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.
Cha’s use of language throughout this work was particularly interesting to me. For one, she includes a mixture of poetry and calligraphy various times (I ironically read the characters in Japanese and not Chinese), which also contributed to the discontinuity of the work that made it difficult to follow when I initially tried to read it as one linear piece.
Language is often the most easily identified burden that comes to mind when thinking about immigration or foreign countries, but Cha seems to interpret the idea of language as more than just this outward form of communication. The quotation at the beginning of “Unfaithful to the Original” by Frantz Fanon that states, “ [language] means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization…” explained this idea well. Cha describes language, particularly in pages 45-49, as part of the complex shift in identity that the Korean’s faced when having their own culture taken away from them. On page 45, she writes, “mother tongue is your refuge. It is your home.”This oppression of culture and language that the Koreans faced reminded me of the idea of being an immigrant in your own land that we discussed with George Washington Gomez. Although they are not in Korea, they are in a community of Korean exiles in Manchuria, yet at the same time have Japanese culture being forced upon them. She also includes that while all the teachers are Korean, they speak Japanese even amongst each other, which shows the extent of the marginalization at the time.
As I read a bit about Yu Guan Soon, I was shocked to find out that she would die so young, she would die at age 17. Before I read the passage about her, I was taken aback by the grainy picture next to the Soon’s name. I wondered, is this her? I wondered if I was staring at the revolutionary who I was about to read about; however, I couldn’t tell if that woman in the picture was her and I thought maybe that was the point. Maybe the point was to prove that this isn’t just Soon’s story, but it is the story of many young revolutionaries who fought against Japan and lost their lives. Maybe this picture wasn’t meant to give a face to the girl, but rather it was meant to give a face to the revolution.
As I read the passage about the struggles in Soon’s life, I was particularly struck by one line on page 32, “To other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know.” This line reminded me a lot about immigration and the obstacles that come along with it. This line relates to the idea that only the nations involved with internal conflict/war will understand the oppressions that are occurring. Only the Koreans and the Japanese understand the oppression occurring, all other citizens are outsiders and cannot understand.
In Soon’s story, Japan conquests Korea and although Soon is not an immigrant, she becomes marginalized as such. Her country is overtaken by Japan and now she is seen as foreign. This is similar to what we have read in GWG and even our own history in the USA with manifest destiny. In all these instances, a person’s land was conquered and changed before them. Their language was taken away and their way of living erased. They have to ascribe to the dominant culture. This experience mirrors that to an immigrant. These are not immigration stories, they are stories about marginalization, colonization, and betrayal; however, in many ways these people have been forced to live a life like an immigrant. They have become foreign and must assimilate to a land that was once theirs.
One of the themes that is most apparent to me throughout the entirety of this novel is identity. Both Pearl Chang and Wan-Lee struggle with a sense of knowing and understanding not only how others are identifying them, but also how they see themselves. This plays an important role in their relationship with each other because each character contains an aspect of identity that the other craves. Pearl has difficulties with her identity as a Chinese American woman—her experiences are based on her exposure to solely American culture and an appropriation of Chinese culture, yet she is curious about what she sees as authenticity in Wan Lee’s character. Tsiang expands this internal battle to Pearl’s work experiences; he writes, “Pearl Chang had lost her job in the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown because she was not a pure Chinese, but she got her job in this cafeteria because the owner thought that so long as Pearl Chang looked like a Chinese, the Americans would not know whether she was genuine or not” (145). Wan-Lee, on the other hand, is simultaneously annoyed and attracted to what he sees as ignorance, or simply Pearl’s lack of understanding of Chinese culture. He has a sense of pride and superiority, not only with Pearl, but also more generally as a man, until losing all his money results in losing his laundry, and consequently losing the hope that it had represented. I was taken aback by how abrupt and immediate after these events his death is, but I think it only accentuates the importance of the characters’ identity and ideas of success in this novel.
After reading both, “The Immigrant Novel,” and “Immigrant Writing: Changing the Contours of a National Literature,” a common theme emerging in immigrant narratives revolves around the idea of identity. Often times the experiences of the immigrant are troubling and include many obstacles, but also moments of clarity and success. These rough, conflicting experiences force clashes between the original identity and with the forced new character. The result is that many immigrant narratives produce a stereotypical image of a struggling character- both internally and externally.
Although there are numerous similarities that can be drawn between immigrant narratives, such as themes of assimilation, struggle, or bildungsroman, a defining feature of many immigrants experience is the shedding of their old identity to form a new conformed and adjusted character. In “Immigrant Writing,” Mukherjee writes that immigrants and immigrant narratives often work to deliberately erase the past and form a new identity (681). This transformation of characters can result in an internal conflict where new identities are forced on an immigrant. The struggle of the internal character revolves around this idea of conflict between the old and new. The common idea is that in order to assimilate and develop a new identity, the old one must be removed. Miller also echoes in, “The Immigrant Novel,” a similar idea that in order to be included in society, there is a sort of consensual amnesia that needs to occur, including shedding of individual pasts to join a collective identity of the new nation (209). However, is it possible to maintain both identities in tandem? Can immigrants truly merge both their native and new characters together as a result of the experiences they portrayed in immigrant narratives?