Each week, the My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. We’re thrilled to introduce graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu this week.
Graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu has always been interested in storytelling. When she goes to sleep at night, daydreams on the bus, or any of those quiet moments she is thinking of stories. Growing up, Ukazu wanted to write for sitcoms because she watched a lot of sitcoms like Frasier, 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, just to name a few. She was also influenced heavily by British humorist P.G. Wodehouse and the television series Jeeves and Wooster based on his stories. “It was exactly the type of storytelling that I admire, just little vignettes that were utterly like sitcom episodes. And I was just so inspired by someone’s ability to do that, to make me laugh with the written word.”
With those writing influences in mind, comics were a logical outlet for Ukazu. “Making comics is kind of my way of making small little sitcoms, and telling those stories and bringing characters together who you might not expect to function well but they have a found family.” In her popular two-volume series Check, Please!—the most funded webcomics Kickstarter ever—Ukazu has done just that in telling the coming-of-age story of Eric Bittle, a former junior figure skating champion who as a freshman joins the Samwell University hockey team. Grappling with learning a new sport, his love for baking, his crush on the team captain and more, Eric ultimately forms that unlikely “found family” with his teammates.
Ukazu’s parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the late 80s, eventually settling in Houston, Texas where Ukazu was born. She grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and went to school with many first generation East Asians, so Ukazu has long recognized and embraced the mixing of cultures. “Miss Egan, my tenth grade world history teacher, said we’re not a mixing pot, we’re like a salad bowl. We’re a bunch of different chunks all mixed together. And I just think that’s really brilliant.”
We interviewed Ukazu for our special exhibit, which you can now explore virtually at My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. Read some select quotes and watch a clip of Ukazu’s interview below. We also hosted Ukazu for a virtual program on April 14, 2020. You can listen to a condensed version of that on the AWM Author Talks podcast, or watch it in its entirety on YouTube.
Selected Quotes from My America
“The language that I predominantly interact with the most in my stories is probably the visual language of sequential art and storytelling. Which are probably two separate things. But I feel like being able to make connections, kind of think laterally, has been really important. And I think some of that training from learning Spanish and German has definitely contributed to how I can use visual metaphors for storytelling, even how I interact with color and space.”
On Double Consciousness
“It can be something as simple as being the only black kid in my AP Spanish class, or one of two black girls who graduated with an International Baccalaureate diploma in high school. It’s that realization that you are different. You ask yourself, why aren’t there others here with me? Is this wrong? Is it right? And you are forced to process yourself in the lens of others very early. There’s pros and cons to that because self-awareness can sometimes be internalized as an otherness that’s wrong, but it also gives you a sense of maturity, even gives you a sense of empathy, because you are literally forced to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
On What It Means to Announce Yourself
“I think it all has to do with how one relates to identity. It’s not a begrudging acceptance. It’s not a tolerance for one’s self. It’s taking where you’re from, who you are, what you do and saying this is what makes me a human. It’s not just it’s not a passive interpretation of the self, it’s an active analysis and extending that analysis to others.”
On Embracing Differences
“It’s so uncool to be patriotic right now with my generation. But I do love America. And I love it just as much as the people who would say that others don’t belong here…the people who maybe disagree with how I approach life, or where I live, or who I choose to love. I love that difference, the wealth of perspective that we have from people who have come to this country, who’ve grown up in this country, who have changed and defined this country. To be an American is to embrace that difference and to celebrate it, and to investigate it, and to encourage it. Like, when I say, “USA!” I’m saying it for every single person. The black, brown, white kid, every queer person, every person who’s immigrated here, who’s become a citizen here, every person who’s left. That’s great that we have all that in one place.”
On the Power of Graphic Novels
“Graphic novels are becoming much more legitimate as libraries and teachers and institutions are realizing this is how you create readers. You give them books. It doesn’t matter what’s in them, but as long as students are experiencing some form of literacy—narrative literacy, visual literacy—it easily translates into just reading prose. If anything, it can be even more complex than reading prose when you’re taking in all sorts of information.”
Selected Works by Ngozi Ukazu
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MY AMERICA: IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE WRITERS TODAY