Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy it through Bookgrail?

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