Ahhhh! A coming-of-age story! Okay, not completely, but still, I should hate this, right? Don’t I hate all coming-of-age stories?
Belle Yang’s latest, Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, is published by W. W. Norton & Company and costs a mere twenty-three dollars and ninety-five cents. Okay, that’s a tiny bit steep, but it’s a nice hardcover and I’m sure you can find it cheaper if you want to.
I wrote that this is a coming-of-age story, but it’s not really, or it’s not a traditional one, I should say.
Yang tells us on the first few pages what the story is – in the mid-1980s, after graduating from college and spending a few years out in the world, she returned home to her parent’s house in California fleeing an abusive boyfriend. They sent her to China for a few years, and when she returned after the Tiananmen Square massacre, she spent more time with her parents. Her trip to China had made her interested in her family, so she asked her father to tell her stories about them. This book is the result.
There are a lot of interesting plot threads in this book. Yang’s herself gets the least amount of attention, as she emerges from the book a full-fledged adult instead of a scared girl, with very little tracking of how she got there. Well, that’s not exactly true – what she learns from her father about her family is what gets her there, but it’s interesting that Yang doesn’t focus on how her father’s stories help her – she focuses more on how her father’s family defined him and his era. He was born in 1929, so he lived through some very tumultuous years in China’s history, fleeing first the mainland in the late 1950s and then Taiwan in the late 1960s. So this is a dual coming-of-age story. I usually don’t like coming-of-age stories, but the way Yang tells it – subtly in her own case (and, of course, she’s in her late 20s/early 30s when she hears about her dad’s childhood, so she’s a bit older than usual with these tales) and through the lens of history in the case of her father’s – makes this a fascinating comic.
She isn’t heavy-handed about anything – her father almost accidentally grows up, as does Yang – and that makes this more interesting than you usually find with coming-of-age tales.
Yang’s father – Zu-Wu, as he’s called when he’s young – tells the story of his grandfather and his four sons, who in the latter years of World War II moved back to their grandfather’s estates in Manchuria, which had been occupied by the Japanese since 1931. Zu-Wu concentrates on telling Yang about the family politics over the next few years. It’s interesting because it’s a boy’s view of what happens in a family – as everyone lives together, Zu-Wu discovers quite a lot about what’s going on, but he never takes sides. His father, the eldest, should be closer to his grandfather, but he is more concerned with meditating on the Buddha, so Zu-Wu’s uncles – Second, Third, and Fourth Uncles – gain influence, especially Third Uncle, who is a bit of a wastrel but always flatters the grandfather. Zu-Wu never speaks poorly of his uncles even when Third Uncle, especially, opposes his own father – he loves his family and wants them to get along. That they don’t is a source of pain for Zu-Wu.
We follow these characters through the end of the war and the rise of the Communists, and Yang does something rather interesting here. I’m always fascinated by the fact that people telling about life under an oppressive regime never actually implicate themselves or anyone they know – they’re always victims of the regime in some way. I thought Yang was going that way, as a few members of her family suffer when the Communists take over in Manchuria, but then she shows us other members of her family rejecting their own flesh and blood because it would look bad for them if the Communists found out they were harboring “capitalists.”
It makes the book much more interesting, because we see that life under an oppressive regime is much more complex than just “the evil government” and “the good folk” who happened to get stuck living there – the people are often far more complicit than we’d like to admit, and Yang doesn’t whitewash the fact that a character who we’ve come to know a little and think of as “good” doesn’t do anything to help someone in need.
Forget Sorrow also shows us the rural society of China in the 1940s, which, like a great deal of the world (even today), was a curious blend of the medieval and the modern. People still lived their lives as they had for centuries, but radios and other electronic devices were making inroads and they still seemed wildly exotic in such a place. Yang does a good job showing how the old ways weren’t necessarily the best, but that what supplanted it wasn’t too great either. This makes the book sound bleaker than it is, but she’s simply suggesting that people have to be careful when whole-heartedly embracing something new – the old ways might need to be replaced, but perhaps not with the first thing that comes along. This even extends to the modern periods, as Yang continues to be menaced by her stalker. It’s rather uncomfortable to read the few passages that take place in the “present,” because Yang’s father basically blames her for the fact that a crazy man is stalking her, and Yang accepts his opprobrium. This is what I mean when I say it’s a coming-of-age story for Yang herself – she never confronts her dad about his attitude, but she learns to move past it, and ironically, it’s the way he moves past his family that allows her to get on with her own life. Zu-Wu is a product of his time and place, but he was able to get out. Later, when he went back, he realized that he had moved on, as his family had broken up and he had little in common with the survivors. Yang does a wonderful job showing how her great-grandfather, great-uncles, and grandfather met their ends – the title of the book comes from Zu-Wu’s father (Yang’s grandfather) comforting his father (Yang’s great-grandfather) as the patriarch dies. He needs to forget the sorrow of the world and move on, just like Zu-Wu needed to do and what Yang herself needs to do (and indeed, on the first page she tells us her name is Xuan, which means “Forget Sorrow”). It’s a really nice approach that Yang takes, because it’s not a standard way of telling a coming-of-age story.
Yang is a character in her book, obviously, but she’s not the main one. Her growth comes a bit more subtly.
Yang’s art is an odd mixture of Chinese brushstrokes, medieval woodcuts, and Communist propaganda poster style. It works very well. Zu-Wu’s story becomes a nice blend of biography and fantasy, as his narrative veers from simple retelling of events to flights of fancy that illustrate his various points. Yang even gives her own story a bit of strangeness, as Rotten Egg (which is what they call her abusive boyfriend throughout the book) becomes a dark presence in the story until Yang gets beyond him. She does a good job making the “present” scenes blend seamlessly into those from the past, giving the entire book a timeless feel. The art is nice and detailed, giving us both the beauty of the rural landscape but also rough life of the country. It’s the kind of art that, when you look at it more and more, it reveals more and more. It’s pretty keen.
Forget Sorrow is an interesting book that gives us insight into a situation that many in the West know little about, and Yang does it very nicely, showing how our past can help us move forward in our own lives. I’ve always said that I like coming-of-age stories when the creator does something different with the concept, and Yang does that. The fact that she does it so well just makes this comic that much better. She does quite a bit in this book without being too obvious about it, and that makes Forget Sorrow a comic that makes you think as it’s entertaining you. That’s a good combination!
Tomorrow: Medieval adventures! Right up my alley!