Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GN Review -- American Born Chinese / Gene Luen Yang

Haven't we all, at some point, wished we were someone or something other than what we are?  To fit in with the "in crowd", to be popular, to have super powers or be super athletic and/or smart?  It can be difficult to deal with the fact that we're often unable to change the hand we're dealt, genetically or otherwise, and that frustration is explored as a major theme in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

In American Born Chinese, we get a collection of three different stories, told more or less simultaneously, that have distinctly different plots.  First there is the tale of the monkey king who wants more than anything to rise above his standing as a monkey and be considered an equal among the other deities.  The second thread involves a young boy named Jin Wang, whose desire for acceptance among his white classmates is complicated by his obvious Chinese heritage and his friendship with Wei-Chen Chun, another Chinese boy who has not yet assimilated into American culture.

Finally, there is the story of Danny and Chin-Kee.  Danny is a normal American teenager by all appearances, but every year he is beset by a visit from his very Chinese, very abrasive cousin, Chin-Kee, whose rudeness, speech, and social uncouth-ness are depicted in an over-the-top stereotypical racist caricature of Chinese people.  Chin-Kee never fails to embarrass Danny every year in front of his friends, but this year, Chin-Kee is staying to attend school with Danny, a situation that horrifies the young man.

Each of these tales is distinct from one another, but as the narrative progresses, we see that they are connected in profound and inextricable ways.

I greatly enjoyed the writing in this book.  Without giving too much away, I will say that the overarching plot of the story is well paced, connected in profound and interesting ways, and packs an emotional wallop that will resonate with readers long after they put it down.  Yang's depictions of his three protagonists and how their ultimate desires to simply fit in and transcend their current statuses is ultimately a self-defeating proposition drives home some very weighty points about where to draw the line between bettering oneself and accepting ourselves for who we are, as we are.  The stories will make you laugh out loud, cry in silence, and get you involved in the lives of the characters in a way that is rare in storytelling these days.

The art style is very cartoony, but definitely works well for the purposes of the storytelling here.  Given that we're traversing realistic fiction and mythology, and three different time periods, one of which is presumably the far distant past, it gives them a common aspect that will keep readers engaged until the climax of the book, when all is revealed and we see that they have been connected in other ways as well.

Overall, I can't recommend this book enough.  This was an enchanting story that handles the themes of fitting in and acceptance of self in an amusing, intriguing, and ultimately mature fashion.  Anyone who's grappled with these issues will enjoy this graphic novel, as will fans of fantasy, folklore, teen dramedies, and simple good storytelling.  Very highly recommended.

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