Cartoonist's Memoir 'The American Dream' Explores Route 66

The American Dream - Publicity - H 2019
Shing Yin Khor/Lerner Books
Shing Yin Khor took a road trip and recorded it in her new book, which tackles race and identity in the U.S.

Cartoonist Shing Yin Khor grew up in Malaysia before moving to the U.S. over a decade ago, but after living in Los Angeles for 10 years, she felt as if she still wasn’t sure if she’d seen the America she grew up reading about. This led to a road trip along the iconic Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago, recorded in her new book, The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito.

Heat Vision talked to the cartoonist about the origins of the trip, creating the book and discoveries about the United States made along the way.

You talk at the start of the book about a need to connect the “two Americas” — your personal experience at your home in Los Angeles, and the American heartland you’d read about in The Grapes of Wrath. Even after living in L.A. for a decade at the time that the book took place, did you feel as if you somehow weren’t an American, because of this distinction? The idea of “two Americas” feels, oddly enough, intrinsically American: There’s a cultural idea that there’s the “coastal elites” and the “flyover states” and that they’re somehow different countries.

I fundamentally understand that I hold American citizenship and an American passport, and I often flaunt that in the face of xenophobic racists with the dignity of a person who learned a hundred American civics questions for the American naturalization test. Perhaps my desire to learn more about the rest of America is actually a desperation, a bit of a chip on my shoulder, stemming from the constant "otherization" of anyone non-white in this country, which has never really gone away but is so much more blatant now.

Part of that compulsion to know America, to learn as much as I can about America, is rooted in this desire to be so unarguably American — to know so much about America, that my Americanness would never be in question. And if the phrase "Real Americans" was going to be tossed around, then I was going to go find out what that meant.

I recognize my privilege and my bubble, as someone who has always lived in cities. I naturally feel more comfortable in cities. I wanted to both experience the wide open spaces of America, and interrogate why those spaces often feel more alien to me than any city, anywhere. I did have some preconceptions about the flyover states. I was wrong.

Spoiler alert: what I found was 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 "coastal elites" to ever paint entire swaths of the country with a hateful and dismissive liberal scorn 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.?

The book is a mix of the personal and, for want of a better way to put it, the educational — the history of Route 66, Two Guns, even how to bury your feces in the outdoors. Where was the line between the two, as you were creating the book? Or was there no line for you? The entire thing reads very much like your experience as a whole, with the educational elements coming in because *you* were learning it at the same time.

I think you're right! It is probably an accurate reflection of how I navigate the world. Having a conversation with me is generally a mix of weird introspective feelings with some tangent where I tell you about a cool roadside statue I just saw and then read the Wikipedia article for. It is probably quite insufferable in real life, but it works pretty well as a book.

Were you a fan of travelogues before creating this book? Did anything act as a particular influence on the way you approached it?

I sometimes read travelogues, but I honestly feel pretty alienated by a lot of them. Most travelogues in the public eye are written by white people. The "classics" are largely by white men, and black and brown people don't really get to travel the same way. 

I think a lot about Annie Dillard's travel writing. She's brilliant, of course, but she never slips into jadedness, only wonder. She is respectful of the land she walks on, and the people she meets. I tried to take a brave and gleeful trip. I knew I had to be my own protagonist, and I wanted to tell an honest story, even though I didn’t exactly know what it would be, and I wanted that story to have a lot of happiness and joyful discovery in it.  

You talk about what you learned (and didn’t learn) about America as a result of the trip at the end of the book; what do you expect readers to learn from the book? 

Route 66 is truly endlessly fascinating to me, and I really hope I get to impart some of that curiosity to readers. I really hope I make people want to travel within America more, to seek out little pockets of comfort and home everywhere.

Most of all, I hope that it serves as a starting point to go dig into so many things I wasn't quite able to get into the book — ranging from really serious and awful topics like the treatment of American Indians, and the blatant racism towards black people along the route, which extended way past the time of the Civil Rights Era, but also wonderful little silly things, like how the dinosaur statues of Holbrook ended up there, and how to tell a Paul Bunyan Muffler Man apart from the other models, even if he doesn’t have his head on.

The American Dream? is about a 2016 road trip and, to be blunt, America feels like a very different place now than it did back then — something you make a point to touch on in the book’s epilogue. Have your feelings about the country changed between then and now? Does the book still feel true to you?

I am a person of color, so since I've lived in America, I have been quite aware of the racism and xenophobia that is threaded through the country's history and present. That said, yeah, it was different when it was generally uncouth for racists to be so loud about it in public. 

I drove Route 66 in April 2016, and I finished the book before Trump took office. I thought Hillary Clinton was most likely to be the next president, I was contending with my identity as an immigrant, and I likely always will, but in April of 2016, I didn’t actually find my citizenship tenuous the way I do in August 2019. I thought I'd be contending with the insidiousness of systemic racism, not literal white supremacists marching in the streets who don't even have racist mothers that love them enough to sew robes for them. 

I’m not sure I expected the book that I wrote. It is a softer and more introspective book, I think, and perhaps a bit more meandering, than if I had written it right now, where it feels like there is this rage bubbling under my skin all the time. But, it is an honest book, and I am glad that it exists now and I am glad that I wrote it. 

There were places in the book that I wrote about as charming, and they were, but they fly Confederate flags in 2019, and I would recommend that black and brown people take a detour. It doesn't change what I feel about Route 66. It does make me angry to see outward displays of racism and xenophobia along this brilliant chunk of the American mythos, and it makes me even more determined to claim a chunk of it for myself, which is kind of what this book is. This is an American road, and I'm American. There are immigrants and people of color invested in keeping this history alive, who care a lot about making their communities a diverse and welcoming place, and this history, this America, is theirs and it's mine, and the racists don't get to pretend that it belongs to them.

Part of being American, I think, is caring enough about the country to shape it in my own image. Which is what the racists are also trying to do, but my desire is rooted in inclusivity, community, empathy, hope and joy, and theirs is rooted in paranoia and discomfort, so I think I’m doing pretty OK at being an American.

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 will be released Aug. 7 by Zest Books. Below, read an exclusive preview from the book.