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INTERVIEW – Explore AAPI History with the Team Behind ‘Fighting to Belong!’

Fighting to Belong Interviews min

The new graphic novel, Fighting to Belong!, by acclaimed comic book writer Amy Chu (Wonder Woman, Deadpool, Ant-Man, Iron Man), takes readers on a historical journey through Asian American Pacific Islander Native Hawaiian history. Years ago, Norman Chen, currently the CEO of The Asian American Foundation, wondered if there was a comic or graphic novel that explored AAPI history and made it accessible to kids. Chen discussed the topic with his friend Chu, and they realized that there was a need for such a book.

That’s the origin story for Fighting to Belong!, which is written by Chu, with her son Alexander Chang, and illustrated by award-winning artist Louie Chin. The book is intended to help fill the sizeable gap in Asian American and Pacific Islander history taught in schools and media, and make clear that the AAPI community has been a part of American history for centuries.

I had the opportunity to speak with the team that made Fighting to Belong! a reality, including Amy Chu and Norman Chen, along with Stephanie Lim and Charles Kim, co-founders of Third State Books, the first independent publishing company focused solely on Asian American stories.

Fighting to Belong! Books
Fighting to Belong! Books

“It is a little bit of destiny. All these things led up to this moment when I got the call from Norman [Chen], and we’re talking, it’s just like everything sort of clicked. Everything I had done up to this moment. It’s like an Everything Everywhere All At Once kind of thing…all of that wasn’t intended to happen this way, but it all came together in a really amazing way,” Chu said about the creation of Fighting to Belong!

Lim started as an intern in publishing, and realized that there was no space for people like her and stories about her community, which is what led to her co-founding the publishing company. “So much of what I did before felt very aimless, but it’s all coming into play now with this project,” Lim said.

Chen shared that he thought about the need to create a graphic novel about AAPI history because of the unique time that we’re all living in, where the community seems to be finding its collective voice and mobilizing more than ever.

“I think we’re now at this transformative stage for the AAPI community, where we’re doing so many firsts. We’re forming new organizations, we have the first AAPI publishing house, the first graphic novel, we’ve been invisible or sidelined for so long, and there’s a sense of empowerment that is growing our community, for greater representation, greater resources, greater fight for racial equity, and we’re really excited to be a part of that community and play a role in that,” Chen said.

Lim echoed those sentiments, and highlighted the fact that in order for the AAPI community now to be as effective as a collective group, it needed a greater understanding of its history.

“I really truly believe that you don’t know who you are unless you know where you came from or you know something about the generations that came before you. Right now it looks like we’re fighting a lot of fights on the social justice front, but all of that was paved by the activists that came before us,” Lim said.

The wonderful thing about Fighting to Belong!, and the graphic novel format in general, is that it’s more likely to appeal to younger readers. As award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang has talked about extensively, graphic novels are one of the best tools for students to learn. To that end, Chu and the team wanted to ensure that Fighting to Belong! wasn’t just a boring textbook. Instead, it has its own important and compelling characters and story.

“Amy, to her credit, from the beginning has said, ‘We can tell the history, that will interest some people, but I want to have a story within the story,’ a la Magic School Bus.” Chen said. “There’s a cliffhanger at the end of the first novel, which is her creation. There are the facts and the illustration and the vibrancy of all that, but there’s the story within the story, which I think will captivate kids especially.”

Fighting to Belong! Volume 1 Cover by Louie Chin
Fighting to Belong! Volume 1 Cover by Louie Chin

Chu explained that it was really important to her, and the entire creative team, to make sure that the book featured well developed characters, and that the story was inclusive and reflective of the real world.

“Every single character is intentional. All of it is designed, hopefully to be engaging, but also to be super inclusive. But not in a perfunctory way,” Chu said. “We are a very diverse society that has not been reflected in most mainstream culture, so what we’re trying to do is bring back authenticity to that. In a lot of our communities, people of color are the majority, but that’s not reflected in mainstream culture….To me it’s a no brainer. We make it as inclusive as possible and as engaging as possible, and make sure every single character has agency.”

Kim, who has worked in the publishing world for nearly three decades, previously as Senior Editorial Agent at Serendipity Literary, the largest agency in the U.S. specializing in writers of color, and Associate Publisher at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, knows well that a children’s book that simply recites historical facts will not succeed.

“Landfills are filled with children’s books that are informative and have a lot of facts in them that parents and teachers and librarians would like kids to learn and read, but kids just don’t connect with because the story’s not there. And I think that’s the difference with our story, is that there’s a real story for kids to follow and there are characters with whom they can identify, and there’s a real narrative arc,” Kim said.

Fighting to Belong! will be written in three volumes, with the first book starting with the first Asian American immigrants, the Filipino “Manilamen,” who immigrated to Louisiana in 1763. Chu is of course already working on volume 2, and shared that the anxiety and stress that comes with such an undertaking.

“It is a lot of pressure, because it’s not just making up superhero stuff. That has its own pressure, believe me. I’m an Asian female in the business. There are some now, but I started over 10 years ago. Women in the business is still something noteworthy. There’s always been pressure, actually. Every time I write something, there’s pressure because you do a bad job and they’re like, ‘Women can’t write,'” Chu said. “There’s still pressure because, working on volume 2 is harder than volume 1. So I have the ‘rep sweats!’ It is very difficult. Ultimately, it’s, can we do it in such a way, not just being truthful, but actually something a kid is going to want to read? That’s really hard. I feel that and it is very stressful. Because if we do it and we do it well, it’s groundbreaking.”

Fighting to Belong! volume 1 is out now, with volume 2 expected in September 2024, and volume 3 in January 2025. Chu promises a satisfying and engaging story throughout, “and none of the kids will die!” Chu assured.

POC Culture Interview with the Team Behind Fighting to Belong!

About Fighting to Belong!:

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history is American history. The unique experiences, challenges, and contributions of AANHPIs are an integral part of our country’s development, but they are rarely taught in American schools.

For many Americans of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander descent who grew up in the United States, there continues to be a startling lack of opportunity to learn about our own history in our country. Even today, over 70% of Americans have little knowledge about AANHPI history or confuse it with Asian history. Fighting to Belong! Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders from the 1700s Through the 1800s, written by best-selling writer Amy Chu (Wonder Woman, Deadpool, Ant-Man, Iron Man) and Alexander Chang and illustrated by Louie Chin (Bodega Cat), shares this important and dynamic part of the American experience in an accessible and engaging graphic novel format.

In this book, the first volume of a three-book series, our middle school protagonists Padmini, Sammy, Joe, and Tiana and their guide, Kenji, embark on an amazing journey through time to witness key events in AANHPI history. They witness the arrival of the “Manilamen” to the United States in the eighteenth century and fly through significant moments in the next 150 years. Fighting to Belong! helps new audiences young and old, AANHPI and non-AANHPI, understand how these stories are truly interwoven within the fabric of America.

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Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture.  He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.

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