Three years ago, Shing Yin Khor, cartoonist, sculptor and installation artist, and contributor to The Nib and The Toast, undertook a journey from California to Illinois along Route 66, the historic highway and symbol of American westward wanderlust (and colonizer fantasies).
Their first graphic novel documenting that trip, out now from the Zest imprint of Lerner Books, is entitled, “The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.” In it, they pack up a car of traveling necessaries and their companion dog, Bug, and they unpack the often friendly, sometimes funny, very fraught, and quite fascinating interactions between a Malaysian-born, West Coast, non-binary artist of color and the communities, locales, and histories along Route 66.
We talked with Shing Yin Khor about “The American Dream?” out August 6, 2019 from Zest Books.
What an honor to talk to you, Shing! So excited for the release of “The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66.” It’s a book at least three years in the making, right? How does it feel to see it coming to fruition?
Shing Yin Khor: Well, traditional publishing moves slowly, so the book was largely “done” two years ago, and I turned my final files in before the current administration took office. I am so grateful to my editor, Daniel Harmon, for reaching out to me and asking me to pitch this book, Liz Frances for all her design work, and Hallie Warshaw and Libby Stille and Ashley Kuehl for helping me usher this book into the world.
That said, it is a more meandering and hopeful book than I think I’d write today, so there is a very time-capsule feel to it for me. It captures very honestly this person and writer and artist that I was three years ago, and now I have this rage constantly underneath my skin all the time. In a sense, it is a book about nostalgia, and I am already nostalgic for the time period it happened in.
But, I am so excited to finally see it in print! I was very emotional when I got to finally hold my copies. At its core, it is such a joyful story about exploring across America with my dog, and I loved writing it, and I am so happy that the world is going to get to read it!
“The American Dream?” opens with a premise I can definitely relate to, the two notions of America that you held when you were a child in Malaysia. One is the America of Hollywood and Los Angeles, where you live. The other is the America of Route 66, running from Chicago through the Southwest to California, the America of the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. What compelled you to take the journey along Route 66 that you chronicle in “The American Dream?”
SYK: I’ve wanted to for years! I think I’ve always been interested in the elements of the American mythos, and especially the American West. I’ve got an accompanying obsession with the Paul Bunyan mythos and I am currently really into learning about the Pony Express. Route 66 seems like one of those central elements of the American myth, except instead of just its fascinating history, it also exists very much in the present.
Do you think it’s accurate to characterize “The American Dream?” as a graphic travelogue? I’m reminded of Lucy Knisley, Guy Delisle, or Sarah Glidden’s travel memoirs. But in this case, you’re an American observing America, though you identify yourself and your perspective as a long-time Angeleno, as perhaps a transnational woman of color, as an artist, as you undertake this journey.
SYK: Yeah, it can definitely be called that. I think that it is valuable to travel more in our own countries – for instance, I think far more of my friends have been to Bali than to Amarillo, TX or even Albuquerque, NM.
I recognize my privilege and my bubble, as someone who has always lived in cities. I naturally feel more comfortable in cities, regardless of what language is being spoken, than I do in wide open spaces where I am forced to slow down. I wanted to both experience the wide open spaces of America, and interrogate why those spaces often feel more alien to me than any city, anywhere.Continued below
Your loyal companion through the journey is your “tiny adventure dog,” charmingly named Bug. Besides being hugely lovable, Bug’s also a really perfect complementary character for your story’s narrative, its visual composition, its mood and dialogue. Is there a little of the Steinbeck influence there? Are you with Steinbeck’s sentiment that dogs must think humans are nuts?
SYK: Oh, I love Steinbeck, and I was such a huge Steinbeck fan as a teenager. There is probably a pretty strong vein of influence running through everything I write. I will admit though, that I’ve never actually read Travels With Charley, because as a teen, I always kinda preferred his books where there was a non-zero chance that someone was going to die or get mutilated by factory equipment.
