American Born Chinese

April 21, 2007 at 4:53 am | Posted in awards, comic books, fantasy, genre fiction, monsters | 5 Comments

american-born-chinese.jpgYang, Gene Luen. Color by Lark Pien (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second Press. 

 I discovered American Born Chinese in a display of manga, comic books and graphic novels near the YA section at my local public library. Based on the book’s cover, I picked it up with mixed feelings. The title ABC is derogatory slang familiar to 2nd generation+ Chinese-American families such as mine. (Fresh Off the Boat–FOB— is retaliatory slang for recent Taiwanese and mainland immigrants). I couldn’t dismiss the novel as inflammatory junk though, because the graphics were artfully rendered and the cover featured 2 book award medallions. Once I opened the cover and saw the words “Monkey King”, I had to read it. The Monkey King is one of the most famous characters in Chinese folklore, but I haven’t been able to get my kids to slog through a full translated text.   abc_monkey1.jpg

American Born Chinese has three storylines. The first is a comical retelling of the Monkey King legend, with kung fu and Chinese fable elements for authenticity.  The second story features Jin Wang, a Chinese-American teenager in a white neighborhood. Jan perms his hair and rejects his Asian school friends to win a date with a redheaded honor student. The final storyline is an over-the-top paper sitcom featuring Chin-Kee, the ultimate Oriental student stereotype. Chin-Kee has a pigtail, wears a kimono, eats strange animal parts for lunch, is the class know-it-all and oblivious to his social gaffes. Yang deftly interweaves the three separate stories to a surprising, but satisfying end involving the mischievous Monkey King.

 082806_americanbornchinese03.jpgI was blown away by this book! I can understand why American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and was Amazon’s “#1 graphic novel pick of 2006”. Writer-illustrator Yang also won the ALA Printz award. His novel is both hysterically funny and brutally honest in its exploration of image, identity and self-acceptance. Although the characters represent different Asian stereotypes, the story will resonate with readers from age 10-adult who are struggling to define themselves and to belong. There are story elements of teenage romance, Chinese folklore fantasy, supernatural monsters, spirituality, and hidden clues for a mystery relevaled in the climax. The only genre missing is the western, though there are elements of adventure, a long journey and the hero’s lone battle to conquer a harsh environment.    

 There are books by Laurence Yep, Amy Tan, Allen Say and other Asian-American novelists who’ve written serious novels about their experiences. What makes Yang’s book different is its iconoclastic, hip approach to the issue of cultural identity. In a December 2006 interview with The Trades, Yang speculates on why he’s seen as blazing a new path in fiction. Growing up in San Francisco, Yang was told to “Keep your head down, study hard, and make a good life for yourself. Don’t make any waves.”  The idea of writing caustic social commentary is new and frankly scary for many Chinese who lived through the upheaval of the Communist regime.

Yang’s content takes risks in confronting prejudices and misconceptions about American Born Chinese. In contrast, his illustration style is skillful but abcmeeting325.jpgconventional, even conservative. Each page contains 4-5 panels which read left to right. The book is read as an English-language text, from front to back (the opposite of the manga page pattern). The text is conveyed through standard thought bubbles. Characters are 2-D rendered in flat colors, with the visual style of an Archie Comics. His Asian characters, aside from Chin-Kee, are visual amalgams of Western and Eastern features, reinforcing his message of assimilation. This message is hammered home on page 194, as Yang shows a freeze-frame transformation from black haired Oriental Jan to blond, blue eyed Danny as the teenager’s wish to be like his classmates comes true–briefly.  

American Born Chinese was originally presented in serial form as a web comic self-published by Yang. This is his fourth published graphic novel, and his first published with a promising new graphic novel press which debuted in 2006, First Second.  For more information about Yang’s works, visit his website, Humble Comics or check out Comic Book Resources.


Seagulls and Spirituality

April 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Posted in christian fiction, genre fiction, new age, pop culture, sidekick | Leave a comment


  “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect”. new-age-heelas.jpg

         “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”.  

Bach, Richard. Photos by Russell Munson (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.New York: Macmillan.

 Heelas, Paul (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.   

 Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about the self-actualizing seagull is a spirituality classic of new age fiction. It is a three-part fable about the rare individual/bird that refuses to accept the limits imposed by nature and society. Jonathan Livingston Seagull seeks perfection from within, with da-vinci-flight.jpgultimate mastery of flight as the metaphor for attaining the highest purpose in life.  Whereas, his cohort is preoccupied with basic survival, Jonathan denounces the traditional gull path to explore new ways of flying.

Jonathan’s actions represent the first step to enlightenment presented in most new age works, This element is described by Heelas (1996) as the acceptance that “your lives are not working. You’re brainwashed”. The high-flying Jonathan later discovers from his teachers, Chiang and Sullivan, that each being is born with the innate ability to attain perfection. However, it is up to the individual to find the desire and take the steps to reach it. This message– perfection is the responsibility of the individual, not of an external supreme being–conveys another defining element of the new age philosophy (Heelas, 1996).

Bach’s text embraces the mystical eclecticism of many new age texts, interweaving religious beliefs from the East and West with empowerment messages from popular psychology. Hellas, in The New Age Movement, dubs this “Perennialism”. This theory contends there are unifying truths spanning diverse religions which must be discovered to attain wisdom.  In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as our hero awakens at the start of Part 2 in a remote land. The seagull is changed, imbued with new insights and enhanced flying ability.

seagull-flight.jpgOr, you can read the tiny tract as a Christian fable reflecting the life of Jesus. Jonathan is born and lives like any other bird until he accepts his unique gift. Then he’s banished by a mob for being different, ascends to a heaven-like state, forgives his tormentors and returns to help guide the repentant flock. The roles of leader and teacher are accepted reluctantly by Jonathan, who sardonically refers to himself as the “Son of the Great Gull”, to chide his skeptical flock. This strong spiritual leader role is present in most texts and communes following new age principles, despite the theoretical exhortations that “you are your own authority” (Heelas).

 Jonathan reminds the flock that they must lead themselves, setting aside any law or ritual which restricts their freedom to become their “true self”. The message that “freedom is valued” is another new age cornerstone (Heelas). This 10,000 word fable presents Hindu, Muslim and Quaker communal messages of pacifism and love as thematic undercurrents at the book’s end. The teacher Sullivan’s last words to Jonathan are to “keep working on love”. The challenge is to see the good in every creature. This sentiment is another of the 7 new age elements outlined by Heelas : the self is intrinsically good.   

Finally, there are those who read Bach’s work more literally as a tale about the rewards of dedication and self-sacrifice. At this level, it is the classic self help message conveyed in “The Little Engine Who Could”: if you believe it, you can do it. “Nothing is impossible”.  

There is a sidekick in Bach’s work, “rough young Fletcher Gull”, an Outcast who becomes Jonathan’s first and best student disciple. Fletcher is 4-gulls.jpgan eager daredevil, who gives voice to the doubts Jonathan battled pre-transcendence. In the group of gulls, Fletcher is the first to conquer barriers of speed and time, yet he does so in a stumbling, dazed way. Fletcher represents the reader, with his challenge to Jonathan: “How do you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you?”  Although Fletcher is flawed, he remains loyal to Jonathan when others accuse his teacher of being a demon. 

 I would recommend this book for inclusion in a public library collection of new age works. It offers an excellent introduction to some defining new age concepts, such as Perennialism, self-actualization, brainwashing, and the importance of freedom and individual responsibility. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 2007. I warmed to the book’s gentle simplicity and was impressed by its innocent yet earnest tone. Bach’s work was totally lacking in artifice. In contrast, today’s self help or new age books are so slickly packaged and marketed, I often feel like the author came up with the promotional hook before he or she wrote the first draft.  

Trekkies Way of Life

April 5, 2007 at 12:25 am | Posted in genre fiction, new age, science fiction | Leave a comment

trekkies.jpgTrekkies (1997) A documentary film. Directed by Roger Nyland. startrek_logo_2007.jpg

It’s been almost 40 years since the Star Trek TV show’s cancellation set off shockwaves, catalyzing distraught fans to mobilize in protest. The series’ appeal evolved rapidly from its initial cult status into a multi-billion dollar franchise of today. It is a fan-driven industry which encompasses feature films, TV spinoff series, websites, clubs, conventions, retail outlets, books and a staggering array of collectible merchandise. The franchise was a perennial TV presence until the prequel Enterprise series ended in May 2005.  For the first time in decades, no Star Trek series is in production. This event was so significant that it was a lead news story worldwide.  yar.jpg

 The 1997 Roger Nyland documentary, Trekkies, attempts “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (Starship Enterprise Mission) by exploring Star Trek’s appeal from the perspective of its fans . The host of Trekkies, Denise Crosby aka “Ensign Tasha Yar”  of Star Trek:The Next Generation is a bemused, convivial host and guide navigating through dozens of interviews with trekkie fans, fanatics and Star Trek cast members. 

