CM . . . . Volume XX Number 18 . . . . January 10, 2014
Guitar Hero, the latest book by Day's Lee, is a welcome addition to Canadian young adult fiction and, more broadly, the expanding body of Chinese Canadian literature that focuses on Chinese immigrants and their Canadian-born descendants. Narrating the story from a teen's perspective, Lee draws readers into the Chinese Canadian community's lived experiences and explores the meanings of being "Chinese Canadian" within the urban context of multicultural Montreal. The existing criticism on Chinese Canadian literature has suggested that Chinese immigrant writers still address issues such as immigration, culture, and identity, but that more recent writing exemplifies a significant shift as the writing has diversified in its subject matter and style. Chinese Canadians' collective experiences and their history of marginalization in Canada continue to be of interest to many writers, but more recent works also reveal a significant interest in exploring how intercultural elements, as well as individual and hybrid identities, are manifested or articulated in the contemporary context. I would suggest that stories written by Canadian-born descendants of Chinese immigrants are also important to consider as their cultural sensibilities are shaped by having grown up in Canada rather than by a childhood upbringing back in China. As a result, these writers' understandings of China are derived second-hand, rather than from first-hand experience. While these understandings of China may not be entirely accurate, this also gives writers the latitude to explore these historical aspects in a more flexible manner so that they are framed in relation to their influence on contemporary Chinese Canadians' identities.
As a writer born and raised in Montreal, Day's Lee exemplifies this newer generation of Chinese Canadian writers. The novel's overall narrative trajectory is, arguably, fairly recognizable and predictable as it focuses on a high school teenager and the life lessons that he learns, with the story culminating with the grad prom. However, what makes Guitar Hero a particularly interesting story is its narrative perspective. Focussing on David Chang and the struggles he faces as a 16-year-old growing up in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, the novel presents him as someone who is shaped by a variety of cultural and social influences that are, in turn, impacted negatively by his family's difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Indeed, the story starts off by alerting readers that his parents have been short of money for some time due to his father's loss of his long-time job, due ironically to the fact that his employer has shifted its operations overseas to China.
However, David is not a stereotypical Chinese Canadian teenager who rejects everything about his Chinese heritage, an image that has appeared in some earlier works of fiction about Chinese immigrant experiences in Canada. Other stories may have Chinese Canadian characters who feel ashamed of their cultural background and wish to hide it, or who feel so strongly about preserving their heritage that they reject other cultural influences, even if this results in a self-created marginalization from the rest of their community. In contrast, David is depicted more subtly as he neither wholly embraces nor rejects his cultural heritage and the values that are part of it. Although Chinese culture is part of David's family, he is shaped by a variety of cultural influences that include his family's traditional Chinese culture and Western values that he has absorbed through school, his peers, and the larger Montreal community. For example, he forms intercultural friendships that include people from both Asian and non-Asian backgrounds, rather than confining his interaction with people from the latter. David is neither strongly attached to, nor ashamed of, his Chinese heritage since he does not feel the need to articulate his views about it overtly. Instead, his heritage is simply an interwoven part of his upbringing in Canada and his daily life.
Although David loves to play the guitar, he thinks that it would be neat if he could read Chinese, and he also enjoys eating Shanghai noodles and Chinese desserts. He is respectful and deferential to his grandmother as well as his parents, although he has different views about his future. For example, he faces parental pressures to work towards a well-paying career as his parents believe that he would have a poor financial future in music. However, he is reluctant to follow his parents' wishes as this means that he would be sacrificing his passion for playing music. In relation to this, he gets a job in the neighbourhood music store in exchange for guitar lessons.
Besides these cultural influences, David has desires and interests that mirror those of many other teenage boys who are born and raised in Canada. He wants to avoid disappointing his parents by maintaining good grades, but he also wants to ask a girl to the grad prom, hang out with friends, and pursue his interest for guitar playing. The basic plot is fairly simple as the novel is structured temporally by the high school year, and its main narrative thread revolves around the school's upcoming prom. Although David wants to go with his friends to the prom, his family's financial circumstances make it challenging because he wants to look his best and not have his enjoyment dampened by the lack of money to spend.
Class issues also impact David's circumstances significantly and shape his perceptions of cultural influences in his daily life. He faces economic pressures from family, friends, and school to conform to certain behavioural expectations and attitudes. Due to his family's financial difficulties, David cannot conform socially due to his limited spending power, and this contributes to his social exclusion and feelings of self-pity. He grows increasingly frustrated because he cannot participate in any social activities or pursue other personal interests that would require money. For example, he cannot dress like his friends or participate in the same leisure activities without feeling that he needs to watch his money, even for something as ordinary as dining at a restaurant and going to the movies. As a result, he lies so that his friends do not find out that he has no money to hang out with them. In addition, he even steals a bit of money at one point so that he can at least go with them to eat. Although his actions are inexcusable, readers will at least sympathize because it was not done out of a premeditated attempt to harm someone else, but rather to fulfill his own desperate need to feel like he can fit in with his peers.
