2013 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature: Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone

November 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

“Translating books is an odd way to make a living. It is customary to translate from your second language into your first, but among my father’s many friends and colleagues, every possible combination of language and direction is represented.

Gil translates from Portuguese into English. Most translators grow up speaking two or three languages but some speak a ridiculous number; the most I’ve heard is twelve. They say it gets easier after the first three or four.

The people I find disturbing are those with no native language at all. Gil’s friend Nicholas had a French mother and a Dutch father. At home he spoke French, Dutch and English but he grew up in Switzerland speaking Italian and German at school. When I ask him which language he thinks in, he says: Depends what I’m thinking about.

The idea of having no native language worries me. Would you feel like a nomad inside your own head? I can’t imagine having no words that are home. A language orphan.” (pp. 45-46, iBooks on Mac edition, beginning of Ch. 9)

Meg Rosoff’s most recent novel, Picture Me Gone, is hard to summarize succinctly.  Perhaps those hoary old descriptors, “coming of age” and “Bildungsroman,” might capture a small facet of the story of young Mila, but the wry observations and wide-ranging perspectives of the narrator are not typically those one might expect to find in a work written for a teen audience.  No, there are certain exceptionalities within this book that defeat attempts to place it squarely within a singular category.  Certainly Picture Me Gone is not a work that should be read in a rush, as there are layers to the narrative that make a slower contemplation of the characters and their developments a rewarding exercise.

Picture Me Gone first struck me as an introspective novel about how we, especially those of us who are still developing their world-views, try to position ourselves within the larger picture(s) of life around us.  The passage quoted above, which is part of a larger series of musings on language and identity, is representative of Rosoff’s excellent characterization.  Here Mila struggles to comprehend the possible rootlessness of those who possess multiple loci – in this particular case, “native” language(s) – and for whom life is less a linear journey along a personal timeline and more a series of bifurcating paths that weave in and out of others’ own walks of life.  Such an observation does not come from one wedded intimately to one’s own surroundings, but instead seems to belong more properly to those who question the world around them.  Another example of this occurs late in the novel, after the English-born Mila has lived some time in the US:

 “There are hundreds of channels on American TV and I flick through without paying much attention to anything on the screen. It is mostly commercials. I come to the high numbers, where a topless woman rubs her breasts and starts to ask if I want to get to know her better before I click past. I pause on a nature show where a quiet-voiced man admires a beautiful stag in a clearing, saying, Isn’t he a magnificent creature? and then raises his rifle and shoots him through the heart. The animal staggers and falls to his knees. I want to throw up.

A week ago America felt like the friendliest place in the world but I am starting to see darkness everywhere I look. The worst thing is, I don’t think it is America. I think it is me.” (Ch. 28, pp. 248-249 iBooks for Mac edition)

For someone such as myself who was born and raised in the US, the tawdry mixture of scantily-clad women and casual (hunting) violence may not cause as much consternation as it would for someone for whom such scenes are not typical late-night fare.  Mila’s observation that it is not as much America but herself goes straight to the heart of the book:  the seemingly quotidian elements of contemporary life, from new schoolmates to divorces to other changes in personal milieu, seem more profound and important as one enters into a more abstract and less concrete understanding of the lives and situations around them.  Younger children may interpret shifts in relationships through concrete means:  mommy and daddy aren’t in the same bed anymore and there are fewer hug times or toys for Christmas.  A preteen or a teenager, however, might conceptualize things such as divorce or death through how each relates to that person’s understanding of the world and matters such as faith, justice, or a sense of fairness.  In Picture Me Gone, Rosoff captures that shift in perspective vividly.  Mila tries to puzzle out everything around her; it is all new to her.  Sometimes this can be frightening, but other times it is exhilarating.

