The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This manga series is the most thought provoking one I know. The story of the boy who wants to be a girl and the girl who wants to be a boy attending the same school continues into a fifth volume. The issue of gender confusion has been covered but, as each volume is published, we see how this central problem of identity continues to affect the two growing youngsters.
Shuichi would love to wear a girl’s school uniform but must wear the black boy uniform expected of him as he starts Junior High School. Takatsuki must wear the girl uniform whereas the boy clothes would suit the person she believes she is inside. Japanese school uniforms are based on European military styles of the 19th Century. The boys and girls have completely different looks.
One girl, called Sarashia Chizuru, enters Junior High with her long hair and feminine looks. She is wearing a boy’s uniform though and carries off the look well, despite the stares and whispers of her peers. Her confidence highlights Takatsuki’s own timidity and makes her question what she wants.
Both Shuichi and Takatsuki are growing up and the pain this brings them, both trapped in bodies that don’t match their gender identity, is sensitively explored. The characters around them continue to show that more normal concerns of young people also have to be negotiated but Shuichi’s sister’s feelings about her brother’s cross dressing come to the fore in this volume. She cannot hide her embarrassment when she thinks his dressing will affect her potential love interest. When the boy of her dreams calls round to offer her sympathy for being off school with a cold, he catches her stripping Shuichi of his dress.
This manga series, by its very length, takes a more nuanced view of gender identity than would be possible in one volume. There are more to come. How it will end is unknown to me. Happily, I hope!
‘Wandering Son’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I love this manga series about a boy who wants to be a girl and a girl who wants to be a boy. I was surprised that the series had so many volumes since I could not see how the central story of gender confusion would be developed but, of course, we follow the two main protagonists: Yoshino Takatsuki, the girl who longs to be a boy; and Shuichi Nitori, a boy who is mistaken for a girl because of his androgynous looks and who feels he is a girl inside.
The youngsters are growing up and, on the cusp of adolescence, there are even more confusing issues to deal with. Love is in the air. The class decide to follow their success of the play ‘The Rose of Versailles’ with a gender swap version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Obviously, Shuichi could play Juliet and he wants Yoshino to play Romeo, even if class mates such as Chiba want the part for herself.
The big question facing Shuichi is: does he want Yoshina as Romeo because he is a boy attracted to her as a girl or because he is really a girl and is attracted to her as boy? Whichever it is, the added pressures of developing bodies have to be faced. This series is worth following to see how the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ grow up.
‘Wandering Son’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I recently read ‘Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’ by Jamie Ford. The novel was too sentimental and sickly sweet for my tastes but the central story of the effect of the Second World War on Americans of Asian heritage was a fascinating one and led me to explore further. I have already written about ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ by David Guterson which also covers some of the same ground as Hotel… Bitter and Sweet’. The Guterson novel is far superior in my view.
However, my searches led me to a graphic novel by American writer and illustrator Matt Faulkner. His book tells the story of Koji, a boy with mixed heritage. His father is Japanese and his mother is white American. He is an American until the attack on Pearl Harbour on his 13th birthday changes everything for him. As he lives with his mother in San Francisco he is considered a threat to national security. Not make matters worse, his father is in Japan visiting a sick relative. This makes the authorities even more suspicious of the boy and his mother.
Along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, Koji is interned. His mother chooses to enter the camp with him rather than send him alone.
The story is a moving one. Koji’s mixed heritage makes him a target for the Japanese boys in the camp and he is suspicious of the army officers who take an interest in his mother. He is a boy who is unsure where he fits in or why he is no longer welcome in the country of his birth. The early scenes, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour, are the most affecting. Here we see he reaction of the public to anyone who looks Japanese. Koji is refused transit on a cable car, his Principal is hostile and his school friends are now his former school friends.
This book explores an important part of US history through a personal story. Showing the pain inflicted on a family because of events out of their control is a powerful reminder of how a civilisation can act when threatened.
I read the third volume of this manga series wondering what else might be developed in a story about a boy who wants to be a girl and a girl who would rather be a boy. Having read two volumes where this theme was explored in a sensitive but extensive way, I wasn’t sure what other points could be made.
In this volume, Shuichi (the boy who wants to be a girl) and Yoshino (the girl who wants to be a boy) face the bullies at their school. What they thought was a secret kept to just themselves is exposed and the reaction from their peers is hard to accept. It is heart- breaking to see Yoshino in a dress, her attempt to fit in.
In the background we have Shuichi’s sister who is desperate to be a model. For some reason she drags her brother along to the casting sessions. We know this can only lead to trouble for her… and him. Added to this we have a story where a boy asks Shuichi out, believing him to be a girl. This is a date he accepts.
It is hard to know which pronoun to use for each character to be clear but also to the person they know themselves to be. What I do know is that this manga series handles a sensitive subject with care and does not rush to a denouement.
‘Wandering Son’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I came across Guy Delisle when searching shelves for Joe Sacco books. This book by the Canadian artist was originally published in French; he is from Quebec. It follows a year in the city where his partner is posted by the charity Medecins sans Frontieres.
They arrived in Jerusalem in August 2008. While his partner goes off to work each day, Guy Delisle looks after the children, taking them to school or nursery or occupying them by visiting the city zoo. Around these duties he sketches and visits different parts of the city and surrounding countryside. By chronicling his family life over one year he also shows the complexity of life in the city that is holy to so many religions and religious groups.
At no time does he lecture us on the political situation. Instead he shows us the cultural and political fault lines through the daily reality of checkpoints, traffic jams, closed borders and a wall. This is show rather than tell and his clear, simple style aids the showing.
There is great beauty in this book as well. His neighbourhood may be deprived, not every taxi driver will go there, but the city is stunning and this comes across.
‘Jerusalem’ by Guy Delisle is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I often trawl through the Graphic Novels section of the bookshops, ignoring the super hero stuff, trying to find an interesting gem. The term ‘novel’ does not fit properly because there are so many non-fiction books in the graphic form. Joe Sacco’s journalism is an excellent example of this.
In my book shop search, I came across this work by Kazuki Ebine. It is a biography in manga form covering his life from a shy young boy to non-violent opponent of the British Empire. The formative years as a law student in London and a lawyer fighting for equality in South Africa are also covered.
As the book is a distillation of a long and complex life, it can only provide snapshots of the important events. For example, his time in London (four years of training) is covered in a few pages. The book made me realise the importance of his South African experience, though, in terms of the training ground it proved for his later fight for independence and in terms of his awakening to issues of race and equality. He passes from suited son of the Empire to dhoti wearing irritant over the course of the book.
This is a good introduction to an important life story.