by Ashley Kuehl, Executive Editor of Trade YA Nonfiction
Shing Yin Khor is the author and illustrator of the new graphic memoir The American Dream: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.
Which came first, the plan for the road trip or the idea to make a road-trip book? And what surprised you most during the course of this project?
I had been researching the trip, but when my editor Daniel asked if I had any book pitches for him, I pitched a memoir about the trip and committed to driving it. I had no idea whether the trip would even be worth writing about when I sold the book, but I had faith that the road would have its own stories to tell.
What surprised me the most is that I fundamentally understood that immigrants were everywhere in America, but it was really heartening to see very clear roots planted in places that I assumed would just be majority white. My normal diet is heavily Asian (and I have some dietary restrictions that do not mesh with many typical foods considered American) and I was afraid I’d end up being miserable because of not being able to eat what I wanted–but I actually was able to stop by some sort of Asian market in every town. Amarillo, Texas, delivered some of the best Burmese food I’ve ever had.
I was appalled at the lack of education I had received about the history of Native Americans in the country, in my two years of American high school and in college, which is something that I am embarrassed it took me driving through multiple reservations to learn more about. It’s something I’m remedying with more reading now!
I was also surprised at how well my dog took to the road! We only adopted her in December, four months before I took her on this trip, and while we had definitely already bonded, I was unsure how she would take to almost 6 weeks total of living out of a car and various motels. Instead, she absolutely relished being able to sniff out a new campsite most nights, she loved traipsing around the wilderness, and she loved snoozing in my car blanket piles. Now every time my car door is open, she jumps right in and settles into the passenger seat and whimpers expectantly at me until I buckle her seatbelt.
You met a lot of people on your journey. What kinds of commonalities and differences did you find among them?
I find it hard to talk about this now because it has been more than 3 years since I finished this trip, and the political climate has shifted significantly for a person like me, which deeply shifts the logistics of traveling alone and talking to strangers. I couldn’t get it in the book, but there is a long history of racism along Route 66 (the history of the Green Book is worth looking up) against black people, racism against American Indians that is not unlike the unrelenting and brutal racism played out throughout all of American history, and I did manage to get a tiny bit of conversation about the racism against South Asians in the book. As a lighter-skinned Malaysian-American, I was generally treated politely, if not particularly welcomed, in smaller towns–but my appearance would obviously mark me as someone who was just passing through and spending money in town, and large parts of Route 66 do largely survive on tourism. Even as the epilogue of my book presents a brave face and the declaration that I’m going to keep on visiting new places, friends driving through more recently have informed me that there are now Confederate flags in towns that I drove through and wrote about in my book (the one I can confirm myself is Oatman, Arizona). I would not drive through a town that blatantly displayed Confederate flags now, and I certainly wouldn’t write about it.
That said, there were a couple of consistencies that I think still hold true. One is that capitalism is the language of America, and a lot gets overlooked as long as you are spending money. The other is that immigrants have made their homes in many places. Queer people have made their homes everywhere. Black and brown people have made their homes everywhere. And it is harmful for us to ever paint entire swaths of the country with a hateful and dismissive brush because there are almost always people there fighting to make their homes better and more inclusive and to support marginalized voices in their communities, and they are doing work that most of us in the weekend brunch and protest crowd don’t quite have the nerve to do.
In the book you mention the false distinction between tourists and travelers. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
There is a tendency in a lot of contemporary travel writing that places a lot of value on discovery and self-sufficiency, which is often parsed through a white gaze. Discovered by whom? Budget travel for whom? Often, it is the work of black and brown bodies (food, clothing, labor) that are treated as exotic commodities, as a product to be discovered by predominantly white “travelers” who gain reputation and bragging rights for “finding” undisturbed landscapes, and eating “new” foods.
Meanwhile, scorn is often directed towards tourists–the cruise ship masses, the Chinese tour buses, the people who do not stray off the beaten path. Here’s the thing–local economies have generally adapted to mass tourism and know how to deal with it. I think it is worth being honest about what anyone does when they insert themselves into a new culture, especially when the power differential is to the outsider’s advantage, which can happen for many reasons, such as societal norms that demand politeness toward visitors or long histories of colonial subjugation. The fundamental difference between mass tourism and the idea of “traveling” that much contemporary discourse about travel is about is that the idea of “traveling” is meant to appease western emotional guilt over disrupting local cultures that visitors hold a degree of privilege over.
That sort of honesty feels like it should be important when driving Route 66. Tourism is what keeps a lot of these smaller towns alive. None of Route 66 is undiscovered land; it is literally the most famous road in America.
What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
I really love late 19th and early 20th century American history, and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series were major touchstones growing up. Aside from that, I really liked stories with spunky and personable heroines doing their own thing, whether it was creating stories or building survival shelters–Anne of Green Gables and Island of the Blue Dolphins were two constant favorites. As a cartoonist and illustrator, I deeply connected with illustrated epistolary books–Gnomes, Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book and Griffin and Sabine.
As an adult, I read a lot more nonfiction, and recently I’ve been really into nonfiction books…about institutions? I loved Susan Orleans’ Library Book, Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder, and Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No. 1.
What other projects are you working on these days?
I’m working on another graphic novel that will hopefully be out in 2020, and this one is historical fiction! It’s about Chinese labor in the American logging industry in the late 1800s, set in the tense era immediately after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but also about a 12-year-old camp cook who tells campfire stories about Paul Bunyan, reinvented as an elderly Chinese matron named Auntie Po (and her large blue water buffalo, Pei Pei).
I’m also not quite done with Route 66 stories and am drafting a fiction project that takes place along all of it. It’s going to be about a family dealing with grief while embarking on what they think is the Great American Road Trip. I don’t know what format it’s going to take yet, but it has been really wonderful digging back into Route 66 research and reminiscing about my own trip!