(Full name Laurence Michael Yep) American novelist, playwright, editor, autobiographer, and author of folklore, juvenile novels, juvenile short stories, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Yep's career through 2007. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volumes 3, 17, and 54.
A noted novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, Yep is one of the first Asian-American writers to dedicate himself to bringing the cultural values and historical significance of Chinese Americans into literature for young readers. Often biographical in nature, Yep's works highlight the "outsider" role, capturing the sense of displacement often felt by immigrants and children of immigrants. While this narrative strategy is often recognized as giving a voice to a neglected segment of American society, particularly Asian Americans, Yep's contemplation of what it means to be different often echoes the uncertain identities of a disparate teenage readership, earning his works a large and diverse audience. Winner of several important awards within the children's literature genre—including a Newbery Honor selection for Dragonwings (1975)—Yep is perhaps best known for his "Golden Mountain Chronicles," an ongoing series which relates the immigrant stories of seven generations of the Young family, from their small Chinese village in Kwangtung in the mid-nineteenth century to their difficult adaptation to their new American home. For Yep, as he notes in the preface to these books, the series "represent[s] my version of Chinese America—in its tears and its laughter, its hunger and its fears, and in all its hopes and dreams." Now the author of over sixty books for young readers across several genres, including mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction, Yep is perhaps the most prominent contemporary Asian-American children's writer.
Yep was born on June 14, 1948, in San Francisco, California. His parents, Thomas Gim and Franche Yep, ran a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and the young Yep attended a bilingual parochial school whose student body was drawn primarily from San Francisco's large Chinatown area. Yep spoke no Chinese, being a second-generation Chinese American, which earned him the scorn of many of his Chinese-speaking classmates. His father had emigrated from China at age ten in 1910, and his mother had been born in Ohio and raised in West Virginia. He began writing while in high school, and one of his teachers challenged him to submit his works to various publications. Published professionally by the age of eighteen, following high school, Yep moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend Marquette University. While at Marquette, Yep was introduced to his future wife, Joanne Ryder, whom he met at the school newspaper. One of Yep's most notable early publications, the 1968 short story "The Selchey Kid," was sold to the science fiction magazine The Worlds of If and was later republished in the anthology The World's Best Science Fiction of 1969. In 1968, after only two years at Marquette, he transferred to the University of California-Santa Cruz, graduating in 1970. He next enrolled in the State University of New York-Buffalo, where he gained his Ph.D. in 1975 and studied under the esteemed novelist John Barth. During his graduate work, he continued to stay in contact with Ryder, who was now an editor at HarperCollins. At her suggestion, Yep tried his hand at writing for young readers, the result of which was his first published book, Sweetwater (1973). After his earning his Ph.D., Yep moved back to California where he worked as a part-time instructor of English at Foothill and San Jose City Colleges while composing his second novel, Dragonwings. The work was a popular and critical success, and Yep began writing full-time. He has taught both creative writing and Asian-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and Santa Barbara. Yep was awarded a NEA fellowship in fiction in 1990. Now the author of a wide canon of works dedicated to capturing the Asian experience in America, Yep's diverse body of literature includes several young adult series—among them, the "Chinatown Mystery" series and the ongoing "Tiger's Apprentice" series—as well as several novels intended for adults. Now mar- ried to Ryder, he resides in Pacific Grove, California, and the ninth book of his "The Golden Mountain Chronicles"—an autobiographical series of juvenile novels—called The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island is scheduled for release in 2008. Yep has received numerous awards and accolades for his body of work, including Newbery Honor Book awards for Dragonwings and Dragon's Gate (1993) and the 2005 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his overall contributions to children's literature, among many others.
Sweetwater, a science-fiction novel published in 1973 while Yep was still a student at SUNY-Buffalo, focuses on Tyree, a young man who belongs to a group of transplanted space-colonists called Argans. Among the first groups to settle the planet Harmony, the Argans are now a racial minority within the planet's growing population, and Tyree and his fellow Silkies—half earth-dweller, half amphibian—must scavenge in order to survive. Their struggle for survival in a frequently hostile environment forms the novel's central thematic concerns with a variety of issues, including family bonds, individual freedom, cultural traditions, and racism. In Yep's second novel, Dragonwings, he forgoes the fantastic allegories of Sweetwater and deals directly with his Chinese-American heritage. In preparation for writing the book, he spent six years researching Chinese-American history, uncovering much information on the bachelor societies that provided a social interchange for Chinese men working in America to provide for their families back in China. In the course of Yep's research, he discovered two brief newspaper articles from the year 1909, detailing the efforts of a Chinese-American bachelor named Fung Joe Guey to build a flying machine. Published in 1975 and reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2000, Dragonwings tells the story of eight-year-old Moon Shadow, a young boy who leaves his mother in China's Middle Kingdom to join his father in the bachelor society of turn-of-the-twentieth-century San Francisco. Moon Shadow's father, Windrider, a kite builder, came to the United States to earn money for his family, but also to explore unknown frontiers. Together, father and son fulfill Windrider's dream of flying his own plane.
Dragonwings is the first volume in Yep's "Golden Mountain Chronicles," a loose-knit novel series following seven generations of a Chinese family across one-and-a-half centuries of history, which includes The Serpent's Children (1984), Mountain Light (1985), Child of the Owl (1977), Sea Glass (1979), Dragon's Gate, Thief of Hearts (1995), and The Traitor (2003). The Serpent's Children is set in nineteenth-century China amid the Taiping Rebellion. The novel concerns Cassia, a young girl who, along with her family, joins a revolutionary brotherhood working to eliminate the corruption brought by the ruling Manchu dynasty and the wealthy landowners in their now-impoverished Kwangtung Province. Mountain Light follows Cassia and her father as they return from a trip through China's Middle Kingdom, joined by another traveler, a young man named Squeaky Lau. On the eventful trip, taken on behalf of the revolution, the clownish Squeaky finds that he possesses his own inner strength and is able to bring out good in others. Although he and Cassia fall in love, Squeaky joins the mass migration to the western United States, "land of the Golden Mountain," where he faces the chaos brought about by the California gold rush. Dragon's Gate continues the story of the revolutionary family as Otter, Cassia's fourteen-year-old adopted son, travels to America and works on the Transcontinental Railroad as part of a Chinese work crew carving a tunnel through the Sierra Nevadas during the 1860s. A winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Child of the Owl, like Dragonwings, is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, but this time, the year is 1960. The plot revolves around Casey, a young Chinese-American girl raised by a gambling-addicted father—and later her suburban uncle—who is confused by her dual American and Chinese heritage. Having been exposed only to American culture and therefore having no means by which to identify with her Chinese background, Casey finds new options for living opened to her when she is sent to live with her grandmother, Paw-Paw, in Chinatown. Paw-Paw tells Casey a lengthy legend about an owl which symbolizes family unity and tradition, providing the young girl with a new way of communicating her feelings. Continuing the "Golden Mountain Chronicles," Sea Glass focuses on Craig Chin, a boy whose search for acceptance by both Caucasians and Chinese Americans ends in rejection. Moving from his home in San Francisco's Chinatown to a small town, Craig is dubbed "Buddha Man" by his Anglo schoolmates and is disparaged by a Chinese neighbor for behaving like "the white demons" he attends school with. Pressures from Craig's sports-minded father to try out for a school team do little to help him assimilate into school culture, but finally, an uncle provides the teen with the tools to help him develop his self-acceptance. In The Traitor Yep brings readers to 1885 and the Wyoming Territory, where he introduces Chinese-American Joseph Young—the son of Otter Young of Dragon's Gate—and Michael Purdy, a Caucasian who is looked down on in his rustic coal-mining town because of his illegitimate birth. Because of their dual outcast status, the boys become friends and, when racial tensions against Chinese mill workers erupt in the event known as the Rock Springs Massacre, the Purdy family helps Joe and his parents escape from the angry mob.
Also rooted in Yep's personal history, The Star Fisher (1991) and its sequel Dream Soul (2000) are based on the lives of the author's parents. The Star Fisher finds fifteen-year-old Joan Chen moving from the Midwest to a small Southern town in the late 1920s. As part of the first and only Chinese-American family to arrive in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Joan finds that she must take early steps in building bridges of understanding in her new community and gradually helps her more traditional parents find a way to assimilate into the community. In Dream Soul Joan is now fifteen. The illness of her strict father causes her to rethink the value of her Chinese heritage, as well as its legends, and, when her family responsibilities increase, Joan is able to deal with a family crisis with both wisdom and maturity. Apart from his family's personal history, Yep also returns readers to the Asian-American past in such books as Hiroshima: A Novella (1995), When the Circus Came to Town (2002), and The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (2006). In Hiroshima, Yep paints a portrait of the events surrounding the U.S. government's decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, thereby accelerating the end of World War II. Focusing on one of the "Hiroshima Maidens"—girls and women who survived the bombing and who were eventually sent to the United States for reconstructive surgery—Yep describes both the actual bombing and its tragic and devastating long-term aftermath. The Earth Dragon Awakes recounts the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which occurred on April 7, 1906, through the experiences of nine-year-old Chin and eight-year-old Henry Travis. Henry is the son of an affluent banker, while Chin, son of the Travis's houseboy, lives with his immigrant family in a lower-class tenement; despite the differences in their family's affluence, the earthquake affects both of their lives in dramatic ways. Also based on an actual event—this time taking place at the turn of the twentieth century—When the Circus Came to Town introduces ten-year-old Ursula, an imaginative girl who lives with her family at a Montana stagecoach station. Fortunate to survive a small-pox epidemic, Ursula is left with a face so disfigured that she fears being seen by others and refuses to help her father in the kitchen. When a Chinese cook named Ah Sam is hired to replace the girl, Ursula befriends the man, and the two realize that they share a love for the circus. When a racist traveler breaks Ah Sam's spirit, Ursula braves the stares of the public to reunite him with his relatives.
In addition to realistic fiction, Yep has also written fantasies and mysteries, as well as a number of novels featuring modern-day children in typical modern-day predicaments. His mystery novels The Mark Twain Murders (1982) and The Tom Sawyer Fires (1984) feature nineteenth-century writer Mark Twain as a young reporter in San Francisco who turns sleuth in response to a series of odd occurrences. Mystery again figures in The Case of the Goblin Pearls (1997), one of a series of books—"The Chinatown Mysteries"—featuring a group of pre-teens who solve mysteries within their Chinese-American communities while also learning about their varied cultural heritage. In The Case of the Goblin Pearls, Lily Lew and her flamboyant actress aunt go in search of a set of priceless pearls stolen from a local sweatshop owner by a masked robber. The first volume in Yep's "Tiger" trilogy for middle-grade readers—which includes Tiger's Blood (2005) and Tiger Magic (2006)—The Tiger's Apprentice (2003) introduces a network of ancient Chinese characters whom, inspired by the Chinese zodiac and ancient Chinese legends, secretly exist on Earth. Eighth-grader Tom Lee is introduced to this network by his elderly grandmother, Mistress Lee, whose cluttered antique store holds the secrets of the Lore, and soon finds his destiny woven into the network. After Mistress Lee is killed by a creature who robs her home of a beautiful artifact, Tom takes her place as a Guardian of the Lore and agrees to help retrieve the artifact, which turns out to be a phoenix egg that will only hatch into a world that has achieved total peace. During his quest for the egg, Tom accepts the guidance of a shapeshifting tiger known as Mr. Hu, another guardian of the egg. Other new friends, such as the dragon Mistral, a golden rat, and a flying monkey, join Tom in his battle against Vatten and his evil Clan of Nine, who hope, by possessing the egg, to harness its power for apocalyptic purposes.
Best known for his juvenile and young adult works, Yep has also reached out to younger audiences with books like Cockroach Cooties (2000), Skunk Scout (2003), and Later, Gator (1995), all of which focus on a young boy named Teddy. In Later, Gator, the boy's prank gift of a creepy-looking alligator back- fires when he realizes that his younger brother actually takes a shine to his new pet, unaware that it will not live long in captivity, while Skunk Scout finds him joining his brother on a camping trip that challenges both the resources and the resilience of the likeable young boys. In addition to full-length fiction, Yep has also compiled several volumes of short stories based on Chinese folktales and legends. The Rainbow People (1989) collects twenty stories adapted from the recollections of Chinese immigrants living in Oakland, California's Chinatown that were recorded by a U.S. government-sponsored program during the 1930s. Many of the stories, which Yep divides into sections according to their theme, have their origins in southern China, the birthplace of many of Oakland's Chinese immigrants. Another story collection, Tongues of Jade (1991), includes both stories and background information that puts each tale, whether it be a ghost story or a love story, into sociological and historical perspective.
While Yep has published several best-selling children's works, his popularity in critical circles almost eclipses his popularity with readers, with children's literature experts devoting a large body of scholarship to his canon. Lingyan Yang and Zhihui Fang have called Yep "[a]rguably the best creative artist in Chinese-American children's and adolescent literature" and further noted that the author is "important to the canon of contemporary American children's literature." Noted fantasy and science fiction writer Andre Norton has called Yep's debut juvenile novel Sweetwater "outstanding. It is difficult to believe that this is a first novel. The extremely competent handling of alien background, plus excellent characterization, suggests rather a long apprenticeship in the craft." This critical appreciation for his distinct narrative voice continues today as evidenced in such reviews as Horn Book Magazine's assessment of Star Fisher, which they have termed "disturbing but never depressing, poignant but not melancholy, for the principal characters … are individuals with a strong sense of their own worth, facing difficulties with humor, determination, and pride." Similarly, Kirkus Reviews has hailed Yep's When the Circus Came to Town for its "simple plot [which] uses perfectly believable characterizations to discuss deceptively complex emotions and issues for those who would mine its lessons, but Ursula's own story of healing is rewarding enough for those who read from the younger child's point of view."
Juvenile and Young Adult Works
Sweetwater [illustrations by Julia Noonan] (juvenile novel) 1973
Dragon of the Lost Sea (juvenile novel) 1982
Kind Hearts and Gentle Monsters (juvenile novel) 1982
The Mark Twain Murders (juvenile novel) 1982
Liar, Liar (juvenile novel) 1983
The Tom Sawyer Fires (juvenile novel) 1984
Dragon Steel (juvenile novel) 1985
The Curse of the Squirrel [illustrations by Dirk Zimmer] (juvenile novel) 1987
The Rainbow People [illustrations by David Wiesner] (folklore) 1989
Dragon Cauldron (juvenile novel) 1991
The Lost Garden (autobiography) 1991
The Star Fisher (juvenile novel) 1991
Tongues of Jade [illustrations by David Wiesner] (juvenile short stories) 1991
American Dragons: A Collection of Asian-American Voices [editor] (juvenile short stories, poetry, and essays) 1992
Dragon War (juvenile novel) 1992
Butterfly Boy [illustrations by Jeanne M. Lee] (picture book) 1993
The Man Who Tricked a Ghost [illustrations by Isadore Seltzer] (picture book) 1993
The Shell Woman and the King [illustrations by Yang Ming-Yi] (picture book) 1993
The Boy Who Swallowed Snakes [illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng] (picture book) 1994
The Junior Thunder Lord [illustrations by Robert Van Nutt] (picture book) 1994
Ghost Fox [illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng] (picture book) 1994
Tiger Woman [illustrations by Robert Roth] (picture book) 1994
City of Dragons [illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng] (picture book) 1995
Hiroshima: A Novella (juvenile novella) 1995
Later, Gator (juvenile novel) 1995
Tree of Dreams: Ten Tales from the Garden of Night [illustrations by Isadore Seltzer] (juvenile short stories) 1995
Ribbons (juvenile novel) 1996
The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale [illustrations by Kam Mak] (picture book) 1997
The Khan's Daughter: A Mongolian Folktale [illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng] (picture book) 1997
The Cook's Family (juvenile novel) 1998
The Imp That Ate My Homework [illustrations by Benrei Huang] (juvenile novel) 1998
The Amah (juvenile novel) 1999
Cockroach Cooties (juvenile novel) 2000
Dream Soul (juvenile novel) 2000
The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner: California, 1852 (juvenile novel) 2000
The Magic Paintbrush [illustrations by Suling Wang] (picture book) 2000
Angelfish (juvenile novel) 2001
Lady of Chiao Kuo: Warrior of the South (juvenile novel) 2001
Spring Pearl: The Last Flower [illustrations by Kazuhiko Saro] (juvenile novel) 2002
When the Circus Came to Town [illustrations by Suling Wang] (picture book) 2002
Skunk Scout (juvenile novel) 2003
The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (juvenile novel) 2006
"Golden Mountain Chronicles" Series
Dragonwings (juvenile novel) 1975
Child of the Owl (juvenile novel) 1977
Sea Glass (juvenile novel) 1979
The Serpent's Children (juvenile novel) 1984
Mountain Light (juvenile novel) 1985
Dragon's Gate (juvenile novel) 1993
Thief of Hearts (juvenile novel) 1995
The Traitor (juvenile novel) 2003
The Dragon's Child: A Story of Angel Island [with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep] (juvenile novel) 2008
"Chinatown Mystery" Series
The Case of the Goblin Pearls (juvenile novel) 1997
The Case of the Lion Dance (juvenile novel) 1998
The Case of the Firecrackers (juvenile novel) 1999
"Tiger's Apprentice" Series
The Tiger's Apprentice (juvenile novel) 2003
Tiger's Blood (juvenile novel) 2005
Tiger Magic (juvenile novel) 2006
Seademons (novel) 1977
Shadow Lord (novel) 1985
Monster Makers, Inc. (novel) 1986
Fairy Bones (play) 1987
Pay the Chinaman (play) 1987
Laurence Yep (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Yep, Laurence. "Paying with Shadows." Lion and the Unicorn 30 (2006): 157-67.
[In the following essay, Yep discusses his personal life, writing career, and his own personal identification with the recurring "outsider" theme that links together many of his juvenile and young adult works.]
Dreams have always fascinated me, and I collect dreams and folktales about dreams the way other people do stamps; and that fascination with dreams has woven itself into my stories. I think the tale that best captures the bittersweet nature of dreams is a story recorded by the Greek historian, Plutarch, who wrote of a famous courtesan, Thonis, whose clients had to make appointments months in advance, which is exactly what one rich man did. However, the night before the appointment, the rich man had a dream in which the courtesan visited him. The dream was so spectacular that when he woke up the next morning, he decided that no flesh-and-blood woman could ever match what happened in his dream so he canceled the appointment. Upon reflection, Thonis decided that this would set a bad precedent for business and so she sued him for the favors that she had done him in the dream.
The judge, Bocchoris, listened to both sides of the case and then he ordered Thonis to hold out her hands with her palms upward. Then he commanded the rich man to fill a vase full of gold coins and move it in such a way that the shadow of the vase crossed the courtesan's palms. When the rich man had done so, the judge made his ruling, "For dreams a person pays and is paid with shadows."
Of course, most dreams are far more elevated than that of the rich man's; and yet I think the human condition itself is defined by the need to dream—even if we know we will usually only grasp shadows; and the Chinese are no different than other groups. America, though, has its own peculiar effect upon dreams and dreamers; and it is the interplay between dreams and America's shadowy coins that has defined the Chinese American experience.
Though I could not have put it into words at the time, even as a child I think I suspected the bittersweet nature of dreams not only as a result of my family history; but because I had personally witnessed how powerful dreams could be in San Francisco's Chinatown when I went to school or visited my family there. Those dreamers had worked beside my grandmother and mother in the factories where they had shared one another's hopes for the future as they deveined shrimp, bottled artichoke hearts, or sewed clothing. I knew those dreamers because they had picked fruit with my father and taught him how to make kites.
And neither the dreams of my Chinatown schoolmates nor the dreams of my friends in my own Afro-American neighborhood were my dreams; for there were times when I felt apart from either group.
So, as a child, I turned to fantasy and science fiction because in those novels, ordinary children are taken to strange new lands where they must learn new languages and customs. Ironically, fantasy and science fiction were truer to my emotional reality than the so-called realistic books of the 1950s because fantasy and science fiction spoke about adapting; and that was something I did every time I got on and off the bus. In fantasy and science fiction, I discovered a mirror for my dreams of finding a niche in which I could fit.
When I began writing, it was natural to try my hand at science fiction. At the time, I was attending school in Milwaukee. In the late sixties, there were few Asians in the city, let alone on the campus so that I felt homesick for San Francisco and especially Chinatown. I found myself returning there in my imagination if not in body; and I wrote a story, "The Selchey Kids," based on my memories of an earthquake while I was at school in Chinatown. I sold it to a pulp magazine, The Worlds of If, and it was subsequently anthologized in The World's Best Science Fiction of 1969.
With that encouragement, I went on publishing more science fiction. When I look back at those early stories, I realize I was writing about myself as an Outsider. The stories are told either by alienated heroes or are even the first-person narratives by aliens. (I later even wrote a Star Trek novel, Shadow Lord —now out of print—about Mr. Sulu on a planet whose inhabitants are experiencing the same wrenching cultural changes that Japan did during the Meiji era).
At first, I thought of myself as a science fiction writer for adults; and I wrote and published for that market. However, when I was in graduate school in Buffalo, a friend, Joanne Ryder (whom I later married), became an editor at HarperCollins and asked me to write a book for children.
Again my fiction was a vehicle that carried me back home in mind if not in body. In Sweetwater, I projected Chinatown onto a faraway world but imagined it as half-flooded. Even in that book, I unconsciously gave the aliens, or Argans, a society with the same structure as the bachelor society of nineteenth-century Chinese America.
At the time that I began working on my first children's novel, I had also been studying creative writing with John Barth as well as modern fiction in preparation for my dissertation on William Faulkner. However, as intellectually rewarding as my studies were, I felt increasingly as if I were in the literary version of what John Fowles referred to as the ebony tower—the post-modern equivalent of an ivory tower constructed by an art grown so self-referential that it had become almost a closed system and accessible only to a relatively small group of cognoscenti. As challenging as the mental games were, I became uncomfortable with the air of cool detachment, which emphasized form over content, dispassion over passion. More importantly, it seemed to me that too many writers were afraid to present their own personal beliefs, taking refuge instead in a technical virtuosity which juggled various standards but refused to acknowledge any as personally important. Though the display of skill was dazzling, the approach ultimately seemed a sterile dead end.
So I found it refreshing to write for children because it was necessary to express the story in concrete terms they would understand. Instead of literary gamesmanship, I had to write about elemental relationships: that of a parent to a child or a sibling to a sibling. Rather than dwelling uncomfortably in the ebony tower, writing for children forced me to make contact with the emotional core of my stories; and at the time there was one story in particular that fascinated me.
Even in the midst of writing and publishing my science fiction, I was also struck by the true story of the Chinese American inventor, Fung Joe Guey, who not only created his own telephone system but also built and flew his own airplane in 1909 in Piedmont, California. In his passion for modern technology, he was a science fiction hero come to life. Through the impersonal language of science and mathematics, he had found a way to communicate with the largely hostile American majority.
What really attracted me to his story was the scope of his dreams; for this was not simply the story of building a better mousetrap. Fung Joe Guey dreamed of flying; and the dream of flight is something humans have been pursuing from prehistoric times when, in the caves of Lascaux, France, a Stone Age artist painted a bird man with the power of flight. It was a dream that appealed not only to adults but to children of all races and across all eons.
From things I had heard and seen and read, I began writing about a dreamer, Windrider, and the people he knew. Despite race riots and earthquakes, he sets out to build his own airplane when he hears about the Wright Brothers; and that novel became Dragonwings.
His quest is told by his son, Moon Shadow, who acts not only as a point of view for the reader but for me as well. I had grown-up as a child of the 1950s but the story had to be told by a child of the 1900s so it was more than a narrative device to tell the story through the eyes of an eight-year—old boy; rather it was close to the process of self-discovery that I was going through myself as a writer exploring my heritage.
Moreover, Windrider and Moon Shadow had to be put into their proper context, which meant writing about the Chinatown in which they lived—the bachelor society of the 1900s. Like the small, intimate Chinatown that I knew as a child, the characters in my fictional Chinatown also knew one another and kept introducing me to their friends and family and I began to write their stories down in turn.
At first, I had no overarching vision other than to recapture what I had seen firsthand in San Francisco's Chinatown. Even when I finally created a plan for subsequent books, my characters frequently upset my outlines. I could no more control them than one can keep one's family in their seats at a Chinese banquet. Like one's friends and relatives who refuse to follow the seating chart and hop from table to table instead in a cheerful anarchy, my own characters moved about through the novels with the resulting dramatic and comic complications.
My characters' stories eventually became the record of seven generations of Chinese Americans and their adventures through 150 years of American history; and their stories have grown into a series of nine novels which HarperCollins is currently bringing out in a uniform edition called The Golden Mountain Chronicles.
When I was a child, I was often scolded by the old-timers in Chinatown for being so Americanized. It didn't matter that wars and politics had forced them to live most of their lives in America so that the small rural China they remembered only existed in their imaginations. They still referred to themselves as guests of the Golden Mountain. Their dreams were rooted firmly in China and they regarded their stay as temporary, organizing themselves in America mainly by their ties to China—by family, clan, and home district among others.
The guests' attitude puzzled me as a child; and it was only many years later that I began to understand it when I began to research Chinese American history. R. H. Tawney once wrote that the average Chinese peasant was like a man standing in a pool of water that reached up to his chin—the slightest disturbance would send ripples that could drown him. In China, wars, rebellions, bandit raids, feuds, taxes, plagues, plant diseases, droughts, and floods could destroy a peasant family (Tawney 77).
So, the first group of Chinese—the predecessors of the old guests I had known—had left their homes because they dreamed of helping their families to survive. They followed that dream—even though many of them were repaid with death either on the ships or in the gold fields of California.
Not only had the dream exercised a terrible power over the guests but it was coupled with their innate sense of superiority as Chinese. To them, they were citizens of the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world; and that citizenship acted like a psychological armor protecting them against all the uncertainties and stresses as they left their harsh life in China for a harsher existence in a barbarian wilderness. I wrote about this original generation of guests in two novels, The Serpent's Children and Mountain Light, tracing their adventures in crossing the ocean and then in surviving the gold fields.
For every story of a guest who succeeded, however, there are thousands who lived and died in poverty; and even the rich ones found that true success itself was a shadowy thing; and this was especially true for the children of the guests who grew up like princes and princesses in China. As the saying went, "Their feet never touched dirt." It was a shock when that next generation came to America and found out what sacrifices had paid for their dreamlike existence in China. In Dragon's Gate, a young boy named Otter, raised in luxury in China, joins his father and uncle in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they are working on the transcontinental railroad.
The working conditions were horrendous, and the winter of 1867 was the worst of the century so that the Chinese lived underneath the snow. It would take too long to catalog all the ways that they died. Suffice it to say that, when the railroad was done, ten tons of bones were shipped back to China for burial. It is estimated that they represent twelve hundred dead or ten percent of the work force. And there are no statistics on how many were permanently injured (Lai and Choy 57).
There was no way to sugarcoat such grim facts; and yet from their letters, I know that children of all races identify with Otter's dilemma: he is the helpless victim of a world created by adults. Though the risk is far greater and the humor far less, Otter is as the prey of adults' apparently arbitrary rules as Alice is when she enters Wonderland.
By 1885, in The Traitor, Otter, the hero of Dragon's Gate has grown-up and is working as a coal miner in Rock Springs, Wyoming, with his son, Joseph, who is a native-born so Americanized that the other Chinese miners, with the typical guest mentality, despise him, for their revulsion reaches deeper than their rejection of the material American culture. In their view, Joseph's acculturation is a slide into barbarism. His own attempts at justification are undermined by the violent hostility of the American community that surrounds the Chinese miners.
However, the native-born Joseph cannot feel the same emotional connection to China that the China-born guests do, nor does he share in their dream of eventually journeying to a country that is almost as exotic to him as it is to the Americans. Instead, America is his home—even if the majority of Americans lump him in with the China-born and want to expel him as well.
While the guests draw their identity from and sustain their mental wellbeing by their bonds to family and clan, Joseph sees the darker side of those links. Even in the midst of Otter's and Joseph's grinding poverty, their extended family back in China expects them to support the family's lavish lifestyle. Even though he can ill afford to send money, the filial, China-born Otter dutifully sends larger and larger remittances back to China; but his native-born son perceives their family in China as selfish leeches. It is as much family politics as guest prejudices that drive Joseph into insisting he is an American—even though events mock his dreams.
Joseph represents a generation that embodies two very different cultures, Chinese and American, which, by their very nature, often are at odds with one another. Among other things, American culture emphasizes competition while Chinese culture emphasizes cooperation; American culture stresses individual goals while Chinese culture stresses the groups, as Philip Elliot Slater explains in The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point.
To borrow an analogy from Chesterton, Joseph is like a man with his right foot upon the back of one galloping horse and his left upon the back of another. Finding and maintaining a balance between the two cultures is difficult and virtually impossible when they move in opposite directions.
In casting aside Chinese tradition, Joseph attempts to define himself on his own terms; but in doing so he threatens the guests' own sense of identity and superiority, feeding their animosity to him; and yet his desire for self-definition places him squarely in the American tradition. While Chinese immigrants have undergone change in subsequent generations, such as in Malaysia, Joseph's metamorphosis is specific to the American continent where self-activated and self-determined transformations form the bedrock of American history and myth. From almost the creation of American culture, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers were referring to America as the new Eden and immigrants as new Adams and the new Eves. It has even become part of our folklore about the "self-made" man or woman (see Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden).
The metamorphic possibilities reach far deeper than material and social levels to an individual psychological one as well. On a continent where a dissatisfied person could go into a new area where no one knew you, an individual could create any desired persona. In its extremes, this self-invention could border on delusion. Stephen Leacock wrote affectionately about an irrepressible Canadian version in his short essay, "My Remarkable Uncle." At the opposite end, Herman Melville's chameleon-like antihero of The Confidence Man represents that impulse run cruelly amok.
However, as was true for many immigrant groups besides the Chinese, the new Eden frequently proved the opposite. Joseph and his father, Otter, find themselves in the middle of one of the worst race riots in American history. In that one bloody day, striking American miners methodically and viciously murdered the Chinese miners who replaced them; but even in the midst of this tragedy, Otter is sustained by his dreams. As fragile as dreams may seem, they possess an incredible power in their own right. I saw that power demonstrated in the housing projects in both my Afro-American neighborhood of San Francisco and Chinatown: my childhood friends were like flower seeds trapped beneath a rock, fighting and struggling to find the sunlight.
In a current project, Red Warrior, Otter's great-grandson, Barney, and his friend, Calvin, find themselves in the middle of the Great Depression of the 1930s. This is the generation of my father, mother, uncles, and aunts. Like my father, Barney was a straight-A student in school because, like all good Americans, he had been taught that if you want to achieve your dreams of success, you must get an education; and also like my father, Barney finds that when he graduates, the only job he could get was picking fruit. The entire generation raised during the Depression was paid in shadows.
However, also like my Father, Barney has an option that previous generations didn't have. Just as Fung Joe Guey had technology, Barney has sports. The story is based on a professional Chinese American basketball team, the Hong Wah Kues, who barnstormed across America during this period. Ironically, Barney will be a celebrity when he visits Wyoming, which had previously driven out his grandfather, Joseph.
Child of the Owl and Sea Glass were about my own generation, which had sunk its roots so deep in America that they had lost touch with its roots in China. In Child of the Owl, Otter's great-great-granddaughter, Casey, has a dream in which she is transformed into an owl. I find that a myth can act like a lens that helps bring an experience into focus; and an owl seemed symbolic of her dilemma—for the very same act, she could feel as wise as an American owl and yet as disrespectful as a Chinese one.
I also set the novel in the small, intimate Chinatown that I had known as a child—just before the new immigration and fair housing laws were to alter it. In fact, I made the novel so specific in detail that some people were able to use it as a guidebook to Chinatown.
And yet though I rooted the novel firmly in my own childhood, I receive a good many letters from children who identify with Casey's situation as an outsider. For adolescence is synonymous with being an outsider. Growing up means growing away—not only from one's parents but from one's childhood beliefs. Moreover, adolescents are alienated from their own bodies which are going through embarrassing physical changes. Casey's quest for an identity is a key concern of her age group. Though I felt alone and isolated as a boy, I realize now that my emotions were actually quite common to my age group.
Sea Glass grew out of a trip to Marysville to interview Uncle Lung (Joe Kim) who ran the Bok Ti temple. While Marysville had once been a thriving Chinatown, servicing the migrant Chinese workers, it was now almost a ghost town. The contrast between its once vibrant history and the contemporary reality was striking.
So I combined the dying Marysville Chinatown with the sleepy beach resort town of Santa Cruz that I had known in the early sixties when I had been a student there. Craig Chin, Calvin's son, is apprehensive about leaving San Francisco's Chinatown for Concepcion's little one; but his father dreams of a better life for his family.
Unfortunately, Craig sticks out like a sore thumb in the suburban school. His father, Calvin, thinks that basketball will provide a way for Craig to make friends with the white students—just as basketball had helped Calvin create a niche for himself within society. However, the inept Craig is hopeless at sports. It is at this juncture that Craig meets one of the last of the Chinese abalone fishermen, Uncle Quail, an eccentric who makes him understand that he does not have to follow his father's dreams but can find his own.
By the 1990s, Casey's daughter, Stacey, is leading a life far different than anything of which her great-great-great-grandfather, Otter, would have dreamed. For one thing, Stacey is quite at home in her American suburb where she is popular with the other students—even though, as the child of an interracial marriage, she physically embodies the mixture of American and Chinese cultures.
However, because of the changes in immigration and fair housing laws, a new immigrant transfers to her suburban school. Coming from mainland China, she carries a set of assumptions that are different from acculturated Chinese Americans like Stacey, whose family has been here for generations. Not only is the immigrant contemptuous of Stacey's ignorance of Chinese ways but she is repulsed by Stacey's physical mixture of American and Chinese features; and her contempt reveals to Stacey just how fragile her dreams are. Stacey's search for new ones brings her back to San Francisco's Chinatown, the womb, as it were, for her family's dreams.
First-person, third-person, omniscient narratives all affect the way my characters' dreams are presented as well as the shadowy coins with which they are paid for those dreams. Genre also influences the way they appear. In scales and fangs, a Chinatown auntie might be a dragon as in my fantasy series, Dragon of the Lost Sea or the new one, The Tiger's Apprentice. In a cloth coat, she might be a detective like Auntie Tiger Lil in my mystery series, The Case of the Goblin Pearls, The Case of the Lion Dance, and The Case of the Firecrackers.
Just as my characters reach for their dreams and grasp shadows, I, as a writer, do the same thing when I dream of mastering my craft; for the craft of writing for children has an extra dimension since children's writers must not only take into account the interests of young readers but must also deal with the expectations adults have for those children.
To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, who once said that every age gets the Shakespeare it deserves, I would suggest that every age gets the child it deserves. In his Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Aries demonstrates how a society's image of children is mirrored in its literature and visual arts. Until the Romantic Age, children were treated as miniature adults both in clothing and entertainment. However, when Romantic writers began to speak of children as innocent angels, children began to be treated almost as a separate species from adults and not only clothing but stories were tailored specifically for them—or rather for the way adults perceived them at the time.
In the seventeenth century, Red Riding Hood was told to both adults and children who would have heard a sexually charged and, by our standards, gross tale (analyzed by Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History). Like many folk tales, it is almost shocking to our modern sensibilities and yet audiences of that time considered it cautionary entertainment. By the nineteenth century such folk tales were altered according to the new concepts of what children were.
And so for what sort of child do I write? I speak to the children similar to the children I knew when I was young—the outcasts and the survivors—and from the letters I receive from children I know I have struck a responsive chord.
The optimism of the 1950s has given way to the cynicism of the twenty-first century, and the lowering of our expectations has created a kind of cool, ironic detachment prevalent in today's children's movies, books, cartoons, and other entertainments. However, by de-emphasizing emotional bonds and personal relationships, they also make each member of the audience feel isolated and cutoff, that is, they each feel like an outsider.
For outsiders, dreams have a special cogency; and in my writing, I've tried to show that dreams have a value independent of money. Dreams are what tie us to an authentic core—though their shape and material may vary from age to age. It is the need to dream that lies at the heart of my stories and dreams, a need that resonates within the soul like the vibrations of a bell whose music far outlasts any shadows.
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Translated from the French by Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1962.
Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Lai, H. Mark, and Philip P. Choy. Outlines: History of the Chinese in America. San Francisco: Chinese-American Studies Planning Group, 1973.
Leacock, Stephen. "My Remarkable Uncle." Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man. 1857. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Slater, Philip Elliot. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon P, 1970.
Tawney, R. H. Land and Labor in China. 1932. Boston: Beacon P, 1966.
Yep, Laurence. The Case of the Firecrackers (Chinatown Mysteries, No. 2). New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
———. The Case of the Goblin Pearls. Chinatown Mysteries 1. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
———. The Case of the Lion Dance. Chinatown Mysteries 2. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
———. Child of the Owl. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
———. Dragon of the Lost Sea. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
———. Dragon's Gate. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
———. Dragonwings. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
———. Mountain Light. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
———. Sea Glass. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
———. "The Selchey Kids." World's Best Science Fiction of 1969. Ed. Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr. New York: Ace, 1969.
———. The Serpent's Children. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
———. Shadow Lord: A Star Trek Novel, No. 22. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.
———. Sweetwater. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
———. The Tiger's Apprentice. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
———. The Traitor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Dianne Johnson-Feelings (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Johnson-Feelings, Dianne. "Children of the Owl: The Idea of Identity." In Presenting Laurence Yep, pp. 64-86. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
[In the following essay, Johnson-Feelings studies Yep's dialogues about childhood identity among his Chinese-American protagonists in Child of the Owl, Sea Glass, and The Star Fisher.]
Child of the Owl
Laurence Yep writes about outsiders and aliens not only in his novels, but in his short stories and picture books as well. His award-winning science fiction story "The Selchey Kids," also his first published piece, is particularly striking and disturbing, too. The protagonist, Duke, does not start off as an alienated person, but as part of a family and a community until a devastating flood destroys his reality. "I kept away from the mob, walking to the opposite end of the hill which was now an island. I huddled on the spot, looking out toward where our house should be, under the water, wondering why I was the only one left in an ugly, confusing world and wishing I wasn't. Family, friends and even identity were lost in barely half an hour. I decided then that I wouldn't worry about friends or attachments or other natural things that could be so easily broken."1 At this point, one of the few things he is sure of is that "I belong to the species of Man. … I have no identity, only the inheritance of my humanity" ("Selchey," 94).
As the story unfolds, however, Duke's very humanity is called into question when Uncle Noe (Dr. Noe Selchey, a scientist and friend of Duke's parents) decides to let Duke know who he is ("Selchey," 97). Or perhaps, what he is: the product of "Director Noe Selchey's spermatazoa [sic] and a dolphin ovum carefully developed by radiation" (103). But despite thoughts of suicide both before and after gaining this knowledge, Duke decides, "I had come two thousand miles to find myself in the city and on the City I would build something new" (107). This decision is largely based on the relationship that Duke forms with one of his half sisters, Pryn. Her response to the idea of suicide is that "death is waste, death is the end of change and change is the purpose of man. … [Suicide is] not natural" (95). At the end of the story, Duke's own stance about the crucial concept of change is similar: "Man lives in the context of nature. He plays by the rules of the game but unlike other creatures, he can manipulate the game by changing the rules. Each alternation requires man to adjust again to the new game and on and on, ad infinitum. I've forgiven Noe because I understand the lonely man who hid in science" (108).
Though "The Selchey Kids" takes place in the future, it is still related very much to Yep's historical fiction and contemporary realism. It is related to those books with Chinese/Chinese-American characters as well as to those with European-American characters. His characters live "in the context of nature," but his books call into question what nature actually is. What is the relationship between nature and human nature? How do humans cope with change, whether environmental or otherwise? What is the nature of loneliness and individualism in the context of humans as essentially social beings?
