Name: Ruth Chan
Graduating Year: 1998
Years at GSIS: 3 years
Could you introduce yourself a bit (background & profession)?
I was born in Canada and moved to Hong Kong in 1993, where I attended GSIS for three years, after which I moved to Beijing. I went to college and grad school in Boston studying art and education before working in education and community-based nonprofit organizations for a decade. I transitioned to becoming a full-time illustrator in my 30s and currently write and illustrate children’s picture books, graphic novels, and comics.
You are currently working on a graphic novel. Can you tell us more about this book?
I’m so excited about this graphic novel! “Uprooted” is a graphic memoir for kids aged 9-12 and is about my own experience moving from Toronto, Canada to Hong Kong at age 13. It’s a story about how I wanted to feel belonging in a place that was my ancestral home but was also a place that was completely foreign to me. The book highlights how, through the help of my family and friends, and with a little determination and patience, I eventually embraced both my Chinese and Canadian side, and was able to call Hong Kong home.
The book also weaves the story of my father’s birth into “young Ruth’s” story through “Talk-to-Talks” which is a bedtime ritual my father and I had growing up. In the book, my father tells the story of his birth while his family was on the run from Japanese invasion during the Sino-Japanese War in Southern China. This was a story that was told to my cousins and me many times growing up, and the themes that are emphasized in that story parallel with “young Ruth’s” life throughout the book.
What inspired you to start working on a novel?
Originally, I wanted to tell the story of my father’s birth so that our family history could be captured in something concrete. But very quickly, the theme of being uprooted from your home made me reflect on my own experiences. The unique perspective of the “reverse immigration” story isn’t told very often in books and film, and I thought it would be exciting to work on a book that talked about this experience through my own life.
What has been your biggest challenge you’ve encountered?
I think the biggest challenge has been creating a dynamic, funny, heartfelt, engaging story while making sure I stick to the real facts and memories associated with that time. Memoir is tricky because it’s writing from one’s own personal knowledge, memory, and feelings, and so one isn’t able to simply make up things to drive the story forward. Luckily, a lot happened when I was 13, and I kept a journal (which was very, very embarrassing to read 20+ years later). I also asked my friends and family to confirm certain events.
What do you like most about your work?
I love that I get to be creative and tell stories that can move other people. It’s fun to illustrate things you love, but the best part is getting to engage with readers and hearing some of the things they thought or felt while reading my books. Books are such a wonderful way to connect people to each other.
The flexible schedule isn’t bad either!
What is your advice for any alumni looking to start their own novel?
Do the research. How does the publishing industry work? What makes a good book?
Think about your motivation. What story do you want to tell and why? How can your book impact others in a positive way?
Just start writing! You don’t have to be an expert writer. Even if it’s just writing for 10 minutes a day, you’ll get better and what you want to create will become clearer and clearer.
What are your plans for the future?
My plan is to keep making children’s books—both picture books and graphic novels, and perhaps adult graphic novels, and keep getting better at them. I also make a lot of comics that I post on my Instagram (@ohtruth), most recently about AAPI identity. I hope to be able to continue making content that matters to me and to other people, while making us all laugh.
Tell us about your time as a student at GSIS. What were your most memorable GSIS moments?
I was a student at GSIS from F3-F5. Those were some of the best three years of my life! I loved everything about it—my friends, my teachers, the tuna fish sandwiches they sold at lunch, even the green notebooks and agenda books.
Our trip to Kota Kinabalu was fantastic (still the most stars I’ve ever seen in one spot), and I miss the raclette at the bazaar.
One of my favourite (very random) memories was during a biology class. Claudia Tam and I were lab partners for an experiment involving chewing up bread for 5 minutes (to measure salivary amylase). We were chewing and chewing, and something made one of us laugh, which made the other one laugh, and before we knew it, we were laughing-spitting 4 minutes worth of chewed up bread on each other. It was disgusting, but still makes me laugh to this day.
Which friends or teachers that you met at GSIS have you stayed in touch with?
I’ve stayed in touch with almost all of my classmates to some varying degree, even though I don’t see them as much now that I live in the US. I’m still best friends with Bonnie Kwok and Claudia Tam, and go back to visit HK as often as I can.
How did your GSIS experience contribute to who you are today?
For one, I can still remember what salivary amylase is! My friends at GSIS have really made me feel like I still have a home in Hong Kong, even though neither my parents nor I live there now. I did an author visit at GSIS a few years ago, and it also felt like I was home again.
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