If there is a flaw to Picture Me Gone, it may be that Rosoff is sometimes too subtle.  The events that spark reactions from Mila sometimes lack a sense of urgency that can drive readers to move quickly to the next chapter.  The external forces that shape Mila’s development are sometimes not as clearly defined as they could have been and this serves to rob the novel of some of its power.  Yet despite this, there are many interesting elements developing quietly under the narrative surface that by novel’s end they emerge to provide the story a fitting conclusion.  Picture Me Gone may not contain a singularly powerful scene or element that will make an indelible impression upon the reader, but the cumulative effect of Mila’s piercing introspective thoughts is that of a slowly moving narrative river whose silty character deposits build a fertile delta upon which a careful and inquisitive reader can harvest a wealth of impressions.  Worthy nominee for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

2013 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature: Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

November 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I remember an old, but very pointed, witticism from my days studying at the University of Tennessee that went something like this:  In studying history, we mostly were getting only one side of the story, because her story was too often ignored by those writing down events.  There is, of course, much truth to this.  History is written by the winners, written records are privileged (until recently) over oral tales.  The deeds of men were valued over those of women.  Elite culture trumped that of plebeian culture.  In each of these cases, however, there were still preserved elements, if not whole-cloth, of the “other” histories.  They might be mere whispers, barely audible even those who strain to hear them, but the voices of the downtrodden are beginning to emerge more and more in histories and historical fictions over the past generation or so.

One recent example of this is Chinese-American graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang’s rendering of the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion in China.  A century later, this popular uprising mystifies and fascinates those who look for parallels with our own times.  There certainly are many such elements:  resistance to imperialism, both political and cultural alike; varying amounts of personal/cultural adaptation to foreign influences; infighting over what is to be preserved from one’s culture and which is to be adopted from elsewhere; questions of identity and how the past and present can shape a person.  Multiple perspectives are necessary in order to understand the tumult of events such as the Boxer Rebellion.  How did it start?  Who were its targets?  In what ways did rebellion manifest itself in the people infected with a desire to purge the land of new influences?  Who resisted the call to rebellion?  Who were the victims of these purges?  How can one determine a “right” or “wrong” when it comes to what one believes and how one expresses those beliefs?

These are the questions that Yang addresses throughout the course of his two intertwined graphic novels, Boxers and Saints.  Multiple sides are presented here, with matters of “right” and “wrong” deliberately left open for interpretation.  Although the main protagonists of each book, Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints), present compelling reasons as to why their point-of-view should be most sympathetic to readers, Yang carefully illustrates, both in his drawings and in his scripts, the limits and foibles of each young protagonist.  In Boxers, we see Bao’s struggle to find respect and dignity in 1890s rural China, with vivid scenes such as his father’s brutal beating and maiming serving as an impetus for him to turn toward the preaching of itinerant traditionalists such as Red Lantern who urge the countryside to revolt against China’s foreign oppressors and to remove the shame that has visited the country.  Inflamed with a passion to restore the glory of China’s past and its “opera” gods and goddesses, Bao seeks (and at first is rebuffed due to his young age) training in the mystical ways of the Righteous Fists, where he learns how to embrace the spirits of the Chinese gods and heroes.

In contrast, Vibiana has rejected tradition and embraced Christianity after being maltreated by her family and cast out.  She, like Bao, seeks something greater than herself to anchor herself to, but instead of accepting a menial role demanded of village women at that time, she begins to explore the new faith that has been introduced in the region.  Through her views, we see some of the myriad reasons why many Chinese converted to Christianity, not all of which were noble in intent, purpose, or action.  Yang has created in these two characters interesting parallels, not all of which are immediately visible upon a first reading.  If anything, by having the two books be bound separately, the parallels are slightly obscured as the reader encounters mostly the views of one of the two protagonists (with minor appearances of the other through the eyes of each other).  This, however, does not weaken the power of the dual narratives but instead strengthens both, as the understanding one might derive in reading one book first (if it were up to me, I would read Boxers first, as it is the longer of the two and Yang scripted it first) can be deepened (and in some cases, challenged) by a quick reading of the other.  Indeed, one could even read the “chapters” in alternating fashion to create an even more composite view, although this would reveal a few narrative surprises in the process.

Bao and Vibiana are flawed young individuals, each seeking justification for his or her actions.  Things that one blithely accepts are seen by the other as atrocities.  The external forces that drive each can be seen as self-destructive when viewed through the perspective of the other narrator.  Yet taken as a whole, their twin narratives tell a powerful story that leads the reader to ask many of the questions I laid out above.  The result is a wonderfully realized retelling of an important moment in Chinese history that will engage readers from the early pages of Boxers all the way to the ending of Saints.  These two books, when read as a whole, certainly are deserving of their dual nomination for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and they are among my favorite 2013 releases to date.  Highly, highly recommended.

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