Child of the Owl, an American Library Association Notable Children's Book, responds, to some degree, to all of these questions. The issue of loneliness (and aloneness) is particularly tangible for the 12-year-old main character, Casey Young, whose mother is dead and who has spent her short life traveling from one town to another with her jobless, gambling father, Barney. The real action of the book begins when Barney ends up in the hospital, where Casey sneaks in to see him even though the rules forbid children from visiting. When a nurse sees Casey, she knows that she is related to Barney because "You are the only Chinese on this floor." Barney reacts with a joke: "Gosh, I hope it isn't catching."2 This is just a small hint that "Chineseness" is an issue in the story and that differentness and aloneness are issues as well—but not in the way that one might guess. Casey does not end up in a situation that makes her feel alone because she is the only Chinese—like her father in the hospital. Rather, she finds herself in circumstances where she is surrounded by other Chinese but does not feel that she is a part of them.
Because her father cannot take care of her, Casey first goes to live with her mother's father, Uncle Phil ("the Pill"), and his family. But when that arrangement does not work out, he sends Casey to live with her maternal grandmother in Chinatown. Casey is struck by the look of the place, the architecture. "But it was the people there that got me. I don't think I'd ever seen so many Chinese in my life before this" (Child, 26). The passage continues, speaking to the notion of stereotypes: "Some were a rich, dark tan while others were as pale as Caucasians. Some were short with round faces and wide, full-lipped mouths and noses squashed flat, and others were tall with thin faces and high cheekbones that made their eyes look like the slits in a mask. Some were dressed in regular American style while others wore padded silk jackets. All of them crowding into one tiny little patch of San Francisco" (26).
This passage is just as informative to readers as to Casey because it helps them to place Phil the Pill's family into some kind of context. His family is upper-middle-class and has an ambiguous relationship to Chinese culture. The oldest daughter, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, is "the president of the Chinese girls' sorority" (Child, 15). But because of their grandmother's Chinese lifestyle and worldview, this same young woman considers her grandmother "as superstitious and impossible to live with as anybody can be" (23). But the source of Casey's friction with this family is not culture, but economic status, which she feels is their overriding concern in life. Upon entering their home her first thought is that "the only thing in Phil's house without an expensive price tag was me, and they started to see what they could do about upping my value as soon as I got in the door" (13). But upon arriving in Chinatown, Casey realizes that there are many ways to look Chinese. The importance of this realization cannot be overemphasized, for Casey or for readers who know Chinese and Chinese-American people only through one-dimensional stereotypes, both physical and cultural. Casey realizes, too, that Chinese people can dress in many different ways and, by extension, that there are various ways to be Chinese:
Barney and me had never talked much about stuff like this. I knew more about race horses than I knew about myself—I mean myself as a Chinese. I looked at my hands again, thinking they couldn't be my hands, and then I closed my eyes and felt their outline, noticing the tiny fold of flesh at the corners. Maybe it was because I thought of myself as an American and all Americans were supposed to be white like on TV or in books or in movies, but now I felt like some mad scientist had switched bodies on me like in all those monster movies, so that I had woken up in the wrong one.
Thus begins Casey's struggle with her identity, which is also a struggle with her relationship with various family members. It is Casey's grandmother, Paw-Paw, who most understands Casey's feelings and helps her to work toward an understanding of herself. When Casey is most out of place in Chinatown, Paw-Paw interprets her feelings without her having to articulate them:
"Did you feel that you were all alone inside?" Paw-Paw asked.
I looked at her in amazement. "How did you know?"
"All of our family go through that. I did. Your mother did too. We're all children of the Owl Spirit, you see?"
What follows is a chapter-long segment of the story of the Owl, told to Casey by her grandmother. Though critic Marjorie Lewis thinks that the characters in Yep's novel are "strong and interesting" and that the book is "exciting and well-plotted," she asserts, too, that the legend of the owl is "strangely graceless and confusing."3 Though this evaluation is valid—the story requires more than one reading even from sophisticated readers—it does not invalidate the worth of the story itself.
The owl story is composed of many intricate details and turns of events. But it raises several significant issues. It takes place during a time of hardship for both animal life and human beings. There is drought and subsequently a shortage of food for all, pitting humans against animals. Eventually, one of the humans takes an owl in human form as his wife, against her will. But "it was because Jasmine had never been an ordinary owl that she was able to adapt to her new life upon the ground" (Child, 77). Though she raises a human family and is dutiful to them, she is always an owl in her soul. Casey takes away a very significant insight about herself from this story that her grandmother tells: "And if I pretended I was an owl, I suddenly had some way of talking about my feelings because I felt like someone who'd been trapped inside the wrong body and among the wrong people" (82). Clearly, she is still uncomfortable with having a Chinese face and with living in Chinatown.
Fortunately, the story offers some insights more complex than Casey's about the issue of identity. For example, the ways in which the owl/woman had never been an ordinary owl are important. Specifically, she had never been the owl of Chinese mythology as described by Paw-Paw, a creature who does not honor family ties, going so far sometimes as eating its parents when they have grown old and useless. Jasmine, in contrast, does not agree with her other siblings that their mother should be sacrificed in time of hardship. She demonstrates the same kind of regard for family when she inhabits a human body, feeling satisfaction in the opportunity to nurture her seven sons instead of pushing them out of the nest when they were able to fly and survive on their own, as owls do (Child, 78). So though Casey feels that her Chinese body is the wrong body, the story of Jasmine offers some hope that she can, in fact, learn to wear this face with ease and even relish. This is a process that has begun already when she hears the story; she feels guilty when she uses a knife and fork rather than chopsticks, and she is beginning to enjoy drinking tea as much as Coke and milk (81). Her grandmother's motherwit—"Your eyebrows are beautifully curved, like silkworms. That means you'll be clever" (31)—does not always sound strange. In short, she is beginning, little by little, to fit into the rhythm of life in Chinatown.
Laurence Yep is careful, however, not to romanticize Chinatown, just as he does not romanticize China in his historical novels. Child of the Owl makes it clear that Chinatown is not a monolithic community. In particular, there is definite tension between those born in China and those who consider themselves Chinese Americans (or simply American, as Casey does). Schools, both American and Chinese, are major sites of contention. At the American school, Casey thinks of other Chinese Americans as "those Chinese girls" (Child, 40) when they make her an easy target of teasing, knowing that she cannot understand their whispering in Chinese.
Language is also at the root of Casey's problems in Chinese school, an experience based closely on the experience of the young Laurence Yep: "Each week, we had a new lesson in the reader that we were expected to memorize, recite aloud, and then write out. So each week, I memorized a new pattern of sounds like a song and a new pattern of pictures like a cartoon. I wound up doing more work than anyone else in the class but I achieved my purpose: I passed without learning Chinese" (Lost Garden, 53). And like Yep's teacher, Casey's teacher thinks, "You 'Merican-born. Lazy. Lazy. Lazy" (Child, 41). Like Yep, Casey thinks of Chinese as "a foreign language" (43). But unlike Yep, Casey has no purpose, positive or negative, and finally "just gave up trying" (43).
Fortunately, critics have not given up on the classroom as a site of promise. Marla Dinchak contends that "while young people will enjoy [Yep's] books just for their stories, Yep's novels are also well suited for classroom reading." She goes on to explain that "Yep's skillful use of figurative language, symbolism, and other literary techniques make these books useful for teaching literary skills to junior high school students."4 Dinchak contends, too, that the surest test of the power of a book is whether or not young people will want to read it. And she is confident they will wish to peruse Yep's work. If this is so, then there is hope that those who read Casey's story will, through reading and discussion, begin to think about major issues confronting American society. Perhaps they will bring more understanding to issues related to ethnic diversity and multiculturalism—what it means to be an American. These are some of the concerns that Casey is dealing with.
They are not the only issues, however. She is dealing with issues, too, that are related to her family dynamics as well as her being of Chinese ancestry; what becomes more and more apparent is that ethnicity cannot be separated completely from any other sphere of identity and life. Yep, like Casey, is dealing with family issues, but through his writing. Just as Casey is concerned with communicating with her grandmother (who does speak English), Yep is concerned with communicating with his grandmother (who does not speak English). She is, tangibly almost, at the heart of many of his books. He notes in his autobiog- raphy that Cassia is an ancestor of Casey Young (Lost Garden, 54). Perhaps most telling is this admission of sorts: "As much as I tried to deny my ethnic background, I was unable to escape completely from being Chinese because of my grandmother, Marie Lee" (47). His grandmother, he often reminds his readers, is the inspiration for the character of Cassia. In addition to his grandmother, Yep bases so many of his characters on family members that his family has wondered aloud, good-naturedly, who Phil the Pill is based on.
What is apparent is that Phil the Pill has not so much to do with Yep's own family as he has to do with making the story of Jasmine, the owl/woman, multi-dimensional, with implications for the relationships between family members over the course of generations. Critic Sharon Wigutoff makes the observation that though parent-child conflict is a major problem for young people, writers seem to avoid it as material. When they do include adult antagonists, she asserts, "they are either invisible, shallow, lacking understanding, or preoccupied with their own lives. … We rarely gain insight into their thoughts and motivations."5 But she is very clear that Yep's writing is an exception to these general observations.
Wigutoff is thinking specifically about Barney, Casey's father. But Phil is important, too. Like the Chinese owls that Paw-Paw describes in her story, Phil has essentially eaten his own mother, or at least thrown her out of the family nest. When she has a hospital stay, Phil and his other siblings all refuse to take financial responsibility for her. The sense that the reader gets, however, is that were Jeanie, Casey's mother, alive, she would have been the daughter, like Jasmine, who would have taken care of her mother. Though Paw-Paw has a chosen family in her social club, her telling the owl story to Casey is an attempt on her part to reestablish a certain kind of family tie, with her granddaughter. In the course of this process—getting to know her grandmother and the consciousness represented by Chinatown—Casey comes to know her mother in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Wigutoff's words are doubly true. Not only does Yep create full parental characters, but full grandparental figures and adult figures in general.
Casey's father, Barney, is a central figure whether he is part of the action or absent. He is always a presence, though usually a negative one. His defining personality trait is that he is a habitual gambler. His gambling activity dictates every move that he and his daughter make. For example, one reason they move around so much is that once he owes money to too many people in one town, he must simultaneously flee them and find new sources of income and loans. To him, taking regular employment is a means of last resort when it comes to generating income. And in the end, Barney sinks low enough to become a thief, stealing something precious from his own mother and jeopardizing his cherished relationship with Casey, whom he "raised … to be an American" (Child, 129).
His ideas about wanting her to feel and be American explain why she has to learn his life story, his history, initially from others. Barney's old friend Sheridan tries to describe to Casey the social climate in the United States following the Great Depression when Casey's parents were a young married couple, with new high school diplomas. Explaining why Jeanie could secure a job while Barney could not, he offers this analysis:
Most American bosses are men who'll hire a pretty Chinese girl just like that. … But to hell with some uppity Chinese boy. Let him stay a houseboy. … He took it for maybe ten years, but it was eating away at him inside. And then, oh, I guess about the time the war ended, he said, to hell with it. See, it was like there was this brick wall in front of us. Some guys like me knew we couldn't get past it so we never tried. And you got your other guys who just went on beating their heads against it for years and years, but it was like Barney gave up because he'd paid his dues and now somebody owed him something.
Sheridan and Casey then discuss who it was that Barney thought owed him something—God? The powers that be? What Barney found out for himself, no matter whom he expected something from, is that this society felt as if it owed him nothing past his high school education—not even an opportunity to put that education to good use.
It makes sense, then, that Barney would have some bitterness. What does not quite make sense is that this bitterness or anger is not against society, but against himself. He never reaches the point where he can admit that institutionalized racism has had a substantial impact on his life. Instead, he takes all the responsibility upon himself, internalizing the label of "loser." He is never able to reach a balance between understanding the societal roadblocks and yet taking personal responsibility for those aspects of his life that he can. He wants to believe in the promise of America so that his daughter can do the same. His reasoning is that no matter how bad things were for him, they "were still a helluva lot better than what men like my dad had to go through. Beatings. Lynchings. You know." His philosophy is to "worry about what happens today and not what happened yesterday" (Child, 128).
Ironically, it is part of Barney's philosophy, another part, that first provides Casey with a positive way of approaching her life in Chinatown. When necessary, she makes herself remember that he "had a knack for making me see the good side of things" and tries to convince herself that "there had to be something good to being Chinese" (Child, 44). In the end, though, daughter surpasses father in wisdom and understanding. He contends that the owl story is merely a story, while Casey draws meaning from it. She comes to the understanding that, like Jasmine, she can have several identities embodied in her various selves; that her identity is complex and multifaceted; that her Chineseness does not cancel out her Americanness. To be whole, she must acknowledge and embrace both her ethnic heritage and her nationality. Discovering her Chinese name, Cheun Meih, which means Taste of Spring, signals a corresponding period of rebirth in her life (143). Barney and Paw-Paw's children, on the other hand, in her estimation are miserable because they cannot reconcile the American and the Chinese images of the owl.
There is so much in The Child of Owl —mystery, parent-child conflict, identity crises, nostalgia, a bit of art history, American social history, and more. But at least one critic finds the afterword to the book just as intriguing as the story itself. It is instructive to consider this rather extended statement by the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston. She makes these observations:
Laurence Yep himself has at least two voices, and I was enchanted that he tells a story-within-a-story about the owl totem of the Young family. It disconcerted me, however, when he adds an afterword in which the "I" is no longer Casey Young as in the rest of the book but apparently the author. He tells us that he has not actually seen an owl charm nor heard the owl story but made them up himself. Now in that afterword I believe Laurence Yep to be anticipating those critics—both Caucasian and Chinese-American—who will question whether his work is "typical" of the rest of us Chinese-Americans. So to all those ethnocentric villagers, he in effect, says, "No, I'm not misrepresenting Chinese customs. This is fiction." Good art is always singular, always one-of-a-kind, and an artist certainly has the right to make things up to write fiction—but somehow we expect Chinese-American artists to represent all Chinese-Americans in a way we do not expect of Caucasian-American writers. I hope that when more of our works gets into print that this burden—" Speak for me! Speak for me!"—we lay on each of our writers who gets published will become lighter. Laurence Yep has written a lovely novel that needs no apologies.6
The significance of Kingston's words cannot be overstated. As a Chinese-American writer herself, she is in a perfect position to understand and to articulate the literary, social, and political context within which Laurence Yep writes. Child of the Owl was published in 1977. The most prolific Chinese-American writer of young adult books, Yep has forged a career that in itself constitutes a response to Kingston's concerns, whether or not he was aware of them, whether or not he agreed with them. His many books demonstrate, powerfully, that there are many Chinese Americans, many and different Chinese-American experiences. No one book bears the onus of representing all Chinese Americans. Dragonwings accomplishes this, within the bounds the early twentieth century. Child of the Owl and later books accomplish it in the context of late-twentieth-century American culture.
Yep himself reminds us that regardless of the social context or notions of an artist's responsibility, he, as writer, is writing for himself as well as for a reading public. He says this in reference to Sea Glass : "Sea Glass is my most autobiographical novel, but I can't always write that close to home because it requires me to take a razor blade and cut through my defenses. I'm bleeding when I finish, and I have to take time off by writing fantasy or something only marginally related to my Chinese heritage such as The Mark Twain Murders. "7 This statement helps to answer questions, fair or unfair, about Yep's books with non-Chinese-American protagonists. And his words are so candid that the reader cannot help experiencing Sea Glass all the more deeply for having these insights.
The reader, too, experiences Sea Glass deeply because of the way in which Yep uses autobiographical material. He does not simply rewrite The Lost Garden. He reminds readers in the preface to The Star Fisher that he alters family stories in such a way that they are blended together, creating a new, communal bio-fiction.8 In his autobiography he talks about "soaking up things like a sponge so that years later" he was able to incorporate them into his books (Lost Garden, 49). These details are many and contribute to making the texture of the books rich and the characterizations strong and appealing to readers.
The main character in Sea Glass is Craig Chin, who has just moved to the town of Concepcion, away from his beloved San Francisco. While Casey Young had to discover her Chinese heritage, Craig Chin is quite comfortable with his Chinese identity. In Concepcion, there are "Italian kids. White kids. Black kids. Kids like Bradley. But the only other Chinese boy down here … was my cousin Stanley. … All the other boys were Americans and bigger than us, though Bradley was the biggest."9 The most notable thing about this passage is that Craig uses the terms Chinese and American as mutually exclusive. The term Chinese American is not yet part of his vocabulary. Neither is it a part of the vocabulary of the students at Craig's new junior high school, who, as is clear to him when they nickname him Buddha Man, view him as a foreigner (Glass, 44). After being scolded by Uncle Lester, the owner of the store that Craig's parents are running, for not speaking fluent Chinese, Craig concludes that "if the kids thought of me as a foreigner, the old Chinese here thought of me as an American" (44).
As interesting as Craig's self-perception is that of his cousins, Sheila and Stanley, students at the same school. They want nothing to do with him, going so far as to make fun of him along with the white students. He understands the "Western kids" (Glass, 41) behaving this way but reasons that because of their shared Chinese heritage, Sheila and Stanley should not join in the humor at his expense. Craig does not understand why Sheila and Stanley never visit him in Concepcion's small Chinatown, if only to buy Chinese vegetables. He does not understand why they will not even consider going with him to visit Uncle Quail, a living depository of Chinese history and knowledge. They cannot imagine learning to speak Chinese. Craig is right on target, more than he is aware of, when he thinks to himself, "It was as if [Sheila] had to go out of her way to prove to the others that she was different from me" (41).
An especially poignant scene unfolds when Craig asks Kenyon, a white female friend, why she thinks his cousins would pretend not to be Chinese. She gets right to the heart of the matter: "Because maybe they think the other kids would make fun of them. … Not everyone likes to be different. It's easier to be the same as other people. Safer too. Only you remind them that they're not as white as they'd like to be" (Glass, 201). Kenyon makes the sharp observation, too, that Craig seems "to like being Chinese." His answer is simply: "It's what I am" (200). But of course, the matter of identity is not quite so simple. Craig admits at another point, for instance, that though he assumes that he and his cousins should share something based on their common history, "I couldn't have told you much more about what it meant to be Chinese" (42). Reviewer Jack Forman is off target when he claims that "the first-person narrative is sensitive and perceptive—a bit too so for a character Craig's age."10 His comment is representative of an all-too-common tendency on the part of adults, whether writers, critics, teachers, or parents, to be condescending and to underestimate the capacity of young people to be reflective and intelligent readers. Reviewer Mary M. Burns is more accurate in noting that the narrative voice is "totally engaging … carefully but not self-consciously wrought."11 For even if Craig cannot articulate it, he does know, as Yep himself understands, and as Casey Young learns, that there is something intangible, yet very real, about that quality Yep sometimes refers to as "Chineseness."
What complicates Craig's experience even more than his cousins' antagonism is his father's hostility. On the face of it, the tension between him and his father has nothing to do with ethnic identity and has everything to do with a father wanting his son to emulate him in every way, in this case through excelling in sports. As critic Donald Kao asserts, "Sea Glass brings into question the whole concept of ‘achievement and success.’ Craig is not a star, yet he is a full human being who strives only for those things that make sense."12
His father's behavior does not make sense to him. The story is the same throughout most of the book—Mr. Chin drives his son to play basketball nearly every waking hour, though he is an abysmal player, and encourages him against his will to play with the boys at school as well. Even when Mr. Chin witnesses for himself the disaster it is, inevitably, when Craig plays basketball with his schoolmates, he sees only what he wants to see and deludes himself into thinking that Craig does have the potential to be a good player. It only puts more pressure on Craig to know that his mother won many medals in the Chinese Olympics that used to be held in Chinatown during her youth and that his father was nicknamed the Champ of Chinatown after becoming the first Chinese basketball player to make the All-City varsity team (Glass, 16). His wish for his son is that "with just a little work, we could make you an All-City player. … Maybe even an All-American" (26).
The word "American," it turns out, is all-important. For Craig's father, playing basketball is completely entangled with his notions of being an American. Playing the game well was his only means of gaining the respect of white boys. Acceptance followed respect. It was a point of pride to Craig's mother that though some Western people initially had no respect for the Chinese at all, "Your dad could play any Westerners' game and beat everyone" (Glass, 27). The question of whether or not the respect of the white peers was sincere or given grudgingly is not addressed; in a way, the respect of white people was not the only issue. What Craig discovers is that his father, like himself, had struggled with his own father over what, essentially, were questions of self, though couched in other terms.
Though many authors find it impossible to say which of their books are their favorites, Yep does not hesitate when identifying Sea Glass as his favorite: "It's about me and my father, and my uncle's in it, too." One aspect of the novel that reflects Yep's own family dynamics is the insecurity he felt because both of his parents were very good athletes while he was not at all athletic. In Sea Glass Craig finds out through Uncle Quail that sports are not and never were his father's first love. His first love, in fact, was plants. It had been his ambition "to know everything about plants" (Glass, 78). This was a goal that he shared with Uncle Quail as he sat drawing plant life. Uncle Quail was encouraging. His father—Craig's grandfather—was completely unsupportive, feeling pride in his son when he got attention from becoming an outstanding athlete. His reasoning, according to Craig's father, was that all the family's money had to be sent home to China. Thus, money spent on drawing was a luxury. Uncle Quail recounts sadly the result of this attitude: "And I watch what happen. Your father was a good boy. It was just like he close a door inside himself. No more books about plants. No more drawing. And … no more talk about knowing everything about plants. He even tell me he not care about that stuff. But I got eyes. I saw" (79).
This passage presages the capacity of Mr. Chin to change his attitude and behavior toward Craig. For no matter how different he and his son are in personality, it is clear that Mr. Chin knows how it feels to be pressured to give up something that one cares about. It is perfectly understandable to Craig, after learning this information, that his father's small garden is so important to him, though he claims that the garden is for the pleasure of his wife. This fictional garden, of course, is the garden in The Lost Garden —the garden of Laurence Yep's own father.
In this entire scenario, Uncle Quail's insight, his seeing, is unobstructed. It is useful to Craig. There are other instances, too, where his wisdom is instructive. For example, he is able to recount the history of Chinese people in California for Craig. When Craig tells him that he knows about the contribution that the Chinese made to building the railroads, he responds, "Hear me, boy. We Chinese did more, much more, for the demons. We built the levees that hold back the rivers in the spring, and we drained the marshes so the demons could farm lots of land. We worked their farms and their orchards and their factories. And you know how the demons repaid us?" (Glass, 137). What follows is more description and detail about interaction between European and Chinese Americans, consisting mostly of the struggle of the Chinese to earn a livelihood despite the ostracism and sometimes fatal violence of some white people. Uncle Quail remembers his father's conviction about the value of long memory, that if even one Chinese man "remembered what had happened, then we would have won a little" (139). Commenting on the value of longevity, his conversation with Craig continues:
"That's how I got my name. Because I keep my coats so long the tails get ragged. Like the quail. But quails, they may be poor and ragged, but they're one tough bird. They live on when all the pretty pheasants and nightingales have been killed. Somehow the quails go on living."
"And remembering?" I asked gently in American.
"Yes." Uncle lifted his head defiantly.
What Craig is thinking in actuality is that perhaps Uncle Quail is too tough and that his long memory is not balanced, not tempered by the reality that there are good westerners as well as bad demons. And initially, because of his memories, he is unwilling to allow Craig to bring Kenyon to his cove to go swimming simply because she is female and not Chinese either.
Kenyon is not completely innocent herself—she, too, is guilty of defining people by stereotypes. For example, when describing the clothes her mother likes for her to wear, she complains that they make her look "like I just escaped from a carnival." When Craig replies that he likes some of the things she wears, her thoughtless retort is "if you're a gypsy" (Glass, 91). Craig does not challenge this statement, but perhaps the thrust of the novel will compel some young readers to question Kenyon's comment for themselves.
Though both of them may be thinking in narrow terms, one of the differences between Kenyon and Uncle Quail is that Uncle Quail is an adult and Kenyon is still a young person. Craig learns from everyone in his life, but because of the closeness he shares with Uncle Quail, he somehow expects something special from him. At the least, he expects him to follow his own advice: "Of all the people I knew, Uncle had the best reasons for staying away from others after all the bad things that had happened; but it was also a funny thing that Uncle was also the last person who should be doing that. I mean, Uncle had talked to me about being open to the world. But it seemed that he preferred applying his words to animals and to things, and not to people" (Glass, 142). Craig is open to the world. He has internalized more of Uncle's teaching than Uncle is aware of. He has opened his eyes to the world of Uncle's cove, learning about the water environment—the separate pools and how they are connected by narrow channels of water—and he now extends this model to the rest of his world. He realizes that though he is Chinese, he is still in some ways connected to everyone and everything is this world by various channels.
In a related statement, worth quoting at length, critic Marla Dinchak offers an insightful analysis of Laurence Yep's use of symbolism. She suggests that one of the most effective features of Yep's writing is his use of metaphor and figurative language. She then notes the way in which symbols are used in each book, generally being explained to younger characters by older, wiser ones. Dinchak continues:
As protagonists mature, they become more aware of the symbol and what it represents. Moon Shadow in Dragonwings sees the aeroplane his father builds as the symbol for the reach of humanity's imagination, the achievement of the impossible dream. In Child of the Owl, Casey comes to understand her own cultural heritage and dual identity through the little jade owl charm, symbol of her ancestor, the owl-woman. The ocean and a reef teeming with marine life become symbols to Craig which help him communicate with those he cares about in Sea Glass. As the young people become more aware of the symbols and their meanings, young readers also become more aware of symbolism and are introduced to an aspect of literature which may be new. Universal truths are presented to readers, and Yep tells them that it is not bad to be different, and they should be proud of who they are and where they come from. He shows readers the incredible scope of our imagination, and he shows that impossible dreams can come true. He reaffirms the importance of communication, and all of this is more understandable and believable because of the symbolism.
Sea Glass is full of symbols, including, in the end, sea glass—broken glass, the edges of which are made round and smooth by water over the course of time. Likewise, Craig's rough edges are being smoothed out by living his life. At various times he dislikes himself because of his weight or because he does not measure up to others' expectations. Before he realizes that he can be both Chinese and American, he feels as if he is not anything at all (Glass, 46). When his father scolds him, he feels "all broken up inside, and all the little pieces were dissolving" (128). But by the end of the novel, Craig is comfortable with the many different parts of himself and understands that he is a special individual in the same way that no two pieces of sea glass are the same. What remains of sea glass, in Craig's estimation, is "the brightness and the clearness" (213). And in the end, Craig Chin, 12-year-old Chinese-American boy, is just as bright and clear as sea glass.
The Star Fisher
Laurence Yep is at his best as a writer when he is creating historical fiction. And though individual characters might be bright and clear, the same is rarely true of the historical eras that they inhabit, every period having its share of complex social forces. The Star Fisher combines interesting, engaging characters with the particular social circumstances of a Chinese family in small-town West Virginia in the spring of 1927. Published in 1991, it blends elements of many of his earlier books and his autobiography to make a new, successful story that was the winner of the Christopher Award. Winning this particular award is meaningful because nominated books are judged by both reading specialists and young people themselves. The award recognizes books that "have achieved artistic excellence, affirming the highest values of the human spirit."13 Indeed, as asserted in the Horn Book's review of The Star Fisher : "It is disturbing but never depressing, poignant but not melancholy, for the principal characters … are individuals with a strong sense of their own worth, facing difficulties with humor, determination, and pride."14 And the difficulties are many.
Yep reminds his readers in his preface that his family's migration to West Virginia was not a unique experience, noting that "Chinese families refused to be confined to the Chinatowns on the two coasts and were searching for a place in America for themselves back in the 1920s and earlier" (Fisher, viii). He goes on to inform the reader that he has met Chinese Americans besides his own family who grew up in such states as Arkansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma; The Star Fisher is their story as well.
Fifteen-year-old Joan Lee is the narrator of the story, which begins when she moves from Ohio to West Virginia with her parents and her younger brother and sister. When she arrives at her new school, the following conversation ensues with Miss Blake. Note that English is represented in italics, while Chinese is the standard.
In a polite but brisk manner, she helped me fill out the form.
"Now, where in China were you born?"
"Actually," I said almost apologetically, "I was born in Lima," and added, "Ohio, not Peru."
Similar incidents occur over and over again because people assume, with no basis whatsoever, that she and her family are not American. (Yep might point out that this happens in the 1990s just as it did in the early part of the century.) Part of being American, as far as most white residents of the town of Clarksburg are concerned, is speaking English, and so this kind of interaction takes place:
Mister Snuff lowered his hand slowly. "She talks American."
"Of course we do," Emily [Joan's sister] snapped. "We were born here. We go to American schools."
Mister Snuff's jaw dropped open. "They both talk."
Not only is this man ignorant of the grammatical rules of the English language, but in his ignorance has the audacity to berate Chinese Americans who do speak English. Moreover, Mr. Snuff is surprised that these Chinese American even speak—any language. His referring to them as "darn monkeys" (Fisher, 7) is not simple name-calling but expresses his conviction that they are not human at all.
Much name-calling goes on in this novel. Besides "monkey," the other epithet, which has retained its impact over time, is "chink." Again, the name-caller is Mr. Snuff, this time jeering, "Hey, chinky-chinky" (Fisher, 133). He refers to them, too, as heathens (137). Name-calling does not occur only in verbal form. After the Lee family's new laundry is fully operational, a local merchant chooses to display in his store window a quite demeaning sign showing caricatures of Chinese people, pigtails and all, throwing irons at each other. In the middle of the sign is a new washing machine. The words underneath read: "All the Chinamen want one. Buy one and you'll never want to go to a laundry" (144). Joan and her family, however, are not the only targets of epithets and harassment. When Miss Lucy, their landlady and friend, defends them, she is characterized as a "chink lover" (138).
Miss Lucy, more than a bit reminiscent of Miss Whitlaw in Dragonwings, is the character who represents the "goodhearted white people." But looking further, Yep does a wonderful job of not placing characters or whole groups of characters into simple categories. For example, it is clear in the shop-window scene that those who are generally considered decent members of society are not so in all contexts. Yep relates this kind of question to the issue of socioeconomic class: middle-class status is not equivalent to decency. Respectability is a relative concept.
Bernice, a white, lower-class schoolmate of Joan's, values respectability. Ashamed of her own family background, Bernice expends a lot of energy and thought trying to be a part of middle-class society. As Joan puts it, "In terms of appearance, diction, and even their names, [Bernice and her sister] were more respectable than the respectable folks—as if that might change the town's mind" (Fisher, 93). But it does not change the minds of the townspeople to any appreciable degree, and it is significant that Yep demonstrates this in a scene set in a church. When a Christian woman at the big church social demands that Bernice get out because she does not "belong with respectable folk" (123), Yep's message is clear. Some of his more sophisticated readers might make connections between this scene and the scene in which Miss Lucy talks about playing her own small part, as a child, in the Civil War, wanting to contribute to ending "that pernicious trade" (76). Undoubtedly, this was a trade that was to a large degree justified in terms of religion. The common element between slavery and Yep's presentation of the church social scene is the theme of hypocrisy. Yep introduces the theme in a way that says, clearly, that no one segment of society is completely innocent of hypocrisy. No one is entirely "respectable."
Bernice is a very complicated character. On the one hand, she is very generous. For instance, her concern about befriending Joan is that Joan will be shunned by others when they see the two of them together (Fisher, 61). On the other hand, she wants to be a part of people who are capable of being this petty. However, this desire is quite natural for an adolescent; it is a theme that Laurence Yep returns to over and over again. Readers sympathize with Bernice, because Yep's characterization of her suggests that she will become more respectable as she learns to have respect for herself on her own terms.
Joan herself is working toward self-respect in an odd way. When she finds out that Bernice's family is made up of "theater people," she acknowledges that "theater people were … well … not very respectable either in China or America … and suddenly I could understand why the other poor girls shunned Bernice" (Fisher, 89). So the scenario involves not only middle-class people judging poor people, but all people, even within the same larger group making distinctions among themselves. This happens in every culture. Joan understands this. Furthermore, her tone comes close to suggesting that she accepts it; in her own culture, she would, in fact, have the social prerogative to look down on Bernice. At the same time, Joan is dealing also with her feelings about being (or not being) American. Thus, when she fears that her mother might embarrass her at the church social, she thinks of Bernice: "Even if she was theater people, she was still American. Would the disaster at the pie social make her think I was too foreign?" (116).
Joan learns several lessons from her relationship with Bernice. One of these is "not to let a lot of silly prejudices blindfold you. It was important to meet with the person and not the notion" (Fisher, 101). Another is that "it's funny how there are levels and levels of prejudice in the world. The red-faced man hated us for being Chinese; but he would hate someone like Bernice as well for being the child of theatrical folks—just as Mama would herself" (94).
At this point, Joan has the invaluable insight that these levels upon levels of prejudice are perpetuated endlessly in a vicious circle, which can be broken only with much work on the parts of the individuals who make up society. But ironically, Joan cannot be a part of this process until she has a clearer sense of who she is as an individual. While she defines Bernice as an American, her description of herself is not constant. She has reached the same point as Craig Chin, when he defines himself as Chinese American. Joan is still struggling. It is painful to her to admit to herself that she is incapable of telling Bernice about China because she knows as little about that country, that society, as Bernice does (Fisher, 64).
Joan, however, probably knows more than she thinks she does about Chinese culture, because like Laurence Yep himself, she has simply "soaked it up" in the course of being raised by Chinese parents; she is a child of the owl, like Casey Young, whether or not she realizes it fully. It registers somewhere in her mind when her mother explains how a given social transaction in Clarksburg might be handled in China (Fisher, 102). Though she is a bit skeptical, it makes an indelible impression when her father tells her that the washboard was a Chinese invention that was brought to America (36). Information such as this might be considered trivial to many, but a writer such as Yep understands that little details, like the fact that a given society was technologically oriented, makes a big difference to young people who are ashamed of or confused about their heritage. This small fact about the washboard will remain with Joan.
There are countless other details, facts, attitudes, and images that are Joan's inheritance from her parents. She will recall always the image of her mother, though not literate, busily working with the abacus to balance the family's financial records. She will remember always her father's "long, elegant fingers around her wrist—fingers that were better suited to painting and calligraphy than to being thrust into boiling-hot water" (Fisher, 10). The story within the novel, the story of the star fisher, is about a beautiful bird, temporarily transformed into a human woman, who is trapped into an earthly marriage that produces a daughter. The daughter, by blood therefore, belongs "to both the earth and sky" and "[sees] everything through a double pair of eyes" (72). Joan will take with her throughout her life an appreciation for how most people—herself, her mother, Bernice, readers—are all, in some way, star fishers: those who belong to two worlds, both of which are their birthright.
In his autobiography Laurence Yep characterizes himself as "a bunch of different pieces that had been dumped together in a box by sheer circumstance" (Lost Garden, 91). He is referring to the whole of his background: being a Chinese American growing up in an Africa-American neighborhood; being too Chinese for some white people; being too American for some Chinese; being the decidedly nonathletic child of athletes; being the descendant of Chinese people who in some measure considered West Virginia their home. He compares his experience to that of others: "Almost everyone I knew—whether white, yellow, or black—came from a single background. They were cut from one pattern of cloth" (91).
This is a surprising and in some ways disturbing comparison. For what the stories of the owl/woman and the star fisher are about is belonging to various worlds simultaneously while maintaining a stable sense of self. Writing so insightfully and sensitively about numerous characters who experience this kind of double identity, this dilemma of struggling both to belong and to be individuals, it is somewhat startling that Yep would not realize that those around him might be experiencing the same. The young people growing up around him are probably trying to figure out what it means to be African American or Italian American or Jewish American. Fortunately, Yep's characters question identity from many, diverse perspectives, and they discover that everyone has a story; that few people are cut from one pattern of cloth regardless of race, gender, religion, age, economic status, or ethnic heritage; that everyone feels in some way like a star fisher.
1. "The Selchey Kids," Worlds of If 18 (February 1968), 93; reprinted in World's Best Science Fiction of 1969, ed. by Donald A. Wolheim and Terry Carr (New York: Ace, 1969), not paginated; hereafter cited in text as "Selchey."
2.Child of the Owl (New York: Harper and Row, 1977; Dell, 1978), 8; hereafter cited in text as Child. Selections reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
3. Marjorie Lewis, School Library Journal 23 (April 1977), 73.
4. Marla Dinchak, "Recommended: Laurence Yep," English Journal 7 (March 1982), 81-82; hereafter cited in text.
5. Sharon Wigutoff, "Junior Fiction: A Feminist Critique," The Lion and the Unicorn 5 (1981), 5.
6. Kingston, "Middle Kingdom to America" (see chap. 1, n. 11).
7. "Author's Commentary," in Children's Literature Review, vol. 17, ed. by Gerard J. Senick (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989), 202; reprinted from Literature for Young Adults, 2nd edition, ed. by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson (New York: Scott, Foresman, 1985).
8.The Star Fisher (New York: William Morrow, 1991; Puffin, 1992), viii; hereafter cited in text as Fisher.
9.Sea Glass (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 2; hereafter cited in text as Glass.
10. Jack Forman, School Library Journal 26 (November 1979), 95.
11. Mary M. Burns, Horn Book 55 (October 1979), 542.
12. Donald Kao, Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 11 (1980), 16.
13. Dolores Blythe Jones, "Christopher Awards," in Children's Literature Awards and Winners: A Directory of Prizes, Authors, and Illustrators (Detroit: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1983), 65.
14. Mary M. Burns, Horn Book 67 (May-June 1991), 334.
Diane Johnson (essay date summer 2001)
SOURCE: Johnson, Diane. "The Dragons and Serpents of Laurence Yep." Five Owls 15, no. 5 (summer 2001): 109-10.
[In the following essay, Johnson connects Yep's usage of dragon mythology in his young adult novels to normal adolescent associations with outsider status.]
Laurence Yep is one of the most successful writers in the field of children's and young adult fiction, having published well over twenty-five novels and numerous short stories and picture books since the debut of his first book, Sweetwater (Harper and Row, 1973). Although his work is varied and constantly evolving, he is perhaps best known for his stories and book titles involving dragons, either literally or metaphorically. Like all of Yep's works, his dragon stories are well-crafted and complex, and have a depth that is beyond fantasy alone.
From the beginning of his writing career, Laurence Yep's intention was to use Chinese mythology in his work, whether science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. Dragons are common in Chinese mythology, so it was logical, because of his deliberateness and sense of responsibility as a scholar and author, that Yep turned to dragon symbolism. Laurence Yep's dragons are not the typical fantasy-genre dragons of the western tradition. Departing from the Western conception of dragons as villainous, Yep's Chinese-based dragons are usually noble and heroic. In his own article in ALAN Review,"A Garden of Dragons," he says that they possess quirkiness and strength, beauty, and gallantry. This dichotomy between the Chinese and the Western is key to much of Yep's writing.
Growing up as a Chinese-American in San Francisco, Yep had an intimate knowledge of what it felt like to be an outsider. As a person of Chinese descent, he was not part of mainstream American society. Neither was he totally Chinese. For example, though he reads Latin and Greek, he never learned to speak Chinese. He says that in writing about aliens and alienated groups in his science fiction, to some degree, he is writing about being Chinese in American society, not unlike the main characters of his novel The Serpent's Children (Harper and Row, 1984), who are descendants of a child born of both human and serpent. So this sense of alienation becomes crucial to understanding his fiction, including the pieces involving dragons in some way. Humans and dragons are distinctly different creatures who, in Yep's fiction at least, must learn to live with one another. Many of his dragon stories have obvious ties to the ways in which humans interact with one another and what it means to be an insider or an outsider.
It may seem odd to use dragons to explore human behavior, but for Yep there is a natural connection. Yep recognizes that young people often feel like outsiders in their own bodies. He recalls what one young fan said when asked why he identified so well with Godzilla: "He's big and clumsy and no one explains the rules to him." Thus, dragons (and dragon-like creatures) seem an obvious place to turn for a fantasy writer to explore certain themes relevant to his particular audience.
Yep's novel Dragon of the Lost Sea (Harper and Row, 1982) revolves around Shimmer, a dragon with a pet boy, Thorn. Shimmer must first get through her preconceptions about humans before she can get along with them. She does not understand human behavior and believes that human hearts are "hard and flinty." She does not trust human beings at all and finds that they all look alike with their "tiny eyes and … little snouts." Shimmer's attitudes are suggestive of the ways in which people of different cultures approach each other, failing to reach a proper balance between recognizing each other as individuals and as members of groups. Dragon of the Lost Sea is narrated from Shimmer's perspective, so human readers are forced to be part of the "out-group." They do not have the choice of identifying with one subset of humans or another. In Shimmer's eyes they are, simply, humans—a designation that carries negative connotations from the beginning of the story.
