Rosena Fung on juggling heartbreak and joy

Rosena Fung on juggling heartbreak and joy

Books


Rosena Fung’s latest graphic novel, Age 16, explores the complicated relationships between three generations, jumping in time between the experiences of three 16-year-old girls: Roz in Toronto in 2000; her mother, Lydia, in Hong Kong in 1972; and Roz’s grandmother, Mei Laan, in Guangdong in 1954.

How did you come up with the narrative structure of Age 16? What inspired you to pick 16 as the specific age that connects your three main characters?

I knew I wanted to explore the lives of a girl, her mother and her grandmother, and how they intersect and are interwoven with each other. From the beginning I knew that I wanted multiple timelines to show how their lives and choices affect each other. Sixteen is such an intense time for many people, and in particular it was a time of major upheaval and change for my mom and my por por. It was a good way to parallel these lives together to show its many contrasts but also how the characters are so similar to each other. I owe a lot to my editor, who helped me sculpt this story into its final form.

Read our starred review of Age 16 here. 

In your author’s note, you describe how the book is based on your own family history. What was the experience like of writing characters based on real family members, with all their messy vulnerabilities and tender humanity?

Writing characters based on real stories and real lives can be so hard. I try to be accountable to the people I’m writing about, to make sure I’m being honest about my emotions but also to honor their own stories and where they’re coming from. Trying to inhabit their lives is part of the writing process, and also imagining how it will be received by them. It is often a precarious act of juggling these factors, while staying true to upholding the story I’m telling. Writing this book was definitely an emotional one as I confronted my own feelings and memories about my mom and grandmother!

This book brims with life—piles of glittery accessories in 2000s Toronto; fruit stalls crowded together in 1970s Hong Kong; fields full of laborers in 1950s Guangdong. How did you go about capturing a unique sense of place in each section? What kind of historical research did you have to do?

It was a combination of going through a LOT of photo albums, plumbing through the memories of both my mom and my own teenage self, and research about historical movements and context as well as many photo archives. I wanted to make sure each place was a character in its own right, because the spaces we live in inform our sense of self and growth. Throughout my life, I have visited both Hong Kong and Guangdong multiple times, and I hold on to those memories dearly. Sometimes a wayward scent or cacophonous noise in Toronto will bring me back to those places in an instant and suddenly I can see all the colors, the landscape, the food. I wanted this kind of vibrancy present in the book.

The contrast between each era is striking: China in the brutal aftermath of war is very different from Y2K Toronto. How do you balance grappling with the harmful behaviors of older generations, while considering the difficult—even unfathomable—circumstances from which those behaviors are born?

I think everyone has depths that even they can’t always see, including how past experiences and trauma influence their present-day choices and behaviors. It took a long time for me to understand this, how a person can hold so much but we only ever see the most surface layer. With this, I try to consider why someone would act in ways I don’t understand—not to justify or absolve harm, but to understand why, and from that place try to move forward together. I never got along with my por por, but through the process of researching and writing this book, I gained more clarity and admiration for her as a person.

When Roz, Lydia and Mei Laan get hurt, they often end up hurting others. How do you think one breaks this cycle of lashing out? What does forgiveness mean to you? 

This is a really hard question! I think this is something many struggle with, and I don’t have a clear answer. In the book, I try to show that each character gains a deeper understanding of each other and how the way they grew up, or the ways others have treated them, affect how they in turn treat others. Trying to know someone deeply is a start, and then isolating their harmful actions as a reflection of that trauma rather than internalizing it as deeply personal is a way to distance that harm. But that of course sounds easier said than done, and can be a lifelong process. Forgiveness to me means letting go. I don’t mean absolution or the absence of accountability for harm and its aftermath. But I mean getting to a place within yourself so that those words, behaviors or actions lose their barbs. I think forgiveness can’t happen if the other party can’t meet you halfway. But sometimes (often), life gives us no closure and we have to choose to move on—with or without the one who hurt you.

I try to be accountable to the people I’m writing about, to make sure I’m being honest about my emotions but also to honor their own stories and where they’re coming from.

In a world that is unkind to women’s bodies, food haunts these characters. But food also provides comfort and connection, especially in the context of Chinese diaspora culture. What thoughts went into your nuanced portrayal of food and how we treat our bodies?

First of all, I love food and any chance I can draw it or include it in stories, I 100% will. Food, consumption and bodies are such fraught battlegrounds where history, politics and misogyny play out. Women in particular are taught to deny ourselves food, pleasure and desire. Through this book, I wanted to make explicit the ways in which social expectations of how female bodies should exist are highly problematic and dangerous, and how we internalize these ideas as a given. But it was also important for me to highlight how women and girls are often forced to make certain choices to survive, depending on the context they grew up in. And some of these lessons (needing a husband to survive, needing a desirable body, fatphobia) get passed down to daughters. Many people have such painful and toxic relationships with food (girded by a capitalist industrial complex that benefits from our self-hatreds), and problematic conceptions of “good” or “bad” food, that I personally am trying to untangle and unlearn.

“The world can be made to fit you” is a gorgeous adage repeated throughout this graphic novel. What else would you tell your 16-year-old self, if given the chance?

“Keep all your Sailor Moon cards and lip glosses and magazines because one day you will be nostalgic for all of it and you will have to pay a lot of money to buy these things back again.”

Roz fantasizes about prom, but has to make a hard choice when she’s also invited to anti-prom. What would your ideal anti-prom night be like?

I am a homebody, so cozy in bed reading a book with a cozy cat and snacks next to me sounds like true bliss. BUT I would also love a party with a lot of glitter and sequins, all my friends, a drag and/or burlesque show, and a buffet. And Taylor Swift. The after party would be either at a Chinese restaurant or a diner. Or both, one after the other.

Can you speak more on the presence of cats (dear Millie!) throughout this book? 

I LOVE cats. SO MUCH. Millie is an amalgamation of my cat Foomy that my mom and I had when I was 16, and my current cat Coco (aka Bean). She is a mix of Foomy’s sass and habits with Bean’s sweet gray, beautifully rotund body. I wanted to use cats as a motif throughout each timeline to affirm repetition in the characters’ lives, but also as an excuse to draw them. My cat (and my partner) have been a source of support and an anchor while I wrote this book. They are my North Stars!



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