by Gene Luen Yang
I read Gene Luen Yang's Boxers a little while ago, and felt it was time to dig into Saints, its companion graphic novel. Where the other book looked at the Boxers Rebellion from the perspective of a young Chinese man who played a key role in that conflict, Saints is concerned with the experiences of one girl who converted to Christianity and lived in a small Christian community.
Four-Girl is born to a difficult life, shunned by her family, and convinced of her own inherent devilry. At the age of eight, she goes around making a face at everyone she sees to convince them that she is a devil, something she's been told by her family her whole life. Her mother takes her to an acupuncturist, who introduces her to his Christianity.
Four-Girl, believing in her powers, places a hex on her aged grandfather, and then within days, he dies. She feels guilt, and starts visiting the acupuncturist daily, mostly to eat cookies, avoid her chores, and nap through his stories, but the religion begins to stick. When Four-Girl announces that she has converted, her family beats her, and she runs away, joining a French missionary as he moves to a new community.
She grows up there, taking on the name Vibiana. Where before she imagined conversations with an old raccoon, as the story progresses, she begins having lengthy conversations with Joan of Arc, who often visits her in the evening and shares information about her life. As Vibiana grows up, she becomes a little less religious, especially around the time that she starts to feel interest in Kong, a minor character from Boxers.
Vibiana sees herself as the new Joan of Arc, and as the person who is going to protect her community, as news arrives of the coming of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, the group that has been killing Christians and foreigners.
Yang's work here is very nice. He makes Vibiana a sympathetic character, while also making it completely okay to question her sanity and motivations. I've personally always wondered about convert communities, and how 'pure' their faith must really be, or to what extent they are just looking to make substantive changes in their lifestyle, and their new religion becomes a means to that end. Yang allows me to keep my cynicism with this book, as Vibiana really just looks out for herself.
I found it interesting that Yang kept the colours for this book pretty drab, while Boxers was brighter and more vibrant. It's not hard to imagine which side in the conflict between traditional and missionary cultures Yang feels more sympathy towards. I particularly like his portrayal of Father Bey, the priest whose strict devotion and judgemental ways landed him in China in the first place, where he really didn't trust even his closest followers.
This book, both on its own and with its companion title, belong as part of the larger conversation of post-colonial literature.