Laura Gao on Messy Roots book ban and anti-LGBTQ sentiment

Laura Gao on Messy Roots book ban and anti-LGBTQ sentiment

by Suswati Basu
Exclusive interview with Messy Roots author Laura Gao on recent book ban

In a time where diverse voices are finding their place in the literary world, the occurrence of book bans remains a jarring reminder that there is a rising backlash against diverse communities. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Laura Gao, the author of the debut graphic memoir “Messy Roots.” Gao’s work, a heartfelt exploration of her personal journey as an Asian American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, has unfortunately found itself at the centre of a controversial book ban in a Virginia library.

Why is Messy Roots facing a book ban?

Gao revealed that she had learned about the ban at Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, Virginia, from individuals involved in the counter effort against it. She expressed her dismay at seeing her work challenged in such a way, particularly considering the global and US societal climate. Gao noted that while she anticipated challenges eventually, it was “disheartening” to see the opposition emerge so early in her literary career. She was concerned to hear about the requests that people had filled out, as “​they ​weren’t ​even ​legitimate ​arguments, ​most ​of ​the ​people ​who ​filled ​the ​form ​out ​just ​said ​that ​they ​hadn’t ​even ​read ​the ​book.”

“Given ​the ​state ​of ​the ​world ​today, ​and ​especially ​within ​the ​US, ​I ​kind ​of ​figured ​it ​would ​come ​sooner ​or ​later. ​But ​it ​was ​just ​really ​disheartening ​to ​hear ​about ​this.”

Laura Gao, Messy Roots Author

Addressing the underlying reasons for the ban, Gao highlighted the fact that much of the opposition was rooted in discomfort with LGBTQ+ content. Many individuals challenging the book openly acknowledged their objections to queer content, often making claims that the memoir was “indoctrinating children”. Gao discussed how this effort was being driven by groups such as “Moms for Liberty” and local churches, reflecting a broader societal issue tied to anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

What is the book Messy Roots about?

"Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American" stands as a captivating graphic novel and memoir crafted by Laura Gao, who both authored and illustrated the work. Weiwei Xu contributed to the colouring of this piece. HarperCollins introduced this creation to the world on March 8, 2022.

Within the pages of this book, Gao's poignant narrative unfurls, recounting her early years in Wuhan, China, and her subsequent journey to the United States at the tender age of 10. The challenges she faced in acclimatising to life in Texas come to the forefront – a life marred by bullying due to her Chinese heritage and her sexual orientation. Juxtaposed against these tribulations is the weight of her parents' aspirations, longing for her to pursue a medical career.

Gao learns to embrace her dual identity as a Chinese American and a queer woman. Amidst the struggles, she discovers her authentic voice as both an artist and writer. "Messy Roots" unfurls as a profound and emotional narrative that touches on themes of family, identity, and the pursuit of self-awareness.

Defying censorship

Gao firmly stated her belief that censorship is not the solution. She emphasised the importance of open discourse and the danger of erasing uncomfortable aspects of history. Drawing parallels to other instances of attempted censorship, Gao underscored the need to engage with difficult subjects and learn from them. She was concerned to hear schools were willing to erase “ugly” parts of history like ​Nazi Germany ​or ​racism ​in order to avoid learning about it, adding that “​by ​not ​addressing ​it, ​learning ​about ​it, ​you’re ​not ​accepting ​the ​blame ​that ​has ​been ​taken ​from ​it, ​like ​the ​learnings ​that ​you ​can ​get ​from ​it.”

“Even ​things ​in ​history ​that ​are ​ugly, ​like ​Nazis ​or ​racism ​and ​really ​awful ​things ​that ​have ​happened. ​​I’ve ​heard ​of ​schools ​are ​like ​what ​if ​we ​just ​sort ​of ​erase ​that ​so ​that ​people ​don’t ​have ​to ​learn ​about ​it? ​Or ​it ​is ​a ​very ​ugly ​part ​of ​history, ​but ​by ​not ​addressing ​it, ​learning ​about ​it, ​you’re ​not ​accepting ​the ​blame ​that ​has ​been ​taken ​from ​it, ​like ​the ​learnings ​that ​you ​can ​get ​from ​it.”

Laura Gao, Messy Roots Author

From writing to controversy

Gao shared her motivations behind writing “Messy Roots.” She described how the book emerged as a response to anti-Asian racism during the pandemic and her desire to represent her hometown, Wuhan. She also discussed the significance of the queer content in her memoir, as it was impossible to separate such a vital aspect of her identity from her life story. Gao expressed hope that her work would inspire Asian Americans and others to speak out against injustice and promote acceptance.

Read: Heartstopper novels restricted to adults in Mississippi library amid new law

Discussing the current political and social climate in the US, Gao expressed concerns about the increase in radicalised groups, particularly following the previous administration. She cited examples of laws targeting queer and trans individuals and highlighted the potential dangers of laws requiring publishers to label books based on content. Gao encouraged individuals to engage with local governments and participate in school boards to address the issue of book bans.

“​I ​do ​hope ​it ​continues ​to ​inspire ​other ​Asian ​Americans ​out ​there ​and ​also ​non-Asian ​Americans ​to ​really ​speak ​out ​about ​these ​atrocities.”

Laura Gao, Messy Roots Author

When asked about responding to critics, Gao mentioned her desire to engage in civil discussions to understand their objections better. She suggested encouraging critics to specifically point out the content they find offensive and discussing the reasons behind their objections. Gao also outlined indirect methods of addressing book challenges, including reporting challenges to organisations like the American Library Association and raising awareness on social media.

Freedom of storytelling

Finally, Gao offered advice to other authors facing bans or censorship. She encouraged authors to create more content that supports marginalised communities and challenges the opposition. By producing content that spreads love and awareness, authors can counteract attempts to silence their voices.

Gao expressed her reservations about the rise of AI-written books, highlighting concerns about bias and the potential erosion of the craft of writing. She stressed the importance of maintaining the uniqueness of human-authored content, while acknowledging that AI tools could be useful in brainstorming and refining ideas.

Read: Book bans and literary censorship: how US is following in footsteps of Russia

The writer left us with the hope that the current challenges will ultimately inspire positive change. Her resilience in the face of adversity and commitment to amplifying marginalised voices serve as a reminder that literature has the power to transcend barriers and foster understanding.

Consequently, Gao’s experience sheds light on the ongoing struggle against censorship. While challenges persist, her unwavering dedication to her craft and her willingness to engage in meaningful discussions offer a beacon of hope for authors and readers alike. As society continues to evolve, Gao’s story serves as a testament to the enduring importance of freedom of expression and the power of storytelling.

Want to watch special bonus material from this interview with Laura Gao? Join the How To Be Books membership for only £4 per month!

Resources to check out to fight against Messy Roots book ban:

Like Gao, Girl in Translation author Jean Kwok was also subject to a book challenge in Pennsylvania. I had the honour of also exclusively interviewing the writer as well, who is due to release her new book The Leftover Woman.

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