Comics as Asian Am Literature: The Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew) review Part 1


A multi-part review of Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s Shadow Hero, just released. This is a spoiler-free entry, but the future parts of this review will be spoiler-replete.

Gene Yang balances many things in ways that I appreciate.  He’s interested in China, invests in research, and makes his Chinese origins matter.  But he doesn’t obsess, is not afraid to syncretically remix and spin traditions and stories in the service of his storytelling as a Chinese American.  His storytelling itself is an art of ambivalences.  Observe the way that Boxers and Saints is designed to be structurally a dialectic, two takes that cross paths, demanding your sympathies and horror at both sides.  This is a typically Gene Yang kind of humanizing move.

One could accuse Yang of thus being dodgy and tricky in this way, slippery in not taking sides.  And one would then be veering into racist territory.  One would be misinterpreting the craft and force of taking such positions, the way that Hank’s super-abilities are mis-interpreted.  But more on that later.

I say this at the top because I think Yang has accomplished in Shadow Hero what he has done similarly in Boxers and Saints and American Born Chinese, and what’s interesting is how he has done it in the realm of superhero comics.  This is not an acerbic deconstruction of the genre, a lá Watchmen.  Nor is it a fawning tribute meekly submitted by an acolyte hoping to be accepted in its ranks.

As Yang has said, superheroes are about America and what America is, but moreover superheroes are about immigrants and the experience of immigration (Yang cites Superman of the Kryptonian diaspora and his creators’ Jewish backgrounds; see Kavalier and Klay).  Chris Sims’ review here summarizes the book well and offers the same ringing endorsement that I would (some spoilers there), but in calling the book primarily a tribute to Golden Age superheroes, I think the review misses the other half of the dialectic, the sharp critique that the book continually poses to racial politics, from its title and cover through its narrative and conclusion.

The book’s background story, Yang and Liew discuss in interviews and explain in the back of the book, is a short-lived comic book character called the Green Turtle created by a Chinese comic artist named Chu Hing in 1944, who was censored by his publisher from depicting the Chinese American superhero he wanted.  The Green Turtle’s face is always obscured in the original 1940’s comic in the deft move of never having to either accede nor disqualify the possibility that the Green Turtle is Chinese, and Chu Hing used even more acrobatics (or kung fu) of storytelling to evade an origin story.  Yang and Liew use this as a jumping off point, is to fill in this origin-story gap, to complete the circle of the subversion that the story was meant to be, right down to explaining the strange pink coloration of the Green Turtle’s skin that Hing’s publisher used to try to whitewash the character.  I think providing an origin story for a character who seems to arrive from out of nowhere is itself a crucial cultural/political endeavor.

I think what Yang has done again, and done so well, is consistent with the tenor and tactic of his previous work: to sharply, and lovingly, expose the exclusionary practices of America’s anti-Asian strains, its systemic orientalism and co-optive minstrelsy, and yet to portray the Asian American/immigrant response in its complexity, from glittery-eyed full participation in America’s dreams to noble and sacrificial resistance to calculated exploitation, whether strategic or venal.  The book is fun to read, and I’d give it to a kid, just like Yang’s other books.  But its depth is in the really deft ways it plays with race, history, and comics, and I wouldn’t let the ease with which you can consume it keep you from thinking about those various dialectics and ambivalences it deals with.

More details on all of this in coming posts, including the book’s treatment of gender, superheroes and powers, and Chinese American history, popular culture and genre, and Liew and Yang’s use of graphic narration.  Like I said, I’ll go into detail in the analysis, so you should get the book and read it before going further.  The paperback released today has stuff I think the Kindle book is missing, so it’s worth the wait.

The Empowering and Burdening Work of Transculturations

The science behind the cognitive benefits of multilingualism is well established.  But maybe we think about it too simplistically when we suppose that it’s merely toggling between language systems making the mind more flexible and adaptable.  That much is true, but there’s much more going on in multilingual experiences, I think.

Here, as always, the children are instructive.  Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s Translating Childhoods is based on ethnographic research with children engaged in language brokering practices, the kind of thing immigrant children know quite well: answering and making phone calls for their parents with the Department of Motor Vehicles or pizza delivery, translating (or arguing with proud parents about the translation of) documents from the mail way over their heads , etc.

