On March 2, as part of the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, Laura Gao (Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American) discussed their graphic memoir for young readers in a virtual presentation for students.
Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:
About the Book
“Messy Roots is a laugh-out-loud, heartfelt, and deeply engaging story of their journey to find themself–as an American, as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, as a queer person, and as a Wuhanese American in the middle of a pandemic.”—Malaka Gharib, author of I Was Their American Dream
After spending their early years in Wuhan, China, riding water buffalos and devouring stinky tofu, Laura immigrates to Texas, where their hometown is as foreign as Mars—at least until 2020, when COVID-19 makes Wuhan a household name.
In Messy Roots, Laura illustrates their coming-of-age as the girl who simply wants to make the basketball team, escape Chinese school, and figure out why girls make their 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.
Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, presenting a School Visit with Laura Gao. I’m Sarah Lawson, Associate Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before we begin. Please share your questions for the author using the Q&A tab on Zoom, and we will get to as many as possible at the end of today’s event. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time with the Closed Captions button at the bottom of your window. Also, if you’d like to rewatch this event later, it will be available along with other videos from Festival speakers at VaBook.org/watch.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s featured author. Laura Gao, author and artist of Messy Roots, was born in Wuhan, China, and grew up near Dallas, Texas. Their work has been featured in NPR, HuffPost, and most notably their parents’ fridge. As a queer Chinese American, Gao strives to empower young readers to live unapologetically loud. In their graphic memoir, Laura illustrates their coming of age. After spending their early years in Wuhan, China, riding water buffaloes and devouring stinky tofu, Laura immigrated to Texas, where their hometown is as foreign as Mars, at least until 2020 when COVID-19 makes Wuhan a household name.
Insightful, original, and hilarious, toggling seamlessly between past and present, China and America, Gao’s debut is a tour de force of graphic storytelling.
Laura, welcome. Thank you so much for being here. Take it away.
LAURA GAO: Awesome. Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction, Sarah. I am super, super stoked to talk to everyone here. So, I know like obviously Zoom school isn’t super fun, but I will try to keep this as entertaining as possible. Let me share the presentation.
So, I am Laura Gao. As you can see, that is me right there on the left, and that is my book on the right. That picture is actually the very day I got my book deal, and the reason I’m wearing a onesie is because that’s also the day of my twenty-fourth birthday. And I wear a onesie every time it’s my birthday. So, I figured I’d start off by showing you my most embarrassing picture to get it out of the way and to keep it heart and lightening. But of course, to keep it even more embarrassing, we’re going to start with baby pictures.
So, to give kind of an overview of why I wrote Messy Roots, I want to start off with my own messy roots, which is me being born in Wuhan, China, and immigrating later on. But here’s me with my cousins in Wuhan. I’d like to play a game to see who can guess which one I am. There will be no prizes, unfortunately, but you can have bragging rights if you get it right. All right, I’m going to count down. Everyone put in your guesses. Shout it out. Which one am I? Three, two, one. I’m the one on the right. The little cutie with the apple right there. Yeah, that’s me, and those are my two cousins who you’ll meet once I read the excerpt.
And I’m going to show some pages from the book that kind of illustrate my life here. So, these are my two cousins, and we lived in the countryside of Wuhan. And my grandma here—she’s this like really big, scary, buff old woman, who I wrote here though she never finished second grade, she had a PhD in getting kids in line. And we always got in trouble because of it.
And Wuhan was a beautiful, amazing place I loved so much when I was growing up there. It had these beautiful landmarks like on the left here, Huanghe Lou, which is the Yellow Crane Tower. And then on the right here there’s the Chang Jiang, which is the Yangtze River Skyline.
And there’s all this amazing street food. Some of my favorites here are shown. On the left is dou pi, which is sticky rice that has bits and pieces of veggies and meat that are wrapped in tofu skin and fried on this giant wok. And on the right is hot and dry noodles, which is re gan mian. And this is noodles that are put in this like sesame paste, and you can put pickled veggies on top and some little like crumbs of pork. And it is absolutely delicious.
