Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, created only five years into his career in comics, won several prizes and deservedly so. Among several honors it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award; additionally, it won the coveted Eisner award, the Reuben award, and the Michael L. Printz award. However, being a NBA finalist (in the YA fiction category) is especially interesting and significant: Gene Luen Yang, who is both writer and artist, didn’t just produce a superior graphic novel, one of the best books of the non-superhero comic genre I’ve recently read, but a surprisingly complex young adult novel, within whatever convention. At 233 generously-margined pages, it’s not a big book, yet the story it tells, of Asian-American identity in a predominantly white(seeming) culture, is told with the scope of a larger, more epic book. Told not just through the writing: Yang’s art work (and Lark Pien’s colors) is simple, cartoonish, yet it delivers its points with aplomb; American Born Chinese is a serious book, one that makes concise and important points about second generation immigrant experience; but Yang’s art, as well as the light, humorous but never farcical dialogue, make this an entertaining, an amusing read. Yang creates indelible characters, although he doesn’t need all of them to be realistic, three-dimensional representations of reality. Instead, he weaves together myth, stark media criticism and a emotionally moving story of an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy growing up, and not just with what seems like effortlessness. As we read through the last pages of the book we can’t help but realize that Yang has managed to tie off the various strands of his story with a sophisticated flourish that is (to be honest) quite unexpected from comic books written for children.
These strands mainly consist of three stories told separately, in alternating chapters. All three are drawn in the exact same style, differing only in small respects, if at all, which helps bring home the idea that all three stories are really only about different aspects of the same story, i.e. what it’s like to be an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy. These three stories, similar though they look, draw on different traditions, and reference different media, different ways of telling a tale. This absolves Yang from having to be openly preachy or lecturing in the most ‘realistic’ strand of the book, because he can rely on our knowledge of these modes of writing and storytelling. He knows that in our heads, all this comes together and makes sense in an obvious yet not obtrusive way. The conventions and lines of thought and plot are so clear and move the book along so quickly, that, at the end, as all three stories finally collapse into a single one, we are even slightly taken aback. This moment of explicit synthesis at the end poses more of a challenge than the separated strands did in the bulk of the book. All these aspects show that Yang is an artist both with a profound knowledge both of the extent of our knowledge of cultural termini, tropes and markers, and with the ability to use this knowledge in a way that is accessible and rewarding. American Born Chinese is a book for young adults, and it continues a trend in recent YA fiction of creating art that does not talk down to its pimpled audience, but involves them both emotionally as well as intellectually in surprising ways. The most surprising way of them all is Yang’s decision to make the final tweak, the last part, less about shock, less about hammering a moral stance into its readers. No, the final section is about art, it asks its readers to really think about the function of each of the three story lines. This is easily the most elegant, smart, self-reflexive ending I’ve read in a book targeted at young adults in a long, long time.
Much of the complexity of this derives from the first of these story strands, a re-telling of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey To The West. This is a novel about a monk’s pilgrimage through China to India, accompanied by his three protectors, three mythical helpers. Among them: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The monk barely makes an appearance in the book, which rather looks at Sun Wukong’s life before he became the monk’s protector. It tells us about how Wukong became one of the most powerful demons of his time. We see how he learns the “Arts of Kung Fu”, including the “Four Major Heavenly Disciplines”, yet when he tries to enter a dinner party for demons, spirits and gods, he is thrown out by the scruff of his neck on account of his merely being a monkey. Sun Wukong then proceeds to throw the heavens into Chaos, defeating heavenly armies, beating up Gods and so on. The diminutive monkey seethes with anger, trying to force the Gods, spirits and demons of the heavens to acknowledge him as an equal. Eventually, he uses his skills to change his shape, making himself taller and stronger of body; this change marks a difference even to his fellow monkeys, and places him, as a queer mixture of monkey and humanoid demon, between two worlds without being able to belong to either. It takes the Buddha himself to take him down a notch: after losing a challenge posed to him by the chubby deity, the Monkey King finds himself trapped for several hundred years under a mountain, until the monk comes and frees him. The story, as sketched out here, is canonical. There is little that Yang actually changed about it, it is straight myth, though told with a lightness of tone befitting the book’s audience. What is interesting is the visual aspect of it all: on the one hand, Yang’s panels crawl with a slapstick-like humor, on the other hand, his representations of demons and Gods are clearly rooted in traditional imagery, containing echoes of traditional Chinese theater masks.