Bug is very tolerant of me, but our personalities also feel very much in sync. I know this is a silly dog owner thing – but I feel like we’re both small and have a lot to prove, and we like throwing ourselves into rivers and up large boulders, and napping, and we hate rain. She is far more amenable to pooping in open-air spaces, though. That said, I consciously avoided the somewhat twee choice to give her own voice, with words, in the book. I did that because she is a dog and dogs don’t speak English.
Indeed they don’t!
Turning to your artwork, I think it’s really elegant but also radiates this sense of fun. Colorful motel signs, inaccurate dinosaur statues, Muffler Men, panoramas of Herriman-esque wonder. What did you most enjoy portraying on the page? Was anything a pain to draw?
SYK: I hate drawing cars and landscapes, so I can assure you that there were many times during this process where I wondered why I was drawing a memoir of a road trip across America. I enjoy drawing landscapes a lot more now, but I still don’t like drawing cars. For a road trip book, there are probably only about 20 drawings of cars in the entire book, but that’s okay because everyone knows what a Honda Fit looks like and they are not as fun looking as dinosaur statues.
I loved drawing the wide open spaces the most – the Blue Mesa at Petrified Forest National Park was such a joy to draw. It is also a scene that not a ton of people have gotten to see because there is only backcountry camping in that park for now(I hear campsites are opening up later in the year). I just love sunsets and rock formations and all that. I also love drawing decaying buildings. My sepia toned watercolors got a workout in this book.
I get frustrated drawing Muffler Men because I love them so much, but they are also largely identical and it is weirdly difficult to capture that blank, stoic-but-slightly-smirky expression they all have.
For fans of your art and for process junkies, would you share whether you sketched along your trip (the quirky storefronts, the breathtaking landscapes), if you drew from memory, or if you primarily utilized photographs as later reference? Or all of these?
SYK: I sketched and drew a little bit on the trip, and some of those pages made it into the final book. I took a lot of photographs for later reference, and much of the book is an amalgam of memory and photo reference. In desperation (for instance, I often had to drive and couldn’t photograph certain things, or couldn’t take pictures in low light), I sometimes had to reconstruct scenes using Google Maps! Ultimately, a lot of my drawings are more concerned with capturing the feeling of driving down Route 66, although I tried to be accurate as much as I could.
I didn’t thumbnail the book as I went – I did so for the first 20 pages or so, and then I approached it more as a travel journal, just one that I had a little more time and space to reflect on.
Camping and car-living is tough. What parts of that experience did you feel essential to capture? Were there parts you left out?
SYK: I was really excited to draw the diagram of how everything fit into my Honda Fit (very compactly). I skipped out on portraying the wad of receipts and napkins and ketchup packets and plastic spoons that accumulated in my glove compartment.Continued below
With subtlety and kindness, but also critical scrutiny, you explore the contradictions and hypocrisies of the American narrative. The hospitality of fellow travelers, but the arrogant declamations of “real Americans” against non-white (often Indian American) hotel owners. The claiming and appropriation of Native American sites and cultural artifacts, but the erasure of historical genocide and living Indians. How do you explain to potential readers the question mark in your title? What are some of those questions about the so-called American Dream that your travels raise?
SYK: We spent a really long time trying to figure out what the title would be!
The book doesn’t explain what the American Dream is, and it doesn’t offer an answer to what it is, or what it could be, and maybe that is its own kind of answer. So, the title is a question, because that’s what the entire book is to me.
I think the most central tenet of the American Dream is this sense of searching hopefulness – a desire to make a better life, a desire to make something of yourself. I think this remains true even if the American Dream is not equally attainable for everyone. It is not a promise that everyone will have the same opportunity, especially not for black and brown people. It feels especially difficult these days, and in this administration. But as long as there is a flicker of hope, I think the American Dream still gets to exist.
That’s well said. Your attitude in rendering folks you encounter along Route 66 feels full of mutual appreciation, despite the differences you might have. The various tourists/travelers along the way. The Oatman antique store owner who declares, “my schoolhouse will always have an American flag and a Christian Bible.” Others who you depict with a sense of their hospitality and human kindness. Did you have a certain approach to how you would portray those human subjects?