Eventually, Shimmer is able to work through her preconceived notions about human beings and bonds with Thorn. And through writing about their journey to friendship, Yep explores many facets of human interaction.
In addition to implied issues of race and ethnicity, Yep's writing also deals with gender and class issues. Gender bias is, in fact, a strong concern throughout The Serpent's Children. Early in the book, Cassia, one of the major characters, admits that "there were times when I felt like pushing [my brother] down the nearest well. Mother and Father seemed willing to forgive Foxfire more because he was a boy." But Cassia comes to cherish Foxfire. He is the only one to come to her rescue when her parents are away and relatives nearly subject her to an extreme form of gender victimization—the binding of feet.
Yep's treatment of the custom of footbinding is successful in several ways. Most importantly, it allows the reader to explore the situation from the viewpoints of several characters. Significantly, these are characters who represent different socio-economic classes. Uncle Windy and Aunt Piety think that they are giving Cassia the ultimate gift by arranging for her to have her feet bound. After all, with bound feet, she will be attractive to a rich man.
Cassia is part serpent. This has to influence her behavior and attitudes. She succeeds in her resistance to having her feet bound though others don't understand her choice. Reminding readers of the importance of story, Cassia draws on her family, her story, when making her decision: "And I wondered what the White Serpent would have done at a time like this. In the first place, she would never have let fools take her away from home. And she certainly would never have let them try to cripple her. It was time I started to act like one of her children and fight."
But even while Cassia draws her strength from the story of her serpent forbearer, she understands that others draw a clear separation between stories and reality. During a later confrontation with her fellow villagers, when they question her ability to fight against their foes, she feels "the old familiar resentment welling up inside … whenever the subject of my sex was brought up." She continues: "It's one thing for a woman to do all sorts of heroics in a story; it's quite another for a girl to practice the martial arts with the boys—and beat them." Cassia goes on, too, to comment upon other kinds of stories that cast girls in subservient roles—stories that girls internalize. In the end, Cassia does desire a connection with other females. She reminds herself of one of her mother's sayings: "We are spiritual sisters with everyone of our sex. We are spiritual sisters." Nevertheless, the reader can't help feeling that Cassia's serpent blood sets her apart. She is a rebel who lives life on her own terms. The implied hope, of course (for Yep and for his readers), is that some of her dragon spirit will influence the other females in her world.
One person on whom Cassia has a distinct impact is her adopted son, Otter, the protagonist in Dragon's Gate (HarperCollins, 1993). The myths Yep explores most thoroughly in Dragon's Gate are myths about America. One of the strongest has to do with social class. Though Otter expresses his belief that slaves are fated to be slaves, it seems this belief is one he associates primarily with Chinese culture, for part of his desire to go to America is based on another belief that, in America, one is divorced from fate and/or family history: "At times like these, I yearned to go someplace where it wouldn't matter what my birth parents had been. Some place like the Golden Mountain."
What are "times like these?" They are the times when Otter is ridiculed because or reminded that his birth parents are Strangers, an ethnic group who are social outcasts. The general disdain for them is manifested in big ways such as massacres, but also in everyday ways, such as in the games children play: "In the lane some smaller children were playing a game of Hunt the Stranger and were arguing about who was going to be the dirty, stinking, greedy Stranger whom others would hunt. Though it made me want to shiver, I hid my feelings as I always did when someone spoke of Strangers."
This is just one example of the genius of Laurence Yep. The books some people describe so patly as historical fiction are much more in his hands: they show the concrete impact of the abstract concept of history, actual or mythological, on the real course of events for continents, countries, regions, communities, and individuals. Children's games, as much as any cultural artifact or activity, reveal attitudes that are entrenched in any given society. The games children play expose prejudices, dreams, and mythologies. Really masterful is how Yep uses the character of Otter to explore the issue of class. Otter embodies all the contradictions and tensions of any class-bound society. Though he feels the pain of belonging (biologically) to a despised class of people, it is still within him to treat other people condescendingly. What makes this kind of behavior possible on his part is that his adoptive parents have social status.
A pivotal incident occurs after his father and uncle have gone back to America, where they are workers on the transcontinental railroad, leaving him to be a "country gentleman" and run the family businesses. During the beautiful early winter season, Otter decides to visit Dragon's Gate, where "ages ago, someone had erected a stone gate that stood astride the river just as it thundered out of a deep gorge and then thundered swiftly down the mountainside. It's said that if a fish can make the long, difficult swim upstream and through the gate, it will change into a dragon. If you want to wish good luck to someone sitting for the government exams, you give that person a picture of a fish swimming through the Dragon's Gate."
A series of events ensues that culminates in Otter's going to the United States of 1867 on what turns out to be, in some ways, the ultimate adventure story: Chinese boy emigrates to the young country of America, striving to fulfill the expectations of the family and community at home, as well as his own dreams. Boy, father, and uncle work hard, fighting against the forces of nature and technology and a foreign people and culture. Readers share Otter's sense of satisfaction when he feels, after a number of ordeals, that he has reached a milestone in his life, that he has realized the real significance of coming to America, that he has passed through his own Dragon's Gate.
Examples of how the mythology and spirit of the dragon permeate Laurence Yep's work are too many to enumerate. But discussion of this idea is not complete without mention of Yep's 1976 Newbery honor book Dragonwings (Harper and Row, 1975), set in San Francisco during the first decade of the twentieth century. The dream of one of the main characters, Windrider, is to build a flying machine. In his essay "Writing Dragonwings " in the The Reading Teacher, Yep says:
… in Dragonwings, Windrider's former life as a dragon symbolizes … imaginative power in all of us. And so Windrider and his son, Moon Shadow, are engaged not only in the process of discovering America and each other, but also in a pilgrimage, or even a quest for a special moment when they can reaffirm the power of the imagina- tion; that power in each of us to grasp with the mind and heart what we cannot immediately grasp with the hand.
Clearly, Laurence Yep's writing is both specific and expansive. It reveals much about Chinese thought, the Chinese-American experience, American ideals, and the human spirit. Yep's work challenges his readers to be balanced and accommodating of contradictions and to acknowledge the dragon's spirit within us all.
Alethea Helbig (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Helbig, Alethea. "The Outsider in Laurence Yep's Serpent Trilogy." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 25-32. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Helbig suggests that Yep's novels regarding Chinese immigration to the United States—the books that make up the "Serpent Trilogy"—emphasize the inherent power in the social role of the outsider.]
Laurence Yep's Phoenix Award-winning Dragonwings has earned its distinguished niche in children's literature as a well-crafted, well-characterized account of the Chinese immigrant experience in California at the turn of the twentieth century. Yep has written three other historical novels about the Chinese migration to America, The Serpent's Children, Mountain Light, and Dragon's Gate. These linked stories constitute the Serpent's Children Trilogy, published over a ten-year period, beginning in 1984. Like Dragonwings, they deal with such matters as generational and culture conflicts, the importance of family, honor, loyalty, and tradition, as well as racial prejudice both among the Chinese themselves and of the Americans toward the Chinese. In addition, they involve such momentous events as the opium wars, rebellion against the Manchus, the gold rush, and constructing the transcontinental railroad—hefty, interrelated subjects.
These substantial historical fictions can be looked at in another and also meaningful way as Bildungsromans of the adolescent outsider experience. As growing-up stories, they display most of the hallmarks of the genre but deviate from the pattern in important ways. The integration into society produces young people who are less egocentric and more altruistic than are usually found in such novels. Rather than being eliminated or downplayed, the marginalization becomes the young person's strength, enables the integration, and, in addition, redeems the community.
Beginning about 1850 and extending over some twenty years, these novels trace the fortunes of the Youngs, a peasant family from Three Willows Village in Kwangtung province in southern China. The first novel, The Serpent's Children, focuses on Cassia and her younger brother, Foxfire, both in their mid-teens. When crops fail and the hostile Phoenix clan and revolutionaries-turned-bandit ravage the village, their mother dead of tuberculosis and their father disabled from fighting the British, Foxfire runs away to America, hoping to elevate the family finances in the gold fields of California.
The second book, Mountain Light, sees events from the perspective of Squeaky, a youth from the neighboring village of Phoenix, who becomes united in spirit and effort with Cassia and her father in their dedication to the Work, as they refer to the rebellion against the Manchus. After Cassia's father is killed and internal strife results in the deaths of Squeaky's dearest friend and one of Cassia's, Squeaky and another Three Willows youth, Tiny, leave to join Foxfire.
In Dragon's Gate, which concludes the series, Otter, sixteen-year-old son of Tiny and foster son of Cassia and Squeaky, accidentally kills a Manchu soldier and is hustled overseas to join Foxfire and Squeaky. These men are now but two of the hundreds of Chinese immigrants conscripted to build a tunnel through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Backbreaking labor under extremely dangerous working conditions leads to Squeaky's blinding and subsequent return to China, Foxfire's death, and, at the very end, Otter's presence in Utah as the golden spike is driven into place and the continent is spanned by rail.
Bright, tough, capable Cassia dominates the first book, commands much of the second, and has a strong influence in the third, although she appears in the last one only at the beginning. Cassia is an alien in her native village of Three Willows, an outcast by birth, nature, and circumstances. Her branch of the Youngs is said to be descended through their mother from a legendary, shapechanging female snake, an origin of which Cassia is proud but which the villagers openly despise and disparage.
Rather than trying to obliterate or hide it, Cassia early turns her differentness into a strength. She is eight when her mother dies. Since her father is away at the wars and her relatives are confident he will not return, they decide to bind her feet to increase her possibilities for a good marriage. To their horror, she grabs a kitchen knife and threatens them with it, provoking Aunt Luckless to remark,
It's the serpent's blood coming out in her … I knew bringing her mother into this village would bring no good … I tell you it's the serpent's blood. They're [Cassia and Foxfire] cold-blooded, deceitful things….
(SC [The Serpent's Children ] 55)
Cassia herself explains her independent attitude to Squeaky years afterward, saying, "I was the serpent's child, after all" (ML [Mountain Light ] 137).
But the serpentness is also her strength, symbolized in part by a carved lattice window depicting the ancient story. The window is sold to tide the family over a particularly lean period and in better times is redeemed by Cassia as a reminder of that toughness she inherited through her mother.
Cassia is launched into womanhood with the death of her mother, a status she occasionally despises but mostly accepts. The mother, Cassia, and Foxfire are working in the rice fields, when the woman, who has long suffered a debilitating, racking cough, suddenly pitches forward into the paddy. Blood flecking her lips, she whispers to Cassia,
"Take care of them," she said. "Take care of who?" [Cassia asked.] …
"Your brother and father." Her words were barely more than a whisper, and I leaned forward to hear better. "Their minds are so busy walking in the clouds that their feet would trip over the first pebble if we weren't there to guide them … You're the strong one. Take care of them."
This command dominates the rest of the period that would have been Cassia's childhood. It is an imperative she honors for her family and translates into public benefit with the money Foxfire sends home. She buys land, pays off taxes, and bribes officials on behalf of neighbors, among other acts of beneficence. Later, she even embarks on such public works programs as a village mill.
From her mother, Cassia learns how to heal with herbs and ointments and becomes skilled in martial arts from her warrior father. Thoroughly dedicated to the cause of driving out the Manchus, she even accompanies her father into battle, where, near Canton, she meets Squeaky, whom she later marries. Her ability to fight saves the life of Otter, the son of other outsiders called Strangers. She adopts Otter, who becomes the protagonist of the third book.
Ever the outsider, though content within herself for the most part, Cassia "lives by her own rules," according to Otter (DG [Dragon's Gate ] 12). She becomes the matriarch of Three Willows Village, the wise woman to whom the village looks for leadership, relies on to solve problems, usually envies, and never completely accepts or even acknowledges for her contribution.
As Cassia turns her outsider status and serpent vulnerability into her own and her village's salvation, so also does Squeaky's outsiderness save him and benefit others. Squeaky tells, in the second book, how, orphaned at five, he is taken in by his irascible Uncle Itchy, a man too emotionally repressed to communicate his affection to the child. An "odd goofy little boy" (ML 129) with an unusually high-pitched voice, Squeaky makes up for his lack of family and his awkwardness by clowning and joking, playing the fool to hide his hurts.
He becomes friends with another village outcast named Uncle Ducky, a traveling acrobat who settles in Phoenix Village. This friendship has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, Uncle Ducky gives the boy the affection he craves and also teaches him how to perform and thus make the most of his natural athleticism and talent for entertaining. While this friendship validates the boy and raises his self-esteem, it further marginalizes him, because Uncle Ducky is a Stranger. The Strangers are a group originally from the coast, who were displaced centuries earlier by the Manchus, dispersed variously, and despised generally.
His self-confidence elevated by his stint at the wars in which he meets the Youngs, Squeaky attempts to help Uncle Ducky, who for reasons has become the village scapegoat, and must leave Phoenix. The boy takes refuge in Cassia's village, where Strangers are also being attacked, helps Cassia defend them, and subsequently departs for America and Foxfire, not wanting to be dependent on his future wife's generosity.
The rigors of the voyage are graphically described, as are the strife among the Chinese in America and the intense labor in digging the railroad tunnel through the mountains. These hard years amplify Squeaky's sense of self. The clowning and silliness that were once his defense against hard knocks become a strength. His jesting and pratfalls diffuse tempers and divert attention in ticklish situations. He earns a respected place as a hard worker and genuinely good man, but he is always in Foxfire's shadow.
Blinded in a mine explosion, Squeaky returns to Three Willows Village, a hero for the wealth he has sent home. To prepare Cassia for his homecoming and to mask his psychic hurt, he writes to her jestingly,
"First of all, the good news. You won't ever have to worry about me looking at another woman." It was just like Father to try to make a joke [adds Otter].
When Otter asks him why he gave up so much to stay in America, always in Uncle Foxfire's shadow, Squeaky says simply, "Because he was right" (DG 241). Although Squeaky never has Foxfire's breadth of vision, he has the simple everyday tenacity and good sense to make the most of situations and improve conditions for others.
Although Foxfire dominates the three books to such an extent that the trilogy might be named for him, he has no book of his own, as do Cassia, Squeaky, and Otter. Like his sister, Cassia, Foxfire is marginalized by birth, being a serpent child; by nature, being unusually imaginative, dreamy, and independent; and by circumstances, being orphaned, poor, and the son of the village "gallant" or dedicated revolutionary. Later he is an outsider because of his wealth and the adulation his venturing to America earns him.
Timid as a child, afraid even of the sight of Father's spear, he grows into a gangly teenager, big for his age, awkward with arms and at martial arts, the despair of his warrior Father, who dreams of his son's becoming the next "gallant" of the village and accomplishing the Revolution against the Manchus. Increasingly, the youth sees himself as excess baggage, feels suffocated in Three Willows Village, and yearns to go abroad.
Underneath Foxfire's dreaminess lies a tough pragmatism, however. On the fringes, he often sees more objectively than do his Father, sister, and neighbors. He tells Father there is no sense in dying for pride, and, while Father attributes their hard times to the Manchus and the British demons, the boy identifies intense poverty as their real problem. While Father yearns for a shotgun, Foxfire insists money, not guns, will bring a better life.
Several events culminate in Foxfire's departure for America. His cousin Peony is sold to a brothel because her family can no longer feed her. Bandits, masquerading as rebels, steal food and supplies. Visitors sustantiate the Land of the Golden Mountain as an actual place. Foxfire and Father have an argument about the value of the rebellion, after which Father disowns Foxfire, and the boy takes off.
Foxfire becomes wealthy in the gold fields, at least by Chinese standards. He cleverly works the areas others consider worthless, like the dirt on the floors of the miners' abandoned cabins; sends money back regularly; returns to China occasionally; marries a Chinese woman and has a family; and is hailed as a hero in the village.
When first seen in America, Foxfire, still an outsider, is attempting to mediate between feuding factions of his own people. Squeaky discovers that for years Foxfire has been trying to get the Chinese workers to unite, so that, as Foxfire says, they can "spend some time on the real business at hand: learning what we can from the Westerners" (ML 266) in order to improve China.
When Otter, Squeaky's son, comes to America, he finds Uncle Foxfire no longer a miner but the headman of a band of misfit laborers, whom he is trying to mold into a crew of tunnel builders. Their job, the most precarious of all, is to set explosives at the heading, that is, at the innermost point of the bore, and then to carry out the residue so that more charges can be set. Ever the visionary and idealist, Foxfire continues to speak of future enterprise. He wants to save China from being carved into chunks by the Europeans as they have divided up Africa. He says that the Great Work of unification and modernization will keep China strong and whole.
Foxfire dies in the attempt to set a charge intended to divert an avalanche of snow before it buries the workers' quarters. The man regarded by Three Willows Village as a legend in his time for revivifying their village with the gold he sent home, a status he never acknowledges because of his near-peonage in the United States—this man achieves heroism through his noble death. The dreamy youth with big ideas, alienated by hopes never imagined by anyone else in the village, dreamed different dreams to the very end. The marginalization that marked his short life resulted in better times for his neighbors. With understated admiration, Otter praises him as "some kind of man" (DG 196).
Otter, the foster son of Cassia and Squeaky, is also marginalized by birth, nature, and circumstances. As the biological son of a Stranger, he is automatically an outsider, even though he was born and raised in Three Willows Village. He yearns to go to the Land of the Golden Mountain and fears being branded as a coward if he does not, but Cassia refuses permission, saying she needs him to help with the many family enterprises. Being a sensitive and moral youth, he will not shame her by behaving like an "ungrateful wretch" (DG 35). He often wonders who he really is, however, wealthy, powerful Cassia's son, or a despised, refugee Stranger. As far as his contemporaries in the village are concerned, he is both, and hence not really one of them. He is both envied and despised for his wealth, and both envied and despised as a Stranger.
His aspirations are similar to those of the other boys: "I knew something had to be done very soon for our poor county; and I wanted to be one of those who helped" (DG 17). When he accidentally causes the death of a Manchu soldier, ironically his aspirations of leaving for America and of helping his country become possible. His mother's influence and money secure his passage, and the voyage is accomplished. Since Foxfire is well known in the San Francisco area, the boy is soon outfitted appropriately and headed into the mountains. To his surprise and disappointment, he finds his foster father Squeaky and Uncle Foxfire are common laborers who do the dirtiest, most dangerous work of building the tunnel through the mountains for the transcontinental railroad, not the grand bosses and heroes he and the villagers thought they were. He discovers that they, and he, are at the bottom of the heap, expendable, despised, and abused. They are valued by the Americans only for their labor. They are also looked at askance by the other Chinese, because of Foxfire's and Squeaky's wealth, the area from which they come, and Foxfire's reputation as a firebrand. The boy, an outsider at home, is also an outsider abroad.
The work is brutally hard, seemingly endless, and unfairly rewarded compared to the wages of the Americans. The overseers are cruel, driven men, the lash is applied, and living conditions are almost animalistic. Food is scarce, fuel is almost nonexistent, and the cold and darkness are unrelentingly oppressive.
It would seem that we have with Otter the classic tale of the rich tenderfoot whose mettle is tested by circumstances. Indeed, a Chinese worker who, according to Otter, is "taking a vengeful pleasure in my clumsiness," says "He's another one of those spoiled little princes back in China living off his daddy's money" (DG 92).
Muscles and back aching, hands bruised, blistered, and calloused, "Prince Useless" (DG 103) becomes adept with the shovel, pick, and carrying baskets. He endures a brutal whipping when he stands up to the cruel overseer's unreasonable demands. He earns the reputation of being a troublemaker on behalf of others as Foxfire has (80). This is the beginning not only of a kind of adaptation for the boy but also of his looking outward, of the call to cause, first of coworkers, then of country, as Foxfire has also shown.
Otter volunteers to set the charge that will release the snow on the mountain, and, when Foxfire disappears and is presumed dead, he attempts unsuccessfully to recover his uncle's body. Thus, he proves his mettle. He has already become fluent in English and has made friends with an American boy. Although we never see Otter in manhood, we know that by the time the rails are joined at Promontory Point, he has filled several notebooks with observations and ideas that might help his people. Uncle Foxfire's ambition of modernizing China has become Otter's, too. We can be reasonably sure that it will happen with him as it did with Foxfire, who summed up how he himself changed: "Once you quest on the Golden Mountain, you change inside …" (DG 197). Like Cassia, Squeaky, and Foxfire, Otter is still an outsider, but an outsider with a vision and a cause and the courage and intelligence to achieve both.
There are matters about which one might complain in these three novels: diffuse, formulaic plots; repetitious events; and an overly large, inadequately developed cast of characters. The books excel, however, in depicting the problems of the Chinese people at home—the constant warring, petty bickering, political corruption, the difficulty of wresting a living from exhausted soil—and in the Land of the Golden Mountain, were the same sorts of internal strife occur even as the workers are exploited by arrogant and avaricious American bosses and entrepreneurs.
As maturation novels of the outsider experience, the books succeed admirably in showing young people as they find their niche in life and overcome their limitations by addressing the problems of the larger unit in significant ways.
Ethnic literature has been promoted for some time as a valuable way of learning about other cultures. Few people would quarrel with that assumption. It is also an excellent way of learning from other cultures. Yep's books of the Chinese-American experience play down self-aggrandizement and elevate the common good as a significant and worthy imperative. The books suggest, moreover, that youths have the obligation to act as agents for a better world.
The quotation from the Book of Changes that heads the first novel summarizes this charge and thus sets the tone for the entire trilogy: "The superior person rouses other people and nourishes their hopes." The outsiders of these maturation novels, Cassia, Squeaky, Foxfire, and Otter, individually and together exemplify the superior person, one whom others might usefully emulate.
Joanne Ryder (essay date July-August 2005)
SOURCE: Ryder, Joanne. "Laurence Yep." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 433-36.
[In the following essay, Ryder, Laurence Yep's wife, offers a biographical tribute to Yep and his writing career.]
He was a Winkie from the West, and I was a Munchkin from the East. We met in the middle, Milwaukee, at Marquette University, learning about words and newspapers and life. That was thirty-eight years ago … when I was lucky enough to meet Laurence Yep.
The graduating editor of Marquette's literary magazine, Gail Gleason, introduced us and suggested Larry join the staff. We will always be most grateful to the wise young woman who grew into Gail Collins, now the editor of the New York Times editorial page.
As he always does, Larry threw himself into his work at the Marquette Journal and ended up being a one-man team, acquiring art and writing short stories, articles, and poetry—under a pen name or two. He even helped me paint the office. We both ended our first painting experience a nice robin's-egg blue.
Working together, we discovered we shared a childhood love of reading, especially fantasy and science fiction novels. He traded me his beloved Oz books and his Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton tales for my Narnia books, Moomintroll adventures, and Alice in Wonderland.
Over meatball sandwiches at Angelo's, we discussed our plans and dreams: mine to return to New York, to edit, and then write children's books; his to get his Ph.D. in English, teach full-time, and write fiction. He had just gotten his first story, a novelette, "The Selchey Kids," published in If magazine. This was such exciting news! The editor of If, Frederik Pohl, wrote a note accompanying the story: "A young San Franciscan who is now a sophomore in college, nineteen-year-old Laurence Yep is clearly headed for great things!"
When I recall the Larry of those early days, he is mostly hidden, bundled in two scarves, padded gloves, and a hooded down jacket, puffed up like the Michelin Man, protected from the winds wailing off Lake Michigan. A thick shock of black hair escapes, tossing every which way, and kind, watchful eyes twinkle within.
Larry started writing for children while attending graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. Sweetwater is the science fiction story of a young boy torn between his love for music and his obligations to his family surviving on a foreign, flooded planet. I think the child reader within him was overjoyed when Andre Norton praised it. "Sweetwater is outstanding," she wrote. "It is difficult to believe that this is a first novel. The extremely competent handling of alien background, plus excellent characterization, suggests rather a long apprenticeship in the craft."
Homesick for San Francisco, Larry wrote Dragonwings, a novel that helped change the course of his career. He drew upon records of a real Chinese American aviator who, inspired by the flights of the Wright brothers, built his own plane. But he also drew upon the stories of unknown Chinese American pioneers and immigrants, especially his father, Thomas Yep, who like young Moonshadow came as a boy to live with his father in America, a stranger in a strange land.
Dragonwings was Larry's first novel to deal with the Chinese American experience, and it was chosen a Newbery Honor Book. The scarcity of teaching jobs for English Ph.D.s in the seventies and the success of Dragonwings changed Larry's plans. Though occasionally he has taught college classes at UC Berkeley and Santa Barbara, he has been a full-time writer for over thirty years.
As his writing career was beginning, Larry finished his dissertation on William Faulkner and then happily returned to California. "I think I identified with Faulkner," he says, "who as a writer tried to live in various places and wound up going home, where he incorporated his hometown into his imagination, making it his own so it became Yoknatawpha. In a similar fashion, I wound up back home in San Francisco, incorporating Chinatown into my imagination and then putting that fictional one down on paper."
Larry has written more than sixty books, among them the Dragon of the Lost Sea and The Tiger's Apprentice fantasy series and the nine-volume Golden Mountain Chronicles that include the Newbery Honor books Dragonwings and Dragon's Gate. His books are richly populated by Chinese American and other memorable characters—siblings sparring in the fifties (as he and his brother did), a young girl growing up in a laundry in West Virginia (as his mother did), Hiroshima survivors, immigrant miners, railroad workers, clever princesses, foolish ghosts, even Mr. Sulu in his one Star Trek novel.
When we bought our house, we knew we needed two things: enough space for us to work separately and enough wall space for bookcases. We live in a home full of all styles of puppets and bears (mine), toy soldiers and towers of anime (his), and books for research and enjoyment (ours). Larry is a lark, and I am an owl. He gets up early to begin his writing session every day. I work at night. I am the sprinter working on several short books and poems at a time. He is the marathon runner, going to his desk each morning, pacing himself, working for hours through early drafts, revisions, and more revisions of a novel.
As I type this, the world is dark, and he is dreaming. In a few hours when the world has turned gray again, he will follow the smell of programmed coffee, fill his cup, snatch the newspapers from the driveway, and head to his study to write. I will be dead to the world as he turns on his music—music selected for today's writing project. He often chooses pumping rhythms, Japanese hard rock, to get him going. If you could slip into his study, you could tiptoe and stand right behind him. As he focuses, staring at his computer, it is likely he would not know you were there. He is far away where miners are in danger or dragons are battling ancient foes in the sky overhead. Wherever, the phone or doorbell cannot reach him.
I admire Larry's faithfulness, perseverance, and dedication to his work. Every morning, weekdays and weekends, Larry returns to his writing. There have been times when the stories have been painful to discover—the sufferings of the Hiroshima survivors; the cruelty of the massacres of Chinese American miners in Montana. After some writing sessions, Larry looks drained and tired, but he has never given up or run away from the truth within his characters.
Each writer has methods for creating over the long run. One of Larry's is to follow a difficult and painful story with a folktale, fantasy adventure, or contemporary novel. Not a lighter story, but a necessary respite. For someone like Larry, writing is a long journey traveling on many different paths, some to darker places and some to hamlets of hope and joy and family.
When I met Larry, he was perhaps a bit more serious than I. My playful Irish teasing was foreign to him. But he has learned over the years to tease and kid like a master, wiggling his ears in an amazingly dragony way and grinning as wide as the impish Monkey King. His hearty laugh is recognizable anywhere! That, and the fact that he finds the humor in many situations, makes him very easy to locate in a dark movie theater.
And to his way of thinking, any day—sunny or rainy—is a good day to see a movie or a play. When he needs a break from writing, when he is blocked on a book, or when he simply has a craving for Junior Mints, off he goes to a movie or a show. If he did not write novels, I suspect he would love to write plays. When Berkeley Rep asked him to adapt Dragonwings for the stage, every aspect of creation and production captivated him. His one-act plays, Pay the Chinaman and Fairy Bones, have been produced in San Francisco and New York. It is always more lively around the house when Larry is involved with a play. Working in the theater is more social and collaborative than working in publishing. We've learned to expect and chuckle at the phone calls from actors querying their motivation and questioning their lines. When Larry writes books, he might wake up thinking about his characters, but they don't phone at midnight.
Sometimes people ask us how two writers can be together 24/7 and stay married. We laugh and say only with separate studies … and with gentleness and understanding. We know how the other feels when a rejection comes, and we head out for a long walk or a slice of pizza. When we get good news—an acceptance, a fine review, or an acknowledgment—we hug, we celebrate, and we truly enjoy that we've been able to make this long trip together doing what we love to do.
When Larry learned that he was to be awarded the 2005 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, recognizing his contribution to children's literature, it was totally unexpected and wonderful news. We haven't stopped celebrating…. Larry and Laura. How lovely!
Lingyan Yang and Zhihui Fang (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Yang, Lingyan, and Zhihui Fang. "Rainbow Literature, Rainbow Children, Rainbow Cultures, and Rainbow Histories: The Chinese and Chinese American Adolescents Heroines in Laurence Yep's Selected Novels." In Exploring Culturally Diverse Literature for Childrenand Adolescents: Learning to Listen in New Ways, edited by Darwin L. Henderson and Jill P. May, pp. 178-95. Boston, Mass.: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.
[In the following essay, Yang and Fang argue that Yep's adolescent novels stand as superior examples of multicultural literature due to their equal emphasis on historical, aesthetic, critical, feminist, political, and multiethnic consciousnesses.]
Arguably the best creative artist in Chinese American children's and adolescent literature, Laurence Yep is important to the canon of contemporary American children's literature. Winner of numerous prestigious awards, Yep has authored more than forty novels, fantasies, and collections of folkloric fables. However, rigorous studies of Yep's remarkable accomplishments, especially of his creative literary style, his powerful integration of Chinese and Chinese American histories in his texts, and his enormous contributions to contemporary American multicultural children's and adolescent literature, are yet to be produced. What are uniquely Chinese, Chinese American, and American about Yep's writing? What kind of adolescent heroines and heroes, or rainbow children, has he portrayed? How has he reinvented the Chinese and Chinese American legends and myths to create a unique Chinese American aesthetics for children? What historical elements has he deployed and how? Why is Yep's work central to contemporary American multicultural children's and adolescent literature?
To answer these questions, we will utilize Asian American and Asian diasporic feminist cultural criticism (Yang) as we interpret Laurence Yep's making of the contemporary Chinese American children's and adolescent literature. Specifically, we will analyze Yep's creation of the narratives on, about, or by the adolescent heroines in his novels, The Serpent's Children, Mountain Light, Child of the Owl, and The Star Fisher. We will particularly examine Yep's reinvention of Chinese and Chinese American legends, histories, and myths.
One hallmark of Yep's work is his masterful juxtaposition of gender, genre, culture, history, and storytelling. His work represents the pinnacle of what we call rainbow literature: colorful, stimulating, enriching, "heterogeneous, hybrid, and multiple" (Lowe, "Heterogeneous" 24). Our rigorous interpretation of his work simultaneously emphasizes the feminist consciousness, "the critical consciousness" (Said, The World 5), the aesthetic consciousness, "the historical consciousness" (White v), the multicultural consciousness, and "the political consciousness" (Mohanty 33). While reading Laurence Yep's Chinese American children's and adolescent literature through the feminist consciousness, we refer to the Chinese and Chinese American adolescent female narrators, narrative voices and protagonists, attending to how gender, power, and genre interreact to illuminate the girls' challenges of the multiple patriarchal social and symbolic orders.
"The critical consciousness" is borrowed from Edward Said, a leading contemporary cultural critic. It requires us to utilize contemporary critical cultural theories to emphasize rigorous critical thinking and to refuse reductionism in reading contemporary Asian American literature in the global context.1 According to Etienne Balibar, a contemporary French Marxist philosopher, such a critical consciousness "combines philosophical reflection with historical synthesis, and [… attempts] conceptual recasting with the analysis of political problems that are more than urgent today" (1). We will use Hayden White's "the historical consciousness" because it allows us to articulate the complex and heterogeneous Chinese, Chinese American, and American women's histories, which we call the rainbow histories, and which contextualize Laurence Yep's writings, but especially his Chinese American historical novels for children. We are also interested in how his Chinese and Chinese American adolescent girls employ feminist narrative voices and subject formations that contribute directly to the reader's understanding of Chinese diasporic and Chinese American global feminist historical consciousness. Our aesthetic consciousness allows us to express our keen interests in presenting the complex and sophisticated materials embedded in Yep's skillful writing as he uses literary elements, styles, and rhetorical devices, such as allegory, symbolism, imagery, and metaphor. It also enables us to focus on Yep's reinvention of an array of Chinese and Chinese American legends and myths central to his creation of the adolescent female personae in his narrative voice. Multicultural consciousness is defined by our insistence on situating the readings of Yep's literature within the Chinese American, Chinese, and American multicultures, which we call the rainbow cultures. The multicultural consciousness is central to Yep's writing as well as to our reading of the rainbow literature of the contemporary Chinese American, Asian American, or American children's literature.
Finally, our "political consciousness," as defined by Chandra T. Mohanty, a postcolonial feminist critic, reflects our belief that no production or interpretation of children's literature is innocent or apolitical. We have not subordinated our literary criticism and appraisal of Yep's literature to rigid political dogmas. However, we cannot divorce reading Yep's texts from the larger contexts of Asian American cultural politics or from our understandings of the contemporary American racial, economic, sexual, ethnic, and transnational political dynamics that we believe have situated Yep's creative storytelling. We wish to demonstrate that Yep has fearlessly contested and unmasked the complex power relations and hierarchies of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and nationality found in contemporary society. Therefore, we read Yep's fiction as never innocent, always depicting remarkable rainbow children.
And once a serpent sets her mind on something, she doesn't give up—whether she's fighting or loving someone.
(The Serpent's Children 18)
The Serpent's Children and Mountain Light are the first two historical novels from Laurence Yep's ambitious multigenerational "Golden Mountain Chronicles." The chronicles narrate the Young family's history of struggle and emigration from the Three Willows Village in China's Guangdong Province in the past one hundred and fifty years and follows their heroic immigration to and survival in the Land of the Gold in America. The chronicles include The Serpent's Children, Mountain Light, Dragon's Gate, Dragonwings, Child of the Owl, Sea Glass, and Thief of Hearts.
We choose to focus our historical analysis on The Serpent's Children and Mountain Light. We believe that Cassia Young, the adolescent girl-warrior heroine in these two novels, is one of Yep's most unique and unforgettable feminist characterizations. She is unusually fascinating in her representation of Chinese culture and history: antipatriarchal, anticolonial, antiracialist, and proemigration to America. Set in 1849, The Serpent's Children begins when Cassia is an eight-year-old Chinese girl narrator and protagonist; she is then cast as the teenage protagonist in Mountain Light, a story set in the half-colonial and half-feudal agrarian Three Willows Village, Guangdong Province, China, during 1855. Yep presents Cassia, her family, and her people in a sympathetic manner that significantly contributes to contemporary American multicultural children's literature. We believe that Yep's historical novels contain well-crafted intersections between literary representation and historical contextualization and between Chinese legends and historical details. Yep fictionalizes Cassia's life and ordeals in mid-nineteenth-century China before the Young family's immigration to America and before the birth of Chinese American children's literary tradition. As Laurence Yep himself emphasizes, he begins the "Golden Mountain Chronicles" with these two historical novels because Cassia's stories provide the familial, local, national, and global historical pretext and context for the Young family's "love affair with America:"
Most books of that time viewed the evolution of Chinese Americans from either the Chinese side or the American side, but I wanted to do both. Through the Young family, I tried to show how rebellions, wars, and famine in China forced many to make the dangerous voyage to America.
("Author's Note" unpaged)
Yep's deliberate and skillful juxtaposition of literature and history is one of the most significant aesthetic achievements in his historical novels for children. Yep seamlessly interweaves everyday events and storytelling in The Serpent's Children and Mountain Light, using an enormous amount of historical background of nineteenth-century China. To the readers who are unfamiliar with Chinese history, these historical events will appear extremely difficult and challenging to comprehend. However, relating this historical knowledge about "the rebellions, wars and famine in China" is so important to Yep that the American-born Chinese American author himself spent a lot of time and energy researching them "to discover my identity as a Chinese" (Afterword, The Serpent's Children 276). Therefore, we will interpret Yep's aesthetic accomplishments in his style, examining his utilization of legends, metaphor, symbolism, and myth and his effective characterization of his feminist young protagonist while explaining clearly the key historical knowledge needed to supplement the youthful reader's understanding.
In both novels, Laurence Yep carefully reinvents the legend of the White Serpent to signify Cassia Young's distinctive feminist consciousness and her feminist resistance against all forms, institutions, and techniques of patriarchy in nineteenth-century Chinese women's history. "The Legend of the White Serpent" was originally a popular Chinese traditional folkloric legend that has been frequently adapted in numerous Chinese opera forms, such as in Peking Opera (Wu et al. 107; Siao and Alley 80-83). Yep reconstructs the melodramatic romantic love story between the white she-serpent and the young scholar of Xu Spirit and turns it into Cassia's favorite "talk-story" (Kingston 19) from her deceased mother. He emphasizes the quintessentially feminist archetypal image and metaphor of the White Serpent, who is beautiful and loving, yet still fiercely strong and independent. Thus, Yep's reinvented legend nurtures Cassia to be who she is and empowers her to battle against all obstacles, such as patriarchal oppressions, British colonialism, poverty, and the loss of family members.
The legend of the White Serpent enables Yep to effectively characterize Cassia Young as a feminist girl warrior in The Serpent's Children and a young "woman warrior" in Mountain Light. The White Serpent boldly claims her existential legitimacy, her right to live, and her right to love. She believes that she is equal to humans in spirit, emotion, and strength. She refuses to allow the ultramoralist and ultrapatriarchal Buddhist monk master, whom Yep changes into a religionless priest, to categorize her as a species inferior to human beings or unfit to marry Xu Spirit. Yep arms his young protagonist, Cassia, with this imagery so that readers will believe she can heroically resist the patriarchal politics, practice, and institution of foot binding forced on her by her senior relatives in the village after her mother's death:
Aunt Patience's palm cupped Lily's foot. "It's shaped just like a lotus blossom, delicate and perfect […] Every man will turn to stare at you as you walk by on feet as dainty as Lily's […] It's you and I who walk like buffalo, not like real women."
I still found it hard to believe that my uncle and aunt intended Lily's fate for me. "But I want to be able to go for long walks and to run," I shouted.
Yep skillfully reshapes the White Serpent legend so that his protagonist Cassia can use this story to counter the oppressive social, sexual, and symbolic apparatus of foot binding utilized to control, dominate, police, and confine Chinese female sexuality. Cassia achieves this through refuting the foot-binding metaphor of the "lotus blossom." Yep's young heroine despises the "delicate and perfect" imagery of the "lotus blossom" because it produces the problematic "ideal" Chinese femininity and reduces the female social and sexual identity to the metonymy of the deformed body part of bound feet. She refuses to deform, denaturalize, or destroy her natural female body into an object of male perverted erotic desire or a public sexual spectacle. Cassia, thus, refuses to let the patriarchal ideology of foot binding confine her social space strictly to the three inches of domesticity. With feet bound, girls or women cannot run away from male control. Yep's Cassia wants "to be able to go for long walks and to run." She demands total freedom. She is determined to control her own destiny and formulate her own female identity.
By allowing his protagonist to see the irony of this practice, Yep forcefully unmasks the foot-binding metaphor of the "lotus blossom" as merely employed to control women's bodies and imprison women within the assigned patriarchal sexual, social, and symbolic power hierarchy. Beneath the façade of the visually exquisite and sexually pleasing metonymy of the "lotus blossom" lies the brutal foot-binding sexual politics of systematically restricting women's movement to performing the domestic functions of cooking, cleaning, reproducing, and satisfying men's erotic appetites. Yep's protagonist vigorously battles against the violent technology of patriarchal power and its meticulous maintenance procedures, which require many years of grotesque and consistent binding, deforming, bone breaking, rebinding, unbinding, and brainwashing of little girls. Cassia refuses from day one to be bound.
