You probably know Yao Xiao’s work already, even if you don’t remember her name. The artist’s recent comic “If you want to say thank you, don’t say sorry“, published on Autostraddle, recently went viral on social media – and for good reason: it presents a simple mental tool for redirecting the impulse to apologize into something more positive. For those of us conditioned to apologize for our very existence, that small reminder of our worth is incredibly powerful.
When Xiao asked me to review her upcoming book, Baopu – a collection of the comics from Autostraddle and a number of as-yet-unpublished ones – I admit I was flattered. A cartoonist friend of mine had recently recommended Xiao’s work, and I was immediately blown away by it; the bare emotions and private truths made me feel simultaneously like I was trespassing on someone else’s secret thoughts and that someone else had stolen my secret thoughts and made them into a comic. While many of these comics focus on the experience of immigrating from China – an experience I don’t share – other pages felt intimately familiar to me, and every panel was presented in a way that made even the unfamiliar relatable and accessible – the memoirist’s holy grail.
Baopu is indeed an intensely personal work, less a story and more a series of brief yet staggering vignettes about the complicated experience of being a queer Chinese immigrant in the US. I mistook Xiao’s work for pure autobiography before I read the statement at the back of the book that the protagonist is a fictional character named Baopu. But I have a hard time believing my mistake was completely unintended by the author, given the parallels between her and her character and the gutwrenchingly intimate tone of the scenes she portrays.
Reading this comic feels like reading someone’s diary; nothing is held back. Raw and fresh are the pain of heartbreak, the struggle to find one’s truth, and the limbo of losing a sense of home. Yet the tone isn’t self-pitying or depressing, just quietly honest and ruthlessly introspective.
Would I be speculating if I said Xiao uses the character of Baopu as a filter to tell her own story, protecting herself from the intensity of those emotions through a thin layer of fictionalization, and perhaps providing a buffer of plausible deniability between her personal thoughts and memories and the scrutiny of the reader? Absolutely. But if I were writing about the complex and painful realities of my life, I might make up a character to take my place too. The medium of fiction can be a powerful tool for recontextualizing one’s real experiences and taking control of one’s own story, and while it’s impossible to know for sure, I would guess that’s what Xiao is doing here.
To say that Baopu is different from my usual fare would not do it justice. If a typical comic can be said to resemble prose, Xiao’s work is more akin to poetry. Instead of a using a narrative to connect various events, Xiao strings together pure feeling, imagery, and memory with a thread so fine it could cut you.
There are a few intertwining central themes – home, memory, identity, and the expectations of others – that Xiao explores through her cipher Baopu. Her experience of being queer often parallels, sometimes comes in conflict with, her struggle to retain her sense of her Chinese identity and heritage. This struggle overlaps with a persistent feeling of losing home, belonging nowhere. And in the in-between space that she occupies, there is a constant pressure to choose: are you Chinese or American? Do you like boys or girls? Are you butch or femme? This box or that one? To which she replies, “I’m just… hangin’ out. That’s okay, yes?”
Xiao is clearly uncomfortable with this pressure, because to choose just one would be a lie. In many ways, Baopu can be seen as a defense of we who exist in these liminal spaces; people caught between false binaries, people with no home, people with two very distant homes, people who live in multiple cultures simultaneously, people who don’t fit in anywhere, with anyone. And perhaps in naming that, claiming that limbo, one can achieve a small amount of pride in it.
But it’s also lonely in the middle, and Xiao makes no bones about that. The uniting theme of this work is just that: the isolation of moving to another country, the alienation of homophobia and misogyny, and the simple heartache of missing someone you once loved, or maybe still love.
The name of the comic and its protagonist is an interesting choice; as Xiao notes in the afterword, baopu refers to embracing or returning (bao) to a state of simplicity (pu). Pu actually literally means “unhewn wood”, but in Taoism, as I understand, it’s a metaphor for one’s natural state of being, before being shaped by the outside forces of one’s life. I’m not a Taoist, and I’ve done enough speculating in this review without delving into possible deeper meanings of the word, but it does seem apt for a character so lost in between different cultures and expectations. If culture is what carves the wood of one’s self, perhaps being exiled allows one to more easily see the truth of our essence, unmarked by that knife.
Final verdict: Staggeringly beautiful and heartbreakingly familiar, this comic hits close to home, wherever that home might be. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
(Baopu will be published in 2016, date TBA)