Sunday, February 11, 2007

Reflections on American Born Chinese

Let me start by asking, rhetorically, how many of you watched cartoons as a kid, and then, when you were older, watched some of those same cartoons again. As your elder self, did you notice jokes or parts of those cartoons that appealed to your new maturity or your profounder sense of how the world worked? Like the writer was slinging subliminal missives that would target those who could understand and naturally soar over the heads of those who couldn't, or shouldn't? Not to say that those cartoons aren't largely intended for children, but that in their inception and development is also a desire, on the part of the artist/writer/producer, to communicate to the adults probably committed (perhaps against their will) to watch the cartoon with their children. There is also a likely desire for the artist to entertain himself. To make something more complex and impacting than many people assume children's cartoons to be: banal, erroneous, "just for kids."

On that note, and in partial response to Lauren's post, I do not disagree that Gene Yang's story shouldn't be called a "real novel," because that line of argument is about semantics, and not necessarily content. I do not dispute its judgment in the Young People's Literature category because Young People's Literature seems to oscillate between being targeted at young people and being about young people, and the two can certainly converge without losing the heftier narrative symbolism--The Golden Compass trilogy (His Dark Materials) is a fine example of this. I think it would be quite easy for any of us to find a book we enjoyed as a child from which we would derive equal pleasure today, and probably appreciate more of the themes and content. I also don't think that Young People's Literature is intended to say that it can't appeal to people of all ages, but rather that there is a place for children's literature in the book award world, and adults can appreciate the regular National Book Award and the Young People's Literature category whereas children can probably only really understand the latter. I'd say the YPL category says more about what we expect of children than of the books supposedly written for them.

Given this analysis, Gene Yang's book succeeds in its ability to bridge these two worlds. There are many elements that can be considered to aim particularly at children, but also have bigger implications that can appeal to the more mature desire to "get something" out of a book. Not that adults or children do not operate on the opposite extreme I just ascribed to them; I'm generalizing a majority to get at my point. The comic book format, for example, tends to appeal more to children by connecting short pieces of narrative to pictures that either describe or supplement the narrative. There are some panels where the words aren't essential; the picture can convey the general gist. But, at the same time, there are many panels where the narrative exists apart from the picture; you must observe both to move forward. The book also uses scenes that might be particularly appealing or engaging to children, while still having them relate to the broader themes of the book: transformers, the monkey king urinating on a pillar, armpit bubbles on Amelia's shoulder, the bully who eats his boogers, etc. But these characters/scenes all have a narrative place that is vital to the story as a whole. I particularly like that Yang opened with the Monkey King, because it gives the story a sense of grandeur that's commensurate with most comic books, it subtlely foreshadows the themes and issues that arise later; and it is a narrative contrast from the other two plots--I was excited to return to the monkey story after reading one of the other two for awhile. It made the novel move faster.

One of the things I personally enjoyed the most about this book, was its flirtation with comic timing. There are points when the positions of the dialogue bubbles accomplish comedic and ironic effects that would be harder to seamlessly achieve in a novel. On pages 30 and 36, a teacher introduces the new student by egregiously mispronouncing his name and misstating where he comes from. The bubbles achieve brilliant comic timing, something I remember Allan saying is specifically hard to achieve in books. Moreover I think the comic timing in this case is more universally readable than most attempts at humor in written form. I would even contend that we all read these scenes at roughly the same speed, in roughly the same way because of the way they are visually presented.

Another example of great comic timing is on page 29. The Chinese herbalist tells Jin Wang that he can achieve anything as long as he's willing to forfeit his soul ("forfeit" is such a great word here). Then Jin Wang just stares for a panel. Then we see the herbalist in the next panel casually going back to clacking her abacus, straight-faced. Not only does this achieve the obvious foreshadowing, but I think the pacing of being forced to look at wordless panels and not moving from this scene until you turn the page shows deliberateness on Yang's part. It gives a sense of weight to this scene, in addition to the hilarious contrast between the kid with the "Trans-fo-ma" and the woman and her clacking abacus. These examples illustrate the narrative economy at work here. Yang is fully aware of the parts of his life that accurately and revealingly convey the book's complex themes, while also being aware of which of these stories can best be told visually. Pages 96 and 97 particularly struck me. On the left page are two kids using racial slurs that deeply humiliate the three Asian students (those wrinkles are unbelievably heartbreaking, given that they're just three drawn lines). The right page then shows Jin Wang's thought evolution, and, at the bottom, the hatching of a plan. Here, the simple hair-do, which was probably a small, relatively inconsequential misguided choice in his life, becomes both a direct reaction to those ignorant, acidic comments and a symbol of the book's overarching themes of belonging and identity. Sure, these scenes could probably have been easily written into a novel; I do not think either choice is necessarily "better" in this case. But, had this been a non-graphic novel, the story of the hair might not have made it in, or had it, it probably would have played a much smaller role. And, I'll speak for myself in saying that I was very pleased every time Jin Wang got a jolt of lightning confidence into those curly-q's.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that ABC achieves the spectrum of elements commonly found in a non-graphic novel: theme, symbolism, irony, comedy and his fair share of poignant, tragic moments; but it has to convey those sentiments or elements in a different way, not only by relying on the visual component, but with visuals and words combined. The visuals amplify and emphasize the intended emotion or sentiment in the place of dense descriptive detail, but without usurping the narrative from the words themselves.

The last thing I wanted to talk about, responding to one of Adam's prompts, is the notion of suspending disbelief or engaging beliefs. I had never heard of the latter phrase and I find it to be quite compelling. I think Yang's images achieve both of these things. I think the openings of the three individual narratives all take advantage of the reader's beliefs. First, the idea of Chinese mythology (complete with Kung Fu, Chinese temples and ancient gods). Then, the Chinese parable passed from mother to son, the Chinese herbalist, the misunderstandings in the classroom. Finally, the literal audial translation of Chin-Kee's speech, Chinese food take-out boxes as luggage, Chin-Kee's clothing and hairstyle. All these elements play to familiar stereotypes and conceptions about Chinese culture and the Chinese-American experience. At the same time, I think the interweaving of the stories serves to subliminally suspend our disbelief so that when the stories finally converge, the effect is believable, tangible, real. Of course Wei-Chen would actually be a monkey sent by the almighty Tze-Yo-Tzuh to be moral and teach the humans a lesson! Of course Wei-Chen's monkey father learned the lesson about his identity after spending 500 years trapped under a rock only to come to earth to share this lesson with Jin Wang! I use the exclamation marks semi-sarcastically to indicate how this concluding lesson could be illustrating both the importance of ancient mythology to Chinese culture and narrative, as well as our (or perhaps my) ability to accept this mythology in his story given some established beliefs (or even stereotypes) we had. I don't know which intention is working harder in this story. Nevertheless, I find the conclusion to be extremely satisfying, even vindicating in this respect.

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