Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coming of Age in Comics: American Born Chinese

Graphic novels seem to be an ideal format for the Bildungsroman: the coming of age novel.

From Alison Bechdel's Fun Home to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis to David Smalls' Stitches, graphic novels tell tales of embodiment, transition, family, culture, challenge and change in ways that purely written texts simply cannot.

For instance, in Stitches, a graphic novel I've recently began teaching in my illness and disability memoirs classes, Smalls conveys the unseeing and unfeeling attitudes of several family members by simply not illustrating their eyes - the protagonist is surrounded by family members with eerily whited-out glasses.

Similarly, internal processes are conveyed without a host of descriptors that, inevitably, create more rather than less distance between the reader and the experience. In one frame, Smalls illustrates his protagonist - who has both literally and figuratively lost the ability to speak up in his own life -  huddled down inside his own mouth.

Having just finished Gene Luen Yang's Printz award winning American Born Chinese, I was amazed by not only Yang's colorful, vibrant drawing style and imaginative narrative, but his ability to pull me into his protagonist Jin Wang's very psyche without me realizing he was doing it. The three parallel story lines - of Chinese American immigrant son Jin Wang, of All-American Danny and his larger-than life Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, and of the mythical Monkey King, serve to enfold the reader in a story about complicated issues - schoolyard racism, internalized racism, emerging sexuality, family politics, and the dangers of becoming what you are not.

As an immigrant daughter, the book's story is in some ways familiar to me. A story about fitting into - or not fitting into  - white America, a story about feeling uncomfortable - or being made to feel uncomfortable - in one's own skin. But in some ways, the book was disquieting, embarrassing, and horrifying. The racist stereotype embodied by Yang's character Chin-Kee actually made me squirm. From the way he is drawn, to his accent to his awful re-enactment of racist taunts ("Me Chinese, me make joke, me go pee-pee in your coke,"), I found the character almost too much to bear at certain points of the novel. But when Yuan deftly drew together (pun intended) his various storylines, I got it.

A written novel uses words to describe certain emotional states or images to get the reader to a particular emotional state. Yet, usually, the mediation provided by words and language make the reader aware of the experience. In Yang's graphic novel, the reader transported to a feeling of discomfort, disquiet and, yes, anger, while almost unaware of the process.

Racism should make us not only uncomfortable, but angry. Yet, it's rarely any good for a novel about race and racism to shout "be angry, this is wrong, be angry!" Instead, through the twists and turns of Yang's three narratives, through the over-the-top racist portrayal of Chin-Kee, I unconsciously slipped into his narrative when I wasn't even looking.

Graphic novels continue to delight, surprise and inspire me. What are some of your favorites?


  1. So glad I found this site and post. My son is an avid reader of GNs. I haven't yet learned to appreciate them, but these sound interesting.

  2. Thanks for visiting Kelly! How old is your son? American Born Chinese is appropriate for HS age I would say, and there are of course many wonderful ones (like the others I mentioned above) that are more appropriate for adults... (and then the host of ones aimed at MG and younger children). Like anything, I think it's all about previewing them or reading about them first as a parent...

  3. Love your thoughts on these two great books, Sayantani! I'm a big fan of Fun Home as well, and I'm about to pick up Craig Thompson's Blankets. I also love anything Shaun Tan has touched or even looked askance at -- The Arrival and Tales from Outer Suburbia are both great.

    I'll be looking forward to seeing what other readers recommend!

  4. Oh dear . . . don't you mean graphic memoir? I mean a novel is a novel and Funhome and Stitches are both wonderful graphic texts but they tell a true story so they don't qualify as graphic novels. (In fact, I've seen the former shelved in LBGT and memoir sections and not with the graphic novels at all.)

    Okay. So I'm being nit-picky but if you wrote a memoir and it was called a novel that would be frustrating to you, the artist. I suppose there might be some pleasure in your novel being taken for the truth but I read an essay by Fran Dorf in which she addresses the issue of readers misunderstanding that the mother and son in one of her novels are not herself or her son.

    I haven't read another graphic memoir that is on par with either of the two but I am eager to see what other recommend for either memoirs or novels.

  5. You got me Satia - indeed, all of the above are graphic memoirs! (funny, I'm super picky with my students when it comes to novel vs. memoir but the word "graphic" in front seems to demand I use the word "novel") I stand corrected!
    @Rachel - thanks for the recommendations! will look up ASAP!

  6. Hi Sayantani,
    I stumbled across your blog after a visit to GR children's writers discussion. I've read your essay and I think it was a great read.
    Your mom sounds like a great person and I wish you both the very best.
    Please stop by my blog if you can.

  7. thanks for the visit and follow Shaeeza!

  8. I have recently had a graphic novel marathon phase and your post comes just in time to give me some new ones to read.

    I love Marjane Satrapi. Going to get 'American born Chinese' as soon as I can.

    Have you read Kari (an Indian Graphic novel) by Amruta Patil? Nice one too.

  9. I haven't read or even heard of Kari - looking forward to it! thanks Prathm!