And for all of you history buffs out there, Wuhan was also a really important spot in Chinese history that a lot of people really didn’t know about before the pandemic. It was the spot of the Wuchang Uprising, which helped establish modern China in 1911 and overthrow the Qing Dynasty. And then during the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Wuhan actually became the de facto capital for a little bit when Beijing was taken over.
But of course, the Wuhan that everyone sort of knows today is due to the pandemic. And unfortunately, there’s been a huge rise in anti-Asian hate crime during this time, as you can see here. And that’s actually what kind of sparked me writing my story in this book.
It was around April of 2020, and I was in San Francisco. There was news about people being attacked on the streets. And when I’d come home and I’d FaceTime my family, most of whom are still in Wuhan and they’re under strict lockdown, I just felt very helpless. I didn’t know what to do about it. But I knew that I had a platform. I had a Twitter. I had an iPad. I love to write and draw. And I decided, you know what, I’m going to take all these emotions that are here in my heart and just put it all out on paper. So, I made this comic called “The Wuhan I Know.” And it talked about some of those beautiful things about Wuhan that I loved growing up and also about the racism that I faced when I immigrated later to a small, very conservative and white town in Texas and the racism that I’m facing now during COVID.
At first I was like, okay, maybe like five of my friends will like it, and that’s totally fine. But then I never expected the comic to actually go viral. So, as you can see here, this is my Twitter. And yeah, almost overnight it went completely viral. I got featured on NPR. I got some amazing press out of it. And so many people came back to me, saying how impactful it was for them to see someone tell their own story and stand up for them.
And one of them in particular that I wanted to highlight is this young Asian-American mother who she writes here, “I have two beautiful Chinese daughters, and I’m so grateful for your work. Thank you.”
And I asked, “Did you show this to your daughters too?”
And she responds, “Yes. Your work has helped them to talk and express how they are feeling and to feel pride in their birth country. China will always have a special place in their hearts. Thank you so much for helping give them a voice.”
And I was so touched by this that we ended up talking more further, and she asked if I was writing anything else about my story. And that’s actually how Messy Roots got started—was I wanted to tell this journey of transformation for me to become proud of who I am as a Chinese American immigrant and also as a queer person of color. Because just a year or two ago, I don’t think I could’ve told that story to the entire world. But now here I am, right?
So, to continue on that identity-finding journey, here is me and my family when we first immigrate to the US. So, that’s me, my mom, my dad. That’s Puh-Puh, the knife-wielding scary country grandma. And then that’s my little brother Jerry, who was born in the US actually. So, in one of the frames in my comic—I actually named my brother Jerry after Tom and Jerry, which was my favorite American cartoon at the time. And my dad says, “It’s fitting. It’s like Jersey, the first place we landed in when we first flew over to the US.” And so, Jerry Gao was born that day, the first official American of the family.
And then I’m growing up. I’m going to middle school and high school in this very small town called Coppell. And as you can see here, with the friends I made, I am the only really like person of color in the group. The school and the community was quite conservative. It was definitely very white dominant and religious. And as someone who was closeted and very confused about her sexual identify and her racial identity, it was not a fun time. And so here’s a page from the book where someone says, “New Chink in class,” which is obviously a bad word and you should not use. Someone says, “Heard she was a mathlete. What a nerd.”
But thankfully, I had an amazing outlet, which was art. I grew up just doodling all over my note pages here. As you can see, I drew this superhero cat. I drew my dog that we got later on. And then this is from high school on the right, which I actually ended up winning a state award for. And I think this I put in my book as one of the pieces that kind of represented how I felt on the outside versus how people saw me. I’m sorry—how I felt on the inside versus how people saw me on the outside. And to this day, these are some of the pieces my parents put up on the fridge. And that’s like a higher achievement than publishing this book, honestly.
And another outlet I had was basketball. I played on the school team. I played partly because I wanted to turn away from that Asian nerd stereotype, but I ended up really loving basketball. And here’s a page on the right here that says the varsity girls has an aura of coolness that I envied. Every game day, they walked through the halls like they owned the place. I daydream about us in slow-mo, hair falling effortlessly over our shoulders while boys admire from their lockers, “Remember the Name” by Fort Minor blasting in the background. I wasn’t there yet, but making the freshman team wasn’t bad for a former mathlete, right? I proved I deserved a spot in the locker room. And I planned to keep it that way.
