I was very eager to read (examine? look at?) this text, and it was just as thought provoking as I anticipated. Two aspects of the book that I found very interesting was how the main character was presented, and the modes of communication present in the text. I thought that the overall style of the book was very fascinating. While it’s presented in the form of a wordless graphic novel, it definitely does not take on many of the tropes of that form and uses an artistic style that’s somewhat elevated for this medium. Typically, graphic novels use a very cartoony style, and often when the subject matter of that book is more serious, that cartoony-ness is more amplified (like Persepolis, or Palestine, or Maus). However, Tan uses a very realistic style that’s even more detailed—and at times even photo-realistic—when depicting actual people. Typically, these political/historical/memoir-type graphic novels will use a less detailed, cartoony style so that the reader is put into the place of that character. This is, in part, because humans have a natural tendency to personally connect with abstracted representation of humans (to an extent). I think Tan’s purpose in drawing these characters—and specifically the main character—more realistically is in part to respect the story of the protagonist. Thus, it’s almost a more ethical approach to portray the characters as they were so that their personal journey is recognized and told. Additionally, in taking a consistently realistic approach to drawing these characters, Tan is able to make the additional characters more diverse and thus respect the multiplicity of immigrant narratives.
Additionally, I found that the modes of communication in the book were truly fascinating. Leaving this as a wordless graphic novel was such a great approach since so much of new immigration really is an art of communicating without words. Thus, the reader is immersed into the immigrant experience (again, without having to be immersed in the immigrant experience via cartoonish characters). Furthermore, there is also a presumed method of interpreting the panels that is not necessarily implicit in the text. I might be cheating just a little bit because we actually talked about a spread from this particular book in one of my other classes, but there are many instances where the reader doesn’t necessarily have to read the text from left to right—how we read English. Thus, the fluidity of the panels can perhaps connect with the fluidity of communication—and how this fluidity may not always be construction in effectively…well…communicating. When there are no word to set up the parameters of a situation, like in graphic novel without words or in a new immigrant experience, this sort of nebulousness of other modes of communication can often result in miscommunication.
When I first started reading Dictee, I was immediately taken aback by the complicated and largely fragmented form the novel took place. It did not seem like any other novel I was familiar with, and thus I had an initial struggle interpreting not only the plot and meaning of the novel, but the overall point of the novel as well. As I continued to read the poem, I decided to stop reading the poem as a traditional novel (which even flipping through the novel, it becomes immediately apparent that this is not the case), and started to read the book as a sort of long-form prose-poem. In reading the book in such a way, I was able to decipher a lot more meaning form the book itself. Prose-poetry in essence is fragmented, disjointed, and at times quite unclear—all things that could be said about many immigrant experiences, and certainly could be said about the immigrant experience Cha presents.
In presenting the book as sort of a fragmented prose-poem, the book also highlights the fragmentation of language that is inherent in translation. This concept is most developed in the moments when Cha includes poems that are written in both English and French. However, the English version will often add lines that were not in the original French (or at least presumed original in that the French is often presented before the English) that will slightly alter the meaning of the poem. Thus, Cha emphasizes that meaning is often lost in translation just because of the nature of translating from one language to another. When one loses the ability to talk in their native tongue, they also often lose the ability to convey an intended meaning—especially when a language is new to that speaker. Thus, these moments of fragmentation—both in the presentation of Cha’s language and in fragmentation of meaning in mistranslated poems—Cha is, in a way, able to simulate the immigrant experience of language and meaning.
I really enjoyed learning about the context in which Tsiang was writing, and his political motivations at the time of And China Has Hands. As a far left-wing activist in early to mid-20th century China, Tsiang developed a distaste for capitalism and I think it shines in this work. Both Wan Lee and Pearl Chang represent failed models of the American Dream. One searches for fortune destined by his own name, while the other chases fame reserved for white American actresses she idolizes. In either scenario, America was supposed to provide enough freedom to instantly catalyze financial growth and personal triumph, and did not.
I can imagine someone with the political leanings of Tsiang would exhibit this failure of the “rags to riches” cliché as a shortcoming of American policies. In Chapter 4 a Chinese salesman comes to sell Wan Lee an overcoat. “No matter how much money you had you could not change your face, but with money you could change your manner,” he says referencing the plight of Chinese people in America. (p. 44) Wan Lee considers his offer and remembers exactly how many thousands of items of laundry he would have to finish before he could afford the luxury. Here I think Wan Lee manages to spell out the struggle facing both himself and Pearl Chang throughout the novel. No matter how hard some try to advance in American society, ultimately they may either fail or abandon hope entirely, especially as part of a minority or immigrant group.
These scenes, and most of the opening passages describing the character’s aspirations reminded me of a clip from the movie Which Way Home that chronicles the story of some young Central American boys as they travel by train to the United States-Mexico border.
If you skip ahead to 1:20, a young man Kevin starts talking about his American Dream: the big city. In a time when immigration is a hotly contested issue, and success stories of Forbes charted immigrants frequently hit the headlines, stories like And China Has Hands and Which Way Home display the difficult/impossible journeys a majority of migrating people have made. I think it’s particularly interesting to see an immigrant narrative through the lens of politicization, and especially in the eyes of H.T. Tsiang.