Messy Roots

Cover image for Messy Roots by Laura Gao (Gao Yuyang)

by Laura Gao

ISBN 9780063067776

“People always said the skies in Texas were unparalleled. An endless canvas splattered with blues, purples, and oranges, towering mightily over miles of suburbia. But I found them suffocating. Here, I could run as far as I could and still not escape. Scream as loud as I could and still not be heard.”

Laura Gao was born in Wuhan but grew up in Texas. Although she attended weekend Chinese school and her parents had a Chinese church community, at school she was surrounded by white kids and faced with the daunting prospect of fitting in. As she quits mathletes in favour of basketball and then basketball in favour of art, she tries to figure out her place in a world where she doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere.

Gao, who uses shey/they pronouns, began writing about their experience in response to the rise of sinophobia in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a short comic called The Wuhan I Know that later became the basis of this memoir. The outbreak was still being referred to as “Wuhan virus” and Gao was frustrated by this one-dimensional image of her home and its people. Gao blends Wuhan’s food, culture, and history with the story of her own family. Cousins and grandparents remain behind in Wuhan, while Laura’s parents strike out for America.

The tripartite cover of Messy Roots shows Wuhan, San Francisco, and Texas, the three places that have formed Gao’s identity. The story opens in January 2020, when every mention of Gao’s hometown is related to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising anti-Asian sentiment. This is an abrupt change for Gao, who is used to none of her (mostly white) American friends ever having heard of Wuhan. However, the story quickly turns to her family’s immigration to Texas when she was four, and her struggle to fit in as she learns English and chooses the English name Laura for herself—after the first lady because what could be more American?

When her family finally obtains green cards and can travel back to Wuhan for the first time when she is about ten, Gao is faced with the fact that she both does and does not fit in in the place she has been thinking of as home. Her cousins are surprised that she still speaks Wuhan dialect, but there are glaring gaps in her vocabulary as her cousins have grown up without her. Gao discovers that Wuhan is both home, and not home, leaving her a bit adrift. For her younger brother Jerry, who was born in Texas, it is a whole new world entirely.

Back in the United States, Gao enters her teenage years, bringing with it confusing feelings about boys, and the daunting prospect that she might prefer girls, just one more way she would not fit in in Texas. Many of her choices are defined by her fear of “fobby” Asians, which she is not forced to confront until she escapes to college in San Francisco. Suddenly her desire to fit in at all costs brands her a “twinkie” among her now numerous Asian peers from a variety of backgrounds. As she takes steps towards reconciling her identity, her last visit to Wuhan comes in the fall of 2019, blissfully unaware of the disaster lurking on the horizon.

Messy Roots is a timely coming-of-age graphic memoir of a queer Chinese American caught between the various aspects of their identity in the crucible of a pandemic.

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