Then right in between middle school and high school was the first time that my family actually went back to Wuhan and visited my family again. So, it was like basically a decade later. I had lost a lot of Chinese and my connection to my roots, and I didn’t really know how my family was going to see me.
So, here’s me and my cousins again on the left. This time, you probably don’t have to guess which one I am. I’m on the left here, still very angsty and confused. But I ended up connecting with my cousins, weirdly enough, over High School Musical out of all things. I don’t know if High School Musical is still popular now, but man, it hit every single kid’s like posters in their bedrooms. Every music video, people know every word to back when I was in high school.
And funny enough, my cousins in China—apparently they watched it too, and we got to connect over that. Where one of my cousins, Lulu, she says, “Wasn’t Troy so cute?” And here I am just being all gay. Being like, “Oh, Gabriella is cute too.” And then my oldest cousin. She says, “Hey, you two aren’t old enough to have crushes yet.”
And thankfully, I was able to get out of that kind of suffocating environment in that small town Coppell after high school when I got to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And that was the very first environment in which I was around so many other Asian Americans and so many other queer folks too.
As you can see on the left, this is me and my roommates that I lived with. They were all Asian. Some of them were Asians from Asia, and some of them were Asians who also grew up here in the States. And it was such a transformative experience to see all these different backgrounds and these different cultural stories that they had about their own Asian-ness. And me and my roommates—we’d go to these Asian-American parties that were hosted by the culture groups at Penn. And at first, I was very nervous because I felt really out of place. I was like, oh man, am I like actually too white to be here? Like what will people think? Will people judge me for not really understanding my own Asian-ness? Because growing up, I was in a place in which being different was not celebrated. So, I had to push that down.
So, here’s my roommate Yajin here saying, “Well, the best cure is to meet new people.” And on the left and on the right, you get Asians from Asia talking in Chinese. And then you have Asian Americans who are kind of talking in English.
And an amazing thing that also came out of it was I got to explore my own queerness for the very first time. So, here’s me and my girlfriend at the time during graduation. And that was such an amazing, amazing turning point in my journey as well.
And then after I graduated, I moved to San Francisco. I worked at a tech company, and my roommates decided, hey, we’re finally in a place that really accepts us for who we are. It’s diverse both culturally and for like sexual and gender identity, and we’re going to just live our life.
And so, obviously then it comes full circle to COVID and how that affected the way I saw my Asian-ness with all the anti-Asian hate going on. But I wanted to end on this last panel, which I used Messy Roots and during the process of writing the book to reflect over my journey again and be able to take full pride. And that’s kind of the story I want for everyone else out there too. Where to this day I’m still figuring out my identity. I’m twenty-five. And even though the book has an ending, the journey never really does.
So, Messy Roots came to life for all of you out there who want to feel empowered to live unapologetically and to love yourself no matter how messy your own roots might be.
Sweet. So, now I’m going to read an excerpt from the book for y’all. As I switch over to the excerpt, definitely feel free to put in your questions into the Q&A. We’ll do a Q&A afterwards. So, put them all in, and then Sarah will go ahead and field those.
Awesome. So, this is a never-before-seen excerpt from the book. So, y’all actually get very first access, which is cool, before the book comes out next week. This is a chapter from the middle of the book, and it talks about the very first time that I go to Wuhan right before high school. So, this is “Chapter 6: The Wuhan I Knew?”
And I started off with this folktale here about Chang’e on the moon.
My favorite Chinese folktale is Chang’e and her guardian rabbit on the moon. Chang’e once lived on Earth with her lover, Houyi, an archer who saved humanity from burning up by shooting down nine sun spirits. For his deed, the gods gifted Houyi the elixir of immortality.
“Honey, did you see that?”
“No, but have you seen this cat painting?”
One day, to stop someone from stealing the elixir, Chang’e sacrificed herself and drank it, causing her body to fly up into the heavens. To stay close to her love, she decided to land on the moon.
However, I preferred a different version of the story in which she drinks it to escape her suffocating home. She builds her own kingdom on the moon with a guardian rabbit beside her.
