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A Writer’s To-Do List: Learn History. Learn Chinese. Learn to Draw Comics.



When Tessa Hulls set out to write a book about three generations of women in her family, she had few illusions about how hard the task would be.

The tale was geographically sprawling, and spanned a century: Her grandmother Sun Yi, a journalist in Shanghai, fled China for Hong Kong in 1957, then slowly went mad; her mother, Rose, attended an elite boarding school in Hong Kong founded in part for the mixed-race children of European expatriates, then moved to the United States in 1970.

Much of her family’s story was accessible only via her grandmother’s memoir, a best seller published in Hong Kong and written in Mandarin — a language that Hulls, who was born and raised in Northern California, could not read — and through her mother, whom Hulls had spent a lifetime running away from.

To make matters even more difficult, Hulls, a painter, adventurer and itinerant jack-of-all-trades, was not really a writer. Over the years, she had painted murals in Ghana, worked as a cook and amateur D.J. in Antarctica, and bicycled from Southern California to Maine. She had created posters and book covers and participated in art shows. But she’d never written a book, let alone a graphic novel.

So, in 2015, when she began the project, she created a checklist of things to do before the writing began. The first three tasks: Learn history. Learn (some) Chinese. Learn to draw comics.

Nearly a decade after she began, Hulls completed “Feeding Ghosts,” due out from MCD on March 5. Filled with compelling characters and haunting illustrations, the book revealed as much to the author about herself — the roots of her wanderlust, her love of isolation — as it did about her mother and grandmother, and the upheavals of 20th-century China that shaped their lives.

“My grandmother’s memoir was this locked box, and once I was able to translate it, it opened up all these other rabbit holes,” Hulls said. “It was no longer the simple, single-mother-against-history story I initially thought I was going to tell.”

The book is a chronicle of journeys made by the author’s grandmother and mother from Suzhou and Shanghai to St. Paul, Minn., and the San Francisco Bay Area. But the book’s very creation also involved a series of travels.

To research the book, Hulls commissioned a translation of her grandmother’s memoir and made two trips to China and Hong Kong with her mother, who translated as Hulls interviewed family members. (For health reasons, Hulls’s mother, Rose, was unavailable to comment on her daughter’s book.)

Even after the research travel was completed, the writing and editing of the book was similarly done on the run, as Hulls hopscotched from Alaska to Wyoming to the Pacific Northwest.

“Tessa has a very adventuresome spirit,” said Daphne Durham, the book’s editor. “She likes to be deeply unreachable.”

Hulls doesn’t deny it: “I think I have always been pretty feral.”

To better understand her grandmother’s world, Hulls read academic examinations of the Communist revolution, watched archival videos of China’s Great Famine and pored through personal accounts of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

Hulls soon discovered that her grandmother’s book, which had been banned in China for years, was still considered by her family members to be too dangerous to possess. She also discovered that her grandmother Sun Yi was not a very reliable narrator, beginning with her account of an affair she had had with Rose’s father, a Swiss diplomat who skedaddled the moment she became pregnant, and her subsequent relationship of convenience with a besotted Chinese banker.

“Was Sun Yi a calculating gold digger leveraging the commodity of her beauty to sleep her way to the power structures of whiteness?” Hulls wrote. “Or a single mother turning to socially acceptable sex work as a kept woman so that she and her child could survive?”

Much of the book, Hulls said, is “about looking at the collision of conflicting narratives between myself and my mom and my grandma.”

In Hong Kong, Hulls learned about the privileged status many Eurasians historically held in the then-British colony; this status allowed Rose to attend the prestigious Diocesan Girls School, whose roots traced back to a Eurasian orphanage. “My mom being taken into a colonial boarding school where she learned the king’s English single-handedly set her up for the life and social class she was able to have in the U.S.,” she said.

In 2018, Hulls began writing in earnest in a friend’s shed in Port Townsend, a remote city on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. For the next year or so, she moved between artist residencies in a beat-up Subaru, making a brief stopover in Mexico “to return my timeshare dog.”

Hulls said she made a good-faith effort to run away from the story and thought “all the time” about quitting. But she stuck with it: “If I didn’t confront this history,” she said, “there was no way out.”

In late 2019, Hulls wrote an outline of her book in a remote area of southwest Oregon, “two hours from the nearest anything,” where her only neighbors were wild turkeys and bobcats.

“I came out of that with just the most clarity and solidity I’ve ever felt,” she remembered. “I strolled out of the woods saying, this next chapter of my life is all about re-establishing community bonds and close human connection and cooking with friends and people.”

“And then Covid happened,” she said. “It was very, very lonely.”

In addition to interweaving her family’s narrative with a century of Chinese history, Hulls was working through — and writing about, and illustrating — her own fraught relationship with her mother, whose love had often come in the form of smothering overprotectiveness.

“I started this book at probably the most distant, contentious point in our relationship,” Hulls said.

In one panel in the book, Rose vomits up black, snakelike ghosts, which fill her terrified daughter; in another, Rose lifts up her own mother’s skull to examine the brains inside.

“To be that isolated, and to be so focused on a project like this, was hard,” said Durham, her editor. “I don’t think any writer embarking on a memoir quite realizes what it’s going to feel like to really inspect certain times of your life and investigate relationships that you have.”

By the time she had finished the book, Hulls couldn’t wait to hit the road again, despite texted pleas from her editor to “STAY WHERE YOU ARE.” While waiting for copy-edits, she took off for Iceland to go cycling.

The nearly decade-long writing experience taught Hulls that she doesn’t want to tackle another book, at least not for the foreseeable future. “I learned that being a graphic novelist is really too isolating for me,” she said. “My creative practice relies on being out in the world and responding to what I find there.”

Among her upcoming travels is an extensive book tour — 19 stops and counting, including New York and Los Angeles — and a tour in Alaska in June, she said, “where I’m going to bike to every bookstore and library on the Kenai Peninsula.”

“If I have to go out and do the book hustle,” she said, “I’m putting in a couple of ways to make it fun.”

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