Orellana’s chapter on the multiple positions and roles that children translating in parent-teacher conferences must take on, entitled “Transculturations,” unpacks the potential complexities of multilingualism really nicely.  Translating for the parents and teachers, these children are certainly not purely conveying information verbatim– the extremely tricky nature of translation makes that impossible.

The immense subtleties of language that have so much impact on communication between parties have to get juggled by kids with still-emergent command of those nuances.  One example from Orellana’s chapter’s involves a teacher saying, “tell your mom she has a lot to be proud of,” an ostensibly simple pragmatic act riddled with complexities in meaning, implication, and positioning.  Convey to your mother some form of hedging or qualifying statement that suggests that, in spite of the criticisms you’ve already heard from me, I intend for you to feel affirmed in those aspects of parenting which you clutch on to in the face of these criticism [my extreme extrapolation, not author’s.]  Instead, the child ends up with, “Dice que tú tienes que estar muy, um agradecida por mí [He says that you have to be very, um, grateful for me].”

Moreover, in these situations, the stakes are high and the subject about which these children are translating (not just language but huge communicatively complex and culturally nuanced moves) is none other than themselves and their schooling.  This begins to unfold the multiple complexities inherent in a multilingual child’s situation.  Contrast this with the monolingual kid who sits at home while mom or dad attends a parent teacher conference and comes back to report that the child better start turning in her homework every day.  The experience of schooling, relationships, and language is utterly different.

And when I say language, I’d emphasize, not just language in terms of systems, but language in terms of worlds, cultural worlds, worlds of meaning and expectations and imagination.  The child is constantly translating those worlds.  Transculturing.

A research project I did with transnational students writing their college application essays revealed the same complexity, the juggling of not just the Spanish or English or Cantonese or English versions of the same words, but juggling multiple cultural worlds, the sense-making systems of vastly diverse experiences.  I’ve worked with many students on college application essays.  It’s always a complex task.  For some of the multilingual students I’ve worked with, their inhabiting multiple worlds provides them the resources, the allusions, the imaginations, the aspirations to write themselves as extremely cosmopolitan and knowledgeable young people.  But for others and also for those same students, there’s something overwhelming, almost crippling, about the burden of representing a summary of themselves, who they are and what they hope to become, when they consider the mad complex of their multiple experiences.  Many monolingual students wind up writing about that one trip they took somewhere once where they learned how the rest of the world lives.  For these students, this was a lifetime’s experience.

Transculturation.  Great power and great burden.


Long Term English Language Learners and Social Languages

I owe much to Laurie Olsen, Guadalupe Valdez, and Kate Menken, scholars who have studied English Language Learners and helped us to understand the dimensions of their experiences, needs, and schooling.  I also appreciate Kate Kinsella’s contributions to the practical and pedagogical arsenal of teaching ELLs, though I have to admit that I have absorbed most of it secondhand.  From that quite extensive secondhand exposure, though, I have to tease out a nuance, maybe a point of difference between my thinking about ELLs (and especially Long-Termers) and what I’ve seen Kinsella advocate.

First, if you don’t know what I’m referring to when I talk about Long Term ELLs, I encourage you to read Laurie Olsen’s Californians Together report, or for something shorter Menken and Kleyn’s article, or for something longer and broader Guadalupe Valdez’s book on Latino students and ELs.

Kinsella has provided really useful teaching tools to help explicitly teach academic language to English Language Learners.  In a similar philosophical vein to how Lisa Delpit overcame the thesis-antithesis of “teach standardized English” versus “honor children’s own languages and voices” by pointing out the need to explicitly provide students with the language of the culture of power, Kinsella has developed and popularized ways of giving ELLs the linguistic structures (with explicit tools but implicit modes of acquisition, I would say) of academic English.

