Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese

Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
ISBN 978-0-312-38448-7

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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“Somebody loves us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop: Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

Bishop. Student in Cologne/Bonn? Join this course. It’s pretty awesome, because I’m there, and it’s about Bishop, who’s purty awesome, too. (this fills my “awesome” quota today).

Philip Roth: Nemesis

Roth, Philip (2010), Nemesis, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-08953-1

The World Health Organization defines poliomyelitis, also known as polio, this way:

[It] is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system. Many infected people have no symptoms, but do excrete the virus in their faeces, hence transmitting infection to others. Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent. Polio can only be prevented by immunization.

Before being virtually eradicated in most first world countries, it wreaked havoc in all of them. To this day roughly 40.000 polio survivors still live in Germany alone. The United States have known several outbreaks of polio before in 1962 a polio vaccine was licensed and distributed. Between 1916 and the late 1950s, polio broke out practically each summer, in various areas of the country, but with varying degrees of aggressiveness. One of the most devastating outbreaks (and easily the most aggressive outbreak since 1916) was the polio epidemic of 1944, which lasted for 5 months and affected just over 17.000 cases. The powerfully frightening effect of the sickness was exacerbated by the fact that people didn’t know yet how to cure the disease or even how it was transmitted. Until the research of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and their colleagues bore fruit in the 1950s, polio continuously killed, maimed or at least frightened children and teenagers, as well as their overwhelmed parents. Philip Roth, born in 1933, who was 11 years old at the time of the epidemic, chose to set his most recent book in just that period of time; and as is the case in most of his other recent output, the contact with personal or national history, as well as the impact of memories and the pathos of remembrance invigorates a work that has become tired and dull of late. It’s a joy to see a master craftsman (as Roth proves himself to be even in ridiculous novels such as Everyman) infuse his writing with more than routine.

And as a result of all this, Nemesis, Philip Roth’s 31st book, is easily his best novel in ten years. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t rise to the same heights as his very best work, but it unites both Roth’s impeccable prose craftsmanship and a compelling story and characters. In the past ten years, after publishing The Human Stain, Philip Roth waited to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In order to achieve this, he published a short novel once a year for the last five years. All of them could be read as career summoning achievements. Exit Ghost wrapped up the Zuckerman stories, and both Indignation and The Humbling (my review) were epics of getting old, stories that featured the typical Roth protagonist (a mix between Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh) as he battled age and decrepitude. Bursting at the seams with a lifetime of learning and misogyny, these are each succinct summaries of Roth’s work. On the other hand, this is unfair, since his work is so much better, fresher and more powerful. In fact, some of these books, especially the miserable Everyman, read like parodies of Roth, or at least like lifeless imitations. Roth doesn’t seem to be able to reach for something new: instead he re-works his old books, and in a way his recent novels present a cruel reading of the Roth oeuvre. None of these books are worth recommending to anyone but die-hard Roth devotees. Nemesis is different. While it does rely a lot on characters and types already developed by its author in previous novels, the result (and the drama) is new, and very, very good. The two Roth novels it is probably closest to are American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, but these are resemblances that are not overt or troubling in any way. Instead, Nemesis seems to be what Roth’s previous 5-6 novels tried but failed to become: a synthesis, a summary of a strand of his work that is more than imitation or creative cut & paste.

Nemesis‘ protagonist is 23 year old Bucky Cantor, a beautiful, strong, virile man, accomplished at sports and dutiful to a fault. Bucky’s grandfather had raised him to “stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew”, to have pride in what he was and to have both sturdy convictions, as well as the courage to stand by them. Bucky, in many ways, is the ideal soldier and he did attempt to join the army when WWII broke out but due to his poor eyesight he was exempted from military service. Now, in the summer of 1944, while his best friends fight Nazis in France, he is a playground director in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey. His girlfriend, from a good Jewish family, works at a summer resort and wants him to come as well, but he is loath to abandon his duties at the playground. This reticence only deepens when suddenly kids from his playground start to come down with polio, ending up in iron lungs or dead. Bucky is at a loss how to deal with this. He talks to parents, is attentive as far as hygienic matters are concerned, he tries to look out for the kids, but polio, when it arrives in Weequahic, comes out of nowhere, an invisible enemy, impossible to fight. Early in the book, before Weequahic kids are infected, there is an opportunity to face off against a visible, tangible enemy. “[T]wo cars full of Italians” pull up and Italian boys saunter up to Bucky’s playground, declaring: “we’re spreadin’ polio”. These Italians are from a Newark slum “that had reported the most cases of polio in the city so far”, and Bucky is determined not to let them spread the sickness in his neighborhood, as well. With this confrontation, the book presents its readers with the social and political parameters the rest of the novel will then continue to use. There are the working class boys, determined not to “leave you people out”, i.e. driven by resentment against a better off, healthier part of the city. On the other hand, there are the very uptight, religious, conservative, middle-class citizens of Weequahic, who couldn’t have chosen a better champion for their cause than Bucky.

This opposition is only one side of the coin, however. With the expression “you people”, the Italian ruffians don’t of course merely mean “you rich people”. There is no doubt that “you people” is also simply short for “you Jews”. With this episode placed near the beginning of the novel, we’re soon made to be aware of two levels of signification here. There is the story of Bucky Cantor and his attempt to save the kids of his neighborhood from dying of polio. And there is a clever substructure that plays with notions connected to antisemitism and medieval jew-hate and possibly even Zionism. This is not a full-fledged allegory, rather, Roth has put a few elements into play. There is polio which is clearly a stand-in for the plague. In the Middle Ages, Jews were often scapegoats for outbreaks of the plague. They were said to poison the wells, kill Christian children, etc. In Nemesis, Roth makes two kinds of use of this vile accusation: there are the Italians, who spit on the sidewalk to bring the plague to the Jews, which reverses the situation. And then there is the reaction of the citizens of Newark once polio takes over Weequahic, turning it into the most affected neighborhood: “Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.” Thus, things fall apart in Nemesis. Just as the superior standing of Weequahic residents takes a dive in the course of the book, so does Bucky’s personal life. After confronting the Italians and heading them off, he is left without a clear course of action, so what he does, in a way, is to offer ministration. He visits sick children in the hospital, attends funerals, and is generally the first person to call afflicted families in order to see whether he can help. He tries to ease tensions between various groups of Weequahic residents, and gets the kids out of the glaring sun whenever possible. Small things like that.