During the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon is the largest, you can see the rabbit watching closely from above.
Nainai felt sorry for Chang’e. How lost and isolated she must be.
But I was jealous. How freeing to fly away and make someplace your own.
And on the right, you see here is me and my little brother. We just get to the Wuhan International Airport. And we’ve forgotten a lot of Chinese at this point, so everything just sounds like scribbles and nonsense to us. And I accidentally bump into someone, and I’m like, “Sorry, uh, uh, duibuqi.
My brother says, “Where’s Mama and Baba?”
I say, “I don’t know.” So, I grab on to him. I’m like, “Hold on! Let’s go find them.”
And then we see a mom and dad hearing poking out, and we’re doing everything we can to kind of wrangle out of the crowd. And suddenly we’re like, oh, who’s this? And it turns out to be my mom’s family.
So, here’s a little rundown of my mom’s family. On the top is my Yeye and Nainai, who are my grandpa here and my grandma. On the bottom left there’s Big Uncle, Big Aunt, and their son Liang Liang, who’s our older cousin. And on the right is Little Uncle, Little Aunt, and Bean, who’s our younger cousin.
So, we arrive at my grandparent’s apartment. We’re like, “Yeye! Nainai!” My Nainai, she hugs us. She’s like, “You must be so hungry. Come on in!” It’s such a classic Asian grandmother move to be like, “Oh, have food, please, please.”
So, we all have dinner, and my mom’s like, “Baba, your egg rolls are perfect. A few of mine always break.”
My Yeye says, “Maybe you’re stuffing too much in? I’ll show you later.”
And Big Aunt, she’s always bragging like, “New perm? Don’t I look a decade younger?”
And Big Uncle, he sees me eating Chinese food. He’s like, “I didn’t expect Yang Yang to like Chinese food.” Because he’s like, oh, she grew up in the States, right?
But then my mom says, “Oh, I make this food every day. Only Jerry is picky.”
And Jerry, since he grew up—he was born in the States, and he never actually liked Chinese food. He always preferred to have American food like pizza and burgers.
And Big Aunt, she gets up to my face. She’s like, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I’m like, come on. “Yes, I understand, Big Aunt.”
And they all started telling all these stories about me when I was younger.
They’re like, “Oh, we sang nursery rhymes together. Do you remember them?”
“She still has the same chubby cheeks. But so much more quiet.”
And I’m annoyed. Like I wish I could answer everything like little Yang Yang would. Did they get their hopes up that I’d still be like her? Did they like her better?
And here’s me grabbing little me from one of the pages in the beginning, and I pull her over from this memory to present day. And like, here, you can take this one. Was this really my home anymore? I thought coming here meant I didn’t have to explain myself like I did back in Texas.
But there was at least one thing that didn’t need explaining: breakfast! In Wuhan, breakfast is an Olympic sport. There’s even a unique verb for it in the Wuhanese dialect, which is—and I’m going to say this in the dialect since I’m still fluent in the dialect. It’s guo zao!
So, I’m going to take this as a little activity, teaching you all a little Wuhanese dialect here. If everyone can kind of channel your inner Wuhanese energy and repeat after me. So, this is guo zao, which is “Let’s have breakfast” or “Want to have breakfast?” Just anything to do with breakfast. People love breakfast in Wuhan. And you say, “Guo zao.” And you got to like—Wuhanese people, the way we speak it’s almost like a really angry old Chinese man. Everyone is always kind of yelling at each other for some reason. So, just channel that spirit, that old angry Chinese man. Be like, “Guo zao.” All right, ready? We’re going to try it again. Ready, and, “Guo zao.” Awesome. So, you learned some Wuhanese today.
Little Uncle’s family took us kids out on a street food tour. And so, here’s some of the street food I showed y’all earlier. We have the re gan mian here, hot and dry noodles in sesame paste. We have the dou pi, which is fried sticky rice and meat wrapped in bean skin. Here’s nuo mi bao you tiao. And I’m going to say this in the Wuhanese dialect for everyone. So, this is the friend dough wrapped in sticky rice. On the bottom right, we have ya bo zi, spicy duck neck. Super spicy, by the way, but so good. Oh my gosh. And then on the bottom left is dou fu nao, and this is tofu pudding soup. Or I like to call it tofu brains.
