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Amy Tan’s debut novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) was one of the first books of contemporary “grownup” fiction that I read as a young teenager. Tan has gone on to write six more novels, as well as children’s books and nonfiction, but very often it is Joy Luck‘s collection of interlocking narratives about Chinese American mothers and daughters that calls back to old readers and attracts new ones.
For comics readers looking for books that reflect some of Joy Luck‘s themes — both particular and universal — I have some recommendations.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Like Amy Tan, Gene Luen Yang was born in Northern California to Chinese immigrant parents. While Tan’s work focuses on her own post-World War II/Baby Boom generation, along with that of her parents, Yang’s YA masterpiece speaks to a younger generation. Protagonist Jin Wang likes girls and basketball. He doesn’t want anything to do with his Chinese heritage, or the (few) other Asian kids at his school. These could be the ingredients for a fine realistic coming-of-age story, but American Born Chinese doesn’t stop there. Using everything in his cartoonist’s toolbox, Yang combines Jin’s journey with a fable about The Monkey King, and employs a stereotypical character called Chin-Kee to invoke the history of anti-Asian racism in Western cartooning. This is a story that could truly only be told in the comic book medium.
Also try Yang’s two-volume historical epic Boxers & Saints, or Yang and Sonny Liew’s riff on superhero history and cultural erasure, The Shadow Hero.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Anya Borzakovskaya, the protagonist of this 2011 graphic novel, emigrated to North America from Russia when she was five. She is proud that she has lost her accent, and works hard at being as much like everybody else as she possibly can. Like Yang in American Born Chinese, writer/artist Vera Brosgol uses fantasy elements (the title is a hint) to show the protagonist’s journey toward self-acceptance.
Since Amy Tan writes realistic novels aimed at an adult audience, it may seem odd to compare her works to fantasy comics written for young readers. However, much of The Joy Luck Club is told from the point of view of characters who are teens or children, as the adult women of the core cast reflect on their lives. Notably, as the characters often look back on bad decisions or missed opportunities, they are not always kind or likeable. Tan wants readers to understand her characters, but does not always demand that we love them.
Anya is like an Amy Tan character in the ways that she must negotiate her identity between two nationalities. She’s also like them in the way that she can be gruff or cruel, and can make bad choices. She doesn’t beg for our love, but she never ceases to be at the center of the story.
Dong Hwa Kim is a legend in Korean comics, where he has been writing and drawing manwha for forty years. Kim’s work did not find an English language publisher until First Second books put out this trilogy in 2009. The three volumes compile a series of tales that Kim began writing in 1992, and they can be read together as a continuous novel.
The trilogy follows the life of Ehwa, a girl living in rural Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. Kim has said that Ehwa is loosely based on his mother, but if that leads you to expect a reverent, sentimental celebration of traditional values, that is not the case. In fact, The Color of Earth is one of the most challenged books in U.S. libraries, due to its frankness about sexuality — including nudity, masturbation, and lots of dirty jokes — in a story with (at the start) a very young protagonist. Indeed, the book may not be appropriate for children or young teens, but these elements serve to enrich the comic by showing a full tapestry of life.
The heart of the story, as in Tan’s work, is the relationship between Ehwa and her mother, a young widow. They are living in a time in which Ehwa can expect to choose her own husband, which is still seen as a newfangled custom by some of the older villagers. But the mother is defensive of Ehwa’s right to make her own choices, just as she carries on her own passionate affair with a traveling salesman. The Color books demonstrate one limitation of the Bechdel test, because even while much of the interaction among the story’s women is “about” men and relationships, these conversations are deeply revealing of the characters’ own values, wishes, and desires.
Finally, if the part of The Joy Luck Club that most appeals to you is in the relationships between adult mothers and daughters, then try All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga.
Yoshinaga is a popular Japanese manga creator, best known for her gender-swapped historical epic Ooku. However, she has written broadly across many genres, and All My Darling Daughters is a modern, realistic story about three generations of women.