I finished the weekly reading and I noticed something was wrong. I did not feel that familiar feeling of impression. Unusual; I always feel like I’ve gained a new perspective after finishing a novel. There was no feeling of accomplishment. I felt indifferent about the book I had just read. What determines whether a book leaves an impression on you or not? I had to find answers.
I am in my last year of college now, and if there is one thing I learned throughout college, it is this: research can and should be used for every assignment. Students don’t realize the caliber of learning resources they have at their disposal outside of the classroom. If you are thinking beyond undergraduate school, such as entering the workforce or entering a graduate program, then it is vital that you utilize your free, unlimited access to academic databases. A single article can provide more theoretically complex, multifaceted analysis than an individual can produce after spending only one week on a single novel. Many online articles in databases take years of studying, forming connections, and much reading. Chances are you will learn about at least one new angle or approach regarding your topic.
I began at the research databases provided by our school. I searched the key word Donald Duk, the novel I was reading at the time, and hit search. Why did I not care for this book? Was it because deep down, I disagreed with the author’s message? I saw these steaming accusations being hurled at me by my classmates the moment I shared this reality. Simply put, I found it hard to relate to the novel. There was no room for me, the reader, to fill in the gaps myself. To form connections. The author did that for me. It felt as if I had just sat through a six-hour lecture in the guise of a YA novel.
The book was written in 1991. Almost three decades ago. Check. There’s something to consider. I would later learn in seminar that during this time, Chinese-American history in literature was almost non-existent. The year this book was written is significant because it was around the beginning of Asian-American literature. Historical context of a novel should always be considered during analysis. In order to grasp different modes of contextualization, we must find out what others have said. The best way to do that, is through scholarly articles.
I quickly found a scholarly article in response to Frank Chin’s Donald Duk.
As I began reading the article, I gained the sense that a veil was starting to lift. My confusion about the author’s literary strategies began to fade. As I explore the story in a novel, I genuinely try to connect what I already know with the story at hand. If history, politics, society, and author’s background form the deep-end of the novel’s pool, then the issues presented inside the novel are the shallows. We must dive deeper into the academic pool if we want to understand more about what it is we’re reading. We must contextualize for a greater learning experience. Learning how to navigate research databases effectively and efficiently will help you achieve that level of scholarship.
Here’s what I learned from outside sources: the author must balance their novel’s purpose with how this purpose is expressed. Richardson argues that while Chin provides a lens for Chinese-American culture and relative historical and contemporary issues, his literary narrative subverts the novel’s goal of guiding the audience to a process of re-examination (page 62). During many instances in the story, Frank Chin’s messages about otherness, Americanism, cultural alliances, and historical structural violence are facilitated through parental lectures. This literary device, coupled with some prior knowledge of these issues, made it difficult for me to resonate with the novel as someone who is married, works a job, and pays bills.
A successful novel will make readers cry, laugh, or throw the book in rage. “Emotion is what creates movement and action.” When an author writes with a moral lesson in mind, it is exactly the same as trying to persuade someone to do something. According to Dale Carnegie, it does good in persuasive contexts to “remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion” (How to Win Friends and Influence People). Although Young Adult Fiction is a genre in which age-boundaries are blurred through popular titles like Harry Potter and Twilight, some novels are received more easily by certain age groups. In this instance, showing through emotional narrative instead of lecturing could have brought the audience closer to achieving Chin’s goal of producing empathy for Chinese-Americans.
That being said, the novel contains several palatable messages underneath these technical issues. Like I mentioned earlier, this novel is a work in Young Adult historical fiction. The main character is a 5th generation, twelve-year-old Chinese-American boy living in Chinatown who comes to realize his cultural heritage as being a source of pride, instead of a burden. On the surface, this book works well to help younger-generation Chinese-Americans understand multi-culturalism and take pride in their own heritage. But ultimately, it fails to tackle the larger issues of systemic racism through the lightly touched-on relationship between Donald Duk and Arnold Azalea, his rich, white friend. Should these issues be deemed too difficult for young audiences? I’ll let you decide.
Richardson, Susan B. “The Lessons of Donald Duk.” MELUS, vol. 24, no. 4, 1999, pp. 57–76. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/468173.