And then on the right, my brother sees a Chinese Pizza Hut. He’s like, “What? There’s Pizza Hut here?”
And I’m like, “What? You’re still hungry? Don’t get pizza when we’re in freaking China!”
Then our Cousin Liang Liang, he’s like, “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll buy him some.”
I’m like, “Fine, I’m gonna go buy a drink.”
And if you haven’t noticed already, anything that’s in the blue outline is assumed to be spoken in Chinese, and everything in the black outline is assumed to be spoken in English.
So, I go to this little café. Everyone is speaking Chinese. I don’t understand. And I point to a drink. I’m like, “Wo yao zhege,” which means, “I want that one.”
He’s like, “Okay. With something or something?”
I’m like, “Uh, what?”
He’s like, “Something or something?”
And I realize I don’t know what he’s saying, and I start to get really nervous. I get anxious. I think people in the café are staring and talking about us and I’m starting to sweat. And finally he’s like never mind. He just puts the drink down. He’s like, “Okay, how’s this?” I immediately just like slap down the money, get the change, jab in my straw, and I just get out of there. I just run off, and I’m shaking like, oh my gosh, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do.
If anyone enters a country where you’re not familiar with the language, I’m sure you can relate to this.
There were a lot of Chinese things I didn’t understand. I’m left here with my Big Aunt being like, “Yang Yang, take this.” And she gives us a hong bao, which is a red packet of money that you give to kids.
My mom is like [chop], like, “No, we refuse.” And this is because parents always have to refuse every single gift no matter how much your relatives try to give you that gift.
In the middle, here’s my aunt and my mom arguing over the bill. They’re both like, “No, I’m paying!” They’re about to get into a UFC fight over it. And me and my brother are like, oh my gosh. And on the right, my brother and I are trying to get ice cream, but we find out the only flavors they have are red bean and green bean. My brother is like, “Why? Why are there beans in ice cream?”
By the way, it ended up being amazing flavors. Highly recommend.
However, some things were universal. And here’s me, my brother, and my cousin. We’re all cheering for Yao Ming on the Rockets. It’s like, “The unstoppable Yao Ming slams it down for the Rockets!”
In our last night in the city, we took a ferry down the Yangtze River. So, remember the Chang Jiang River that I showed y’all with the skyline? Skyscrapers and rows of illuminated bridges formed a stunning light show, rivaling the stars above. My Chinese essay did not do this spectacle justice.
“Wow. Were these here when you were a kid, Mom?”
“Some of them. A few are new.”
“They’ve been building them ever since I was a kid. They’re as beautiful as I remember back then.”
There’s a beautiful night and lit-up bridge and the skyline in the back.
“What was Wuhan like back then?”
My mom points out to these skyscrapers in the distance. She says, “See those skyscrapers? They used to be tiny concrete buildings. Your baba and I worked there as researchers. That’s where Baba and I reunited after college.”
My parents went to the same high school, where Mom bragged she was #1 while Dad, at #2, could never catch up. He joked that he let her win. As fate would have it, after going to opposite sides of China for college, they met again in Wuhan for work.
And I say, “And then y’all got married and had me?”
“Yes, I think the hospital where you were born is somewhere over there. Though I probably wouldn’t recognize it now … so much has changed.”
Awesome, and so that’s the end of the excerpt here. Thank y’all so much for being great listeners, and I will—how do I end screen share? There we go. Awesome.
So, now I’ll open it up to any questions y’all have.
SARAH LAWSON: Thank you, Laura, that was wonderful. And the reading was just fantastic. It’s so exciting to get to see that kind of behind the scenes. And I hope everyone at school enjoyed it as well. We have a couple questions, but if you have not entered yours in, please go ahead and either type them in the chat or in the Q&A if you’re watching live.
So, one question was what was the most surprising part of writing your memoir and writing this book?
LAURA GAO: Surprising part? I guess just learning so much more about myself as I was researching for the book. Like I went home for a little bit, and I was going through our old—my old journal diaries, our old pictures, and like talking to my parents about some of these memories I had. And there was so much that I didn’t know as a kid that my parents had more context over. And that was really cool. It was almost like therapy 2.0 to unwrap everything.
