Monday, June 21, 2010

Growing Up Chinese in America

I first encountered Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" as a webcomic several years ago on Modern Tales -- although even then it was clear that he was posting pages of a specific project that would be a book, not just doing a comic for the web that might or might not be collected.

Since then, it has not only been published in book form but has received much acclaim, including being a finalist for the National Book Award in the category of young people's literature. It was the first graphic novel to be honored by the National Book Foundation that sponsors the Natonal Book Award, and the following year became the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult literature given out by the American Library

It's easy to see why the literary establishment that has come only late and grudgingly to an appreciation of works in comics form embraced this particular effort. It has a sensitive treatment of an ethnic issue, an intricate narrative structure, and an uplifting moral theme, combined with a deceptively simple surface and an excellent sense of design that draws the reader in effortlessly.

The book opens with three chapters of what seem to be three very different and completely unrelated stories. First, we meet the Monkey King, who tries to attend a dinner party in Heaven, but is denied entrance because he's a monkee and doesn't wear shoes. Next, we meet Jin Wang, an ethnic Chinese boy born in the U.S. who moves to a new town, where the teacher mispronounces his name and the kids make fun of him. The third story is presented in the format of a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track. It follows a character named Danny, who is drawn without any Asian features, whose life is disrupted by the annual visit of his cousin, Chin-kee. Chin-kee is presented as a blatant racial stereotype, with buck teeth, pigtails and pale yellow skin. His behavior, indeed his very existence, is a terrible embarrasment to Danny.

It would be spoiling a good deal of a first-time reader's enjoyment of the book to explain how these three stories become one story, but they do come together in an ingenious and satisfying way

The Monkey King segments are based on an authentic Chinese folk tale. Chin-kee is obviously modeled on generations of racist cartoons Yang would have been exposed to as a fan of the medium. And it's hard not to assume that the similarity of "Gene Yang" and "Jin Wang" is not accidental. A very personal work then, apparently, and as strongly told as it was no doubt felt.

Five of five stars - promises to be a classic

By Gene Luen Yang
Color by Lark Pien
First Second, 238 pages, $16.95 TPB

Originally published 2006

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