Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

American Born Chinese

ChineseAmerican Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

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Ah, if the controversy over The Higher Power of Lucky wasn’t enough to get your attention, how about some opinionated blowhard espousing against graphic novels receiving National Book Awards?  Tony Long is the copy chief for Wired magazine, which has always struck me as one of the definitive sources of positive change and growth through technology and other means .  He promptly stuck his foot in his mouth with his condemnation of American Born Chinese being nominated for the National Book Award late last year:

“I have not read this particular ‘novel’ but I’m familiar with the genre so I’m going to go out on a limb here. First, I’ll bet for what it is, it’s pretty good. Probably damned good. But it’s a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

“This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don’t constitute an art form or that you can’t get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It’s apples and oranges.

“If you’ve ever tried writing a real novel, you’ll know where I’m coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France’s Prix Goncourt or Britain’s Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement that I almost don’t know where to begin.  He hasn’t even read the book, but he seems to think he knows enough about it to condemn it.  His ignorance over what constitutes a story, or literature, is sadly profound, and his implication that a graphic novel isn’t a “real novel” is arrogant and condescending.  It makes me wonder why they have the literary equivalent of a Luddite working for Wired.

American Born Chinese is a brilliant work that starts out as a typical autobiographical story, but quickly melds into something different and unique.  There are three stories in the volume, interspersed among each other, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear that everything is relevant, and each individual story supports the primary one of race, identity, and self-acceptance.

The story is compelling, and Yang excels at stopping the chapters at the most appropriate points, where enough of that portion of the story is revealed, but enough questions are left unanswered to keep you reading.  His illustrations are right on point, too, merging the cartoonish with the realistic well enough to keep you grounded in the reality of the story, but also in a way to keep you from taking some parts of the story too seriously.  It’s a fine balance, but Yang seems to do it well.

I’d recommend this book to any young reader, even if he or she isn’t wild about graphic novels.  Unlike Mr. Long, I believe that the story is more important than its format, and American Born Chinese is one of those stories that begs to be read.

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March 23, 2007 - Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews

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