For example, one scene I write in is that every Christmas my dad would be really on edge, and he’d blow up over the smallest things. And I always just thought it was because he’s always had like anger management issues. I didn’t know what was going on. But then later on, when I was researching the book and talking to him, it turns out that he was always really stressed because every Christmas is when his company would announce layoffs. And if he got laid off, then that meant since we weren’t citizens yet that we would have to leave the US and go back to China. And he was so worried about that. That’s why he was stressed out. And that’s actually another scene I write into the book after I learn about it. So, that was a really cool experience.
SARAH LAWSON: That’s amazing. How does your family feel about the book? Do they feel like it’s—what was their reaction?
LAURA GAO: Yeah, so none of them have read it yet because I wanted to keep it more of a surprise. But I showed my family in China some pictures of like the pages that they were featured in, and they absolutely loved it. They were like, “Wow, here’s us in cartoon form.” And Wuhan is like not really written about much, and so they thought it was cool to just kind of see their hometown be represented. My grandpa, in particular—the one from the countryside—because everyone else from that side of the family is all just farmers. So, he was really proud that there was like an artist in the family. Like he would always tell me that whenever I FaceTimed him.
SARAH LAWSON: That’s so cool. Okay, another question from an attendee. How long did it take you to write the book, and did you always like to write? Or was that something that developed over time?
LAURA GAO: So, it took—I started writing May of 2020. And writing-wise, it probably took about like six months and maybe with edits a bit longer than that. It took a lot longer to draw the book. Drawing was almost a year. So in total, it took around like a year, year and a halfish. And for writing, I actually didn’t do much writing growing up. I know a lot of authors do. It’s always great to be writing, but growing up I did a lot more drawing than writing. And I loved reading books, both graphic novels and prose books. And so I think that got me at least into storytelling. And then the writing part was just something that I learned, and it kind of like started to grow naturally as I was writing this book.
SARAH LAWSON: Very cool. And the art that you showed—it looks like the styles that you created in the past are kind of different from graphic novel style. So, I’m curious is this your first graphic novel—graphic memoir—or had you done things in that style before?
LAURA GAO: This is my very first graphic novel, yeah. Everything else before has been like very short web comics. And so this style—I explicitly went in wanting to kind of pay homage to some of my favorite artists from both Eastern and Western backgrounds. And so there are some styles that you can kind of see from manga. And I read a ton of manga growing up, and so I took a lot of cues from that. And then I did read a decent amount of like Western graphic novels too. And from those, I liked the storytelling aspect. So, I kind of input that into the style.
SARAH LAWSON: Very cool. All right, we have another question. Do you have any advice for young people who might be interested in writing their own memoir or who are exploring their own gender and racial identities?
LAURA GAO: Yeah, that is a big question. For the first part—I’ll answer them separately. The first part about writing your own memoir—I think that is always a great thing to do, and it doesn’t have to be as official as something like this. For anyone that keeps a journal or a diary—which I did for a little bit in middle school—like that’s basically writing your memoir, right? You’re just writing down what’s happening in the day and like reflecting about yourself. So, I think always, if you like doing that, keep that up. And who knows? Maybe one day you want to publicly tell that story, and then you’ll have your memories for it.
I think it’s always great to, as you start—if anyone is an artist out there too and wanting to start kind of sharing your art and getting your work out there, it can be very scary that very first time you post because you’re afraid of like, oh, what if no one likes it? What if people call me out on drawing this eye kind of weird? And I think that’s totally fine.
I always remind people that it’s always better to post incomplete work than to not post at all. Like when I look back on “The Wuhan I Know”—that very first web comic I made that turned into this book—I still see like mistakes that I made. Times in which the face looks kind of weird or maybe this color I ended up not liking later. But if I let that stop me from posting and sharing my story out there, then it never would have gone viral, and then I never would have gotten this book deal, right?
So, you’ll always be surprised what people will end up liking. And worst case, if like you don’t get much love around it—that’s okay. You can just keep improving. You know, take that feedback. Keep improving and posting more.