She has also painted a picture of the English classroom being a place that often doesn’t exist for Long Term ELs, a haven of comprehensible and contextualized academic language, a place where “they get what they don’t get at home but other kids do.”  Not in what Kinsella says but in the way teachers often interpret this, I think there’s the idea that ELs are deprived of exposure to academic forms of language like one might encounter when one’s parents listen to NPR on the drive to school or indulge in reading passages of David Brooks at the dinner table or something like that.    It dovetails nicely with the research about kids in lower-income homes who have language or vocabulary gaps that are powerfully determinative.

But it also rings of the verbal deprivation arguments once made about African American children, and other such arguments throughout history, many of which have been debunked but all of which reflect a certain ideology about what language is valuable and meritorious and what language is less valuable.  I don’t want to get into the circular reasoning about languages of power (such as academic English) being valuable because they are powerful and being powerful because they are valuable.  But I do want to extend the metaphor of certain varieties and registers of language serving as a kind of capital, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated, or as a kind of currency with exchange value in particular markets.  Yes, languages are like currency or capital.  Yes, it serves children to teach them to how to acquire and use such currency so that in social settings with real economic and psychological consequences, they can transact in these symbolic markets.  Yes, we should explicitly teach kids academic English.

But the thing about currency and markets that we have remember as well is that they hold value because they belong to human, social systems of belief and belonging.  As such, the value differs depending on which social group you belong to or inhabit, or attempt to cross boundaries into.  Anyone who has ever tried to use foreign currency in a US store, or has struggled to understand why any kid (or grownup) would spend hundreds of dollars on a baseball card or Pokemon card or comic book, understands the idea that exchange value exists within certain communities and social circles because .  And that in fact, different exchange values interact, intersect, and conflict in various ways among different social groups, in different communities and institutions, and for different purposes.

This is true of language as well.  My favorite example is the frequently funny and often outrageous use of English words in signage or clothing in Chinese-speaking countries, which English speakers often find inconceivable until they understand that oftentimes the purpose of the English is not to accurately convey descriptive information so much as to serve as a kind of symbolic decoration.  It’s much easier to understand if you think of the phenomenon of tattoos of Chinese characters on non-Chinese Americans, where the meanings, nuances, and connotations of the words in their “native” settings defer to the aesthetics of the words in the new setting.  All of this to say that languages are currencies, but they are currencies that have differential symbolic value for different people, and they can’t always be given, taken, or used in a pure calculation of simple addition and subtraction.

Therefore, while I agree that there is power in teaching children to punctuate properly or use the appropriate pronouns in a job interview, my problem with the “my classroom will be the 100% haven of academic language for these children who are deprived of it” approach is that it assumes that children are already locked in and ready to take on the symbolic exchange values of academic language with the same meanings and same calculations as all other children.  I don’t think this is a safe assumption.  In fact, oftentimes the reasons they have been marginalized from acquiring and appropriating those linguistic markers is not that they have not been read to, had the chance to watch CNN, or been given lessons on subject-verb agreement, especially long term ELLs.  Oftentimes, they have been marginalized because those languages and lessons have not been socially meaningful to them, have not had the exchange value that they have for other kids, and in some cases have even had the reverse value.  For some of them, school language is the language of the other, even the language of the enemy, as much as it may also be at the same time the language of opportunity and important communication.  To teachers, such a resistant attitude seem like a counterproductive, self-inflicted wound, but for kids, there are often good and reasonable, real and often socially and historical rooted causes.

This is not to say that all Long Term ELs resist acquiring academic English or don’t value it.  It’s not so simple.  I would just put it this way: teachers of academic English have to think not only about making academic English explicit and accessible to students, but also to introduce and maybe reconfigure its significance, its contexts, and the people for whom it is meaningful and how students relate to those people.  We have to be thoughtful as teachers about the aspects of identity, belonging, participation, performance, and association that are involved in acquiring academic English for our students, and how we intervene in those social and cultural dimensions.  Besides teaching how to use and value the currency, we have to consider how the community that the currency counts is one that students know, feel part of, have reciprocal significance with, etc.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the classroom should be the haven of 100% academic English.  There’s great value in exposure, in comprehensible input, in saturation and immersion in the target language, in models and tokens and so on.  But if academic English is already somehow isolating to students, if there’s a need for teachers to be models of the way humans move between language groups, can identify with being a Spanish speaker or a culture consumer or a game spitter as well as an academic English teacher, then an injunction to rigid all-classroom-language monolingualism compels the wrong model.  I feel that long term English learners need models of mobility, not of fixity.  If the monolith of standard English was going to be intrinsically appealing to them as a language of the heart, a language of home, a language of expression, it would have become so already.  It has not, and we have to mitigate the alienating effects of it with a greater linguistic consciousness than a blunt either/or raw exposure effect.  This might mean being code-switchers and code-meshers in the classroom.  This might mean showing how different signifiers, different dialects, different registers can be meaningfully mixed and crossed.  This might mean cultivating multi-multi-linguals instead of just better academic English users.  Those social languages, of which academic English is but one, one that has to be made social and relational for students, can’t be artificially divorced and divided when we’re asking kids to manifest their mixing.




