LeUyen Pham arrives early and is already telling stories as we wait for Gene Luen Yang to hop on the call. Laughing, she explains, “You get the right people in the right space, and we’ll entertain you, no matter what.” She’s talking about our conversation, which took place over Zoom, but she could just as easily be talking about her forthcoming graphic novel with Yang, Lunar New Year Love Story. Though they’ve been friends for years, this is the first project they’ve worked on together, and the collaboration was seamless. Pham describes their process as being “like two friends in class, exchanging notes.”
As soon as Gene joins us, each artist can’t stop singing the praises of the other. It’s Pham who points out that Yang has just been honored with what he calls “a fancy award in Oklahoma,” which the rest of us would call the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Pham was also a nominee for the prize this year).
Of Pham, Yang says, “She can draw in multiple styles and do them all incredibly well. And because she comes from picture books, she has a painterly quality in her artwork.” According to Yang, sometimes picture book artists making the jump to comics struggle with the stamina required: “There’s just way more pictures in a graphic novel. But I think Uyen has mutant powers. She is shockingly fast.” What might take a comics artist years to draw, Pham completed in under eight months—including the coloring, a task many artists hire out. Yang quips, “There’s a saying in comics that to have a career, you just have to be two of the three: good, fast or nice. So I’ve told Uyen she can stop being nice now.”
Lunar New Year Love Story started from what its title suggests: a love story, and one close to Yang’s heart. When he and his wife of 23 years began dating, she hated Valentine’s Day, seeing it as a corporate scam. But, he explains, “I really liked her, so my workaround for that was to celebrate the Lunar New Year in a very Valentines-y way.” Noting the frequent overlap between the two holidays, he turned to love-themed Lunar New Year cards and presents, and from there, the tale of Lunar New Year Love Story’s protagonist, Val (short for Valentina), was born.
Val also hates Valentine’s Day, but when growing up, she loved it. Her imaginary friend, who plays a considerable role in this graphic novel, was St. Valentine himself (Val calls him St. V.). Though Yang wrote the manuscript, the book was truly a collaborative effort. Pham explains the many ways Yang invited her into the story, asking about her first love or her imaginary friends, and including components of her answers in the narrative. “It’s not very often that you have such a generous writer, but Gene has no ego, and somewhere along the way, it went from being Gene’s story to kind of meshing together.”
“Once you have the familiar, you can weave in the unfamiliar.”
Yang agrees: “I’ve collaborated with other artists, but this project is the one where there was the most bleed over in terms of responsibilities.” Pham insists on the greatness of Yang’s original manuscript (which, she says, he drew out entirely) and the incredible timeliness of it: “I had just gone to Milkwood (Sophie Blackall’s farm/creative retreat), and I was seeing these tremendous artists producing tremendous work, and everything changed for me. I came home and realized I didn’t have the heart for the project I had been working on.” Canceling that project made it possible for Pham to consider Yang’s book when it arrived. “It fell in my hands right at the moment when I needed something to fill the soul. That sounds really corny, and I don’t know how else to put it. I was looking for a soul-feeder, something I could put a lot of myself into.”
Pham did put a lot of herself into Lunar New Year Love Story, including her background and ethnicity. Yan knew he wanted “to tell a story about a Pan-Asian community, because that kind of community has been important to me.” The two explain that they had a number of conversations about Val’s possible ethnicity, before landing on Vietnamese. “That was the culture I understood and could communicate the best,” says Pham. When she first read the character of Val’s grandmother, “there was an immediate familiarity in her voice, and I thought, ‘I know exactly who this woman is, and I know exactly how I’m going to draw her.’ . . . It was all just my mom.”
Family is an incredibly important part of Lunar New Year Love Story, with Val having to navigate the changes in her relationship with her dad and their volatile history. But it’s the love story that drives most of the narrative as Val tries to figure out if she’s doomed to never find true love. When she meets Les at the Lunar New Year festival, she starts to hope, giving herself a year to prove it’s possible. Along the way, she has to deal with Les’s rude cousin Jae, who turns out to complicate matters more than Val ever expected. Yang notes that they “purposefully tried to hit all of the romcom structure.” But Yang and Pham didn’t rest there. “Once you hit that skeleton, it lets you play with a bunch of stuff. Once you have the familiar, you can weave in the unfamiliar.”
For some readers, that unfamiliar might come in the form of the traditional lion dance that Val falls in love with, or the intermingling of Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese cultures, or even the references to Catholic saints and other aspects of the Christian church. When asked if it has ever felt controversial to include issues of faith, or if he’s been cautioned against writing about faith in his books, Yang replies, “In college, I had an amazing creative writing professor who once told me, ‘You should never write about your faith.’ She was a Romanian American and a practicing Buddhist, and I was a Chinese American practicing Catholic. Instead, she said, “Live your faith, and if your faith is part of your life, it will come out in your writing.”
Agreeing, Pham says, “There’s the stadium in which these dialogues are played out in public, and then there’s people’s private lives. And this story takes place in private lives, not in a public stadium. I prefer stories at that level, where we’re simply showing what life is.” She echoes that thought when speaking about ethnicity: “I like that the story is just a story that happens to have Asian characters in it. It has a universality to it.”
From family and friendships to religion and culture, Lunar New Year Love Story is a romcom that looks at the deeper aspects of life. Pham took an incredibly thoughtful approach to the novel’s colors: “We made the book into 12 chapters, representing each month of the year. Each month has a theme, which corresponds to a different color on the feng shui wheel. Everything connects with a meaning.” Yang adds: “There are five elements in Asian cosmology, and each of those is associated with a color, each associated with different parts of society and culture. So what Uyen did was she took this old, old philosophy and applied it here, and even if you don’t know all of that when you’re reading, you can feel a depth in the color.”
“There’s the stadium in which these dialogues are played out in public, and then there’s people’s private lives. And this story takes place in private lives, not in a public stadium.”
Each partner insists it was the work of the other that made this book successful. “What I love about Gene’s work,” says Pham, “is that it’s always multilayered. It’s not a single story.” Like the lion dancers in their graphic novel, they know it takes two partners to make something beautiful and true.