Tuesday, 25 January 2011

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On teaching racially fraught literature in racially diverse classrooms (American Born Chinese) The two problems that confront any author attempting to write a confessional comic are likely best summarized in these two sequences from Art Spieglman's Maus: In short: how are painful memories and painfully stereotypical people best represented in a medium associated with childishness? I'll discuss Spiegelman's answer to this question in more detail when I teach Maus in a few weeks. For now, it is enough to pose it and identify it as a critical problem faced by all non-white authors, including that of American Born Chinese, Gene Yang. Unlike Maus, in which an already assimilated Art Spiegelman is depicting his decidedly unassimilated father, American Born Chinese is very much concerned with the process of assimilation: what is gained, what is lost, etc. For example: Those panels are not consecutive, but they do get the point across: the central metaphor of the novel is a Transformer toy and its primary function is as a figure of the costs and benefits of cultural assimilation. Is it better to be a robot who can turn into a car or a car that can turn into a robot? If you can move between the two states fluidly which one is the default? Most students claim that it is better to be a robot who can turn into a car then a car that can turn into a robot, and the fact that I used the relative pronoun "who" to refer to the robot and "that" to refer to the car betrays why: the robot is seen to have greater agency even though it still thinks, is still sentient, as a car. Map that onto to the assimilation debate and you end up with this: To undergo this transformation, Jin Wang must "forfeit [his] soul," which indicates fairly strongly that his essential identity is Chinese and points to what I think is a central problem with this book: it can easily be mistaken as an argument in favor of identitarian politics. Map the moment-to-moment transition in that panel there back onto the Transformer metaphor and it is clearly better to be a vanilla robot than a robot who can transform into a car because a vanilla robot still possesses its soul, whereas a transforming robot has forfeited its. I don't actually think that's a tenable reading of the book, but it's certainly a palpable one when, for example, your student population consists largely of Asian-American students whose parents have insisted on the cultural superiority of the Asian half of that equation for their entire young lives. The reason I don't find the superior-of-the-still-ensouled-robot reading defensible is that these same students sympathize strongly with Wang; that is, they prefer their culture to that of their parents. Except their culture isn't the lily white "American" one that Yang offers as an alternative to the "Asian." It's profoundly hybrid. Yang understands this, as is evident from the fact that the typical "American" storyline—which interleaves with a repurposing of Journy to the West and Wang's bildungsroman—initially and explicitly...

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