Co-Review: American Born Chinese

h1 February 28th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

So, we’ve finally read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, with color by Lark Pien, the winner of the 2007 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. It’s the the first graphic novel to be recognized by the Michael L. Printz Committee as well as a 2006 National Book Award Finalist
for Young People’s Literature

For those needing a bit of summary, we’ll take the fine, fine one written by the folks at VOYA:

“Three seemingly unrelated stories blend into a memorable tale of growing up Chinese American. The book begins with the ancient fable of the Monkey King, the proud leader of the monkeys. He is punished for entering the god’s dinner party by being buried under a mountain for five hundred years. Second is the story of Jin Wang, the son of immigrants struggling to retain his Chinese identity while longing to be more Americanized. The final story is that of Cousin Chin-Kee, an amalgamation of the worst Chinese stereotypes. Chin-Kee yearly visits his all-American cousin Danny, causing so much embarrassment that Danny must change schools. The final chapter unifies the three tales into one version of what it means to be American-born Chinese. This graphic novel first appeared as a long running Web comic on the Moderntales {Professional Webcomics} website, where it enjoyed an enthusiastic following.”

Jules: I guess I’ll start by saying that one of the many things that makes this book so durn good (how’s that for review-speak?) is that Yang succeeds in welcoming us into the world of a Chinese-American student while, at the same time, bringing us tried-and-true universal themes, primarly acceptance of one’s self. I am normally graphic-novel-challenged, but I couldn’t put this one down and found it funny and insightful and quite poignant in just the right spots — poignant without being overbearing.

And while we’re on the subject of VOYA, in the remainder of their review, they state: “The Cousin Chin-Kee story line is extremely hyperbolic and at times difficult to read, as it embraces the most extreme negative Chinese stereotypes . . .” I loved the intentional hyperbole. I mean, those laugh tracks at the bottom of some of the panels were extremely funny to me, O Child Who Grew Up on Sitcoms. I know I’m treading on controversial territory here as a white girl. As the KLIATT review put it, “{b}e warned that the character of Chin-Kee will arouse strong feelings: some may find him offensive while others may think he’s funny.” But what I’m gettin’ at here is: Didn’t Yang intend to point out the absurdity of racial stereotyping by giving us the most extreme, most offensive Chinese-American stereotype possible? In other words, I wasn’t laughing as if to say, ain’t that the truth! Dang farners!. I was admiring the cleverness, thinking kudos to Yang and his use of hyperbole towards such strong effect. That situational comedy of a storyline is so successfully (and intentionally) coarse and flat-out tasteless that it turns into thought-provoking.

Does that make sense, Eisha?

eisha:  Oh, yeah, totally.  I absolutely agree.  Chin-Kee is clearly an intentionally offensive character, an “amalgamation” (as VOYA put it) of every negative stereotype westerners have perpetuated about the Chinese (I mean, even his name).  And of course that’s painful for anyone with a drop of sensitivity.  I mean, who among us Caucasians hasn’t chanted “Me Chinese, me play joke…” when we were young and too dumb to know better, and how awful was it to see that little schoolyard rhyme literally played out in the panels of this book?  It was awful for me because I’d like to think I’m somewhat culturally sensitive and non-racist, but I did chant that rhyme in elementary school.  So I’m guilty, and that’s not an easy thing to admit.  And Yang did a brilliant job of portraying just how prevalent racial stereotyping is.

I also really admired the styles he brought to the different stories.  Like you, I loved the “laugh track” effect on the Chin-Kee storyline – sheer brilliance.  And I was enthralled by how he brought the three disparate stories together at the end.  I think the narrative that fascinated me most was the Monkey King’s, and the one that moved me the most was Jin’s.  And yet, as you pointed out, all three narratives were basically about the same thing:  how to grow from feeling alienated and alone – like you’re always on the outside of the prevalent culture, looking in – to being able to accept who you are and live comfortably with your heritage without such crippling concern for how the rest of the world sees you.

Jules: Yup, a lot of really complex, weighty issues (I like how the boy’s transformer became a metaphor for, essentially, the last thing you typed there, Eisha) and done in such a perfectly short-and-sweet, pithy manner (I finished the book fairly quickly). And done in a clean, crisp format. In fact, I’ve read a few comments (can’t remember where — maybe reader reviews or blogs. Forgive my memory lapse) about how even Yang’s paneling was done in a simple, clear fashion, but I wouldn’t be one to comment upon that, not being a big graphic novel reader. But I can say that it was aesthetically satisfying and not at all circuitous or confusing to me (as some graphic novels just seem to appear to me at first glance. And lest anyone think I’m a dimwit, let me quickly add that I’m just a very text-oriented learner). Lots of good use of white space all around the paneling. Good-looking book.

