Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Not Another Graphic Novel: Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese

Review and analysis of Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 

I wish I could remember more exactly the time I met Gene Luen Yang. It's been about five or six years, I'd say. He was doing a talk at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Library on the power of graphic novels. He was warm and hilarious, autographed my copy of American Born Chinese, the book on our minds this week, and then used his abundant humor to talk about the power of visual storytelling for adolescent readers. Incredibly enriching. Highly entertaining. Something like this book itself.

And this is coming from a reader who never seeks out graphic novels. I never read comics as a kid, and it's a form of reading I quite simply haven't mastered. How much time should I spend on the illustration within the frame, after I've gobbled up the words? Am I missing too much due to the speed with which I can put these things away? Luckily, Yang has crafted something in American Born Chinese that is both compulsively readable and seeable (?).

The structure of teenage protagonist Jin Wang's particular journey into adolescent relationships is the key to the whole thing and mostly engaging on all three levels. He thinks too much and tries too hard and retreats to dream lands, the other two levels. In one, he visits the story of a prideful celestial Monkey King of some ancient myth. In the other, he is a white kid named Danny, spurned by visits from his Chinese cousin, a bracingly stereotypical, but hilarious, Asian character known as Chin-Kee, a blend of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and the Mickey Rooney neighbor character in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

This is a story, like most YA novels, about identity. And much like Starr Carter in The Hate U Give, Jin is someone dealing with a major split in terms of that identity. He is Chinese. He wants to be more American. He fails at being both, or either, repeatedly. Yang is smart to present the narrative in these three different modes. The alter-egos he creates for Jin are ways of Jin reckoning, even sometimes literally warring with them. Danny and Chink-ee, for example, represent two parts of the same whole. The same can be said, in the real life segment, about Jin and Wei-Chen. Then, of course, the Monkey King represents him grappling with the history of his Chinese culture and heritage as a way to make sense of his motivations and behaviors.

As the three narratives collide, we see things coming together in suprisingly poignant ways. I was moved several times reading this novel. Specifically in the scene where Wei-Chen plays Jin's wingman and sets him up for a date with Amelia. This plays like a scene straight out of a John Hughes movie, where teenagers bare their souls and present themselves as the kind, thoughtful people they are. This scene is, of course, mirrored in some ways by the final scene, which reveals a final merging of identity in quite a clever way. The book is equally, if not more so, hilarious. Chin-Kee especially is a smart, matter-of-fact way, of dealing with racial issues concerning they ways Americans see Asians. It also works as another representation of how Jin thinks other people see him and, in turn, how he sees himself.

I haven't read many graphic novels, but I loved reading this one. The Monkey King part didn't totally connect with me, though I like where it ended up. In the end, I appreciated what Yang did visually as much as he did with the words. Like a good movie, there are moments where the illustrations speak far louder, representing the feeling of a first date in perfectly drawn out detail, feelings of isolation represented solely in color...and the lack of. This is a clever piece of work. It is one that reminds us that teenagers share the same growing pains no matter their culture or heritage.

As for Marxist Theory and Institutional Discourses...

The idea of "transforming" stands out to me the most. It is clearly prevalent in Gene Yuen Lang's graphic novel, specifically in the end as the three narratives of Jin Wang's teenage development collide. I recalled the title of a book by David Lipsky, essentially a transcript of a series of conversations he had with the writer David Foster Wallace as he toured with Infinite Jest in 1996. I wrote down the title of that book in quotations marks: "Although of course you end up becoming yourself."

This idea of flying under the radar, not disturbing anything, fitting in, is I suppose the most passive way of "rebelling to conform." It connects strongly with questions about transformations in social class: What is valued? How is it used for gain? For me, the moment in American Born Chinese when Jin finally comes to see that he is Danny, the all-American white kid, and strips that from himself, is the most powerful moment in the novel. It comes after so much time, years of young Jin's life, where he has actively tried NOT to "disturb the universe." So many kids do that. That would show people who he really is, but, of course, he always was that anyway.

