The Lessons of "Donald Duk."(novel by Frank Chin)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Frank Chin's Donald Duk is a spirited novel of education whose comic protagonist makes a welcome addition to the roster of American literary boy heroes. The novel entertains readers with its coming-of-age account of twelve-year-old Donald carping and spluttering his way to new understanding--about himself, about his community, about his place in American society. Yet beyond any entertainment value, the author clearly intends his novel to have a serious didactic purpose. Stories, according to Chin, are essential to an education that would "create informed, morally conscious citizens"; he claims that Chinese legends and stories are a "valuable tool" for reminding Chinese-Americans of their heritage and a "necessity" for bringing understanding to white Americans about the history and culture of others.(1) The novel exemplifies his claim; Donald Duk's comic strip bildungsroman becomes a novel of education for readers as well--especially for white readers. The lessons that drive the novel are explicit and unambiguous. Donald Duk presents the heroic dimensions of Chinese-American history even as it exposes the invidious popular stereotypes, the prejudices, and the injustices that characterize that history. The unrelenting indictment of the status of Chinese-Americans and their treatment in American society, in the past and now, becomes an argument for social correction--a call for change dictated by respect for all and fair play as promised by American democracy.

The cultural issues explored by Donald Duk are not new to Frank Chin's work--Chin's role as a spokesman for Chinese America is well established. The legal and social forces that have victimized Chinese-Americans (e.g. racist U.S. exclusion laws, the nineteenth century exploitation of Chinese laborers, the distortion of classic Chinese philosophy and literature, the erasure of Chinese-American history, the emasculating stereotypes of Chinese in the American media) inform Chin's work from his earliest essays and plays(2) to his 1994 novel, Gunga Din Highway.

Curiously, however, in spite of Donald Duk's clear didactic purpose, Chin's narrative choices undermine the effectiveness of his argument to persuade and transform his readers. Various formal features, such as his cartoon format and the use of characters as surrogate-learners, serve to distance readers from the text and from the characters. Chin's insistence upon presenting unfamiliar ethnic material as familiar and "normal" blunts an outsider reader's encounter with Chinese-American experience and reduces the possibility of reproducing for the-reader a multicultural experience. Also, Chin's repeated use of analogy between Chinese-American and mainstream cultures in order to foster white acceptance of Chinese America establishes a false homogeneity between the two cultures. These narrative strategies that simplify and homogenize also distort experience and mitigate against genuine understanding of the "other." Beyond these problems with form, moreover, the argument itself is compromised by its particularity. Even as the novel calls for the erasure of race-based prejudice and injustice, it leaves intact discrimination based on other categories such as gender or class. Voices emerge from the text that complicate the novel's seemingly simple message and that call into question the integrity of its underlying principles. The discussion of the lessons of Donald Duk which follows will focus first on the effectiveness of certain of Chin's narrative techniques in delivering the novel's lessons and then will consider the implications of the contending subtextual voices for the novel's didactic impact.

The style and spirit of Donald Duk are uncharacteristic of much of Chin's earlier work. The adversarial anger and bitterness of, for example, The Chickencoop Chinaman or "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake" here give way to wry humor, comic scenes of burlesque, and dialogue peppered with broad punning and the slangy, insult-laden bantering of young siblings. …