I have a confession to make.
This book was not even on my long long list.
So many many books are recommended to me all the time, with various results occurring from the few I get to select and actually read. During the time this one came out, I had gone through a spat of critically acclaimed but real let down books, so I never even bothered with this one.
Not the brightest move, and completely unfair of course.
Then DC Comics announced that the Superman comic would have a new writer, a surprising choice that made me alter my reading piles.
This is my long winded way of going on about American Born Chinese, the graphic novel written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang, who is now penning the continuing adventures of Superman.
American Born Chinese came out in 2006 and it won and was nominated for several awards, launching the career for Yang.
The story is split into three parts, and all amazingly converge in the end. With maybe a little help from magic.
The first thread involves what I believe to be an old Chinese legend, probably adapted in this version. We have the monkey king, who is born powerful and knows it. He strides tirelessly to better himself in all ways and becomes quite proficient in magic, all to help his monkey kingdom subjects, and slightly for his own ego. But of course things go awry.
The second thread has a young boy in the 1980’s who becomes one the very few students in his school who is of Chinese ancestry. He feels like an outcast until he develops feelings for a non Chinese girl and his Chinese best friend tries to help the relationship happen. But of course things go awry.
The third thread shows a teenage boy who is happy and successful in life. Suddenly he gets freaked out because his Chinese cousin is coming for a visit and even going to school with him. He tries to work around the cousin’s extremely over the top behaviour and keep his life together. But of course things go awry.
All the tales deal with different issues of alienation, and how people transform or not transform in order to cope with their existence.
The monkey tale, being very much a fairy tale with clear morals, is the most obvious with this. The monkey works so hard, moves heaven and earth and everything in between, all to be accepted as something he is not. We can fully understand and appreciated the pain the monkey goes through, causing this quest, but we also understand the futility of it.
More complexly told, but still along the same lines, is the boy with the crush. It is hard enough to develop a crush, unrequited and all, and even worse when you wonder if you are good enough because of a society perceived difference. Younger readers will probably most relate to these sections.
The final tale is the most absurdist and pushes into complete satire. The cousin who visits is a massive racist stereotype with caricatures from the absolute worst of movies and televisions and medias past. To accentuate the point even more, a laugh track litters the bottom of several panels to give us a bad 1960’s awful vibe.
By the time the ending arrives we know several characters are in mental jeopardy with major identity issues. Shocking revelations tell us so much of how the knitting of these stories work, but give no clue as to how these obstacles to living a true life of themselves can be solved.
I am now glad that DC Comics decision precipitated my reading of American Born Chinese, and I can see why they choose Yang. Many stories have been done, and many more can be told, of Superman and his distance from all around him. This volume vibrates with alienation and its effects.
Looking forward to see what Yang brings to the last son of Krypton. The pain of the other perhaps?
…is currently reading Watership Down by Richard Adams