The novel also has a wide supporting cast of secondary characters that include David's extended family, friends, and other people in Montreal. Nevertheless, readers will find Lee's novel engaging and will identify with David's desires and frustration throughout the story and will feel sympathy when he cannot attend the prom. At the same time, David is portrayed as a complex character who is not wholly without fault either, a portrayal which will enhance the story's realism and elicit reactions of disdain or disapproval from readers at some points. David's grandmother, Nai-Nai, is similarly depicted as a more three-dimensional character rather than as a stereotypical Chinese elder who is a traditionalist with a conservative outlook. Instead, it is she who supports David's desire to attend the grad prom and offers to provide money to help him buy a good suit.
As it turns out, it is his parents who seem to support David's interests more tentatively, though their concern for his well-being is understandable. The story's resolution seems to fall short because it shows a rather quick turnaround in terms of his parents' views about his guitar-playing, particularly as they had overtly expressed their disapproval of his guitar playing throughout the whole story. This attitudinal shift will likely come as somewhat of a complete surprise to readers, not to mention David. Even though the explanation provided does make sense, the lack of buildup to that revelation may not satisfy some readers. Nevertheless, this resolution does contribute to Lee's complex representations of Chinese Canadian characters as David's parents are amenable to having their attitudes changed and are not simply inflexible individuals who adhere to "traditional" Chinese values and expect their son to do the same.
However, perhaps a more significant shortcoming in Lee's novel is that some characters are less fully developed, such that this may lessen some readers' interest in the story because they cannot connect as readily with those characters. To an extent, this shortcoming is inevitable because the novel has many characters and is narrated from David's limited perspective. For example, readers' impressions of David's friends Craig and Christine are limited, and fewer details are provided about them, other than how they relate to events that affect David. Craig plays in the same band as David, and he offers to help David later on when he gets into trouble, but Lee provides few other details about Craig's life or background. Similarly, Christine is the girl whom David would like to ask to the prom, but Lee does not give many details about her personal life and background. Due to a lack of detail about Christine, it is unclear what exactly David finds attractive about her. As a result, readers may feel less invested in their relationship and, by extension, would feel less moved when problems arise and resolve between them.
Stylistically, the book is written in an easy-to-read narrative style with plenty of dialogue and action, complemented with character development and descriptive details that will help readers to visualize the unfolding events. For example, Lee captures the flavour of teenagers' dialogue and their interaction in a realistic manner. The story's setting, itself, is also an interesting choice as Montreal evokes impressions of a progressive and cosmopolitan city that is culturally vibrant and diverse. Readers familiar with Montreal will also appreciate Lee's references to it, such as its street names, but this knowledge is not essential for readers to enjoy the story and appreciate the issues covered. Generally, the chapters are fairly short, and each one begins with an interesting sentence or revelation that will entice readers to continue. The book's language is appropriate for this age group and can be included in either schools' and public libraries' contemporary young adult or teen collections, or alternatively as part of their collection of works that represent historical and contemporary Asian Canadian lives.
As part of a growing body of Chinese Canadian literature for young audiences, Lee's novel could serve as an interesting highlight and contrast to other young adult fiction that deals more extensively with this community's historical experiences and hardships. For example, Lee's book could offer an interesting thematic study in a children's literature course, perhaps as part of a thematic exploration of how ethnic minority experiences in children's literature are represented by authors who come from the same cultural backgrounds as their fictional characters, as opposed to authors who do not. Furthermore, it could be situated within the broader conceptual frameworks of Chinese Canadian literature and the literary representation of minority experiences in Canada. For example, it would be interesting to consider whether discernable differences exist when Chinese Canadian authors and others from non-minority backgrounds represent Chinese Canadian characters in their works, or whether other issues should be considered when characters are represented by well-known and established Canadian authors as opposed to lesser known writers who lack the same visibility, cachet, or readership.
Lee's previous work, a picture book titled The Fragrant Garden, also dealt with Chinese Canadian experiences in a contemporary context, albeit in a recognizable iconic setting of the Chinese restaurant. Nevertheless, she goes beyond stereotypical depictions of Chinese restaurant labour and depicts her characters as individuals. Similarly, Guitar Hero moves beyond stereotypical portrayals of Chinese Canadians by depicting them as individuals. Her short stories have also appeared in anthologies and magazines, many of which were shortlisted in contests. A graduate of Concordia University's Journalism program, Lee has also been a previous recipient of a Conseil des arts et des letters du Québec grant. For more information about Day's Lee and to read her blog, see her official website at http://www.dayslee.ca/.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.
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