“I Simply Wanted To Experience It”: Discussing ‘The American Dream?’ With Shing Yin Khor
by Hannah Means Shannon
This month, Zest Books will be publishing a refreshingly honest travel diary that takes in the broad sweep of distances between LA and Chicago in Shing Yin Khor’s graphic novel, The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.
And the varied experiences that Shing relates in this graphic novel are both touching and surprising, discovering a version of America that bears some points of similarity to stereotypes and many features that may challenge your perceptions. The old, classic Route 66 is also a throughway that’s disappearing, breaking down, and in need of attention and restoration, so in many ways Shing is documenting an endangered experience that may not be around for long if Route 66 continues to decline.
Shing Yin Khor joins us today to talk about their new book and their very personal experience as an artist following the trail of The American Dream.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What do you think about being an artist & the development of a personal art style? Is the art style in this book a specific choice or just as close to a personal, authentic voice as possible for such a personal work?
Shing Yin Khor: The art style is really just the art style I work in the most. It’s even evolved since I finished this book. But even though I sometimes work digitally, this book is entirely traditionally drawn with ink and painted in water colours because I did want it to retain the feel of a travel journal, even though I didn’t draw all of it while on the trip!
HMS: What, for you, makes a roadtrip such an ultimate form of storytelling? I mean it’s so, so fascinating to people and we have such ancient versions of it.
SYK: All stories are journeys, and road trips are very literal embodiments of it.
HMS: This is a really interesting story to me because I was born in America, and I have my own view of American nostalgia for the past, but seeing how nostalgia works for people who have more newly arrived in the USA always surprises me. Did the nostalgia element—all those out of the way locations and spectacles–meet your expectations? Did you meet an America you recognized?
SYK: I’ve driven Los Angeles to Albuquerque many times, enough to spell Albuquerque on the first try. I’ve always loved the Southwest, although before the drive in this book, I’d never faithfully followed Historic Route 66 before. The freeway route still has a lot of charming kitsch and tourist traps, and I love those, but Historic Route 66 includes more of that bygone sadness as well, of once thriving towns now detoured past, and some even completely abandoned. I didn’t have expectations on this trip, I simply wanted to experience it.
I’d never driven through the Midwest before. And I think I was a bit surprised to actually find myself recognizing the America I knew a lot, which isn’t an America free of xenophobia or closemindedness at all, but also the America that I knew to be hopeful and kind and steadfast. I think a lot of the liberal discourse in America tends to ignore a lot of rural areas and write them off as being majority white and xenophobic. And I fundamentally knew that that wasn’t true, but seeing it gave me a lot of hope. Immigrants have made their homes in many places. Queer people have made their homes everywhere. Black and brown people have made their homes everywhere. The America I love is the one filled with people fighting to make their homes better and more inclusive and to support marginalized voices in their communities.
HMS: Taking your dog Bug with you must have been a huge comfort, and it’s rarely presented as a complication. I find traveling with a dog can be tricky, but mainly due to accommodation. Were there any snafus about traveling with a dog, or was it totally smooth sailing?
SYK: Motel 6 would not generally be my first choice when traveling, but it is a hotel chain that allows dogs of any size to stay for free, so I definitely spent quite a few nights there!
There were lots of places that don’t allow dogs (Bug is not a service dog), so I wasn’t able to go to many museums and attractions that I wanted to. It wasn’t an incredibly planned trip, other than knowing that I was sticking with the historical Route 66, but having a dog made camping a frequent choice, and it meant we visited more abandoned sites and outdoor attractions than I usually would have if I was traveling dog-less. At the same time, one of my greatest joys is having my warm scruffy dog curled up with me in a sleeping bag under the stars, so I think it’s worth it.
HMS: This stuff about the revitalization efforts of Route 66 is really cool and it would be great to raise more awareness of this. Did you encounter any more info in later research about what’s going on in that sphere?
SYK: All the states on Route 66 have their own associations, which is a great place to find out more. It evolves all the time, and Route 66 is really a desirable tagline to have associated with a place. For instance, in the book, I wrote about the actual start/end of Route 66 in CA being a dentist office – it is now a Mel’s Diner, which is a far more interesting and notable marker, and a much enjoyable place to stop at.
HMS: There are things you encountered and tell in this memoir that are just too strange to make up, like the donkeys wandering in town, but what was the most surreal moment on the trip for you?
SYK: I think it was really just my first night out. I’d pulled into a BLM campground in Barstow, and there was barely anyone there. The night sky was utterly brilliant and visible, there was just a tiny bit left of sunset, and Bug and I clambered up to the top of this rocky ridge, and all I saw was rocks and sky and stars, and I felt so incredibly free and powerful.
HMS: Let’s dig into this debate about the terminology of “tourist” vs. “traveler”. What do you think works and what do you think doesn’t about those terms? How do they limit people and allow our prejudices to creep in?
SYK: 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 who? Budget travel for who? 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 towards 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. I think the word “tourist” at least carries that unvarnished honesty.
HMS: I notice that your biographical info uses the pronoun “they/them”. Are you a non-binary creator? Does that affect your experience of being an artist in LA or do you feel that impacted your journey in any way?
SYK: I’m figuring it out. But yes, I currently use gender-neutral pronouns, and yes, it has an impact in ways I am not sure how to talk about yet.
Thanks very much to Shing Yin Khor for taking part in this interview! You can learn more about their work below:
Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist. Their work has been published in The Toast, The Nib, Upworthy, Huffington Post, and Bitch Magazine. They make the road trip adventure comic Tiny Adventure Journal, and the tender queer science fiction comic Center for Otherworld Science. They are also the author of The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito published by Zest Books. They live in Los Angeles.