Gene Yang’s The Eternal Smile

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I’ve been meaning to post this review for some time!

In 2006, Chinese-American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang told us what it’s like to grow up as a minority in the United States with such arresting, uncomfortable candor that his American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel named as a finalist for the National Book Award. Roughly based on the author’s own experiences, one of its three short stories focuses on Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy trying to carve out an identity in a mostly Caucasian world. When a new student from Taiwan tries to befriend him, Jin lashes out. “You’re in America. Speak English,” he tells him. In the second story, the popular, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Danny is paid a visit by his cousin Chin-Kee—a buck-toothed, slit-eyed caricature of almost every negative Asian stereotype. Humiliated by Chin-Kee’s behavior, such as eating fried cat gizzards, Danny switches schools after each of Chin-Kee’s annual visits. This head-on confrontation with acceptance and identity has made American Born Chinese required reading in some American school districts and inspired translated editions in more than 10 languages.

So it should come as no surprise that Yang’s latest work, co-authored by Korean-American comic artist Derek Kirk Kim, revisits those dark places where feelings of self-doubt linger. Rather than centering on ethnic identity this time, The Eternal Smile’s trilogy straddles the line between mundane reality and misguided fantasy. In the first story, a young suitor named Duncan embarks on a dangerous mission in order to win the hand of his beloved princess. Along the way however, the impressionable Duncan loses sight of the said prize, and changes course in order to secure even more elusive rewards.  The second story focuses on a greedy frog entrepreneur who must confront his unquenchable thirst for riches when he finds himself the subject of a Truman-Show-like plot. In the third installment, Janet, a mousy, ridiculed office assistant puts her faith—and money—into an email scam purportedly concocted by a desperate Nigerian prince. What confidence she cannot drum up in real life grows stronger in a make-believe world, even when harsh reality causes her fantasy to crumble.

Depicted in three wholly distinct styles, Yang and Kim’s striking imagery deftly brings to life this trilogy’s poignant narratives. While Eternal Smile lacks the focus and passion that dripped from the pages of American Born Chinese, it nonetheless provides a sharp commentary on life purpose—something that both young and old adults alike would do well to reevaluate from time to time.