I also love how he included Chinese lettering in spots, yet it was never confusing as to the meaning.

And, yes, the Monkey King’s storyline was my favorite, too. It was well-done on many levels, but my favorite thing about it was the humor. Might sound odd, but the drawings of the many emotions that determined deity goes through were amusing to me, especially all his (numerous) moments of quick temper, such as his confrontation with Tze-Yo-Tzuh. And when he floats one on those demons towards the book’s close
. . . well, it’s — once again — the look on his face that got me. I don’t usually laugh at farts (much less monkey farts), but it was one funny moment to me. (Of course, when we see him hobbling off all shoe-less with Wong Lai-Tsao . . . well, that was simply poignant). I see on Yang’s site that one can still purchase (at hobocomics) The Motherless One, “a tale from the early life of the Monkey King, folk hero of ancient China,” a short book Yang says he made as a way of testing out some new drawing materials. Oh and look! Here’s his own little presence on the web!

eisha:  Ooh, look at his little bad self!  Actually, that site is pretty cool – if you click on the “Art of the Monkey King” link you can see images of Sun Wukong, from ancient on up to modern.  Apparently the tiger loincloth is standard Monkey King apparel.

Yes, I agree about the layout – this is a good “starter graphic novel” for people unfamiliar with the form who are intimidated by overlapping, asymmetrical panels or – god forbid – manga you have to read right-to-left.  And as you pointed out, it’s all-around aesthetically pleasing – nice color palette, not too much clutter or detail.  Yang is a master of facial expression, and gets emotion across very well with a minimal amount of ink.  When that bully (I forget names, I had to turn my copy back in to the library weeks ago and I’m working from memory here) walks by the three Asian kids while they’re sitting/standing around that park bench, and yells something insulting and racist, the utter devastation and embarrassment in their posture and expressions is so acute, it’s really quite painful.

Jules: I wondered that about it being a good “starter graphic novel.” That’s what I suspected, but — again — I don’t have a lot of previously read graphic novel titles with which to compare this.

I just discovered at the National Book Foundation site that they have some excerpts from the novel (at this link and then scroll down). And here’s a nice example of what you’re talking about regarding Yang’s ability to so successfully convey facial expressions, particularly when it comes to the cruelty of children.

Here’s a question for you: Did you see that ending coming — the way in which Yang drew the tales together? I thought it made perfect sense, but I love that it was unexpected for me.

eisha:  Nope.  No, sir.  I did not see it coming.  I mean, I saw that the stories were thematically linked, and that there were parallels running through all of them, but IN NO WAY did I expect that little twisteroo.  Awesome.  I am just so thrilled that this won the Printz – it’s a great choice by any standard, but I especially love that this is the first graphic novel to win.  It’s such an excellent example of all the brilliant things that can be done with stories in this format, and hopefully it will go a long way towards winning over whatever skeptics about “comics as literature” are still lurking around out there.

I guess we’ve pretty much covered it.  Thanks for joining us for yet another episode of The Jules & Eisha Show.  Tune in next time when we co-review… okay, well, we actually have a bunch of potential co-review candidates we’re discussing, and I have no idea which one we’ll do next.  So, um, tune in next time and be totally surprised!  Woo!

And of course, feel free to carry on the discussion via comments.  We’d love to hear what you have to say…

2 comments to “Co-Review: American Born Chinese

  1. This book was at the top of my TBR list when I first saw your review. I couldn’tt read your review until I had read the book. Luckily, it is a VERY quick read. Whoa! I couldn’t put it down either. This was my first graphic novel, and now I kinda want to try more. I’m interested in the Manga book Emma. We’ll see . . . .

  2. Oh, yay! I’m glad you liked it too. If you’re looking for other graphic novels or comics to read… I’ve really enjoyed the Runaways series by Brian K. Vaughan. They’re a lot of fun. And Blankets by Craig Thompson is a sweet, sad, coming-of-age love story. I haven’t read Emma – keep us posted on how that goes.

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