by Belle Yang
One of the mysteries of the modern world, at least for young Americans, is how families and dynasties manage to pass on their wealth and their cultural knowledge. For me personally, the triggering town was a trip to visit the American South in my late 20s–I was baffled by meeting people who were working the same jobs their grandparents had (canning tomatos, fishing for oysters) and who could run across unexploded Civil War ordinance and feel a connection to it.
I, on the other hand, came from people with restless feet. Beginning in Denmark and Ireland, my people came to the Eastern shores of the New World and moved West with each generation. I don’t speak the same language my great-grandparents spoke, am not of the same religion.
The House of Yang, in this graphic novel, based in Manchuria, has endured for 8 generations and is ongoing. When Belle Yang, born in California and grown up Chinese-American, falls in love with the Rotten Egg, an American boyfriend psycho-stalker who shoots up her lawyer’s office and threatens to kill her, she must retreat to her parents’ house. It offers both protection and confines that she chafes against.
But she gets to know her father and his history better, and comes to terms with her creativity. Her father was born in Manchuria and escapes to Taiwan after the Japanese occupation ends. From there, he makes his way to America, where he feels he belongs, like he never has before.
What I Loved About This Graphic Novel
- When I went through graduate school at Eastern Washington University, there was a Chinese man in my program. He told me that English to him felt very “flat” and one-dimensional. He explained that Chinese characters look like the idea they represent, so the Kanji for a book looks like a book. He said Chinese felt and looked three-dimensional to him, which of course was hard for me to imagine. But that’s why I feel that the graphic novel format, with illustrations that illuminate the characters’ emotions, are more true to the story. It feels like and extra layer. It was cool.
- The Chinese man also told me that, in many parts of China, physical or mental handicaps are heavily stigmatized–that many village people considered the disabled to have done something awful to bring calamity on themselves (al la the Puritans) and so the village would shun them, lest it was catching.
In Forget Sorrow, Third Brother has to outrun the Communists as a Magistrate, and he gets frostbite in his toes. Some have to be amputated. He is never the same again. (Interestingly, a village doctor of Chinese medicine tells him that a Western doctor would have amputated his entire foot…) Third Brother is greedy, like a goose. He is selfish. He is a glutton. Nonetheless, the father character loves him. Unfortunately, Third Brother comes to a bad end, earned through his actions but not necessarily deserved. Chairman Mao is to blame.
- I loved the complicated family relationships. The history that is explained–which I never learned about in American textbooks. Seniority is huge, but so is the grandparents’s “favorite son.”
- Neither the Nationalists or the Communists are portrayed as totally good. Even Pearl Buck’s “red-beard” bandits have a good side–if you see them and fire a rifle shot, if they don’t want to fight you they get off their horses and walk. It was honest, it was raw, it was painful. Spectacularly good writing.
It was sometimes confusing for me to try to figure out who was who and that was because so many of the characters had numbers instead of names, Chinese-style. I kept confusing Third Uncle with Third Brother, for example.
Just like the declensions of Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia are the thermoclines of family ties and societal ties. As the Communists take over from the Nationalists who take over from the Japanese, the fortunes of the House of Yang decline, decline, decline. But the peasants who have benefitted from their generosity over the decades do not have to reciprocate now that the tables are turned and the Patriarch has been labeled a “Capitalist”.
Who is selfish, and who is generous? And what does family really mean?
The Final Countdown
Somewhere in the telling of her father’s story, Belle Yang becomes strong. And that was absolutely satisfying, no matte how sad the tale of Forget Sorrow may have been. The phrase that she was named for, the phrase that she tried to write out of her father’s story. No more sorrow–just a happy life in America with the rest of us–modern people–looking forward to the new age.
Rating: Oh boy, did I love this graphic novel. Could not put it down. Five watermelons being sold by vendor Second Uncle with his knobbly knees and his philosophy of non-attachment!
From blog reader Marc Anthony, who lives in Taiwan:
“There are many Taiwanese works I admire, but if I had to choose the ones that really capture Taiwan’s people and cultures, I’d first strongly recommend Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes, which captures the essence of Taiwan’s deeply felt relationship between its people and nature. Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island reveals the silent pain Taiwanese still suffer from as a result of the fascist military dictatorship. And Wintry Night by Li Qiao traces three generations of. Hakka family starting from the Japanese occupation to the end of WWII. This book beautifully illustrates the sheer tenacity and indomitability of Taiwanese.”