Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

Overview

“A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes.”—Elle
When Belle Yang was forced to take refuge in her parents’ home after an abusive boyfriend began stalking her, her father entertained her with stories of old China. The history she’d ignored while growing up became a source of comfort and inspiration, and narrowed the gap separating her—an independent, Chinese-American woman—from her Old World Chinese parents.
In Forget Sorrow, Yang makes her debut into the graphic form with ...

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Overview

“A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes.”—Elle
When Belle Yang was forced to take refuge in her parents’ home after an abusive boyfriend began stalking her, her father entertained her with stories of old China. The history she’d ignored while growing up became a source of comfort and inspiration, and narrowed the gap separating her—an independent, Chinese-American woman—from her Old World Chinese parents.
In Forget Sorrow, Yang makes her debut into the graphic form with the story of her father’s family, reunited under the House of Yang in Manchuria during the Second World War and struggling—both together and individually—to weather poverty, famine, and, later, Communist oppression. The parallels between Belle Yang’s journey of self-discovery and the lives and choices of her grandfather, his brothers, and their father (the Patriarch) speak powerfully of the conflicts between generations—and of possibilities for reconciliation.
Forget Sorrow demonstrates the power of storytelling and remembrance, as Belle—in telling this story—finds the strength to honor both her father and herself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With a lilting voice and a strongly etched fairy tale hand, writer/artist Yang weaves a riveting true-life tale of ancestral jealousies and familial woes from her father's recollections of growing up in China. Her book begins with Yang in her 20s, recently graduated from college but unable to get herself out into the world, wounded by self-doubt and bad memories of an ex-boyfriend turned stalker. Back living with her immigrant parents in Carmel, Calif., Yang listens to her father's stories about his grandfather, a man of wealth and stature whose many feuding sons left the family dismally ill-prepared for the winds of change that WWII and Mao's revolution sent violently whipping through the land. Betrayal and infighting pockmark these stories of woe, though they're buttressed with an appreciation of an uncle's Buddhist disavowal of material possessions or desires. Yang's story, which balances her own struggles with those of her ancestors without clumsily trying to equate them, echoes both with the tragic darkness of King Lear and the clean austerity of classical Chinese poetry. (May)
The Mercury News
There has been plenty of sorrow to forget, in both [Yang’s] ancestral history, and in her family’s California lives. Forget Sorrow relates those somewhat parallel stories with beauty and truth. It is an uplifting and moving story . . . Deeply touching.— John Orr
Wall Street Journal
A gem of a book. . . . Yang’s interweaving of her own travails with those of her grandfather in chaotic post-imperial China tugged at this cynical journalist’s heartstrings.— Adam Najberg
San Francisco Chronicle
In wonderfully dreamy—and often nightmarish—black-and-white images rendered in pen and ink, Yang dips in and out of her ancestors’ past, her kindly father narrating the story. The ravages of famine and the brutality of the Cultural Revolution’s unthinking minions are hauntingly depicted…but the reader also beholds selfless acts of compassion. It is these moments, along with Yang’s tender portrayal of a natural world at peace…that lend her story its ultimate, life-affirming grace.— John McMurtie
Elle
A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes.
Booklist
Yang spins out the story in concentric eddies and whorls, an excellent reverberation of her black-ink style…This is an excellent book for those intrigued by family stories or by the history of twentieth-century China as well as anyone who likes memoirs made more dynamic by incorporating more than just the writer’s perspective on events.— Francisca Goldsmith
Book Dragon
[A] most unforgettable feast.— Terry Hong
PaulGravett.com
Yang brings her own bold brushstroke drawing to the fore to convey the period’s characters and locations…The real revelations here are…her family’s survival through tumultuous change, as bonds and ties are stretched sometimes to breaking point… [and] the miracle of Yang herself as she eventually regains her freedom and confidence and chooses the comics medium to express her redemptive journey so evocatively.— Paul Gravett
John McMurtie - San Francisco Chronicle
“In wonderfully dreamy—and often nightmarish—black-and-white images rendered in pen and ink, Yang dips in and out of her ancestors’ past, her kindly father narrating the story. The ravages of famine and the brutality of the Cultural Revolution’s unthinking minions are hauntingly depicted…but the reader also beholds selfless acts of compassion. It is these moments, along with Yang’s tender portrayal of a natural world at peace…that lend her story its ultimate, life-affirming grace.”
Elle
“A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes.”
Library Journal
Black-and-white brushwork suggesting etchings dramatizes Yang's family history, translated from her father's memories of growing up in China. Feuding left her grandfather's family unprepared for the changes wrought by World War II and Mao's Cultural Revolution. Yang intercuts her ancestors' misfortunes with her own, evading a stalker ex-boyfriend and fighting self-doubt while coming to honor both her progressive father and herself.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
