Friday, August 10, 2012

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Early in American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, a teacher introduces young Jin Wang to his new third-grade class: “I’d like us all to give a warm Mayflower Elementary welcome to your new friend and classmate Jing Jang!” She then proclaims that Jin came “all the way from China.” Wrong again. Jin’s parents are from China; Jin was born in San Francisco. This is just a taste of the casual and often deliberate racism that Jin will face at his new school. Yang’s bright and cheerful artwork contrasts nicely with the complex effect that this treatment has on Jin’s own sense of himself and, in turn, on his own treatment of the people he cares about.

Yang uses an interesting structural technique to tell Jin’s story. The book does not open with Jin at all, but with the beginning of a story (based on Chinese legend) about the Monkey King and his exclusion from a dinner party with the other gods. Only after the first part of this tale concludes do we get the beginning of Jin’s story. And then, after Jin’s first chapter, a third tale intrudes: that of Danny, white American teenager, whose exaggerated-Chinese-stereotype cousin visits once a year to embarrass him and wreak havoc with his social life. This third story piece is written as a sitcom, complete with applause and studio laugh track running underneath Danny’s story.

Each of the pieces of American Born Chinese are similar enough thematically that they hang together as parallel fables, but the lines of story run closer and closer together as the book goes on. Finally, all three intersect in a painful, sweet, and extremely satisfying conclusion exploring the courage it takes to ignore the perceptions of others when defining yourself.

American Born Chinese is a great example of the ability of graphic novels to present astronomically complex intellectual and emotional fare in a seemingly simple package.

If you like American Born Chinese, you might also like I Kill Giants, story by Joe Kelly, art by JM Ken Nimura.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book, and I thought it was excellent. This is a good summation of the book, Maya, without giving too much away.