It is no accident that Philip Roth named his protagonist “Cantor”, because Bucky fills, in a non-religious, non-musical way, the role that a cantor would play in the spiritual life of a synagogue. There’s also a certain irony in that naming: as the book progresses, and more and more children fall sick or die, Bucky loses his faith in God. Or rather, he still believes God exists, but assumes that God is evil, that, for any of the faithful, it is just a matter of time before “He sticks His shiv in their back.” The primary reason for Bucky’s bitterness is not just the dying kids. It is the insidious way that God seems to kill these children, and the cruel way that He seems to make Bucky the instrument of His murderous game. And while the people of his generation die in the war against Germany (or Japan), the younger generation is struck by invisible bullets, shot from an invisible gun. As we read on and on, Bucky’s story becomes a tragic one. The disastrous developments in the city around him are increasingly mirrored by disastrous developments within himself. There’s his loss of faith, but more importantly, there is his fear of being responsible for everything. When things come to a head in Weequahic, he finally heeds the advice of his girlfriend, and takes up a job at a summer resort far, far away from the polio-ridden streets of Newark. Only it doesn’t take very long until the first boy at that resort, this innocent-seeming paradise (that could, to take up an earlier argument, be seen as a stand-in for Israel, Jews fleeing from Antisemitism, who can’t, ultimately, flee from it because it always catches up with them), until a boy that was under Bucky’s supervision falls ill and is diagnosed with polio. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Henceforth, Bucky is plagued by the question “Who brought polio here if not me?” We can anticipate that this will happen, because Roth has led us there, with a light and clear narrative.

We are made to see that what happens to Bucky Cantor is, as is the case in all the classic tragedies, necessary, destined, inescapable, because of Bucky’s harmatia. His weakness is his inability to reconcile his poor eyesight with his impeccable body, his amazingly disciplined mind. His eyesight is beyond his control, he can’t will his eyes to see clearer, and so for him, there is a line that connects his body (the body that fails him) first to polio which he doesn’t understand and can’t fight, and then to God, who he can’t fight and at whose mercy he finds himself to be. The inability to deal with bodily imperfection poisons his mind so deeply and thoroughly that everything else that happens follows. It is impossible to describe how different Bucky is from Roth’s usual characters. Roth’s characters, even when they are weak, acknowledge that weakness with a swagger. There is a constant sense of superiority in them. A character who is as desperately earnest as Bucky Cantor is rare in Roth’s work. He does, however, contain characteristic traits from several characters in Roth’s oeuvre. More to the point, he appears to be a mĂ©lange of the Swede from American Pastoral and the typical Roth/Zuckermann/Kepesh persona, with added insecurities and earnestness. This focus on character flaws as leading to a tragic destiny is supported by a web of Greek allusions and influences. There is not just the eponymous Nemesis, the Greek spirit of divine retribution. Roth also constructed Bucky Cantor to correspond in several respects to Achilles, and, as with the other subtext, various elements of the story can be seen to have an equivalent in events as re-told by the Illiad or other Greek texts of the period. Apollo’s invisible arrows bringing the plague, Achilles’ unique handsomeness, and his proverbial heel, it all fits the mold.

While none of these two allusions to Antisemitism and to Greek myth, are exact, and used in a thorough manner, they are nevertheless relevant here, and more than just imaginary, because Nemesis puts a strong emphasis (as many of Roth’s novels do) on the process of storytelling, and the reliability of memory and individual stories. Nemesis is not told by Bucky, nor by an omniscient narrator. It is told by someone who was a boy when all this happened. The narrator, for almost the complete novel, is invisible. He refers to himself only once when naming three infected boys, including himself among them. At the end of the book, however, he breaks off the narrative, and returns us to a more contemporary setting. He tells us how he encountered Bucky many years later, and how Bucky then told him his story, which he, in turn, relates to us. In a way, we, Bucky and the narrator are part of a sophisticated game of Chinese whispers, and the mythical and historical parallels and allusions remind us of the fact that Bucky’s story is told to us in a highly complex, clever and accomplished way. How many real people actually resemble Achilles? Really, Nemesis is about the loss of childhood illusions, the loss of unfettered belief in the invincibility of admired authority figures, the loss of security as we enter a life of uncertainties, a world of violence, death and warring faiths. Although the story is literarily heightened, the book still presents a stark look at history, and unlike his previous exercises in considering history, Roth really comes though, this time. There is no sugarcoating at the end, no comforting adage or twist. Nemesis is bleak, moving, and marvelously written. Yes, it is too careful, too timid, too conventional to be great, but it is a very good novel about growing up in the modern world, and the interconnection of American history with Antisemitism, myth and archetype.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

a youth who loves me

Walt Whitman, “A Glimpse”

A GLIMPSE, through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room, around the stove,
late of a winter night–And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;
A long while, amid the noises of coming and going–of drinking and
oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,
perhaps not a word.

This is from the Calamus sequence in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A post on the Merrill list this afternoon reminded me of it. These are all magnificent poems.