East meets West in this occasionally playful yet profoundly moving graphic memoir. Though she has drawn from her life in her popular children's books (Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond, 2009, etc.), Yang has never offered the level of psychological reflection and familial revelation shown here. The subtitle, "An Ancestral Tale," tells only half the story. The author narrates her own story, which encompasses the story of her father, who tells the story of his ancestors that his daughter then mediates through her artistry. The impetus for the project is the stalking of the thoroughly modern and Americanized author-then a recent college graduate-by a former boyfriend referred to throughout as "Rotten Egg." To protect herself from what appears to be the real threat of physical harm, she retreats to the home of her far more traditional parents, who emigrated from China before her birth. She also makes a pilgrimage to her family's homeland, where she attends the Academy of Traditional Chinese Painting and experiences the late 1980s political upheaval and repression firsthand. Returning to her family's house in California, where her parents claim that she has wasted her education because of her bad boyfriend experiences, she coaxes stories from her father on his family, which are filled with tales of familial conflict and oppression that resonate with her own feelings of living in a prison imposed by circumstances. It's a tale of Taoism and Buddhism, with the meditative state wondrously captured by the artist, and of the tension between the seeming passivity that spirituality appears to instill in some and the personal ambitions of others. The narrative seamlessly shifts between present andpast, and between America and China, mixing the intimacy of a memoir with the artist's visual allusions to such sources as King Lear and The Scream. A transformational experience for author and reader alike.
Flavorpill
“Heart-wrenching, but Yang’s exorcistic storytelling is ultimately about learning to move forward.”
Jeff Yang - San Francisco Chronicle
“Breathtakingly lyrical and poignant…Forget Sorrow is Yang’s first graphic novel—and as it turns out, it’s a world she inhabits like the most fluent of natives.”
John Orr - The Mercury News
“There has been plenty of sorrow to forget, in both [Yang’s] ancestral history, and in her family’s California lives. Forget Sorrow relates those somewhat parallel stories with beauty and truth. It is an uplifting and moving story . . . Deeply touching.”
Adam Najberg - Wall Street Journal
“A gem of a book. . . . Yang’s interweaving of her own travails with those of her grandfather in chaotic post-imperial China tugged at this cynical journalist’s heartstrings.”
Terry Hong - Book Dragon
“[A] most unforgettable feast.”
Francisca Goldsmith - Booklist
“Yang spins out the story in concentric eddies and whorls, an excellent reverberation of her black-ink style…This is an excellent book for those intrigued by family stories or by the history of twentieth-century China as well as anyone who likes memoirs made more dynamic by incorporating more than just the writer’s perspective on events.”
Paul Gravett - PaulGravett.com
“Yang brings her own bold brushstroke drawing to the fore to convey the period’s characters and locations…The real revelations here are…her family’s survival through tumultuous change, as bonds and ties are stretched sometimes to breaking point… [and] the miracle of Yang herself as she eventually regains her freedom and confidence and chooses the comics medium to express her redemptive journey so evocatively.”
Amy Tan
“I have long been a fan of Belle Yang’s art and writing, and Forget Sorrow is a wonderful display of her prodigious talents. I am moved by her honesty and humor, mesmerized by the amazing history of her family. While her story is deeply personal, it is also magical, nearly mythic. It reminds us that we all have unknown family histories, which, once revealed, can become the parables that change us profoundly.”
Maxine Hong Kingston
“In Belle Yang we have our Isaac Bashevis Singer and Marc Chagall—all in one bright new talent.”
Ariel Schrag
“With drawings that remind me of van Gogh’s sketches, Yang tells a heartfelt interwoven story of family and finding oneself.”
Josh Neufeld
“Forget Sorrow is intimate and yet grand in scope. Through Belle Yang’s expert weaving of personal memoir and family history, we emerge with new understanding of pre-Communist China, ancestral lore, and father-daughter reconciliation. Yang’s drawings—and her heartfelt dialogue—make these long-ago stories feel both present and personal. A compelling addition to the comics memoir form.”
Judith Ellis - Huffington Post
“[A] wonderful, beautifully drawn story that shows the pain, joy, and terror of an ancestral tale.”
Huffington Post
[A] wonderful, beautifully drawn story that shows the pain, joy, and terror of an ancestral tale.— Judith Ellis
Giant Robot
“Bringing to life a story that spans multiple generations, governments, and continents, the comic-strip format feels more immediate than a biographical novel, realistic than a TV mini-series, and honest than a movie could ever be....uncommonly enriching.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

The graphic memoir is a form that seems particularly well suited to conveying what is, to us, a foreign experience. The visual yin marries the verbal yang to yield a full round, each half of which contains a small portion of the other. In their totality, they cannot be unlinked, nor can the book be imagined in any other figuration. Such is the case with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and the picture books of Allen Say and Shaun Tan (The Arrival without any words but imagined ones, yet no less powerful an immigrant saga for that). Likewise with Forget Sorrow, the first graphic memoir by illustrator Belle Yang, who describes the complex history of her prominent Chinese family through the glass of her father's reminiscences after his emigration to California.