Yep skillfully introduces the legend of the White Serpent, showing the war of the sexes between the heroic white serpent and the tyrannical evil monk master. In Yep's telling, the Buddhist monk master propagates his ascetic, asexual, and institutionalized religious dogma to dictate and censor love, erotic or platonic, between an ordinary human of Xu Spirit and the fantastic White Serpent. The White Serpent summons her army of ocean creatures with her power of the feminine hereditary magic and wages war against the monk master's masculine orthodox magic. Passionately claiming her freedom of love, of sexuality, and of being an independent female self, the White Serpent fearlessly battles the monk master to liberate her husband, who is imprisoned in the Temple of the Golden Mountain, and to reclaim her captured serpent's child.
Inspired by the tale of the White Serpent's legendarily strong willpower and magic, the eight-year-old Cassia publicly wages her own war against the violent metaphor and brutal practice of foot binding:
"You can't do this to me!" When I fell down, I began to scramble on my hands and knees into the courtyard.
I let out one shrill scream of horror and frustration and scratched, kicked, hit and bit her. And I can't describe the satisfaction I felt when I heard the matchmaker shriek.
(The Serpent's Children 46-47)
Yep's portrayal of this mid-nineteenth-century Chinese girl as a warrior image defies the Euro-American stereotype of adolescent girls as victims who are saved by charming princes in shining armors. Such characterization also refutes the Euro-American stereotype of Chinese and Chinese American adolescent girls as the demure, obedient, and exotic Oriental porcelain dolls. Cassia's body, emotion, spirit, and soul are not bound to these things. Like the action heroine of the White Serpent in the legend, Yep effectively uses a series of action verbs to depict Cassia as relentless in her resistance against the collective coercive forces that would bind her feet, her tongue, and her spirit. Interestingly, Cassia not only fights against her senior male relatives or patriarchs but also "scratched, kicked, hit and bit" the village females who are agents in the foot-binding process. Thus, Yep consciously critiques the complex and problematic female complicity with, participation in, and implementation of the very patriarchal power structures in Chinese women's history.
Yep reinvents the legend of the White Serpent not only to create the feminist metaphor to empower Cassia to resist the sexual and social institution of foot binding in mid-nineteenth-century Southern China. The literary legend also enables Yep's heroine to bridge symbolically the Chinese feminist history and Chinese American feminist history for the contemporary audience of the rainbow children of Asian American, American, and world constituencies.
Hybridizing the worlds of the serpents and humans, the serpent's baby child in the legend allegorizes Yep's own Chinese American hybrid authorial cultural identity and symbolizes his making of the unique, new, and hybrid literary tradition of Chinese American children's literature. Yep also reinvents the name and image of the serpent's husband and father to the serpent's child from Xu Spirit to a nameless "wanderer." In fact, Yep frequently uses such Asian American male sojourner protagonists in exile as central images in his Chinese American children's literature. Such archetypal wanderer personas appear in the legend of the Owl in Child of the Owl and in his title fable of "The Rainbow People" in The Rainbow People.
The Temple of the Golden Mountain remains in both the original and Yep's legends the primal location for the war of sexes between the resistant feminist white serpent and the patriarchal and self-righteous Buddhist monk master. However, Yep deliberately and acutely makes visible the pun of the "Temple of the Golden Mountain" to signify the Golden Mountain of America as the future destiny of Foxfire, Cassia's younger brother and another serpent's child (The Serpent's Children 17). The Temple of the Golden Mountain also symbolizes the literary significance of Yep's reinvented feminist legend of the White Serpent in Asian American children's literature.
In both historical novels, Laurence Yep characterizes Cassia Young not only as the feminist and antipatriarchal serpent's child empowered by her mother's "talk-story" of the legend of the White Serpent but also as a girl martial artist and an anti-British-colonial patriot like her father, Gallant. Gallant is a master of martial arts and a revolutionary in the anticolonial and anti-Manchu-rule peasant uprising called the Taiping Rebellion. As a diligent, disciplined, and excellent pupil of Gallant in the martial arts, young Cassia champions in the alleged masculine discipline and distinguishes herself as a more capable martial artist than her fragile younger brother, Foxfire. Although Cassia is a loyal believer and supporter of the anticolonial rebellion just like her parents, the rebellion "Work" is supposed to be her father's territory and another male-dominated discipline. Cassia learns to fight to love like the White Serpent and to love to fight like her father. Yep's positive portrayal of Cassia in these historical novels deconstructs the fiction depicting Chinese and Chinese American girls as "the second sex" (de Beauvoir):
[…] But I could feel the old familiar resentment welling up inside me whenever the subject of my sex was brought up. It's one thing for a woman to do all sorts of heroics in a story; it's quite another for a girl to practice the martial arts with the boys—and beat them.
(The Serpent's Children 99)
On numerous occasions Yep depicts young Cassia as a precociously responsible protector and savior—though she is sometimes vulnerable—of her family, her clan, her friends, and even her men. As Cassia's dying mother commands at the beginning of The Serpent's Children : "Your brother and father […]. Their minds are so busy walking in the clouds that their feet would trip over the first pebble if we weren't there to guide them. […] You are the strong one. Take care of them" (34-35). Immediately, eight-year-old Cassia becomes the emotional center and nurturer for her men. She is often the only farmer in the family's fields, the breadwinner, and economic provider for the household. When Dusty comes from neighboring feuding Phoenix Village to challenge Cassia's Three Willows Village, it is little Cassia who stands up to help her father defend the honor of her clan. As Gallant praises her in front the villagers, "My daughter's a better warrior than any of you" (97). When the Manchu soldiers are chasing Gallant and Cassia, the daughter fights with her father until he dies in her arms (Mountain Light 43-49). In times of famine, when Cassia's own fellow villagers in Three Willows Village try to persecute her "stranger" (kejia) friends, Tiny and Aster, simply because of their cultural differences, it is Cassia again who fights to help her friends escape (166-67).
It is obvious that Yep depicts Cassia's Chinese adolescent femininity not only with her domestic and private love for her family, herself, and her body—like her beloved, strong, and selfless mother—but also with his heroine's masculine commitment to her country, her people, and her clan—like her anticolonial patriotic father—in the public history of Chinese nationalism. Thus, Yep's feminist portrayal of Cassia blurs the very dividing lines between femininity and masculinity, between private and public discourses, and between the supposedly local and feminist resistance against foot binding and the assumed national and masculinist rebellion against British colonialism.
Meanwhile, Yep complicates Cassia's relationship with her father by having Cassia recognize the paradoxes and contradictions of Gallant's "gendered," "classed," and "racialized" anticolonial and anti-Manchu revolutionary legacies (Lowe Immigrant Acts 1-36). Gallant's seemingly sacred nationalist "Work" remains a problematically male-dominated, male-privileged, and exclusively male patriarchal institution despite its patriotic and decolonization politics. For example, the Young women, both Cassia's mother and Cassia, share the same nationalist ideal of ridding China of both the barbaric British colonial "demons" and the barbaric Manchus (The Serpent's Children 2). However, only the Young men are eligible to participate in the nationalist "Work." Although Cassia is not allowed to share the hype of anticolonial glory in its beginning, she still has to shoulder the burden of nurturing and sustaining the broken, disillusioned, and bitter men like Gallant after the failure and bankruptcy of his politics of nationalism.
Yep also portrays Cassia's disillusionment with the gendered truth of the sexually unevenly divided domestic labor within Gallant's anticolonial nationalist enterprise. As often the only laboring force in the family's fields, the Young women—little Cassia and her mother—provide material stability and economic possibilities for Gallant's costly dream of revolution and Foxfire's dream of Golden Mountains. Yep critiques this sexual inequality with humor and poignancy: "‘Why did Heaven give men such strong backs and such weak minds if they hate to work?’ I grumbled. Aster shrugged and went back to her hoeing. ‘You forget that Heaven also gave them sisters and wives’" (The Serpent's Children 121). When the men in the Young family are gone to be busy revolutionaries, little Cassia farms their crops, feeds Foxfire, and keeps the family together, especially after her mother's abrupt death. Gallant returns as the defeated rebel, and he resumes his position of authoritative patriarch and master of martial arts.
Yep further deepens his feminist characterization of Cassia by linking her own sexual victimization by the sexual/social institution of foot binding with her critique of father's "racialization" (Lowe Immigrant Acts 14) by the British colonial white supremacy. The barbaric British colonial "demons" bring guns, which are a white Eurocentric phallic symbol that signifies white colonial political, military, economic, and sexual power that Cassia and her father resist. Father's "crippled" limp after his return symbolizes the crippled and disabled masculine apparatus of mid-nineteenth-century Chinese nationalism by the British white racialist masculine capitalist colonialism (The Serpent's Children 101). Yep places Cassia's negotiation with her father's anticolonial legacy within the context of the historical aftermath of the first Opium War (1839-1842), which is the colonial war between resisting Manchu imperial China in Qing Dynasty and the nineteenth-century global colonial power of Great Britain. Cassia's family struggle realistically chronicles Chinese history. Britain leads numerous Western powers in the nineteenth century to try to colonize China in the name of "opening her" to the Western Enlightenment ideals of capitalism, modernity, progress, science, technology, and democracy.
In the eyes of little Cassia, Gallant's grand nationalist slogan of the double missions of anti-British-colonial and anti-Manchu-minority rule reflects the profound irony of Chinese nationalism as a racialized history of betrayal and failure. Isolated from the popular lives, needs, and support of the people, Gallant's elitist revolutionary cause is misunderstood, dismissed, or publicly mocked by the very villagers he attempts to protect. Cassia tells how the British colonial guns have ironically disarmed her father's impotent revolution and caused her father's anxiety, symbolizing the literary metaphor of white penis racially castrating Gallant's native Chinese spear of resistance on the Chinese native soil. Yep's literary representation of Cassia Young's complex antipatriarchal, anticolonial, and antiracialist Chinese adolescent feminist subjectivity in mid-nineteenth-century China in the two historical novels, thus, provides the transnational historical pretext and context for the formation of the Chinese American female adolescent immigrant subjectivity later in America.
Yep's feminist historical consciousness is also reflected in the metaphor of "the light" in the title of Mountain Light. He transforms "the light" from Gallant's nationalist metaphor for the Chinese mandarin ethnic absolutist rule to Cassia's inclusive humanist metaphor for "the light … coming from each of us" (Mountain Light 270). Yep uses Cassia as his voice to demonstrate that the "light" in Mountain Light and in Gallant's Chinese nationalist slogan of "restoring the light" "is more than a pun on the name of an old dynasty, just as the Darkness is more than a pun on the name of the Manchus. There is a whole world of darkness around us that's trying to put out the Light in each of us" (23).
With such humanistic rethinking, Cassia critiques the complex national interethnic power struggles and conflicts between the ruling Manchu minority in Qing Dynasty and the mandarin or Han majority and reflects on the limits of the multiple local tribal feuds and relations. Gallant's obsessive "Work" to "banish the darkness" of Manchu minority rule is symptomatic of a popular collective desire for the political norm of majority rule in the form of Chinese ethnic absolutism and ethnic chauvinism. Such nationalism condemns and demonizes the nomadic, ethnic, and conquering Manchu as not Chinese enough and mobilizes its majority citizens, such as Gallant, to drive the Manchu out of the "imagined communities" (Anderson) of the nation of China. Yep's layered metaphor of "the light" contrasts further with the economically dark times of drought and famine and forecasts the bright emergence of the global myth of America as the Golden Mountain represented by Cassia's younger brother, Foxfire.
Laurence Yep further utilizes the humorous food symbolism of Cassia's "weed soup" to depict realistically the extremely difficult economic and historical conditions that Cassia and her family endure during the time of famine in mid-nineteenth-century southern China: "‘But it's all so tasty.’ Father stuffed a spoonful of weeds bravely into his mouth and proceeded to chew it with immense enthusiasm" (The Serpent's Children 150-51). Yep's effective and comical food symbolism foreshadows the historical pretext for the birth of the myth of the Golden Mountain of America and the genesis of Chinese emigration pursued by Foxfire, who is dissatisfied by this bleak socioeconomic life style of the weed soup in Three Willows Village. This soup, consisting of the tasteless and nonnutritious wild weed boiled in water, meets Cassia's and Gallant's "immense enthusiasm." However, such humor cannot overcome the bitter reality of poverty in the lives of Cassia, her family, and her people. Although the Young family has been farming rice for generations, Cassia laments that her family can only afford to eat weeds in the time of drought and famine. "As I gathered weeds and ferns, it was maddening to think of the rice we had grown but were unable to keep" (148). The excessive eating of "weed soup" results in starvation and death in the village. Cassia witnesses Peony, another teenage girl in the village, being sold by her family to the brothels so she can survive (154). Cassia, her father, and the whole clan are further disheartened when her father's revolutionary comrade, Spider, turns into a bandit who loots, threatens, and robs her already starving family and clan. Historically, poverty was caused by the socioeconomic consequences of the Opium War, taxes for the corrupted imperial Qing government, and natural disasters such as drought and famine. Are there better alternatives of survival than the "weed soup" for Cassia's family and people?
Yep's social and symbolic alternative to the "weed soup" for Cassia's family is to allow Cassia's brother, Foxfire Young, to take a chance with the new myth called the Golden Mountain of America. Yep creates a vividly hilarious moment when the mythical "gold of the mountain" in Foxfire's daydreams turns into the shocking reality of power in the twenty strings of gold he sends home. The whole village festively celebrates such deliciously golden surprises. Golden Mountain is no longer a foolish alien fairy tale. It becomes a metaphor of hope: "Whether they actually took the risk or not, the golden mountain was something that gave them new hope in the middle of their misery—like people trapped inside a black cave who suddenly see a little pinpoint of light" (The Serpent's Children 255).
Yep depicts the myth of the Golden Mountain as an economic alternative to the extreme poverty for Cassia's people and implies that there could be possibili- ties of prosperity and survival in America. Indeed, "emigration therefore became not just a means to a better life, but a lifeline" (S. Chan 8). Yep also turns the Golden Mountain across the Pacific into a political alternative to Gallant's failed nationalist revolutionary dreams. As Cassia sees it, the Golden Mountain myth symbolizes for Foxfire an active engagement with the Enlightenment history of modernity in the West. As a forced alternative to Chinese nationalism, feudalism, poverty, and Western colonialism, Chinese emigration brings Third World natives like Foxfire and Third World histories closer to the metropolitan center of Western empires like America and closer to the very thought of the Western master historical discourse of modernity.
The myth of the Golden Mountain is not simply an Asian American myth. It is, first and foremost, a Chinese myth born out of and deeply rooted in mid-nineteenth-century Chinese social, historical, political, and economic contexts. In Yep's novels, the myth of the Golden Mountain as the literary metaphor for the history of Chinese emigration perhaps signifies that modernity is no longer a historical monopoly of the West. Rather, with the eager and active participation of Chinese emigrants out of China and Chinese American immigrants into America to begin an Asian American history, modernity becomes a hybrid and global historical consciousness. Therefore, on one hand, the Golden Mountain myth symbolizes the profound, forced, and unwilling transformation of modernity of the Chinese natives and Chinese emigrant laborers in Yep's historical novels. On the other, the very histories of modernity and America are simultaneously and profoundly transformed by the new makers and participants, such as Foxfire, of the myth, and by the very native Third World national and local histories and memories that these Chinese American immigrants bring transpacifically to their new home. The birth of the myth of Golden Mountain also marks the genesis of Chinese American literary, cultural, political, economic, and intellectual histories, which we call the rainbow histories. Curiously, the historically significant myth of Golden Mountain is as much a masculine institution as is Chinese nationalism. Once again Cassia and many Chinese girls or women are prevented from actively and legitimately participating in it. Ultimately, Foxfire's voyage to America is still a gendered alternative to his father's gendered nationalist predicament.
One of the unique and significant literary achievements of Yep's two historical novels is his epical realistic portrayal of Foxfire and the Chinese American laborers' historical transpacific emigrant "voyage out" (Woolf) of China and immigrant "voyage in" (Said) via sea to the Golden Mountain of America. Yep achieves this by juxtaposing Cassia's feminine narrative voice with the masculine stories and narrative voice in the letters sent home from America by her Pacific-crossing men—first Foxfire Young, her younger brother in The Serpent's Children, then Squeaky Lau, her boyfriend in Mountain Light. Using the first-person narrative, Yep effectively describes the violent bath forced on emigrant laborers aboard the ship:
Suddenly a team of sailors took up the hose while another group gathered around a pump and began to work it […].
Water suddenly spurted from the hose. The column played down the line too fast for us to dodge. It felt like someone had struck me in the chest, and when I gasped, I took in a mouthful of saltwater. I began to choke.
Yep's passionate representation of the epical transpacific immigrant voyages of Cassia's men as well as all heroic Chinese American emigrant laborers (kuli) in these two historical novels is significant because it is one of the first in Chinese American, Asian American, and American literature. It also represents another perspective of American history. Yep recovers and reconstructs the symbolic voices of Cassia's men, who paid high prices and overcame an enormous amount of hardship and suffering to follow their dreams of coming to America. Their historical transpacific voyage is long and turbulent. But eventually they were triumphant. Cassia and we the readers learn that these men have endured hunger, racial abuse, disease, storm, fights, starvation, boredom, loneliness, and above all, the threat of death. Yep realistically depicts racial beating and whipping by the British or American sailors aboard these ships of dreams, something that historically was as frequent and random during the voyages as the survivors of the cross-Pacific Asian American voyage will encounter, endure, and counter after they have docked in America.
What Lisa Lowe calls the "proletarianization" of Asian American laborers did not start after they landed in the capitalist, racialist, and masculinist America (Immigrant Acts 15). Rather, it started in the half-colonial and half-feudal mid-nineteenth-century China, where peasants or farmers were driven from their land and were driven out of possibilities of survival by the multiple political economic forces. Such proletarianization certainly continued during the Chi- nese emigrant kulis' transpacific voyages on the ships. Its injustice simply intensified and accelerated after the Chinese American immigrant laborers entered the American economic labor market in the mid-nineteenth century.
At the end of the epical journey crossing the Pacific, Cassia's men—Foxfire and Squeaky—are portrayed by Yep as the new Chinese Americans. They decide that America is still their new destiny and home despite all the hardships endured. These Chinese men's heroism, optimism, and hope for a better future in the new land of America finally triumph over racism, exploitation, and a bumpy voyage. Planting the seeds of the Chinese and Chinese American myth of the Golden Mountain firmly on the beautiful land of America, Foxfire and Squeaky diligently and shrewdly participate in the American myth of opening and claiming the "virgin soil" of the American western frontier in California (Mountain Light 218). Simultaneously, they begin writing a new chapter in the distinctively Chinese American literary and historical traditions by participating in building the Chinese American "new communities" (Chinatown) Yep fondly and humorously translates as the "Tang People's Town" (The Serpent's Children 213-17).
The Chinese American literature and history, thus, begin.
I didn't have to be just like a Chinese owl. I could be like an American one too.
(Child of the Owl 214)
In Child of the Owl and The Star Fisher, Laurence Yep deftly constructs the new and unique Chinese American adolescent female immigrant subjectivity in Casey Young and Joan Lee as he retells the Chinese legend of the owl and the legend of the star fisher. Both legends function as allegories of the "between-the-worlds" (Ling) Chinese American immigrant experience of Casey and Joan, Yep's two adolescent female narrators and protagonists. The child of the owl and the child of the star fisher in the legends hybridize and mediate between the seemingly foreign mystical worlds of owls/star fishers in the sky and the very ordinary human secular world. They also allegorize the contradictions that American-born Casey and Joan must negotiate between the Chinese cultures of their families and the American culture that surrounds them. The fantastic settings of the jungle of owls and the sky of the star fisher fairies who fish for the stars allegorize the Chinese culture, the ethnic home Casey and Joan must reconnect with through family stories and mythic representations. As the stories evolve, Casey and Joan learn that their Chinese heritage can be powerful in its intangible imagery, even though the Chinese culture is fantastic yet distant like the owl's jungle or the star fisher's sky in the legends.
Neither Casey nor Joan has the powerful or beautiful wings of an owl or star fisher. However, their magical wings of language combined with imaginations often soar high as they metaphorically journey into the sky of freedom, cultural understanding, and hope. Their creativity, coupled with their enormously rich cultural heritages, effectively remedies their cultural displacement. This new self-awareness contrasts sharply with their lack of material goods. Despite the racial, economic, and linguistic disfranchisement by the mainstream structures of race, class, whiteness, and capitalism in America, Laurence Yep's two adolescent Chinese American girl narrators/protagonists are empowered by storytelling. By the end of both books, the protagonists, like the author himself, claim their access to and mastery of the symbolic discourses of the Chinese, American, and Chinese American cultures. These girls transform the traditional Chinese stories and storytelling into Chinese American children's literature while they are being simultaneously transformed. Although Casey and Joan are fictionalized adolescents, the images that Yep has created embody and celebrate the productive Chinese American cultural identity formation within American society.
Our reading of Laurence Yep's construction of Casey's and Joan's Chinese American female adolescent subjectivity fits the powerful conceptualization by Lisa Lowe, a leading Asian American cultural critic, on the "racial formation," "gender formation," and "class formation" of the Asian American adult immigrant subjectivity (Immigrant Acts 1-36). According to Lowe, racial formation, a term borrowed from Michael Omi and Howard Winant, refers to the American nationalist political, legal, and racialist ideology, which categorizes Asian Americans as the racial "Other" in American-white-bourgeois-middle-class citizenship and nationhood and as racial aliens who cannot, should not, and do not melt in the pot. In Yep's Child of the Owl, the vivid image of "the dream soul" of "the walker," who is father to the child of owl and wanders miserably on earth, allegorizes the cultural displacement and uprootedness of Barney, Casey's father. Such a persona also mirrors the homelessness of the Chinese American sojourner male laborers in general. Joan Lee, the Chinese American girl narrator/protagonist in The Star Fisher, vigilantly resists the alienating gaze of whiteness in her school and the predominantly white middle-class community of Clarksburg, West Virginia:
As we were changing, Ann glanced at me. "You're a little dark, aren't you?"
I blinked, looking down at the back of my hand, and suddenly realized that she wasn't referring to my tan but to my skin color. "You're a little pale, aren't you?" I shot back.
Yep also enables his adolescent female protagonists to learn of the painful "gender formation" (Lowe Immigrant Acts 14) and "emasculation" (Chin et al; Chan et al; Chan; Cheung) of their fathers, Barney and Mr. Lee. According to Lisa Lowe, such "gender formation" of Asian American immigrant masculinity is the materialization of its "racial formation" or racialization (Immigrant Acts 12). Yep represents this when Barney and Mr. Lee, like other Asian American immigrant male laborers, are reduced to the roles of femininity in the racially exclusionary American labor market. Barney is deprived of performing the masculine role as breadwinner because the white American employers would only offer jobs to Casey's mother, Jeanie, but not to him (108). Thus, Barney's joblessness for ten years causes him to give up hope and surrender to gambling. Similarly, Mr. Lee in The Star Fisher is engaged in the typically feminized profession of the laundry business despite his scholastic training in China prior to his immigration to America.
Yep's literary representation of the gendering or the "racial castration" (Eng) of Chinese American masculinity particularly allows Casey and Joan to link the personal misfortune and marginalization of their fathers and their individual families to their relearned Chinese American history, which is both racialized and gendered. Such historical knowledge is central not only to Casey's and Joan's reconnection with the past history of their fathers and with the past history of the Chinatown community but also to the formation of their own individual adolescent Chinese American cultural identities. Moreover, it allows the readers to historicize and contextualize Yep's powerful stories of Casey's and Joan's remarkable journeys.
Yep's acute literary representation of Mr. Lee's and Barney's racialized sexual politics of effeminization is neither isolated nor accidental. It is based on Yep's firm grasp of the history of the officially institutionalized racialization of Asian American men and women by American exclusionary immigration laws. According to Judy Yung, a leading Asian American feminist historian, the American exclusion of Chinese men started with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first discriminative immigrant law in American legal history. This exclusionary immigrant act "bans immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States and prohibits Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens; repeated in 1943" (Yung 424). Additionally, Chinese American women have been systematically excluded in the American 1924 Immigrant Act, which led to the production and maintenance of the bachelor Chinatown society. In Child of the Owl, Casey learns from old Mr. Jeh's difficult reminiscence that such historically racialized exclusion of Chinese men and women alike has led to the painful formation of the bachelor Chinatown society as well as the sexual dysfunction of her community. The emasculation of Barney, Mr. Lee, and Mr. Jeh is directly materialized by their social and racial outcast positions in the membership of American citizenship. Thus, Casey and Joan learn more of their Chinese American individual selves through learning the racialized and gendered histories of their fathers, their families, and their communities in the racially hostile environment.
Yep's depictions of the extreme poverty that Casey, Joan, and their families endure in the 1960s and 1920s also indicates that a conception of their "class formation" (Lowe) is central to our understanding of their Chinese American adolescent female subjectivity. The hilarious, sad, yet vivid image of "the lettuce sandwich," which Joan and her siblings "crunched … noisily" also symbolizes Joan's agonizing yet successful confrontation with poverty in America (The Star Fisher 52-62), a land that is far from being the mythical dreamland of the Golden Mountain or melting pot. Both Casey and Joan learn that being Chinese American means being poor. The jungle of the "dream-soul" of the father of the child of owl metaphorically represents a Darwinist America where an adolescent protagonist must face her family's struggle to survive either in the California Chinatown or in a West Virginia white neighborhood. Both young women must learn to identify with their culture and to recognize the potent Chinese imagery that can sustain their survival. Yep depicts, in violently graphic details, the extreme starvation, the loss of a job, the loss of souls, and death through the owls' vengeful black magic. His duality in representation allows him to allude to the real brutality and terror found in the American economic disenfranchisement of Chinese Americans. However, these Chinese American children of owl and star fisher are reshaped by the allegorical tales they hear. Thus, they learn to survive with strength, courage, furious imagination, and above all, love. Even young Casey and Joan confront the capitalist bourgeois class stratification and the realistic material sufferings of the lack of everything: food, electricity, shelter, clothes, and equal opportunities in America. Such harsh economic conditions of poverty result from the unevenly developed economic logic of the American nationalist capitalism, functioning to mark the Chinese American immigrants as not only the racial and sexual "Other" but also the naturalized and assigned economic outcast from the nation's white middle-class communities.
Yep's fictional narratives powerfully illustrate that the female adolescent Chinese American heroines never live in the traditional Euro-American bourgeois fairy tales. Nor do they fit the "Orientalized" (Said) Euro-American fantasies or stereotypes of Chinese antiqueness, timelessness, and harmony. Rather, they are the girl warriors like Casey and Joan, who must, in their early consciousness and subject formation, battle against cultural disenfranchisement, racial discrimination, gender hierarchies, and economic deprivation to reaffirm a cultural identity of courage and heroism.
Furthermore, Laurence Yep not only enables his young female protagonists to mediate with their paternal/masculinist narrative patterns of the "racialized," "gendered" and "classed" immigrant reality in the American present but also successfully reconnects his female protagonists with the symbolic orders of their maternal/feminist Chinese cultural heritages. The owls' jungle and the star fishers' sky show Casey and Joan that an enriching maternal lineage of recovered legacies can derive from their mothers (Jeanie the owl and star fisher), their mothers'/Other tongue (Chinese), and their mother culture (Chinese culture). The owl's mother Jasmine parallels Jeanie, Casey's mother. Casey and the readers can see the similarities between the legend of the owl and her own family dynamics in a fantastic narrative of the talk-story narrated by Paw-Paw, Casey's maternal grandmother.
Dualism is emphasized as Yep weaves the fantastic legend into Casey's first-person narrative of her contemporary experience. These maternal/feminist cultural heritages and symbolic discourses are equally characterized by paradoxes as the girls' paternal/masculinist ones. For example, the retelling of Jasmine's jungle of the owl and the star fisher's sky allegorize Chinese culture: fantastic and wonderful on one hand, yet remote and unreachable on the other. These complex mythic signs are as enchanting, mysterious, and estranging to the children of owl/star fisher on earth in the legend as the cultures of China (and Chinatown) are simultaneously empowering and alienating to Casey and Joan. The songs of the mother owl and the mother star fisher are paradoxically as incomprehensible to their owl/star fisher-human hybrid children as Jeanie's and Mrs. Lee's mother tongue of Chinese is alien or discomforting to the Chinese American Casey and Joan. Furthermore, the allegorical owl's world is just as imperfect and complex as the jungle world of the "dream-souls" on the earth associated with the walker/Barney and Casey's Chinese American family and community. There is sibling rivalry, disrespect for the aged owl, desertion, and contradictorily, love. Yep allows his readers a glimpse into the confusing messages of both empowerment and imperfection through the legends of owl and star fisher. Casey and Joan are invited to find out the layered truth of their unique female adolescent Chinese American subjectivity as they listen to the talk-story. They can then name and claim their simultaneous Chinese and American cultural homes, just as the children of owl and star fisher can feel comfortably at home both on the earth and in the sky. The final return of Jasmine and the star fisher to their home of the free sky parallels the symbolic and cultural returns of Casey and Joan both to their maternal cultures in Yep's semiotic reconstruction of a distinctive Chinese American hybrid cultural identity formation. As Yep beautifully states, "And suddenly I knew how the star fisher's daughter must have felt: belonging to both the earth and the sky, she must have seen everything through a double pair of eyes" (The Star Fisher 72).
The legends of the owl and star fisher allow Yep to take his readers into their subjective reawakenings. They function through the semiotic network with rich imagery and illuminating allegories that take Yep's audience to the very "cultural locations" (Bhabha) where Casey and Joan boldly enunciate their simultaneous cultural belongings at the end of their journeys. Yep's use of narrative talk-stories of owl and star fisher allow him to pinpoint his young female protagonists' needs for confrontation with the mainstream culture and their Chinese heritage. As Casey and Joan learn to recognize the impossibility of escaping the question of their dualistic identity, they rediscover themselves. As they interact with the leg- ends, Yep's female adolescent protagonists learn to articulate their cultural dislocation, linguistic displacement, and emotional isolation and find the joyful possibilities of belonging to both their maternal fantastic Chinese heritage from the past and the realism of their American present. Yep places both fantasy and reality into the worlds of Casey and Joan and allows them to translate the legends of owl and star fisher into their own tales of Chinese American cultural mediation. Yep's careful use of legend within his realistic descriptions of prejudice and difference suggests that Chinese American culture can be inclusive, respectful, and economically successful.
Our analysis suggests that Laurence Yep's work embodies the very essence of what we have called the rainbow literature: colorful, powerful, creative, and humanist. As Yep himself states in the preface to his "Golden Mountain Chronicles," "These books represent my version of Chinese America—in its tears and its laughter, its hunger and its fears, and in all its hopes and dreams" (Dragonwings ). Yep's writings represent the authorial attempts to negotiate with his "Chineseness" (The Lost Garden 110) and the rainbow cultures, as do his fictional Chinese and Chinese American adolescent heroines. The creative stories and writing processes enable Yep to grapple with his own contradictory and perplexing identity of being a hyphenated American who is too American to be accepted by the Chinatown "old-timers" and too Chinese to fit anywhere else. Yep's fictional characters are typically created from the people in his community, parts of himself, and his extended family. His use of the first-person narrative in these texts particularly allows the creative artist to "settle into [the] character" (The Lost Garden 106). Yep acknowledges that he gains an immense sense of satisfaction and empowerment as he stitches together, in innovative and striking ways, the bits and pieces of "rags" that constitute his unique self (91-92). Therefore, in reading Yep's work, it is important for readers to understand the lived experiences of the author and of those of Asian Americans in general. Readers are reminded that Yep's Chinese and Chinese American stories are almost always about the remarkable rainbow children and rainbow people he encounters, those who often struggle, with dignity, courage, fortitude, and resourcefulness, to survive in the bottom ladder of the "racialized," "gendered," and "classed" societies. Like his colorful fictional personas in the imaginary worlds, Yep discovers that his rainbow people and his Chinese, Chinese American, and American rainbow histories are as heterogeneous, multiple, and diverse as the stories they have nurtured (Afterword, The Serpent's Children ). Yep acknowledges his ethnic and working-class roots in his engaging memoir, The Lost Garden :
[Our family's] grocery store [… gave] me my first schooling as a writer […] Because of the people I met in our store, I came to have little patience with stories about rich and wealthy people. Even before I began selling what I wrote, I was trying to tell stories about characters who survive at a basic level; and now when I look for folktales to tell, I usually look for stories about ordinary people rather than princes and princesses.
We advocate a multidimensional approach to reading and interpreting Yep's literature, one that emphasizes simultaneously the feminist consciousness, the critical consciousness, the aesthetic consciousness, the historical consciousness, the multicultural consciousness, and the political consciousness. Our analysis demonstrates that Laurence Yep's texts demand careful, informed, and critical readings because of their complex, rich, creative, and unique nature. In order to genuinely understand and appreciate Yep's work, readers must be equipped with multiple contemporary literary and cultural theories, including feminism, Asian American and Asian diasporic cultural criticism, Marxism, and postcolonialism. Readers are also encouraged to pay close attention to the social, historic, economic, cultural, and political contexts within which Yep's work is situated. Such an approach is both productive and empowering. It allows readers to delve deeply into Yep's work, thereby uncovering themes, issues, and techniques beyond regular plots that would otherwise go unnoticed in superficial readings. Moreover, readers can better appreciate Yep's artistry in literary creation as well as his significant contributions to American multicultural children's literature and to Asian American literature.
The proliferation of "multicultural curriculum" in the past two decades highlights the prominent role multicultural literature plays in the education of our youngsters, the rainbow children. Despite the popularity of multicultural books in the school curriculum, teachers are often ill prepared to engage their students in critical reading and aesthetic appreciation of literature (Fang, Fu, and Lamme). In fact, contemporary pedagogical practices have tended to treat multicultural and multiethnic literature, such as Yep's work, as disembodied texts primarily for the purpose of contextualizing ethnicity within the teaching of tradi- tional reading and language arts skills. As a result, students often do not understand the multiple subjectivities, discourses, and power structures encoded in the multicultural work they read. Nor do they learn to appreciate the true significance of the literary style, devices, and elements in such work. Thus, the production and consumption of multicultural/multiethnic literature in effect function to confirm and perpetuate hegemonic discourses. In the end, what began as a promising and benevolent movement in education has, beyond its well-intended rhetoric, served to reinforce racial stereotypes, cultural hegemony, and social fragmentation. In order to truly realize the goals of multicultural education, it is imperative that teachers are trained to embrace, as well as practice, a pedagogy that promotes students' development of multiple consciousness and perspectives. More specifically, we should, in our reading of multicultural/multiethnic literature, strive to answer Paula Gunn Allen's call for simultaneously "attending to the actual texts being created, their source texts, the texts to which they stand in relation, and the otherness they both embody and delineate" (314). Such a pedagogy has the potential to foster a new generation of informed, thoughtful, and critical readers.
1. The four title concepts of "rainbow children," "rainbow literature," "rainbow histories" and "rainbow cultures" are inspired by Laurence Yep's The Rainbow People. Collaborating on this article, Lingyan Yang wrote the title, the theoretical conceptualizations, introduction, and parts 1 and 2. Zhihui Fang wrote part 3 on pedagogical implications. Both participated in proof editing. We thank Jill May and Darwin Henderson for their guidance and comments.
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Celestine Woo (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Woo, Celestine. "Towards a Poetics of Asian American Fantasy: Laurence Yep's Construction of a Bicultural Mythology." Lion and the Unicorn 30 (2006): 250-64.
[In the following essay, Woo examines Yep's usage of fantasy as a means of representing the Asian-American experience of serving as the cultural outsider in mainstream American culture.]
What child has not wanted to fly, or imagined having magical powers, or played make-believe? Children who love reading fantasy often do so because it offers a chance to enter someone else's make-believe and revel in the people, settings, animals, objects, lifestyles, and adventures that are invented, extrapolated, and interconnected by someone else. Fantasy is so often referred to as "escapist literature," usually denigratingly, as if reading about characters in everyday quotidian situations were inherently more valuable. Additionally, fantasy as a genre is frequently considered "children's literature" in a pejorative sense: with its connotations of imagination, magic, and dreaming, it is assumed appropriately relegated to the world of childhood—an idealized, innocent, and enjoyable world that nevertheless must be forsaken in order to attain maturity, adulthood, and responsibility.1 Not only does fantasy need to be recognized as empowering and constructive for children, but childhood and imagination need to be viewed with less condescension. Adding the active construction of bicultural identity that characterizes Asian American literature into the mix of cultural ideas that fantasy draws from can render fantasy more socially empowering.2 Conversely, Asian American literature, as a body of work increasingly encompassing other literary genres,3 can only benefit from greater incorporation of the wonder and enchantment of fantasy. Fantasy can transcend the often quotidian subject matter of Asian American literature, expanding its appeal. This article plots potential points of intersection between fantasy and Asian American literature for children, but Asian American fantasy can certainly be extrapolated into the adult realm. Fantasy provides the reader far more than a mere interlude in which to hide from reality.
Fantasy, despite its predominant "whiteness," has incorporated Asian elements in the past—notably in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, due to the vogue for Orientalism. Jack Zipes remarks of The Arabian Nights, "The infusion of the Oriental tales into the French literary tradition enriched and broadened the paradigmatic options for Western writers during the course of the eighteenth century, and it became a favorite device (and still is) to deploy the action of a tale to the Orient while discussing sensitive issues of norms and power close to home" (381). From France, The Arabian Nights came to England, and a variation on the storytelling device Zipes mentions can be found in C. S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, in which Aravis, the Calormene ("Arab") girl, displays her finely honed storytelling skills. Lewis observes drolly, "in Calormen, story-telling (whether the sto- ries are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays" (32). Here, Lewis uses the mask of exotic foreignness to facilitate a moment of cultural critique.
For Asian American writers, the task is the converse: to interrogate the mask of foreignness that has mediated our existence within American society, and to limn a more visible image of ourselves within the fabric of American culture. In an essay entitled, "A Chinese Sense of Reality," Laurence Yep narrates his gradual entering into the mind of a Chinese child in the 1900s, while he was composing Dragonwings, until he could perceive the Western world with the eyes of an East Asian. Yep says of his writing and imagination, "if I wait long enough those few broken notes or those few fragments of a chord will regenerate themselves within my own unconscious … the deepest pleasure of writing is joining my own voice with the voices of the past as they sing their world into existence once again" (489). Fantasy holds the promise, for groups cut off or marginalized from their past or origins or homeland, of the germination of a sense of collective selfhood.
Yep's reflections on fantasy and the process of world creation show that he has pondered what it all has to do with growing up Asian American. He writes, "I think of fantasy and writing in general as a special way of seeing. It's a way of looking at the world more intensely and more sensitively and more sharply than we normally would … When we talk about reality, what we're talking about is a sense of reality. And that's a social consensus about what we see and what we don't see" ("World Building" 182). Yep recognizes the power, intensity, and broadened vision that fantasy affords; moreover, he acknowledges the contingent and socially constructed nature of reality. Anyone who has grown up as part of a marginalized community does not need to be told that social consensus can work to ignore or invalidate one's life experiences, and thus, to deny solidity to one's experience of reality. What Yep is attempting, as I am, is to posit a way to extend the social consensus circumscribing traditional fantasy, so that reading, imagining, and writing as an Asian American can be infused with that intensity and sensitivity inherent within fantasy.
We're routinely reading the world in the way that we've been taught by our culture. Each moment that we exist, we are continually re-creating the universe that we inhabit. Like Aslan [the Christ-figure of Lewis's Narnia], each of us must sing our own Narnia into existence, and we do so each moment that we exist. Sometimes we assume our imagination is inferior at dealing with the external world; so critics sometimes assume that fantasy is inferior to realistic fiction because fantasy either deals with some suspension of a natural law or rewrites history, whereas a realistic novel supposedly mirrors everyday experience.
("World Building" 183)
Yep hints here at the extent to which supposedly realistic novels fail to matchup to all of their readers' experiences. For the marginalized child such as Yep whose everyday reality is seldom given the solidification and validation that comes with seeing it in print, the dissonance between what is portrayed as normal and universal in print and in public discourse, versus what is experienced at home, can be painful and puzzling, as doubtless many readers of this volume know firsthand. This dearth of literature about the lives and realities of ethnic Americans is what makes any ethnic American literature so compelling when it first appears on the literary scene. Yep articulates another direction that this dissatisfaction with realistic fiction can follow: toward fantasy. He muses, "What happens to the people whose society's sense of reality corresponds very poorly to their experience of the world? If society's sense of reality either doesn't explain enough about their experience or ignores too much, they have to seek alternate worlds. They become lovers of fantasy and science fiction" ("World Building" 184). It is important cultural work, then, to posit a way in which fantasy can be made relevant to the Asian American reader, and to speculate on how an Asian American sensibility can in turn transform and deepen fantasy.
