My friends, my friends. Let me ask you, what kind of stories did your caretakers read you when you were precocious and wee? Cat in the Hat? Clifford the Big Red Dog? Mother Goose? My mom fed me a steady diet of all of those.
But we also spent nights on nights slowly recounting the antics and adventures of that stone-cold badass of Chinese folklore, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. (And also, somewhat disturbingly, a giant illustrated kids book about the levels of Chinese Buddhist hell. I remember being particularly fascinated by the part of hell where you’re doomed to have your feet tickled forever by giant serpents. TBH, my eventual fate, probs.)
Ah, the Monkey King, hero of the classic Journey to the West, whose presence is more or less ubiquitous in Chinese and general East Asian pop culture (if you think Son Goku was a Japanese creation, buddy you got some Wiki’ing to do). This guy is literally stone-born, is clever af, rocks a tiger pelt and size-changing baton, and is also hilarious to boot. He was a grade-A asshole too, who accomplished as many grand and good things as he did petty, but five-year-old me was most deeply impressed that this fucking guy had the cojones to pee on the Sakyamuni Buddha’s hand. Granted, he didn’t realize it at the time, but still. Comedic gold.
Anyways, all this exultant babbling is so we can talk about The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Lee, the second on my list of BEA galleys to read. I didn’t actually expect them to be giving this out, but I’d seen ads for it in PW, and was REALLY pleasantly surprised to see it first thing.
Genie Lo is a girl after my own heart. She’s a Chinese American high schooler, living in the burbs, and dreaming about that one-way ticket to Harvard University. She’s also got a fierce sense of righteousness with a temper to match and the height to back it up.
All this goes into play since when on her way to school, she sees a group of men beating up on this kid, and instead of walking very quickly away and feigning ignorance, or doing the sensible thing and phoning the cops, she throws her backpack at them instead. The distraction is temporary, but the glance she gets at the boy’s face before she runs for safety is startling enough– instead of being frightened, he’s smiling.
So that’s weird and all, but Genie tries to put it out of mind, out of sight. She’s got school to worry about, volleyball to play. She’s told the police all she could, and they’ve taken over the case. It’s time to turn her attention back to her normal day-to-day life…
Naturally, this is the moment that the new kid in her class arrives and of course he turns out to be the one who’d gotten his ass kicked. And of course, he takes one look at her, hops on her desk, and declares that she belongs to him. That was also when Genie earns my forever admiration and fond affection by reflexively trying to gouge his eyes out. Yes, girl. YES.
This guy, this fucking guy, Quentin Sun or whoever the hell he thinks he is, follows her around, charms up her mom, even shows up at her volunteering gigs to Genie’s alarm. He’s convinced they’re meant to be, tied up in destiny somehow. Genie thinks he’s cute but also bugfuck nuts, until of course, it turns out that he’s not crazy; he’s just the Monkey King, come down to our mortal realm to defeat demons, and find Genie, who, as it turns out, is no ordinary girl, but someone from his past, someone very close to him, and very dear as well…
And together, they fight back a demon invasion.
I’m not going to spoil this book, because when it was revealed who Genie was in her previous life, I actually put the book down because I was laughing so hard. If you’ve grown up with the Monkey King, you’ll honestly appreciate that first twist. And truthfully, reading this has left me a little giddy, because Lee didn’t just “Rick Riordan” (ie., mash classic mythology with modern day) Chinese folktales, but did it so well, and funny, and very naturally, and not half as cheesily as I was preparing myself for. I genuinely enjoyed this book, Genie Lo is the adorably snarky ball of Asian American rage that I wished I had to look up to growing up, and Quentin Sun, as well as the other updated figures from folklore, most notably Guanyin and Erlang Shen, are nicely done as well– Lee was great about not making them cringe-inducing caricatures, which is honestly half the battle when you’re updating mythological figures. And Lee really needs to be commended for translating Quentin from mythological Monkey King to a quirky, mischievous, and super appealing lead– it’s a good take on him, and also his relationship with Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy, who can be pretty fuckin’ real when it calls for) is a goddamn delight.
And can we also touch on the discussion of Asian American portrayal? Just. I didn’t even realize what a relief it could be to not have to read about conflicting cultural values. Holy shit, I don’t miss that. There’s absolutely no longing for blonde hair or blue eyes, no ‘My white friends never have to put up with this weird thing my parents do!’ Sure, discussion of race and stereotypes aren’t avoided either, but it’s not something that Genie spends much time angsting over. And I get that there was a very important and seminal place in Chinese American and general American literature for the Amy Tans and Maxine Hong Kingstons, but I grew up in a really different age and place from those ladies, so their highly personal stories were alien to me, and I’ve rarely seen anything written that was as relatable to my own high school experience (barring supernatural shenanigans) as this book does. Asian American culture is no weird special thing in this book– it’s just normal, ordinary life, depicted in a natural, unforced way.
I will say that as plots and characters go, there were some outstanding threads that were never really fully developed or tucked back in, and the focus was pretty heavily trained on Genie and Quentin– I hope this means there is a sequel in the future, since the cast of characters are promising.
Lee also engages a bit with the Journey to the West discourse, turning a rather jaundiced eye on the relationship between gods and men. It’s great! Hell yeah, what about the people tormented by demons, hell yeah those gods are super irresponsible. The only quibble I have has no important bearing to this work of fiction really– just, it would have been nice to have a historical note somewhere about Journey to the West, which tells the tale of the Monkey King accompanying the monk Xuanzang to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras for China. Truth is in this case, crazier than fiction because Xuanzang was a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty, and the Monkey King is not, and that monk traveled alone to India (probs on foot because he was hardcore like that, I dunno, most depictions give him a dorky boxy backpack), then all the way back to Xi’an. The “demons” he met along the way were meant to represent the dangers he faced, including roving bandits and provincial kings who wished he would stay, they liked him so much. Many of people tempted him with offers of riches, power, and beautiful women, which is why, factoring in general period appropriate misogyny, so many of the demons in the Journey to the West take women form. Xuanzang, man. That’s some real shit.
I hope that folks who aren’t familiar with Chinese and Chinese American culture enjoy the book, but even more, I hope those that do pick this up and enjoy the hell out of it, because I did, and I want to shove this into all my middle-school-aged acquaintances like Oprah handing out cars and tell them, ‘THIS IS FOR YOU, KID.’
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is out August 2017.