Friday, May 14, 2010

Indie Review Day: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese is an Eisner Award winner for a reason.  It is funny, engaging, and surprising.  The story consists of three seemingly unconnected stories in three different narrative styles, that end by connected unexpectedly.

The first story is a retelling of the folk tale of the Monkey King.  While Yang adapts some details for the most part the Monkey King story is a faithful retelling of a Chinese folk tale.

The second story is a realist story Jin Wang, a contemporary first generation Chinese-American boy, struggling to fit in in his junior high school.

The third story is about "Chin-Kee" a personification of a number of extreme negative Asian stereotypes.  Chin-Kee visits his (apparently white) cousin Danny, and continually embarrasses him.  The Chin-Kee sections are played as a parody of the "fish out of water" sitcom, complete with laugh-track.

The three stories are connected by themes of identity.  Each in their own way, The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Danny wrestle to find the balance between a limiting essentialism and a rootless self-invention.  The Monkey King, after being denied entry into a dinner party in heaven: "You may be a king -- you may even be a deity -- but you are still a monkey." (15) dedicates himself to the study of kung-fu, including the discipline of "shape-shift", and renames himself "The Great Sage: Equal of Heaven".    He is confronted by "Tze-Yo-Tzuh" (he who is) a figure invented by Yang who is an analogue of both the Buddha and of the Christian God.  Tze-Yo-Tzuh tells the Monkey King "I created you.  I say that you are a monkey.  Therefore, you are a monkey" (69).  The implied moral, "be yourself", is complicated by the realist section of Jin Wang, who struggles with bullies and ignorant teachers, but especially with being true to himself when he doesn't really know who the real him is.

Humour and pathos combine here to make a really good book.  My only caveat is that I was left a little unsatisfied by the open ending, which -- after the mythological elements of the earlier book -- seemed a little anti-climactic to me, but the subtlety was definitely deliberate, and my dissatisfaction is purely a matter of personal taste.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book for anyone from about Jr. High up.

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