 I have long been aware that Star Trek is more than a classic TV series: it is a cultural phenomenon. It has enriched our lexicon, contributing catch phrases and visual icons to the pantheon of American popular culture. To illustrate Star Trek’s sway on consumerism, note how similar the  2007 flip cell phone is to the circa-1960’s Enterprise tricorder . The meaning of Star Trek expressions such as 1) “putting your shields up”, 2)”beam me up, Scottie” or the curt dismissal  3)”illogical” are so familiar that people use them as conversational shorthand to convey emotions respectively  of 1) defensiveness, 2)frustration and 3) contempt. 

After watching Trekkies, the most surprising realization is that Star Trek represents much more than a hobby and “casual enjoyment” for some enthusiasts. For these fans, Star Trek constitutes a “way of life”, delineating beliefs and practices grounded loosely in  humanistic philosophy. The series was a model of racial diversity, tolerance and cooperation; its mission stressed altruism and non-interference with alien civilizations.  It was one of the only TV series to celebrate the positive potential of technology, with scientists and engineers as heroes rather than geeks or psychos. In Trekkies , Nichelle Nicholes (Lt. Uhura) tells the anecdote of the young black girl astounded to see a black woman on TV  “who ain’t no maid”.  Lt Uhura served as role model for this child, who grew up to become Whoopi Goldberg.   

How the Star Trek message and world view are embraced by some, however  can crossover into fanaticism from fandom. One example of a fanatic in Trekkies is barbara-adams.jpgCommander Barbara Adams. The Commander gained notoriety as a Whitewater Trial juror who came to court daily in a full Star Trek uniform regalia. She considered herself to be first and foremost a Star Fleet officer with an obligation to adhere to the Academy code. Her Arkansas co-workers noted the Commander always wore her phaser and insignia, expanding to full dress for formal events. The Commander explained: “My officers should never feel ashamed to wear their uniform. We’re like anyone else in the military “.  It’s the fact that we’re speaking of an imaginary alternative relative with Star Trek military, that shifts Ms. Adams from the fan to the fanatic category 

Another example of a fanatic versus a fan occurs in the Trekkies interview  with two pleasant female hosts of the “Talk Trek”  radio show. They choke up as they confess: “People don’t realize how important a show can be”. The documentary reveals the show’s transformative power with a call-in fan who testifies that watching Star Trek helped him cope with his father’s death. The fan reported that the show’s holographic images held a promise of redemption and afterlife that fanatics.jpgoffered him solace .He spoke with religious fervor about Star Trek’s philosophy. The Star Trek message of tolerance was mentioned often by the trekkies interviewed.

Even those who are fans versus fanatics are attracted by Star Trek’s promise of a new, better world.  It offers a safe environment in which to cut loose, don alien costumes and role play an alter ego identify.  Klingons are one of the most popular alien cultures emulated at Star Trek conventions because, in the words of a fan “It lets us express a part of our personality that’s not acceptable”.   

The Star Trek philosophy is not a New Age philosophy. New Age stresses the spirituality and actualization of the self. In contrast, the Star Trek philosophy stresses collaboration and the good of the group, although it does respect the individual. There is also the Star Trek adherence to community principles such as the Prime Directive and the ruling of the Council. Such automatic deference to higher authority would not be appropriate for a New Age movement offshoot.  klingon.jpg

So how do you define a Star Trek fan versus a fanatic? The guy who wears a Klingon costume and can quote Star Trek trivia may be just a fan. The guy who speaks Klingon and pays $1500 for “speedbumps”(Klingon furrowed headgear) has probably passed over to the realm of the fanatic. For the latter group, Star Trek is the context of their life.              

Demon Sidekick: Frankenstein

April 2, 2007 at 4:06 am | Posted in genre fiction, horror, monsters, sidekick | Leave a comment

frankenstein-movie.jpgCameron, Ann (2002). Sidekicks in American Literature. Series in American Literature . Volume 55:  New York:  The Edwin Mellen Press.  

