December 2010 Archives

Book Response -- Art Spiegelman's "Maus"

My selected book for this week was Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I know that Maus was supposed to be one of the choice books, and I said in my previous response that Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ was my favorite graphic novel ever, but Maus is definitely in my top five and I jumped at the chance to read it again.

Maus combines two interwoven stories revolving around the Spiegelman family. In the 1970s, Art Spiegelman (as a fictionalized version of himself) interviews his father Vladek, a Jewish veteran of the Polish Army in World War II and a Holocaust survivor, over a period of several years or his new book. The events Vladek recounts to his son are then portrayed through Vladek's own eyes as they happened in 1939-1945. Normally a story like this would be unremarkable, given its similarity to many other accounts of the Holocaust, but Spiegelman makes one vital change: he draws all the characters as animals. Jews are portrayed as mice (Maus is German for mouse, unsurprisingly), Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, and so on. There are even permutations of each group, such as an African-American being drawn as an all-black dog, German Jews being drawn as mice with cat's stripes or cats with mouse whiskers, or Jews posing as non-Jewish Poles being drawn as mice wearing pig masks.

I love Maus not only for its rich symbolism, which I'll get into later, but also for its fundamentally relatable quality. Art and Vladek don't get along; their relationship has been strained ever since the death of Art's mother Anja (also a Holocaust survivor) during his teen years, the aftermath Art recorded in a short comic in the middle of the book (with human characters, not animals). Art notes to his wife at one point that Vladek displays all the stereotypes of "the miserly old Jew". Vladek is so distraught with guilt and grief over Anja's death that he withdraws into his own little bubble, irritated by any intruders. When Art stirs up his father's painful old memories for his book, the tension comes to a head as Vladek relives his days as a concentration camp inmate. As the interviews progress, Art realizes that the Vladek he knows--a bitter, cantankerous, penny-pinching old man whom he at least partially blames for his mother's death--is completely at odds with the historical Vladek's extraordinary feats of perseverance, selflessness, and survival. I say this situation is relatable not because I know a Holocaust survivor, but because Art and Vladek's relationship is so much like the one I have with my own father, it's eerie. Just as Art and Vladek bicker over insignificant things like using wooden coat hangers for guests when a wire one would do perfectly, so too do my dad and I not see eye-to-eye on petty issues. Vladek's use of the word "shvartser," the Yiddish equivalent of "nigger," to describe a black character--which comes as a shocker, since Holocaust survivors should be experts on the evils of racism--parallels with my dad, who I've heard make occasional derogatory comments that I don't agree with about other racial groups. By the end of the book, the trials and tribulations that Art and Vladek go through--Art by dealing with his father's eccentricities and foibles, Vladek by reliving traumatic memories of his time in Auschwitz--help them understand each other better, just as my own dad and I had to get into a few major fights before we understood each other better.

That said, I'd like to jump back a little in the discussion and delve a little deeper into Spiegelman's liberal use of symbolism. As I said earlier, the Jews, both during Vladek's flashbacks and while Art interviews him, are portrayed as mice. This falls directly in line with the Nazis' view of the Jews as vermin to be exterminated. However, this is also a nod to the Jews' need to hide from the Gestapo in German-occupied territory: mice must hide from cats or be killed. On the reverse, the portrayal of Germans as cats shows the cruel nature of the Holocaust: cats don't just kill and eat mice, they capture and toy with them first. In the Nazis' view, Jews were the natural enemies of all true Aryans, just as cats are the natural enemies of mice, and thus did they justify the systematic murder of any European Jews they could find.

Masks are an important symbol as well. While in the Polish Army, Vladek wears a pig mask to pass himself off as a non-Jewish Pole when he is captured during the German blitzkrieg at the outbreak of World War II. Upon his release and repatriation, he and Anja must walk the streets of their hometown, Sosnowiec, wearing pig masks in order to evade the cats of the Gestapo. Spiegelman has said in interviews that this technique, along with his general portrayal of humans as animals, was intended to show the absurdity of racial profiling. However, I also took away a second meaning--that, at the end of the day, humans and animals really aren't all that different in behavior.

The most significant symbol, however, is that of Vladek's exercise bike. Whenever Art interviews him in the '70s, Vladek hops on the bike and begins to pedal as he recounts the events of his Holocaust experience. The faster he pedals, the more intense the memories get. For example, there is a scene in the book about Vladek and Anja's first son (Art's older brother) Richieu, who was born before the war and was only a small child at the time of the German occupation. He was poisoned by an aunt out of fear of capture by the Nazis and deportation to a concentration camp. As the focus shifts back to the '70s, there is the older Vladek, furiously pedaling away while Art looks on with his tape recorder. The use of a stationary bike, rather than some other form of exercise equipment, is key: Vladek wants to leave the past behind, but no matter how hard he tries, no matter how fast he pedals, he simply can't outrun it. The memories will always remain, and rather than confront them, Vladek shuts them out--until Art pushes him for more information.