Her great-grandfather in Manchuria tells her father, "We must understand the past so that we may understand how we became who we are today." That is the purpose of the "ancestral tale," and it may also serve to elicit in American readers some amount of regret that many of us are increasingly ignorant of our own generational curriculum vitae. It is a loss we may not even feel until we are made witness to the rich and byzantine genealogical tapestry of someone who feels driven to know whence she came.

For Yang, the desire is pressured by her unhappy situation in America: she is being stalked by a violent ex-boyfriend (here named Rotten Egg) as well as by the disapproval of her often distant father. As we learn when she interviews him about his life as a member of the formerly great House of Yang, with its passage through the world war and Communist terrors of the twentieth century, he has abundant reason for bitterness. But to speak of the unspeakable becomes an act of renewal, through which Belle Yang's life is given new purpose as graphic memoirist while her father, her Baba, finally lays down the burden of the family's past, which has bowed his back under its sad weight.

The experience of turning these pages, like troweling deeper and deeper into the earth, is hypnotic, perhaps because the author takes us to a place that is not only far removed from anything with which we may be familiar (replete with exotic customs and festivals, unusual terminology and familial relations, a strange political order, and ancient ways of life) but is refracted yet again through retelling. Slowly we are immersed in the foreign as in a watery pool, to become a fish unaware that a hook has got us by the mouth because it is at the end of such a gossamer line.

Our raptness is also the result of the varied and peculiar characters that appear and disappear, transform and age, through the progression of panels in which Yang expressively -- magically, almost -- renders entire personalities with extreme artistic economy. There is the suave Third Uncle, who cunningly manipulates his father into giving him control of the family's distant farmlands, and thus its wealth; there is the odd duck of a Fourth Uncle, who was the only one allowed to smoke and who rigged radios to spy on the doings of his siblings; there is Second Uncle's cross-eyed wife, who became more and more unhinged until she exploded in a harridan's forbidden rage at her father-in-law. Even a sad-eyed donkey attains a measure of eloquence as a symbol of the family's decline.

Yang's expressive drawing is the same bold and earthy black of R. Crumb, but thicker -- in a metaphorical sense, as well as a literal -- and done with a rougher, hastier brush, as if something imperative were pushing it from behind. And so it is: through writing the story of her family and its travails, she explains, "I have tried to write sorrow out of Baba's life."

The story he tells his daughter -- of life compressed on one side by the internecine machinations of brothers trying to take charge of a powerful family's wealth (in the end lost to all when the tides of governmental change surged dramatically), and on the other by the privations, fears, and dangers of a time when Nationalists and Communists fought each other only to destroy the old ways of a vast country -- becomes more and more incredible. On one page alone, successive panels describe harrowing episodes, each of which might have killed a lesser man: "The Gan River in Jiangsu had flooded. I tied myself to bamboo culms so I could rest"; "The Communists pressed south. I crossed the Gan on a log. Many drowned in the attempt"; "I was conscripted by the Nationalists in Canton and shipped to Taiwan, there to defend Chiang Kai-shek's island refuge . . ."; " . . . and became a street person in Taipei, the capital, with no place to sleep"; "Then I went deep into the mountains of the aborigines to teach Chinese to the children and contracted malaria." The movement alone, from Manchuria to Taiwan to Japan to the U.S., bespeaks a fortitude, and a terrible necessity, that few contemporary readers will ever know.

After Baba entered the U.S., in 1971, the family left in China in effect retreated behind a blank Communist-drawn curtain. In 1979, Yang's father returned to try to discover what had happened. And, under totalitarian rule, what had happened was shocking. The once rich House of Yang had been reduced to begging -- that is, the members of it who had not been carted away to labor camps and buried, in the end, in mass graves.

"Forget sorrow" is both a Buddhist mantra -- the thing needed most by a family that came to suffer so much -- and the name (Xuan) given to the girl, Belle Yang, born in Taiwan in 1960, who would feel compelled to learn of the family's trials and triumphs and then commit them so movingly to paper. Through a felicitous act of remembering, forgetting is finally achieved.

--Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393068344
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/10/2010
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Belle Yang is the author of the popular illustrated books Hannah Is My Name, The Odyssey of a Manchurian, and Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders. She lives in Carmel, California.

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