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1818). Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Random House.             

The Oxford dictionary declares that “sidekick” was derived from “side-kicker”, 17th Century gambling slang for a “strong card held in reserve”. Thus, it is the sidekick’s role to serve as support or backup for a fictional hero. The sidekick assumes subservient status because of his inferior intelligence, class or power (e.g. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote). Despite this subordinate position, the sidekick represents a powerful force for good. He personifies integrity and the voice of reason, tempering the hero’s idealistic exuberance. The sidekick serves as a mediator between realms of good and evil, shielding the hero from danger.             

Although the sidekick is typically a positive character, there is also the literary tradition of the “demon sidekick”. As Cameron (2002) explains in Sidekicks in American Literature, the demon sidekick has a threefold role: “probe for the truth, punish the guilty, and call into question the established order”. The demon sidekick can run the emotional gamut from prankster or mischievous sprite (like Shakespeare’s Puck) to evil incarnate (like a fallen archangel). According to Cameron, the demon sidekick is an outcast, morally corrupt and physically repulsive. Like all sidekicks, these characters provides insight into hidden aspects of the hero’s scarlet-letter.jpgpersonality. What the demon sidekick reveals are the hero’s dark side, weaknesses and perhaps a flawed alter ego. This revelation will provoke a power struggle between hero and demon, as illustrated by the confrontation in The Scarlet Letter between Reverend Dimmesdale and evil Roger Chillingworth.              

Within the horror genre, the monster in Frankenstein is the classic demon sidekick. The monster transforms from yearning innocent to vengeful villain after years of abuse from humans. What twists the monster’s instincts from good to evil is Dr. Frankenstein’s failure to accept the horrid creature as his own. The monster’s external physical deformity spreads to a deformity of spirit when faced with the truth: the scientist will not accept responsibility for his selfish violation of nature’s laws. At first, the monster is just a stalker, lurking close to where Frankenstein is living. Next, the monster taunts and threatens his creator.When the sidekick is still ignored, the monster seeks revenge, punishing Frankenstein by murdering his loved ones. Murdered first is the scientist’s young brother, then his guileless bride Elizabeth and finally Henry, his dear friend and exemplar of the “good sidekick”.  

mini-me.jpgThe creature challenges the established order by trying to coerce Frankenstein into creating a female monster as a mate. When the scientist rejects its proposal, the monster goes on a rampage of death and destruction that can have only one end. The novel’s climax reflects the standard fate described by Cameron (2002): the hero/master dies, and with him, dies the demon sidekick. What does vary is whether either character expresses remorse for his actions. In Frankenstein, the monster reacts to his creator’s death with surprise, anger, satisfaction, remorse and finally self-loathing. 

Reading the Romance

March 6, 2007 at 4:56 am | Posted in genre fiction, pop culture, romance | Leave a comment

Radway. J. A. (1984). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill,NC:Univ.of North Carolina Press.

Berger, A.A. (1992) Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. NY: Sage Press.  

radway_reading.jpgWhy do women read romantic fiction?

How is the romance narrative structure defined ?

What makes a romance a success or a “garbage dump” candidate?flame-and-flower.jpg

Professor Radway (Faculty, UNC and Duke ) explored these questions in a  provocative 1984 field study of reading “motives, habits, rewards”  for 42 Midwestern romance readers. Radway approached the research first as an  ethnography of reading: how different communities interpret text. However, Radway soon realized that it was necessary to examine the text’s meaning within the context of the reader’s response to the event or behavior of reading. Her approach reflects a multi-disciplinary approach combining social science methodology with anthropology as well as literary and sociocultural analysis. Radway’s research attempts to address both feminist and psychoanalytic interpretations of romance’s lure. 

Reader Motives: Most of Radway’s subjects  expended significant energy nurturing their families, receiving minimal appreciation in return.  For these self-sacrificing souls, romance reading provided a critical outlet for escape, relaxation and security (p 60-61). “We read books so we won’t cry” is how one subject explained her habit. These women viewed the solitary, deliberate act of reading as a “declaration of independence” –It is my time. In the context of 1970-90s popular culture, this sentiment is summed up by the bath salts ad: “Calgon take me away!”   

