I write and illustrate all my own work for now, so it's not really something I think of as separate things! And this book specifically is a memoir, so it wouldn't feel quite right for someone else to be drawing it.
My influences are...varied and ever changing. I've was really into rediscovering my childhood favourites when I was working on this book, things like Gnomes by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen, the Griffin and Sabine series, and The Way Things Work. I am not certain how those influences show, though, but they feel like things that are just part of the fiber of my being.
I don't read a ton of travelogues, but I was thinking a lot of Lucy Knisley's Displacement. She has an amazing knack for making a very specific story universal. I also thought a lot about Annie Dillard's travel writing. She's brilliant, of course, but she never slips into jadedness, only wonder. She is respectful of the land she walks on and the people she meets. I tried to take a brave and gleeful trip. I knew I had to be my own protagonist, and I wanted to tell a honest story, even though I didn’t exactly know what it would be, and I wanted that story to have a lot of happiness and joyful discovery in it.
BD: Having provided readers with a window into a deeply personal narrative, what did you find to be most rewarding and challenging about your work on the book?
SYK: Well, traditional publishing moves slowly, so the book was largely "done" two years ago, and I turned my final files in before the current administration took office. I am so grateful to my editor, Daniel Harmon, for reaching out to me and asking me to pitch this book, Liz Frances for all her design work, and Hallie Warshaw and Libby Stille and Ashley Kuehl for helping me usher this book into the world. The wait was probably the hardest part, especially in such a tumultuous couple of years - I felt like I was growing in leaps and bounds as an artist and also becoming more confident in my own voice and politics, and I love this book so much, but I already feel like a different person now than I was in 2016! But I feel so lucky to have written a travel memoir about this incredibly important trip to me. I feel so lucky to have all these pages and all this art documenting who I was as a person, and this really cool thing I did with my great dog.
It is hard to read the slightly more political sections of the book, because I know I'd be so much more articulate now! But I am glad that the book captures this sense of meandering hopefulness and confusion. I think it is important to recognize that I don't always know the answers, and that there is joy in searching for them, even if I don't find them.
BD: Your journey in The American Dream? preceded the 2016 election by a few months. In light of the tumultuousness of our country in the time since the election, what is your experience in revisiting the memories of the road trip and the graphic memoir itself?
SYK: I drove Route 66 in April 2016, and I finished the book before Trump took office. I thought Hillary Clinton was most likely to be the next president, I was contending with my identity as an immigrant, and I likely always will, but in April of 2016, I didn’t actually find my citizenship tenuous the way I do in August 2019. I’m not sure I expected the book that I wrote. It is a softer and more introspective book, I think, and perhaps a bit more meandering, than if I had written it right now, where it feels like there is this rage bubbling under my skin all the time.
Even the epilogue of the book, which ends on a hopeful note, is braver than I think I really am now. Confederate flags fly openly in some of the towns I passed through, including in states definitely not in the confederacy. I haven't stopped road-tripping or traveling, but I am significantly more conscious of where I am going, and of my safety, and who I approach or talk to. The early 2016 version of me was a more friendly, curious, and congenial person who wanted to find the joy and conversation in everyone, and the 2019 version of me knows that the majority of white women voted for Donald Trump.
It is bittersweet, but it is an honest book, and I do think it is a good time capsule of that journey, and the person I was, and the feelings I felt on that trip.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from your work?
SYK: Honestly, almost all the books I got as a kid featured white protagonists. The vast majority of the travel writing I've ever read is by white people. I've only recently been reading writing by queer people. I hope this book speaks to adventurous brown kids who never felt that they got to have space in writing like this. It's not a book about queerness and it's not about gender, but it is about me, and I want my younger self to know that we have so many stories to tell.
A lot of this book was driven by an intense curiosity, and I really hope I get to impart some of that curiosity to readers. I really hope I make people want to travel within America more, to seek out little pockets of comfort and home everywhere. Most of all, I hope that it serves as a starting point to go dig into so many things I wasn't quite able to get into the book - ranging from really serious and awful topics like the treatment of American Indians, and the blatant racism towards Black people along the route which extended way past the time of the Civil Rights Era, but also wonderful little silly things, like how the dinosaur statues of Holbrook ended up there, and how to tell a Paul Bunyan Muffler Man apart from the other models, even if he doesn’t have his head on.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
SYK: I'm currently working on my second full-length graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po, although this one is a middle grade historical fiction book. It is about a 12-year-old Chinese logging camp cook who tells stories about Paul Bunyan, but reinvented as Auntie Po, a giant matriarchal lumberjack with a giant blue water buffalo. It gets into attitudes around the Chinese Exclusion Act, early American labor, and who gets to own the American mythos.
I also have a solo gallery show opening at Stranger Factory (strangerfactory.com) in Albuquerque, NM (It is on Route 66.), the first week of September, where I'll be exhibiting over twenty new watercolor paintings! I'll also be organizing and hosting an event there on September 7th, in conjunction with my role as one of Kickstarter's Thought Leaders this year. There'll be a conversation about queer comics and with Melanie Gilman (their book, which is this gorgeous queer western, is coming out in early September), a creative roundtable about pursuing and sustaining creative careers, and quite a bit more!