Author: Laura Gao with color assistance by Weiwei Xu
Publish Date: March 2022
Publisher: Balzer & Bray (imprint of HarperCollins)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-0063067769
Author website: https://www.lauragao.com/
By Aaradhana Natarajan
Published just as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were first lifted, Laura Gao’s Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American is a warm, humorous, heartfelt record of her experiences as both a hyphenated American torn between identities and a queer immigrant whose birthplace went from being a relative unknown to synonymous with a global pandemic almost overnight.
The graphic novel is full of seamless humor that darts and weaves between more serious topics like a particularly skilled basketball point guard. But there are also heavy moments, where airport waiting lounges, outdoor social gatherings, and high school sports games become sites of tension, where racially loaded looks and language take their toll on the author’s sense of security and self. These scenes are short, no more than two or three pages each. Far more emphasis is given to scaffolding them, contextualizing them as parts
That’s where this book comes into its own. Gao doesn’t merely catalog these petty cruelties and unthinking, well-intentioned insults. She eschews the expected labor of deconstruction and didacticism, of trying to convince others to see the humanity within the homogenized media blitzes, the real people behind the pressures of the model minority myth. Instead, she bares her own history on the page and leaves it to the reader to realize it for themselves. To perhaps recognise parts of it in themselves, too.
As with the other health-related topics, Gao doesn’t linger much on her mother’s cancer diagnosis. All we see is the aftermath, presented more as part of their journey as a family than a narrative focus. The diagnosis is a catalyst for her coming back home after college, for her parents’ gentling approaches to life, for a rekindled connection and cross-generational understanding of the quiet strength it takes to forge an uncertain future for yourself.
It’s tender, how Gao shows the ripple effects such a heavy diagnosis has on both her parents and herself. It also ties back into something lovely – throughout the book, the characters’ healing is not done alone. It is in community and family that they find compassion, solace, information and hope.
Gao also doesn’t shy away from the less warmly communal aspects of shared responsibilities. The stress of being an ersatz translator of family medical bills is also quietly acknowledged much earlier in the book—placed right next to test prep, varsity tryouts, and a rigorous class load in a series of emotionally charged panels. A growing sense of isolation and building relationship tensions play out with painful precision in the following pages, before reaching a heartbreaking climax. It really stands out how her characters are not caricatures; each figure is imbued with loving detail and rarely positioned alone unless they are truly isolated or feeling so—or unless their solo appearance is meant to illustrate the individuality of their perspective.
This emphasis on perspective is more overtly discussed a third of the way into the book. Two pages are given to showing how her grandmother’s interpretation of the myth of “Chang’e and her guardian rabbit on the moon*” diverges from Gao’s own—and in doing so, speaks to one of the most enduring points of contention between Asian-American immigrant (grand)parents, and their American born and/or raised children as the next generation moves through a school system that encourages far more individualist aspirations.
To paraphrase, while her grandmother sees the story as a sorrowful tale of loss and isolation, where a dutiful wife drank her husband’s elixir of immortality to keep it from falling into the hands of miscreants and paid for her good intentions by being torn from the people she loved and sent to the heavens, little Laura finds herself envious of Chang’e and her chance to “fly away and make someplace your own.” (pg. 82). Because the version of the story that resonates the most with Laura is one where Chang’e drank the elixir “to escape her suffocating home” (pg. 82) The dichotomy reminded me in no small way of the recent trend of revisionist mythologies; novels that reorient the marginalized and therefore narratively maligned women in precolonial myths as marginalized and therefore icons of liberation, revolution, strength as we understand it in the here and now.
Messy Roots is a book about myths, including the ways content and nuance can be lost in translation – particularly when the two speakers are coming from different fluencies and frameworks for understanding. But where the nuances of language can be lost across translations or vocabulary limitations, pictures can bridge the gaps. They can also allow people who often see themselves reduced to flat stereotypes a way to lend more nuance and specificity to determine the way their experiences are represented in other’s eyes. Much like Gene Luen Yang in American Born Chinese (the comparisons are merited) and even Trung Le Nguyen in The Magic Fish, Gao positions the myths she grew up with as a point of both connection with and departure from the family history and expectations she inherited.
While this graphic novel is more of a traditional memoir and not as heavily steeped in mythology as Yang’s or Nguyen’s work, the three are notable for the way their formative folktale’s metaphors run as a thread throughout the story. And the panels the other two artists dedicated to more elaborate mythscapes are here given to family, college, and the parts of herself growing from all those roots set down in different communities, histories, places and people’s hearts.
Aaradhana Natarajan is currently a student at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. She is interested in medical history, medical humanities, science communications, and the ways different experiences of embodiment are represented in written and visual mediums. You can find her other reviews on the Ripple Magazine, Rutgers University Libraries and the East Coast Asian American Students Union websites, while her science writing can be found on Medium @aaradhana.natarajan.