Yep describes his process researching for his award-winning Dragonwings as one of overcoming invisibility. Likening himself to Ralph Ellison's protagonist, Yep remarks, "I felt very much like the Invisible Man, without form and without shape. It was as if all the features on my face had been erased and I was just a blank mirror reflecting other people's hopes and fears. And if I waited to see any features on my face, I would have to go through a Hollywood prop room and go digging around for masks" ("Chinese Sense" 485). He articulates here his dilemma as a writer trying to define a "Chinese sense of reality": within a culture and cultural history only affording him imperfect or undesirable masks, he is faceless and voiceless. He appropriates for himself the task of crafting a new, more malleable mask: one that gives a voice and face to Asian American readers within the rubric of fantasy.
Yep's fantasy works unite the concerns and characteristics of Asian American literature with the paradigm of fantasy in several ways. Like much Asian American or ethnic American literature, Yep's works empower the child reader by representing her world and by portraying characters who are recognizably Asian American and who respond to situations with initiative and resourcefulness. In addition, Yep's fantasies adduce the element of magic, thus enriching both the realms of fantasy and Asian American literature. Secondly, Yep educates non-Asians about Asian American culture and life, dismantling stereotypes and representing Asian American society and cultural identity in ways that fuse history with contemporary experience, Asian with American ways of behaving. Thirdly, Yep's stories subtly critique overseas culture, or in the terminology of Chinese Americans, OBC (Overseas Born Chinese) culture.
"Asian American fantasy" ought to consist of more than the mere insertion of Asian American characters into a traditional fantasy world of fairies, sprites, and Anglos,4 for this scenario replicates the discourse of assimilation, implying that being Asian American entails the rejection of things Asian in favor of a subsumption into the predominant WASP paradigm—a subsumption devoid of any transformative effect on the culture of dominance. In order for a story to be empowering to the Asian American child, it must grapple with the dual pulls of both Asian and American cultures, not imply the preferability of either. So, formally and hermeneutically, simply inscribing Asian American characters into the standard white world of high fantasy raises questions without addressing them: what, after all, constitutes an "Asian American" character when the narrative world is not the United States, and not the world as we know it? Yep demonstrates some ways to graft Asian Americanness onto, or into, fantasy. He manifests an incipient genre and art form by inscribing his use of Chinese folklore and mythology within a clear bicultural context. His use of Chinese mythology is informed by his own Asian American identity and experience: Yep creates character types recognizable to the bicultural American-born or -raised Asian American. Moreover, Yep as an author inhabits a space distanced whimsically from the fantastic and folkloric elements in his works—a space that could be coded as a bicultural one. Yep initiates an empowering and transformative model for future Asian American writers that resists assimilation and creates an inherently bicultural imagined world.
In The Imp That Ate My Homework and The Magic Paintbrush, 5 Yep incorporates elements of fantasy such as time travel and magical creatures and objects into otherwise realistic tales. Yep thus constructs a new paradigm in which everyday protagonists who are recognizably Asian American and living in very American worlds can experience the magic, transformation, and imaginative flights that render fantasy so compelling. Imp begins in San Francisco's Chinatown, telling of Jim's uneasy relationship with his grumpy grandfather, the meanest man in Chinatown, whose favorite phrase is, "Native-born, no brains." Then Jim meets a green, four-armed imp who eats his essay and wreaks havoc at both regular school and Chinese school. Jim's only recourse is to consult his dreaded grandfather, who turns out to be a reincarnation of a great hero of centuries agone, renowned for chasing imps. Together, they vanquish the imp, who has had a feud with Grandfather for centuries, and Jim comes to understand his grandfather, his culture, and the nature of partnership.
What is on the surface a standard ethnic American story of coming of age, self-discovery, and appreciating one's heritage becomes more broadly applicable due to the conventions of fantasy. Imp requires more imagination and suspension of disbelief from the reader than in a realistic tale, and therefore, identifying with the protagonist is not so focused on Jim's Chineseness. By the same token, Yep embellishes the valuable but predictable lessons in ethnic and family pride with the delights of fantasy: statues come to life; the imp commits magical pranks; Jim finds himself on the stage of a Chinese opera magically costumed and performing. Yep creates a space for Asian Americans within the parameters of fantasy that has never before existed.
The delight and empowerment of Imp arise from the reader's recognition of her own world: for instance, the awkwardness that comes from a school assignment that won't work with one's crazy family. Yep provides Jim with an understanding cadre of classmates: "Half of the class lived in Chinatown. They looked at me sympathetically. They knew my grandfather. They knew it would be hard to write about him" (1). The reader, then, can both feel validated for her own culturally related struggles at school, and also, imagine what it would be like to have a sympathetic bunch of Asian American friends, a luxury which many readers would not have. The reader can also admire Jim's efforts to imagine the world in his grandfather's eyes—"I thought of how I would feel if I had to sit on the sidelines of a game like Grandpop's. Maybe I'd get impatient too" (60). Jim eventually overcomes his fear, confusion, and passivity toward Chinese culture, and takes more initiative in exploring and envisioning the mindset of his elders—a lesson readily applicable to the reader. Even the illustrations contribute to empowering the reader through recognition: there is something delightful about seeing pictures of people that actually resemble your relatives, seated at a comfortingly familiar table with rice bowls, chopsticks, and a platter of roast duck sliced up Chinese-style. The beautifully rendered and very recognizable illustrations by Benrei Huang, depicting Chinese people and such things as roast ducks hanging in a butcher's window, enhance and reinforce the world Yep affectionately limns.
Magic starts out similarly: eight-year-old Steve lives in Chinatown and is afraid of his grandfather, who gives him a paintbrush made from either a unicorn or a dragon—he can't recall which. Steve discovers that whatever he paints becomes real. So he paints the Lady on the Moon and travels with his grandfather and his Uncle Fong to meet her. The title of the fourth chapter, "Heart's Desire," encapsulates what all three characters learn: that while certain desires and longings need to be tempered with realistic expectations, conversely, reality is only full and complete when we acknowledge the yearnings of the heart.
One simple but significant and needed message Yep conveys to his readers is that it isn't just WASP kids who have magic descend upon them and transform their lives, which one could easily infer from reading the reams of fantasy tales populated by white protagonists who travel to fantasy worlds equally populated by whites. Yep allies himself, in these foregoing books, with such writers as Suzy McKee Charnas, Philip Pullman, Dave Duncan, and J. K. Rowling, who construct fantasy worlds recognizably within the confines of the real. No doubt Yep deliberately seats his fantasy worlds within the bounds of recognizable American culture, instead of creating an entire new world such as Middle Earth, Narnia, or Anne McCaffrey's Pern, in order to create and sustain an imaginative space that can be coded Asian American. For while a paintbrush made from unicorn's tail or dragon's beard might conceivably appear in the world of Harry Potter, Jim's learning of the legend of Chung Kuei in Chinese school, and his magical transformation on the boards of the Chinese opera, are undeniably Chinese.
Furthermore, Yep represents bi- and multiculturalism in subtle and thoughtful ways: Jim relates an anecdote about his grandfather in a fit of anger smashing a car's headlights with his cane, and stopping traffic for half an hour. Jim concludes, "I knew I couldn't write about any of that for my essay. My parents would have died of shame" (Imp 2). Significantly, Jim the Americanized kid displays characteristically Asian values: not wishing to embarrass his parents, and labeling their hypothetical reaction as "shame." Jim attends school in Chinatown, but his teacher is perhaps non-Chinese—her name is Ms. Mason—and his friend Miguel lives in the Mission District but attends the Chinatown school. Yep thus dispels a few stereotypes of Chinatown life, replacing them with pictures of how Chinese Americans might utilize mythology and fantasy.
In Yep's Dragon series,6 the author empowers the reader by highlighting some struggles the overseas generation has that the younger generation does not have to face. Although the world of this series is imaginary, certain characters are clear analogues to OBCs and ABCs (American Born Chinese), as I will discuss later. One recurrent motif is the longing for a vanished, destroyed, or inaccessible home—the younger generation, as represented by the characters Thorn and Indigo, have little or no home to be disillusioned with, and so are more flexible and freer to pursue their own adventures and choices. Though both Thorn and Indigo learn about the beauties and nostalgia of a lost home, and Indigo suffers the shattering of her idealized vision of the homeland she barely remembers, nevertheless, both derive their strength, resourcefulness, and pugnacious will to survive partially from the absence of a burdening concept of "home."
In The Rainbow People, Yep discusses more explicitly how fantasy might have served actual Chinese Americans. He introduces each section of folktales with speculations as to how these stories might have been incorporated into daily life. Crucially, he locates the tales' significance within their applicability to Chinese American culture; the tales do not merely recall the old country, but transform and attain new meaning when transplanted to a bicultural environment. This collection is not fantasy so much as folklore, but the tales contain fantastical elements, and the back cover blurb advertises them: "In a land where animals talk, ghosts marry, and the rocks and streams are magical, anything is possible." Yep's section prefaces explain how and why these tales could have been pertinent and encouraging for Chinese Americans during the railroad days. But Yep's recasting of the tales in a contemporary idiom also renders them accessible to a modern Asian American audience. "We Are All One" is a traditional tale of a man who helps animals who in turn aid him. The protagonist's realization that all life is sacred and that help and wisdom may be gleaned from unexpected quarters is reminiscent of the lessons Jim in Imp and Steve in Magic learn: to trust their elder relatives who are more steeped in culture and history. Here, the elders are suggested by the forest in which the man wanders. For Chinese Americans both today and centuries ago, a respect for the culture surrounding one can prove fruitful, Yep as editor implies.
Besides providing inspiration and empowerment, Yep's fantasies educate the non-Asian American reader about the circumstances, realities, and issues informing Asian American society. In this respect, the stories are not much different from more realistic Asian American writing, save that fantasies will attract a different readership and so expose an audience to Asian American culture that perhaps is not overtly seeking ethnic literature so much as a good fantasy. Readers of Imp discover that life in Chinese school is very like that in American schools, and that many women work in sweatshops and get paid per piece, which is less than an hourly wage. In Magic, they learn that Chinese people sometimes cook dinner by placing vegetables and sausages on top of the rice in the cooker, and that many older people with backbreaking menial jobs have little but their memories of happier bygone days to maintain their motivation and purpose. From tiny details of everyday life to greater political or social revelations, Yep vividly paints the lives of Chinese Americans.
American Dragons is a collection of tales that, like The Rainbow People, is divided into thematic sections each headed by a preface written by Yep. Although the tales are all realistic, Yep manifests, in his prefaces and his title, his love for fantasy and his project of melding Asian American experience with the wonder of the magical. Even the front cover advertises the book in a fantasy-like manner: "They search for identity between two vastly different worlds …" [original ellipsis]. The first section, "Identity," opens as follows:
A dragon appears in many guises and is always adaptable, the survivor par excellence. Asian Americans display the same versatility as they move back and forth between their Asian culture and their American one. … [O]n the one hand, America stresses competition, individualism, independence and technology. An Asian culture, on the other hand, stresses cooperation, community, interdependence and tradition. The cultures pull in opposite directions, and it is the soul of the Asian American that provides the rope for that tug of war.
Yep outlines here, simply and concisely, major tensions between the two cultures that readers, whatever their ethnic background, might not have ever had spelled out so clearly. He casts the Asian American in a heroic role, at the center of a tension and struggle, endowed with a dragon soul. He thus provides an alternative "mask" for the Asian American to don, and reads biculturalism not as being caught between two worlds in a no-man's-land with the identity of neither, but rather as a position of strength and dynamism.
Yep educates not only the non-Asian American, but also the ABC about the OBC, or the second generation about the first, in an equally appealing manner. The prefaces in The Rainbow People depict the exigencies of early Chinese American life, and the uncertainties and risks that were daily reality. One of his categories is entitled, "In Chinese America." This section opens with "Trouble Snake," about a boy who disobeys his mother and nurses a snake, which accidentally kills the boy's brother. The story becomes progressively more fantastical, narrating the snake's transformation into the dead brother's image, a supernatural battle with a saint, and the snake's endless quest to be admitted to Heaven. Yep writes in the preface, "Floods are frequent in California, especially along the delta and rivers where many of the Chinese lived and still live. Perhaps the flood-causing ‘Trouble Snake’ helped explain their new situation overseas. Although the boy meant only to be kind to another creature, he was at fault for not obeying his mother" (116). Yep prompts the reader to ponder critically how a magical tale of a superhuman beast could be relevant to ordinary Asian Americans: that is, Chinese people transplanted to California in the uncertain days of railroads and coolies, when small actions like the boy's could have huge unforeseen consequences.
Regarding "Virtue Goes to Town," about a boastful but generous soldier-cook who rises to become a general, Yep observes, "working in a labor gang would have required not only strength and endurance but loyalty as well" (116-17). Yep's prefaces link the themes of these tall tales to the hardships and salient issues faced by Chinese Americans. Through his meta-discourse, he enables the reader to engage with these tales from China while remaining in America: the fact that the tales are fantastical means that the Asian American reader can align them in her mind with European fairy tales, or with American types such as Paul Bunyan, whom Virtue resembles. Or she can experience the tales as windows on an overseas culture: the genre of fantasy provides choices and options that do not limit her to, for instance, following an Amy Tan-esque protagonist who travels to China and only there undergoes self-discovery. Yep's tales are not so irremediably anchored within an overseas culture; rather, their fantastical quality links them to the European tradition of fairy tales and fantasy, as well as to Asian traditions of magic and folklore. Thus, Yep's work bridges the dominant culture and the ancestral.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Yep's mode of Asian American fantasy is his subtle critique of the values and assumptions of OBC culture—that is, the immigrant mindset. Fantasy enables Yep to portray the older generation beyond straightforward representation. Shimmer is the title character of Dragon of the Lost Sea. She is excessively proud of her dragonish culture and heritage, which has long been in shameful disrepair because centuries ago, arch-villainess Civet stole and hid the ocean that formed the dragon homeland, condemning Shimmer to walk the earth in human form, begging mercy from coarse peasants. Needy but proud, Shimmer develops a reluctant partnership with Thorn, an abandoned thirteen-year-old, who is equally reluctant to trust Shimmer. To the average Asian American kid, Shimmer can easily seem a figure for the tyrannical and grouchy elder relative, like the grandfathers in Imp and Magic, who has nothing good to say about the younger generation in the new land, who preens herself on past laurels earned far away and long disappeared, who lives in a romanticized past selectively edited to exclude its less savory episodes, in order to cope with her resentment and sorrow at having to "disguise" herself as an inhabitant of her new adopted culture. Yet Shimmer is very likable, kind, and willing to learn from her mistakes, tremendously strong and imbued with magic powers as well as with the fascination dragons universally hold. Yep provides a message especially pertinent for the children of immigrant Americans: that their elder relative may have sympathies and vulnerabilities underlying their crusty exterior. Yep pokes gentle fun at Shimmer, hinting at his own intimate knowledge of curmudgeonly immigrant elders. He constructs stories and characters according to a worldview indicative of his bicultural upbringing, and doubly contributes to enacting an Asian American mythology by inscribing elements of fantasy within Asian American children's tales, and by creating character types recognizable to and resonant with bicultural readers.
Yep characteristically adopts a whimsical approach to the folkloric elements in his work, which he admits to candidly ("Chinese Sense" ). He manifests his whimsy through characters such as Thorn, who readily poke fun at pompous purveyors of purportedly superior cultures, such as Shimmer. This waggish attitude of Yep's toward respected cultural norms can itself be termed Asian American. For growing up biculturally fosters the ability to distance oneself from both cultures, to mediate between oft-warring traditions and value systems, and to appreciate the beauties of a given culture while laughing at its foibles. Shimmer and Uncle Fong represent those elders that many American-born Asian children are frightened and exasperated by: the ones that tout tradition and heritage ad nauseam.
The notion of home, and a nostalgia for and/or obsession with regaining one's home, appears in more than one of Yep's fantasies. The Dragon series centers on Shimmer's quest to restore the homeland of her exiled clan; in Lost Sea, she must face the crushing disappointment of learning, after centuries of exile, just how destroyed and desiccated her former home has become. Her zeal for home and clan is sometimes naïve, but sometimes a commendable impetus spurring courageous actions. Her habit of seeing everything in relation to painful memories of a lost way of life evokes the constant reminiscences by immigrant Americans about their homeland—which are sometimes a wealth of cultural wisdom and identity, and other times a weight hindering their full entrance into American, or Asian American, life. The Dragon series, then, is empowering for the nisei and a gentle corrective for the issei.7
Uncle Fong in Magic muffles his unhappiness with harsh Chinatown life by painting for Steve a rosy, idealized portrait of his old village in China. The fact that the story is a fantasy enables Yep to, rather gleefully, inject an episode in which the paintbrush transports Steve, Grandfather, and Uncle Fong to the village. Yep's episode cleverly manages several tasks at once: some of Uncle Fong's nostalgia is validated, the reader is given an informational glimpse into Chinese village life, and Uncle Fong learns to make his peace with the past and move on. Uncle Fong attests in the village that the peaches are as sweet as he remembers; the reader learns what a water chain is; and Uncle Fong is granted an encounter with his sis- ter, now dead, but in this time-traveling episode still alive. So Yep's narrative fulfills the fantasy that many an Asian American kid has had of sending the older relative back to that supposed golden age of their past, just to see what would happen. What does happen is neither black nor white: Uncle Fong's nostalgia is neither completely destroyed nor completely vindicated. He is granted, by dint of the medium of fantasy, the ability to share this experience with American-born Steve, but he is also forced to come to terms with the sadness and difficulties of his past that he prefers to ignore in the present. Yep thus provides a gentle counter-argument to the non-falsifiable assertions about the past that real-life ABC's cannot contradict.
His prefaces in American Dragons serve a similar function: by learning the everyday struggles of the Asian American child, the OBC reader can come to look on the younger generation with greater respect and sympathy. Yep includes in his collection an autobiographical story of sexual abuse, "Dana's Eyes," by Nicol Juratovac, and characterizes it as a story of "an Asian parent afraid to deal with an American authority figure" (66). Though the stories themselves are not fantastical, Yep's overriding trope of Asian Americans as dragons encourages the reader to consider Asian Americans imaginatively and mythically, and thus with the wonder, admiration, and fascination that accompany one's immersion in a land of fantasy.
Yep provides in his preface to the "Tricksters" section of The Rainbow People a clever explanation for two rather dissatisfying tales, "Bedtime Snacks" and "Natural Enemies." "Bedtime Snacks" is about a monster named Dagger Claws who eats protagonist Shakey's family, crunching their bones horrifically. Shakey manages to trick the monster into tumbling down a well, but his aunt and brother remain gruesomely dead. "Natural Enemies" is an origin tale attributing the animosity between cats and dogs to the betrayal of a dog by a tricky and selfish cat. Neither story has a happy ending. Of course, children enjoy horror stories, as well as tales that explain something in the natural world, but Yep succeeds in articulating the significance of these tales within a specifically Asian American context. He relates:
[P]erhaps when someone described a particularly clever stratagem like the one that the boy used to fool a monster like Dagger Claws … the listeners might have more confidence in themselves when it came to dealing with employers, labor contractors, storekeepers, and so on. …
"Natural Enemies" is more than an origin fable. It also reaffirms a certain world order that can include long hours for small wages, separation from the family, and whatever tribulations a man or woman might face.
Yep compassionately invokes and sketches the life of recent immigrants, enriching the tales with a layer of sophistication and sociological awareness.
Fantasy coheres as a genre and offers such a wealth of meaning because it springs from and enriches a mythology: a people's foundational stories of their origins, identity, cultural values, experiences, and homeland.8 It draws types from folklore such as the trickster or the unlikely hero that can have real-life analogues, and imaginary beasts that have no real-life equivalent. In addition, fantasy invents its own forms of magic, imaginary realms, and posited worlds, elaborating on existing mythologies. The classic fantasy worlds created by Tolkien, Lewis, Feist, and Pamela Dean, to name a few, derive from a western European world of forests, wizards, dwarves, castles, feudalism, and so forth. Is it then oxymoronic to envision an ethnic American fantasy, since ethnic Americans have seemingly no mythology inherently their own? Chinese Americans can look to the vast cultural heritage of China, but this mythology is that of their ancestors, who dwelt in a different land. A people displaced from its homeland necessarily establishes a different relationship with its mythology, and the mythology must change to accommodate and incorporate the displacement.9
David Leiwei Li enumerates what is at stake as Asian American literature continues to evolve: the continued dismantling of Orientalist paradigms, the expansion and refinement of mainstream appreciation for Asian American culture, and the elaboration of an Asian American presence in literary and social discourse.10 Asian American fantasy can contribute to these aims by infusing an additional element of social relevance into fantasy, by consequently broadening the appeal of both fantasy and Asian American literature, and subsequently, by promulgating more multivalenced knowledge. That Yep begins to accomplish all this is what renders his works so intriguing.
Li queries, "Where are we to find and how are we to imagine a social space capable of reaffirming and reproducing the ever-changing form of Asian American knowledge?" (139). Continuing to create the genre of Asian American fantasy, extrapolating from Yep's innovative work, fruitfully engages this question by de- lineating an imaginative space that affirms and empowers Asian characters and readers in their ethnic particularity; that writes a place for Asian American readers within the Anglo-dominated world of high fantasy; and that opens potential lines of interchange between generic and/or ethnic branches of literary discourse.
1. Many children's literature scholars have narrated and analyzed the history of the denigration of fantasy and the fantastic in favor of realism. See J. R. R. Tolkien's essay for a cogent discussion of society's disdain for fantasy. See also Alison Lurie and Jack Zipes on the power and value of magic in children's stories.
2. Indeed, the impetus to view and value childhood as an unspoilt time of innocence derives from English Romanticism and the Blakean or Wordsworthian conception of childhood (itself derived from Rousseau), and began as an empowering social attitude toward children. The gradual dampening of this portrait of childhood into one emphasizing it as a time of immaturity that needs to give way to more "realistic" and "adult" modes of existence arose from the industrialization and technocratization of society. See Jack Zipes as well as the volume edited by James Holt McGavran for a fuller exploration of the social history of children in relation to the history of children's literature.
3. As just one example, Chang Rae Lee postulates in Native Speaker how to combine a detective novel with an exploration of Asian American social concerns.
4. There are certainly quite a few fantasies that do not subscribe to the traditional blueprint of pre-industrial Britain as prototypical fantasy world. However, I situate my argument here in relation to the traditions that established English and American fantasy writing. I discuss the development of multicultural awareness in fantasy at greater length in my article, "Bicultural World Creation: Laurence Yep, Cynthia Kadohata, and Asian American Fantasy."
5. I will abbreviate these as Imp and Magic, respectively.
6. The first three of this series are entitled Dragon of the Lost Sea, Dragon Steel, and Dragon Cauldron.
7. "Nisei" is the Japanese word denoting the second generation, that is, the first generation born in the US. "Issei" denotes the first generation, or the ones who come to the US from overseas.
9. One could argue that American writers utilizing British conventions already show a form of displacement. However, the difference is that white American fantasy writers can and do consider British mythology "their" heritage, whereas for self-identified ethnic American groups, the chasm is more evident between their ethnic origin and Britain. Some examples of British-based fantasies by American writers are Pamela Dean's marvelous trilogy, as well as the retold fairy tales by Robin McKinley and Patricia C. Wrede. See especially Wrede's Afterword on England and America.
10. See Shirley Geok-lin Lim's essay in the anthology edited by herself and Amy Ling, as well as Elaine Kim's preface to Charlie Chan Is Dead. Both Lim and Kim chronicle and laud the development of Asian American literature over the past decades. Kim even describes the contributors to the volume as "magicians" (xiii).
Dean, Pamela. The Hidden Land. NY: Ace Fantasy Books, 1986.
———. The Secret Country. NY: Ace Fantasy Books, 1985.
———. The Whim of the Dragon. NY: Ace Fantasy Books, 1989.
Hallett, Martin, and Barbara Karasek, eds. Folk & Fairy Tales. 2nd ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2000.
Harrison, Barbara, and Gregory Maguire, comps. and eds. Innocence & Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature. NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1987.
Kim, Elaine. Preface. Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Ed. Jessica Hagedorn. NY: Penguin, 1993.
Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. NY: Riverhead Books, 1995.
Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. 1954. NY: Collier, 1971.
Li, David Leiwei. Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. "The Ambivalent American: Asian American Literature on the Cusp." Lim and Ling 13-32.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992.
Lurie, Alison. Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature. Boston: Back Bay Books-Little, Brown and Co., 1990.
Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. NY: Routledge, 2002.
McGavran, James Holt, Jr., ed. Romanticism and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century England. Athens: U of GA P, 1991.
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. NY: Pocket Books, 1978.
———. The Door in the Hedge. NY: Berkley Books, 1981.
———. Rose Daughter. NY: Ace Books, 1997.
Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-Stories." Hallett and Karasek, 263-94.
Woo, Celestine. "Bicultural World Creation: Laurence Yep, Cynthia Kadohata, and Asian American Fantasy." Literary Aesthetics and Theory in Asian American Writing. Ed. Sue-Im Lee and Rocío G. Davis. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2005.
Sharon Scapple (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Scapple, Sharon. "Sweetwater: The Music of the Heart and of Darkness." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1995-1999, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 19-24. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001.
[In the following essay, Scapple explores the role of music and cultural adaptation in Yep's Sweetwater, noting that "Yep is well known for his compelling language, his rhythmical and sensual metaphors and similes."]
Take a brief moment, if you would, and slowly say the word Sweetwater. Say it again, Sweetwater, and, as it slides over your tongue notice how the sound charms you. Notice how you want to linger, to hum to the end of your breath. Notice how you become part of the sound, caressed by it, consoled, or lifted up. The word is musical and insightful, and it is no wonder that Laurence Yep chose it as the title of his first novel for young readers, Sweetwater, a science-fiction fantasy.
When readers learn that Yep "writes to music," they nod in understanding as they are drawn into a story that speaks to them about loneliness and about touching souls. Yep is well known for his compelling language, his rhythmical and sensual metaphors and similes. The reader is drawn into the imagery when Yep writes:
… this was the real dream, with the sky soft and indecisive in the moonlight, the rotting brick faces masked with red and yellow growths of worms, layers of life that softened the hard surfaces of the city, as if warm flesh were slowly growing on bare bones. The birds huddled for the night like fat drops of snow on the roofs, and the voices rising soft and low from a hundred throats all merged into one sound that hung still over the dark waters in the street.
And just as Sweetwater is a book musically written, the term is also the title of a particular song in the story, which embodies the light and dark sides of our nature. "Sweetwater" is a song that inspires more music, moves people to dance and sing, and comforts and soothes the weary. And yet, it can embrace the darkness in its longing for connection, in its wail for its offspring, and in its power to captivate a young boy who then keeps secrets to hide it.
The story tells about Tyree, a thirteen-year-old human boy who discovers his heart's desire is to play the flute, but who must betray his father to find his song. By virtue of the circumstances that define his community as a minority group of humans called Silkies, descendants of starship crews who were stranded on the planet Harmony and who now inhabit the flooded ruins of a city by the sea, Tyree's passion to play music triggers the eventual demise of the Silkie communal lifestyle. Tyree's song does find him, but he also discovers that his quest demands sacrifices of him, particularly in that he has to face the "vast and lonely" sea that surrounds the city—the sea that is "as black as the vast, empty seas of space" that his ancestors had once crossed (68).
Told from Tyree's perspective and with hindsight (he is writing about events that occurred during the past few years), the story is a record for posterity, so Old Sion (or is it Zion, a golden city, a utopia?) is not lost from memory, nor the reason why the Silkies had to leave it. Tyree was not blamed for the collapse of a culture whose members felt different from others and who consequently isolated themselves by living in the city crumbling into the sea, yet he feels responsible. Had he not wanted music so desperately, he believes the tale would have been different.
"Sweetwater," the song, was special for Tyree; he recalls when Jubal Hatcher and his wife used to stop over in Old Sion during the winter when their resort season was slack. The first thing Jubal would do was ask for a drink of water from the well of Captain Priest (Tyree's father), "‘the only cool, sweet, fresh water for a hundred miles,’" he would say (7). After drinking, Jubal would strike up his fiddle and play "Sweetwater," which happened to be an old Earth hymn that Tyree's Pa favored.
Because he took his position as Captain of the Silkies seriously, Tyree's father did not think it was appropriate to express pleasure in public. But, on one occasion, he lets go, rolls up his sleeves, unbuttons his collar, and dances with Ma. It was then that Tyree became possessed by music. It was his inspiration, his light. "After that night when I saw what music could do, there was nothing for me to do but whittle out a flute. I just had to be a musician" (9). "It's music," he writes, "if it reaches inside and makes you want to keep time right along from the tapping of your toes to the nodding of your head because you want to be part of that rhythm" (9).
Tyree tries to teach himself to play but without much success. After five months of struggle and ridicule, he is told by his father that never again was another Silkie to hear him play. Realizing that he could still keep his music and obey his father, Tyree goes to Sheol, to the old mansions that were occupied by the Argans, the "only intelligent race native to Harmony" (16), and where Silkies were not to be seen. Knowing this fact does not deter Tyree, however.
While at Sheol, Tyree hears a song that captures his spirit and begins his journey toward acceptance of another culture and the realization that by blending music from Harmony and Earth, he is celebrating Silkie life and perhaps even "creating" the Silkie soul, for "it's a grand and yet a frightening thing to be a Silkie" (30). At first he thinks the sound is wind, but it is really music:
… once sad and yet beautiful, moving like the veiled ghosts of bold knights or unfulfilled maidens. The echoes floated up the street over the hissing water, past the empty, slime-covered apartment houses, bounced and danced past walls whose rotting mortar slowly spilled stone after stone into the sea. It was a song for old Sion.
The songsmith is an old Argan named Amadeus; at least this is his use-name. Readers will not miss Yep's intentionality here nor with two other Argans Tyree meets, Sebastian and Handel! Amadeus, whom Tyree describes as resembling a four-foot-high Earth spider, agrees to teach him; Tyree considers it a privilege. Argans believe that the "gods directly choose someone to be a songsmith" (22). Argans also think of music differently from humans; rather than being limited to a song sheet, to fixed themes and variations, the musician improvises while playing, and the music evolves and changes as he does. The best musicians are valued not only for their skill, but also for their ability to find new and original patterns (23). What is most important is the idea that the song finds the singer, not the other way around (24).
After a year of apprenticeship, Tyree plays before a group of Argans. Here, too, he is ridiculed by those who are critical of an Argan song finding a human. But enlightenment comes to Tyree, for as he begins to play, he realizes his song has found him, and it is "Sweetwater." It is Jubal's song, but Tyree makes it his own.
I took the melody and I played it like an Argan, modeling my song after an Argan song about a lost child looking for its mother. All the months of frustration and loneliness poured out of me and I played like I was the lost, lonely child calling across the empty light-years of space to Mother Earth.
To Tyree the song went "wheeling like a bird fighting through the wind and the rain, striving to break into the open, free sky, where the sun would dry his wings so he could turn toward home: to ride the winter winds to his home …" (28). He is a child struggling alone to grow up; he has the courage to follow his passion, yet his secrecy isolates him. He is a Silkie, mourning the return to Earth and then to starships his ancestors were denied.
Shortly after this experience, Tyree gives Amadeus a trumpet his father has salvaged; he knows the master songsmith will be pleased with it. Amadeus holds it reverently and refers to it as "‘aural sunshine It takes the soul and amplifies it a thousandfold, polishes rough edges, purges, purifies, and generally cleanses the soul until it is finer and more transparent than air’" (46).
The gift is so great that Amadeus wants to reciprocate. Tyree refuses his gift, the Seadragon's treasure, which becomes a touchstone for Caley, Tyree's blind sister. Much to his distress, Tyree learns later that it was the Argan's taking of the sea monster's egg and her anger that causes a group of Silkies called the Sons of Light to leave the Commune. Actually, fear of the Seadragon is just an excuse, for they had never really liked the sea. Such trouble weighs heavily on Tyree. As the burden of secrets grows, he feels less like growing up; yet he also feels "old, terribly old" (95). He has difficulty resolving his regret for the departure of Sons of Light and his joy that he has learned Argan music.
When Captain Priest hears the truth about his son's music (from Tyree himself), he tells Tyree that to demonstrate how sincerely he is apologetic he will have to burn his flute. When Tyree refuses, Priest strikes out with a parental ultimatum, "‘… you are no son of mine.’" Tyree tells the reader he understands his father is reacting out of pride and so is he when he responds, "‘Then I am no Priest,’" and leaves the house, feeling as if he has "just killed something" (130-131).
Stirred by the pounding sea whose roar becomes the "ghost rockets lost in time and space, trying to find their way home to Mother Earth," Tyree plays his flute, "a tune to bring the sun down and the moon up." Once again he envisions himself alone and he sees the sea rushing "against my wall" (136). After being startled by a young boy, who is one of the increasing number of visitors on the planet, and threatening him with his spear, Tyree understands that he must return, for after all he is a Silkie.
With the remaining Silkies, children and adults alike, Tyree helps combat the steady flow of Hydra streaming into the city in pursuit of the Sunfish, the Commune's cache for the year. Hydra are described as emitting low, keen howls and having small mouths at each tentacle's tip that can "tear a body apart in just a few minutes, and a beak that could punch a hole through a sheet of steel" (156). There is both horror and beauty in the running Hydra: "Every now and then a tentacle would flash in the air, bright and slick, like red stalks of glass walking through green crystal" (157).
Although the Silkies' Hydra do not grow two heads in place of one, as did the mythical serpent slain by Heracles, these Hydra certainly pose an obstacle to the already insurmountable problem of Silkie preservation. They are ominous as well as deadly, and when driven by the smell of blood, they are not particular about the victim, even one of their own kind. In flight from the Hydra, Tyree notices how they have stripped the streets of any luminescent life. It is the first time he has ever known complete darkness, and he holds himself "tightly" to make sure that he is "still there as the darkness slowly dissolved … [his] body before … [his eyes]" (175-176).
The light emerges again after the Silkies find refuge on the rooftops, their battle lost, when Tyree plays "Sweetwater." They sing, putting the old words to the new tune. "On that hottest of nights," Tyree says, he can hear his parents sing softly:
… like the sound of a fresh rainfall, drops that ran liquidly, quickly, and quietly from the roofs onto the ground, fusing into a stream, a soft creek in a shadowed valley of woods that poured on down to the sea.
Caley is swept away by the song, dancing over the roof, "one hand waving gracefully in time to the music of the sea"—to Sweetwater, cool water, promised water (180). And Pa agrees that music is useful.
Their peace is interrupted in the night by the Seadragon's lament, a "huge bellow," echoing "up and down the streets" (183). From this same source had come the sobbing sound Caley hears when she first receives the touchstone and understands that it is alive. As the Seadragon searches for her egg, she destroys the city, flattening it to rubble.
Assisted by Amadeus, who appears newly rejuvenated, and other Argans, the Seadragon recovers her treasure. Her "voice came lonely and distant across the sea, a low moaning sound, beautiful and yet terrible. It was like music …" (195).
In the still night, the "dying night" giving rise to morning, Tyree tells the reader that they can hear a faint rustling. Although it is the wind, "it sounded as if all of Old Sion were leaving: the creatures of shadow and the ancient spirits sighing as they brushed concrete or water, whispering as they passed on, some to the shore, some to the sea" (195). As a people together for the last time, the Silkies listen to these sounds.
It is the Argan way to believe that music is foremost, rather than the player playing it. As Amadeus describes it to Tyree, it is not an Argan playing human songs, or "the other way around"; it is a "‘musician making music’" (24). And what is so essential and so sacred in this belief is the integration of song and songmaker. When the song and singer find each other, singer gives way to the song, and the music becomes that moment. At one time, it is the dark cry of anguish for lost connection, and at another, a celebration of light, of foot tapping melody, or of a healing rain falling fresh onto the ground and into the streams (180).
Tyree is a courageous "Manchild," following his path to music and honoring his heritage as a Silkie. More than this, he takes into his heart and mind the Argan spirit. His songs and his life will reflect the blending of Earth and Space.
Leona W. Fisher (essay date summer 2002)
SOURCE: Fisher, Leona W. "Focalizing the Unfamiliar: Laurence Yep's Child in a Strange Land." MELUS 27, no. 2 (summer 2002): 157-77.
[In the following essay, Fisher utilizes Yep's Dragonwings as a means of explaining the need to differentiate between focalizing and narrating in critical interpretations of multiethnic texts for adolescents.]
We were brothers: strangers in a strange land who had banded together for help and protection.
Issues of memory, subjectivity, genre, and ideology intersect in the complex children's literary form of the ethnic fictional autobiography, which is historical fiction as well since it looks back to a time prior to the moment of writing. The form also presents particular interpretive challenges for contemporary readers, who may see themselves as radically different from the protagonist and therefore unable or unwilling to experience the story. Since "otherness" (across time, space, and ethnicity) is always challenging—particularly in a culture dominated by an "identity politics" that encourages children merely to see themselves in the mirror of their reading—it will be my argument that critical tools for reading become particularly important. We can no longer rely on simple reader reaction or intuitive connection, but must explore specifically rhetorical and political ways to "open up" children's texts about otherness.1
The ethnic child's fictional testimonial itself provides such critical methods since, as a rule, children's autobiographical stories privilege the child's first-person point of view over the adult or omniscient narrator's view. Child readers' acceptance of "otherness" might therefore come through an understanding of narrative techniques that articulate the ethnic child protagonist's own sense of "difference," a difference that texts themselves distinguish from any adult's perception, but also from the "majority" child's view. Such a stress on the child's perspective necessarily means that the author must explore ways to communicate incremental cultural understanding while always honoring the child protagonist's perspective.
The 1970s was an exceptionally productive decade for the publication of innovative fiction, both historical autobiographies and ethnically specific experiments that extended the forms of children's literature. Texts like Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which presents the first-person point of view of nine-year-old Cassie Logan, illustrate the split between narrative voice and focalization with the language of the adult autobiographer ("Oh, how sweet was well-maneuvered revenge!" ) melding with the perceptions of the child focalizer ("No day in my life had ever been as cruel as this one" ) who sees and experiences racism from a naively just point of view. Such a technique invites child readers to respond positively to the protagonist's judgments. Thus, we cheer with Cassie and her brothers when the white pupils' schoolbus lands in the rain-clogged ruts they have dug in the road and shiver with her as she views the effects of lynching for the first time. Furthermore, adult embedded narratives, from her grandmother, father, mother, or Mr. Morrison, impart more experienced perspectives on the racism and white supremacy she must eventually acknowledge as part of her 1930s Jim Crow world, while never undermining the accuracy of her innocent outrage. Focalization through Cassie Logan draws the reader into a richly detailed, emotionally compelling understanding of racism that led to the 1977 Newbery Award.2
A 1970s text for older readers (ten to fourteen), addressing slavery itself, uses a similar technique: the sophisticated language of the adult first-person narrator records a ghastly memory that is exclusively focalized through the child, Jessie Bollier. Kidnapped to "dance the slaves" on a slave ship, as a young white boy Jessie experiences the horrors of the Middle Passage through alternating identification with, and revulsion at, both the slave traders and the Africans they are transporting. Like Taylor, in The Slave Dancer Paula Fox refuses to interject the adult Jessie's retrospective understanding until the last chapter, instead recording only the child's responses to the brutality and bestiality of that formative experience. The child-reader is thus interpellated as a fellow passenger on the ship of America's grotesque and peculiar institution.
Because of the naivete in the focalizing consciousness, these texts might seem to risk being misread. In the gap between Cassie's desire for revenge and her mother's measured response, or between Jessie's initial horror and his adult comprehension, some have seen the possibility of children's misinterpreting the author's ideological stance, i.e., reading Taylor as favoring violence or Fox as racist.3 While irony can be a very demanding device, children can become attuned to it as well as adults, particularly if an historical context (either within or outside the text) can be used to complicate simple identification with the focalizing protagonist.