Finally, the drawing style is simple, yet effective. Spiegelman uses no colored ink in Maus; everything is drawn in black and white, with the single exception of the aforementioned mid-book mini-comic "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History," which is drawn mostly in varying shades of gray. Characters are told apart only by their clothing. The lines are sharp, almost angular. This serves a twofold purpose: first, to show the stark contrast between Art and Vladek, as well as the contrast been the former's perception of the latter and the reality; second, to once again show just how absurd it is to divide a population along racial lines. Almost all the characters in each group of animals are indistinguishable from their fellows, except for clothing. According to an interview he gave in 1991, Spiegelman stated that he purposefully intended to make every character of a given nationality look alike, because "these metaphors...are intended to self-destruct in my book--and I think they do self-destruct."

This was not the first time I read Maus, but at least for me, this book never gets old. Rich in symbolism, heartbreakingly tragic, wryly funny, and poignantly written, this ought to be required reading in every high school literature class. At least in my opinion, it's that important.

Book Response -- Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese"

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Our required book for this week was Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese. As a graphic novel aficionado, I can't say this was my favorite book in the genre (that honor goes to Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ), but I still enjoyed it anyway--especially the ending.

American Born Chinese is really three parallel stories that don't intersect until the very end of the book. The first is a retelling of the Chinese fable of the Monkey King, who defies the gods in order to prove he is their equal. The second is about the life and trials of Jin Wang, a young Chinese-American boy who faces latent racism at school. The third is the tale of Danny, a regular white American kid who is suddenly forced to deal with his blatantly stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee. These stories all run parallel to each other, but finally intertwine in the closing pages, in a surprising way that I'll discuss later. For now though, I'll just talk a bit about the way Yang tackles the issues faced by Asian-Americans.

Discrimination against Asian-Americans has been a problem since...well, since Asian immigrants have been coming to this country. The railroads across the West were built by primarily Chinese laborers who amounted to little more than wage slaves--men working long hours in oftentimes dangerous conditions with no benefits, for a daily wage we would consider insulting today. President Chester A. Arthur even authorized the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration process for Chinese immigrants and threatened any who stayed without the proper credentials with imprisonment and deportation. This law remained on the books until 1943, a shocking 61 years.

Today we would consider such practices to be morally reprehensible, but at least in Yang's eyes, the racism of yesteryear is still ingrained in the national consciousness today, albeit latently. Jin's story in particular showcases just how those attitudes are still prevalent. Jin, a young second-generation Chinese immigrant, is bullied by his classmates in his new school due to his race, leading him to internalize feelings of disdain for his mother culture, which still has a profound effect on his life. Some kids, when exposed to messages like that, will develop feelings similar to Jin's--they see their racial, ethnic, or cultural difference as a social handicap, and will do anything to assimilate into whichever culture they feel pressured to join. In my opinion, not only is this a disservice to that child's home culture, but it also exposes the prevalent culture--usually the stereotypical "American" life--as nothing more than a vast conglomeration of people without identity. There's no reason why anyone should be bullied or picked on because they are different. Think about how many cultures have been carried to the U.S. by immigrants over the years, and how many new ones have developed in the melting pot. It's just not right that any culture should be singled out as inferior; be proud of it, I say. I'm fiercely proud of my Irish and German heritage, for example. So while I empathized with Jin's feelings of discomfort when faced with his "Asian-ness," it was hard for me, as a person who takes their heritage seriously, to understand why he felt that way. You should always be proud of who you are; "fitting in," as far as that term goes, is for people who are too scared or too lazy to take pride in where they come from.

But maybe that's why Yang included that facet of Jin's personality. That inner conflict--who you are versus who you think you should be--drives his storyline. Of course, the flipside of that is Danny's storyline, a sitcom in which he must deal with his walking, talking Asian stereotype of a cousin, Chin-Kee (and isn't that interesting, that Yang, himself a Chinese-American, would include a character like that?). Chin-Kee doesn't seem to have a problem with who he is, yet his behavior is so outrageous that you can't help but feel sorry for Danny, whose life gets progressively worse as Chin-Kee's antics destroy his social life. Danny's discomfort around his cousin serves as a counterpoint to Jin's, and that's where the ending ties everything together. Jin goes to bed one night after a fight with his friends (the only other Asian kids in his school) and wakes up as Danny, who tries to stop Chin-Kee from embarrassing him yet again. In the ensuing fistfight, Chin-Kee is revealed to be the Monkey King from the first tale, who changes Jin back to his normal form and tells him that he came to serve as his conscience. Jin, afraid that he appears to the people around him as Chin-Kee, feels like Danny (as evidenced by his initial treatment of his friend Wei Chen) even while he still lives his life within a heavily Chinese-influenced culture. An old Chinese woman earlier in the story tells him, "It's easy to become anything you long as you are willing to forfeit your soul," but the Monkey King does indeed serve as Jin's conscience: he reminds him, and the reader, that he is not his own stereotype, and that he can still be who he wants to be while maintaining his cultural identity.

Even though this won't replace DMZ as my favorite graphic novel ever, Yang's delightful use of the twist ending really made this read enjoyable. I thought the way Yang tied all the loose threads together to show Jin, the protagonist, how to deal with the latent racism he faces at school and his consequent inner fear of being stereotyped. The simple drawing style, a reflection of Jin's childlike perspective, was just the icing on the cake. I may very well use this book in one of my classes in the future...although sneaking a character like Chin-Kee past the school board might prove to be a challenge.

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