Gene Luen Yang is not our mother and his story is not old nor strictly Chinese but what he offers in his award-winning graphic novel is, at its heart, a parable about the hyphen. What do I mean by hyphen? The much maligned one that Toni Morrison refers to in her famous quote, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” The hyphen as a metaphor for then tension, rejection, and discrimination African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, EthnicOther-American communities face within their own country has been frequently examined in a myriad of academic and sociological ways. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the hyphen can’t also be a locus for the unification of the multiple identities that make up one person. And if so, if that hyphen can’t itself be a source of empowerment and reconciliation.
and I feel my heart split.
Thus begins Planet Middle School, a middle grade novel in verse by the wonderful Nikki Grimes. The 12-year-old girl at the center of the book is Joylin, a basketball star who is lost in her own ever-changing body. Aren’t we all? Our relationship with our physicality is probably one of the most important ones we’ll have in our lifetime. Some of us have a pretty easy-going one, some of us have an incredibly dysfunctional one, and for a lot of us it’s a dynamic that changes on a day-to-day basis. It’s safe to say, though, that puberty, across the board, is a period that is usually fraught when it comes to the body. In fact, it sometimes feel like we are in a Twilight episode about body-snatchers, never quite sure what it’s doing, why it’s reacting, and how to control it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about guilty pleasures. This may be in part due to this month’s Is This a Thing’s theme, “Musical Guilty Pleasures.” What is Is This a Thing?, you ask. (WARNING! SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD!) It’s the monthly Live Lit show I co-produce, and I’m beyond excited that I’ll be hosting it for the first time on Monday. Inspired by October’s event, I was originally going to write about my own embarrassing predilections for Euro-trash dance hits. But the whole topic got me thinking about other areas in one’s life where indulging in the low-brow can cause others to raise their eyebrows. (Could not resist the pun.)
Imagine this: Your once idyllic home is now under constant threat. South of it, bands of marauders are on the hunt for young women to enslave. Enemy soldiers with highly-evolved technology keep encroaching on your territory. Your traditional enemies have partnered up with new menaces to ensure your destruction. Your leaders are paralyzed, as their traditional tactics are no match for what is unfolding before their eyes. Your on the brink of becoming an adult, but have no guarantee that you’ll even survive your childhood.
Last summer, it was Trayvon Martin. This year, it’s Mike Brown. Depressing thought of the day: I won’t be surprised if there’s another racially charged killing in 2015 to keep me up at night.