The worst! This was the worst day in my life. If not the worst, certainly the most tragic. The day would live in infamy as the day the Nagarajan family moved to the US. 

Interview with Laura Gao

Introduce yourself! 

Hi, my name is Laura. I am currently 24. I grew up in Dallas, TX, but I was born in Wuhan, China. I’ve kind of moved all over the country and the world at this point, but I’m currently in Taiwan, Taipei.  My current day job is as a comic artist. I’ve been working on my own graphic memoir for the last year, and I have another book coming out after that.  And yeah, that’s how I spend most of my time! Otherwise, I love biking. And I love dogs, brownies, and bread. 

Tell me about your first graphic novel!

This time last year was when kind of like the peak of the [pandemic] was hitting. It really hit close to home because, as I said, my hometown is Wuhan, where everything started. All of my family besides my immediate family are currently still in Wuhan, and I’m very close to my grandparents and cousins over there. It was very jarring to see the suffering they were going through and feel so helpless about being on the other side of the world but also have so many people here hating you for what they think happened and blaming you for what happened. So this book is based off of my emotional reaction to a lot of the trauma going on at that time. 

This first book is called Messy Roots, and it’s a memoir about my life immigrating from Wuhan and growing up in a small, conservative, very white town in Texas. I was one of the few people of color and was working on my identity not only as a Chinese American but as a queer Chinese American too. 

This was spun out of a viral comic I made back in April 2020 called “The Wuhan I Know.” It was all the feelings I was having at the time around the xenophobia, racism, and a lot of the hurt and worry I had for my family. I wanted to not only give a tribute to my hometown and like how brave I thought everyone was over there, but also shed light on how terrible the situation is and why it’s unfair to blame this group of people for what’s happening. After the comic went viral, I was very lucky to have a couple of publishers reach out and want to turn it into a book. 

“The Wuhan I Know” was how I discovered you on Twitter, and I remember that despite an overwhelming positive response, you were still getting attacked by a handful of bigots on Twitter. I imagine this is something happening more frequently to Asian artists because of the pandemic. What’s your suggested method for handling it?

Well, for one thing, I think I was pretty ready to handle it given that at the time, my job was working for Twitter on their anti-abuse platform. So my role itself meant I had to look at the worst of the worst of the internet to figure out how to work against it. So I think for myself, I’m pretty used to knowing what kind of cesspool Twitter can be sometimes. When I first posted the comic, I expected a way worse reaction, just given what was going on at the time. Any kind of tweet that mentioned Asia or China—you can guarantee at least half the comments were very racist in some form or fashion. So I was pretty ready for a lot of the racist comments to come, but I was also very glad that for every racist comment, there were at least fifty positive comments on that thread. And so I kind of just used selective filtering. 

Another thing was reminding myself about why I made this comic. It’s very easy to get caught up with “oh, so-and-so said  this, and that really hurt.” But I remember reading this one comment from this Chinese mother who said, “Thank you so much for making this, because I finally have a digestible, easy way to explain to my two 5-10-year-old daughters about what’s going on and why they should still be proud of their heritage. Even if kids at school are bullying them for it.” And I remember screenshotting that and keeping that saved for every time I felt bad about something or every time someone made me mad with a comment. I’d just be like, “Hey, this is why you made this. This is who you’re trying to help, and this is the positive effect you actually have.” I absolutely love getting comments like that because it’s great having thousands of likes, but at the end of the day, it’s just a number. You never really understand the human connection behind it, so seeing something tangible like that makes my whole week.

As for my advice for other creators: remember that posting something publicly that is incredibly personal and emotional is already so brave in itself. And always have a good group of support around you, like friends that will boost you, no matter what other people say on the platform. And use blocking very liberally! 

One of my favorite comics you’ve done is about your parents’ reaction to your coming out and how their anxieties spilled over to your brother. A lot of your comics, including this one, take on heavy topics with humor. Tell me about your rationale behind that approach.

For this one—yeah, I had just come out to my parents, and it was an extremely poor reaction. I was very prepared for it. I have known for my whole life that my parents would not be accepting of me being queer. Afterward, I wasn’t feeling too down because I had prepared for the worst. But I also had a lot of emotions around how they were reacting and the ridiculous things they were saying, especially to my brother, who, God bless, stayed home to field all the ridiculous questions, so I didn’t have to. 