Refusing to acknowledge this ironic gap between the narrating adult language and the focalizing child, John Stephens, the main critic of children's literature to develop a coherent narratological theory, insists in Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction that such identification with the protagonist can be "dangerous," and insistence on it, "pedagogically irresponsible" (68). Stating that "in aligning themselves with a focalizing character, readers undergo textual subjection" (57), Stephens claims that this subservience "constructs a false subjectivity" (69). To the contrary, I argue that these particular texts, with their marginalized focalizers and historically distant material, hold little danger for developing readers, raising consciousness rather than imposing restrictive ideologies. Stephens himself acknowledges, albeit briefly, that narrative focalization is "of considerable significance" in the construction of "multicultural" children's books since these texts "are concerned to depict social groups, values and customs without focalizing them through the perspective of a ‘majority’ culture" (51). Through depiction of a "minority" subjectivity, such as Cassie's or Jessie's, the multicultural text succeeds in presenting alternative subject positions for all its readers, broadening their historical and crosscultural knowledge. Stephens seems to underestimate children's tendency to resist narratives that seek to interpellate them; if anything, they are more likely to ignore the focalization if the protagonist's experience does not "relate" to theirs.
These effective child protagonist-focalizers invite the child reader imaginatively to inhabit positions in history, ethnicity, or class that may at first seem alien.4 An approach that combines focalization with an older construct, defamiliarization, may help us calization with an older construct, defamiliarization, may help us understand how historical fictional autobiographies both construct implied readers (addressees) and work their magical effects on real ones. If readers are to be enriched and informed by alterity, they must be willing actively to imagine an Other completely different—in time, space, and perception. The challenge to the reader is not to resist interpellation but to sustain identification long enough to be transformed.
In naming and illustrating the techniques that Laurence Yep utilizes in his remarkable Dragonwings (1975), I hope to offer the reader a concrete methodology for interpreting and valuing this genre. By learning to recognize in first-person (homodiegetic) narrative this distinction between focalizing and narrating, both adult and child readers can expand their flexibility in interpreting situation, implied knowledge, and linguistic repertoire.5
Narratologists from Gérard Genette onwards have long recognized the distinction: "the two instances of focalizing and narrating … remain distinct even in ‘first-person’ narrative, that is, even when the two instances are taken up by the same person (except when the first-person narrative is a present-tense interior monologue)" (Narrative Discourse 194).6 Genette also suggests that the autobiographical narrator has an obligation to "impose silence" on the writing self out of "respect" for the "ignorance" of himself as the younger "hero" (198). He "has to suppress all the information he acquired later" (199). As we have seen, however, the fictional autobiographer for children does not entirely suppress subsequent knowledge, though the eyes of perception remain predominantly those of the younger self. Mieke Bal in turn defines the "internal focalizer" as "one character who participates in the fabula as an actor" (148) and distinguishes "between those who see and those who speak" (143). Focalization, then, is not about who is speaking and therefore does not depend on a distinction between first- and third-person narrators: "narrator and focalizer are not to be conflated" (147). Bal's clearest argument for the distinction between speaker and seer concerns memory, which touches precisely on the genre that Yep is writing: "Memory is an act of ‘vision’ on the past [seeing] but, as an act, situated in the present of memory [speaking]" (147).7 It is also perhaps worth noting that neither the child focalizer nor the adult narrator is a clear stand-in for either the implied or the real author.
While nearly-exclusive focalization through the child's naive eyes and developing sensitivity pro- vides the perfect vehicle for educating the reader, a strategy for reading the novel requires a second, more destabilizing concept, what Stephens calls "defamiliarizing devices," which he sees only in the context of writing about antiquity and in service to its values in children's historical fiction (223). In contrast, the estranging devices that I find in Yep and other progressive, anti-authoritarian, counter-hegemonic texts need to do quite the opposite work: they function to subvert dominant historical accounts and to construct persuasive counter-narratives.
Stephens uses the terminology of the Russian Formalists (estrangement, strange, defamiliarization), but without naming them as the direct antecedents of his ideological linguistics, perhaps because of their apolitical reputation.8 In The Theory of the "Formal Method" (1926), Boris Eichenbaum credits his colleague Victor Shklovsky with discovering "the device of defamiliarization" and seeing "art as increasing the difficulty and span [length, duration] of perception … art as a means of destroying the automatism of perception" (Adams 806). Shklovsky himself focuses on "habitualization" and its dangers:
as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. … And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar."
Shklovsky analyzes such passages as the flogging episode from "Shame," in which "Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object … as if he were seeing it for the first time, and even as if it were happening for the first time" (754). Far from purely aesthetic, these techniques of defamiliarization are "Tolstoy's way of pricking the conscience" (754). Thus, ethical values are not totally excluded by Shklovsky from the Formalist interpretation of meaning. Like Bal's heuristic narratological schema, Shklovsky's formal description can be appropriated for the purposes of political reader-response criticism of Yep's Dragonwings.
Narrating the experience of coming to America, the Golden Mountain, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Laurence Yep's protagonist Moon Shadow immediately establishes the novel's dual perspective: the language of an adult retrospective narrator juxtaposed with the nearly exclusive focalization of the seven-year-old Chinese boy as he encounters a strange land for the first time. Yep's afterword confirms his intentions: "I wanted to show that Chinese-Americans are human beings upon whom America has had a unique effect. I have tried to do this by seeing America through the eyes of a recently arrived Chinese boy" (248).9 In his essay "Writing Dragonwings" he reports that as he did his research for the novel, early twentieth-century Chinese culture began to dominate his consciousness and "Milk and cheese had to become exotic to me" (104):
So when I chose to describe things from the viewpoint of an eight year old Chinese boy, it was more than simply choosing a narrative device; it was close to the process of discovery I myself was experiencing in the story.
(Rpt. in Johnson-Feelings 104-105)
Except for the rare passages in which Yep needs his adult narrator to analyze retrospectively or to foreshadow, the boy's point of view is maintained throughout.
Laurence Yep's Moon Shadow thus can be seen to perform the heroic act of reclaiming the specificity of time and space for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 Earthquake.10 Utilizing memory, the adult narrator reconstitutes the past from his internal perspective as a boy, as he then felt, saw, thought, perceived, imagined—interrupted occasionally with prolepsis that reveals anachronistic future knowledge, as in the following passages: "I did not realize that I would find out at first hand about the Golden Mountain. … And there were other men whose backs were stooped, their fingers gnarled and their faces worn and tired as old masks (I did not know at the time that this was simply all from a life of hard work; I thought that torture had done this to them)" (emphases mine; 7). These moments where subsequent knowledge intrudes occur infrequently, however, and do not substantially interrupt the tone of "ignorant wisdom" that dominates the discourse.
The freshness of effect that is produced by Moon Shadow's naive perception springs from child focalization. Even in the passage above, therefore, the boy's perception is articulated before (and after) the adult clarification: he first describes the battered men with detailed metonymy (stooped backs, gnarled fingers) and metaphor ("old masks"), and concludes the passage with the powerful word "torture." His imaginative conception of America as a place where Chinese men are "guests" who are physically mistreated, of course, comes to signify an ironically more accurate interpretation than the objective "life of hard work" the adult narrator provides. Returning with tuberculosis or dead, these broken humans constitute "a silent testimony to the harshness of their demon [i.e., white] ‘hosts’" (7). The description and judgment are allowed to stand on the same page, without retrospective adjustment. Moon Shadow's language deliberately estranges the modern reader from the customary historical accounts of the past, exposing a revisionist view of America.
Moon Shadow's particular experience is neither collapsible into contemporary child-identity (of any race or ethnicity) nor familiar enough to produce instant recognition. His passage into adolescence remains marked throughout by extraordinary and violent episodes that jolt and shock, with only occasional accommodations to "universality." Exceptional, as one of these infrequent moments, is Moon Shadow's realization, after he fights the demon-boy Jack, that "these demons were like the Tang boys I knew at home. You only had to punch out the biggest and toughest of the bunch and the others would accept you" (145). But this cliché of boyhood experience takes place more than halfway through the book and is, moreover, a perceptual judgment that belongs to the focalizer, rather than to the adult narrator, and therefore does not necessarily represent the implied or real author's view.
Defamiliarization within the child's focalized perception opens up the rhetorical form of Yep's novel even further, enabling us to describe accurately the specific responses produced in the text's addressee. Such estrangement from the "familiar" may be seen to function at the level of the word or object; in turn, at the conceptual or thematic level; and finally, at the sociological or political level. Through the child's unfamiliarity with the new language and culture, Yep produces the effect: first, of surprise or delayed comprehension (extended "span" in Shklovsky's terms), and second, of potential resistance or subversion. The "automatic" view of culture and history becomes decentered, its hegemonic perspective called into question and ultimately undermined and substantially altered.
We "habitually" expect words and objects to possess certain stable cultural meanings. Simple signifiers like "milk and cookies," for example, represent cozy domesticity or traditional motherliness. How odd, therefore, is Moon Shadow's first focalized view of such hospitality in the white woman Miss Whitlaw's kitchen, as he sees "the biggest plate of things. … They were brown-colored and shaped like men" (102). These "things" look "‘like dung,’" he tells his father, while the milk that accompanies them has an "awful, greasy taste" (103). Moon Shadow remains bewildered as he describes (without naming) the following object. Miss Whitlaw's niece
sat down on a bench before a boxlike contraption taller than her and made of black wood. She lifted up a kind of lid about halfway down on its front, exposing thin white and black tiles of ivory. She began poking at the tiles aimlessly, producing strange musical sounds.
The "boxlike contraption" only gradually comes into focus, beginning with the "black tiles of ivory" and completing its materialization with the reference to music. Only after we have finished reading these descriptions do we learn from his father that Moon Shadow has been eating gingerbread and listening to an "upright piano." As in Tolstoy, the object is described but the name is withheld, forcing the addressee to do the work of recognition; we obviously cannot come to the experience with the same ignorance as the young Chinese boy, but we are compelled to see with fresh eyes.
Similarly, when he first arrives in San Francisco, Moon Shadow either misnames or displaces the geographical and architectural landscape. These metonymic or metaphorical descriptions signify much more than his rather neutral discoveries of cultural difference. Thus, San Francisco is not a "mound of gold" as he had expected, but merely "a brown smudge on the horizon" (11); the new immigrants are "locked inside a long, two-story warehouse for a week. … where we slept and ate off the floors. All the time, we smelled the sewage and the bilge of the bay" (11-12); the "demon" (white inhabitants') houses are "boxlike," without courtyards, like prisons (12-13). Walking "through the Barbary Coast, a place filled with brothels, saloons, and gambling joints," he "nearly lost heart. To me, the wooden houses seemed like shells of wood which terrible monsters had spun about themselves" (18), as compared to Chinatown, where he "felt as if I had come home" (18) and where there are "sensible safeguards against demons of any kind" (19). With its contrasts between the grim, grotesque, monstrous imagery describing the demons and the safe domestic space of Chinatown, this representation conveys a shockingly negative view of the promised land through the child's eyes.
Cultural differences are also presented through hierarchical reversals with the Chinese custom redefined in Moon Shadow's focalization as the "unmarked case," the western one as barbaric or odd or counterintuitive. Thus, Moon Shadow is eight in Tang (Chinese) years since the nine months of gestation are counted, but only seven by American calculation (5); "handwriting was more of an art form" for the Chinese because "the words of the Tang people were more alive" (22); western "names sound so drab compared to ours" (3) and "We feel that a man should be able to change his name as he changes" (31); Tang paper is delicate and made of rice, while in America the paper is "strange, thick, clothlike" (32); and demons even require Moon Shadow "to use my name in the wrong order" (11). Even the usually-romantic cable car is deflated through the child's view: "I thought it was a dragon scrabbling at the surface with its claws, just about to break free" (52). Moon Shadow and his father are amused by "the tons of petticoats" worn by their white customers (55), and frustrated by having to master two calendars, "the true time of our own home" and the "demons' calendar" (59). Even Moon Shadow's response to seeing his first opium den carries with it an ironic comparison to white society's institutions: "Later, when I went into a demon hospital, it was to remind me very much of a scrubbed-up, antiseptic opium den" (71). By means of the double, child-adult focalization (at the time vs. later), Yep confirms Moon Shadow's initial critique.
Casual details of everyday US culture, such as eating or machinery, are presented as belonging exclusively to the demonhosts. Whistling and shaking hands are demon activities; machines (like electric lights, iceboxes, stereopticons, crystal sets, telephones, even "aeroplanes") are demon toys; demons don't know about dragons or how to drink tea properly; they eat "a fat bird" called a turkey, their water is not safe to drink, and they eat "fermented cow's milk that the demons call cheese" (164). Unalterably "other," Moon Shadow persists in his astonishment through more than half of the book—and in his re-education of the reader in new ways of seeing.
We are to understand that the book's language is Tang or Chinese, and this fiction shapes part of the book's overall effect of strangeness.11 Each time Moon Shadow hears or learns a new English word, therefore, it is italicized, sometimes with comically phonetic spelling, whereas the "Chinese" narrative is smoothly, even sophisticatedly, grammatical. Unlike the protagonist-narrator, Otter, in Yep's prequel Dragon's Gate (1993), Moon Shadow has not previously learned English and the italicized words and phrases are therefore rendered as broken and ungrammatical, as a recently arrived immigrant would hear and speak them. The Middle Kingdom is China; the Land of the Golden Mountain is America, its inhabitants American devils; the Tang person is a chai-na-maan; gingerbread is jin-jer-ber-ed; beautiful is bu-dee-fu; and so on. Very offensively, demon boys "make mock Tang-people sounds—like ‘Wing-Duck-So-Long’ and ‘Wun-Long-Hop’" (119). And all the Tang names, since they are part of the Chinese "translation," are themselves translated: Black Dog, Bloody Hands, Windrider, Lead Hand, Whisky Devil, the Tiger General, Lefty, Melon Head, etc., giving symbolic meaning to the characters. All white names (of cities, states, streets, people) are rendered in italicized English, as are the names of all machines.
The overall effect is very complex: both a defamiliarizing sense of the English language as fresh and not automatically meaningful and a gradually accumulating consciousness of Chinese as an alternative and very expressive medium of communication. Yep stresses in the afterword that he wishes "to counter various stereotypes" of the Chinese (248), but he also reveals the Tang people's misconceptions and misperceptions of Americans, often through scenes that are very funny precisely because the demons in the story do not understand the (unitalicized) "Chinese"—while the reader, of course, does.12 In the gingerbread scene, for example, Miss Whitlaw does not understand Moon Shadow's description of the "dung" cookies or "cow urine" milk.
Much later, after the earthquake, when Lefty, one of the members of the Tang people's Company of the Peach Orchard Vow, first meets Miss Whitlaw, the scene illustrates both the Chinese man's stereotyping and Windrider's (Moon Shadow's father's) diplomacy and loyalty to his white friend:
"She does not look very ugly for a demoness," Lefty said to Father.
"Most of them do not age well."
Miss Whitlaw smiled politely and looked to Father to translate.
"He say he pleased to meet you," Father said, hiding a smile. As neither Miss Whitlaw nor Lefty understood one another's language, everything went smoothly.
At the end of the scene, as Windrider leaves Miss Whitlaw to proceed to Golden Gate Park alone, their conversation takes place entirely in English: "‘You need help yourself unloading all this and this,’ Father said…. ‘You sure you be all right?’ ‘We'll meet in the park,’ Miss Whitlaw said firmly" (173). Lefty does not understand the conversation, nor does he speak in Chinese until after they have left the Whitlaws, by which time it is clear that he has been thoroughly won over: "‘She seems nice for a demoness.’ ‘She is a superior woman,’ Father said" (174).
This motif of developing cross-ethnic understanding is completed by the adult narrator near the book's conclusion, not with false closure but with appropriate realism: "I won't say that Miss Whitlaw and Uncle [the clan's crusty old patriarch] became the best of friends, but they came to like each other as much as two such different people could" (244). It is important here to consider that it is primarily Uncle's skepticism, not Miss Whitlaw's reluctance, that prevents fuller intimacy. The estrangement, like the stereotyping, cuts both ways.
Defamiliarization also functions conceptually and structurally in the novel, particularly as demonstrated in the almost incantatory repetition of the word "demon" to describe Americans; the word appears, unexplained, four times in the opening paragraph alone.13 Demons retain their multivalent identity throughout Moon Shadow's account. As he soon explains from the adult narrator's perspective, "the Tang word for demon can mean many kinds of supernatural things" (10), with "supernatural" understood in a more complex and embodied way than in western rationalist terms.
At first the protagonist is disposed to be afraid of these demon strangers, and to some extent this fear persists throughout. Homesick and frightened on the "demon boat" from Canton, he sees the sailors as "so tall and big and hairy [that] I thought they were tiger demons—special tigers with magical powers." Hand Clap, his accompanying adult on the journey, reinforces the fear by telling him horror stories about "demon sailors who had fattened up their Tang passengers" (10). Even after arriving in California, when Moon Shadow sees a line of Tang men dressed in "heavy blue demon trousers of denim," he wonders "which might be demons in disguise" (13).
It is difficult to describe the potential reader response to a word repeated so often, which should carry very precise and familiar connotations but which in this context does not. Because the word "demon" is conceptually associated in English with devilish and sinister powers, the naive boy's apparently unironic repetition of the word takes on the tone of social criticism. For white readers, as a result, a destabilizing self-division develops: they may automatically identify with the subject position of the focalizer and begin to see themselves as demonic, while simultaneously resisting their interpellation as monstrous. The bilingual Chinese American child-reader could become disoriented by the relentless double message of the word: a term that is "neutral" in Chinese clearly evokes an automatically negative response in its English translation.
This linguistic defamiliarization could result in an overwhelming sense either of inherited guilt or of resentment and anger for the white reader, intensified by the historically accurate, if sometimes exaggerated, descriptions of racial violence that punctuate the narrative. In the first paragraph, for example, the narrator reports that the United States is "dangerous. My own grandfather had been lynched about thirty years before by a mob of white demons almost the moment he had set foot on their shores" (1). Men return to China maimed or diseased or dead, as we have already seen. Before Moon Shadow enters the Golden Mountain, his grandmother prepares him: "they beat up any of our men who try to get the gold. The demons use clubs as big as trees, and they kick them and do worse things" (6).
Violence indeed dominates in this demon land. President McKinley's recent assassination (25), combined with the race riot that greets Moon Shadow shortly after his arrival, sets the tone of anger and inhospitality that seems to characterize America at the turn of the century. As the narrator focalizes the experience through his smaller self's eyes,
Outside I could hear jeers and shouts. For one moment I glimpsed howling, sweating, red-and-white faces, distorted into hideous masks of hatred and cruelty, a sea of demon heads that bobbed restlessly outside our store. I could not understand the words they were growling out, but their intention was plain. They wanted to burn and loot and hurt.
Even years later, focalizing as the adult narrator (as indicated by the philosophical language of generalization), he interprets: "Looking into that huge mass of faces was like looking into the ugliest depths of the human soul" (30), a judgment that would seem to express the author's view as well. The description and interpretation of the riot are also very likely to evoke, in all readers beyond the very young, a memory of the persecution of African Americans throughout United States history, particularly since Yep had earlier used the word "lynched" to describe Moon Shadow's grandfather's murder and will subsequently reinforce this perception with a graphic description of that event.
Yep's historical accuracy throughout indeed contributes to the authoritativeness of the child's point of view. He is prevented from going to the demon schools, and it is "dangerous to leave the Tang people's town" and to cross "over the invisible boundary line between our town and the rest of the demon city" (51). There is a reference to the newly-restrictive immigration laws, and Moon Shadow reinforces our sense of the demons' anti-Chinese sentiment as he describes his great-grandfather's death at the hands of "British demons" during the Opium Wars (52) and his grandfather's lynching: "before the whole thing was finished, he was swinging from a lamppost by some demon's clothesline" (53). Despite the supposedly neutral definition of "demon," therefore, the cumulative evidence reveals a hostile racial environment that derives much of its impact on readers from its intersection with the history of black slavery and oppression.14 As descriptions of African American history these would be familiar; in the Chinese American context, they are shocking and estranging.
The developing friendship with their landlady Miss Whitlaw and her niece Robin severely tests both Moon Shadow's imaginative impression of demons and the reader's; as he describes his first encounter with her, he moves from superstitious terror to curiosity to emotional security:
Under my shirt, I wore the charm to keep demons away.
… She was the first demoness that I had ever seen this close up, and I stared. I had expected her to be ten feet tall with blue skin and to have a face covered with warts and ear lobes that hung all the way down to her knees so that her ear lobes would bounce off the knees when she walked. And she might have a potbelly shiny as a mirror, and big sacs of flesh for breasts, and maybe she would only be wearing a loin cloth.
Instead I saw a petite lady, not much bigger than Hand Clap. She had a large nose—but not absurdly so—and a red face and silver hair….
"Well," she said. "Well." I looked at her eyes and saw a friendly twinkle in them that made her seem even less threatening.
He has to conclude that "There were demons, after all, who could be kindly disposed. I suddenly felt calm and unafraid as I stood before her."
Robin also challenges Moon Shadow's stereotyping of demons:
she was the first demon child I had seen this close. For all I knew, demon children were not like me, but like dolls or toys that the demons took out of boxes for a while to decorate their sidewalks and then stored away again inside their homes.
She blushes only when she is angry or embarrassed, he finds, and "her face was not always a bright red … like a lantern that had been filled with blood and was going to burst at any moment" (104-105). Her hair, too, is "the strangest color golden-red—as though her head had just burst into flame" (105). While his description, like others throughout, seems dominated by the color red and the imagery of fire, blood, and danger, the tone here is actually more curious and surprised than threatened. At the very least, it forces us to think about strawberry-blond hair as a startling anatomical detail to the stranger from a land whose inhabitants all have black hair.15
Further complicating Yep's refusal of reductive binaries is the thread of Tang-produced violence that follows Moon Shadow throughout the book in the person of Uncle's criminal son, the opium addict Black Dog. After discoursing on the "ugliness" of life in the demon land, Black Dog beats him up and steals the money he has collected from Uncle's customers (80-81). When the child and his father pursue Black Dog, a third Chinese person tries to shoot Moon Shadow (symbolically, with a demon gun), and Windrider kills the man with a sword (symbolically, a Chinese weapon). This act means that he must leave the Tang community, seeking employment away from the family laundry; thus Chinese violence results directly in alienation from one's own kind. Black Dog's opium-provoked violence pursues them to the end when he threatens to "‘take a testicle or two’" or to slit Moon Shadow's throat but is once again confronted by Windrider and allowed to escape with their rent money (218-20). We subsequently learn from the adult narrator that "much later. … He was found in an alley with his throat slit and his wallet stolen even before he could make it to an opium den" (243). While British demons may originally have been responsible for the opium traffic in China, and life may indeed be "ugly" for the Chinese in California, Black Dog demonstrates that violence is not the exclusive domain of the demons.
If the overdetermined use of "demon" signifies the dangerous and ambiguous act of cultural stereotyping and misrecognition, the repeated thematic use of "dragons" constitutes the philosophical and ethical core of Yep's defamiliarizing world view and technique. As Moon Shadow states just before recording Windrider's story received from the Dragon King, "Of course not all dragons are evil, as I later discovered the demons think they are. … In fact, most dragons are good creatures" (34). In fact, as Windrider's story/dream illustrates, dragons can inspire one to transcend the mortal world, courageously passing a "series of tests" that will determine one's desirable reincarnation as a dragon (35-47). In the dream, Father indeed flies, just as he will later construct his Dragonwings "aeroplane" and soar over the Berkeley hills. While others in the Company regard the tale as a "dream," Moon Shadow believes the story to be too beautiful not to be true (47). In a Chinese version of "magical realism," then, the dragon becomes the motif that calls into question, hence defamiliarizes and deconstructs, the western binary distinction between illusion and reality.
The vision of "dragon-ness" may of course strike the western reader as implausible, but Yep has also inserted an interpretive element within the novel to guide skeptical readers, in the character of Miss Whitlaw. The demoness shows Moon Shadow her precious stained-glass, which depicts a "green creature" that he does not recognize. She has to tell him it is a dragon, "a very wicked animal that breathes fire and goes about eating up people and destroying towns" (107-108), a description that astonishes and horrifies the child and prompts him to urge his father, "‘You should tell them the truth about dragons’" (108). As he comes to know and love Miss Whitlaw, he takes it upon himself "to set her straight" (112), so that just before the earthquake, he "set out to reeducate the demoness about dragons" (129). Eventually, Miss Whitlaw reveals her deep generosity and imagination in a speech that is clearly meant to reconcile the two perspectives:
Perhaps … Perhaps the truth of the dragon lies somewhere in between the American and the Chinese versions. He is neither all-bad nor all-good, neither all-destructive nor all-kind. He is a creature particularly in tune with Nature, and so, like Nature, he can be very, very kind or very, very terrible. If you love him, you will accept what he is. Otherwise he will destroy you.
The passage functions as a hermeneutical tool for the reader as well as the protagonist, teaching us to read the lessons of the book not as simplistic either-or solutions but as complex and continually re-negotiated methods for achieving partial understanding. After long reflection, Moon Shadow responds appropriately: "You wise woman" (133).
In fact there are many other metacommentaries throughout the book that offer the reader a variety of cultural perspectives and subject positions. When Moon Shadow encounters the Whitlaws' stereopticon, for example, he tells the reader, "it seemed as if I were suddenly in another world" (106), as indeed he is, in more ways than one. The adult narrator subsequently explains the machine's physics, in a passage that could be seen as a metaphor for the book's exploration of ethnic difference:
Later it was explained to me that each eye sees the same object from a slightly different angle, so that each eye has a slightly different picture. It's the brain that combines the two pictures together into one image and creates the stereoptical effect: the depth that the world seems to have for us.
He and his father will find that depth and beauty by the conclusion of the novel with the Whitlaws, in their building of Dragonwings, and in their reconciliation with Uncle and the Company. Even while Moon Shadow's conscious mind was perceiving the demons' perspective on most things as "upside down" (108, 111), his incipient acceptance of cultural diversity had begun to develop. Later, as they are studying the stars, they discover that each culture combines them uniquely, producing different constellations or images, and therefore different myths and explanations. Miss Whitlaw is once again allowed to articulate the book's underlying values: "We see the same thing and yet find different truths" (147).
The ultimate defamiliarizing conceptual metaphor in the story is of course the historically specific San Francisco Earthquake, "a nightmare where everything you take to be the rock-hard, solid basis for reality becomes unreal. … The whole world had become unglued" (154). Everything now has literally, physically, become estranged from itself: houses no longer have walls, streets no longer provide a solid foundation for passage, pumps no longer yield water, the ground becomes an undulating, unreliable sea (154-59). As Moon Shadow reports, "I heard one person compare it to being on the moon" (158). Since the sheer disorientation of the concrete descriptions might be frightening to the child-reader, the adult narrator mediates the account with a frame commentary. Before the earthquake he first reports his feelings as a child: "I had the feeling at times that our home, Miss Whitlaw, and Robin would all be gone the next morning." He then confirms the subsequent disaster: "I was not far from wrong" (154). Afterwards, he anticipates the worst that was to happen to the demoness: "Then she put the key back into her purse. It was the last time she would be able to do that. Her home would be burned down that night" (173).16
The earthquake's starkness also serves as a leveling element: all races and classes lose almost everything they possess in the quake and fire. As it has from the beginning, Nature functions as a signifier of both multiple truths and a common humanity. Later, when the boy and his father finally move across the Bay to pursue their dream of flying, the hills themselves become a metaphor for spiritual transcendence, with their "godlike perspective" (223) and the eerie sense of isolation that the hills and fog combine to produce. In that environment it is not surprising that Moon Shadow describes his father's flight in this way: "the sun, gleaming through the painted canvas, made the wings seem like living flesh. It was as if he were no longer a man, but truly a dragon again" (238).
Ultimately, then, the novel's defamiliarizations produce new perceptions and perspectives, as Moon Shadow accepts his father's dream of flying, Miss Whitlaw's gingerbread cookies, Uncle's gruff love, and even Black Dog's violence and the demons' language—as the focalizing child and the incipient adult writer begin to merge into one subjectivity. So the book itself stands, metonymically, as a potentially solid architectural edifice, like the Company store and Miss Whitlaw's Victorian house, both of which withstand the earthquake. But also like the two buildings, which are consumed in the fire, this construction could succumb to dragons, or to demons, or, as the Bible, the spiritual, and James Baldwin put it, "the fire next time." Yep suggests that survival depends both on individual courage and on the willingness to recognize and accept shocking cultural differences that separate people, even the persons we once were from those we have become.
A narratological reading method has allowed us to track Yep's strategy: from the radically destabilizing child's focalization and linguistic defamiliarization, through the gradual reconciliation of perspective in the imbedded imagery and adult dialogue, to an eventual understanding across cultural difference. Yet the conclusion is fragile, for the reader as well as the protagonist, who at the end describes himself as "lucky" but foreshadows "plenty of problems still ahead of me" (245). The differences cannot, indeed should not, vanish or be denied; not assimilation but coalition-across-differences is the goal of reading as well as living. One man's or child's life "story" may be another's "dream," but the only alternatives to acceptance of otherness, even in oneself, are permanent alienation and loss of subjectivity. This conclusion has been achieved gradually and systematically. Hence, it strikes the reader as "earned"—compelling, complex, and honest—if necessarily provisional and susceptible to being challenged over and over again, by other memories, dreams, narratives that conflict irreducibly with the reader's own. For Yep and his readers, both subjectivity and transcultural interaction are edifices continually under construction.
1. I am very grateful to my anonymous MELUS reader for valuable suggestions for revision.
2. A book for adult readers, Morrison's The Bluest Eye, incorporates a version of the same technique into the Claudia sections of the narrative, which only rarely comment retrospectively from the point of view of the wiser adult-Claudia. Thus the reader receives the child-Claudia's largely unmediated perceptions of Shirley Temple, baby dolls, Maureen Peale, the Breedloves (and especially Pecola), the three whores, and the vicissitudes of internalized racism—all from within her naive child perspective. The result is a renewed sense of the culture's racial oppression, as materialized in the consciousness of the wise child.
3. While some have argued that Fox's version of slave history is itself racist, in both its descriptions and its focus on the white protagonist, the book remains one of the earliest and bravest versions of this brutal part of our collective history, its ironies eminently decipherable in context. It was also written at a time, the 1970s, when the publishing world was reluctant to accept a book whose experience did not exactly match the racial or ethnic identity of its author; since Fox herself is white, she might well have determined to write about what she would be presumed to understand, i.e., the white (albeit male) experience of the institution of slavery.
In contrast, a potentially xenophobic fictional autobiography like Fitzgerald's The Great Brain risks a misreading of its ironies, which attempt to "save" its first-person voice (and ideology) through the occasional disclaimer. Fitzgerald's inconsistent mediation of his culture's late nineteenth-century ethnocentrism reveals itself in humor and adult ironic reservation, but the tone and intention are difficult for anyone to read and assess.
4. My anonymous MELUS reader pointed out that almost every autobiographical work in ethnic literature capitalizes on such defamiliarization within the child's focalized perception to present the new world with a fresh yet penetrating gaze, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Frank Chin, from Anzia Yezierska to Sandra Cisneros.
5. In an "Introduction to Children's Literature" class (Spring 2000 at Georgetown University), I taught Yep's Dragonwings using the techniques of focalization and defamiliarization, as well as Stephens's text. The students (43 undergraduates, 35 of them seniors and mostly English majors) were the first to make clear to me that Stephens's definition of focalization might be too narrow to apply to Yep since in fictional autobiography one must contend more specifically with the distinction between the adult-narrator and the character-focalizer (even though they are the same person) because of the age, perceptual, and linguistic discrepancy between them.
6. For an example of such an identity of narrator and focalizer, see Naylor's Shiloh, a first-person, present-tense account.
7. Since Stephens does not apply focalization to first-person texts, it would be difficult for his theory to include the kind of "double" perspective that both Genette and Bal are articulating. Note that Genette does not like Bal's terms "focalizer" and "focalized," which he sees as incompatible with his "conception of the matter" (73).
8. As Eagleton points out, the Formalists were chiefly concerned with the distinction or "differential relations" between literary and ordinary speech—the former "deformed," the latter "automatized" (2-6). Eagleton, predictably, deconstructs this opposition, claiming that "there is no kind of writing which cannot, given sufficient ingenuity, be read as estranging" (6). While it is difficult to disagree, the kind of precise and jolting language that I am tracing in Yep's focalizer's perceptions can meaningfully be distinguished from that belonging to the (default) hegemonic "culture text."
9. All parenthetical page references to Yep's work are to Dragonwings unless otherwise indicated.
10. In this regard, Bal gives the example of postcolonial stories, stressing that "Memory is also the joint between time and space" that counters the colonizer's "acts of focalization" (147).
11. Johnson-Feelings provides a very interesting general discussion of this linguistic reversal and complication: "it both startles and intrigues many of Yep's readers when they first realize that in his books with Chinese characters (distinct from Chinese Americans), the text in italics represents English; Chinese is the norm, and English is the ‘foreign’ language. At the very least, this forces young readers to reconsider some of the assumptions about society and about the world that they might take for granted. More specifically, they are forced to realize that their experiences are not always shared experiences or the reference point for a nonexistent universal experience. In short, they must confront their ethnocentrism" (44).
12. Johnson-Feelings makes this point somewhat differently, stressing not estrangement for the white reader, but Moon Shadow's own stereotyping and Yep's sense of "balance" (41). Her own "take" on defamiliarization is a more socio-philosophical one: that Yep is "reclaiming the voice of the Stranger" (48).
13. Kingston translates the Chinese word not as "demon" but as "ghost" in her The Woman Warrior, but the estranging effect is not the same because she does not use it automatically and repeatedly as the preferred term for whites or Americans.
14. This intersection of anti-Chinese with anti-African American oppression is strongly reinforced by a reading of Yep's Dragon's Gate, which overtly constructs the analogy to slavery in its depiction of the slave-like conditions for Chinese immigrants during the building of the railroad, including floggings, inhumane work and living conditions, and the white overseer's refusal to allow the workers to break their contracts.
15. In Dragon's Gate, Otter seems particularly startled by green or blue eyes. It is clear that Yep believes people are jolted by the unfamiliar yet need to acknowledge their surprise and move on.
16. In a similar passage of prolepsis, he later reassures the reader that his father would survive the crash of Dragonwings, again stepping out- side the focalizing frame of the young boy's perceptions: "Father told me later that he had hoped to glide to a landing" (239). My students complained that they wanted to move with the suspense of the youthful focalizer's perceptions, rather than being condescended to with this comment. The child reader, however, may need this preparation.
Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory since Plato. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd. ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd. ed. U of Minnesota P, 1996.
Eichenbaum, Boris. The Theory of the "Formal Method." Adams 801-16.
Fitzgerald, John D. The Great Brain. New York: Yearling, 1967.
Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer. 1973. New York: Laurel Leaf, 1975.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Foreword by Jonathan Culler. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Johnson-Feelings, Dianne, ed. Presenting Laurence Yep. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. 1976. New York: Vintage, 1977.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Plume, 1994.
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Shiloh. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." Adams 751-59.
Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London and New York: Longman, 1992.
Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 1976. New York: Puffin, 1991.
Yep, Laurence. Dragon's Gate. 1993. New York: Harper Trophy, 1995.
———. Dragonwings. New York: Harper Trophy, 1975.
———. "Writing Dragonwings." Rpt. Johnson-Feelings 101-08.
CHILD OF THE OWL (1977)
Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen (essay date December 2003)
SOURCE: Mo, Weimin, and Wenju Shen. "From Author to Protagonist: Stories of Self-Identity Development." Children's Literature in Education 34, no. 4 (December 2003): 287-304.
[In the following essay, Mo and Shen contrast the thematic elements of self-development and acculturation in the biographically-inspired children's texts Homesick, by Jean Fritz and Child of the Owl, by Yep.]
Authors always follow their feelings in selecting subjects to write about. The feelings are closely related to their personal experiences. They are the source of inspiration. Jean Fritz once explained how she is guided by her feelings in deciding what she should write: "I don't pick subjects; they pick me. I hear their voices and I suddenly have an intense desire to record them" (1989, p. 337). When he comments his own work Child of the Owl, Laurence Yep also claims: "You should always write about what you know: the things you have seen and the things you have thought and, above all, the things you have felt" (1977, p. 216). However, what we feel may not always be directly associated with what we are consciously aware of. When authors successfully resolve their emotional puzzles and genuinely find truth about how and why they feel the way they do in the inner struggle of their lives, usually the stories they write are their best. Homesick (1982) and Child of the Owl (1977) are among the best works of Jean Fritz and Laurence Yep, respectively.
Homesick is a story in which Jean Fritz tells about her difficult childhood experiences in China. Being born in China and submerged in Chinese culture for the first 12 years of her life, Fritz feels a deep love for the people and the land. However, she also feels hostility from the people in the land of her birth because of the political turmoil and cultural conflict. These experiences leave some sleeper effects on her identity development. Yep's Child of the Owl is, on the contrary, about a Chinese American girl who is brought up in the mainstream American culture but finds herself face to face with an unfriendly environment in Chinatown. The protagonist's experiences, to a large extent, reflect Laurence Yep's feelings about his childhood in San Francisco's Chinatown. Fritz and Yep both try to search in their stories for an answer to the inner struggle they suffered in childhood.
New Historicism and the Authors
By inner struggle we mean the mismatching between feelings and conscious memories of their experiences. Both Fritz and Yep feel strongly about some of their childhood experiences. When they pursue truth about their feelings, they are both puzzled by the mismatching. Alberghene says, "[M]emory often lies, even if facts about one's life are what one's after." (1989, p. 362) What people think consciously "is not simply a function of what they have seen or felt in their lives." (Gitlin, qtd. in Evans, 1998, p. 98) It is small wonder that when the memories of her childhood are unsealed, Fritz feels that "they were filled with surprises that had never quite surfaced before" ("The Teller and the Tale" p. 41).
It is no coincidence that Laurence Yep's Child of the Owl and Jean Fritz's Homesick were first published around the late 1970s and early 1980s respectively. Obviously the New Historicism Movement in the 1970s, with its reconceptualisation of history and its relationship to literature, offers a new perspective from which to interpret the impact of such factors as history, identity, culture, etc on individuals' feelings and emotions. The broadened horizon provides the authors with new tools to decipher the enigma they feel about their troubled childhood experiences. Recent research has proven that our consciousness "is never the product of truth or reality, but rather of culture, society and history." (Fiske, qtd. in Watkins, 1992, p. 175) In other words, our memory is affected by our social identity. The problem is, as Evans points out, "identity is not sufficiently stable or singular to offer a firm basis from which to derive a philosophy, or a course of action" and "within a person's life, identities overlap, compete, and change." (1998, p. 98) That may explain why acculturation is, sometimes, such an enigmatic experience. Evans further elaborates on the process of "identification" by distinguishing between "identifying as", an act in which one recognizes a person or self as a member of a category, and "identifying with", a mode of relating oneself to other people or cultures that spans the gamut from empathy to commitment and internalization (p. 103) That also explains why humans' inner struggle of self-identification is such an elusive and complicated psychoanalytic puzzle. It is now clear that 'culture can be a force for alliances across identity boundaries rather than imprisoning us within them." (Evans, p. 101)
When people are sandwiched between two drastically different cultures, their self-identification is at the mercy of many fortuitous factors of acculturation. On the one hand, their preference for cultural orientation or "identifying as" is strongly influenced by their parents and the environment of the home (Padilla, 1980, pp. 48-49). "As nurturer, the family preserves and propagate cultural pride and values" (Khorana, 1988, p. 52). On the other hand, people's acculturation and self-identification are also determined by such factors as where they were born, how well they speak the language of the culture they live in, and how familiar they are with the heritage of the other culture: history, food, customs, religion, artifacts, and so forth. Sometimes it is difficult for individuals of a minority group to reinvest themselves in the culture of the country they live in because of the overwhelming stereotypes of group identity. The estrangement inducted by the stereotypes could be traumatic to the victims (Wu, 2002). For all the above reasons, people's self-identification could be prolonged or even delayed because of their acculturative stress (Berry, 1980).