When the Monkey King finally, on pg. 213, reveals his "true form" to Danny by way of Chink-ee, he pleads with Danny, "Perhaps it is time to reveal yours...Jin Wang." This scene also speaks to the power of the image in a graphic novel. This understanding, so moving, comes from the image alone. There are no words necessary. Jin had to have his splintered identities do battle with each other in order to strip himself back down to, well, himself. This speaks to what he values in terms of class. He thought it was being Danny, making a commodity out of being Caucasian. He tried so hard to transform into something he's not and kept failing, none of his attempts landed. He didn't gain anything in status, class. In fact, he lost more than he gained. That's what this novel is about. It's about stripping away this need to be what the world wants you to be. In that way, Jin, I suppose, does "disturb the universe."

In her discussion of religion, Roberta Trites introduces the relationship between teens and parents. She discusses several novels and comes to the idea that they "all interrogate the interaction between discourse and teenagers' sense of their identities in relation to their perceptions of their parents' identities" (38). The idea of upward mobility in capitalist societies, the American Dream, seems to be more of a religion to Jin's parents than anything else. To a kid though, there is a disconnect between the identity we know at home and the identity we form in school. The school hierarchy is topped by that curly-haired blond boy, who we emulates with a new hairdo and inhabits as Danny. He needs to be that to be upwardly mobile, to get the girl. He has to strip his identity away, his parents identity away. Jin's grandmother gives him a solid piece of advice early on in the novel. She tells him, "It's easy to become anything you wish...So long as you're willing to forfeit your soul" (Yang 29). Jin is growing up, clearly, in Reagan-era America, a world where yuppies ruled and the progress made in Women's Rights and Civil Rights was being actively "ignored" for a life of capitalist gain (Trites 29). How many young people indeed sold their soul for the all-American capitalist dream? How many still do? You sell your soul. Some of you will splinter.

Trites spends a good bit of the later part of her chapter on "Institutional Discourse" discussing the idea of "competing discourses" as related to, first, religion, and then race. There are some interesting parallels between her discussion of Laurence Yep's Dragonwings and how the spirituality of the father character causes the novel to ride a line between fantasy and realism (42). The same could be said for American Born Chinese, especially in its transition from the very first chapter, a highly fantastical journey into Chinese cultural lore and the Monkey King. The first chapter ends with the Monkey King wishing he could rid himself of that "smell of monkey fur" (Jin's Asian identity), then dissolves right into the first introduction of Jin and his mother telling a parable (Yang 20-1). This is a clever way to set up the splintering of identities.

But it's the discussion of "competing discourses" in race and how it is "embedded in discourse" that connect more to a bigger picture of the world we are in now and the worlds Jin inhabits (46). Culture and language are directly tied in creating the institution of racism. This is what Trites, too, is talking about when discussing the idea of the "dialectic of identity," something with which Jin clearly struggles. This is where Chin-Kee shines the most in Yang's work. He is an overt symbol of racial stereotypes and the thing about himself that Jin fears most. Chink-ee knows all the answers, has confidence, talks to anyone, but he is so unabashedly Chinese. The frames on pgs. 112-113, when Chink-ee goes to school, I couldn't stop laughing. It is fearless of Yang to make the most racist element of his book the funniest element.

Isn't that a way to deal with it? (This is also something I recently wrote about on my blog in a review of Spike Lee's BlackKklansman. It uses humor to enhance the darkness with light.) It's a way of shedding the pain and finding yourself. However, in the final pages of American Born Chinese, Jin meets back up with Wei-Chen to bury the hatchet, to catch up. Jin speaks English. Wei-Chen...his native language. This, to me, begs the question...did Jin "end up becoming" himself?


  1. I've never read this but you make it sound fascinating. I'll have to see if my library carries this.