The graphic novel is an intriguing art-form. The stylistic nature of the graphic narrative offers an alternative to extend the reader’s imagination in a succinct format that the written word simply can’t achieve with equal brevity. Dependent upon the artist’s style, it can be serious or whimsical, introspective or fanciful, and can provide new ways to look at history. American Born Chinese exceeds in all these possibilities and manages to capitalize on the potential locked in graphic storytelling.
This book isn’t simply an autobiographical tale. American Born Chinese is actually three stories in one. There is a fable about the godlike monkey king who masters kung fu and recreates himself into the great sage equal of heaven. There is a true-to-life story of young Jin Wang who moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to the suburbs to discover the racism and cruel ignorance of American childhood. And there is the farcical story of the middle-class white teenage boy, Danny, who is embarrassed by the annual visits from his cartoonish and stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee.
Each tale offers an engaging and amusing perspective on identity viewed from the eyes of an outsider. Each of the characters provides a different alternative to the challenges of self-discovery amidst social norms. The overly confident and determined monkey king recreates himself through study and devotion, but in so doing loses connection to his best and most likable qualities. The popular and affluent Danny is consumed by embarrassment because he cannot escape his confusing familial roots. Jin Wang is somewhere in between these two as he is struggling to find true and devoted friends while he disappointedly hurts those who are closest to him.
As the the narrative transitions back and forth between the three stories, it becomes apparent that both the fable of the monkey king and the satire of the Chin-Kee are metaphorical extremes of the reality of young Jin Wang. As the novel progresses, the congruence of the stories becomes increasingly apparent.
However, despite all my praise, American Born Chinese is less than perfect. The ending unfortunately falls flat and I would have been far more satisfied if the three stories didn’t try so hard to achieve a common ending and were more open ended to allow the reader an opportunity to extend an offering of disbelief. With an understanding that American Born Chinese is at its heart a coming of age story directed at a young adult audience, it is somewhat forgivable that its ending is overtly conclusive, however with appreciation for the the experimental format of the three separate stories, I expected a more imaginative ending than was offered.
Despite my criticism, this is an enjoyable read and one that can be quickly digested in a single sitting. American Born Chinese manages to be both pleasurable and thought provoking and there is a lot to consider within these pages regarding race, culture, heritage, and identity within the “melting pot” of American culture.