There are certain things that make for a good piece of literature - such as the ability to make a person (when they finish a book) want to go back to the beginning and read it again. The very same can be said for graphic novels. Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese,” published by First Second, is one such book.
The novel follows three stories: the tale of a monkey that strives to be seen as God-like; a young boy with naturalized Chinese parents acclimating to his new home and school in the predominantly white suburbs; and a seemingly-white adolescent trying to maintain his social posture while he’s being visited by his boorish Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee (yes, I imagine the pun was very much intended).
Over the course of the book, these three narratives deftly weave together to tell an allegory of the follies of pride, personal isolation, and cultural acceptance. There is a reason that “American Born Chinese” was the first graphic novel ever to be shortlisted for the National Book Award, and these reasons are self-evident when one becomes immersed in the story.
Stylistically speaking, the art is simply and colorfully drawn without being childish or grating and the narrative is straightforward and maintains a steady pace free of convolution. Each of the three sections are modeled in a certain way: the parts about the Monkey King are told in a style mimicking a folktale, the parts about Jin are akin to a nostalgic memoir recollecting a childhood beset by social awkwardness and racism, and Chin-Kee’s chapters are fashioned in the style of a television sitcom (complete with a written laugh track).
Though the story is about a particular culture and a specific experience, this does not preclude members from a different cultural background from enjoying it. The story is rich in metaphor and humor and provides a lesson to both white people and those of Chinese descent alike. A didactic moral tale may not be what most readers are looking for however, and this is certainly not meant to say that “American Born Chinese” is nothing more. It is touching and funny, and the overall sentiment of the story is one that is universally applicable to all races and cultures alike.
There were parts of the story I found (what’s the word?) challenging, however. The end of the story seems rushed and resolves too quickly when compared to the steady pacing of the rest of the novel. There also seems to be a bit of ambiguity in the message that is being delivered: while the novel is trying to emphasize accepting each of our own individual cultures and not succumbing to being something we’re not, Chin-Kee, the very epitome of the stigmatized Chinese cultural stereotype, is meant to act as a reminder of the Americanized boy’s true heritage.
Is the stereotype, then, the ideal? Is a compromise between assimilation and embracing one’s original heritage the thing to strive for? After consideration, these questions do not serve to undermine the narrative, but rather are important questions to consider when presented with the subject matter of “American Born Chinese.”
This is an excellent work that addresses an especially pertinent subject matter, accessible to any individual of any culture or nationality that has felt the pang of angst and isolation when they were growing up. It is sure to entertain, but, more importantly, it will also make you think and potentially reevaluate the way race is perceived in Western society.