While Radway’s interviewees stressed they were happily married, their comments revealed that romance novels fulfilled needs and desires their bona fide male partner did not. I was fascinated by Radway’s interpretation of romance readers’ drive as an “ongoing search for the mother” as feelings of  love, acceptance and security are vicariously consummated in the man-woman relationship. I remain skeptical concerningRadway’s application of Chodorow’s feminist interpretation (Chapter 3) with her contention that romance novels help women resolve their ambivalence and fear of male/paternal dominance. 

Narrative Structure Radway (p 67) summarizes  reader feedback on the 3 most important ingredients in romance. The narrative begins with tension created of clashing, binary  character traits between the heroine and hero. The classic heroine is virginal, unconcerned/unaware of her beauty, intelligent and yearning for love and commitment. In contrast, the classic romantic hero is sexually experienced, emotionally detached, and aware of his devastating good looks.

Radway’s discussion of binary traits  (p 132) echoes Berger’s (1992) discussion of bipolarity in popular culture genres, such as the battle of “good vs. evil” in Dr. No.  Moreover, Radway employs a variant of Propp’s analytical method by determining that the ideal  romances follows a  13 narrative structure (p 134)  from 1) destruction of heroine’s social identity (loss, poverty, disgrace,,,) through antagonism to physical separation of protagonists to 12) heroine responds  emotionally, physically and 13) heroine’s identity is restored.   

Ideal vs Failed Romance A true romance focuses on the one man-one woman relationship. If there is a rape scene, it arises from the hero’s misunderstanding about the heroine’s past and results in aggrieved repentance and hero reformation. There must be a happy ending, culminating in a committed relationship if not a marriage.  

Once these narrative guidelines were revealed in reader responses, one can readily discern the “failed romances”. Readers rejected romances that emphasized sex and physical attraction divorced from love (p 74). Equally unacceptable were novels with promiscuious heroines juggling more than one love interest or narratives containing physical violence and brutality against the main characters. While many of the failures proferred a “happy ending”, readers felt the ending lacked credibility because no true resolution and character bonding had occurred prior to the afterthought ending.

What is your reading history?

January 21, 2007 at 10:00 am | Posted in genre fiction, librarian, non-fiction, reading history | Leave a comment

girl-reading.jpgMy family swears that my head was perpetually in a book from ages 4 to 14. My two earliest memories are of Golden Book bedtime stories with my dad, and of receiving my first mail: monthly books from Dr. Seuss’s book club. The prized possession of my childhood book collection was an illustrated encyclopedia set from A&P supermarket. I suspect my current preference for non-fiction traces back to hours spent pouring over the garish color drawings and text in those spare volumes.  

I discovered the Little House on the Prairie books in third grade( age 8). These books were a portal to an alternative universe for a city kid whose artsy parents thought a field trip was only a visit to the Met. I’d bike to the park, sit under a tree, and be transported, captivated by the challenges of frontier life.I raced through the series in about a year, and remember being dejected when I ran out of books to read. I think I switched to Nancy Drew  mysteries then, which propelled me through elementary school.

Next came an obsession with comic books, particularly Mad magazine and the Archie series. I never got interested in superhero or science fiction comics, but I did turn to science fiction stories and novellas during the early high school years. I gravitated toward Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer and Isaac Asimov. I recall that I didn’t care much for LeGuin-style fantasy/sci fi works.

In middle school, I enjoyed the Austen and Bronte classics, but this interest in historical romance led only to a dalliance with Georgette Heyer novels in 8-9th grade. In 9th grade, I read Gone with the Wind, after which other romances paled by comparison, so I gave them up. As a high school junior, I read a lot of existential and absurdist works by authors such as Kafka, Ionesco, Brecht and Beckett.  Starting in college, I stopped reading fiction altogether for over two decades, though this wasn’t a conscious decision at the time. Instead, I watched a lot of movies, some TV, listened to music and read the occasional essay, magazine, short story or non-fiction best seller. My husband wasn’t a pleasure reader in those days, so it seemed anti-social to read during a precious hour or two of free time.  

Even today, as a librarian-in-training, I feel guilty “reading for pleasure” unless I’m on vacation, killing time or required to read for a class. For a free read, I’ll peruse a magazine or seek a  best-selling non-fiction book of travel, psychology, popular culture, technology or science. I confess to enjoying a good “chick lit” or “cozy mystery” as a way to unwind after a grueling day.

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