November 17, 2017

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“American Born Chinese” Opens Windows and Shines Mirrors | SLJ Summit 2017

 

Gene Luen Yang at SLJ‘s Leadership Summit in Nashville. All photos by Kerry Woo for School Library Journal.

Talking with adolescents about race and identity is important but may also feel daunting. At Jesuit High School (JHS) in Portland, OR, Gene Luen Yang’s Printz Award–winning graphic novel American Born Chinese has made these discussions more effective. During the “Using Graphic Novels To Develop Racial Literacy in Teens” panel at SLJ’s October 7 Leadership Summit in Nashville, educators and high school seniors at JHS expounded on how the book facilitated conversations and led to often painful realizations. Though National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Yang was also on hand, it was the teens’ insightful comments that had the greatest impact.

Gregory Lum, a librarian at JHS, addressed his complicated feelings about the book, which centers on Jin, a teen born in the United States but whose parents are Chinese. Yang weaves in other narratives to convey Jin’s complex relationship with his ethnicity; one subplot involves a Chinese exchange student named Chin-Kee, an embodiment of stereotypes, who represents Jin’s self-loathing as he grapples with how his culture is perceived by white Americans. Lum said he was repelled by the book at first but eventually fell in love with it, calling it “empowering” and nominating it for the YALSA Best Books list.

From left: Megan Mathes, Gregory Lum; Gregory Lum, Paul Danowski; James Pecore, Amanda France, Gene Luen Yang

English teacher Megan Mathes explained how American Born Chinese has opened the door to nuanced discussions about race and identity at JHS. In order to spur her students, who are predominantly white, to read titles by and about people of color, she began incorporating the novel into her curriculum. Many white students, however, insisted that they couldn’t relate and refused to acknowledge that Jin’s struggles had to do with the racism he faced. Her nonwhite students, on the other hand, often identified with the book but felt uncomfortable expressing their opinions.

Mathes realized her white students lacked the tools to analyze books about race and racism. Using Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, an in-depth look at the history and language of comics, Mathes “developed a series of lessons that gave my students a way into conversations about race without creating too much racial stress.” Mathes examined the “grammar of comics,” or elements such as color, layout, symbols, and composition, to help students identify pivotal moments in the text. Though Mathes still encounters obstacles, she said, overall her students are developing a fuller understanding of race.

With guidance from Lum, the teens shared their reactions to the book. Several referenced Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of windows and mirrors (windows are titles that offer readers a perspective on a new world; mirrors reflect readers’ experiences). Paul Danowski, a student at JHS, called American Born Chinese both a window and mirror: though it depicted an experience with which he was unfamiliar, it also allowed him to recognize times when he had been insensitive or hurtful.

For James Pecore, also a student at JHS, the book resonated on a personal level. He and his brother are both gay, and the teen related how his brother, feeling discomfort with his own sexuality, once said that what he perceived as Pecore’s flamboyance or effeminate behavior provoked the revulsion many feel toward Chin-Kee.

Yang said, “When you talk explicitly about stereotypes, you always run the danger of perpetuating [them].” He added, “First Second, my publisher, and I were trusting that this book would be read in thoughtful communities, and that’s exactly what [this] is.” He called the panel “a balm for all my fears.”

From left: Paul Danowski, Sahana Jayaraman

Sahana Jayaraman noted that while many of her fellow students felt tension when discussing the book, for her the book was “liberating.” “This was me finally voicing all the things I felt for the majority of my self-aware life,” she said.

She added, “But there were other moments when the mirror wasn’t quite so welcome.” A wordless passage in which Jin wonders if the girl he likes, Amelia, would return his feelings if he had curly blond hair, like her friend Greg, who is white, forced Jayaraman to reflect on her middle school years, when she was one of only two nonwhite students. The white students wore makeup, but Jayaraman didn’t, and she seized upon this trait as an “arbitrary marker of difference.” After studying the book in class, she realized that her decision to start wearing makeup was an effort to assimilate.

Pecore described a scene in the book when Jin kisses his friend Wei-Chin’s girlfriend, Suzy, who is of Japanese descent but was born in the United States and can relate to the turmoil Jin goes through as an Asian American in a mostly white environment. Later, Jin takes out his frustration on Wei-Chin, who was born in Taiwan and came to the United States as a child: “Maybe I think she can do better than an F.O.B. like you.” Jin’s revulsion toward his heritage “inspires him to close himself off…socially and emotionally from people who exemplify that culture. It breaks my heart,” said Pecore.

Yang explained that that scene was rooted in his experiences in junior high school, when he and his friends, who were of Chinese descent but born in the United States, bullied a group of Chinese boys who came to the United States as children and spoke with accents. “We felt different from the majority culture around us. We took out that difference on the kids that we thought of as even more different than we were.”

For Amanda France, who is part Chinese, the very act of reading a book about Chinese culture in a mostly white class was jarring. “I felt weirdly defensive of it, and that’s not the book’s fault. It’s just the result of not having that representation normally in class.” In the end, France was pleased that many students felt a deep connection to the title, which sparked conversations.

She also warned against making this the sole narrative about Asian Americans. Though she identified with it, she didn’t feel it reflected her personal experience. But through class discussions, she said, students were able to share many different stories.

Jayaraman stressed that librarians must make the book available to their patrons. “The display of diversity you see up here only happened because of this book, because of that class, because we had that conversation.” However, she urged caution, stating that when she first read the novel, at age nine, it raised issues she felt ill prepared to confront as a child.

“You also have to give them the resources to process this book, and you have to give it to them at an age and at a time when…they have the mental capacity to read this book.”

From left: Paul Danowski, Sahana Jayaraman, James Pecore, Amanda France, Gene Luen Yang

Pecore advised librarians to reconsider the term microaggression, which describes everyday slights that convey painful insults to people of color, LGBTQ people, and others outside the dominant culture. Referencing a time when another teen yelled a homophobic slur at him, he said that micro implies that the insult is something small and that aggression suggests that it’s about one person. “I did not feel like he was angry at me…and I don’t feel that he was what was making me so horrified.” Pecore instead proposed macro-oppression, because it takes into account that both aggressors and victims are affected by larger, societal attitudes. “What is oppressing you to make you lash out like that?”

Macro-oppression, said Pecore, rejects the idea that “there’s an enemy who has power over me and there’s a victim. It starts saying we are both oppressed by the same thing that horrifies the both of us.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Comments

  1. Dulce G Gonzales says:

    Thank you for highlighting this novel. I am interested in reading it. I also thought the term macro-oppression is an accurate descriptor of everyday behavior many of us are unaware of. It is more encompassing and I would like to learn more about it.

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