SYK: I am going to preface this by saying that the early 2016 version of me was a more friendly, curious and congenial person who wanted to find the joy and inner strength in everyone, and the 2019 version of me knows that the majority of white women voted for Donald Trump.
I’m try to be really conscious about how I portray others, especially since I live my life as a brown person, and I’m aware of the caricatures that a lot of media, even well intentioned media, turns people like me into. I think it is especially acute in white travel writing, where the wide eyed traveller can often unintentionally otherize people who are just existing in their own spaces and homes. I don’t think I am immune from this, but I did accept that I was the tourist, and I was the outsider, and I tried to keep to spaces that were either already largely abandoned or obviously intended for tourists.
I love drawing people though. And how people look isn’t an indicator of who they are, it’s just the body they inhabit. I am partial to portraying the human body as something good and kind.
Oatman now flies Confederate flags. If I’d done the drive today, I would not be drawing any Oatman store owner in a positive or negative light because I would not be driving through, and certainly not stopping, in Oatman at all.
I’ll admit to you that for me and my immigrant Asian American relatives in the Midwest and the South, relationships got a little trickier post-2016 election. You know, the political discourse making it feel less true that, as Obama said, there aren’t “two Americas, a Red America and a Blue America.” This trip preceded the election, but have the past 2.5 years’ politics made you think about this project differently?
SYK: Yeah, it has. I actually don’t have any relatives besides my immediate family in the United States. I do feel closer to my parents, who went from “fiscal conservative” to “FUCK TRUMP” much quicker than I had imagined. But my brother is on the less progressive end of this scale and tends to make really conservative-troll statements, even if he may not truly believe in them. I frankly am not in the mood to ever hear “Make America Great Again,” even in a sarcastic tone, so we haven’t created too many excuses to see each other.Continued below
It has definitely affected my relationships with the Asian community. While I have always known it, the past couple years have made exceptionally clear to me how often the Asian community has reveled in its model minority status, to claw up a social ladder made of browner bodies, all in order to be adjacent to white privilege. It is a tenuous privilege, one that is easily revoked for speaking out of line, and it is very obvious to me that the only way forward as Asian progressives is to build strong and protective alliances with other people of color, and especially black women, who statistically speaking, are very unlikely to have voted for Trump, and therefore, are probably right the rest of the time as well.
This might be the wrong question to ask an artist, but are there particular audiences you hope “The American Dream?” reaches and speaks to?
SYK: Honestly, almost all the books I got as a kid featured white protagonists. The vast majority of the travel writing I’ve ever read is by white people. I’ve only recently been reading writing by queer people. I hope this book speaks to adventurous brown kids who never felt that they got to have space in writing like this.
I want this book, even if it portrays a naive, awkwardly optimistic, confused version of me, to simply exist as a travel memoir that a queer, brown, non-binary person wrote. It’s not about queerness and it’s not about gender, but it is about me, and I want my younger self to know that we have so many stories to tell.
Meanwhile, we fans can continue to make connections with the art installations, comics work, and photographic work you share online. Could you give us some hints of what else you’re working on? What your fans can look forward to?
SYK: I’m currently working on my second full length graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po, although this one is a middle grade historical fiction book. It is about a 12 year old Chinese logging camp cook who tells stories about Paul Bunyan, but reinvented as Auntie Po, a giant matriarchal lumberjack with a giant blue water buffalo. It gets into attitudes around the Chinese Exclusion Act, early American labor, and who gets to own the American mythos.
I also have a solo gallery show opening at Stranger Factory (strangerfactory.com) in Albuquerque, NM (it is on Route 66), the first week of September, where I’ll be exhibiting over twenty new watercolor paintings! I’ll also be organizing and hosting an event there on September 7th, in conjunction with my role as one of Kickstarter’s Thought Leaders this year – there’ll be a conversation about queer comics and with Melanie Gilman (their book, which is this gorgeous queer western, is coming out in early September), a creative roundtable about pursuing and sustaining creative careers, and quite a bit more!
Fantastic! Excited about those projects to come, as well as for more readers to see your work in “The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.” Thanks for talking with us about it!