American Born Chinese (:01 First Second Books)

abcheaderGene Luen Yang's much-lauded new release is the first graphic novel ever to be nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award in the "young people's literature" category. But does it deserve such hefty praise?

 

240 pgs, color, $16.95

(W / A: Gene Luen Yang)

Gene Luen Yang, by day a San Francisco Bay area high school teacher, moonlights as a comics creator whose star is most definitely on the rise. Although he is still a relative newcomer to the scene, his bibliography already includes a number of impressive publishing credits, ranging from such offerings as Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks (and its follow-up, Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order) for Slave Labor Graphics, to the Catholicism-infused Rosary Comic Book. But it is his latest original graphic novel, American Born Chinese, which has been gaining Yang his most enthusiastic notices yet. Published in the fall of 2006, the book has already been awarded the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature, shortlisted as a finalist in the National Book Award's "young people's literature" category (a first for any graphic novel), and named one of the ten best comics of 2006 by time.comix columnist Andrew Arnold.

 

Click thumbnail for a larger image.American Born Chinese is really three stories in one, but each of its concurrent narratives is focused on the primarily adolescent struggle to reconcile the need for broad social acceptance with one's own heritage, including the difficulties involved with learning how to absorb the wisdom and tradition of one's ancestry while deflecting the terrible prejudice that invariably seems to accompany such baggage. The stories are presented in nameless, unnumbered chapters that run for 10 to 20 pages at a stretch, a unique approach that serves to gradually orient the reader to the book's assorted characters while massaging his or her interest during quieter moments by promising that a change of venue is never far from hand.

 

The story that opens the book tells the tale of the Monkey King, a Chinese folk hero undone by a potent combination of bigotry from without and arrogance from within. Swiftly following the king's introduction, we meet Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy who moves with his family from San Francisco to a much smaller town, where he is forced to deal with the harsh prejudices of his new classmates. Making matters worse, at least to Jin's mind, is Wei-Chen Sun, an even newer student freshly arrived from Taiwan whose unfamiliarity with American culture serves in many ways to reinforce his schoolmates' stereotypical, often hurtful view of Asians. Finally, we come to "Everybody Ruvs Chin-Kee," the strangest offering in the book, which is patterned after the popular sitcoms of the 1980s and stars an American teen named Danny who is mortified at every turn by his visiting cousin Chin-Kee. Danny is the archetypal American teen, good-looking and well-scrubbed, while his cousin is in essence a composite of every negative Asian stereotype on the books (and quite possibly a few that aren't). Everything about Chin-Kee is offensive, from his bleached yellow pallor, to buck teeth, to his heinously exaggerated accent. The protagonists of these three stories each experience a different sort of awakening during the course of their respective tales, but in the end it is revealed that they share a common destiny.

 

Yang's art is as expressive as it is elegantly simple, and Lark Pien's flat pastel colors are the perfect complement. His use of visual shorthand is effective and rather charming, and makes for a pitch-perfect fit with the relaxed pace of his stories. American Born Chinese is a beautifully constructed graphic novel that unfortunately begins to wobble a little in its final stretch, as Yang attempts to stitch together the book's disparate story threads by invoking a metaphysical angle that feels considerably less honest and affecting than the bits leading up to it. Its less-than-perfect ending aside, this is a wonderful story of culture and identity that everybody, not just teens and Asian-Americans, will surely find themselves able to identify with. | Paul John Little

Click here to read a 15-page preview, courtesy of First Second Books.

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