Spiritual gifts, power, and restraint.

“What shall we say then, brothers and sisters?  When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.  Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”   -1 Cor 14:26

A dimension of the life filled with Christ is that the same dialectic that played out with Jesus–in full–plays out in us–in part and collectively.  I mean the dialectic of His charismatic power and His loving restraint.  To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is to believe–with a kind of giddy gladness even–that He had (and has) the power to heal, save, calm storms, multiply loaves, etc.  But though we might be giddy and delighted about these potentialities, He in His wisdom and kindness exercises restraint, primarily concerned not with flash or gratification, with instantaneous results, even frankly with our perceived well-being and ideas of justice.  These make us demand the exercise of these powers, demands which He must have perfect compassion for, when we cry for dying children, when we ask for renewed hope and opportunity, when we ache for equity.  Couldn’t God swoop His magisterial hand and clear away sin and abuse and violence, and banish pain and hardship?  Wouldn’t that be what a loving God would do?

But pictures of the meaning of His restraint remind us that what God is primarily concerned with is His ultimate project of redemption, which paradoxically relies on His great power but demonstrated in the most mundane and un-flashy of ways.  Jairus daughter is allowed to die as Jesus is slowed by a roadside bother.  Lazarus too, by His delay.  Wine, loaves, and fishes are transmogrified from nothingness– a few times; but meanwhile, many go hungry and listless.  Despite his public campaign, He asks again and again for His best prospective publicists to keep quiet about the mystery.  And of course, all this not to mention the greatest act of restraint, obedience unto death, not only the not-calling forth of angel armies against the centurions, but the ultimate submission to the very sharp edge of human limitation, death itself.  All of these, and many more, examples of Jesus’ restraint demonstrates that both the exercise of His power and the non-exercise of His power are purposeful.

And the driving purpose is the ultimate redemption of the human beings He loves so fully.  Jairus and Martha’s belief.  The crowd’s right recognition of God and goodness.  A salvation by faith and not coercion or manipulation.  These are the fruits of Jesus’ restraint, and they involve how fully He loves us because they are about us developing farther from the distorted, expectant, often petulant, sometimes faithless flesh-creatures we become towards the patient, loving, afflicted but joyful creation that we were made to be.

This power and restraint dialectic exists in the body of believers too.  It’s part of the gospel, I believe– maybe part 5 or 7, but part of it nonetheless.  Creation, sin, Israel, cross and Easter, Pentecost, and then the church being everything the church is called to be.  But as part of the same unfolding story, we are caught up in the same dialectic in our practice of Christian life together.  If our community of brethren does not welcome the exercise of charismata, of words of instruction and wisdom, of songs and tongues, of service and worship, from the diverse corners of His body, and we are caught up in personality cults and territorial disputes, then we have failed to see Christ’s plan of His power endowed to all His people, the authority granted by the Father to the Son through the Spirit unto we His children.  But at the same time, if we who’ve been given those gifts do not act with loving restraint for the prime directive of loving His bride, serving His mission, and manifesting His project, we are in error.

The question for us who have been undeservedly saved is, now that I have been granted these freedoms and gifts, am I cultivating them and exercising them with faith in their tremendous power?  And then, at the very same time, am I restraining them and attending to their appropriate exercise so that the point is not those gifts or my role, but the point is the good of God’s people?