Similarities and Differences
Fritz wants her book Homesick to be called fiction instead of autobiography only because she is more focused on its story and allows herself the freedom to let "the events fall as they would into the shape of a story" and to use conversation that she usually will not do in biographic writing without the support of documentation (Foreword). Apart from the sequence of facts and conversation, Homesick could still be considered her autobiography. Fritz evidently explores the feelings about her childhood in memory with new eyes. As Alberghene quotes Estelle Jelinek, "autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving constant in the process of self-creation" (1989, p. 363). New Historicism has shifted focus from the product of "identity" to the process of "identification," which includes "both the way people are discursively interpellated into certain positions, and the process by which people are brought to invest in or contest their assigned positions" (Evans, 1998, p. 102). The perception sheds new light on understanding of Fritz's identity dilemma and helps her make sense of the feelings about her childhood experiences. The new theory of multiple identities also clearly explains why Fritz's homesickness goes two ways, which is reflected in Homesick and its sequel, China Homecoming. Fritz tells in the latter how she goes back to China in more than a half century and feels fulfilled because the people in her birthplace finally accept her.
Unlike Fritz's Homesick, Yep's Child of the Owl is indeed fiction. Nevertheless, he also intends to solve his own emotional puzzle about childhood experiences in the story. He remembers vividly how he felt as a child to be rejected in Chinatown by his fellow Chinese. These experiences impact him to make sense of being a Chinese in American society and his personal relationship with his own original cultural background. He tries to relive these experiences in the fictious protagonist of the book, Casey, so as to explain as much to himself as to readers the implications of the experiences. The reason that Yep calls Chinatown "a state of heart" and finds it difficult to enter is also due the complicated nature of self-identification. According to Evans, people "only get to know themselves as groups … through cultural activity" (p. 101). New Historicism compares culture to webs of significance, which people have spun to suspend themselves in (Greetz, qtd. in Watkins, 1999, p. 36). To Casey, Chinatown is, at least at the beginning of the story, a web that has no significance to her. Therefore, it is natural that she is rejected like a different species of insect being stuck and hurt in the webs.
It is interesting to note that while Jean Fritz tries in a disguised form to work out her past and present personal relationships, Laurence Yep is also disguising himself in the owl mask to enter his own heart (p. 217). Feelings are difficult to suppress; they always struggle to express themselves. Yep strongly feels the need to make sense of his childhood experiences in San Francisco's Chinatown. Yep also tries to work out his past and present personal relationships by creating the story. Culture itself is made of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves because they are theories with which we think forward and understand backward (Watkins, 1999, pp. 36-37). The female gender of the protagonist also helps to further distance himself from his own feelings so that he can explore them with the objectivity of an on-looker.
Jean Fritz's Homesick and Laurence Yep's Child of the Owl share a lot in common. Their protagonists are both female American adolescents. They were both born and live in a culture that is different from their original one. Their visible physical features are a constant reminder that they are different from most people in their surrounding world. They are sandwiched between the same cultures: American and Chinese. They are sensitively responding to the impact of the sociocultural clashes on their personal lives. In a way, the two authors both try in their books to answer the question: What am I and what am I not, living in the swirl of different cultures? The childhood of Fritz happened to be in the most turbulent period of modern Chinese history. Her search reflects the complexity of acculturative process and self-identification. She was not quite sure of her self-identity till half a century after she left China. Similarly, as a child, Yep also experienced alienation in Chinatown. Child of the Owl is a book in which Yep attempts to enter deep into his own heart and find answers to questions about his identity. They both intend, by writing their books, to set at rest their personal struggle for reassurance of the displaced childhood.
In spite of the similarities, however, Jean in Homesick is a Caucasian by race and American by nationality/culture but happens to be born in China, while Casey in Child of the Owl is ethnically Chinese but happens to be born in America and lives, for most of her life, in the mainstream American culture. Even though they both suffer acculturative stress in their respective situations, the cultural contexts and conflicts in which they are involved are very different, and they have totally different experiences of self-identification. Jean speaks both Chinese and English fluently, Casey does not speak Chinese at all. Jean knows quite a bit about Chinese history and artifacts, but Casey knows very little. Superficially, they both go back and take shelter in their original cultures. To Jean it is a desperate obsession, but to Casey it is a contingency without choice. Jean starts to feel the urge to be accepted by the culture in which she was born after she goes back to America. Her self-identification is a pretty rough ordeal. On the contrary, Casey leaves her assimilated mainstream American cultural environment and goes into the cultural enclave of Chinatown, which is strange and, sometimes, even unfriendly to her. As a matter of fact, Casey does a reverse acculturation in Chinatown and starts to make connections with her original culture. With the support of her relatives and friends, her self-identification is comparatively quite smooth. Why are their paths of self-identification so different? How are their lives impacted by their unique process of acculturation? These are the questions we discuss in this article.
Jean's Chinese Cultural Awareness
Homesick begins with Jean's self-identity problem. On the one hand, she reiterates in a childish way her cultural and national loyalty: "I was on the wrong side of the globe … I belonged on the other side of the world. In America with my grandmother" (p. 9). On the other hand, Jean shows her uncertainty about her identity: "I didn't feel like a real American…. It was as if I wouldn't be American enough" (p. 10). Jean feels that way because she was born in China instead of in America and has never set foot on American soil. Superficially, her mindset to leave China is not at all affected by her 12 years of life there. The fact is that China in mid-1920s represented the most insecure and uncomfortable living environment in which nobody wants to live if they have a choice. It is a poor, dirty, ugly, hostile, and chaotic society riddled with corruption and wars. To Westerners, it is extremely dangerous. There are signs of unrest everywhere. Westerners become targets for venting anger. As a helpless child who is stranded in such an environment, Jean's cultural assertion obviously results from the devastating impact of sociocultural clashes of the time. All her Chinese acculturative experiences and cultural feelings are, for the time being, overwhelmed by this traumatic situation and buried deep in her inner layers of consciousness, thus blocking the normal development of her self-identity and causing her painful search for the displaced childhood later in her life (Bhugra et al., 1999, p. 244)
Unlike Casey, Jean has extraordinarily plentiful contact with native Chinese and Chinese culture. Behind the high walls of her parents' house in the French concession, there are more Chinese than Americans. They are Chinese servants, cooks, and nurses. Her busy parents leave her in the care of Lin Nai-Nai, her Chinese amah, all the time. Traditionally, Chinese amahs or nurses often acculturate foreign children by bringing "Chinese rhymes, stories, and games into the foreigner's home for the amusement of its little ones" (Headland, 1901, Preface). An amah with Lin Nai-Nai's background would doubtlessly do the same with Jean. Jean is in fact pretty well versed in Chinese heritage. Lin Nai-Nai teaches her many Chinese things, including Chinese embroidery. Jean can speak Chinese so well that she even knows a whole bunch of Chinese swear words (p. 84). Jean cannot only speak Chinese, but also write Chinese (p. 24). Even though social psychologists are still arguing whether language influences and shapes our world view, "it is undeniable that language plays an important role in the formation of our personal and social identities" (Ghuman, 1994, p. 76). Her mastery of the Chinese language broadens her cultural horizon and sharpens her sensitivity to the sufferings of the Chinese and the social injustice of the colonial society. She feels sorry that she can't take Lin Nai-Nai to the Bund because the British have some discriminatory rules for Chinese (p. 21). Evidently, neither she nor her parents realize how intensely she is acculturated. When her father talks about the revolution, Jean tells herself, "All I hoped was that however this revolution [the Northern Expedition] turned out, Lin Nai-Nai would get her wishes, And I hoped that all the people who had drawn rotten lives would be given a chance of luck" (p. 55). In a nutshell, unconsciously, Jean's intense contact with Chinese and Chinese culture creates a profound foundation for her identifying with Chinese culture. Besides, Lin Nai-Nai proves to be such a reliable listener that Jean feels they are "good friends." Out of sympathy, she even keeps Lin's background secret from other servants: she appreciates Lin Nai-Nai's running away from her husband when he took a second wife (p. 17). With Lin Nai-Nai she feels strongly a kind of togetherness.
The Complexity of Jean's Acculturation
China is basically a monocultural society and was especially so when Fritz lived there nearly a century ago. However, at that time, Westerners, even though a minority, were the dominant cultural group with a clear set of attitudes and values they wanted Chinese to follow. According to modern social psychological theories, both the dominant and nondominant groups in China at that time assumed the worst form of cultural adaptation, that is, cultural separation (Berry and Uichol, 1988, p. 212). In China, that meant self-imposed segregation. Neither side sought for positive relations with the other.
Jean's family and other Caucasians live in the foreign concessions and their houses are like "castles" surrounded by "high stone walls with chips of broken glass sticking up from the top of it" (p. 13). Most Chinese live in shacks called "Mud Flats" (p. 22). Jean is sent to a British school without a single Chinese. Everything is taught in English. They vacation in resorts forbidden to ordinary Chinese. Jean's mother teaches American manners to Chinese—a typical attitude of the dominant group about acculturation—"Change them, not us" (Berry and Uichol, p. 210). No wonder Jean believes that "[i]f my mother and father were really and truly in Rome, they wouldn't do what the Romans did at all. They'd probably try to get the Romans to do what Americans did" (p. 10). In such circumstances, the acculturative process for Jean is fated to be a bumpy one, because the apparent domination of one group over the other suggests that what happens between contact and change is likely to be difficult, reactive, and conflictual rather than a smooth transition (Berry, 1980, p. 10). Jean's parents and other Westerners in Jean's world have what psychologists call "sojourners" attitude about acculturation. That means they marginalize their acculturation in the larger society. As Guanipa-Ho points out, "parents who have difficulties with the process of acculturation … may facilitate adolescents' conflict" (etext). Therefore, Jean's cultural assertion at the beginning of the book is, at least in part, an effect of her parents' influence instead of a clear-headed preference from her natural acculturation.
Jean's Social Isolation
According to psychological research, adolescence is generally viewed as a time of restructuring interpersonal relations, and friendship comes to be conceptualized as a relation of mutual acceptance, thus allowing for the emergence of a view of self as spontaneous or free (Smollar and Youniss, 1984, pp. 249-262). Jean desperately needs friendship with those of her own age and ethnicity. By the age of 10, very few children are unaware of the principal attributes of social divisions in societies, and most of them are able to verbalize the ones on which their judgments are based (Ghuman, p. 31). Jean's situation is extraordinarily devastating. She does not have any friends in the British school where there are just a small number of Caucasian children from different European countries and they are actually quite different ethnically and/or culturally. Moreover, being history-conscious, Jean finds very repulsive Miss Williams' indifferent attitude about her patriotic feelings and Ian Forbes' cruel bullying. That explains why she treasures Andrea Hull's friendship so much that she almost looks up to her for everything. Modern psychologists tell us that adolescents between two cultures need support from peers to successfully develop a lifestyle (Ghuman, p. 31). Most children stuck in a different culture are prone to loneliness because of changing friendships as people move in and out of their lives (Gillies, 1998, p. 37). It was especially true in Jean's case. When her only friend, Andrea, leaves Hankow, Jean feels as if she has "the wind knocked out of her" (p. 56). For good or bad, Andrea is the only source of meaningful communication in her life. It seems her parents are not consciously aware of her needs. Jean is mad at the negligence of the adult world. She cries out, "It made me furious. How could she [her mother] know such things [where babies came from] and not tell me? What was the matter with grown-ups anyway?" (p. 14). Her fury is, in fact, a desperate cry for help, attention, and caring. Her sister's birth brought a new hope for her: "[J]ust think, I told myself, I would never be alone again. There'd always be another child in the family … I had a sister, oh, I had a sister" (p. 70).
Unfortunately, the exceptionally hopeful dream results in extremely devastating disappointment. Jean suffers one more emotional blow when her sister, Miriam, dies: "I felt numb. Wooden. Oh, I should have known, I told myself. It was too good to be true. I should have known" (p. 74). Fritz truthfully depicts some dangerous psychological symptoms of a child prematurely being confronted with the disastrous emotional crisis:
Good! … That's all anyone could think about. Good! I haven't even thought about being good. I haven't tried to be good. I don't care about being good. I have just been me. Doesn't anybody look at me? … You [her father] don't understand … You and Mother will never understand. I was waiting for Miriam to grow. I knew she'd understand. She was the only one. I was counting on her. I needed her.
Jean finally shouts out her protest at the adult world. The highly charged tension of the sociocultural conflict and her social isolation finally caused her nervous breakdown.
Perceived Intercultural Distance
Apart from the cultural conflicts, the line of demarcation between the two cultures also divide the society into the powerful and the powerless and the haves and the have-nots. Young as she is, Jean feels sorry to watch the coolies bend "double under their loads, sweating and chanting in a tired singsong way that seems to get them from one step to the next" or the ricksha coolies go out without meals for very few coppers (pp. 21, 33). In the drastically split society, her cultural background, race, nationality, social status, and physical features all predetermine her to be part of the powerful dominant group, and she has to learn, like every other Westerner in China, to close her eyes to the tragic sufferings of the ordinary Chinese and to be concerned about being mobbed, mugged, or murdered. To ordinary Chinese, she is, like other Westerners, a "foreign devil." It is not surprising that Jean even gets the nightmarish worry that the Chinese chef is going to poison her and her family. The complicated situation causes great emotional pressure and psychological confusion to Jean. According to Berry and Uichol (1988), this type of cultural conflicts tends to suspend Jean in a highly stressful crisis (p. 213).
Fritz's personal childhood experiences and two-way homesickness typically indicate the bumpy path of her self-identity development. When she is in China, her obsession with being "a real American" is a psychological attempt to withdraw from the sociocultural clashes. The dichotomous role her parents play nurtures her American cultural values and, at the same time, works as an adversary in her identifica- tion with the Chinese culture. When she was back in America, the hibernated feelings about her connection with Chinese culture become fermentative. She feels the urge to identify with Chinese culture. Fritz becomes very sensitive about her identity. She feels there is not a place she could call her hometown. She has doubts as to whether she has the right to call Hankow her hometown if people there considered her as an outsider (China Homecoming, p. 19). Fritz pays dearly for her stressful acculturative experiences in the early years of her life. Fifty years later, she is still struggling with those feelings. She realizes how much she loves China, and her homesick begins to go the other way round (China Homecoming, p. 21). Fritz's painful emotional experiences illuminate the importance of positive acculturation in one's self-identification: "I needed to accumulate a long American past for my displaced childhood…. What I didn't realize until much later was that I was also trying, in a disguised form, to work out past and present personal relationships" ("The Teller and the Tale," pp. 24-25). Her search for her displaced childhood is actually, in modern psychological terms, an attempt to recover the repressed qualities of her self, to accept the real self, and to recognize the conflicting neurotic desires in order to compensate for the concept of an inferior self (Leaby, 1985, p. 300). When she says unemotionally in China Homecoming, "There are two kinds of grown-ups: some simply remember and some know that a person doesn't have to be a grown-up or a child" (p. 29), it is not difficult to imagine what a heavy emotional cross she has been carrying all those years as she stays as a child in her internal world. In fact, what Fritz suffers from is an example of "self-blocking," which is typical of adolescents when they are "unable to extend themselves into a mature engagement with and inclusion of others (races, cultures, ideologies, groups)" (Guanipa-Ho, etext).
Making a personal identification involves many attitudes and emotions: it concerns the people with whom a person feels he or she belongs. And it concerns the place in which he or she feels at home. It relates to differences that the person may feel exist between him/herself and members of the other relevant group.
(Stopes-Roe, 1990, p. 156)
In light of Roe's theory, it is clear why a half century later Fritz still feels the need to go back to Hankow to be accepted by the people there because "the self is constructed from the point of view of others" (Leaby, p. 302). Similar to Jean, an adolescent who was born and brought up in a different culture and who was involved in Roe's study expresses well about the issue of self-identity: "I belong here, yet I don't belong here. I can't say if I belong, it's up to the people here. I am happy in being here but perhaps not in myself" (Stopes-Roe, p. 156). His words explain why the draw is so strong to Fritz of the land in which she was born.
Casey's Cultural Loyalty
By sociological standards, Casey in Child of the Owl is an all-American girl. She has already completed the highest level of acculturative adaptation, that is, "cultural and behavioral assimilation" (Berry and Uichol, 1988, p. 212). Being American has been internalized into her self-concept. In every acculturative domain, she maintains her American cultural loyalty. In complete contrast to Jean, what Casey has in common with people in Chinatown is just her skin color. She knows nothing about Chinese cultural heritage. She does not speak Chinese at all and feels the language sounds strange and musical to her (p. 54). She does not eat with chopsticks (p. 81). She prefers American food and often feels "the craving for a hamburger" (p. 108). She enjoys American music: the Beatles and Elvis Presley (p. 112). She feels upset for being treated rudely as an outsider in Chinatown (p. 139). She is a third-generation Chinese American. Even though the book does not mention whether her father, Barney, is born in America, based on many details such as his fluent use of the English language, his educational experience, his WWII veteran status, his marginal knowledge about Chinese culture, and so on, it is reasonable to assume that Barney is American-born. Casey and Barney are like two city Gypsies moving from place to place in the car that they call "mobile junk heaps" till they are forced to settle down in Stockton, California, because their vehicle cannot be fixed any more. Stockton is a small city that has been, since the years of Gold Rush, too diverse for Casey to notice what she is and what she is not—racially or culturally. Ironically, the issue of race has never occurred to her till she comes to Chinatown in San Francisco. It is revealing to read the description of how she feels about her race or ethnicity:
Funny, but I felt embarrassed. Up until then I had never thought about skin colors because in the different places where Barney and I had lived, there were just poor people in all different colors … I noticed that my hand on the window handle was colored a honey kind of tan like some of the people outside. I took my hand off the handle and stared at it … Barney and me had never talked much about stuff like this. I knew more about race horses than I knew about myself—I mean myself as a Chinese. I looked at my hands again, thinking they couldn't be my hands, and then I closed my eyes and felt their outline, noticing the tiny fold of flesh at the corners. Maybe it was because I thought of myself as an American and all Americans were supposed to be white like on TV or in movies, but now I felt like some mad scientists had switched bodies on me like in all those monster movies, so that I had woken up in the wrong one…. Suddenly I felt like I was lost. Like I was going on this trip to this place I had always heard about…. It gave me the creeps so I kept real quiet.
Casey becomes totally disoriented when suddenly she switches from her footloose, seat-of-the-pants lifestyle to the unfamiliar and, sometimes, unfriendly existence in San Francisco's Chinatown. The vivid description convinces us that Casey's confusion is natural and logical when her American cultural orientation is challenged for the first time.
Like Jean, Casey feels threatened in the strange environment. Psychologically, she can not identify herself with the surrounding Chinese culture:
It was like the Chinese were a bunch of people stuck inside a little forest grove and every day a bunch of American owls came over and dumped on them. And then one day an owl wandered into the middle of the grove and the people got a chance to get even for everything the owls ever did to them by dumping on that one owl.
Clearly at that moment, Casey is considering herself as one of the "American owls" that happens to wander into the middle of the Chinese and feels herself be revenged on for the cultural prejudice the Chinese suffered in the larger society. Like Jean in China, Casey feels uncomfortable in Chinatown and is horrified by what she see there:
[O]ne old woman sat by herself on a bench shouting out to no one in particular. Paw-Paw told me she was crazy. But all of them would at some time sit and stare emptily at the traffic passing by on the street below as if they were lost inside their own memories, trying to understand how they found themselves old and alone, sitting on the bench—with the look of people who had been left behind on some grassy shore when the ship had sailed. Only it was more than an ocean they had to cross, it was time and space itself.
Apparently, what Casey witnesses in Chinatown represents the casualty of cultural conflict. Chinatown, like foreign concessions in China, is an undesirable mode of cultural adaptation. It is a kind of cultural withdrawal, another kind of self-imposed segregation (Berry and Uichol, 1988, p. 220). The only difference is that the people in Chinatown are not the dominant acculturating group like the Westerners in China of the 1920s. They are just stuck in the cultural island because of the language and cultural barriers. To most of them, the world outside Chinatown is not a pleasant cultural contact.
From the Melting Pot to the Pressure Cooker
Like Jean being called "Foreign Devil," Casey is being called "Rag Bag" in the school of Chinatown (p. 39). Since language familiarity and usage is the first and foremost predictor of cultural identity (Padilla, 1980, p. 49), Casey's inability to speak Chinese and lack of knowledge about Chinese heritage places her in a disadvantaged position in the unicultural pressure cooker of Chinatown. Her Chinese physical features do not help her at all. On the contrary, she experiences the similar stereotypes and discrimination as many newly immigrated children suffer. Casey is placed in "the dummies' class" because she does not know any Chinese (p. 40). The teacher snatched the book out of her hand and hit her with it yelling repulsively, "You 'Merican-born. Lazy. Lazy. Lazy" (p. 41). Casey's response shows clearly whom she "identifies as" and what culture she "identifies with": "I was an American and I couldn't see any good reason to learn a foreign language. And then, too, it hurts my pride when you think you're smart and you have to do things that make you feel dumb" (p. 43). Casey cannot accept the assumption that she is not American just because she has similar physical features as those people in Chinatown. She wishes that her different features are something imposed on her: "I felt like someone had made a mask out of the features of their face and glued it over my real one so everyone would think I was as stupid and mean as those girls outside … those Chinese girls" (p. 40). Like Jean, Casey strongly maintains her cultural pride and identity in face of the unfriendliness. She looks forward to Barney's coming so that she can get out of Chinatown.
Casey's attitude about Chinatown and Chinese culture does not begin to change till she tries to understand why and how Paw-Paw, her grandma, adapts to Chinatown life. She begins to trace curiously back her mother, Jeanie's, life in Chinatown. She tries to look and understand Chinatown through their eyes. Casey notices that Paw-Paw seems very comfortable within the small world of Chinatown in spite of the hardships and that with the mainstream American culture outside the invisible walls she lives in a kind of truce (pp. 37, 85). She begins to know that Jeanie feels lonely, too, in Chinatown but is surprised to find out that Jeanie's loneliness did not happen till Barney started gambling (p. 93). On her reflections, Casey achieves some new understanding about Chinatown:
I realized that it all depended on how I looked around myself—if there were invisible walls around Chinatown for Paw-Paw, they were like the walls of a turtle, walls behind which you could remain warm and alive, and for someone like me, those walls didn't have to be any more of a trap than I let them. They could be like something to give me shape and form and when I couldn't grow anymore inside them, I could break out of those invisible walls.
Obviously, that represents Yep's current perception of Chinatown. To Casey, the change results in two things. One is the increased interest in her Chinese cultural origin; the other is her reflection on Barney's gambling. Compared with Jean in Homesick, Casey's family bond and other supportive relationships, such as Mr. Jeh and Booger, help make her reacculturation much less intolerable.
Discoveries and Reflection
Casey starts to empathize with people in Chinatown and the pains and frustration they suffer. She discovers that like Paw-Paw, most people do not speak enough English to live away from Chinatown. For the same reason, they have to pay high rents for tiny apartments and they can not get good-paying jobs, either. Many of them wind up washing dishes or doing other dirty jobs in Chinatown (p. 136). Yep realistically depicts the causation of Barney's gambling. Undoubtedly, racial discrimination contributes to Barney's degeneration. Through Mr. Jeh's and Sheridan's mouths, Casey learns that Barney got good grades in high school but only landed in jobs like being a houseboy. Recent research findings also provide evidence that discrimination has a strong deleterious effect on American-born Chinese "because they are subjectively more aligned with American society … membership in American society is a birth right, and a part of their self-identification" (Ying, Lee, and Tsai, 2000, pp. 430-431).
However, Yep does not simplistically blame Barney's gambling on social prejudice but suggests the complexity of his personal tragedy. As each individual's life follows its own pattern, the inexorability of life's truth resides in the seeming fortuitousness of individuals' kaleidoscopic experiences. Barney's characterization is developed in contrast with the success of the hotshot lawyer Uncle Phil the Pill. Barney did not further his education probably because he was right "in the middle of Depression" (p. 107). When he gets tired of being a houseboy, he feels that "he'd paid his due and somebody owed him something" (p. 108). He dreams of hitting it big either by gambling or by doing real estate business with his drinking buddies (p. 3). It finally dawns on Casey what kind of a hopeless lie Barney's dream is to himself. Here, from a variety of people's perspectives, Yep reveals the reality of the interaction of cultural prejudice and other seemingly unrelated societal influences that logically lead to an individual's tragedy.
As she traces back her mother's life in Chinatown, Casey is more and more attracted by and involved in Chinese cultural activities. While Fritz, the autobiographer, had to struggle internally painfully over a half century to puzzle out a great deal of emotional experiences of her childhood in order to achieve the comprehensibility of her self-identity, Casey, with the help of her daily contact with Paw-Paw, quickly eases herself into familiarization of Chinese culture. She starts to watch Chinese movies and understand that Jeanie liked them because Chinese are actually people who could be brave and sad, unlike the images on TV shows or in Hollywood movies that are either funny laundrymen or silly houseboys (pp. 86-87). She begins to understand the feelings of the people there and is satisfied to find the implications of Chinatown: "I saw a Chinatown I'd never seen before. It was the Chinatown Jeanie must have seen" (p. 87). She also starts to be interested in Chinese religion when Paw-Paw explains to her about Guanyin the Listener who is a Chinese version of Buddhist Avalokitesvara (p. 90). She begins to love Chinese food and to use chopsticks (p. 141). Generally speaking, Casey goes through a positive reverse acculturation. She does, sometimes, feel frustrated because she keeps finding out what she is not (p. 125), but that is only part of her growth.
Her American name is given by her feckless father after Casey Stengel when he happens to win a big game in gambling (p. 175). Symbolically, Paw-Paw tells her the meaning of her Chinese name, Cheun Meih, is the "taste of spring" (p. 143). Casey even has some exposure to Chinese history from Mr. Jeh. Finally, Casey becomes extremely culturally sensitive and her pride in cultural heritage seems to be raised to an unbelievably high level when she tells Barney, "There's a difference between forgiving what happened and just forgetting. You can't run away from past. I want to know what it means to be Chinese." When Barney says, "I raised you to be an American," Casey argues, "Well, I'm a Chinese-American then" (p. 129). This sublimation of Casey's attitude does not seem to be realistically founded but more or less politically formularized. Possibly, Yep might be strongly influenced by the roots-tracing fever at the time the book was written. In the end Casey's acculturation crystallizes:
I could feel the earth in Chinatown holding me up and it was like up to now, I'd only been placed above it without taking or giving any support. Chinatown was the first place I'd ever had roots in because Barney and I had always been too busy before this to stay put.
In spite of the conscious realization of self-identity, Casey's cultural zeal in this manifest is a little too unrealistically disproportional. After all, cultural identity is only one aspect of our identity as social beings. When Paw-Paw's children refuse to pay her medical bills because they have their "American dreams" to pursue, the reality, which is evidently incompatible with the cultural teachings of filial piety, should bring her back to the ground.
Humans love to categorize everything, including themselves. However, reality tends to discourage this intention by displaying ambiguity through complex permutations and combinations of different categories. When people try to categorize themselves exclusively by culture, they often cause conflicts and pains for some individuals. Those individuals' search for their identity will be prolonged or delayed. The theories of New Historicism have revealed that our conscious memory is only the offspring of culture, society, and/or history and that truth is often deeply buried under the superficial layers of our consciousness and that people's self-identification can be divided into the objective identification as a member of a cultural group and the subjective identification with cultures different than their own.
As an autobiographer, Jean Fritz faithfully presents the inner struggle of her self-identification in Homesick. Even though the book takes place only in 2 years of her life, in fact, as she states in the Foreword, the events are drawn from the entire period of her first 12 years in China. In other words, the image of Jean in the book condenses the difficult experiences of her childhood, which is sandwiched between two cultures. Her description of feelings and emotions is so truthful that they could be valuable examples of developmental psychology. In the hostile political and cultural environment of the 1920s in China, there was no way for her, only a child, to escape the negative impact of the group stereotypes or to choose freely whom she wanted to identify as and whom she wanted to identify with. Her self-identification is evidently blocked and delayed by the conflictual acculturative situation, and she has to struggle for a half century to get it solved later in her life. In this sense, the image of Jean in the book is true to life. Fritz just stretches the facts a little bit in order to reach to truth of the story (L. W. Girard, "The truth with some stretchers," pp. 464-465).
In terms of the experiences of cultural conflict, Yep feels the same as Fritz about his childhood experiences in San Francisco's Chinatown. His memories constantly haunted him to find an answer to the meaning of being Chinese in American society, namely, his self-identity. He creates the character Casey in Child of the Owl and successfully solves his emotional puzzle of self-identification through the character. Compared with China in the 1920s, Casey's environment is much more pluralistic and shows more tolerance for cultural diversity. Her reacculturation is much less difficult than Jean's. So is the resolution of her self-identification. Even though her reacculturation has some set-backs, her family bond, her identical ethnicity, and social connections provide her with some social and cultural support and make her adaptation much smoother.
Casey starts with being sure of what she is. As soon as she steps into her own original culture, she keeps finding what she is not. She feels it is a violation of her birthright to challenge her American identity. She can not accept what she is not just because of her skin color and Chinese physical features. Her mind about identity begins to change when she tries to understand Paw-Paw and her mother's past in Chinatown. She notices how Paw-Paw tries to adapt to the language and cultural obstacles. She also tries to look at Chinatown through Jeanie's eyes. When she understands what Paw-Paw and Jeanie have to face in their day-to-day lives in Chinatown, she begins to be fascinated by Chinese culture. Finally, the pendulum of acculturation swings back to the right place. In spite of her "crash lesson" on Chinese cul- ture, she realistically concludes that even though she "looked Chinese and had learned some of the myths and a little bit of the language," she would "never really fit into Chinatown the way that Jeanie had" or "even be like her in being Chinese" (p. 137). She is happy to be American and, at the same time, to be proud of her cultural heritage. Yep apparently feels the same way. It may be controversial that Yep creates the folktale-like owl story that is actually a mixture of Confucian ethical teachings and folktales like The Seven Fairies from the Heaven and The Snail Girl. However, Yep does feel the disguise of owl help him make sense of the feelings about his childhood experiences in Chinatown. As he puts it, "I think in the end an owl mask is one many of us could wear" (p. 217).
Jean in Homesick and Casey in Child of the Owl are trapped by the same cultures. Their tough personal situations force them to resolve their self-identity in a very unusual way. The paths they take are different. The difference in resolution is due to a number of factors. The societies are different in which they live; so are their times in history. Jean lives in a culturally monistic society that has very little tolerance for cultural diversity. Even though her acculturation starts early and processes profoundly, especially with her fluent Chinese language and a solid knowledge about Chinese heritage, the dominant Western cultural group to which she belongs generally has a negative attitude about being acculturated by Chinese, the host cultural group. Berry and Uichol observe that a person's acculturative process tends to suspend when he/she is suffering a highly stressful crisis (1988, p. 213). In Jean's case, she has to repress her feelings for the people and culture of the nondominant group and try to push them into oblivion. Her social isolation further worsens her situation. Naturally, her only escape is going back to America. Not till she goes back to America does Jean begin to realize the intense unsettling of her ambivalent self-identity. Since then, Jean Fritz has struggled with her self-identification. She finally has it resolved during her revisit to China, more than a half century later.
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THE LOST GARDEN (1991)
Rocío G. Davis (essay date summer 2002)
SOURCE: Davis, Rocío G. "Metanarrative in Ethnic Autobiography for Children: Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing." MELUS 27, no. 2 (summer 2002): 139-56.
[In the following essay, Davis studies self-identification in multiethnic autobiographies for children through examinations of Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing and Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden.]
Considering the dramatic developments of the autobiographical form and the politics of identity formation in this century, writers and critics have become increasingly conscious of the play of the autobiographical act itself, "in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness. Autobiography in our time is increasingly understood as both an act of memory and an art of the imagination" (Eakin 5-6). This understanding has important implications for ethnic life writing, which has consistently challenged and widened the boundaries of traditional autobiography by blending diverse formal techniques with increasingly complex questions about self-representation and the process of signification. This essay on metanarrative in ethnic autobiography for children supports the idea that language, immigrant histories, family, and location exist in a relation of dynamic interdependent parts. Laurence Yep's The Lost Garden and Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood illustrate the writers' understanding of how "the art of self-invention is governed by a dialectical interplay between the individual and his or her culture" (Eakin 256).
Paul John Eakin posits that the autobiographical act figures as a third and culminating phase in a history of self-consciousness that begins with the moment of language in early childhood and deepens in a second-level order of experience in childhood and adolescence in which the individual achieves a distinct and explicit self-consciousness as a self. In the developmental perspective, the autobiographical act becomes a mode of self-invention that is always practiced first in living and eventually becomes a text. Eakin views the processes entailed by the autobiographical act as a recapitulation of the fundamental processes of identity formation: "in this sense the writing of autobiography emerges as a second acquisition of language, a second coming into being of self, a self-conscious self-consciousness" (18). More specifically, this self-consciousness is negotiated through the metanarrative aspects of the text, illustrating how patterns of dialectical self-invention—which in these cases privilege access to and negotiation with a second language and culture—are related to the sense of mastery of language and issues of self-representation that shape the future artist.
An ethnic writer who chooses to write an autobiography for children widens the implications of life writing within the context of identity formation. Children's texts are culturally formative, educationally, intellectually, and socially. Ethnic children's literature highlights the meaning or value that society attributes to ethnic differences and intercultural relationships, and how each group occupies or moves within certain areas or exerts specific influence on the place they are in and the community they form. For the children of minority groups in the United States today, the issue of how to integrate the past with the present, how to appreciate heritage and establish bonds by forming peer communities is essential to the questions about identity that face all youth: about defining self and other, and about the values they inherit from their families, those they accept and those they reject (Natov 38).
More importantly, as Carole Carpenter argues, the most successful children's books reject the assumption that children are merely receivers of culture and present them as "creative manipulators of a dynamic network of concepts, actions, feelings and products that mirror and mould their experience as children" (57). When an essential part of that network of concepts involves ethnic appreciation and understanding, the autobiographical text plays a more active role in articulating the context within which children can learn to find meaning and engage in a significant process of self-awareness and self-formation. The evolution of recent ethnic autobiography for children has been toward realism, and towards intercultural works that emphasize the varied cultural influences a child growing up in the United States experiences, rather than on acquiring a pure heritage identity. In American multicultural society, contemporary ethnic literature for children tends to highlight ways of affirming and celebrating difference as they simultaneously seek ways to cooperate and collaborate across different ethnic boundaries.
Thus, Eakin believes that "self-invention refers not only to the creation of self in autobiography but also to the idea that the self or selves they seek to reconstruct in art are not given but made in the course of human development" (8). The complex interaction between formal and cultural modes works to produce texts that consistently challenge inherited ideas of autobiographical structure and content. The increasingly dialogic nature of life writing reflects a multi-voiced cultural situation that allows the subject to control and exploit the tensions between personal and communal discourse within the text. As Michael Fischer argues, we must consider a concept of the self as pluralistic, multidimensional, and multifaceted, and one which might be a "crucible for a wider social ethos of pluralism" (195). Issues of ethnic representation therefore become central to the autobiographical strategies employed by these writers and the manner in which each text performs the writer's process of self-awareness.
As life writing has become highly self-reflexive, the mediated quality of these narratives leads the reader ultimately to witness the process that leads to the writing of this book. Consequently, the interaction between the writer and the reader of the text acquires heightened importance, as Susanna Egan points out in her discussion of autobiographies of diaspora:
building a third, or hybrid, space from two or more places of origin, the autobiographer of diaspora discriminates among a plurality of possible positions, all incomplete and in continuous process, in order to recognize who speaks, who is spoken, and just who might be listening. Listeners, readers, or viewers, therefore, are closely implicated in the interactions that constitute even temporary meaning, and are accordingly required to be conscious of their own positions in relation to the autobiographer.
As such, similarities or differences between the writer and the reader become constitutive of the dialectic of signification in these children's texts, emphasizing the constructedness of ethnic identity formation and representation. The autobiographer, therefore, is not merely "an actor who follows ideological scripts, but also an agent who reads them in order to insert him/herself into them—or not" (Smith xxxiv-xxxv). The engagement with the act of narrative evolves into a strategy that blends subjectivity and history, perhaps in an attempt to stress individual sensibility or even to challenge contextual authority.
Interestingly, literary techniques and thematic concerns link Yep's and Cofer's autobiographies for children. The Lost Garden and Silent Dancing foreground the act of writing as part of the process of discovering or negotiating identity. These metanarratives become highly complex engagements with ethnic and artistic reality because both texts are primarily Künstlerromane, stressing the process of their protagonists' particular artistic development and outlining the genesis of Yep's books for children and Cofer's poetry. They are, at the same time, autobiographies that emphasize how memories and consciousness of the working of ethnicity in the United States inform and nuance their writing. Stuart Hall's description of the two simultaneous axes or vectors that "frame" diasporic identities applies to these texts: "the vector of similarity and continuity; and the vector of difference and rupture; [ethnic] identity is a dialogue between these two axes" (226-27).
Yep and Cofer foreground the complex reality of being hyphenated Americans and engage their relationship with their heritage culture as well as with the society in which they live. Both narratives begin with a prologue in which the adult narrator sets the stage for the telling of the story, both foreground the importance of storytelling in their young lives, and the roles their grandmothers played in their processes of self-awareness and cultural identification. Furthermore, in both texts, the children's involvement with two languages also influences their evolving subjectivities. Laurence and Judith experience a gap between two terrains of ethnic belonging: Chinatown and "the island," respectively, become alternative spaces for self-discovery and self-assertion.
Close readings of Yep and Cofer's metanarratives illustrate how ethnic autobiographies may challenge traditional conceptions of life writing by their dialogical structure. Their engagements with bilingualism; their positions as speaking subjects who are, according to Betty Bergland, "inscribed by multiple discourses, positioned in multiple subjectivities and situated in multiple historical events" (qtd in Wong 281); and the evolution of their perspective on immediate reality become paradigms for their process of representation. The metaphors the writers choose and the often fragmented quality of their narratives thus signify on several levels, communicating certain knowledges and discourses about their lives.
In The Lost Garden, Yep's autobiography of his childhood and early adulthood, the writer offers the reader two separate but mutually enhancing stories: the account of his growing awareness and understanding of himself as a Chinese American and his place in society, and the process of his becoming a writer. Unquestionably the most prolific contemporary Asian American writer for children, with over 50 books to his credit, Yep was born and raised in San Francisco and educated in both Catholic schools and in the increasingly African American neighborhood where the family lived above their store, "La Conquista."
A master of vivid imagery, Yep develops a series of emblematic metaphors for his growing understanding of his unique subjectivity and of his writing as a manner of dealing with the insecurities that had plagued him as he was growing up. Yep uses these metaphors to delve into experiences of the past that illuminate the present, and his text's highly metanarrative quality illustrates his process of understanding. His principal metaphor is the eponymous garden, which grew in a narrow courtyard between two houses, where his father had planted fuschia bushes and small flower patches. Yep begins his account by describing how, after his father's death, he returned many nights in his sleep to the house with that garden: "Your first home will always be the one that you remember best […] I go back when I am troubled. I go back when I am especially at peace. It draws me as if it is a special magnet attracting my soul" (ix). The garden no longer exists, the house and store having been replaced years before by a two-story parking lot. Yet his father's efforts to build that "impossible" garden in that cramped space in the middle of the city provide a model for Yep's own later efforts towards creativity. "His was the gift of renewal" (xi), he says of his father, suggesting that the inscription of the story of his childhood is his own attempt at a certain rebirth, a reconciliation, a renewed bringing forth. The memory of that lost garden, the theme of the prologue, becomes the springboard of the son's own narrative of renewal.
The loss of the garden, and of the life that surrounded it, highlights another constitutive characteristic of Yep's autobiography. The idea that loss leads to creative transformation and the imperative to adapt to change functions as a leitmotif in the text. Yep begins the story of his life by describing, in the first place, the house they lived in, and moves on to recount the story of his parents in the United States. His mother, Franche, was born in Lima, Ohio and grew up in the cities of Clarksburg and Bridgeport, West Virginia; his father, Thomas, immigrated to the United States at the age of 10 to join Yep's grandfather. To adapt and to survive beatings from the white boys on the block, Thomas "learned American games and sports and used them to make his enemies into friends" (7). These border crossings will later be relived by the son, when he moves to Milwaukee, for example, and sees snow for the first time and experiences culture shock in many ways.