It’s a great way for me to share my emotions with others to also uplift them if they were feeling the same way. There are times in which I do want to just be sad and have others feel sad when they read it. I think that’s fewer of the comics I make, but there are a couple that I do want people to cry when they see it. But then I typically try to add a bit of both. Like “okay, you can cry, but also laugh at how ridiculous the situation is.” Like, “Hey, like, you know, here’s the funny stuff they say to your brother, and you know it’s just so obvious how ridiculous they’re being about the whole situation. And it’s not you, it’s them.” I hope other people who are also coming out to very conservative immigrant parents can just look at it and relate and laugh—and then hopefully, it just makes their day a little better.

There’s a really big gap between our perceptions of being LGBT+ and our parents’ perceptions—especially in terms of what it means to be LGBT+ or why we are. What’s your personal approach to that gap? Do you feel a need to attempt to bridge it or would you rather leave it be?

I’ve always had a very messy relationship with my parents, not just on this topic, but most topics when it comes like politics and the way we think. That generational gap is so real for my family. Anytime we do talk about politics or something really sensitive, it ends up turning into a huge fight. I think generally, my family is the worst at communicating. No one talks about their emotions or how it makes them feel. As a result, I’ve learned to just be a bit more avoidant and prioritize my own mental health over trying to “brute force” their understanding.

I would say that’s probably not super healthy for the long run. I do think that ultimately, we will have to have these hard conversations to try to understand each other. But just out of my own personal experience with my own family (and this is probably different from other families), I’ve learned that sometimes it is better to take a step back, distance yourself, and prioritize your mental health.

  Do you have any specific sources of inspiration when making comics?  

I picked up comics as a way of really focusing on storytelling. Comics are like storyboarding in a way. I get my ideas through a kind of internal narration or monologue of like, “Something funny might happen here.” And then I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, this sequence is a really funny scene. I should turn into a comic so that other people can laugh about it too!”

Or maybe something kind of profound clicked in my mind like, “Oh wait, I just made all these connections between my childhood and why I’m this way with my parents.” And immediately, I want to be able to share this thing I just realized about myself and my identity—and not only as a way of me figuring out myself, but helping others do so too. 

This past year, you made a huge switch from a tech job to being a full time comic artist. What pushed you to make the jump?

    Yeah, I guess that’s such a drastic move from an outside perspective, right? Friends and coworkers will often say it’s a big jump, and it’s funny because I feel like I’ve been jumping almost my whole life. In college, I jumped majors almost every semester. 

I have so many different interests, and I hope one day when I’m 80 I can look back and, you know, some people like to look back and say, “I did this one thing and excelled at it for 50 years,” but for me, I want to look back and be like, “I did 50 things, and maybe I didn’t like fully excel at each, but I got to try all of them and have so much fun with them.” That’s how I really want to live my life. 

 It’s not an easy thing to say, “let me give up my incredibly cushy, paying job with health insurance to be self-employed, with unstable income.” And I also have a lot of imposter syndrome because I never went to art school or did all these things that other people have to do to even get a book deal. But I always tell myself, you should always take the jump because you’re always going to regret not doing it. I think for me, that took a lot of fear out of it. I was like, “Hey, you’re just here for the ride, and you’re seeing where it goes.”

What’s coming up for you? You mentioned another graphic novel coming soon.

I’m planning on finishing it within the next month, so I’m really excited, but my next one will start afterward. I haven’t gotten the full premise of it, but I kind of sold it as a happy queer female love story just because there are barely any out there! I thought, “Well, if people aren’t gonna give it to us, I’ll just make one.” I haven’t decided if it’ll be about my life yet, or if it will be a bit more like a fictionalized version. But that’s all I can reveal for now. 


Laura bio.jpg

Laura Gao is a comic artist and writer based anywhere with good wifi, espresso, and bread! Born in Wuhan, China, Laura immigrated to the U.S. and grew up in Texas. Her work has been featured on NPR, PBS, and her parents’ fridge. Laura’s debut graphic memoir, MESSY ROOTS, about her identity search as a queer Chinese-American in conservative small-town Texas, is coming out in January 2022 with HarperCollins.

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