Graphic novelist Gene Yang describes his book American Born Chinese as three stories in one: a realistic portrayal of a Chinese American boy growing up in a predominantly white suburb, a series of stories based on a Chinese Monkey King legend, and "a sit-com starring everybody's favorite racial stereotype, Cousin Chin-Kee." The three stories blend together and play off each other to make one of the funniest and most meaningful graphic novels I've read.
I didn't expect to like the Monkey King sequences as much--generally I go for the realism--but Yang is one of those geniuses when it comes to facial expressions and body language, and the Monkey King himself is, dare I say it? Adorable. Here he is, in all his glory, in the days before his confidence is crushed when he tries to fit in with the other deities.
The way the Monkey King story ties into the Chin-Kee story at the end was a total surprise to me. I loved it.
My older son read this as well, and the Monkey King sections were his favorite part. He thought the walking stereotype Chin-Kee was "just weird,"--at 12, he understands stereotyping but hadn't been exposed to this one enough to appreciate its portrayal in the novel. And, as a young white boy, I think a lot of the nuances of Chin-Kee's American cousin Danny's story went over his head as well.
In addition to a comic artist, Yang is a high school teacher and a dad, and his connection to kids and teens is easy to see. His website is Humble Comics. I'll definitely be seeking out more of his work.
The Soundtrack: I almost gave up, after an hour and a half last night searching for the music I wanted, with nothing to show for it but an annoyed husband. Do you know how hard it is to find a Chinese American musician on Playlist.com, who isn't (a) a rapper whose lyrics offend me (there were more than one of those to choose from, and I'm not quick to be offended). (b) an R&B singer who I can't bear to listen to for a full song (it's not his fault: even eclectic taste has its boundaries). (c) a female singer (not the right voice for this book) (d) Yo-Yo Ma--though I found a gorgeous version of Gabriel's Oboe by him, it's also not the right "voice" for this book.
What I finally found is perfect, and it's worth it to see this young Chinese American man rocking out with his erhu. Jack Hsu wanted to play progressive instrumental rock with the traditional Chinese instrument, so he formed his own band, Hsu-nami. Way to embrace your heritage, Jack. You're an inspiration.
American Born Chinese is also reviewed by Nymeth.