Yep describes his early years as a time of insecurity. Because his brother Spike was ten years older, there was no question of sibling rivalry between them. Nonetheless, the gap in age produced a more painful sensation: "a long-term sense of inadequacy" that increased with each year (12). His brother was always "the impossible standard by which I tried to measure myself—in sports, academics, and even in friendship. Spike always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, so that I was always feeling clumsy and inept" (12). Born a clumsy, asthmatic son to an athletic family, Yep spent his early years feeling like "a changeling, wondering how I wound up born into the family. I felt not only inadequate but incomplete—like a puzzle with several pieces missing" (12). The image of a puzzle becomes the metaphor for his personal and cultural insecurity and his subsequent definition of himself as a puzzle-solver suggests that he has developed the creative strategy that sets him on a path to self-knowledge.
The inscription of specific memories heightens the mediated quality of this narrative. These accounts move the chronological narrative along while stopping to revel in things that are evanescent yet illus- trative of his oftentimes ironic awareness of his ethnic positionality: the description of his father making kites and flying them, the smells attached to the store, his Chinese grandmother's apple pies. His description of his mother reading to him as he recovered from his frequent asthma attacks chronicles his early romance with words. As a Künstlerroman, the narrative foregrounds Yep's process of becoming a writer. From the beginning, as the adult narrator's voice articulates a child's perspective, he stresses certain events or situations that transformed him into the writer he became.
Central to this process is the awareness of how his ethnicity and his experiences in his multicultural neighborhood formed both the character and imagination that would later find fulfillment in creativity. He explains: "I don't know, though, if I would have become a writer if my life had been allowed to follow a conventional, comfortable track" (23). Working from an early age at the family store, for instance, and having a daily routine, "served me well later when I became a writer" (22), even as he remembers how receiving an odd bronze penny became the inspiration for The Mark Twain Murders, written years later:
In a way, the grocery store was my version of one of Mark Twain's steamboats, giving me my first schooling as a writer. I saw people at their best; and I saw them at their worst. I saw people in the middle of comedies; and, sadly, I saw them in the middle of tragedies into which we were drawn in minor roles. Often we were like actors who had wandered onto a stage without a script so that we had to improvise as best we could. As a result, we all became good listeners.
The dramatic change of his neighborhood, from predominantly Chinese to African American when Yep was seven, turning him into "an outsider in what had once been my own home turf" (37), widened his perspective on people, making him aware of ethnicity as a social marker.
In the chapter called "The Owl," Yep narrates his development of ethnic consciousness and his strategies to overcome the gap between his vision of himself and that presented by his racial features. Recognizing himself as "the neighborhood's all-purpose Asian […] made me feel like an outsider more than ever in my own neighborhood. It was like suddenly finding that the different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle no longer fit together" (38). The writer delves into the themes emblematic of Asian American writing in a manner appropriate for children: the first awareness of his Chineseness, his ambivalent relationship with Chinatown, his embarrassment at being Chinese.
The descriptions of his relationship with his maternal grandmother—whom he recognizes as one of the strongest influences in his life, and therefore on his writing—become one of the central strategies he employs to come to terms with his ethnicity. My grandmother, he says, "represented a ‘Chineseness’ in my life that was as unmovable and unwanted as a mountain in your living room. Or rather it was like finding strange, new pieces to a puzzle that made the picture itself take a new, unwanted shape" (46). Much as he wanted to deny his ethnic background, the figure and overwhelming presence of his grandmother in his life prevented him from doing so. He describes his relationship with her in the following terms: "We were like two wrestlers on a slippery mat where the true victory would have lain in a mutual embrace that would have supported one another: but it was as if we were oiled, our hands slipping even as we tried to grip one another" (107). Trying to imagine her as a young bride, he creates the character Cassia, a rebel in China in the nineteenth century and the foremother of Casey Young in Child of the Owl, developing her character in two novels. His grandmother was also a central part of his coming to terms with his ethnicity: "I knew she accepted her strange, American-born grandson—far better than I accepted my China-born grandmother. In many ways, she came to embody what I came to consider my ‘Chineseness’—that foreign, unassimilable, independent core" (2).
Another important metaphor Yep employs, related to the garden, to childhood, and, ultimately, to his metanarrative, is the seed: "Memories are like seeds," he explains. "They lie concealed within the imagination—or perhaps they are buried even deeper, ripening with the quickening of the heart and growing accordingly to the soul's own season. Planted in childhood, they sometimes do not bear fruit until long into adulthood" (114). He stresses this point because of his conviction that much of his writing and what he knows grows from his memories. One of the most interesting aspects of the autobiography is the manner in which he discusses the inception of his different books, the way family members inspired characters, of how his process of growing up molded his literary imagination, and the way his research blends with creativity to make fiction. He describes his evolving understanding of what it was to be Chinese in San Francisco in the 1950s and early 60s, the pres- sure to conform, the ridicule at being different. He recalls the contradictory feelings of shame at not being able to speak Chinese and his struggle to deny his ethnic background. As with all autobiographies that center on the author's childhood, Yep presents what Richard Coe describes as "certain irreductible archetypes of experience or of situation […] [which] begin to assume significance specifically when they reveal something about the nature of that being who subsequently is destined to develop into a writer" (139-40). The importance of these activities lies in "their relation to the future creator and manipulator of words, images, and ideas" (Coe 168). In telling children the story of himself as an Asian American child, Yep takes advantage of the archetypal ethnic Künstlerroman to further his imaginative purpose, to understand himself and his art better.
The concluding chapters describe Yep's strategy of utilizing memory to write. Though most of his work is fiction, he has repeatedly emphasized that he writes about himself, about his process of self-awareness: "In writing about alienated people and aliens in my science fiction, I was writing about myself as a Chinese American" (104). His writing thus becomes his manner of dealing with the gaps in his understanding of himself and his place in the complex Chinese American society in which he lived:
I was the Chinese American raised in a black neighborhood, a child who had become too American to fit into Chinatown and too Chinese to fit in elsewhere. I was the clumsy son of an athletic family, the grandson of a Chinese grandmother who spoke more of West Virginia than of China. When I wrote, I went from being a puzzle to a puzzle solver. I could reach into the box of rags that was my soul and begin stitching them together. Moreover, I could try out different combinations to see which one pleased me the most. I could take these different elements, each of which belonged to something else, and dip them into my imagination where they were melted down and cast into new shapes so that they became uniquely mine.
The central component of his struggle for selfhood involves accepting his heritage, "to know its strengths and understand its weakness" (43). Yep thus undertakes a journey that reverses that of his parents: his forebears left China to explore America, and he enters Chinatown in search of pieces of the puzzle of his life. His autobiographic exercise pivots around his acceptance of himself and on how his particular ethnic history shaped the creative consciousness behind his fiction. The text, as an Asian American autobiography for children, blends the story of Yep's journey towards self-knowledge and creative expression, offering a positive vision of ethnic identity and stressing, textually and contextually, the empowerment offered by the act of writing.
The imperative to return through imagination and inscribing the place and people of the past also informs Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing, awarded the 1991 PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Non-fiction and selected for the New York Public Library's 1991 Best Books for the Teen Age. Her autobiography opens with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf that firmly sets this metanarrative within a matriarchal tradition of storytelling: "A woman writing thinks back through her mothers." In her Preface, Cofer discusses her poetics, the influence of Woolf, and the interaction she perceives between memory and imagination, the "truth" of art and the factual truth of history. She also stresses that her intention is not "to chronicle my life—which in my case is still very much ‘in progress’" but, rather, "to connect myself to the threads of lives that have touched mine and at some point converged into the tapestry that is my memory of childhood" (13). In this manner, Cofer foregrounds the mediated nature of her text, making the child reader participate in the process of her inscription, as well as her journey to selfhood and the forms her self-definition takes. William Luis points out that Cofer's work touches upon themes common to other Nuyorican writers, but "she expresses them from a less marginal perspective […]. Many of her poems are of a personal nature, often describing her innermost thoughts, vivid experiences, and members of her family" (549).
In an interview with Carmen Dolores Hernández, Cofer explains that, in her writing, "What I'm doing is examining the past and seeing what I can gather to explain where I came from. It's not a nostalgic journey; it's more of an exploration. For me writing is self-discovery" ("Interview with Hernandez" 100). This idea of exploration elucidates the unique strategy she uses to engage her memories in Silent Dancing: rather than write in the traditional chronological manner, she composes her autobiography of stories, essays, and poems. Though the text reveals certain formal characteristics found in other autobiographies, the design and intention behind this textual destabilization and the cultural implications of such fragmentation prove to be quite distinct. The insularity of the essays and poems emphasizes breaks, beginnings and rebeginnings, and an episodic structuring of lives and selves that invites the reader to fill in the gaps, to compose whole meaning from the fragments of the life retained in the memory and on the page. The strategy reflects the narrator's consciousness of the process of memory as non-linear, associative, nontemporal, fragmented, and incomplete, making structure and content mutually reinforcing. Through the organization of the discrete narratives, the author attempts to control a series of fundamental memories, to define their significance for her own formation, not necessarily obeying the dictates of causality.
Moreover, she often explores the same theme through different genres: Cofer sets an essay and poem on the same subject together. We witness how the creative imagination appropriates and interiorizes the experience and how this leads the writer to two kinds of knowledge: a prose realism and a more poetic symbolism. As she explains: "They are different ways of seeing. Poetry allows you to delve into the depths of language. Prose is looser. Poetry is a way to plumb the depths of language, to explore the hidden meaning of words. Poetry is to me the first discipline. It empowers me. In a sense one is like a microscope, and the other like a telescope" ("Interview with Hernandez" 102). As a writer for children, Cofer's blend of genres renews the terrain of self-expression and explores linguistic possibilities. As she crosses generic frontiers, she also widens the concept of what can or should be written for children. By enacting the same experience in both poetry and prose, Cofer presents a dynamic manner of inscribing the evolving self and a literal metaphor for the task of negotiating identity: her essays and poems, sustained reflections through different mediums, signify on the levels of both discourse and story. Her story of self-awareness and development is performed through her evolving art. The text therefore, by subverting traditional signifying strategies, reconfigures cultural interpretation.
The first essay, "Casa," sets the tone for the rest of the tales, and situates the moving impulse behind the storytelling in which Cofer engages:
At three or four o'clock in the afternoon, the hour of café con leche, the women of my family gathered in Mamá's living room to speak of important things and to tell stories for the hundredth time, as if to each other, meant to be overheard by us young girls, their daughters […]. It was on these rockers that my mother, her sisters and my grandmother sat on these afternoons of my childhood to tell their stories, teaching each other and my cousin and me what it was like to be a woman, more specifically, a Puerto Rican woman […]. They told real-life stories, though as I later learned, always embellishing them with a little or a lot of dramatic detail, and they told cuentos, the morality and cautionary tales told by the women in our family for generations: stories that became a part of my subconscious as I grew up in two worlds, the tropical island and the cold city, and which would later surface in my dreams and in my poetry.
As with Yep, Cofer privileges the person and role of the grandmother as preserver of culture, and as a central family figure, leading her to formulate the autobiography firmly within the matriarchal oral tradition. "[In the afternoon] Mamá's house belonged only to us women. The aroma of coffee perking in the kitchen, the mesmerizing creaks and groans of the rockers, and the women telling their lives in cuentos are forever woven into the fabric of my imagination, braided like my hair that day I felt my grandmother's hands teaching me about strength, her voice convincing me of the power of story-telling" (19).
The primacy of storytelling becomes so essential to Cofer that, to tell the story of her life, she explores and appropriates the lives of her family members, particularly of the community of very strong women that are a part of her history: her maternal grandmother, Mamá; and her paternal grandmother, Mamá Nanda; her mother, her Aunt Felícita, the "social pariah" because of her divorce: "her exploits, exaggerated by gossip, made her legendary in her hometown" (42). She then proceeds to write the stories of these family members, and the succeeding narratives and poems meditate on the characters that participated in her process of growing up: from her relatives in Puerto Rico to her neighbors in the apartment buildings they lived in, as though to capture the stories she sees hovering around her.
The essay entitled "Some of the Characters" utilizes the frame of storytelling for her conception of her life as a narrative at once performed and waiting to be written. In this context, the title story, "Silent Dancing," becomes a metaphor for the tales that she will never know. She describes a five-minute home movie of a New Year's party that ends with people dancing in a circle; but since the movie does not capture the music, the people appear to dance in silence. The faces and movements of the dancers haunt Cofer's dreams for years: "In a recurring scene, familiar faces push themselves into distorted close-ups. And I'm asking them: ‘Who is she? Who is the woman I don't recognize? Is she an aunt? Somebody's wife? Tell me who she is. Tell me who these people are’" (95). Her inability to reach these mostly unidentified—and therefore storyless—people provides the fascination with and absorption in the image: "I, too, have to hear the dead and the forgotten speak in my dreams. Those who are still part of my life remain silent, going around and around in their dance. The others keep pressing their faces forward to say things about the past" (98).
Two stories in particular, heard in her Mamá's house over and over again, become the basis of much of the child's perspective on the world, by providing models of behavior:
María Sabida became the model Mamá used for the ‘prevailing woman’—the woman who 'slept with one eye open'—whose wisdom was gleaned through the senses: from the natural world and from ordinary experiences. Her main virtue was that she was always alert and never a victim. She was by implication contrasted to María La Loca, that poor girl who gave it all up for love, becoming a victim of her own foolish heart.
Importantly, for a "Navy brat" growing up between the US and Puerto Rico, these stories attracted Cofer in a particular way: "María la Loca interested me, as did all the eccentrics and ‘crazies’ of our pueblo. Their weirdness was a measuring stick I used in my serious quest for a definition of ‘normal’" (17-18). Her cousins and friends made fun of her "two-way accent," and she and her brother had become, from a very early age, "cultural chameleons," developing an ability to blend into their surroundings: they could sit reading quietly for days when it was too cold to leave the New Jersey apartment, or run around, wild and free, as soon as they set foot in the pueblo (18). But more importantly, "[i]t was under the mango tree that I first began to feel the power of words" (76). Cofer's developing consciousness as a storyteller perceived the power to influence behind the stories the women told, stories that she later acknowledges as "the basis for my imaginative life" (Interview with Ocasio 734).
Cofer also discerns in this oral tradition a strategy for solidarity among women ("Interview with Hernandez" 100). She subsequently incorporates in her text the realization that the stories were also the way the women in her family had of "sharing their pain, sharing their problems and teaching us that there are ways to deal with life that women have, and so it is a way of not only passing on the culture but of empowering each other" ("Interview with Hernandez" 100). For Cofer's mother, in particular, wrenched from the close family life in Puerto Rico and transplanted to a wintry New Jersey where she could not speak the language, storytelling became the only way to survive. Taking the tradition with her, she would "do the same thing, except that then it became nostalgic: cuando estaba en casa hacíamos esto y lo otro. They passed on not only culture but yearning" ("Interview with Hernandez" 100). The mother heals her trauma of loss through narrative, and telling stories becomes, in the immigrant context, a means of making sense of these women's place in an otherwise chaotic and alienating world. Similarly, when the time would come for the return to the States after a time in Puerto Rico, Cofer would spend the last few days begging Mamá to tell her stories: "In looking back I realize that Mamá's stories were what I packed—my winter store" (63).
The early experience of female storytelling leads Cofer to appreciate and desire the power of telling stories. So, in "Tales Told Under the Mango Tree," she retells her grandmother's story of María Sabida and, in an important gesture of appropriation, later tells her own version, making the story hers. "‘Colorín, Colorado …’ I must have said to myself […] as I embroidered my own fable, listening all the while to that inner voice which, when I was very young, sounded just like Mamá's when she told her stories in the parlor or under the mango tree. And later, as I gained more confidence in my own ability, the voice telling the story became my own" (85). The blending of the performative dimension of storytelling in form and content allows Cofer to expand the reach of her art by making the text dramatize as well as signify.
The acquisition of language also figures as a central metaphor in Cofer's account of immigrant adjustment. The essays "Primary Lessons" and "One More Lesson" describe her experiences in schools in Puerto Rico and the United States, respectively, and her struggles with language in both contexts. In Puerto Rico, Spanish was the language of summer fun, and the child resists going to school by arguing that her father wants them to learn good English. Her Spanish in Puerto Rico makes her lose the English she learned. The shifting of languages in the schools causes the child anxiety: "I would have to learn silence" (53), she thinks at first, only to comprehend, years later, that "language is the only weapon a child has against the absolute power of adults. I quickly built up my arsenal of words by becoming an insatiable reader of books" (66). Slowly, Cofer begins to appreciate the multilayered reality languages offer.
She uses Spanish words to describe certain hybrid cultural situations typical of the immigrant. Her mother, she says, suffered from "La Tristeza, the sadness that only place induces and only place cures" (64), and, in a poem she concludes that "el olvido is a dangerous thing" (68).
The space between languages that Cofer finds herself frequently occupying as a child is transformed, as she matures, into the space between cultural expectations and behaviors. This is tellingly described in two essays about first love, "The Looking-Glass Shame" and "Quinceañera." In the United States, her crush on a boy in a school play ends in a stolen kiss she doesn't know how to react to. In Puerto Rico, she invites a boy to kiss her, and he, confused by her transgressing the rules of the game, runs away in embarrassment. Constantly finding herself between cultural systems, Cofer has to struggle to find her place in the different worlds she shifts between. The poem that links these stories is called "The Habit of Movement" and describes her awareness of her family's chosen place, and their strategy for self-preservation:
We bore the idea of home on our backs
from house to house, never staying
long enough to learn the secret ways of wood
and stone, […] In time we grew rich in dispossession
and fat with experience.
As we approached but did not touch others,
our habit of movement kept us safe
like a train in motion—
nothing could touch us.
Just as Cofer mediates her binary visions of experiences and events by the juxtaposition of prose and poetry, her doubled versions of pivotal events in her life—her first days of school and her first experiences with boys—stresses the disjunction that living between two cultures has created in her life. As her stories of school and relationships with boys show, she has to struggle to fit in, finding a place becoming a central concern. In this context, her storytelling and poetry become a strategy for overcoming the traumas of positionality and belonging. By narrating her growing consciousness, she overcomes these difficulties.
The author once again highlights the primacy of words, their power to heal and effect understanding. As though to confirm this strategy, the last two poems in the text signal connection and illustrate the way memory builds the narrative of our lives. In "Common Ground," she describes what she sees when she looks in the mirror:
my grandmother's stern lips
speaking in parentheses at the corners
of my mouth of pain and deprivation
I have never known. I recognize
my father's brows arching in disdain
over the objects of my vanity, my mother's
nervous hands smoothing lines
just appearing on my skin,
like arrows pointing downward
to our common ground.
The final poem is a remembrance of the night her father arrived to meet her for the first time. At several points in the book, Cofer had written about this occasion, and the different versions of that night that each member of the family reported. Here, Cofer offers the one she remembers, to show how that homecoming changed her life, particularly her relationship with her mother.
Both Yep's and Cofer's autobiographies, in highly similar ways, signal a critical juncture in the development of ethnic writing for children. Their accounts of individual struggles with ethnic self-definition present recollections and personal experiences of the heritage culture as important aspects of the creation of self. Significantly, both writers turn to roots—family, community, and ethnicity—as a source of personal identity and creative expression. These metanarratives that engage storytelling as the source of agency and empowerment also widen the sphere of meaning within contemporary narrative for children. Through metanarrative these autobiographies demonstrate an awareness of the role that multicultural children's literature itself plays in the construction of the value that society places on questions and attitudes about ethnic differences and intercultural relationships. If, as William Boelhower argues, ethnic autobiography is about a single theme: the "hyphenated self's attempt to make it in America" (133), engaging this genre for children carries profound personal, communal, and cultural significance. These autobiographies reveal children actively engaged in their own artistic development, part of a creative adaptation and manipulation of a dynamic network of concepts and feelings that, consequently, turns them into protagonists of their own lives.
Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 123-41.
Carpenter, Carole H. "Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism." Mosaic 29.3 (1996): 53-73.
Coe, Richard N. When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. Houston: Arte Publico P, 1990.
———. Interview with Carmen Dolores Hernandez,. "Judith Ortiz Cofer." Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 95-105.
———. Interview with Rafael Ocasio. "The Infinite Variety of the Puerto Rican Reality: An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer." Callaloo 17.3 (1994): 730-42.
Eakin, Paul John. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.
Egan, Susanna. Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999.
Fischer, Michael M. J. "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 194-232.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathon Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 222-37.
Luis, William. "Latin American (Hispanic Caribbean) Literature Written in the United States." The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Ed. Roberto Gonzalez Echeverria and Enrique Pupo-Wekker. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 526-56.
Natov, Roni. "Living in Two Cultures: Bette Bao Lord's Stories of Chinese-American Experience." The Lion and the Unicorn 11.1 (1987): 38-46.
Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1988.
Wong, Sau-ling C. "Ethnic Dimensions of Postmodern Indeterminacy: Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior as Avant-garde Autobiography." Autobiographie & Avant-garde. Ed. Alfred Hornung and Ernstpeter Ruhe. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1992. 273-84.
Yep, Laurence. The Lost Garden. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
THE AMAH (1999)
Renee Troselius (review date November-December 1999)
SOURCE: Troselius, Renee. Review of The Amah, by Laurence Yep. Book Report 18, no. 3 (November-December 1999): 69.
Amy Chin is caught between being an obedient Chinese daughter and being a young American teenager [in The Amah ]. She loves ballet and has been selected by Madame to be one of Cinderella's stepsisters in an upcoming recital. Amy's widowed mother has done her best to provide for the family, but money is hard to come by. Then Amy's mother gets a new job as an amah (a Chinese nanny) and instead of attending important ballet rehearsals, Amy must spend her time babysitting her younger brothers and sisters. To make matters worse, Miss Stephanie, her mother's wealthy charge, seems to be perfect, and Amy fights feelings of jealousy. Miss Stephanie sends food and gifts home with Amy's mother, and it seems to Amy that Stephanie is buying the affection of her family, especially her mother. When Amy finally meets Stephanie she learns how unhappy Stephanie really is, and realizes that Stephanie will never take her place in her mother's heart. Yep portrays Amy's thoughts and feelings realistically, and readers sympathize with her. Those interested in ballet will especially enjoy this story. While they don't interfere with the story line, be aware that there are two word errors that should have been caught by the copy editor. Recommended.
Nancy Adler (review date May-June 2000)
SOURCE: Adler, Nancy. Review of The Amah, by Laurence Yep. Children's Book and Play Review 20, no. 5 (May-June 2000): 28.
At age twelve, Amy Chin is a budding ballerina, very serious about her avocation [in The Amah ]. Her widowed mother has to take a job as an amah (nanny) to a girl Amy's age, and Amy finds that the household chores and her younger siblings is disrupting her life more and more. Compounding Amy's frustration and resentment at having to sacrifice so much for so little appreciation is her certainty that her mother prefers her new charge over Amy herself.
This glimpse into culture clash as a family struggles to blend old ways with new frames ways a very contemporary coming-of-age story. Amy battles to keep her standing in her ballet class despite repeated absences. She tries to keep the household a step ahead of disaster, and control her younger brothers and sisters even as they give her grief at every turn. Her craving for her mother's approval and affection seems doomed. But as the story unfolds, Amy gains new insight into her friends and family—and into herself. A very satisfying read.
THE CASE OF THE FIRECRACKERS (1999)
Kay Weisman (review date 15 September 1999)
SOURCE: Weisman, Kay. Review of The Case of the Firecrackers, by Laurence Yep. Booklist 96, no. 2 (15 September 1999): 262.
Gr. 4-7—Tiger Lil Leung and her great-niece, Lily, last seen in The Case of the Lion Dance (1998), return in their third Chinatown mystery [The Case of the Firecrackers ]. This time Tiger Lil, an aging film star who moonlights as a public relations specialist, an entertainment agent, and a detective, has been asked to meet with teen heartthrob Clarke Tom, who is filming on location in Chinatown. When someone makes an attempt on Clarke's life and Lily's brother is suspected, Tiger Lil and Lily are swept into the case. Various leads take the sleuths to the Tenderloin district (where they are held hostage), to a Chinatown social club, and finally to a Chinese laundry, where they prevent a second murder attempt. The details of the Chinatown neighborhood are a real plus, and the carefully plotted mystery, sprinkled with judiciously placed clues, makes the story hard to put down. Give this to mystery buffs as well as children fascinated by Chinatown.
DREAM SOUL (2000)
Mary M. Burns (review date January-February 2001)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Dream Soul, by Laurence Yep. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 99.
As in The Star Fisher (rev. 5/91), to which [Dream Soul ] is a sequel, Yep introduces a traditional Chinese legend into the context of the plot and enlarges its meaning in the development of characters and situations. The clash of cultures is once again manifested in the longing of the Lee children, Joan, Bobby, and Emily, to become like their peers in the face of their parents' equally strong determination to remain true to their Chinese traditions. Consequently, when Miss Lucy, their landlady and sometime benefactor and protector, invites them to celebrate Christmas with her, the younger Lees are delighted; but Papa will let them go only if they are good, well behaved, and respectful, every moment of every day. Events seem to conspire against their success, whether it's the temptation of sledding with friends, taking shortcuts across an irascible farmer's field, or, in fifteen-year-old Joan's case, becoming dazzled by the sudden arrival of the lovely and mysterious Victoria Barrington, whose indulgent father contrasts sharply with her own. Then Papa is stricken with a mysterious illness, and Joan remembers the story of the dream soul, the spirit which wanders about the earth in times of trauma and which must be reunited with the body of its owner lest the two be permanently separated. To save her father, she attempts to reach her father's dream soul and in the process discovers the integrity underlying her father's life. As in previous novels, Yep presents conversations in Chinese in roman type; English conversations are transcribed in italics—a device both useful and unobtrusive. Nicely evoking the 1927 West Virginia setting, the book is an appealing family story, blending humor with charm in a manner reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
THE JOURNAL OF WONG MING-CHUNG: A CHINESE MINER: CALIFORNIA, 1852 (2000)
Mercedes Smith (review date April 2000)
SOURCE: Smith, Mercedes. Review of The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner: California, 1852, by Laurence Yep. School Library Journal 46, no. 4 (April 2000): 143.
Gr. 5-8—Through his diary, a 12-year-old Chinese boy nicknamed "Runt" shares his thoughts, fears, insecurities, and adventures [in The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung ]. When Runt's older brother, Blessing, is summoned to California by his uncle, his parents choose to send their younger son instead. Runt learns the hard way that although the Golden Mountain brings the promise of prosperity to his family in China, it also brings hardship, racism, and even death to the "guests" mining for gold. Despite the many difficulties that he is exposed to, however, Runt always has a positive outlook on life. The engrossing story involves readers from start to finish. Yep deals with timely issues, including racism, bullying, and trying to find self-worth. A historical note about the Gold Rush and black-and-white photos and illustrations of actual Chinese miners are appended. An engaging book with strong characters that successfully weaves fact with fiction.
THE MAGIC PAINTBRUSH (2000)
Publishers Weekly (review date 13 March 2000)
SOURCE: Review of The Magic Paintbrush, by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 11 (13 March 2000): 85.
The setting for [The Magic Paintbrush, ] this appealing contemporary tale is San Francisco's Chinatown, the same as for Yep's simultaneously released Cockroach Cooties (reviewed Feb. 14), but here Yep mixes in elements of fantasy and fairy tale, as in his The Imp Who Ate My Homework. After his parents are killed in a fire, eight-year-old Steve experiences cultural and generational shock when he goes to live with his immigrant grandfather and Uncle Fong in a Chinatown tenement. Convinced that the stern, disapproving old men don't want him, his grief and misery are compounded by shame when he's penalized at school for not buying a new paintbrush—which his penurious grandfather can ill afford. The rapproachement begins when Steve's grandfather gives him a family heirloom, a paintbrush said to be made with the hairs from a unicorn's tale. Suddenly, whatever the boy paints springs to life, from a steak to the Chinatown moon of legends, transforming their dreary life. "Chinatowners are made, not born," insists his grandfather, who, with Uncle Fong's help, uses the new vistas that the paintbrush reveals as an opportunity to teach his grandson the lore of his ancestral homeland. As always, Yep's crisp style keeps the pages turning, and he leavens his story with snappy dialogue, realistic characters and plenty of wise humor. Ages 8-12.
Ilene Cooper (review date 15 May 2001)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Angelfish, by Laurence Yep. Booklist 97, no. 15 (15 May 2001): 1754.
Gr. 4-6—[Angelfish ] is the fourth installment in a series about Robin, who is half American, half Chinese, and all ballet dancer. Yep once again links a ballet that Robin's class is performing to other events in her life. Here it's Beauty and the Beast, with Robin meeting her beast when she breaks the window of a store. To pay for it, she begins working there, but dealing with bitter Mr. Cao isn't easy. He calls her names and ridicules her ethnicity. Occasionally, his better nature reveals itself, causing Robin to want to ferret out his story: Mr. Cao was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, a prominent dancer whose toes were cut off by the Red Brigade. Readers who don't know about the Cultural Revolution will be surprised to learn about this piece of Chinese history, and Yep does a good job of weaving the information into the narrative. He uses some formulaic elements, but Robin is a lively, curious heroine, and fans of the series will welcome her back.
LADY OF CHIAO KUO: WARRIOR OF THE SOUTH (2001)
Terrie Dorio (review date December 2001)
SOURCE: Dorio, Terrie. Review of Lady of Chiao Kuo: Warrior of the South, by Laurence Yep. School Library Journal 47, no. 12 (December 2001): 149.
Gr. 5-8—[Lady of Chiao Kuo, t]his entry in the series covers four months in the life of Princess Redbird, a member of the royal family of the Hsien people. Decades before, China had invaded their land and now the Hsien live in an uneasy peace with the invaders. With an eye to the future of his people, Redbird's father sends the 16-year-old to a Chinese school to learn the language and the customs of the Chinese, and also to be a representative of her people. Once there she also learns the joy of reading while studying under Master Chen. Her schooling is interrupted when a neighboring tribe, the Dog Heads, begins attacks on both the Hsien and the Chinese. The attacks escalate and all Princess Redbird's knowledge is required to help set up an alliance between the two to defeat the invaders. Before the Hsien forces triumph, many are killed, including Master Chen and Redbird's father. She, however, has discovered a talent for diplomacy and the foresight and practicality to look ahead for the good of her people. Characters are well drawn, especially Redbird and Master Chen. Historical notes are appended describing China of the sixth century and the real Lady of Ch'iao Kuo (a title bestowed years later by the Chinese). This worthy addition to this series features a feisty heroine who must take on adult responsibilities too soon.
SPRING PEARL: THE LAST FLOWER (2002)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Jason Britton, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 26 August 2002)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Jason Britton, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of Spring Pearl: The Last Flower, by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Kazuhiko Saro. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 34 (26 August 2002): 69.
Part of the Girls of Many Lands series, this colorful novel [Spring Pearl ] introduces the spirited 12-year-old Chou Spring Pearl against the backdrop of Canton, China, during the Opium War of 1857. The recently orphaned girl has been liberally raised by her artist parents—she can read and write and speak English—but now she's a charity case, taken in by Master Sung, a wealthy friend of her father's. Life with Sung's arrogant wife and daughters (who call her "Miss Ratty" after her poor ghetto neighborhood) starts off rocky, but Spring Pearl rises to the challenge through strength of character, gradually earning the respect of the entire household. When Master Sung is arrested and imprisoned, Spring Pearl's courage and ingenuity help bring the family safely through the ordeal. Spring Pearl has a bit of both Cinderella (she's assigned menial chores at first) and Mary Lenox (she restores the Sungs' neglected garden), but she emerges a fully realized character. Offering his typically lively dialogue and strong supporting cast, Yep (Dragon's Gate ) also integrates period detail into a well-honed plot. A "Then and Now" afterword draws on Yep's story to contrast conditions facing girls in 19th-century China with those today. Ages 9-12.
WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME TO TOWN (2002)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 December 2001)
SOURCE: Review of When the Circus Came to Town, by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang. Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 23 (1 December 2001): 1692.
A story taken from real life provides the foundation for a tale of healing [When the Circus Came to Town ] through human interconnection. Ursula is a ten-year-old girl with a big imagination and a love for her small Montana town, finding enough happy magic at home by leading her pirate crew in fanciful adventures in between helping her Pa at his stage-coach station. But when she survives a smallpox scare only to be left with a pitted face, vanity replaces her ebullient spirit and she won't leave her room. Pa hires Ah Sam, a Chinese cook, to help feed the passengers when the stages arrive. Her "curiosity bump" is larger than her prejudice against him, and the two soon find they share a common loneliness as well as a common love of the circus. She begins once again to help in the kitchen, although she still won't show her face outdoors. She faces a turning point, however, when a mean-spirited stage passenger harasses Ah Sam, who cannot retaliate because of state law. Ursula decides she must cheer up the now ashamed cook, realizing that they all share what Indian Tom calls "the mark" of outsiders. One kindness leads to another as Ah Sam's circus relatives arrive to entertain the town with their special magic while Ursula is enlisted to back them up with music. Yep (Newbery Honor, Dragon's Gate, 1994), has applied his considerable skills to embellish a true story into a moving parable of how people help each other overcome suffering. The simple plot uses perfectly believable characterizations to discuss deceptively complex emotions and issues for those who would mine its lessons, but Ursula's own story of healing is rewarding enough for those who read from the younger child's point of view. (Fiction. 8-10)
THE TIGER'S APPRENTICE (2003)
Linda Perkins (review date July 2003)
SOURCE: Perkins, Linda. Review of The Tiger's Apprentice, by Laurence Yep. Booklist 99, no. 21 (July 2003): 1893.
Gr. 5-7—Seventh-grader Tom Lee leads an ordinary life with his grandmother in San Francisco until she is killed by a monster and he finds himself apprenticed to Mr. Hu, a shape-changing tiger who is Guardian of a precious phoenix egg [in The Tiger's Apprentice ]. Villainous creatures want to steal the egg to wreak havoc on the world, so when it disappears, Tom, Mr. Hu, an ostracized dragon, and a roguish monkey battle evil monsters to retrieve it. Designated as the first book in a planned series, this reads like the second or third book, with a great deal of background information packed into the first several chapters. Once the explanations are out of the way, the pace quickens and adventures ensue. The Harry Potter-like events are enticing, and the elements of Chinese mythology and culture give the story a distinctively Asian perspective.
THE TRAITOR (2003)
Margaret A. Bush (review date March-April 2003)
SOURCE: Bush, Margaret A. Review of The Traitor, by Laurence Yep. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 219.
The lives of two boys, old beyond their twelve years, intertwine in this saga of ugly events in the Wyoming Territory in the 1880s [in The Traitor ]. Yep has crisscrossed back and forth over a century and a half in his "Golden Mountain Chronicles"; this ninth novel focuses on the 1885 race riot in which white coal miners massacred the Chinese workers favored by the mine owner. Having fallen into disrepute in San Francisco, Otter Young of Dragon's Gate (rev. 3/94) has spiraled down through railroad construction work to the even harsher coal mines. Joseph, Otter's son, works in the mines alongside the men and often intercedes for his foolishly idealistic father. His first-person account of the brutal life in the mines and in Chinese Camp alternates with the story of a white boy, Michael Purdy, despised and harassed as the bastard son of a laundrywoman. The social lessons are pretty obvious as the boys become friends against the odds and as the growing hatred of the Chinese erupts in a nightmare of bloody revenge and looting. But the well-drawn history is fascinating; a subplot (in which the fossil-rich terrain reveals a dinosaur near the cave the boys use for clandestine meetings) is intriguing; and the plight of the boys as outsiders will appeal to young adolescent readers. Yep appends a historical author's note, a selected bibliography of his sources, and an overview of how the Chronicles fit together.
TIGER'S BLOOD (2005)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 December 2004)
SOURCE: Review of Tiger's Blood, by Laurence Yep. Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 24 (15 December 2004): 1211.
Offering less action than its predecessor, this middle episode [Tiger's Blood ] in a creative yet gentle series is so calm it feels diluted. Mr. Hu—a tiger guarding the phoenix egg from evildoers—shared his soul with Tom at the end of Book One, but Tom's shift towards tigerness is slow. Hu, Tom, and their friends leave San Francisco and head underwater to the supposedly safe dragon kingdom. A mysterious "Nameless One" threatens, but Mistral the dragon and Tom defeat it anticlimactically. One friend's betrayal while Hu lies in a drugged sleep is predictable; more affecting is Tom's reluctant agreement to truly take over as the egg's Guardian. Instead of the quotations from ancient Chinese lore Yep first used to form creatures, here he uses descriptions of (real) underwater life. Visuals are colorful but logistics vague. The third entry promises a huge battle, with Tom becoming more of a tiger; this one on its own is static. (afterword) (Fantasy. 9-12)
THE EARTH DRAGON AWAKES: THE SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE OF 1906 (2006)
Michelle Glatt (review date January 2007)
SOURCE: Glatt, Michelle. Review of The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, by Laurence Yep. Library Media Connection 25, no. 4 (January 2007): 72.
Yep's latest offering [The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 ] is just in time for the 100th anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Readers see the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 through the eyes of Henry Travis, and Chin, son of the Travis' Chinese houseboy. When the earthquake hits, Henry is at his Nob Hill home and Chin is in his small apartment in Chinatown. Among the horror and devastation, both boys witness acts of true heroism as people help each other escape from toppled houses, share food and other resources, and fight the fires that ravage the city in the earthquake's aftermath. Each chapter is marked with the time, date, and location so readers can follow the boys' alternating perspectives. Some chapters present facts about such things as how the earthquake begins and how and where the fires start. These factual chapters flow seamlessly with the rest of the novel and provide much needed background information. The afterword includes Yep's personal connection to the subject, sources for further reading, and photographs. Young readers will find the story engaging and the disaster fascinating, and they will breathe a sigh of relief when the two friends are reunited.
TIGER MAGIC (2006)
Jennifer Mattson (review date 15 December 2006)
SOURCE: Mattson, Jennifer. Review of Tiger Magic, by Laurence Yep. Booklist 103, no. 8 (15 December 2006): 48.
Part of a secret network of ancient Chinese deities headquartered in his uncle's antique store, Tom gears up for a decisive showdown against evil while raising the precious baby phoenix that imprinted upon him at the end of book two. As Yep crowds ever larger hordes of characters and creatures into the conflict, even series fans will find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe [in Tiger Magic ]. But the epic dust-ups will thrill action-addicted readers regardless, and most libraries will want to complete the Tiger's Apprentice adventures, one of few middle-grade fantasy series with roots in Chinese lore.
Baer, Elizabeth R. "Laurence Yep's Dragonwings: Chinese-American Acculturation as a Paradigm for Childhood Transitions." In Literature and Hawai'i's Children: Values and Traditions from Many Cultures: Children's Tales Told and Retold, edited by Suzanne Kosanke and Todd H. Sammons, pp. 20-31. Honolulu, Haw.: Children's Literature Hawai'i, 1996.
Studies how Yep's personal history and Chinese heritage affected his authorship of Dragonwings.
Steinisch, Sabine. "From Roots to Routes: Sleuthing Identity in Two Juvenile Ethnic Detective Novels." In Sleuthing Ethnicity: The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction, edited by Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Monika Mueller, pp. 148-63. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2003.
Examines determinations of identity in Yep's Thief of Hearts.
Van Wagenen, Annette. Review of The Magic Paintbrush, by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang. Children's Book and Play Review 21, no. 5 (May-June 2001): 23-4.
Calls a The Magic Paintbrush "light, funny fantasy."
Woo, Celestine. "Bicultural World Creation: Laurence Yep, Cynthia Kadohata, and Asian American Fantasy." In Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Writing, edited by Rocío G. Davis and Sue-Im Lee, pp. 173-86. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 2006.
Includes Yep in a study of Asian-American authored fantasy.
Yep, Laurence. "Laurence Yep." In Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, compiled and edited by Donald R. Gallo, pp. 222-23. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
Yep discusses his personal life and interests in writing.
Additional coverage of Yep's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 31; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 3, 17, 54; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 46, 92, 161; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 35; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 52, 312; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 7, 69, 123, 176; and Writers for Young Adults.