Thursday, September 06, 2007

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese was both a National Book Award finalist and the winner of the ALA's Michael I. Printz Award for 2006, so who am I to say it's not all that?

Who am I? I'm the Hornswoggler, that's who! And the day I fail to have an opinion is the day I stop blogging.

I liked American Born Chinese but didn't love it; it tells a decent story but it stays at a solidly Young Adult level the whole time, when it could easily have risen above that. [1] I'm glad I got it from the library rather than buying it -- it may be a matter of too-high expectations, but it disappointed me.

American Born Chinese has three ostensibly separate plotlines, which the astute reader knows will eventually intersect:
  • Danny is a typical (White) American high-schooler, whose cousin Chin-Kee, a horrible Chinese stereotype, has come to visit and wreck Danny's life, as he does every year
  • the legendary Monkey King wants the other gods to respect him, but they just treat him like a monkey
  • and Jin Wang, a grade-school-aged Chinese-American boy, moves to a very white suburb and tries to fit in, eventually becoming friends with the only other Chinese boy, Wen-Chei.
The Jin Wang story feels very directly autobiographical, and the other two stories are clearly reworking autobiographical material as well. (Though the parts with the Monkey King also seem to be retelling Journey to the West.) Yang does a good, interesting job of incorporating personal material with the more fantastic and mythological aspects, though the ending is awfully pat. (American Born Chinese has A Lesson, and, knowing that, I bet each of you will realize what that lesson is. It's a decent lesson, as such things go, but books that have lessons tend to stop there, and this one certainly does.)

American Born Chinese is good as far as it goes, but I wish it had gone farther. The Danny sections are supposedly a sitcom called "Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee," and much of the rest of the book is on a similarly glossy surface level. There are some great moments -- such as when Jin's white friend asks him to stop dating a white girl because "she has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with" -- but not enough of them. Yang needed to dig deeper into his own experience and ground this story in more specific moments (of racism, of young love, of friendship, and, most importantly, of a boy conflicted about his own heritage).

In particular, since the art only takes up about half of the space on the pages, American Born Chinese feels uncompleted -- as if half of the story is still out there to be told.

I liked American Born Chinese, but I would have liked the book it could have been much better. But Yang is still quite young, so I expect he'll have plenty of time to dig deeper and learn to tell the story behind the obvious one.

[1] Note: I am not saying that YA fiction is lesser than anything else. But American Born Chinese falls into a common YA style of telling a coming-of-age story, subordinating all of the elements of the story to the coming-of-age of the main character, and ending as soon as he learned the particular important lesson about himself that this book is about. It's not that American Born Chinese is YA; it's that it becomes a very specific, genre-fied type of YA story.

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