As for the second part of the question about finding your own gender and sexual identity, it is a long and hard journey. And even though I kind of came out to myself in college because I didn’t feel safe to do that growing up in that small town, I didn’t really come out to my parents until this past year actually. Because the book was coming out, and I was like, oh, well, either I tell them, or they find out through the web or like a bookstore. I was like I probably should tell them sooner or later.
And to this day, they still—it’s a very hard thing for them to swallow. But I knew that like the earlier I tell them, the more at peace I will feel about it. The more I continue to just live authentically for myself and surround myself with other queer folks that understood me and just like loved me for who I am.
So, it’s never a race. Don’t ever feel like you have to do something before a certain time. I’ve taken my sweet twenty-five years to do this. And yeah, you should feel free to always do it at your own pace.
SARAH LAWSON: Wonderful. Thank you. And your discussion of family and kind of the small town vibes that you had in Texas segues nicely to another question that we had from a student. If you could, would you change your time in Texas? They say I know that some things were hard, like getting made fun of, but was there anything that you really enjoyed or maybe that gave you inspiration?
LAURA GAO: That’s a good question. I never would change parts of my life because everything that’s happened up to my point, I very fiercely believe that’s made me who I am today and made me stronger and like more confident and just like more loving of myself.
The things that I do at least love about growing up there is I loved kind of the—how tight-knit the small amount of I guess like Asians that were there. Just because there were so little of us. So, like it was great. Every time we had an Asian party, it would be the same set of families, the same kids. These were kids that I grew up with essentially, and they became my brothers and sisters.
And there’s this Asian party scene in the book that I talk about like how close we were. And my parents, they went to this small ten-, twenty-person Chinese church in the area. And every single Christmas, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl game we would go and have another Asian party where we all talk to each other. And these are people who saw me when I was like eight years old, right? And then now they still see me when I’m twenty-five. I think that was at least a very beautiful thing to come out of it—was this camaraderie.
SARAH LAWSON: That’s awesome. So, are there any books or comics that you would recommend to young folks out there? Either related to your own or books that you’ve enjoyed and found inspiration from as well.
LAURA GAO: Yeah, definitely. For graphic novels—so some of the books that ended up inspiring this one—there’s one called I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib. And that book—amazing. She’s a Filipino-Egyptian immigrant, and she kind of talks about her own experience growing up in Cerritos, California. And it’s also super hilarious. Like I was dying the whole time as I was reading it. So, it’s a great, great graphic memoir.
Another one I recommend is Tillie Walden’s books. All her books are fantastic, but the one that really inspired me was Spinning. And this book is also a graphic memoir, and it’s about her time ice skating while she’s in Texas and also kind of her own coming out journey. But like ice skating plays like a big factor in that. And that book really inspired me because it was not only the very first graphic memoir I read but also the very first book that had a queer female character that I related so hard to. So, I think those two books have been amazing that are kind of like related to mine.
SARAH LAWSON: Excellent. So, we have one more question. If anyone wants to add a final question, please do so now. But how are you planning to celebrate your book coming out?
LAURA GAO: Hopefully a lot of cake. Yeah, a lot of cake, good friends. I’m hosting like an outdoor kind of launch party here in San Francisco. So I’m super excited to celebrate with some folks. I have friends kind of flying in from different parts of the country to celebrate with me, so I’m super grateful. Yeah, if anyone is tuning in from the Bay Area and is interested, like everything is kind of on my website or on my Twitter. Feel free to like, yeah, come on over, say hi. It would be great. I can sign your book. Hopefully there will be a lot of cake.
SARAH LAWSON: Awesome. Well thank you, Laura. And you can also see Laura at the upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book in an event. But unfortunately, it is time for us to wrap this event up. So, thank you again, Laura, for taking part in this and talking about your life and your book and your work with all of us. Thank you to everyone who tuned in as well. You can visit VaBook.org to explore our full schedule of upcoming Festival events, including Laura’s, which will be taking place later this month in March 2022. Thank you again, and good luck with the book launch, Laura.
LAURA GAO: Thank you so much.
SARAH LAWSON: Yeah, thanks.
LAURA GAO: Thanks.