UCSC Review Summer 1997
An odyssey homeward
Alumna Belle Yang (B.A. biology, College Eight '82) has written and illustrated two books that describe the China of her father's youth.
By Francine Tyler
The act of painting and writing often opens a window to another place and time. For Belle Yang, they transport her back to the China of her father's childhood. In two books filled with vibrant stories and fanciful artwork, Yang has given vivid new life to the country her father remembers.
"I'm fascinated with the old world that's lost," says Yang, 37, whose father fled China in 1947 during the communist takeover. "I write to take revenge for my father, for the opportunities he lost to time and war. But the greater passion is to tell the story of old China, about the lives of other people--noodle makers, farmers, peasants--those who died without a voice."
Yang retells their stories in Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father's Shoulders (1994) and The Odyssey of a Manchurian (1996). She is working on the final book in the trilogy, "On Old Granddaddy Hill," which will offer readers a deeper look into old China through the eyes of Yang's great-grandfather.
The two published books have received critical praise. The Los Angeles Times, for example, called her first book "a captivating memoir ... lavishly illustrated and lovingly narrated." Author Amy Tan, in an introduction to Baba, said Yang "has created a world we can lose ourselves in, and when we emerge we are all the better for it."
In Baba ("father" in Chinese), Yang animates the characters of her father's boyhood in stories that depict everyday life in the shadow of the Japanese occupation, the Russian onslaught, and the Chinese civil war. In the second book, she describes her father's 3,000-mile journey on foot across China to flee the approach of communist forces.
Both books are illustrated with Yang's own whimsical block prints and watercolor paintings: colorful, animated works described by one critic as "sparkling."
Yang was a UC Santa Cruz biology major when she took her first step toward writing the Baba books. During a year spent in Scotland in the Education Abroad Program, Yang toured many of the great museums of Europe and realized that art--not science--was her true love. After returning to UCSC to complete work on her bachelor's degree, Yang studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Painting in Beijing.
In Beijing, Yang embraced her Chinese heritage. After returning to California in 1989, she yearned to hear her father's stories about his childhood--stories she had been unwilling to listen to during her own.
"When I was growing up, I wasn't ready to listen, I didn't want to hear, I didn't want to be Chinese," says Yang. "When I came back from China I was 30 and had made enough mistakes to be sympathetic to my own parents. I had absorbed enough of the Chinese symbols, the imagery. I had eaten food grown on the Chinese soil. I had become Chinese."
Ironically, writing about her father's past has made Yang feel more a part of her adopted country. "People say 'go out and vote' because that's how you participate in America, but there are other ways, too," says Yang, whose parents lived in Taiwan and Japan before immigrating to America when she was seven years old.
"I feel that by writing I'm participating in a democracy. I'm saying something that may change someone's viewpoint; giving my voice to my father--to a whole lot of others--and through that process becoming more American myself."