Monday, 26 September 2011

American Born Chinese

I briefly mentioned Catholic Manga a little while back (click here to see the book they produced for World Youth Day) so it's now time to mention a Graphic Novel which has set new standards, Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, which was the first Graphic Novel to be shortlisted for the National Book Award.

The book deals with questions of American Chinese identity by bringing three apparently unrelated tales together with an unexpected twist. One of these tales is a fascinating reworking of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

Yang reimagines this Buddhist classic as a Christian tale because, as he explains in this fascinating interview, "there is an idea within Christianity of intention behind your identity, that there is this outside agency that actually intended you to be who you are. Asian Americans tend to be caught in a place where we don’t fit into our culture of origin and we don’t fit into the culture we find ourselves in. Thus, this idea of intention is very powerful and that was what I wanted to explore."

"[T]he two biggest pieces of my identity," he explains, "are my ethnicity and my religion [Yang is a Catholic]" but that doesn't mean that he produces Catholic propaganda. Far from it. As he has explained elsewhere his philosophy is to "live your faith and then write your life."

Yang has also published The Rosary Comic Book but American Born Chinese is his masterpiece (so far). You can see and hear him speaking briefly about it here.

So how might we incorporate this book into our lessons? I can suggest two ways. Colin Teevan's knockabout version of Journey to the West is sometimes performed in schools so American Born Chinese would fit in well here. 

At another level, I was speaking the other day to some 6th Formers who are looking at the issue of identity in novels such as Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yang's novel would, at the very least, provide some interesting contextual material for anyone looking at this whole question of identity.

And finally, while we're loosely on the topic, it's worth remembering that Yang isn't simply introducing a western religious concept into Chinese literature. Christianity, like Buddhism, may be a foreign import into China but, like Buddhism, its been around for a very long time. If you want to explore the topic further I'd recommend Jean Charbonnier's Christians in China: AD 600 to 2000, Liam Brockey's  Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 and Jonathan Chaves' book about the Catholic priest, artist and poet, Wu Li.

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