In as smart a book as this, depictions of traditional masks and looks are not merely there to display ethnic roots or connections. Yang also uses them because they conform to Western readers’ expectations of how Asian cultures look, and of how traditional Asian stories would have to be told visually. The implicit light satirical criticism is enhanced by the other non-realistic story, which is introduced to us with a TV title card saying “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, accompanied by a stereotypical/racist picture of a Chinese person with buck teeth, a long black braid, a cap, sallow skin and slanted eyes. On the bottom line of the frame the word “clap” is printed several times, suggesting a clapping audience. As this first panel makes abundantly clear, we’ve entered the territory of contemporary myth here, so to say. This story is told in the form of a sitcom, with the prerequisite laughs (“ha ha” printed several times on the bottom of the ostensibly humorous frame in question), and the typical looks, postures and narrative build-ups of the genre. While Wukong’s tale was genuinely funny, this one isn’t, at all; it is a rather intense (yet not preachy) criticism of the way we represent immigrants in the media, our easy way with racial and cukltural stereotypes. While the example of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” may seem exaggerated, characters like Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the hit TV show Big Bang Theory (or indeed the brand new sitcom Outsourced) show that Yang is not far off his mark with this satire. More importantly, however, it sets the ‘traditionally Chinese’ masks and pictures from the Monkey King story in a context of how Asian narratives are told and framed in general. Also, the themes of belonging (or not) to groups that discriminate based on looks, of the imperfection of not being quite Godly enough in one case, or not being All-American enough in the other, these themes are raised and presented in two related, but very different ways.
All of this sets the stage for the main story, the story of Jin Wang, whose parents immigrated to the US from China. Jin Wang grew up in San Francisco first but his parents soon move to an unnamed different city, where Jin has to attend an elementary school with just one other Asian-American student. As a scrawny, differently-looking kid, he is picked on by many of the other students but seems to find a place for himself within the complicated hierarchy of school life, an achievement that is threatened when one day a first-generation immigrant boy (whom Jin calls an “F.O.B.” as in “Fresh Off the Boat”) enters the school. To survive in that school (sarkastically named “Mayflower Elementary”) means for Jin to be -or at least seem- less different than the majority around him. The new student, who speaks Chinese, and looks and acts much less like a regular American boy, is in danger of reminding the others of just how Asian (as opposed to Asian-American) Jin actually looks. But, his initial hostility eventually wanes, and he strikes up a friendship with the new boy that will even carry over into his high school years. All this is just preamble, told in a quick, almost matter of fact way. What follows is much more typical of the ordinary teenage experience and yet contrasts starkly with how the ordinary American teenager might have experienced it. Jin falls in love and, shamed by his different looks, tries to change himself into a more regular kind of teenager. This story is warm and readers of the same age group can easily relate to the woes and worries of Jin, yet unlike most of the readers, Jin runs into a wall of racism and prejudice now and then in a way that white Americans won’t. There are no easy answers for his problems and questions, and to his credit, Gene Luen Yang doesn’t try to provide them.
Instead, he uses the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” show and the Monkey King narrative as parameters of what complicates the usual American romantic high school experience (falling in love, courting, being shy and euphoric etc.) for Asian-Americans like Jin. There is tradition, in the form of tales told by grandparents, and in texts and movies one is expected to read or watch, and there is the racist incomprehension of the vagaries of ethnic (or religious) difference. Make no mistake: Yang doesn’t throw his hands up in the face of it all. The complexity of the problem is his point, and the potential that is hidden in this chaos. American Born Chinese is everything at once. An entertaining read, an insightful deliberation on immigrant experience in the US, and a seductively crafted comic. The simplicity of the forms Yang uses turn out to fit each story as if they were created especially for them. And in a way, they were. The two contextualizing stories of American Born Chinese are, at basically allegorical, and not retellings of old stories qua old stories, but modern re-creations that just contain old proper names. In this, Yang follows the tradition of books like Journey To The West, which is itself a complicated set of allegories, pretending to retell the monk’s story but really providing an intellectual and spiritual mirror for its own time. What Yang offers us are three stories of being challenged by difference, wrapped in a book that might, read by avid children all over the country, just make a difference. Read the book, buy it for others, and follow Gene Luen Yang’s career. I expect great things from him.
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